Marie Marshall

Author. Poet. Editor.

Tag: prose

The split infinitive: advice to and entertainment for writers

To split or not to spilt, that is the question. If the object of splitting is an infinitive, my rule is simple – split it or don’t split it, but have an eye to ambiguity, to the verb you want to qualify, and to euphony. Nobody in her right mind would correct the world’s most famous split infinitive, that of Starship Captain James T Kirk, because to do so would be to disturb its ringing prosody, even though its sense would be as solid as a rock despite the change.

If all fails, say it another way.

Henry Watson Fowler is often granted the last word on the subject, and I’m going to quote him in full here, not because I regard him as authoritative, but because this is one of the wittiest pieces of writing on the subject. I chuckle to myself whenever I get to the place where he uses ‘readier’ and I want to yell “More readily!” – I suspect that he did that deliberately. Although he does come down very heavily against avoidance of the split infinitive where such avoidance is obsessive to the point of fetishistic, he is gracious enough to quote one of the ugliest splittings ever.

Let me give you a word of warning – don’t use Fowler, or any other source, as a bolster for your own prejudices. ‘Magister ipse dixit’ is never a good argument. I try not to, and I’m one of the most consistent contributors to grammar debates on Facebook that I know; I find them difficult to resist. Here he goes:

HWF

HWF

The English-speaking world may be divided into (1) those who neither know nor care what a split infinitive is; (2) those who do not know, but care very much; (3) those who know and condemn; (4) those who know and approve; and (5) those who know and distinguish.

(1) Those who neither know nor care are the vast majority, and are a happy folk, to be envied by most of the minority classes. ‘To really understand’ comes readier to their lips and pens than ‘really to understand’; they see no reason why they should not say it (small blame to them, seeing that reasons are not their critics’ strong point), and they do say it, to the discomfort of some among us, but not to their own.

(2) To the second class, those who do not know but do care, who would as soon be caught putting their knives in their mouths as splitting an infinitive but have only hazy notions of what constitutes that deplorable breach of etiquette, this article is chiefly addressed. These people betray by their practice that their aversion to the split infinitive springs not from instinctive good taste, but from tame acceptance of the misinterpreted opinion of others; for they will subject their sentences to the queerest distortions, all to escape imaginary split infinitives. ‘To really understand’ is a s.i.; ‘to really be understood’ is a s.i.; ‘to be really understood’ is not one; the havoc that is played with much well-intentioned writing by failure to grasp that distinction is incredible. Those upon whom the fear of infinitive-splitting sits heavy should remember that to give conclusive evidence, by distortions, of misconceiving the nature of the s.i. is far more damaging to their literary pretensions than an actual lapse could be; for it exhibits them as deaf to the normal rhythm of English sentences. No sensitive ear can fail to be shocked if the following examples are read aloud, by the strangeness of the indicated adverbs. Why on earth, the reader wonders, is that word out of its place? He will find, on looking through again, that each has been turned out of a similar position, viz between the word be and a passive participle. Reflection will assure him that the cause of dislocation is always the same — all these writers have sacrificed the run of their sentences to the delusion that ‘to be really understood’ is a split infinitive. It is not; and the straitest non-splitter of us all can with a clear conscience restore each of the adverbs to its rightful place: He was proposed at the last moment as a candidate likely generally to be accepted. / When the record of this campaign comes dispassionately to be written, and in just perspective, it will be found that … / New principles will have boldly to be adopted if the Scottish case is to be met. / This is a very serious matter, which dearly ought further to be inquired into. / The Headmaster of a public school possesses very great powers, which ought most carefully and considerately to be exercised. / The time to get this revaluation put through is when the amount paid by the State to the localities is very largely to be increased.

(3) The above writers are bogy-haunted creatures who for fear of splitting an infinitive abstain from doing something quite different, i.e. dividing be from its complement by an adverb; see further under POSITION OF ADVERBS. Those who presumably do know what split infinitives are, and condemn them, are not so easily identified, since they include all who neither commit the sin nor flounder about in saving themselves from it — all who combine a reasonable dexterity with acceptance of conventional rules But when the dexterity is lacking disaster follows. It does not add to a writer’s readableness if readers are pulled up now and again to wonder — Why this distortion? Ah, to be sure, a non-split die-hard! That is the mental dialogue occasioned by each of the adverbs in the examples below. It is of no avail merely to fling oneself desperately out of temptation; one must so do it that no traces of the struggle remain. Sentences must if necessary be thoroughly remodelled instead of having a word lifted from its original place and dumped elsewhere: What alternative can be found which the Pope has not condemned, and which will make it possible to organise legally public worship ? / It will, when better understood, tend firmly to establish relations between Capital and Labour. / Both Germany and England have done ill in not combining to forbid flatly hostilities. / Every effort must be made to increase adequately professional knowledge and attainments. / We have had to shorten somewhat Lord D——’s letter. / The kind of sincerity which enables an author to move powerfully the heart would … / Safeguards should be provided to prevent effectually cosmopolitan financiers from manipulating these reserves.

