George MacDonald, The Father of Modern Fantasy

George MacDonald is one of those Victorian authors whom people dislike, don’t understand, or simply have never heard of. I love The Princess and the Goblin, but try reading At the Back of the North Wind, which is Dickensian in its depiction of London, or The Princess and Curdie, which is a baffling and disturbing sequel to The Princess and the Goblin, written ten years after the first book. More baffling still are his fairy tales. These are not the beautifully written and finely drawn fairy tales of Oscar Wilde. MacDonald’s fairy tales can be dark, strange, and metaphorically jarring.

Here’s a passage from “The Golden Key” that will give you an idea:
“The sun was now set, and the darkness coming on, but the child thought of no danger but the bears behind her. If she had looked round, however, she would have seen that she was followed by a very different creature from a bear. It was a curious creature, made like a fish, but covered, instead of scales, with feathers of all colours, sparkling like those of a humming-bird. It had fins, not wings, and swam through the air as a fish does through the water. Its head was like the head of a small owl.”
MacDonald, George. “The Golden Key.”)

George MacDonald worked as a clergyman, but left the church to pursue writing full-time. He knew Charles Dodgson—yes, Lewis Carroll—and was a fan of the Alice books. People often think British fantasy for children gets its start with Lewis Carroll and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. But it doesn’t.
MacDonald is a father to British fantasy in the way that Daniel Defoe is the father to the survival story. Virtually every survival story, from Coral Island to Gilligan’s Island to Survivor, can be traced back to Defoe and Robinson Crusoe. As for MacDonald, people may know about him, but they probably haven’t read his books, and they usually don’t know how profoundly this writer influenced the development of fantasy in the twentieth century, particularly for such writers as C. S. Lewis.
If you want to know more about MacDonald, his life and influence, check out this truly fabulous online exhibition,
George MacDonald: The Forgotten Father of Fantasy Fiction.
The canvas was created by Live Life Aberdeenshire in conjunction with the BBC. It includes prints, photographs, and everything you will ever want to know about MacDonald. Just remember to read one of his books as well.

From the Blog Archive: Remembering Back to School

People are back to school this week. The trains and buses will be crowded, and the schoolyards near my house will once again echo with the yelling and screaming of kids—one of the most familiar and recognizable sounds I know.
For me, the term starts on Wednesday. I’m teaching a course in British fantasy, and I’m using Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in my first-year classes, something I’ve never done before. It should be interesting to see what my first years think of studying Harry Potter in their first-year writing class.
Here’s a piece I wrote two years ago at the beginning of the school year—“Remembering Back to School.” It’s memoir, and it carries that bitter-sweet tang of nostalgia I always feel at the start of term. Here’s something from Harry Potter to get you in the mood as well:

Whispers followed Harry from the moment he left his dormitory the next day. People lining up outside classrooms stood on tip¬toe to get a look at him, or doubled back to pass him in the corridors again, staring. Harry wished they wouldn’t, because he was trying to concentrate on finding his way to classes.
There were a hundred and forty-two staircases at Hogwarts: wide, sweeping ones; narrow, rickety ones; some that led some¬where different on a Friday; some with a vanishing step halfway up that you had to remember to jump. Then there were doors that wouldn’t open unless you asked politely, or tickled them in exactly the right place, and doors that weren’t really doors at all, but solid walls just pretending. It was also very hard to remember where any¬thing was, because it all seemed to move around a lot. The people in the portraits kept going to visit each other, and Harry was sure the coats of armor could walk.
The ghosts didn’t help, either. It was always a nasty shock when one of them glided suddenly through a door you were trying to open. Nearly Headless Nick was always happy to point new Gryffindors in the right direction, but Peeves the Poltergeist was worth two locked doors and a trick staircase if you met him when you were late for class. He would drop wastepaper baskets on your head, pull rugs from under your feet, pelt you with bits of chalk, or sneak up behind you, invisible, grab your nose, and screech, “GOT YOUR CONK!”
(Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, Chapter 8, “The Potions Master”)

Dust to Dust

Some of my reading this summer has included Philip Pullman. I’m rereading His Dark Materials trilogy so I can finally read The Book of Dust, La Belle Sauvage, which came out in 2017. I didn’t want to just jump back into Pullman’s world without reminding myself of the earlier series.
Apparently, Pullman’s next novel in the new series, The Secret Commonwealth, featuring the return of Lyra Belacqua, comes out this October. And in other Pullman news, His Dark Materials is soon to be a show on HBO.
Reading The Golden compass and revisiting Lyra’s Oxford got me thinking about my own first trip to Oxford. I say first because I’m planning to go back. You can read about that visit here and here.
Pullman is a fine writer, and he is also a fine reader. Years ago, Pullman visited Edmonton and gave a reading at Ft. Edmonton Park, as part of the TALES Storytelling Festival. I remember he read from The Subtle Knife—a compelling reading that left me feeling a little breathless. In spite of that experience, His Dark Materials has never been a favourite for me, but who knows—maybe this reread will inspire me anew.

