Silly Sun Gets Married

This is a retelling of the story “Miss Abao; or Perseverance Rewarded” from Pu Songling’s 1740 collection of supernatural tales, Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio, as translated by Herbert Giles in 1880.

I love everything I’ve read so far. I’m not sure why this particular story got my attention, but it did. Enjoy.

In Guangxi Province there lived a poor but knowledgable scholar named Sun Zichu, who was born with a sixth finger on one of his hands. Like many academically or scholarly-minded people, Sun was a bit naive and bubble-headed about real life matters: he would believe any outrageous story that he heard. He was also very shy around women. Generally, he would run away when he encountered them, and if he couldn’t, he would blush like a pomegranate and beads of sweat would drip off him like he had fallen into a river. His friends found all this hilarious, and they nicknamed him “Silly Sun” behind his back.

NewImageImage: Wikipedia

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On Reading Children’s Stories as an Adult


Adults do read children’s stories. I’m probably the only reader in the English-speaking world, of any age, who hasn’t yet read a Harry Potter book (I know, I know, me of all people…). And I have friends who admit to having read at least one Twilight novel. They usually say in the same breath that it wasn’t very good — but I notice they keep on reading them. The Hobbit is a children’s book. I read it over and over again when I was a child, and a few times in adulthood, too. Yet I couldn’t make it through a single chapter of whichever book is the first volume of The Lord of the Rings.

Well-written children’s fantasy, or a least the kind that appeals to adults (well, to me, anyway) has a kind of dancing, twinkle-toed language that one doesn’t usually find in books for adults, fantasy or fairy tale or otherwise. I adore Angela Carter, for instance, and as I write this, I am flipping through her Collected Short Stories and thinking that I must re-read them. Her prose is beautiful, but her words are more the kind that smoulder, they don’t exactly sparkle and dance. James Thurber’s words, on the other hand, do a nice jig (his collected works are sitting next to hers on my bookshelf, which is why I bring him up).

My latest children’s book binge started about a month ago, when I spotted a mention of the Sisters Grimm series on a children’s book blog. Curious, I picked up the first book, The Fairy Tale Detectives. It’s not bad — kind of a children’s version of the Fables comic book series, and if you have tween-age children in your life who like fairy tales (or whom you want to introduce to fairy tales), this seems like a good series. It’s not exactly adult-readable, though. My first thought after finishing it was not I have to pick up the next one, but rather It’s time for me to read Coraline.

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What Makes a Good Read?


The next moment, in stepped the most beautiful blonde bombshell that these old gumshoe eyes have ever seen — oozing of raw sex appeal. … She leaned back hard against the door, as if to prevent herself from fainting, and then said, so softly, venerably [sic]: “Help me, Mr. Spade. I’m in trouble. I’ll do anything you ask. It’s murder.”

That is from the first paragraph of Alan Zacher’s mystery novel I’m No P.I. The Very. First. Paragraph. Oh, this does not bode well, I thought, when I spotted that venerably.

You might be cringing at that hokey opening situation, too, but it’s the protagonist’s daydream, and the protagonist, Tom, is a single, permanently unemployed fifty-five-year-old man living in his mother’s basement. The daydream fits. The “venerably” is the only misspelling or incorrect word that I noticed in the book, but the writing does have other problems.

Creative writing classes teach us to be descriptive, to evoke the scene in the reader’s imagination by the use of telling detail. Telling and relevant detail, that is. In I’m No P.I., we get long, detailed descriptions of what our hero is wearing, for no reason other than that the writer decided a descriptive passage (any descriptive passage) was warranted. We also learn way too much about the layout of his Mom’s house. I think I could produce a blueprint from his description, and the book isn’t the kind of Agatha Christie style novel where it would matter.

The plot might not stand up to full cross-examination, if I were feeling cranky, and I’m not sure the arithmetic of everyone’s relative ages works out. Villain #1 was painfully obvious, though Villain #2 came as a surprise, to me, anyway.

But you know what? I finished the entire book in one evening, curled up in bed. And if you were to ask me if I liked it, I would have to say that I did.

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The Gardinel

A little sketch by Manly Wade Wellman, called “Why They’re Named That” (1963). As far as I can tell, Wellman invented the gardinel, based on his knowledge of Appalachian folklore. I hope to post more about Wellman’s Appalachian-inspired weird tales soon. The gardinel first appeared in Wellman’s 1949 short story “Come Into My Parlor,” which I will have to get my hands on, somehow.

Cabin2Original image by Andrea Schafthuizen; re-edited

If the gardinel’s an old folks’ tale, I’m honest to tell you it’s a true one.

