- The Mummy, The Will, and The Crypt by John Bellairs
- Dial-a-Ghost by Eva Ibbotsen
- High Lonesone by Louis L’Amour
- The Princess and Curdie by George MacDonald
It isn’t fair to charge a writer with “not trying.” I mean, how can you know? But I do sometimes have that thought—that an author was lazy, could have put in more effort, maybe was under contract, or just writing out of habit without a good idea.
There are as many kinds of not trying as there are people, but these four books got me mulling over a problem that I think about frequently—a productive cross-purposes in writing where, on the one hand, the writer is creatively investigating a problem, and on the other hand, that writer is simultaneously communicating the solution to that problem. You’re studying it as you shout your conclusions from the mountaintop. When this works well, it’s like gangbusters. It’s what I try for in my own writing (I’ll let you opine about that). There’s an undeniable energy that can’t be produced any other way, as the spontaneous zing of new understanding muddles with a modicum of reflective wisdom, emulsifying into … well, in this regard good literature is like good mayonnaise.
Failure waits to either side, though. You could end up with foolish zing lacking wisdom, or dull zingless wisdom. (If you’ve ever tried to make your own mayonnaise, you know what I’m talking about. What a disappointment!)
Dial-a-Ghost and The Mummy, The Will, and The Crypt
Dial-a-Ghost and Mummy, Will, etc. were bereft of zing. Dial was an intricately plotted clockwork, but clearly “clockwork book” is something Ibbotsen refined many years ago, and now punches them out like buttons. Dial contained a spaghetti of plotty threads, and every damn one is wrapped up and tied off with an Extremely Snug Double Bow by the end. Reading Dial is like visiting an immaculate house where I’m afraid to sit down. As artist Andy Goldsworthy once said, “Total control can be the death of a work.”
Mummy was similar. Bellairs is famous for writing novels that vibe thick with doom, and this book amply vibed thus, but once again I sensed a writer who’d perfected the trope books ago and was now phoning it in (wow, I should have used “phoning it in” while describing Dial-a-Ghost. Or is that too much?).
Lonesome is a capital-W Western novel, and as such adheres to a well-heeled formula. L’Amour wrote tons of these, so there’s no reason why this one should have anything of interest in it at all. I expected neither wisdom nor zing, and it was, indeed, mostly terrible, a flame broiled outlaw romance in which our hero will kill as many anonymous Apaches as it takes to rescue the girl—the only girl who could ever reform him! Double-exclamation-point!! Ugh, I know. Therefore, you should not read High Lonesome.
And yet, despite the fact that L’Amour wrote 671,438 of these cactus-and-spurs romps, I never once had the sense that High Lonesome didn’t matter to him, or that he was bored. And there are very nice details, too, jumping out where I least expected. For instance, when a cowpuncher is going to cock his rifle, but doesn’t want anyone to hear him do it:
He eased back the hammer, grinding his heel into the sand to stifle the sound.
That’s amazing. I read it several times over when I came across it. What a detail!
Surprisingly also for a book so otherwise perfectly embedded in the chauvenisms of its era, there were moments of unexpected philosophical insight:
Why did the young think that dreams were only for them? The old dream also, with less hope, less anticipation, yet they dream.
I wonder what part of his brain L’Amour stored these beautiful descriptions and insights in, and at the gulf between them and the rote mindlessness of the rest.
The Princess and Curdie
If you haven’t heard of George MacDonald, well, he’s kind of a big deal—a forerunner of more modern fairytale authors like C.S. Lewis. Lewis wrote a book called The Great Divorce in which the protagonist gets a Dante-esque guided tour of heaven from not Virgil but George MacDonald. And although I’m sad to report that MacDonald’s philosophical stance in Princess and Curdie can be fairly summed up as “It is virtuous to be thrifty,” and although he furthermore indulges in that particularly irritating Christianic chestnut of a wise king irked by his foolish and ignorant subjects AS AN ALLEGORY TO HOW PEOPLE IRK OUR INFINITELY WISE LORD GOD, he’s also quixotic enough to let weird things creep around the edges. Due to our limited space here at stevenarntson.com (i.e. effort), I’ll share only two.
First, a quote. Our hero Curdy has been tied up with rope and left in a prison tower. He gets out of the rope, and then uses it to escape from the window. The narrator opines:
Curdie’s hindrances were always his furtherance.
Love that. I want that to be true for me too, and for you. May your hindrances be your furtherance, dear readers!
Second, the end of the book is incredible. In the final few paragraphs it’s explained in summary that Curdie and his princess rule their new kingdom with wisdom and grace. They die childless, however, and the people elect a new king who turns out greedy. His Majesty New-king mines under the city, extracting mineral wealth until the city collapses into the mine (modern analogues, anyone?). Then, flashforward:
All around spreads a wilderness of wild deer, and the very name of the city has ceased from the lips of men.
A wise thing to remember, indeed. Yes, good books are often a lucky emulsion with a passing resemblance to fresh mayonnaise, but, ultimately, Ozymandias.
Thank you for reading Literary Counterparts.