The Puddle

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I remember standing on the playground at school after a storm, my hands numb from the cold, my nostrils filled with the scent of wet earth and asphalt. I peered down at the blacktop, made slick and shiny by the rain, and I scurried to where the water had pooled into a large sprawling puddle. I stared, transfixed by that shallow body that seemed so deep, and my breath caught. Was that just a reflection I could see, or was it, perhaps, some exceedingly rare glimpse of another world?

I felt that all I had to do was jump, and I would find myself falling, tumbling, down and down into endless blue. Or perhaps floating, flying, borne by great billowing clouds and fearsome bellowing winds, up into that vast ocean of upside down sky. Holding my breath, I took a leap of faith and jumped. But beneath my feet to break my fall were the shoes of an upside down boy.

He looked just like me. I gazed down, sad, and he gazed back up with the same doleful expression.

I stepped back, and the boy beneath my feet did the same. I waited, hoping he would go away. But when I slowly craned my neck forward to make sure my path was clear, I saw the boy had returned. I took a deep breath. If only I could slip past him. If only I could trick him into moving away. I cast another furtive glance over the edge of the puddle, but the boy was still there.

I made as if to draw away, then suddenly whirled and lunged into the air with eyes closed. I felt the rush of frigid morning wind as it whooshed and whipped over my arms and shoulders. I was certain I’d outsmarted him.

The puddle shattered as my feet struck the water, and a magnificent spray of shimmering liquid glass rained down around me. For a fraction of a second, I was certain my body would clear that thin barrier between the worlds, tumbling and falling into infinity. But when my descent was stopped short, I opened my eyes. I looked down, and there was the boy, gazing up at me. His face was set in a solemn expression. There would be no freedom that day.

I stood and stared at the boy who had denied me access to his endless world of blue. Only after the bell rang and a teacher took me by the shoulder did I go, and as I proceeded toward the dim and dreary classroom where I would be locked away for the remainder of the day, I glanced back at the puddle, that gateway into another world. The boy was gone, but it was too late.

A captive sun pushed through charcoal clouds, and throughout the day, while I sat at a desk with my head bent low in my hands, it drank up all the water. That temporary portal into another existence receded, falling into itself until at last there was hardly more than a drop. All the while, I imagined the mist that would have risen up around it, the soul of a dying world.

After school, I stood over where the puddle had once been. I mourned the loss of a world. I mourned the loss of freedom.

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What Are Your Favorite Books?

For my sixth blog, I thought I’d try something a little different. Since I love to read, and I’m assuming that you do too, I’d like to learn more about your favorite books.  What stories are you head-over-heels for and why? I’ll kick off the conversation by telling you about three of mine.

The Dark Tower Series, by Stephen King

The Gunslinger Cover Art
Book #1 of The Dark Tower series

“The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.”

So starts King’s enigmatic work. This lengthy epic revolves around Roland of Gilead’s quest for the Dark Tower, the lynchpin not just of time and space, but of all realities. These are the books that tie together all of King’s other works, his own “literary Dark Tower.”

This series comprises what is, all at once, an epic fantasy and a classic western. Roland of Gilead is the last of the gunslingers, crack shot gun toting cowboys who also happen to be royalty, knights errant, the fabled peacekeepers of old. As a post apocalyptic wasteland where space and time are stretching and running down like a worn out clock, Roland’s world is at once familiar and strange. It feeds on our fear of destruction, not just of the world, but of all existence, for if the Dark Tower fails, all realities will fall into ruin with it.

The Dark Tower explores nothing less than the mysteries of creation and existence. What are space and time? Is there such a thing as fate (known to Roland as “Ka”)? The Dark Tower examines the dual natures of magic and science, and ponders how the two are related.

One thing that stands out is King’s remarkable ability to intertwine other works of literature (not just his own) into the story. In fact, the story itself is based on a Robert Browning poem called Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came. The Dark Tower offers alternate accounts of their origins, origins which serve the Tower, blurring the distinction between reality and fantasy.

This epic tale was strongest in the first four books. I was utterly spellbound. Unfortunately, by the fifth installment, the series fell apart and the magic was broken. Too many last minute additions (things like vampires and the Low Men) as King struggled to find a place in The Dark Tower for all of his previous stories, as well as an anti-climactic and existentially unfulfilling conclusion, made the tail end of the series painful to read.

