Hail and (Never) Farewell

Have you ever wondered, “What if?”  What if you could fly–not with the aid of an eighty-ton aerodynamic metal ship, but simply with the rising and falling of your arms?  What if you could travel to Mars, or Jupiter, or Venus, and, once there, discover that other forms of life, non-earthly forms of life, exist elsewhere in our solar system?  What if you could go backward in time, millions and millions of years, to a green, jungled past inhabited by monstrous flying reptiles and larger-than-life thunder lizards that we of today can scarcely imagine?

trex

 

Have you ever asked?

Of course you have.  We all have.  “What if?” it can be argued, is the great creative expression, the launch pad to unforgettable stories and adventures.

One of my favorite authors, Ray Bradbury, frequently asked, “What if?”  And, in fact, he asked the very questions presented above.

bradbury

 

The stories that resulted, masterpieces such as “Here There Be Tygers,” “The Long Rain,” and “A Sound of Thunder,” among many others, are gems of the highest order.

asoundofthunder

 

But there was another “What if?” question the prolific author asked . . . What if you never had to grow old?  What if you could stay forever twelve, forever young, regardless of the date printed on your birth certificate?

The resulting story, “Hail and Farewell,” is not as well known perhaps as some of Bradbury’s more recognizable tales.  But that takes nothing away from the story’s impact, power, and poignancy.

hailandfarewell

 

“Hail and Farewell” is about a twelve-year-old boy named Willie.  When we first meet Willie, and indeed, when anybody first meets Willie, he seems like any other twelve-year-old.  He looks twelve; he’s not inordinately big for his age–in fact, he is quite small.  If you were to walk by Willie on a street corner, you probably wouldn’t look twice–just an ordinary boy, perhaps returning home from school or strolling to a Saturday matinee or walking over to a friend’s.

matinee

 

But Willie is not your average, normal twelve-year-old boy–not by a long shot.  Willie is not, in actuality, twelve at all.  He is forty-three.  That’s what his records show, those are the facts.  But Willie discovered, long ago, that, in terms of outward appearance, he is forever twelve.  He cannot grow old.  He’ll never wrinkle, lose his hair, acquire the maladies and infirmities of old age.  A blessing of the highest order?  Perhaps.  But Willie also has a price to pay . . . a repeating cycle with no end.

He can never settle in, never remain.  He is a drifter, moving from town to town, school to school, state to state.  He learns of couples with no children, patiently, thoroughly researching his opportunities, trying to discover the people in whose lives he can inject some love and laughter, if only for a little while.  And then–Willie just appears.  He knocks on a door, rings a bell, and when the door opens, he introduces himself, and, if the stars are aligned, he will have found a new home, a new temporary set of parents.  He will stay with them, love them, bond with them.  But then he will need to leave.  After all, how can a boy remain twelve forever?  Classmates will mature, graduate, go on to college and careers.  Parents will gray and grow old, all while Willie stays a boy, always on the threshold of adolescence, but never quite reaching it.  So he can stay for two years, maybe three, and then he is gone . . .

travelingbag

 

Bradbury’s story essentially asks the question, “Would it be a blessing to remain forever young?  Or a curse?  Or maybe a little of both?”

Those are questions each reader must answer for him- or herself.

nostalgia

 

But there is another way each of us can remain forever twelve.  In our own way, we all have a little bit of Willie in us . . .

**************

In The Eye-Dancers, main characters Mitchell Brant, Joe Marma, Ryan Swinton, and Marc Kuslanski are all twelve years old.  They are all also inspired by friends I knew growing up; and so, as I wrote the novel, I was, in many ways, twelve years old again.  I spent the better part of three years continually entering the minds and consciousness of my pre-teen characters, seeing the world through their eyes, hearing it, feeling it, experiencing it as a twelve-year-old might.  (Some might argue I operate that way anyway, all the time, as my default mode!  But that is a post for another day.)

ff23

 

It is also my hope that readers of The Eye-Dancers are able to share in that experience, too, hopping on, as it were, a literary time machine traveling back, back . . . to younger days–days that seem, sometimes, almost forgotten, like yellowed pages in a time-worn scroll.  But then, when you rediscover them, when the aroma and memories and sights and sounds and experiences flood back in, you realize–they were there the whole while, stacked in a neat pile just outside the door.

