Sunday, July 8, 2012

Some Words on Evangeline Walton and Narrative Style

       I've never intended to use this blog as a vehicle to review oither people's books, but today I'm making an exception because it introduces a topic I've been intending to cover in a blog post, anyway.  If you've been reading this blog right along, you know what a proponent I am of Evangeline Walton's writings.  Yesterday I posted a review of her recently published posthumous collection of short stories, "Above Ker-Is" and I'm reprinting it here:    

       According to Douglas A. Anderson, the editor of this posthumous collection, the first seven of these stories were written between the late 1920s and the early 1930s, when the author was between the approximate ages of 20 and 25 years, predating the 1936 publication of The Virgin and the Swine (later known as The Island of the Mighty, the first novel of the Tetralogy to be published).  The final three stories were written from the late l940s to the early l950s.  This collection is a good vehicle in which to observe the development of Walton’s style.  
    The first three stories, which are retellings of a Breton folktale about a city sunk beneath the waves through the actions of a princess who may or may not be viewed as an evil force, employ an old-fashioned, circuitous, first-person style in which a narrator hears a story from another person and then retells it.  It can be a priest hearing a confession or a folklorist recording the tale of an aged informant.  This, combined with a conventional depiction of some characters, makes the early stories not particularly memorable, in spite of some fine descriptive writing and mood creation.
       The central four stories can be considered a transitional phase.  In “The Tree of Perkunas” we start with a narrator who has reconstructed the tale from a friend’s letters, but then this narrator disappears and a straightforward third-person tale develops. In “Werwolf” the fictional framework disappears altogether, although the opening paragraph gives an omniscient narrator’s introduction.  In “The Ship from Away” the author reverts to the fiction of a third party (“Young Devlin told me this story”) who functions to reveal the fate of Devlin at the end.  “Lus-Mor” also utilizes the format of a person telling the tale to another; in this case the tale is first person and the recipient also has a small role to play at the end.
      The last three stories are quite different.  The narrative is direct, with less time spent setting up the premise and creating layers between the reader and the story.  There is a sense that the author has matured and is in command all the way through, knowing exactly how to move the story along and create a sense of horror.  Here are the opening lines of “The Judgment of St. Yves” (“I had this story from old Yanouank Ar Guenn, that aged fisherman whose years must number nearly a hundred now”) or of “The Tree of Perkunas” (“It was from the last letter of my friend, Serghei Zudin, that I pieced together this story … ”) Compare the opening lines of “At the End of the Corridor” (“Whenever Philip Martin felt like being funny he would say that he was a professional grave-robber”) or of “The Other One” (“I should have locked the door.  You can’t drag a solid body through a locked door.”)  The endings of these last three tales are equally strong.  They are the sort of story that grabs the reader and then remains in the mind.
       It’s too bad Evangeline Walton didn’t return to the Ker-Is folktales after she had developed the approach presented in The Island of the Mighty (what a difference a few short years can make!)  In that novel, the peculiarly bizarre magic and the powerful characters of the Mabinogion myths are reworked with such realism that the reader is held spellbound.  That in this reviewer’s opinion is the way myth should be retold!  This being said, however, there is a lot of power in the collection Above Ker-Is and the book is recommended to anyone interested in myth and folktale, in the paranormal, and in horror fiction.

[End of review]

       My topic today takes off from the discussion of the presentation Walton used in her early stories.  I want to compare it to my own methodology.  I've always thought I'm pretty good at stories told by somebody else or through the utilization of a fictional scholarly framework.  Let's discuss the former method first.
       The device can be used to distance the reader from the subject.  In the Walton stories, however, distancing is not really needed; the characters are generic and non-essential and so it becomes something of a distraction or a complication.  In the case of my books, the latter half of "The Termite Queen" is the object in question.  I can't say too much about this because I don't want to play the spoiler, but I can say that I utilize the device of two people who are essential to the plot sitting around talking about something that has happened.  It's the only way to bring about a final understanding of the characters.  Somebody told me that it was too static -- that I was telling and not showing.  That's probably true, but it's impossible to do the job through any other means.  And it seems to me that, since in this case the action is psychological and not physical, the showing takes place within the context of the telling.  All stories are told by somebody, after all -- it's just that in some cases, the teller is more obvious than others.  So I make no apologies for my method.  I do confess that the story is overly repetitive, and for that I do apologize.  It's a case of the writer loving her material too much!
       Now to the second method: the utilization of a fictional scholarly framework.  From my background of studying and working on college campuses most of my life, I'm attracted to academic things and I was first intrigued by the form when I read Ursula K. LeGuin's "The Left Hand of Darkness" close to forty years ago.  The first chapter opens: "From the Archives of Hain.  Transcript of Ansible Document 01-01101-934-2-Gethen:  To the Stabile of Ollul:  Report from Genly Ai, First Mobile on Gethen/Winter, Hainish Circle 93, Ekumenical Year 1490-97."  Chapter 2 begins: "From a sound-tape collection of North Karhidish 'hearth-tales' in the archives of the College of Historians in Ehrenrang, narrator unknown, recorded during the reign of Argaven VIII." Not all chapters begin this way, but many do, and when I read all that, I was absolutely fascinated.  To me that framework gave the narrative a huge sense of reality.
      Now take a look at my novella "Monster Is in the Eye of the Beholder."  I do exactly the same thing -- I draw on government documents to piece together what happened on the planet Kal-fa.  I acknowledge a direct influence there!  Ursula LeGuin has long been a favorite author.
       That brings me to the series "The Labors of Ki'shto'ba Huge-Head."  Here the whole concept is one of an academic undertaking.  I didn't write the books, after all, even though I'm putting my name on the title page and the cover for the sake of convenience.  Di'fa'kro'mi wrote the books,  Prf. Kaitrin Oliva translated them, and they were first published in the 30th century.  That's why I'm including a facsimile title page, and that's why Kaitrin wrote a Translator's Foreword, explaining the origin of the tales.  How they came to be published ahead of their time, in our present day, remains a bit of a mystery.  Maybe Thru'tei'ga'ma the Seer could explain it, but I cannot!  I like to say, I'm channeling them from the future! (LOL, wink, wink, ;-) -- I'd better put in all that so you don't think I'm too crazy!)
       And the format is again that of somebody sitting around telling the story to somebody else.  The aging Di'fa'kro'mi is dictating his memoirs to his young scribe Chi'mo'a'tu, who occasionally interrupts with clueless remarks and questions that inject considerable humor.  I do hope nobody will criticize this format as showing and not telling.  Personally, I think it works great!  I think you'll find plenty of action in these stories, along with that humor that I mentioned, a good bit of serious philosophizing, and some opinionated rants!


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