Why am I counting The Dark Tower among my favorites if the series ended so poorly? Because the first four books were four of the best books I’ve ever read. And to be fair, it must’ve been quite difficult for King to live up to not only the great cosmic questions posed by The Dark Tower in the beginning, but also twenty six years of anticipation and hype.

All things considered, The Dark Tower is a formidable work of literature and a worthwhile investment.

Harry Potter, by J.K. Rowling

Sorcer's Stone Cover
Book #1 of the Harry Potter series

I know. Everyone loves Harry Potter. The thing is, there’s a reason these books are so popular.

In one aspect, Harry Potter is the consummate fairy tale, filled with magic, exposing the bizarre wonders which lie cloaked beneath the thin veneer of a supposedly ordinary world. What really makes this series shine and stand out from the typical fairy tale, however, is not the fantasy setting itself, but the characters.

From the smallest details — their mannerisms, physical descriptions and dialog — to more general themes — their emotions, desires and motivations — the characters in Harry Potter strongly reflect the complexities of real people. Like the world of magic, which lies just beneath the surface world of the muggles, a very deep and meaningful exploration of good versus evil takes place just beneath the fairy tale surface.

But Harry Potter is good versus evil with a twist.

The villains (all but a few, at least) are plainly bad, but  conflicted. Draco Malfoy, for example, does great evil, but his conscience is disturbed. By the end of the last book, he’s left standing on platform nine and three quarters, averting his gaze from Harry and his friends, shamed and embarrassed.

The “good guys” are not perfect but flawed, their deeds marred by less than noble acts. The students who ultimately save the day often do so by lying and breaking the rules. Professor Slughorn is not only a coward, but a man heavily motivated by self-interest and greed. We even discover that Professor Dumbledore himself, the man we all believed could do no wrong, wasn’t as innocent in his young adult years as we once believed. This discovery, which comes as a great shock to Harry and his friends via Rita Skeeter’s eposé of Dumbledore’s life post mortem, forces them to come to terms with the morally ambiguous nature of even the greatest heroes.

The humanity of Rowling’s work is undeniable and profound. For that reason, I hope these books will someday find their place among the classics.

The Stranger, by Albert Camus

The Stranger Cover Art
The Stranger, by Albert Camus

Depending on your translation, you may also know this book as The Outsider.

The story opens with the main character, Meursault, thinking about the recent death of his mother. From the very first paragraph, we realize that something is amiss. Meursault is bewilderingly detached. He doesn’t seem to care one way or the other about the passing of his mother, and when the funeral is over, he returns home, undisturbed, to continue living a dull disinterested life.

Through his interactions with others, even as he makes his eventual decent into darkness, we get the sense that Meursault just doesn’t care, that he’s decidedly indifferent about everything, including the evil acts of those he surrounds himself with. Only when the walls begin to close in around him and he realizes that the hollow shell which he calls life is seriously threatened does he begin to consider that he might not want to lose his life after all.

The Stranger is the bitterly ironic tale of a man who doesn’t appreciate his life until it’s in mortal peril, and is, among other things, a sobering reflection on the brevity of life. In pondering Meursault’s fate, we are reminded to always be grateful for what we have while we have it.

How About You?

What books are you obsessed with and why?

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Proof that Magic is Real

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Magic. The word alone conjures all kinds of extraordinary ideas. It’s the foundation of fairy tales. It’s the stuff of dreams. It’s one of the reasons I love fantasy. Magic is mysterious and otherworldly. It’s a step away from the ordinary, an exploration of the bizarre. It’s a light shone into the darkest corners of existence. Of course, magic is limited to storytelling and the imagination. Isn’t it?

On the contrary, I argue that magic is real.

Wait, hold on. Let’s define our terms. What exactly is magic?

Magic eventually boils down into two categories. There’s supernatural magic, which deals primarily with the conjuring of spirits and the manipulation of a world that lies beyond the physical universe. Then there’s natural magic, which is simply a study of nature and the laws that govern its behavior. When I speak of magic here, I refer solely to the latter.

Merlin, in the 1998 NBC mini-series Merlin, recounts his own instruction in magic thusly: “I studied day and night, learned of those unseen forces that hold this world together.” Those “unseen forces that hold this world together” sound as if they belong in the domain of physics, and why not? At its heart, physics concerns itself with the four known fundamental forces of nature and how they shape the universe.