Few words about them are best, I should reckon. They look some way like a shed or cabin, snug and rightly made, except the open door might could be a mouth, the two little windows might could be eyes. Never you’ll see one on main roads or near towns; only back in the thicketty places, by high trails among tall ridges, and they show themselves there when it rains and storms and a lone rarer hopes to come to a house to shelter him.

The few that’s lucky enough to have gone into a gardinel and win out again, helped maybe by friends with axes and corn knives to chop in to them, tell that inside it’s pinky-walled and dippy-floored, with on the floor all the skulls and bones of those who never did win out; and from the floor and the walls come spouting rivers of wet juice that stings, and as they tell this, why, all at once you know that inside a gardinel is like a stomach.

Down in the lowlands I’ve seen things grow they name the Venus flytrap and the pitcher plant, that can tole in bugs and flies to eat. It’s just a possible chance that the gardinel is some way the same species, only it’s so big it can tole in people.

Gardinel. Why they’re named that I can’t tell you, so don’t inquire me.

Advice from the Book Spirits

I wanted to do something different and fun for my Halloween post, not just review a book or point you to a good short story. But what?

Then I thought of M.R. James’s short story, The Ash Tree. In the story, after the mysterious death of the Lord of the Manor, a clergyman friend of the victim resorts to the old superstitious practice of “drawing the Sortes“, or bibliomancy.

…it came into my Thoughts, as at such moments of Helplessness we are prone to catch at any the least Glimmer that makes promise of Light, to make trial of that old and by many accounted Superstitious Practice of drawing the Sortes: …

“I made, then, three trials, opening the Book and placing my Finger upon certain words: which gave in the first these words, from Luke xiii. 7, Cut it down; in the second, Isaiah xiii. 20, It shall never be inhabited; and upon the third Experiment; Job xxxix. 30, Her young ones also suck up blood.”

This being an M.R. James story, the sortes were quite prescient — I’ll let you read the story and find out what the bible passages were hinting at. I linked to it above; it’s nicely creepy. Anyway, it occurred to me that some book-scrying silliness might make for a fun post, albeit not terribly spooky. But it’s a nice change from a Ouija Board.

BookPhoto: Nina Zumel

So I’ve picked a few questions to throw Out There, and picked a book to scry from. I didn’t want to use the Bible — I’m still enough of a Catholic girl that it would feel sacrilegious. Given the theme of this blog, and my more recent reading activity, The Weird Compendium would have been the perfect choice, but I only own it as an ebook, and I really wanted to physically flip through the book and point. So I settled on American Gothic Tales, instead.

The procedure: write down the question, close my eyes, open the book at random, and point. Read the sentence at my fingertip.

Here we go:

What’s the outlook for my blog in the coming year? Will I get lots of engaged readers?

A man was speaking on the station Jim had chosen, and his voice swung instantly from the distance into a force so powerful that it shook the apartment.

Now that sounds hopeful. I think the blog will go gangbusters over the next year! The quote is from John Cheever, “The Enormous Radio”.

Will I get Freshly Pressed again?

The Head’s main street dimmed, dimmed, and at last was gone.

Not so hopeful. But at least I got my fifteen minutes of fame once. Quote from Stephen King, “The Reach”

Will the Giants take the World Series?

Viola imposed on her lover but a short probation.

Umm. Yeah. I think that means “yes, but the Tigers will still put up a little bit of a fight.” We’ll find out soon enough. Go Giants! The quote is from Henry James, “On the Romance of Certain Old Clothes”.

UPDATE: And the Giants sweep it! Viola’s probation was short, indeed.

What should I spend more time on this coming year? Writing or dancing?

She turned and tried to hold the baby over in a corner behind the stove.

But he came up. He reached across the stove and tightened his hands on the baby.

I think this means — especially in the context of this story, Raymond Carver’s “Little Things” — that I should split the difference. Which is the answer I wanted, though I hope things turn out better for me than they did for the baby in the story…

You can get advice from the Book Spirits too, and you don’t even need a paper-and-glue volume. Poet Reb Livingstone has set up a Bibliomancy Oracle online — just click and see what her favorite literature has to say to you.

Have fun, and to any readers on the East Coast or in Hawaii: stay safe from the storms and tsunamis. I hope you all enjoy the upcoming All Hallow’s Eve, no matter how you choose (or don’t choose) to celebrate it.

A Different Kind of Science Fiction

“Science Fiction”: what does that mean? Fiction based on science? About science? Speculative fiction about the implications of science? It’s all those things, or at least can be; but it seems to me that most of what we refer to as science fiction might better be called “technology fiction.”