The door just needed to be opened.

opendoor

 

**************

“But of course he was going away,” Bradbury writes in “Hail and Farewell,” as Willie must leave another couple, and begin anew. . . . “His suitcase was packed, his shoes were shined, his hair was brushed, he had expressly washed behind his ears, and it remained only for him to go down the stairs, out the front door, and up the street to the small-town station where the train would make a stop for him alone.  Then Fox Hill, Illinois, would be left far off in his past.  And he would go on, perhaps to Iowa, perhaps to Kansas, perhaps even to California; a small boy twelve years old with a birth certificate in his valise to show he had been born forty-three years ago. . . .

“In his bureau mirror he saw a face made of June dandelions and July apples and warm summer-morning  milk.  There, as always, was his look of the angel and the innocent, which might never, in the years of his life, change.”

dandelions

 

We are all like Willie, I think, each in our own way.  But where Willie lives in a perpetual state of comings and goings, hellos and good-byes, bonding and heartbreak, we need not have to experience his gift in such a transitory manner.

As writers, readers, dreamers, we can all say “Hail,” without the need of ever having to say, “Farewell.”

stars

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

An Effluvium of Hysteria

I love words.  I always have.  I caught the bug at a very early age.  I remember when I was eight years old, reading comic books, I would sometimes come across words I’d never heard of.  When I did, I would immediately put the comic down and open the dictionary I had, easily accessible, on a book shelf in my room.

words!

 

One of the first words I recall discovering this way was “sanctimonious.”  It occurred in Fantastic Four # 111, and it was Reed Richards (Mr. Fantastic) who uttered it.  Back then, reading issue after issue of my favorite comic book, I could always count on old Reed to introduce me to new and exciting words.

ff111

 

reed

 

In school essays, I would occasionally show off, and use some of the intimidating words I’d learned.  When I was nine or ten, teachers would comment favorably.  They were just happy I was reading and learning vocabulary.  But when I reached junior high, and especially high school, the response was different.

I remember on one essay, the teacher had circled the word “clandestine,” and wrote in the margin:  “Better to say ‘secret.'”  I took the paper to him after class and asked him why.

“If you want people to know what you’re writing about,” he said, “you have to speak to them with the language they know.  If you use words they’re not sure about, you’re going to lose them on the first page.”

simple

 

I thought about it that night, and though I understood what he meant, I didn’t fully agree.  Of course, I realized, if you pepper your manuscript with hundred-dollar words, you’ll come across as snobbish or out of touch, interested first and foremost with your own perceived brilliance.

beconcise

 

But on the other hand, if you oversimplify everything, and strip your prose down to a fourth-grade level, aren’t you losing something precious, too?

I turned to books on writing and style.  What did the experts have to say?  For the most part, they agreed with my teacher.

“Be concise.”  “Do not use needless words.”  “Avoid adverbs.”  “Too many adjectives will derail your prose.”  “If you need to look a word up in a thesaurus, don’t use it.  It’s not the right word.”  And so on.

elementsofstyle

 

And again, I didn’t disagree.  This struck me as good, sensible advice–most of the time.  But sometimes . . .

I have always been a fan of Ray Bradbury.  His enthusiasm, imagination, and rich, layered style have always served as an inspiration for me.  And while handbooks on the nuts and bolts of writing are useful tools every writer should own, I find the best teachers are not the grammarians and professors.  The best teachers are the authors.

When I was in high school, searching for my voice, learning to create fiction worth reading, I was much more likely to listen to Ray Bradbury than William Strunk.

