Tag Archives: York

Lost Stories

A few weeks ago now, I was in York. I had the chance to revisit people and places I have long missed; one of them was the splendid Minster. It is one of those places that has been special to people down through the centuries, and I always feel as though such spaces have an aura to them, the weight of all that accumulated meaning, that you can feel as soon as you enter. When you walk around, all those long-gone people tread silently with you.

And of course, there’s much to see. One thing that caught my eye in particular this visit was this little grave-marker below.

DSC_0445As you can see, it has been there a very long while itself, there on the floor in the east end of the great cathedral, and centuries of feet have worn it away so that I, at least, couldn’t quite make out all the details of the sad little story it has to tell.

I’m sure that somewhere (perhaps no further away than a guide book in the gift shop, or the recesses of my memory) are the details behind the little stone, but standing there this summer I wasn’t able to put the story back together. We can wonder, of course, imagine the parts that aren’t readable, fill in the reasons why this baby was laid to rest where they were, in that spot where light from the great East Window sometimes falls.

However we imagine, though, the original story was largely lost to me that day. I’ve written before about how some of the stories we like to tell change over time, as we add and subtract and rewrite to suit our tastes. We also lose stories, the ones that aren’t told and gradually fade into tantalizing fragments of tales. I encounter these sometimes doing research or playfully following rabbit-holes on the internet – I’ll run into a name, with the only information available being that they were ‘a figure in such and such mythology’. Sometimes there’s a little more: they were a king, a hero, a goddess. Perhaps. Nothing more of their stories, the stories of these people, real and imagined, who would have once loomed so large, remains. They are diminished down to a single line in a book or webpage, and many more have vanished entirely.

It’s sad to think of our lost stories, and I think it’s important to remember that this is something that can happen. We need to tell the stories we think are good and important, both by passing on the ones we’ve heard or read and liked, and creating new ones. To read and remember a story is good, but you keep it alive by passing it on to another set of eyes.

We live in a world now where there are, it seems, endless tales being told about every subject imaginable and from every point of view. It is so very easy for any one story to get lost forever. Make sure to tell the stories you love; help keep them above the flood of time a little longer.

Thanks for reading.

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Slightly Off

A few days ago one of my friends from the UK posted a picture on Facebook of a dinner they ate as part of an evening out – it was fries and a hot dog. (Hang in with me for a second here, I swear this is going someplace) What with this being a British hot dog, I was reminded of my own experience with those when I went to school in York for a year.

It was my first full day in England, I was still heavily jet-lagged and hadn’t eaten anything that didn’t come from an airport or a vending machine in at least 24 hours. I hadn’t been to anything to do with school yet, but I thought it was a good idea to go and explore the city. When I did, I came across a man selling hot dogs from a cart in the city centre. I was feeling pretty disoriented and dazed and confused and thought a hot dog would be a nice familiar set of sensations and so I bought one.

Boy was it not. It turns out that hot dogs in England are, for some reason, both longer and skinnier than the standard issue wiener here. The bun (at least on this occasion) more strongly resembled a thick slice of bread. The mustard was not the blazing yellow ooze we usually deploy here, but a (probably superior) product involving actual mustard seeds and a more reasonable hue. The whole thing left me feeling more disoriented and alienated than ever.

I had anticipated something I knew very well and had well-established expectations about. What I got was something that almost, but not quite, met those expectations, but was different in a number of really very subtle ways. I think this is often more disturbing and harder for us to handle than if something is a completely new experience. There’s probably some explanation here from psychology about how our brains work and look for patterns or anticipate input and then get upset when these things are undermined. I don’t really know, but I have found it generally true that things feel most alien when they are almost, but not quite, what I expect them to be. Even allowing for the jet lag, that hot dog in York was one of the most alien things I have ever eaten, because I thought I knew what I was getting and then got something that wasn’t quite it.

I didn’t directly take this hot dog experience (I mean really) and use it to inform my writing, but I think the same general principle holds true for writing horror and creepy fiction. I think we’re more disturbed by situations that seem as though they’re familiar, what we expect, and what we know, but are then just slightly off. A monster in some fantastic realm that is nothing like our own is likely to be impressive, and exciting, and we can agree it sounds pretty dangerous. But a monster that shows up on your street, or one that seems to be just like the person next to you on the bus, until it makes its move, is far more likely to really bother us. The world that conforms to our expectations of what is possible and what can occur until the moment that it isn’t quite right is scarier than one that is completely alien.

We like to think we know what the world around us is like. Experiences that suggest that that isn’t actually the case are the ones that, I think, really get to us. If you have the right (or wrong, I suppose) kind of brain these experiences are all around you. When you go for a walk in the park, and find a single shoe by the path, you know (or you’re pretty sure you know) that it was just lost or discarded. A far more unlikely explanation is that the shoe is all that’s left of the victim of some predatory creature that now lives in the woods here. And now the park feels very different.

I guess that’s what I have tried to do with The King in Darkness and Bonhomme Sept-Heures – to make the monsters of the stories part of a hopefully familiar world around us. I think they’re more likely to bother you (in the enjoyable sense!!) that way. A lot of times people ask what the difference between fantasy and horror is, and I think part of the answer is that horror is supposed to unsettle you on some level, and I think we’re most easily unsettled by what hits close to home, and to find ourselves in a world that is almost – but not quite – what we think it is.

