Adventures with Alice

“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.
“Oh, you ca’n’t help that,” said the Cat: “we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”
“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.
“You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”
(Carroll, Lewis. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, “Pig and Pepper”)

The start of classes has me thinking about some favourite books. This term, I’m teaching a class in British fantasy. We’re starting the course with George MacDonald’s The Light Princess, but I’m also thinking about Lewis Carroll and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

The Beggar Maid is the most infamous of the photographs Lewis Carroll took of Alice Liddell. The Liddell children, daughters to Henry George Liddell, dean of Christ Church at Oxford University, accompanied Lewis Carroll (Charles Dodgson) and Robinson Duckworth on a day of boating in July 1862.
Lewis amused his companions by telling them the story of Alice’s Adventures Underground. You can read Lewis’s account of the day in his diary entry of 4 July 1862. Carroll had known the Liddell children since 1856. While critics have had cause to question the nature of Carroll’s relationship with Alice Liddell in the last one hundred-fifty years, no one can deny the impact of the fictional Alice and her adventures on popular culture.
I’ve always had something of a problem with Alice. I never particularly liked the book, but I didn’t know why. So, I started teaching it. I found plenty to discuss with students about Alice—the way she navigates Wonderland, the impossible and chaotic geography of the place, and the mad creatures she meets along the way.
Many critics identify Alice’s Adventures as marking the beginning of the Golden Age of Children’s Literature. One of the best introductions to this period of children’s books is, still, I think, Humphrey Carpenter’s Secret Gardens: A Study of the Golden Age of Children’s Literature. Carpenter brings the same slightly quirky, yet probing spirit to his examination of this period as he does to his biography of J. R. R. Tolkien and his book about Tolkien, C. S. Lewis and the Inklings.
Whatever else Alice does when she appears in 1865, she changes the way we read and understand kid’s books. I resist calling Alice’s Adventures a fantasy—the book is many things, but I wouldn’t call it that. It’s absurd, it’s chaotic, it’s nonsensical, and the book is coloured by desire, appetite, and bizarre anxieties. Like Carroll himself and his relationship with Alice Liddell, the book is a puzzle.
IN the summer of 2018, my eldest daughter and I had the chance to visit the Alice in Wonderland Exhibit in Melbourne. The exhibit included photographs, puppets, costumes, film sets, and almost every way in which Alice has entered the popular imagination in the last hundred years. It was astounding, strange, disconcerting, and a little overwhelming. More than anything else, the exhibit reinforced for me the puzzle that is Alice and her adventures down the rabbit-hole.

Remembering Oxford

I’m about to begin Philip Pullman’s La Belle Sauvage, The Book of Dust. Like The Golden Compass, La Belle Sauvage begins in Pullman’s imaginary Oxford. Every fall, I seem to revisit Oxford, if not in the flesh, then through my favourite books and authors.

C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien both worked and lived in Oxford for most of their adult lives. My first visit to Oxford had my daughter and me arriving late on a rainy August evening, wandering up and down the High street and looking for the Porter’s lodge to Magdalen College. You can read about that trip here and here. Enjoy!

Photo taken on a trip to Oxford, August, 2015.

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.

Caledonia on My Mind

In August of 2015, I made my first trip to Scotland with my youngest daughter. She was moving to the UK on a working/visa, and I went along to experience my ancestral home and visit Oxford, the home of two of my literary heroes, J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis.
Our first day in Glasgow, I wrote:
“August 16, 2015: I’m not sure what I was expecting on coming here. I was expecting to feel as though I was in a strange place. It doesn’t feel strange at all—different, but not strange.”
We spent five days in Glasgow that first trip. We stayed in an Air BnB on Queen Margret Drive, just above North Star, a small café run by a lovely couple. Every morning, I went down to the café and got coffee. I would stand outside the flat, having my coffee and smoking, while the life of the street passed by.
I wrote several pieces on that and subsequent trips to Scotland, including Encountering the Literary, A Visit to Hadrian’s Wall, and the Glasgow Connection to Harry Potter. And, of course, there are always Scottish castles.
I have been a father now longer than I’ve been anything else in my life. It’s a parent’s job to guide his or her children, but my children have guided me on adventures where I might not have gone on my own. It’s my youngest I have to thank for my Caledonian connection.

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