Sister Kharon, A Short Story

Posting about Lockwood and Co. last week got me thinking about pieces I’ve written about the dead. I don’t often post stories on OfOtherWorlds that haven’t been published somewhere else first. However, here’s an exception, “Sister Kharon.”
This story is an example of exploring voice. Becca’s voice was the first thing to come. Once I found her voice, the story quickly followed. I have a thing for stories about the end of the world—this story is about both ghosts and the end of the world. Enjoy!

The dead never left, at least those from the old world. This is a problem for the town. They’re mostly a nuisance, and lots of people can’t even see them. But the dead are there—rushing about here and there, talking on cell phones that no longer get a signal, or looking lost and befuddled at being caught between what my father calls this life and the next.
My father is the town preacher. Most everything from the old world is gone. No airplanes, no cell phones, no Internet. All gone. Now, people live, like us, in little pockets, communities of a few hundred or so, and every community has its town council and its preacher.
As I said, my father is the preacher. He’s the one who has to explain why the dead don’t just leave, why they continue on this plain, as he says, all of them with unfinished business of one kind or another.
“It’s bad enough,” said Arty Kwan to my father in the church vestibule, “that they caused the end of the world, but they add insult to injury by hanging around. Can’t you do something, Raymond? It’s annoying as all hell, and it gets worse and worse all the time.”
Arty said this to my father at least once a month. He was one of the councillors, and he ran a feed shop and a big farm north of town. Like most people in town, Arty assumed anyone who died of the plague must have been responsible for causing it.
“That’s right,” chimed in Bert McFee, who ran the hardware store. “It’s a problem, Raymond. Can’t ya do somethin’? I had a whole crowd of them in my shop the other day. It bothers the customers.”
“I have some ideas, gentlemen,” said my father—his standard response. “Something will be done. Don’t worry.”
The morning service was over, and dad was in the queue shaking hands, nodding and smiling to all and sundry. But he had that pestered look that meant trouble was on its way, and I knew I would hear about it once the flock had cleared out. For now, he spoke encouraging words to his parishioners, telling them that the Lord didn’t want us dwelling on the past or the dead. We were the ones untouched by the plague—the Lord’s chosen. We had to concentrate on life: educating our children, bringing in the harvest, and serving the Lord. Those were the concerns of the faithful and the living.
***
“Becca, I’m going to need your help with something this afternoon.”
I was bent over the sink, still washing up from the post-service lunch. There were three of us working away, Mrs. McCreety scrubbing in the sink next to mine, and her Neace, Florence, drying, stacking, and putting away dishes.
I looked over my shoulder at dad. “We’ll finish up in half an hour,” I said.
“Good,” he said, nodding his head vigorously, the two wings of hair framing his bald patch bobbing in response. “Come to my office once you’re done here.”
“Work of a preacher’s daughter,” said Mrs. McCreety with a comfortable chuckle, as dad and his flying hair disappeared.
“No kidding,” I muttered, scrubbing ferociously at the pot submerged in the sink.
My back was aching, and my skin felt clammy from dishwater steam as I knocked on dad’s office door. I left Mrs. McCreety and Florence to finish up. I could hear voices coming from the vestibule, but the church was quiet with the departure of the faithful, returning to that quiescent hollowness that pervaded the place when it was just dad and me.
“Come in. Come in,” dad waved me into his office. He was brusque. I didn’t like it. He was only ever like this with a very few of his parishioners, those who were in his confidence—and me, of course. In private, he would complain, ask my advice, and even cry sometimes when the work of the church became too much. But he was only ever brusque with me when hatching one of his plans.
“I think I have a solution—at least I think I have an idea, something to try.”
“And what’s that?” I said, suspiciously.
“It’s fine. Don’t worry,” He said, waving a hand. “Sit down and hear me out.”
I sat, watching him balefully across the desk.
“You are one of the only people in town who is able to…communicate with the dead. Am I right?”
“Communicate is a little strong,” I said, cautiously. “They leave people alone if I tell them. They’ll generally move off if I ask them. I wouldn’t say that’s communicating.”
“Well, it’s close enough. I would like you to try something for me—for the town, really.”
“What,” I asked, again, this time not even trying to hide my suspicion.
“Well,” said dad, steepling his fingers under his chin (another sure sign he meant business). “Here’s my idea.”
***
The stupid thing was—everyone thought it worked. Of course, dad told them it did, and he let it about town how special I was for being able to do it. He’s good at his job—the preacher, the one people go to for advice and consolation. I had always been the preacher’s daughter, the one who supported my dad for all the years since the death of my mother, when I was just three, and both she and I were down with the plague.
Now, I am something different. The people in town try to pretend nothing has changed, and they act as though I’m still the freckled little kid they’ve always known. But it’s not the same, anymore.
If they see me out there, in town or on the road, my placards in hand, they don’t come near. I’m the girl who speaks to the dead, the one who has the power to send souls on their way.
I don’t exactly talk to them, but I get through to them. I have no idea why, but they don’t seem to listen to anyone else. Dad’s idea was to make signs that the dead could read signs that would encourage them to move on. I have a variety of signs I’ve created to get the dead along to the next life:
Don’t Linger! Move Along!
You Won’t Get into Heaven Hanging Around Here!
Heaven is your true destination!
I told dad straight away the signs wouldn’t work—and they don’t. But I have a sneaking suspicion that he knew that all along. He’s happier, anyway, as the problem of the dead has become less of a problem.
The dead are less often seen crowding into the town square, wandering in and out of stores, or, worst of all, drifting into the church during services. People in the town seem happier as well.
But they look at me differently, now. I see the sidelong glances, and I know they are whispering about me. One little brat, one of the McFee kids, even called me a witch.
“Don’t listen to such things,” said my father. He was trying to be encouraging. “You are doing the town a great service, Becca.”
And I supposed I was. But dad needed a solution to the problem, and I was it—his sacrificial goat, so to speak.
The old world destroyed itself with their antibiotics and penicillin. I’m one of the few who got the plague and survived, which was why, according to some, I had power over the dead. That was stupid, too. I didn’t have power over them. I just directed them, like a kind of spiritual traffic cop, or maybe like that character from the old Greek stories—I can’t remember his name—the one who ferried the souls of the dead across some underworld river.
What I did was nothing so grandiose. People would see me holding up my signs in front of the dead. And the dead, miraculously, would wander away and disappear. The signs were for show, of course. I told the dead firmly to move along—to get themselves out of this world and get on to the next.
“Time to move on. Nothing here for you anymore,” I would say, or something similar.
They would look at me, get a puzzled expression on their blurry faces, then seem to understand, and off they’d go. Just like that.
Whatever I am now, whatever I’ve become, the town wants less and less to do with me. But they are appreciative, I’ll give them that. My job is shooing the dead onto the next life.
***
And it’s not so bad, really. This little house I found outside of town suits me. I walk into town every day and do my job. I still carry dad’s placards, even if it’s only to maintain the unspoken lie that he and I have agreed on.
In the morning, when I come out onto the porch to watch the sunrise glinting off the useless telephone wires that still border the old highway, I will find gifts of bread, preserves, vegetables, and sometimes clothes left for me overnight. Dad visits me, but no one else—unless the dead are hanging around their house or store, and they want them driven off.
In many ways, I’m paying for the mistakes of the past, and the town now sees me as responsible for the way the past finds its way into the present. My life is dealing with the problem the old world created—the one nobody knows what to do with. But I can’t blame the people in town; I can’t blame the dead either. I could blame dad, but he was only doing his job.
Who knows how long I’ll have to do this. People say the population of the old world numbered in the billions, before the plague made its relentless way across the landscape, slurping up towns and cities like an insatiable monster. That number of people seems crazy to me. But if it’s true, then I’ll be doing this job a long time. The dead need to move on, and I’m the one to help them do it. Seems unfair, but dad always says that the Lord never meant life to be fair. And he’s right-just ask the dead.