Think about it; what comes to your mind when you think of science fiction? Space travel, probably. Spaceships, faster-than-light drive, phasers, encounters with alien civilizations. Hovercars. Perhaps you think of cyborgs and intelligent robots. If you read cyberpunk back in the day, then you might think of avatars, and the version of cyberspace and the internet that authors imagined back then. But it’s all technology, really, not science. Except for the alien civilizations, of course.

NewImageImage: Wikipedia

People do make a distinction between hard science fiction and soft science fiction; roughly, hard science fiction is about the hard (that is physical) sciences: physics, chemistry. It’s also about the engineering that comes from those sciences, engineering that produces spaceships, or cyborgs. Classic science fiction from the days of Analog or Astounding was by and large hard science fiction. Arthur C. Clarke and Larry Niven wrote hard science fiction.

Soft science fiction (setting aside space operas and space fantasy) concerns itself with questions from the soft sciences: sociology, anthropology, psychology. I would say that Asimov’s I, Robot was soft science fiction. Ray Bradbury wrote soft science fiction. Soft science fiction speculates on the social, cultural, or psychological implications of technology. Or perhaps, even, on the way technology creates new expressions of old-as-history human psycho-pathologies and baser tendencies. I’m thinking of Bradbury’s uber-creepy “The Veldt” when I say that, and there’s also “The Jigsaw Man” by Larry Niven, about a society where criminals convicted of capital offenses are used as organ donors. But organs are in high demand — so eventually, traffic violations become a capital crime. Again, these stories are speculation about the implications of technology, so I would argue that even soft science fiction is generally another form of technology fiction.

But science doesn’t only concern itself with technology. What about the life sciences, the natural sciences? Science is also about understanding the world, purely for the sake of knowledge. Can we write a speculative fiction that is based on science conceived that way?

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Dancing Men

I finally finished The Dark: New Ghost Stories, which is the book that I read for Readers Imbibing Peril‘s Peril The Third. I’ll write that review soon, but I want to do a separate post about the last story in the collection, Glen Hirshberg’s “Dancing Men.” Not only is it a terrific story — it was nominated for the World Fantasy Award for Best Novella in 2004 — but it also fits The Short Story Initiative‘s September theme: “Getting to know each other.”

Actually, I think Nancy just meant that we the participants should get to know each other, but since it fits, hey…

NewImageMarionette in Prague
Image: Wikipedia

In “Dancing Men”, Seth Gadeuski, the grandson of a Holocaust survivor, is leading a group of American teenagers on a tour of Europe called The Legacy of the Holocaust. In Prague, he faints when he sees a Romani street vendor selling marionettes. In his foggy state, he says out loud: “I didn’t kill my grandfather.”

This experience leads him to recall the summer when he was nine years old, the summer that he learned the truth about his grandfather and his history.

Seth hadn’t been close to his grandfather; in fact he hadn’t been close to his own father, either, whom he refers to once as “Zombie-Dad,” because he is so distant. All three of the men in the family — grandfather, father, and Seth — are remote, distant people, who don’t seem to express, or maybe even feel, emotions towards others.

The summer he was nine, Seth’s father brings him to stay with his grandfather, in the desert outside of Albuquerque. His grandfather’s caretaker, a Navaho woman named Lucy, conducts an Enemy Way with Seth. The Enemy Way is a Navaho ceremony for warriors returning from battle. The ceremony is meant to exorcise the chindi, or evil ghosts, that plague a person. Chindi often arise from violence (they are the evil part of a person’s spirit, which cannot move on, as the good part can). I imagine that this is why there is a Way for those who return from war, lest they be haunted by the chindi of those they killed, or those who were killed around them.

That’s really all I know about the Enemy Way. I can’t speak to how accurate Hirshberg’s depiction is, but at any rate, I get the impression that Lucy only conducts it to humor Seth’s grandfather. It’s a precursor to the grandfather telling Seth his story.

I can’t say much more without giving away the plot, except this: Seth’s grandfather is a survivor of the Chelmno concentration camp in Poland. Over 150,000 people were killed in that camp: Jews, Romani, Czechs, and Soviet prisoners of war. There were only a handful of survivors; perhaps as few as two or three.

And this makes “Dancing Men” not only a ghost story, but a genuine horror story (the two are different). The horror, though, is not in this fictional narrative, but from history, in Seth’s grandfather’s recounting of his experience in the camp, including having to bury other murdered prisoners in mass graves. This is Seth’s grandfather’s personal Enemy Way, the ritual of recounting his story, first to his son, and now to his grandson.

“Why does Grandpa call me ‘Ruach’? I snapped. …

“Do you know what ‘ruach’ means?” he said.

I shook my head.

“It’s a Hebrew word. It means ghost.”

Hearing that was like being slammed to the ground. I couldn’t get my lungs to work.

