California Bookstore Day, 2014 (and How I Came To Acquire a Standalone Copy of Neil Gaiman’s “The Sleeper & The Spindle”)

Bookstore Day, 2014

What is Bookstore Day?

Bookstore Day was a state-wide celebration that took place in California on Saturday, May 3, 2014 to honor the relationship between readers and the independent bookstores who support them. 93 shops participated, hosting various events such as readings and author signings. Special books and other items were sold in limited quantities, merchandise that was only available on that day and from those sellers.

I heard about this the day before it happened on Twitter, and decided that I had to be a part of it. I went online, found two indie bookstores that were relatively close and set out on a quest for literary adventure. This is where my tale begins.

Mysterious Galaxy

My first stop was Mysterious Galaxy in Redondo Beach, CA.

Mysterious Galaxy in Redondo Beach, CA
Mysterious Galaxy in Redondo Beach, CA

I arrived at 10:40am, twenty minutes before the store opened. Because of Bookstore Day (along with the limited edition copy of Neil Gaiman’s short story The Sleeper & The Spindle to be had inside), I was anxiously anticipating hordes of book-hunting vikings, and braced myself to do battle with traffic and long lines. I was therefore pleasantly surprised when I arrived to plenty of parking, and doubly surprised to discover that there was no wait outside the front door.

Though the store itself hadn’t opened yet, there was an attached coffee shop that was already doing business, so I went inside and bought a cup of peppermint tea to pass the time.

I asked if I could take it with me into the store, and they told me I could carry it wherever I went as long as it remained inside the building. I thought that an odd answer, until they gave me my drink in a clay mug. What does it say about the world we live in that I would be confounded by a non-disposable cup?

Peppermint Tea
My peppermint tea

Tea in hand, I sat down at a long wooden table and pulled out my notebook to do some freewriting, resolved to enjoy the atmosphere. I let my eyes meander about the room, and observed that there were enough people present to make me feel that I was a part of something special, but not so many that they began to feel like a crowd. I was anxious to see the treasures that awaited (and thus sipped my tea with perhaps a bit more enthusiasm than was strictly proper), but because I wasn’t competing with a bunch of other strangers for floor space, I never once felt that I had to spring from my seat and fly like a bat out of hell the moment they opened.

When the gate that separated the coffee shop from the rest of the building was finally pulled back, I polished off the remainder of my peppermint tea and set off to explore.

Inside Mysterious Galaxy.
Inside Mysterious Galaxy shortly after they opened

As soon as I walked inside, a nice gentleman from behind the counter approached and asked if there was anything he could do to help me.

“No thanks. Just looking around,” I replied. Then, remembering one of the reasons I’d decided to make the trip, I amended my answer and asked if he could get me a copy of The The Sleeper & The Spindle. I would have waited until I was ready to check out, but despite the lack of a crowd, I still had the irrational fear that it would sell out before I had the chance to buy it.

He dashed off to retrieve it, and a moment later I was holding on to something unspeakably beautiful. I thanked him, and before he left to help other customers, he told me to let him know if there was anything else he could do. It was the kind of prompt and enthusiastic service that you just won’t find at a large corporate chain like Barnes & Noble.

"The Serpent of Venice," by Christopher Moore.
“The Serpent of Venice,” by Christopher Moore

I discovered lots of interesting books as I walked around. They were all titles you could find online, of course; I didn’t notice anything that was obviously independently published or put out by a local press. But it was good just to be inside a bookstore again, to discover new stories the old fashioned way, by perusing shelves, waiting for something random to catch my eye and demand a closer look.

Among the interesting titles I encountered were The Serpent of Venice, by Christopher Moore; William Shakespeare’s Star Wars, episodes four and five, by Ian Doescher (real Shakespearean plays, written in iambic pentameter!); and The Onion Book of Knowledge (from America’s “finest news source.”)

I ultimately decided on William Shakespeare’s Star Wars, as well as my one-of-a-kind Neil Gaiman book, and headed toward the register to pay. I thought that that would be the end of my experience, but there was one surprise left.

Second installment to "William Shakespeare's Star Wars," by Ian Doescher.
Second installment to “William Shakespeare’s Star Wars,” by Ian Doescher

When I’d handed the cashier my credit card and was waiting for a receipt, the man pointed to a rack of books and informed me that I could pick one out for free in celebration of Bookstore Day. There weren’t a lot of items to choose from, but I did stumble across a hardcover copy of Will in Scarlet, by Mathew Cody, a retelling of the classic legend of Robin Hood. I thought, “why not,” and wound up exiting the store toting an extra book to read.