(4) Just as those who know and condemn the s.i. include many who are not recognisable, since only the clumsier performers give positive proof of resistance to temptation, so too those who know and approve are not distinguishable with certainty. When a man splits an infinitive, he may be doing it unconsciously as a member of our class 1, or he may be deliberately rejecting the trammels of convention and announcing that he means to do as he will with his own infinitives. But, as the following examples are from newspapers of high repute, and high newspaper tradition is strong against splitting, it is perhaps fair to assume that each specimen is a manifesto of independence: It will be found possible to considerably improve the present wages of the miners without jeopardizing the interests of capital. / Always providing that the Imperialists do not feel strong enough to decisively assert their power in the revolted provinces. / But even so, he seems to still be allowed to speak at Unionist demonstrations. / It is the intention of the Minister of Transport to substantially increase all present rates by means of a general percentage. / The men in many of the largest districts are declared to strongly favour a strike if the minimum wage is not conceded.

It should be noticed that in these the separating adverb could have been placed outside the infinitive with little or in most cases no damage to the sentence-rhythm (considerably after minersdecisively after powerstill with clear gain after besubstantially after rates, and strongly at some loss after strike), so that protest seems a safe diagnosis.

(5) The attitude of those who know and distinguish is something like this: We admit that separation of to from its infinitive is not in itself desirable, and we shall not gratuitously say either ‘to mortally wound’ or ‘to mortally be wounded’, but we are not foolish enough to confuse the latter with ‘to be mortally wounded’, which is blameless English nor ‘to just have heard’ with ‘to have just heard’, which is also blameless. We maintain, however, that a real s.i., though not desirable in itself, is preferable to either of two things, to real ambiguity, and to patent artificiality. For the first, we will rather write ‘Our object is to further cement trade relations’ than, by correcting into ‘Our object is further to cement …’, leave it doubtful whether an additional object or additional cementing is the point. And for the second, we take it that such reminders of a tyrannous convention as ‘in not combining to forbid flatly hostilities’ are far more abnormal than the abnormality they evade. We will split infinitives sooner than be ambiguous or artificial; more than that, we will freely admit that sufficient recasting will get rid of any s.i. without involving either of those faults, and yet reserve to ourselves the right of deciding in each case whether recasting is worth while. Let us take an example: ‘In these circumstances, the Commission, judging from the evidence taken in London, has been feeling its way to modifications intended to better equip successful candidates for careers in India and at the same time to meet reasonable Indian demands.’ To better equip ? We refuse ‘better to equip’ as a shouted reminder of the tyranny; we refuse ‘to equip better’ as ambiguous (better an adjective?); we regard ‘to equip successful candidates better’ as lacking compactness, as possibly tolerable from an anti-splitter, but not good enough for us. What then of recasting? ‘intended to make successful candidates fitter for’ is the best we can do if the exact sense is to be kept, it takes some thought to arrive at the correction; was the game worth the candle?

After this inconclusive discussion, in which, however, the author’s opinion has perhaps been allowed to appear with indecent plainness, readers may like to settle the following question for themselves. ‘The greatest difficulty about assessing the economic achievements of the Soviet Union is that its spokesmen try absurdly to exaggerate them; in consequence the visitor may tend badly to underrate them.’ Has dread of the s.i. led the writer to attach his adverbs to the wrong verbs, and would he not have done better to boldly split both infinitives, since he cannot put the adverbs after them without spoiling his rhythm? Or are we to give him the benefit of the doubt, and suppose that he really meant absurdly to qualify try and badly to qualify tend?

It is perhaps hardly fair that this article should have quoted no split infinitives except such as, being reasonably supposed (as in 4) to be deliberate, are likely to be favourable specimens. Let it therefore conclude with one borrowed from a reviewer, to whose description of it no exception need be taken: ‘A book … of which the purpose is thus — with a deafening split infinitive — stated by its author: “Its main idea is to historically, even while events are maturing, and divinely — from the Divine point of view — impeach the European system of Church and States”.’