My father went on. “Sometimes, that’s what it means. It depends what you use it with, you see? Sometimes, it means spirit, as in the spirit of God. Spirit of life. What God gave to his creations.” He stubbed his cigarette in the sand, and the orange light winked out like an eye blinking shut. “And sometimes, it just means wind.”

By my sides, I could feel my hands clutch sand as breath returned to my body. The sand felt cool, soft. “You don’t know Hebrew either,” I said.

“I made a point of knowing that.”


“Because that’s what he called me, too,” my father said…

The ghosts in this story are real; the supernatural aspects, only lightly touched upon. I really felt the way the the nine-year-old Seth struggled to understand his cold family, and the regret adult Seth feels at having grown into the same remote human being as his father. “Dancing Men” is a rueful meditation on the way the Holocaust has left its traces across multiple generations. It’s also a meditation on how the way we love, or don’t love, our children ripples on.


The story is also in Hirshberg’s collection The Two Sams: Ghost Stories, which I am going to have to find. Another worth looking for: Hirshberg’s first novel, The Snowman’s Children.

This review is part of Readers Imbibing Peril‘s Peril of the Short Story, and part of the The Short Story Initiative monthly event for September. A double-dip!

More Challenges: The Short Story Initiative


I know I said I wasn’t sure if I could manage the Readers Imbibing Peril reading event — but now I’m diving into another one. Even after only one R.I.P. review, I’ve gotten a noticeable bump in my readership here, so hey — why not try for another boost? It’s for something that I would do, anyway.

Nancy Cudis, at simple clockwork, has been running an event called Short Stories on Wednesdays for a while (she took over from someone else). I’ve enjoyed lurking quietly at the event (and at the simple clockwork blog in general), and I’ve learned about many Filipino authors — another interest of Nancy’s — that I hadn’t been aware of before.

Now she’s taking Short Stories on Wednesdays to a new level: The Short Story Initiative. It’s a monthly. Participants read short stories about once a month, and link them to the site. At the end of the month, Nancy will post a summary of all the short stories reviewed. Each month there is a suggested, but not mandatory, theme.

If you’d like to play, too, the details are at the link above. The link to sign up is here, along with some get-to-know you questions, which I’ll answer in a bit.

The themes for September and October are “Getting to know each other” and “Crime/suspense stories” — October, at least, fits nicely with R.I.P. as well, so I might double-dip (hope that’s okay!).

Okay — now for the Q&A session: Continue reading

Putting Myself in Peril


Readers Imbibing Peril (R.I.P VII): Because autumn is the season of change and the unknown.

So says Carl V., who has been running the R.I.P event for seven years now, to celebrate the literature (and film) of mystery, suspense, the creepy and the weird. Participants post reviews of what they’ve read or watched throughout the months of September and October, ending — of course — on Halloween.

I’m joining in with a bit of trepidation; making a definite commitment is the perfect excuse for the universe to throw a mountain of other obligations on me for the next two months. So I’ll start small: I’ll take Peril The Third (the “review one book” option) as a goad to finish The Dark: New Ghost Stories, edited by Ellen Datlow.

And on the side, I’ll try Peril of the Short Story. That shouldn’t be too much to bite off, right? It’s a good excuse to start working my way through several collections that I’ve picked up in the last few months. I’ll probably be sampling them in turns.

  • The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer
  • The Ghost IS the Machine, edited by Patrick Scalisi. “An anthology of steampunk inspired ghost stories.” How fun is that?
  • The Museum of Dr. Moses by Joyce Carol Oates. I slightly dissed her a few posts ago; then I found this collection in a used book store. I think it was a sign.
  • The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter. It’s been a while since I’ve read this; I found it again while unpacking my book boxes. I’m looking forward to the re-read.

And of course I reserve the right to slide in anything else that comes my way in the next two months that seems appropriate.

There you have it. Stay tuned!

A Find from my Basement

My second post related to the Lancashire witch hunts is almost finished, but other things have intervened in the meantime. We spent a few hours this morning fishing more boxes of books out of the basement and I found this:


The copyright is 1958; I think I must have picked it up from a used bookstore in Pittsburgh, way back in grad school, because the original price tag is from Kaufman’s department store, on Fifth Avenue in Pittsburgh (long gone).

I paid $10 for the book, several decades later.

The purpose of the book is to illustrate by representative selections of prose and verse the artistic use of folklore by American authors.

Among the several divisions, there are sections on “Devil Tales”, “Ghost Tales”, “Witchcraft and Superstition”, and “Heroes and Demigods”. Possible fodder for the blog, don’t you think?

In the meantime, enjoy a few illustrations.

The bookplate. I don’t know why, but that doesn’t look like fifties-era writing to me. The seventies, maybe?





Davy Crockett, American Hero and/or Demigod.