My whole experience was fraught with friendliness and smiles, and I left resolved to return as soon as I was in the market for more physical books, even if it meant that I’d have to drive thirty minutes out of the way to get there. The service, as well as the knowledge that I could be a part of a community instead of just another tick on a corporate ledger, was worth the extra effort.

{Pages}

Next in my tour was {Pages}, also located in Redondo Beach.

{Pages} A Bookstire, Redondo Beach, CA.
{Pages}, Redondo Beach, CA

{Pages} is a tiny street-side store backed up against the coast. Parking here was limited to what you could find on the street, and as anyone from Southern California knows, you have about as much luck parking on the street at the beach as you do winning the lottery. Nevertheless, after much wailing and gnashing of teeth, I was strolling along a narrow road stacked from one end to the other with small independent shops, and was soon standing outside my destination.

Inside {Pages} A Bookstore
Inside {Pages}

{Pages} was smaller than Mysterious Galaxy, but that only made the shop feel cozy and inviting. By the time I’d gotten there, there wasn’t much of a crowd, but one of the workers informed me that there’d been a line that’d snaked outside the shop before they’d opened, and that they’d sold out of Neil Gaiman’s short story in their first half hour. Good thing I’d purchased my own copy at Mysterious Galaxy first!

I don’t have too much to report about {Pages} that I haven’t already said about Mysterious Galaxy, and I’d imagine that most of the same would apply to any good indie bookstore. I received prompt and cheerful service and had an overall experience that was very positive.

I wound up purchasing a hardcover copy of The Museum of Extraordinary Things, by Alice Hoffman, even though I was planning to spend less money by buying the e-book instead, because I wanted to support {Pages}.

After checking out, I returned to my car, noting that I’d left five minutes on the meter for the person behind me (there was no end to my generosity that day), and embarked on the journey home with a newfound awareness of all the options available to me whenever I might feel like going to a bookstore instead of purchasing e-books online.

Some Final Thoughts

"The Sleeper & The Spindle," by Neil Gaiman.
My copy of “The Sleeper & The Spindle,” by Neil Gaiman. Are you jealous? 😉

Bookstore day was a great way for me to discover the thriving community of indie bookstores in my area. Until hearing about the event, I’d always assumed that they were a dying breed and that there weren’t very many places left to go unless you were willing to visit one of the many Barnes & Noble replicants. Once I examined the event’s website, I realized just how many open shops were within driving distance, not just in Redondo Beach, but also in San Diego, Pasadena, Los Angeles, West Hollywood and Santa Monica. It was a great introduction to indie bookstore culture, and I hope that Bookstore Day will become an annual event that spreads beyond the borders of California.

I am and always will be a fan of online outlets like Amazon. Big business with a strong online presence fills a critical niche. But indie bookstores are also an important part of the literary ecosystem. I believe in a healthy balance between big and small business. I’ll always rely on Amazon for my e-books and for purchasing titles that I can’t find at a brick and mortar store. But when I’m in the market for a physical book, I think I’m going to make more of an effort to shop locally. There’s a whole social experience that’s missed online, especially when the seller is a small independent business as opposed to a large corporate entity. It’s nice to walk into a store and chat with a friendly face, and the warm relationships that blossom between local vendors and their regular customers is priceless.

It’s with a heavy heart that I report I was unable to stay for any of the events hosted by the bookstores. I thought about returning to Mysterious Galaxy in the afternoon, and maybe even driving out to Pasadena to check out some more stores, but the demands of the day got the better of me and I was forced to stay home. Fortunately, I’ve discovered through social media and the stores’ websites that there will be other events to look forward to. So I’ll just have to use my regret as motivation to check out more of what’s going on in the future.

I’ve got a lot more exploring to do; there are so many stores left that I wasn’t able to see. Here’s hoping for more positive experiences, and that public awareness of independent booksellers and their contributions to the world of literature will continue to grow and thrive long into the next century.

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What Am I Working On?

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I’ve been blogging once a week for half a year now. In that time, I’ve written about all sorts of things. But I rarely talk about my projects.

One reason is that I don’t want to come off as salesy or spammy. Though my blog does exist in part to help me build an audience for my work, I want that to be the by-product of what I hope are meaningful thought-provoking articles and stories that resonate with hearts and enrich my readers.

Another reason is that I don’t have a whole lot to show for myself, not yet anyway. There’s my short story, The Sign, but that’s pretty much it. Though I’ve been writing in some form or another since at least the third grade, it wasn’t until early 2013 that I began to take it seriously, and writing good books (and then publishing them) takes an insanely long time.

