Richard Parks' stories have have appeared in Asimov's SF, Realms of Fantasy, Fantasy Magazine, Weird Tales, and numerous anthologies, including several Year's Bests. His first story collection, THE OGRE'S WIFE, was a finalist for the World Fantasy Award. He is the author of the Yamada Monogatari series from Prime Books.
We had to say goodbye to Sterling, aka Lord Flopsnuggle, this morning. We’d been expecting it for a while, which should have made it easier, but not really. His breathing had gotten to be more of a rattle, turning his purr into a motorcycle sound effect. Vet’s diagnosis was an inoperable tumor. Steroids helped his breathing temporarily, which gave us more time with him, but couldn’t prevent the inevitable. When it was clear he was struggling, we knew we couldn’t wait any more.
Stirling leaves one brother, Sheffield, and two sad humans. He was a handsome boy and a very good cat indeed.
“Stop. This is sounding suspiciously like a ripoff.”
“Oh ye of little faith. Now, where was I?”
“You were about to say ‘twilight,’ I believe.”
“You believe wrong. May I continue?”
“By all means, but just so you know, the onus of proof is on you.”
“Always is. Starting over. ‘Three brothers traveled along a lonely road at….”
“Wait for it….”
“…odds with each other. One wanted to go forward. One wanted to go back. One wanted to get off the damn road and take a hike through the lovely woodland on either side of the road.”
“Okay. At least you’ve gone off script, but do you have any idea where this is all going?”
“Of course not. You write a sentence. It implies action, or a consequence. Maybe it only sets a mood. Regardless, you write another sentence that goes with the first sentence. Goes where? No idea. Write another. Is there movement? Progress? Do the sentences, taken together, appear to be working?”
“When you say ‘working,’ what does that mean?”
“I mean the sentences belong together and point to something greater. And before you ask, of course you don’t know what that ‘something’ is, at least not at first. Your job is to figure it out.”
“You mean it’s your job. Figured anything out?”
“Yes. Three brothers traveling along a lonely road, bickering.”
“That’s not a lot.”
“No, but it’s something. Other than the something I have to figure out, of course. Now that I think about it, I take that back. You don’t figure it out. It’s a story. It was always there. You discover it instead.”
“Now you’re getting mystical on me. That’s really annoying.”
“I don’t do it to annoy you. That’s just a bonus.”
“You’re digressing, and it’s not as if you have all the space or time in the world. Focus!”
“The middle brother went back the way they’d come. He was still on a lonely road, only now he was alone. He wandered into darkness and distance and was never seen again.”
“Bit of a downer, that.”
“You want happiness and light? Go to the greeting card aisle.”
“I want the rest of the story. What about the other two brothers?”
“The oldest brother was tired of the road as well. He left the road at a promising spot and hiked off into the woods by a lovely stream. He listened to the birds and the wind in the trees. He saw many wonderful things and congratulated himself on making such a wise choice. Then he was eaten by a bear.”
“Seriously, that’s it? That’s your grand adventure?”
“More like a light lunch in the bear’s story. As for the youngest brother, he kept walking on the road. The end.”
“Because my impatient internal editor horned in during the creation phase. Which makes for a terrible story or no story at all. Next time, wait your damn turn.”
That’s the trouble with folklore. First, there was no Peg O’Nell, or at least no proof of one. So who are you going to believe? Absence of proof is not proof of absence. Maybe there was a Peg O’Nell, maybe there wasn’t. The story says there was. Is the story factual? It exists, so that much is fact. Everything else could be a lie and still be true.
Stories are like that, and folklore is basically stories, so you see the problem, I trust.
Now then, the story. Waddow Hall is a grand estate near the River Ribble in Lancashire. Originally, the river was said to be the home of a vengeful spirit which demanded a sacrifice every seven years, or else. In the 18th century, the story changed, and Peg O’Nell becomes the main character. It’s a rather tawdry tale at heart. She was a beautiful scullery maid who drew the wandering eye of the Master of Waddow Hall, much to the annoyance of the Mistress…yes, one of those. Easy to draw parallels to the amorous adventures of gods like Zeus who had their fun and left their paramours to deal with the wrath of his wife, Hera, who always seemed to think his actions were her signal to punish the girls involved. Depending on which version of the story you believe, the Mistress sent Peg to draw water from a nearby well on a bitter cold night and she either had someone push the girl into the well or Peg slipped on the ice and broke her neck and fell in on her own.
One or the other, or maybe neither.