Yes, that’s right.

Natural Magic is Science.

In any sane fictional world, magic has rules. Thus, the magician is tasked with discovering and refining his understanding of what those rules are. The studious magician of fiction is almost always a seasoned scholar, either of books or of practical experience, and has spent a lifetime probing those secret forces of nature that ordinarily remain aloof of common everyday experience.

The alchemist of old was nothing more than the ancient precursor to the modern chemist. Like the modern chemist, he sought to understand the ways in which materials interact with one another. He ran experiments, made observations and took notes.

That’s science.

But science is so ordinary and mundane! When has science ever produced magical results?

The magician of fantasy and the scientist of the real world have more in common than many realize. Like the magician, the scientist has learned to harness and exploit the laws of nature for technological advantage. In reality as well as fiction, this has lead to mind-blowing breakthroughs. We’ve developed nearly instantaneous visual and auditory communication over significant distances. We’ve developed a means of reliably transmitting incredible amounts of energy, capable of powering great hulking machines and lighting cities at night. We’ve developed a means of traveling by flight. We’ve even developed methods of sending men to other worlds.

Sounds magical to me.

But science is logical. It can be explained. Magic is arbitrary and irrational. It defies understanding.

Well, can the laws of nature as revealed by science be fully explained? True, larger and more general aspects of reality can always be broken down and explained by progressively smaller units of knowledge. Why does an object grow hot when it sits on a stove, for example? Because, among other things, the molecules on the stove, which are vibrating very fast, are bumping into the molecules in the object, which aren’t vibrating as fast. This causes them to bounce around more quickly, which we perceive as heat.

We could break the process of inquiry down further. We could ask why faster moving molecules speed up slower moving molecules when they collide. This would inevitably lead to a discussion of momentum and electromagnetic forces. On and on we could go, descending further and further into ever smaller units of knowledge. But at the end of this long and winding chain of questions and answers is something that must simply be accepted, a philosophical brick wall. Ultimately, why do the fundamental forces of nature exist and behave the way they do? Because they do.

And is magic really all that irrational? On the contrary, a believable system of magic must be internally consistent and obey ordered laws. True, there are concessions that must be made. But that’s nothing new. At its roots, science makes the same concessions. Without an axiomatic foundation on which to build, all of science would crumble to the ground.

The only thing that sets science apart from the magic of fiction is that science is a system of natural magic that happens to be real.

Conclusion

Arthur C. Clarke, in his book Profiles of the Future, wrote that, “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” I go one step further. I argue that advanced science is indistinguishable from magic because it is magic. The only reason we take science for granted is that it’s familiar. But if the roles of reality and fiction were ever reversed, and some denizen of a far off fantasy world were to stumble across the fundamental laws of nature that we accept as part of our daily lives, they would be mystified. For them, it would not be something ordinary, but something extraordinary. For them, it would be magic.

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Does Reading About Evil Make You Evil?

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I love dark fiction. I’ve always been fascinated by the problem of evil, and literature that grapples with diabolical themes gives me an opportunity to explore this very difficult subject in all of its many facets. I get to enter into the minds and souls of those who do evil, and am able to witness first hand the torment and destruction wrought by their wicked hands.  Is there something wrong with me? Is my fascination with evil the sign of a disturbed and demented mind?

Critics of dark fiction argue that stories which address sinister themes outside of a strictly didactic context necessarily glorify evil, and conclude that the act of reading such literature is, by extension, also evil. Conversely, proponents of dark fiction argue that evil is an inescapable part of life, and that we should not be afraid to tell the truth about it in literature. Which of these two voices should we listen to?

A distinction must be made.

Critics of dark fiction make the mistake of conflating two separate and distinct desires. They argue that because one hungers for an understanding of evil, that they must therefore hunger for evil itself. This is a non sequitur. Is a police officer evil for his fascination with the criminal mind, regardless of the fact that his motivation stems from a desire to prevent further criminal activity? To the contrary, his desire to know evil is rooted in a desire to do good.

FIctional characters enable us to know the mind of evil without becoming evil.

A desire to understand is an inextricable component of our human nature. We don’t just want to know what people do. We want to know why. What motivates someone to make certain choices? Why does one man decide to save a life while another decides to commit murder?