But I’ve decided I owe you some kind of update, if for no other reason than to let you know that yes, I am writing and yes, there are books on the way, even if it’s going to take me a while to get them to you. I’m not ready to reveal detailed information about titles, plot or characters, but I do want to give you a brief taste of things to come.

1. Middle Grade Fantasy

In March, 2013, shortly after I published The Sign, I began work on a middle grade fantasy about a boy who accidentally makes his sister disappear. The funny thing is that my target audience has always been adults; I never set out to write a book for kids.

It started as a simple novella. I had the idea while I was out for a walk. It wasn’t until after I’d completed the first draft and started showing it to my critique group that I realized I’d unwittingly stumbled onto a children’s book. In the process, I discovered that writing for kids is a delight, and I’ve since decided that, no matter how difficult it is to write for more than one audience, I want to make books for children as well as for adults.

Books are often difficult to write. It doesn’t matter how powerful an idea is or how inspired you might feel. Most of the time, writing is hard. There are of course those moments of pure unadulterated joy that every writer lives for, when the story flows out of you like a babbling stream, and your only job is to sit there and catch as much of it as you can before it stops. But as a serious writer who’s committed to creating stories come Hell or high water, I’ve discovered how rare those moments are. But writing this one was a dream. I sat down each night to one fiery burst of ideas after another. I usually have to outline at least some of the books I set out to write, but this one was completely off the cuff. It simply came to me, a wandering orphaned idea in need of form and expression. I completed the first draft in two months.

I’ve since been revising like crazy. I’ve gone through every chapter of the book with my critique group, have had my first round of beta readers provide me with their detailed thoughts and have almost completed my final initial revisions. Once that’s done, the manuscript goes off to a developmental editor for further refinement. I’m still deciding if I’m going to query agents and try to get this published traditionally or if I’m going to self-publish. Either way, I hope it won’t be too much longer before you start reading about the experiences of characters who’ve become very dear to me.

I actually plan to make this a series, because the characters and the story grew so large that to confine them to just a single book would be a crime. I’m excited to see how this story will evolve in the next few years.

2. Dark Fantasy Novel for Adults

I started this one in July, 2013, a little while after completing my middle grade fantasy.

Inspired by films like “The Neverending Story” and “Stranger than Fiction,” this book chronicles the life of an isolated and socially anxious writer with an unusual gift, whose stories are more than they appear to be at first glance. This tale, which is as much a symbolic reflection on the nature of art and writing as it is a modern fantasy, is very dark, and is intended for an adult audience.

The initial draft is only about 20% complete. It’s a full-length novel, and I anticipate that it’ll be a little while longer before it’s done. That’s fine with me, as I’m happy to let it ferment slowly over time. I care deeply about this story and want to take the time to tell it right.

3. Other Novellas and Short Stories

While alternating between the two above-mentioned projects, I’ve indulged in a few unrelated novellas and short stories. It’s difficult working on the same two projects day in and day out. Exploring fresh original ideas allows me the breath of fresh air that I so desperately need. Unlike the two books above, which I may try to sell to a traditional publishing house through an agent, these I plan to publish myself, since the traditional market for short fiction seems to have dried up.

That’s it.

I don’t mean that this is all that I plan to write (I’ll create stories until the day I die.) But that’s a pretty complete rundown of what I’m working on right now. I hope to have the middle grade fantasy out in a year or two (but don’t quote me on that, particularly if I do get it traditionally published, which would make it subject to someone else’s schedule instead of my own), and the dark fantasy a year or two after that. Along the way, expect more short stories and novellas.

Want to keep up with what I’m doing?

Then you should seriously consider joining my mailing list 🙂

I only plan to send out an email once a month to keep people abreast of what’s going on with my writing, to share the occasional piece of flash fiction that you won’t find anywhere else and to let you know when I publish something new. I want to connect with my readers and to make new friends. Highly personal emails that people can directly reply to is the best way I can think of to do that. If you change your mind later, it’s easy to unsubscribe.

As a thank you for caring enough about what I’m doing to sign up, I’ll send you a free copy of my short story The Sign.

You can sign up by clicking here.

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Find More Of My Work On Tumblr

Hey guys! This past week at work has been extraordinarily hectic, so unfortunately I haven’t had time to write a full-length blog. But I did want to tell you about my new Tumblr account, as well as what you’ll find there.