A Dictionary of Modern English Usage.

Our Sister, ‘Anon’.

virginia_woolf

… it is unthinkable that any woman in Shakespeare’s day should have had Shakespeare’s genius. For genius like Shakespeare’s is not born among labouring, uneducated, servile people. It was not born among the Saxons and the Britons. It is not born today among the working classes… Yet genius of a sort must have existed among women as it must have existed among the working classes. Now and again an Emily Brontë or a Robert Burns blazes out and proves its presence. But certainly it never got itself on to paper. When, however, one reads of a witch being ducked, of a woman possessed by devils, of a wise woman selling herbs, or even of a very remarkable man who had a mother, then I think we are on the track of a lost novelist, a suppressed poet, of some mute and inglorious Jane Austen, some Emily Brontë who dashed her brains out on the moor or mopped and mowed about the highways crazed with the torture that her gift had put her to. Indeed, I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman…

Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own, 1929.

One thing we must never do, it occurs to me, is to dwell in the wise woman selling herbs or in the witch being ducked. It may be that women writers had to flounder, to experiment, to fail, to try again and fail better, because we had no literary tradition behind us, and that what was behind us was in any case overwhelmingly male. To dwell on that and in that situation is to hamper our creativity. As Virginia Woolf says later in A Room of One’s Own, ‘the whole of the mind must lie open’. By dwelling in the wise woman and the witch I mean becoming shackled to the idea of ourselves as feminist writers. The end of feminism in literature is that there should be no more feminism, just literature. The expansion of this avenue of thought into a broader vista runs thus: that liberation cannot be piecemeal, and if women have claimed a place in literature that does not stop the world of literature being a world of privilege. The unprivileged exist. While they exist we, exercising our ‘freedom’, are in fact not free; we are as bound by chains as they are, and they must be liberated before we can consider ourselves truly liberated, before we can enjoy with significant comfort our place in the literary world. Moreover we can never think of their liberation as anything within our gift, nor our tradition as something they must build on. We may invite them to stand where we stand but we must not assume that they will want to stand there. They may be standing somewhere else already. They will flounder, experiment, fail, try again and fail better; they will attach an ‘ism’ to what they are doing and, one day, detach it again. The sum of my argument is that liberation is total and inclusive. It exists in a world we can’t see and won’t recognise when it’s here. Expect some turbulence on the way.

Dance the Carmagnole!

Traditional (anon.), tr. Marie Marshall

Young Missus Veto said to me
She’d slit the throat of all Paree.
Young Missus Veto said to me
She’d slit the throat of all Paree.
But see the plan she laid
Spoilt by our cannonade!

Let’s dance the Carmagnole
– hear ‘em roar, hear ‘em roar!
All dance the Carmagnole

– hear how loud the cannons roar!

Old Mister Veto said to me a-Sansculottes-1793-jacob 2
He’d give his realm fidelity.
Old Mister Veto said to me
He’d give his realm fidelity.
But this he failed to do,
We’ll give no quarter too!

Let’s dance the Carmagnole
– hear ‘em roar, hear ‘em roar!
All dance the Carmagnole
– hear how loud the cannons roar!

Antoinette said “Let it pass
The common crowd falls on its arse.”
Antoinette said “Let it pass
The common crowd falls on its arse.”
But in the market-place
She fell flat on her face!

Let’s dance the Carmagnole
– hear ‘em roar, hear ‘em roar!
All dance the Carmagnole
– hear how loud the cannons roar!

Louis the King thought he had won
But we’re the champions, every one.
Louis the King thought he had won
But we’re the champions, every one.
Cry-baby Louis – weep
From your palace to the keep!

Let’s dance the Carmagnole
– hear ‘em roar, hear ‘em roar!
All dance the Carmagnole
– hear how loud the cannons roar!  

When Antoinette was shown her cell
She began to weep as well.
When Antoinette was shown her cell
She began to weep as well.
She fainted and fell down,
All because she’d lost her crown!

Let’s dance the Carmagnole
– hear ‘em roar, hear ‘em roar!
All dance the Carmagnole
– hear how loud the cannons roar!

The bloody Switzers* made a vow
They’d gun down our comrades now.
The bloody Switzers made a vow
They’d gun down our comrades now.
But look at how they prance,
Our bullets make ‘em dance!