In any case, this entry is rather dangerously like advice (but it is not advice), but I thought I’d share the train of thought my friend’s no doubt alarmingly British hot dog triggered off. Thanks for reading.

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By chance, today’s blog falls on the anniversary of the Ecole Polytechnique shootings in which 14 women were killed by a man who was filled with hatred. I promised long ago not to let December 6th pass without taking a moment to remember. As should we all – bad things happen when we forget to oppose them. I think we’re rightly pretty proud of our society in Canada, but there is still so much work to do. There are still far too many women who are victims of violence and discrimination. We owe it to them all to do so much better. We can.

Fourteen Not Forgotten:

Geneviève Bergeron

Hélène Colgan

Nathalie Croteau

Barbara Daigneault

Anne-Marie Edward

Maud Haviernick

Maryse Laganière

Maryse Leclair

Anne-Marie Lemay

Sonia Pelletier

Michèle Richard

Annie St-Arneault

Annie Turcotte

Barbara Klucznik-Widajewicz

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If you’re in Ottawa, you can now pick up a copy of Bonhomme Sept-Heures at the Heart Tea Heart tea shop at Merivale Mall. It’s a fantastic way to do it because they’ll even suggest which one of their amazing teas will go best with your read, and you could grab other titles from Renaissance Press and S.M. Carriere while you’re there! Give them a visit, in person and/or on the intertron here.

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Cities

Several times this summer, when I was out for a run, I caught myself thinking ‘wow, my city is beautiful’, or something similar. Yesterday, on my way to go and vote, on a carpet of autumn leaves, in a park full of glorious trees (including some pines that always make me smile), even though the beach is deserted (both by people and ducks) for the season, I found myself thinking it again. So I guess Ottawa is ‘my city’, now.

I’m not exactly sure when that happened, but I’ve lived places where it hasn’t. I grew up near Toronto, and it has never been my city. It was always a place to visit, it was never home. Even when I (very briefly) lived there, the city and I both knew it was temporary. When I’ve returned over the years, it doesn’t feel like I’m ‘going back’ anywhere. I’m a visitor. In Windsor, where I studied for four years, I met people I treasure, made precious memories, and never felt for a moment that this was ‘my’ place.

On the other hand, York, where I lived for a year, did feel like my city. I was probably predisposed to fall in love with it, thick with history and medieval buildings as it is, but I really came to feel at home with the wonderful people that I met and the whole feel of the place. I never got tired of my walk to school up Walmgate, and then Petergate, or sitting by the river that has flowed forever through this place with old, old bones. I know, from one return visit, that it is so, so different from when I was there, but I also know that York will always, on some level, be the same, and it will always feel at least a little like home.

Montreal never felt like my city, even though I lived there nine years, and I’m not sure why. I really did (and do) like the place, I met wonderful people, ate amazing food, and had some fantastic times. I was even, after years of being a Montreal Canadiens fan in enemy country, cheering for the home team. I never felt like I belonged to it, or it to me, though.

And now I guess Ottawa is different, and again I’m not sure why. I do love a lot about the city, but I won’t bore you by writing a panegyric to this curious little place that is, somehow, Canada’s capital city. This whole thing has gotten me wondering why it is that we get attached to some places, and not to others. I suppose some of it may be the people we associate with them, although I met friends who are so important to me in Montreal, and Windsor, and Toronto, and none of them were home.

It’s a bit of a mystery, and it’s one I’d like to have the solution to, because (I guess obviously) being able to convey that sense of connection as a writer is an important thing. The setting of Ottawa is very important to The King in Darkness, and I hope I have conveyed a sense of the city reasonably well. The next book, that I am working busily on, takes place elsewhere, which means a whole new setting that at least some of my characters need to feel connected to.

It’s something I’ll continue to ponder, I guess, but I note that a lot of stories that really resonate with me give a really palpable sense of their settings. To reach way, way back, the Sherlock Holmes stories that I loved can really make you feel what Victorian London was like. More recently, Daniel Jose Older’s Shadowshaper quivers with the thick sense of Brooklyn that it conveys. Interestingly, in neither case do I know what the place is really like, but I feel like I do, from reading the stories. Maybe that’s the trick; finding the right words to make your reader feel as though they’ve been to a place and know the place, even when they haven’t.

That’s all a bit rambly, and introspective. I’ll try to do better the next time.

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A couple of updates: This Sunday is the official launch party for The King in Darkness, along with 3 other Renaissance Press titles and the new work from another Ottawa author, S.M. Carriere. I will be doing a reading from my book (as will all the other authors) and it promises to be a fun afternoon. Details are here, and it would be a delight to see you there, if you can make it.

Can-Con has also confirmed its schedule and I will be on three different panels, which is very exciting! I’ll be discussing what I’ve been reading lately in SF, talking about Portraying the Past in fiction, and then also about medieval armaments and transportation, all of which should be great discussions. The whole convention is a great deal of fun for both writers of SFF and fans of the genre(s); you should definitely come.

It’s looking good that I will be at PopExpo in November, as well, but details are still firming up there.

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