By entering the mind of a fictional character, we can discover answers to these questions. We are privy to their thoughts, their emotions, they’re motivations. We aren’t just exposed to the evil deeds they commit. We’re exposed to the rationale behind those evil deeds. This is very important, because only when we understand the causes of evil can we ever be in a position to do something about it.

Learning about evil teaches us how to be good.

One of the most potent ways to learn is by example. When we see a person act a certain way and observe the result, we take that experience with us as if it were our own. When a person’s actions have a positive outcome, we’re conditioned to emulate their behavior. Conversely, when a person’s actions have a negative outcome, we learn to avoid it.

An accurate portrayal of evil will necessarily showcase the consequences of bad behavior. Sometimes, these consequences will be practical in nature. A bank robber, for example, might slip up during a heist and leave behind clues that eventually lead to his arrest. Sometimes, the consequences will be more spiritual or psychological. A character in a novel might, for example, get away with murder. But if the author has a firm grasp of the human psyche, he will, simply by knowing his character well, reveal the terrible transformation that takes place inside his mind, now irrevocably tainted. From this devastating case study, we are given an opportunity to reflect on what evil can do to us if we allow it into our own hearts.

And, we witness first hand the pain and suffering that evil inflicts on others. We see lives reduced to ruin by greed and malice. We feel a deep sense of desolation and loss. We walk through a desert of despair, barren of all things good, and our hearts howl from their deepest depths for something better. Prolonged exposure to darkness makes the most miniscule act of kindness blaze like the sun. It makes us more sensitive to a right way of living.

In short, reading about evil makes us better people.

Encountering evil in stories reminds us that evil exists outside of stories.

It’s easy to drift through life, comfortable, complacent, apathetic to the suffering of others. Unless we’ve experienced hardship personally, it’s difficult for us to sympathize with those who have.

But when we encounter terrorists, thieves and murderers in fiction, we are reminded that these same criminals also exist in the real world. We are forced to confront an uncomfortable truth that we would otherwise prefer to brush aside. We are forced to watch as innocent characters weep and wail and gnash their teeth in unending agony at the hands of evildoers, and we are reminded that the same thing happens to real people. This awareness breeds empathy, which in turn breeds a genuine love for the rest of our human family and a desire to act against the injustices that afflict them.

Refusing to acknowledge evil is untruthful.

The world is not all pink fluffy bunnies, sunshine and rainbows. Art that intentionally ignores or attempts to sugar coat the darker realities of human life is a distortion, a twisted half-truth that is not only deceitful but dangerous. A selective view of the world through rose colored glasses enables us to look away as innocent people suffer. It allows us to pretend that the world is better than it is, that it’s ok for us to withdraw into ourselves and ignore the plights of others who are less fortunate.

Don’t get me wrong. There is nothing wrong with art that zeroes in on goodness and innocence, any more than there is something wrong with art that doesn’t. A balanced outlook is essential to a healthy understanding of the world, and we need also to be reminded of all the things that are good and right. But we must never turn a blind eye to evil. We must be willing to stare it down, to meet its malignant eyes gaze for gaze.

There is tragic beauty in dark literature.

When characters suffer, we cry for them. When an evildoer gets away with murder, we flush with anger and outrage. A good balance of light and dark allows us to explore the full spectrum of human emotions, which in turn leads us to a better understanding of ourselves. This is why the ancients devised great epics that dealt regularly with death and loss, as well as why great tragedies like Romeo and Juliet resonate so strongly and continue to persist throughout the ages.

Conclusion

Critics of dark fiction misunderstand us. They perceive a great multitude of maligned individuals prancing through the streets, approving of and even praising evil deeds. But nothing could be further from the truth. As lovers of dark fiction, we are those who are most sensitive to the devastating effects of evil. We are those who are most profoundly disturbed by its manifestation in the world. We are those who recognize more than anything else the terrible evil within ourselves. We are the ones who desire most of all to be better than we are.

We can respond to evil in one of two ways. We can bury our heads in the sand, sing Kumbaya and foolishly hope that evil will someday pass us over, that we can somehow wish it away, conquer it simply by refusing to acknowledge that it exists. Or we can face it, study it, try to understand our adversary so that we can better prepare for the task of striking it down. Which will you choose?

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