Let’s dance the Carmagnole
– hear ‘em roar, hear ‘em roar!
All dance the Carmagnole

– hear how loud the cannons roar!

sans-culottesComrades, forever we’ll unite
No matter who comes here to fight.
Comrades, forever we’ll unite
No matter who comes here to fight.
Attack us if they dare,
We’ll give ‘em such a scare!

Let’s dance the Carmagnole
– hear ‘em roar, hear ‘em roar!
All dance the Carmagnole

– hear how loud the cannons roar!

Comrades, remember their renown,
The Sans-Culottes from our town.
Comrades, remember their renown,
The Sans-Culottes from our town.
We’ll raise a glass and sing,
The bells of freedom ring!

Let’s dance the Carmagnole
– hear ‘em roar, hear ‘em roar!
All dance the Carmagnole

– hear how loud the cannons roar!

__________

* ‘Switzers’ here refers to Swiss mercenaries in the pay of the King of France.

There are several variants of this song. The words have been translated very freely and are possibly more ‘jokey’ than the original. As with all the better-known songs of the French Revolutionary period, this is actually a very rousing piece of music. If you would like to sing along, you will find the tune here.

Vampires lurk in a future NY, murderers lurk in the Bayous…

© Millie Ho

© Millie Ho

I hesitated to share some of Millie Ho’s preliminary work on the graphic version of From My Cold, Undead Hand, featuring teenage vampire-hunter Chevonne Kusnetsov, because this is as far as we got with the project. It would be doable if we both had unlimited time and no other projects on the go. However, I agreed with Millie when she said that she should concentrate on her own immediate work, and I promptly took my cue from that and dived back into my own. Nevertheless, you’ll all be pleased to know that she has agreed to produce the cover for the text and e-versions of the novel.

© Millie Ho

© Millie Ho

Meanwhile the editing process has begun. The manuscript is with my publisher’s editor, and his eagle eye has already found an obvious typo on the first page! Chevonne is surprised at that, as you can see, but it shows that the process works. I can recommend it to any fellow authors who are thinking of submitting a manuscript, by the way. It might be costly without a publishing deal, but your submission will be more polished.

Another ‘meanwhile’ – I am busy writing the sequel, provisionally titled KWIREBOY vs VAMPIRE, upper case deliberate. I know where it starts – it starts with a 1960s-style beach party for vampire surfers. I know where it ends – in a devastated DC in the depths of a dark nuclear winter. I know a lot of the middle – blood is drunk, flesh is eaten, there is madness, there is a death cult, there is good, clean fun. How the story weaves from place to place is up to my characters. I allow them to live. Well, apart from the vampires who aren’t really ‘alive’ as such, but you know what I mean.

Watch this space, then, for more vampiric newsgrabs. It’ll be totally swagger!

Yet another ‘meanwhile’. Watch out for Hagridden, a novel set at the periphery of the American Civil War – a dangerous and murderous place to be, where escape from the battle does not necessarily mean an escape from the killing. It’s written by Sam Snoek-Brown, whom regular visitors to this web site will know is a contemporary American author whose writing I admire. There’s not long to wait for this novel, as it is due for launch in August of this year. Reminders here and here.

Angélique Jamail at DFW Writers’ Conference

Below is a picture of Angélique Jamail at the recent DFW Writers’ Conference in Hurst, Texas, with a copy of The Milk of Female Kindness. The anthology, to which I contributed both poetry and some consulting editorship, was launched in Australia earlier this year. It is the ‘baby’ of Kasia James, and contains some wonderful pieces of writing about motherhood by a number of women from around the world. My own poems in the anthology are not available anywhere else, by the way.

image by Sarah Warburton

image by Sarah Warburton

Taxonomy Domine

dogcat1

It’s funny how my own mind works, never mind anyone else’s. When I was invited to read Michel Foucault’s The Order of Things, basically a study of how our assumptions about the way we think do not depend on a continuous, recognisable rationalism, and that all periods of history have possessed certain underlying epistemological assumptions that determined what was acceptable as, for example, scientific discourse, I didn’t know how many harmonic strings would be plucked in my own mind.

In the Preface to the book, Foucault cites a piece by Jorge Luis Borges in which Borges pretends to have found in ‘a certain Chinese encyclopaedia’ a classification of animals into the following categories:

a) belonging to the Emperor, b) embalmed, c) tame, d) sucking pigs, e) sirens, f) fabulous, g) stray dogs, h) included in the present classification, i) frenzied, j) innumerable, k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, l) et cetera, m) having just broken the water pitcher, n) that from a long way off look like flies.

