In Praise of: Katherine Briggs

Yes, I’m late. Between a doctor’s appointment and errands on Monday, I didn’t get started on a blog post until late yesterday…where I promptly fell asleep at the keyboard. If I was putting myself to sleep I can only imagine what I would be doing to anyone else. So today is a fresh day, fresh start, and I am here, not to do a book review as such, but rather  to sing the praises of  Katherine Briggs, D. Litt from Oxford.  Specifically, her work An Encyclopedia of Fairies, Hobgoblins, Brownies, Bogies, and Other Supernatural Creatures. (the first edition title was a little easier to handle: A Dictionary of Fairies) I have the later 1978 edition, long out of print but still available here and there. Probably $35+ minimum, and well worth it to the right people to track down.

The reason in my case is pretty simple. One of my favorite things to write has always been new riffs on old folklore, taking a basic theme or seed, if you will, from older stories and running with it. Doing the old “what if” and Asking the Next Question, as Theodore Sturgeon used to say. Or Looking at it “slantwise,” to paraphrase Mark Twain. Regardless, they were both talking about process, but everything has to start somewhere. An image, a character, a situation, whatever triggers the process, and that varies from day to day and story to story. Everyone uses references of one sort or another because everything you know, love, or follow is a reference, and which ones are going to vary depending on the person’s own interests and resonating themes. I’ve spoken about the references I used for the Yamada series here before, and more than once. This time I’m concentrating on what led to some of my favorite short stories, and this book by a past president of the British Folklore Society has to be near the top of the list. It’s not alone, surely, and there are others: A Field Guide to Demons, Fairies, Fallen Angels, and Other Subversive Spirits by Carol K. Mack and Dinah Mack is a jewel, as is A Field Guide to the Little People by Nancy Arrowsmith and George Moorse. Or In Search of the Supernatural by Kenneth DeWoskin and J.I. Crump, Jr. (translation of the Sou-Shen Chi, also known as The Account of Seeking Spirits, 4th C CE by Kan Pao). Yet it is the Briggs I keep coming back to time and again.

For instance, as appropriate to something that started life as a dictionary of sorts, all entries are in alphabetical order. One day I was browsing and came across the entry for Fairy Funerals, an event said to be witnessed by mortals on more than one occasion. Which had me thinking. “Given that fairies are immortal, why would they need funerals?” One theory was that they were doing it to imitate or mock mortal customs, but that didn’t  satisfy me. So what could the real reason be? Out of that came “The Beauty of Things Unseen,” first published in Quantum SF and later collected in The Ogre’s Wife: Fairy Tales for Grownups .

Then there was “My Lord Teaser,” triggered by an article on teaser stallions plus accounts of the Wild Hunt found in Briggs. The two notions combined to make another favorite. Or “Death, the Devil, and the Lady in White” (White Ladies and no, not that kind) or “Conversation in the Tomb of an Unknown King” (Tomb Wights).

Then there was…well, you get the idea. The book has paid for itself many times over, and is currently helping me on a new novel project. Every time I’ve moved house, this book has come with me. When I’m gone, it’ll likely still be here. Maybe someone with sense will be at the estate sale to grab it.

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Story Time: Take a Long Step

Have you ever noticed, lying along the road, one sad, discarded shoe? Or maybe a boot? Now and then a cap, or work glove, but most often shoes. Rather, one shoe. I think I have seen an actual pair of shoes, once in my life. Mostly, just the one. There are a lot of theories about why this tends to happen, though we probably don’t need any other than simple human carelessness. We lose things. It’s our nature. For instance, First Reader asked me about this story just a few days ago (Didn’t you write a story about the missing shoe?) and I thought it would make a good Wednesday story. Then I couldn’t find it, and thought I had lost the file, until I remembered that I wasn’t working in MS Weird at the time, and expanded my search to include the extension of the word processor I used back then. Still miss that one, but I digress.

Story Time for this week is “Take a Long Step,” and it first appeared in Realms of Fantasy for April, 1999. This was my attempt to give at least one alternative explanation for the case of the missing shoe. Or the found shoe. It’s all a matter of perspective.

“Take a Long Step” will be available until next Wednesday, November 22nd. Then it’s something else. You know the drill.

Let it Snow

We’re having our first snow of the season as I write this. Technically we got a “dusting” about three days ago, but I’m not counting that. It was more of a seasonal equipment check than an actual snow. Today, it’s snowing. I will grant you, it is a tentative, gentle sort of snow. Falling straight down, steady but not aggressive, starting to fill up the hillside behind our house but politely melting off the driveways and road so as not to be too much of a bother.

This will not last.

I mean, the snowfall itself may or may not stick around for long, but this attitude? Very transient. Winter will soon be feeling its oats and this “tentative, gentle sort of snow” will be gone, replaced by the sort more typical of the winters here. It will fall hard and heavy. It will pile up. It will swirl and rise into drifts, millions of snowflakes gathered in one place to talk smack about me and my wimpy shovel. In collusion with the wind, it will snow sideways just to show us it can. It will not melt of its own free will unless certain very specific conditions are met. I will have to shovel down to bare asphalt to give the sun a chance to work, on the days when there is sun. You’ll see it occasionally, but most of the time? Out of here. On vacation. Not my season bub, you’re on your own.

Which is perfectly all right. I’ve come to appreciate winters here in a way I never did when I was down South. Down there, they were simply the pause between heats. Here, winters are decidedly their own thing. Here, I remember that spring and summer and fall exist, too, and have their own stories to tell. Until then, winter and I understand each other—think snow tires—and will get along just fine.

In other news, I’ve joined a local writer’s group, or at least we’re trying each other out for now. They specialize in flash fiction, which is new to me, or rather not new in that I’ve done it before, but new in the sense of concentrating on it within group. Frankly, I’d always regarded flash fiction as something between a sonnet and a parlor trick. Here’s it’s everything from thinly-veiled personal experience to vast sagas told in 500 word scenes. I’m going to stick to my own understanding for now, which means I have to tell a complete story in 500 words. Which makes it more like a sonnet and a good parlor trick—both rather hard to pull off successfully. We’ll see how it goes.

 

Quick Story Time Reminder: “Beach Bum and the Drowned Girl” goes away on Wednesday. I haven’t yet decided what replaces it.

Story Time: Beach Bum and the Drowned Girl

Today’s  Story Time is “Beach Bum and the Drowned Girl,” which first appeared in Mike Allen’s Clockwork Phoenix #4 back in 2013. It’s either a meditation on the nature of urban legends or a story about the birth and possible transcendence of a pair of gods. Or something else entirely, which is definitely the nature of stories. Urban legends and gods? I’m still working on that.

While I was going through my files something happened that happens, apparently, to everyone after a while–I found the beginning to a story that I do not remember writing. I know I did it because the style is totally mine, but otherwise?  It’s not unusual for stories to be started and then abandoned. Either they weren’t working, or we weren’t ready to write them, either by not being good enough yet or the story refusing to reveal itself or…well, there are a lot of reasons. Usually when I stumble across a story like that I can tell immediately why I stopped, and congratulate myself on getting out while the getting was good. Not this time. This one made me want to read the next bit to find out what was going on, only I don’t have a clue as to what that is. Probably why I stopped. I hope I can figure this one out, since I really would like to know.