Now Peg is the vengeful water spirit. I can imagine the original spirit might be a little put out by that. After all, they were there first. Sacrifices now go to Peg, who may not want them. No one asks. Yet there is a well on the grounds of Waddow Hall near the River Ribble, known as Peg’s Well. It’s guarded by a statue with no head. Said to be a likeness of a saint, or Peg herself, and that Mistress took an axe to it in order to break Peg’s power over the living, which she certainly never had when she was alive, if she ever was, and why would a scullery maid have a statue in the first place? So many questions.
So few answers.
This much we do know: Waddow Hall exists. A well exists. The River Ribble exists. People think there was a scullery maid named Peg O’Nell. Maybe, maybe not. You can’t prove them wrong. Absence of proof is not proof of absence, and things like that.
One last thing, that sacrifice I mentioned? It has to take place every seven years on the anniversary of Peg O’Nell’s death. Problem is, nobody knows when that was. And one or two people still disappear without a trace every seven years or so.
An expansion of a post from two years ago, because the subject bears refinement.
Incapussitated (n) The inability to do the thing because there’s a cat in your lap demanding all the attentions.
This word is not in the dictionary, but it should be. Happens frequently here, and I’d guess elsewhere as well, but then there’s always an excuse not to do the thing, whatever the thing is. Take this thing, for prime example. I didn’t write anything on the thing for twenty minutes because there was a cat on my lap. Now, technically I could have continued writing despite the constant literal pawing for attention, but I chose to respond to the demands of my fellow living creature instead. Who, it must be known, finally had enough and jumped down to practice its incapussitation elsewhere. Incapussitated (alt. incapurritated), although it doesn’t seem that way at the time, is always a temporary condition.
Unlike blind, crippling self-doubt. Yes, unlike an inconvenient cat, that one is always around. Yes, of course it should help when you know that you’ve done the thing before and very well and can surely do it again. That is, it should help.
Also unlike the incapussitating cat, crippling self-doubt never goes away. Hardly for a moment and never completely. In some ways it gets worse, which isn’t really fair. It shouldn’t be that way, but it is. When you’re first trying to do the thing, ignorance is your friend and ally. You don’t know you can’t do the thing, any more than you don’t know if you can. That uncertainty works in your favor as a partial antidote to crippling self-doubt because you don’t know, and so neither does crippling self-doubt, and maybe you’re both a bit curious.
So why does it get worse after you’ve actually done the thing? Pausing here to note the obvious point that “the thing” can be anything from writing a short story or novel to learning to play a musical instrument to Calculus. It does not matter what the thing is because there’s always a new thing, and crippling self-doubt right there doing its dead-level best to ruin it for you.
It’s also easier to argue with yourself that a skill was lost rather than never being gained, usually because there’s too much evidence to the contrary. Sure, you did it once—pure luck—but I bet you can’t do it again. Or, sure you’ve done it a hundred times—obviously you’re played out now, just going through the motions, repeating yourself, best quit while you’re ahead, et many a cetera. Crippling self-doubt always has a new act to go with any new thing. After all, it doesn’t have crippling self-doubt to deal with.
If there’s a cure I don’t know what it is, except to just to do the thing anyway, one battle at a time. It isn’t fair. Definitely not right. Not even healthy for one’s mental state. But that’s the way it is.
Since both First Reader and I were going a little stir-crazy, we drove up to the covered bridge at Salisbury Center and took a stroll around Spruce Creek. Sometimes it just feels good to get your feet on the ground, and it was a lovely day for it.
We’ve having what I guess they still call an Indian Summer. Close to 70 degrees and sunny, and has been for the last few days. This picture was taken on a previous visit, as I didn’t get a clear shot of the bridge this time.
Spruce Creek splits here. Part goes off to the right, part toward where I was standing, meeting again just after it flows under the bridge. Which meant we were essentially standing on an island, socially distanced from anyone else by several hundred feet. We had the place to ourselves, which was even better. It did us good to get out, even if just for a little while.
So we’ve had the excursions, now on to the alarums. I’ll be running a countdown deal on All the Gates of Hell (affiliate links) and a separate promotion on the 15th. However, assuming Azon has it together, the deal will actually start on the 14th, which is Saturday. The price will be .99 to start, then after a day or two (vague, I know) will go up to 1.99, then back to regular. The deal will only be good in the US and UK. Azon’s rules, not mine.
On that previous note, since Australia, Canada, and All Else were excluded from the last special, I manually put the price of The Long Look down to .99 US. That will end this Friday, so if you haven’t read it and want to, now’s the time.