This taxonomy is, of course, fictitious and there is no such encyclopaedia – totally in keeping for Borges’s love of literary hoaxes, and his ‘magic realism’ – and Foucault knows it is. However that doesn’t stop critics of post-modern thinkers – critics such as Keith Windschuttle – from accusing them of ‘murdering our past’, on the basis that a few lazy post-modern thinkers don’t realise Borges was joking. Hmm… aye, right.

Anyhow, it got me thinking about how we decide to list things. Does the way we define an animal, for example – by phylum, class, order, family, genus, species – have any objective basis, or is it a product of human perception? No-brainer? Well that’s the point! Take the images at the head of this piece. How would you split them up, if you were asked to group together two that were most alike? This isn’t a trick question, there isn’t a right or wrong answer. Maybe before you read the all the foregoing you were already sorting them in your mind. It could have been by biological family (two dogs, one cat), but it could equally have been by mood (two placid, one angry), by direction (two looking right, one left), or by the chromatic value of the images (two monochrome, one coloured). There might be other influencing factors, such as the pre-existing order of the images along the conventional left-to-right reading path, so would there be any difference in your sorting process if I changed the order?

dogcat2

How about size?

dogcat3

Or if I inverted one of the images?

dogcat4

Perhaps if you now went back to the first set of images you would split them up differently. Like I said, there are no right or wrong answers here.

Why do I mention all this? Well it’s because, as a poet and author, I like to play around with meaning, beating the use to which we put words into a new shape which, even though it might be battered by my hammer, makes a reader sit up and take interest. I like to play with perception and challenge what we think we see. Some people like to see science as the final frontier, but for me it’s human consciousness, our perception, and the shifting ground on which it stands. Yes, there is an objective reality out there – let’s face it, we have to move beyond solipsism to be able to survive – but it ain’t necessarily what we think it is. Maybe not, anyhow.

‘Milk of Female Kindness’ launched in Australia

Kasia James addressing visitors to the launch.

Kasia James addressing visitors to the launch.

Lovely pictures from the other side of the world (as I look at it) from the Australian launch of the anthology The Milk of Female Kindness. You may recall this collection is the brainchild of Kasia James (pictured opposite); Kasia was kind enough to include some poetry that I wrote especially for the collection, and to ask me for some editorial consultancy. The theme of the anthology is Motherhood – the title is a quotation from Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, by the way – and it contains the prose and poetry of contemporary women writers from round the world.

The launch was held at Abbotsford Convent, Melbourne, Australia. This is an important cultural centre, hosting all kinds of events. The launch took place on 24th March – it seems strange, from my point of view, typing ‘took’ because that day is only just dawning here; of course in the Antipodes, as I write this, the day is coming to an end. Or is it? I get confused!

Anyhow, here are some pictures from the launch (c) Kasia James – there was food too, and a colouring table for kids. You’ll also see the table showing other works by contributors. If you want to read a quick review of the anthology, go here. I might have mentioned this before, but I am very pleased and proud to be associated with this venture, and I’m glad it is becoming successful.

A table full of milk...

A table full of milk…

An early visitor. Apparently attendance reached three figures.

An early visitor. Apparently attendance reached three figures.

Interest in the 'Other Work by Contributors' table.

Interest in the ‘Other works by Contributors’ table.

Amongst the material on this table you can spot my book 'I am not a fish', plus fliers fro 'Lupa' and 'The Everywhen Angels'.

Amongst the material on this table you can spot my book ‘I am not a fish’, plus fliers for ‘Lupa’ and ‘The Everywhen Angels’.

Book-signing.

Book-signing.

 

Baal, Yamm, and Anath

Embedded in The Everywhen Angels is this tale, handed down from ancient Canaan; it is told by a Romany patriarch to a gorjo boy, as his wife paints a henna tattoo on the boy’s arm.
__________

BaalFar away in the land of Canaan, many years ago, beyond the city of Ugarit, where they sang psalms to the creator El long before the Children of Israel came and stole not only their land but their psalms too, there stood a mountain. The mountain’s name was Zaphon, and it was the home of the great god Baal, son of Dagon, called ‘Lord of Thunder’, ‘Almighty’, ‘Rider of the Clouds’, ‘Lord over the Earth’. Some folk called Baal by the name of Hadad. Baal was never still – he could never rest – and thunder could be heard daily from Mount Zaphon, and flashes of lightning played around its summit.