© OfOtherWorlds, 2019

Summer Reading: The Definitive YA List

Summer is a time for reading—not to mention rereading. I’ve met readers who don’t reread books—they are of a different species than me. I love rereading my favourites.
In July I revisited the Lockwood and Co. series by Jonathan Stroud. These books—five in total—feature Lucy Carlyle, an agent with Lockwood and Co, who narrates her adventures in an alternative London, where the nightly appearance of ghosts and dangerous visitors has become the “Problem.” Only children and teens can see ghosts, so they are the ones to battle the Problem.
Jonathan Stroud has more skill as a writer than many current young adult writers, including such big names as J. K. Rowling, Rick Riordan, and Sarah J. Maas. His prose is careful, Well-paced, and lively. The Lockwood books also scared the daylights out of me the first time I read them—and I don’t like reading scary books. I’ve read the series now four times.
If you are looking for a young adult read this summer, Book Riot has what seems the definitive list for summer, 2019. Check it out; you are bound to find something you will fall in love with. And if you are one of those who loves to revisit old friends, then enjoy your favourites, but check out the list, anyway. Happy reading!

A New Beginning, The Perilous Realm Online

In 2013, Thomas Wharton published The Tree of Story, the third book in his Perilous Realm series. This book brought the adventures of Will and Rowen to a close—or just about. In an interesting return to his series, Tom has decided to republish a new version of the trilogy on his website, ThomasWharton.ca.
The Perilous Realm Online begins with the retitled first book, The Endless Road, and Will, still the main character, finding himself alone in a mysterious wood.
Tom has dispensed with the prologue, which I always loved, and some of the back story of Will’s family. The book now launches right into a motorcycle crash and a boy fleeing into a forest. The tone is darker and the pace faster.
Tom will be publishing the series a chapter at a time, so be sure to follow along. I’m looking forward to seeing what he does with this new Perilous Realm.