For the past six or seven months, I’ve been toting a small leather-bound notebook, jotting down thoughts and ideas as they come. It’s full of writing fragments, freewrites and other personal thoughts. It’s a significant chunk of the raw source material I’ve been drawing on when constructing my blogs, short stories and books. I thought it might be fun to share some of these ideas with others, so I decided to start posting selections from the notebook online.

I considered placing them here, but quickly realized that doing so would significantly deviate from the theme I’ve been cultivating for the blog since last October. I thought about my options and decided that Tumblr, the popular micro-blogging platform, is perfect for what I want to do. I started an account and will now be posting at least one random selection from the notebook everyday.

It’s a chance to see what kinds of thoughts flit about in this crazy head of mine, to explore a few of my imagination’s raw unedited seeds that may or may not germinate and grow into full-length pieces. If you’re into that sort of thing, you can find me at http://jeffcolemanwrites.tumblr.com. You’ll also notice that there’s a widget on the right side of my blog that displays the ten most recent posts.

Check it out, follow me if you feel so inclined and let me know what you think. This is going to be a lot of fun! 🙂

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All You Need is Love

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At the end of all things, when at last you gaze down from the precipice at what was once the vista of your life, you will come to understand that the value of your time here on Earth had nothing to do with material wealth or power, that it had nothing to do with good health, that it had nothing to do with whether or not you accomplished everything you wished to do when you were alive. Instead, you will find that the measure of your worthiness hinges solely on whether or not you loved. The pinnacle of existence, the highest pleasure, is to live a life in communion with others, to love and to be loved. Love is the fulfillment of the human experience.

There are different kinds of love. There’s the love we’re born into, that between a father and a son, a mother and a daughter, a brother and a sister. There’s the love between friends. There’s eros, the uniquely intimate love between two people that culminates in an even greater love, the conception of new life. There are so many ways to love, so many ways to express our need to be close to others.

All the money and health and power in the world can’t buy the simplest kind of happiness that can be purchased for as a little as a smile, a hug or a kiss. With enough money and power, you can move mountains. But what of that? With enough love, you can move souls.

Love can be experienced by the poor as well as the rich, by the sick as well as the healthy, by the foolish as well as the wise. It knows no boundaries. It’s an all-consuming fire that razes the world, burning down the material and ideological divides that separate us, reducing us to our purest essence.

Love has the power to shine into the darkest depths. It provides aid and comfort before the most fearsome powers of Hell, even as death and despair surround you from every side. As long as there’s love, there’s hope. Nothing is more precious.

To love is to be a part of something greater than yourself, to be one with a collective whole that feeds and nourishes the soul even as it sustains and uplifts the body. To be indifferent, to shut yourself away from this life-giving force, is to be cut off from this higher existence, to slowly wither and die, cold and alone, huddling in some obscure corner of the world even as those around you burn with the blinding radiance of a star, with the brilliance of hearts set ablaze by the most powerful force in the universe.

Reading fiction can teach you how to love. It affords you access to the hearts and minds of a variety of characters, and in so doing, helps you to understand others, since well-written characters always reflect real people.

In fact, Research has shown that reading fosters empathy. And it’s precisely this emotional understanding that bursts through the walls that separate us, that bridges hearts so that all who know might come to love, and in so doing save themselves from the only kind of death that man should ever fear.

Has yours been a life worth living? For the answer, you must only ask yourself one question: “have I loved?”

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Your Life Is More Than Ordinary

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Everyday life always seems so ordinary. We get up in the morning. We work. We go home. We eat. We sleep. We repeat this cycle five or more days a week. We might stray from the routine when we have time off from our weekly responsibilities, but even in leisure, we often settle into some kind of recurring structure. It’s so monotonous. So regular. So ordinary.

But ordinary is only a minuscule component of the great epic we call life.

For all that the tedious day-to-day grind consumes us, it’s really nothing more than the thinnest of veils, behind which lies a vast and fathomless depth of exotic beauty, of incredible wonders beyond our wildest imaginings. On every level, the ordinary aspect of reality goes only skin-deep, from the daily routine that serves as the framework in which we define ourselves, in which we eventually choose, in the fullness of time, to be the hero or the villain; all the way down to the vague and ill-defined subatomic particles that comprise our physical being, behind which hide the sublime mysteries of existence and consciousness themselves.

Our minds require the ordinary, because they need something familiar to make sense of, and our bodies require the ordinary, because they need something tangible to interact with. But ordinary is only a thin veneer, an external symbolic manifestation of a much fuller reality that’s always with us, even when we can’t see it. In the depths of the extraordinary is where we search for and discover our purpose, where we think and feel, where we love and pray, where we experience the fullness of our existence.