From the summit of Mount Zaphon, where he ceaselessly paced to and fro, Baal could see the Mediterranean ocean, home of the god Yamm. Baal became angry. His kingdom now felt small, because he could see its boundaries. And in his anger he called out to Yamm, insulting him continually in his loud voice, hurling thunderbolts and making great winds, so that Yamm’s kingdom was constantly in turmoil, tossing this way and that in the storms and winds that Baal sent.

“Come out and fight me, Yamm, you coward!” shouted Baal, in a voice that echoed in a peal of thunder so loud it was heard beyond the southern border of Canaan. “Stop skulking in your slimy kingdom. Show yourself!”

And at last Yamm came up from the sea, his dark face rising like a tidal wave, and he set his great, green foot upon the shore, upon Baal’s kingdom. And he shouted back to Baal in a voice like the crashing of breakers against the cliffs.

“Here I stand, you blustering bully! Are you nothing but noise? I challenge you! Who’s the coward now?”

Baal saw that Yamm was indeed mighty, a great enemy, strong and fearsome. Baal himself was no coward, but he was very cunning, and so he went to Kothar, the blacksmith god, skilled in making any object a god could need. He asked Kothar to make him mighty weapons with which to fight Yamm. Kothar took all the metal that lay under the ground between Mount Zaphon in the West, and the Indus river in the East, and he worked it into a great, bronze sword. And he scooped up a huge piece of the Earth and made it into a stout shield; and the hole it left became the Sea of Galilee.

Armed with the sword and shield, Baal charged at Yamm. The battle between these two gods lasted twelve whole years, during which time there were such thunderstorms and tides as had never been seen in the Mediterranean*. Baal pushed at Yamm with his shield, and battered at him with his sword; and with every push of the shield and stroke of the sword there was a huge peal of thunder and flash of lightning. Yamm whipped Baal with waterspouts and showers of stinging rain and hail.

In the city of Ugarit, and throughout Canaan, the poor people cowered in their houses, only coming out when the two rival gods paused between rounds.

Eventually Yamm began to gain the upper hand, and roared with delight, beating Baal further and further back inland. One lash with a mighty waterspout was enough to send Baal’s shield spinning from his hand, to land on its edge in the sea, where it became the island of Cyprus.

By this time even the gods themselves had come to watch the battle, betting upon the outcome. The sun goddess, Shapash, was the only one to bet on Baal, and secretly warmed and dried him with her rays. Baal, who as you know was cunning, devised a plan to escape defeat. He waited until the sun goddess’s kindly gaze was on him and then angled his mighty, bronze sword so that it reflected the sunlight right into Yamm’s eyes. Yamm was dazzled and blinded, and Baal started to belabour him with the flat of his sword, raining blow after blow down upon the sea god, until he was beaten, and the sea became calm and still.

Now Baal had a wife who was also his sister. Do not ask me how this can be, but such things were possible with the gods of Canaan. Not only was Anath his sister and his wife, but she was forever a virgin. She was greatly loved by all the gods, and she took Baal by the hand and led him to see El, the creator, to whom all psalms were sung. There she told him that the reason Baal paced to and fro on Mount Zaphon was that he had no house to live in. If El would give permission for Baal to have a house built, then all Canaan would be a place of peace. El readily gave his permission.

Anath asked Kothar for help, calling to him sweetly, using the pet name she had for him. “O Hasis the Skilful, Hasis the Wise, make a house for my brother-husband Baal and me, in which we can live peacefully.”

Kothar built a house for Baal on top of Mount Zaphon, and Baal was pleased. For a while all Canaan was at peace, the sun shone, and the gods dozed. Even Yamm forgot his quarrel with Baal, and visited him in his house. At such times the summit of Mount Zaphon was wreathed in mist.

One day Baal invited all the gods to a great feast. Yamm was there, and El the creator as the guest of honour. Shapash and Kothar sat together, and even Yutpan the deceitful had a place. The only god not to be invited was Mot, the god of death. When he heard about the feast, he strode up Mount Zaphon in a rage, and pounded so hard on the door of Baal’s house that the food and drink was shaken off the tables.

Mot burst into the house and cursed and ranted at Baal for the insult of not inviting him. Baal was so enraged at this that he forgot he was supposed to be living a peaceful life. He sprang to his feet, seized the sword that he had used to defeat Yamm, and rushed at Mot.

Their duel was a terrible sight. Even the mighty gods fled from Mount Zaphon, as Baal and Mot reduced the lovely house to rubble in their raging. But even the mighty Baal could not defeat Death, and Mot eventually swallowed up Baal, and spat him out on the mountain top, dead and cold.

