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.

A Word About Conventions

WRITING 02If you’re a writer in the sf/f tradition, the subject of conventions is going to come up sooner or later. If you’re coming to writing through fandom, chances are that you’ve been attending conventions for a considerable length of time and what is there to talk about? And then there are those new authors who get told by their editors or other close associates that “You really need to attend conventions” and they go “Conventions? What’s that?”

What it is often called, or was before sub-genre fragmentation took over, is “A Gathering of the Tribes.” (Though some reserve that term for WorldCons) Fans and writers and artists and such folk gathering together on a weekend to meet each other, talk shop, drink in the bar, hang out with friends, sometimes attend panel discussions and readings, maybe meet your favorite author. That kind of thing. There’s usually one going on somewhere, most weekends.

I still remember my very first, long before I was selling. I was never a real fan, mind you. Probably for the same reasons that I’ll apply to the subject of conventions in a minute, but I was a reader and aspiring writer, and I knew about them. Usually they were taking place a long way from where I had just started work after college, and I had no travel budget to speak of. However, I learned of one within driving distance, and it was JUST IMAGICON, being held that year in Memphis, TN. It was back in 1978, and as for the convention itself, you can probably imagine what it was like for someone like me: Theodore Sturgeon. Kelly Freas. The de Camps. It was, and I say this without either irony or hyperbole, like walking among gods. Continue reading

In Which I Diss Zombies

I’m having a bit of an internal monologue, which I’m going to share here in lieu of actual content. Sometimes I have to think about these things, whether there’s any good reason to do that or not. My thought for today is a mediation on why I’ve never written about zombies.

Yes, why? Good question, and I’d like to thank me for asking it. Not that I have a good answer; I don’t fully understand my motivations for doing or not doing anything. But if I had to guess, I’d say it’s for the same reason I have never written a story about werewolves or unicorns: they just aren’t very interesting. Ok, I know that some people who read here are very fond of zombies and/or werewolves and unicorns, so before you get the knives out, let me explain: They just aren’t very interesting. ‘Kay. Now you can get the knives out.

 Is there a point buried in this pile of nonsense somewhere? No promises, but maybe I can borrow a few knives to dig it out, as we seem to have a few handy. I could dwell on why zombies aren’t interesting–there’s the lack of complex motivation (ala Romero) or the lack of any higher brain function (ala traditional). Scary? Sure. Horrifying? You betcha! Interesting? Not so much. Yet I know that these are simple rationalizations after the fact. It’s perfectly possible to write a zombie story where neither of those restrictions apply, just as it’s quite doable to write a good werewolf or unicorn story. I’ve read a few. One or two I’d rate as classics in the field, so it can be done and has/is being done. Just not by me.

Why? They just aren’t very interesting.

And here we are again. It’s not even that, as subjects, they’re pretty cliché. Subjects become cliché for a reason, and just because their ubiquity level has been raised to cliché it does not mean that new and interesting work can’t be done. As penance for my lack of appreciation, I will now inventory fantasy clichés in my own work:

  • Fairies/fey? Check.
  • Vampires? Only twice, but check.
  •  Dragons? Multiple offenses.
  • Witches/Wizards? Ditto.
  • Sphinxes? Yep.
  • Ancient Gods/Goddesses? Darn right.
  • Demons? Uh-huh. Just ask Yamada.
  • Monsters? Duh.
  • Ghosts? All the time, and Eli Mothersbaugh’s specialty.
  • Deal With the Devil? And proud of it!
  • Mermaids? Of course.
  • Personifications, as in Death or Fate? Guilty.

Let’s face facts here—anyone who’d willingly write a “Deal with the Devil” story is capable of anything. So why no zombie, unicorn, or werewolf stories? They just aren’t – [Visual of the blogger being whapped on the nose with a rolled-up newspaper. Heaven knows where they found one] Besides being painful, that interruption reveals the true answer. Why no zombie, werewolf, or unicorn stories? Because there aren’t any, as in “aren’t any rattling around in my brain.” No matter how many times I turn the notion in my head, it just comes back to this. I’ve already talked about recognizing a story when you see one, and this is the real reason I’ve never done unicorn stories or zombie stories or werewolf stories–I just don’t recognize anything relating to them as a story.  It’s really as simple and ungrammatical as that. The fact that I don’t find them interesting is effect, not cause.  I haven’t had a zombie or unicorn or werewolf story to write. In the case of the unicorn, I can’t see the point. Until and unless I come up with something that is at least as interesting to me on a story level as Peter Beagle’s The Last Unicorn or Theodore Sturgeon’s “The Silken Swift,” the subject is a closed door. If I ever do get such a notion, the door will spring open and I’ll find that particular subject is as interesting as anything I’ve ever written about and I’ll eat whatever steaming plate of crow is required. Will it happen? Dunno. I’d say it’s even odds. But until then, “They just aren’t–”

[Whoosh] Ha! Missed me!