We must not let the everyday tedium deceive us into believing that life is nothing more than the meaningless rabble of an eight hour work day.

We must be bold enough to call ourselves explorers. We must resolve to dive head-first, as deep as we can, into this extraphysical world, to be brave enough to embark upon our journey without ever looking back. Our purpose, our reason for being, our very souls themselves, are bound up and locked away in its infinite depths, waiting for us to claim them if only we have courage enough to go after them.

If we stray too long near surface things, if we allow ourselves to grow comfortable and complacent in the skin-deep realm of the ordinary, we’ll begin to wither and fade like uprooted wildflowers. We’ll become so consumed by the shallow meaningless doings of the ordinary world that we’ll lose sight of our purpose, of the great cosmic questions and wonders that would otherwise propel us to the stars. We’ll become one with a temporary dying surface-existence so completely that we’ll come perilously close to dying ourselves.

Touring the world of Fantasy is one of many ways to explore the extraordinary.

It’s in stories that we encounter the threshold between the extraordinary and the ordinary, the line that separates thought and motivation from act, that separates purpose and meaning from their observable physical effects. In the world of the imagination, the mind is free to contemplate and dream, to chart the boundless reaches of the unseen world that usually exists just out of sight.

Fantasy teases us with external observable analogs to the otherwise abstract mysteries that lay hidden beyond the veil. We witness acts of magic; we embark upon epic quests; we take part in grand sweeping romances that move mountains in the name of love. When we travel long enough through the world of Fantasy, we’re left with an indelible mark that we take with us into the real world. We’re left with the ability to perceive and understand the true abstract essences that comprise the things we witnessed in the vistas of so many fictional worlds, and we learn to recognize them in what once seemed so plain and ordinary.

And then something marvelous happens. The thin surface that separates the world of wonder from the world of the ordinary looses its opaqueness. Ordinary life becomes transparent to the extraordinary that lies just beyond its shallow boundary, and we’re forced to confront and come to terms with the wonders that we were created to explore. Once this happens, nothing can stand in the way of our search for meaning, for purpose and for truth.

Dare to embark on this epic quest.

Seek out the extraordinary. Search for your purpose, for your soul. Search long and hard, high and low, in a world where there will never be a dull moment, where there will always be something new and exciting to discover. Do this, and you will be forever transformed.

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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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2 Ways That Characters Are More Intimate Than Best Friends, Husbands and Wives

If you’re like me, reading fiction usually involves an endless string of love affairs and heart breaks. It’s always the same. I meet someone new. I fall in love. I’m on an emotional roller coaster. I burst with joy when my character is happy. My heart aches when my character is hurt. I’ll invest hours of my time into the relationship, only for it to come to a sudden abrupt end when there are no pages left to turn.

The relationship between Reader and Character is intense and intimate. What follows are two ways in which this relationship is more intimate than those we share with our closest friends and spouses.

1. You, Along With the Author, Are a Character’s Co-creator.

In real life, when you meet another person, what follows is purely a process of discovery. Who that person is has already been fully defined, independent of you. A real person always exists outside your mind. You may be lead to believe certain things about who that person is based on your own observations and biases, but whether or not those beliefs are correct has nothing to do with you.

By contrast, while the author might provide you with certain details regarding what a character looks like, what he thinks about or what happens to him throughout the story, he’s only partially defined. It’s up to you to provide the missing pieces. Unlike a real person, your character only has the fullness of his existence inside your mind. As a result, it’s as much a process of creation as it is one of discovery. Together, with the author, you give life to this other person.

The unique role that you have as a character’s co-creator is what allows you to understand him so intimately. Who he is depends in part on who you are. Because of this, you know this person more completely than you could know anyone else.

2. The Relationship Between Reader and Character Has No Boundaries.

In your relationships with real people, there are always boundaries. Between husbands, wives and best friends, there are always secrets. When dealing with real people, you can only completely know yourself. What your friends and spouses experience in their own minds you can only experience imperfectly through what they choose to reveal.

In your relationships with fictional people, this is not the case. In fiction, a character’s innermost thoughts, desires and motivations are all laid bare before you. You can peer directly into a character’s mind and soul. You can know a character better than he knows himself.

Conclusion

There’s a reason we connect so profoundly with well written characters. It’s basic human nature to crave love and intimacy. We strive to know others, for it’s in knowing that we can love. The fictional characters we encounter in stories might not be real, but the love that we have for them most certainly is. It’s a very unique kind of love, one that, in some ways at least, exceeds that which we have even for those real people who we hold closest of all.

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