While the gods debated amongst themselves who could take Baal’s place, Anath mourned for him. Not only did she mourn as a sister and a wife, but also as a mother and a daughter would, for she was all things to Baal. She wandered through Canaan looking for Baal’s body, and when she found it, she buried it and wept over his grave. But her tears, at first cool and sorrowful, turned to drops of fire, and became a rage such as creation had never seen. She turned and ran and ran until she came to Mot, flinging herself upon him in a murderous frenzy. Struggle as he might, Mot found he was no match for Anath, because as she had mourned Baal as a sister, a wife, a mother, and a daughter, she had become four goddesses in one. In her wrath she killed Mot, ground his body to powder, and scattered it over land and sea.

Then she took the place of Baal on top of Mount Zaphon, where she ruled for many years, no longer as Anath the gentle and beloved of the gods, but as the goddess of slaughter, whom some called Ashtoreth, with a hideous aspect.

Many lives of men and women passed. One night El, the creator, dreamed a dream, in which Baal and Mot were alive and stood before him. What El dreams always comes to pass, and so when he awoke, there before him stood Baal and Mot, restored to life. He charged them solemnly each to keep to his own kingdom, and not to fight any more. They bowed low to him and gave him their promise.

When Anath saw Baal coming again to Mount Zaphon, her heart was softened, and her face became beautiful once more. She painted herself with a dye made from her sacred plant, which she called Mehendi, making  the beautiful patterns on her face and limbs, which brides do to this very day in India, and in Mesopotamia, and in all parts of Arabia.

And Baal and Anath lived in peace and happiness ever after. Some say that when the One God came they faded away. Others say they still live on top of Mount Zaphon, but now as an old man and an old woman, and have retired from being gods.

But one thing I know is this: Anath’s sacred plant, Mehendi, which we call Henna, still grows.
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* Yes, I know, I know!

Something ghostly from Shetland…

Da Trow i' da Waa

… is coming to Pitlochry on 22nd February, in the shape of my short story Da Trow i’ da Waa. It will be rounding off the prizewinning stories of this year’s ‘Fearie Tales’ competition at the Winter Words literary festival – the first of Scotland’s literary season – at the Pitlochry Festival Theatre. ‘Trow’ is a word which has survived from Shetland’s Nordic past into its modern tongue (which is maybe less than a language, maybe more than a dialect, not unlike Lowland Scots), and it is roughly equivalent to the Scandinavian ‘troll’. My story is all about what happens to an author with writer’s block, who takes a cottage on the remote island of Yell, in Scotland’s most northerly archipelago.

The story will be read to an audience by Scottish actor Helen Logan. Just checking out the events for the rest of the Festival week, you could say I was on the same bill as Sir Chris Bonington, Mike McCartney, Sally Magnusson, and Neil Oliver! Here you can watch a short video about the festival and the venue.

Comic books, cultural catastrophes, and juggled balls.

All images shown under ‘fair use’ provisions.
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V for vendettaI own only one graphic novel, Alan Moore’s V For Vendetta. Of course I do – why wouldn’t I own a book in which an anarchist superhero goes mano a mano with a fascist government in Britain? I notice that Alan Moore distanced himself from the film version, exciting though that was (and it starred the wonderful Hugo Weaving!), saying that it had been ‘turned into a Bush-era parable by people too timid to set a political satire in their own country’. Having read the script, he said,

It’s a thwarted and frustrated and largely impotent American liberal fantasy of someone with American liberal values standing up against a state run by neoconservatives – which is not what the comic V for Vendetta was about. It was about fascism, it was about anarchy, it was about England.

If this does nothing else, it points up the difficulty in adapting a work of art in one medium for another. Perhaps the greatest irony about both the graphic novel and the film of V For Vendetta, is that whilst the Guy Fawkes mask of the protagonist has become instantly recognized worldwide as a symbol of radical protest, it must be making a pretty good profit for someone.

I own three DVDs that are adaptations of graphic novels or comics (if you don’t count assorted Batman flicks in the back of the drawer). These are 300, based on Frank Miller’s and Lynn Varley’s fictionalization of the Battle of Thermopylae, and Kick Ass and Kick Ass 2, based on the comics of Mark Millar and John Romita Jr.

