Story is a lovely thing, but a story’s language can lovely all by itself. On a story-to-language spectrum, I confess to being a Utilitarian who prefers her reading to slope towards the story end, but while I typically avoid poetry, I do have an anomalous infatuation with nonsense and complicated, probably unnecessarily archaic language.
Gemma Files’ “Drawn Up From Deep Places” (Beneath Ceaseless Skies #159) certainly never uses one word when a thing can be said with a whole paragraph. Set in her “Hammer Pirates” world (which also houses “Trap-Weed,” “Two Captains,” and an upcoming story in Kaleidotrope), this tale of magic and pirates lets loose the full brocade of 18h century nautical language, much to its benefit.
Captain (and wizard) Jerusalem Parry has pulled a woman up out of the sea and finds himself torn open to a whole new world of feelings and revelations on her account. Like all women pulled out of the sea in stories like these, Clione Attesee is beautiful, strange, and not at all what she seems. Parry immediately sets her at the centre of his Madonna-Whore complex, though this is made more tortuous by his own past as Madonna-Whore to his former captain, Solomon Rusk, who haunts him colourfully for the duration of the story.
Parry immediately sets her at the centre of his Madonna-Whore complex, though this is made more tortuous by his own past as Madonna-Whore to his former captain, Solomon Rusk, who haunts him colourfully for the duration of the story.
Files’ story has savage storms, were-sharks, bloody brawls, and witchery on the one hand and a very serious psychological study of the complicated self-loathing and confusion that comes from being a survivor of sexual violence on the other. It is her use of language that successfully binds the two together. Parry frames his feelings about Rusk and Clione in world-appropriate terminology and metaphor. “For who could ever feel pulled to him, in all his Cain-marked glory, who did not themselves bear such a taint in turn?” he wonders as he tries to understand Clione. He’s referring to his “witch-blood” and the (literal) curse Rusk has laid upon him – but to his “romantic” past with Rusk as well. Despite the story’s modern psychological underpinnings, Parry’s understanding is appropriately 18th century. “A monster amongst monsters, loved by them alone… this is what I’ll always be. My very blood foretold it.”
The dialogue takes some getting used to, being long-winded, archaic and salted liberally with “twas”s and “nay”s and “aye”s; but ultimately the heaviness of the language is what makes the sophisticated concepts easier to understand. Monsters modern and mythical are made to belong to this world. Parry’s magic, skill, and power are bent to defeat ghosts of all kinds, internal and external. Though, Parry’s struggles on both fronts are far from over – I look forward to future episodes.
“Anonymity” by Sonya Taaffe (Mythic Delirium 1.2) is another morsel of tasty archaic language. Taaffe offers us a snippet of the life of Will Shakespeare and Kit Marlowe as if they were still alive today, reading on the internet the same rumours about their lives that we still spread today. The premises is cute, but the execution is clever: in elaborate, Elizabethan-influenced English, our contemporary reality is barely distinguishable from Shakespeare’s world.
The premises is cute, but the execution is clever: in elaborate, Elizabethan-influenced English, our contemporary reality is barely distinguishable from Shakespeare’s world.
In fact, it is only a few clues that indicate Shakespeare and Marlowe sit in a modern room at all. Marlowe is arguing with trolls on the internet and Shakespeare wants him to come to bed, but Taaffe has written Marlowe is at his desk “with quill-callused fingers,” lit by a “corpse-casting fox-glim, Marlowe has a ghastlier look than Mephistophilis.” You have to read closely to catch that he’s typing, that he sits in front of a screen.
Modern-day Marlowe will not “stand down from a fight” any more than Elizabethan-Marlowe would have, and Taaffe’s descriptions of him as an internet crusader, slaying trolls and arguing with people who are wrong fits him like a glove. The story’s title is meant to be an allusion to the 2011 film Anonymous, which posits that Shakespeare’s plays were, in fact, written by someone else – a suggestion Taaffe, and Marlowe, find ridiculous – but her Marlowe evokes that other 16th/21st century hybrid: the internet activist group, Anonymous, right down to the 16th-century guise.
Taaffe’s work isn’t so much subtextual as a clever word-puzzle: who Will & Kit are, where and when, and what roles they play, are all blurred by single-phrase suggestions. They could be any of their versions, all of them. What is ever true with historical persons and characters? Will ends the piece with the most tantalizing line: “Ay, Kit. Tomorrow. Thou dost know, they’ll not have gotten it then. Nor ever this.” What is “this”? Their relationship? Their presence? Who cares; all of the above. Then, now, it’s all the same. The story is short and holds up to at least a half-dozen re-reads (I can attest), leaving many ways to understand our heroes. This language at its most fun.
Alright, maybe not most fun. For me, the most fun thing words can do is nonsensical: language for the sound of it more than the meaning. If you enjoy the same, Penny Stirling’s “More Embers than Feathers Filled the Firmament” (Lackington’s #4) is a real treat. Set in a tavern full of birds, a raggedy wagtail tells the epic story of how the birds came to be at war with the canids. It’s a Homeric tale told by Edward Lear by way of Aristophanes.
Stirling’s tale is primarily concerned with alliteration and musicality, sometimes at the expense of meaning. For every delicious “the cassowary corps cannot conquer coyotes” there is a more head-scratching “a tawny quilt-weed, seesawing on its stuttering susurrus.” On the whole, though, the tongue-twisters amount to a coherent, sometimes hilarious fable of a war started when a particularly epic wolf developed too keen an appetite for water-fowl and found itself on the business end of an avenging “carnivore demon duck”’s (penguin’s) blade. You’ll be better rewarded by reading this story out loud than you would be plumbing it’s contents for meaning. The war itself is missing, as is the veteran wagtail’s own story. This is about the telling, and the wagtail’s voice.
You’ll be better rewarded by reading this story out loud than you would be plumbing it’s contents for meaning. The war itself is missing, as is the veteran wagtail’s own story. This is about the telling, and the wagtail’s voice.
So, “while wolf’s wife wailed away weeping, wishing she were sleeping a sad dreaming sleep, slips away the slayer siskin in success, sky-sailing to the iced-land Spheniscidae sea.” Sure, this is a scene in which a penguin-assassin escapes. But isn’t it so much more? The telling is delicious. It might not be everybody’s bag, but if you like words for their own sake, don’t miss this one.
Charlotte Ashley is a writer, editor, and independent bookseller from Toronto, Canada. She reads slush at Lakeside Circus, has reviewed short stories for ChiZine.com and The Quill and Quire, and writes short fiction. She keeps a bookish blog at http://once-and-future.com/.