Kick AssKick Ass is fun. It came in for a lot of abuse on account of the bad language, less for the violence – with the exception of one teenager, no bad guy is left alive by the end of the film. Its killing-spree violence is in the tradition of Peckinpah and Tarantino, subverting the bloodless wrong-righting of The Lone Ranger and Batman. I think people missed the point that it is highly satirical of the superhero genre, and simply spares no effort to de-bunk its ‘zap’ and ‘pow’ fisticuffs. It is, as the cover of the comic book says ‘Sickening violence, just the way you like it’, signaling that it does not take itself seriously and shouldn’t be taken too seriously by readers and movie-goers. The satire of the film is taken further by the character Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage) adopting the phrasing of Adam West, one of the film’s Batman references along with the parting Jack Nicholson quote from Chris D’Amico (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) “Wait till they get a load of me”, and Hit-Girl’s (Chloë Grace Moretz) “Just contact the mayor’s office. He’s got this giant light he shines in the sky. It’s in the shape of a giant cock” (the bird! the bird! Omnia munda mundis!).

Alan Moore is, I guess, entitled to take pot shots at the genre from his position as an insider. If anyone knows the genre he does. In his latest diatribe, possibly his public farewell, he not only curses the modern craze for superheroes, but also tackles such issues as the depiction of rape, and the right of an author to use characters of a different race, class, or gender from his or her own. Specifically on superheroes he says:

To my mind, this embracing of what were unambiguously children’s characters at their mid-20th century inception seems to indicate a retreat from the admittedly overwhelming complexities of modern existence. It looks to me very much like a significant section of the public, having given up on attempting to understand the reality they are actually living in, have instead reasoned that they might at least be able to comprehend the sprawling, meaningless, but at-least-still-finite ‘universes’ presented by DC or Marvel Comics. I would also observe that it is, potentially, culturally catastrophic to have the ephemera of a previous century squatting possessively on the cultural stage and refusing to allow this surely unprecedented era to develop a culture of its own, relevant and sufficient to its times.

Angels Amazon coverHaving fallen almost by accident into writing for young adults, I find myself skirting superhero territory. The teenagers in my novel The Everywhen Angels have powers that they don’t quite understand, and the protagonist in my recently-completed teen-vampire novella, From My Cold, Undead Hand, is a girl who has been trained to hunt and destroy vampires. Consciously or unconsciously, however, I seem to have made these characters break a mould, or break out of a strait-jacket. Unlike traditional heroes, they don’t necessarily win, they don’t necessarily triumph over a force bigger than they are, their tales do not have a clear resolution where all is explained in a neat and tidy way. Good does not necessarily triumph over evil, and where it does it may well be by accident rather than design. Why?

I guess it is because so many action adventures in any medium, where makers justify their violence in terms of the triumph of good over evil, are little more than morality plays and wish-fulfillment fantasies. If I’m to get readers close to the characters, and the characters close to the danger, everyone is going to have to realise that kids don’t get to be kings and queens of Narnia, and they do get to screw up. I mention all this because one of the balls I’m currently juggling is scripting From My Cold, Undead Hand for adaptation into a graphic novel. It isn’t all that easy. As I was writing it I never had anything in my mind apart from painting pictures with text. In order to script it, I have to take a huge step back, almost throw out the entire manuscript, and re-tell the story a totally different way. I have to imagine how it might look on the page. Take the following note I have made about the initial image:

Exceptionally, this should be a full-page picture, opening on the right-hand page. Chevonne is striding towards us, sword strapped to her back, carbon-pistol in her hand. Her face is rather grim and determined. The angle is fairly low – we’re slightly looking up at her. She’s striding between the stacks of a library. Text in a rectangular box, or maybe two, says something like: ‘The time is a little way into the future. This is Chevonne Kustnetsov – by day a student at PS#401, New York, by night a vampire hunter. Here she is, pursuing a vampire through the University Club Library, tracking it down to destroy it…’ Perhaps change that to 1st person speech, as the text novel is in 1st. Maybe not. We can take that final decision later.

Compare that with the opening paragraph of the novella:

There’s an art to this. When a vamp de-korps I only have a split second to guess where it’s going to re-korp. This one’s tricky, clever, powerful. As I just beaded my carbon-gat at it, it blew into a thousand-thousand little bits in front of me. Thought it could fool me, but that de-korp happened too quick to be the result of my bullet.

In that opening there is no detail of who the character is, where she is, or when the story is set. Such detail is revealed within the text when it needs to be – her school, for example, is not referred to until the second chapter, and the time in which the story is set is implied by things such as the technology depicted. You can easily see that this is a total departure for me. It’s quite a challenge and I think I’ll have to put other projects on hold while I tackle it. But you know me – I’m liable to pick up and put down my writing projects in a rather haphazard way. Wish me luck.