And there is one Bradbury story in particular that I read for the first time when I was a senior in high school that clarified this entire issue for me more than any style book or teaching guide ever could.  In fact, just the first two paragraphs of the story did the trick.

smallassassin

 

“The Small Assassin,” first and foremost, is a terrifying short story.  Bradbury’s writing ability transcends genre.  He is often labeled a sci-fi author, but he has created tales in nearly ever genre, including horror.  “The Small Assassin” definitely falls within that category.  It gave me nightmares for a week.   It remains to this day perhaps the most frightening story I have ever read.

Much of the story is written in clear, concise fashion, not always the case with Bradbury.  Stories such as “The Sound of Summer Running,” for example, are really prose poems dressed up as short stories.

soundofsummer

 

Not so with “The Small Assassin.”  Here, while he maintains his writing flair, the prose, in general, is more streamlined, razor-sharp, honed to a cutting edge.  Nevertheless, he does not entirely avoid difficult words . . .

The first paragraph of “The Small Assassin” reads:

“Just when the idea occurred to her that she was being murdered she could not tell.  There had been little subtle signs, little suspicions for the past month; things as deep as sea tides in her, like looking at a perfectly calm stretch of tropic water, wanting to bathe in it and finding, just as the tide takes your body, that monsters dwell just under the surface, things unseen, bloated, many-armed, sharp-finned, malignant and inescapable.”

This paragraph has the customary Bradbury magic of syntax and style, imagery and metaphor, but, apart from the possible exception of “malignant,” there isn’t a fancy word to be found.

It’s the first sentence of the second paragraph that shifts the flow.  The second paragraph reads:

“A room floated around her in an effluvium of hysteria.  Sharp instruments hovered and there were voices, and people in sterile white masks.”

whitemask

 

When I first read “The Small Assassin,” in my eighteenth year, I had never before come across the word “effluvium.”  I had no idea what it meant!  And yet . . . it held me rapt, mesmerized.  I didn’t look it up until after I finished the story.  I couldn’t put it down.  Because even though I didn’t know the dictionary definition of “effluvium,” the word elicited a feeling, a rushing current of hidden meaning and subtext.

webster

 

Webster defines “effluvium” as “an invisible emanation; an offensive exhalation or smell.  A by-product, especially in the form of waste.”

So . . . what, then, is an effluvium of hysteria?  Perhaps Bradbury could have simply written, “A room floated around her.  She felt nervous and afraid.”  Or, perhaps.  “There was the offensive odor of hysteria.”  Either of these would have been concise, simple, matter-of-fact.  But it would not have been memorable.  It would not have stayed with me, years after I read it.  It would not have implanted itself in a crevice deep within the folds of my brain.  It would have been ordinary.

In the context of “The Small Assassin,” an “effluvium of hysteria” sounds like a car spinning out of control, careening downhill; a person falling from a great height; or, someone on the brink of madness, panic-stricken, gripped with a terror too powerful for words.  “Nervous,” “odor,” or “hysterical” just can’t compete with that.

spinning

 

This is not to say that the general accepted advice is “wrong.”  Ninety-nine percent of the time, clear and concise and simple trumps wordy and difficult.  But to eliminate that special 1% altogether?

Of course, much depends on context.  An instruction manual surely would not want to incorporate the word “effluvium”!  (Though it would make for an interesting manual.)  And in dialogue, certain characters, Marc Kuslanski included, will have a penchant for fancy words.  But in general, as is the case with so many writing “rules” and guidelines, the key is finding a happy medium.

balance

 

So the next time you’re writing and one of those “too-difficult” words pops into your head, go ahead and use it.

Because sometimes, every now and then, nothing but an “effluvium of hysteria” will do.

ideasend

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

A Sound of Thunder

lightning

In his classic short story “A Sound of Thunder,” first published in 1952, Ray Bradbury explores the concept of connectivity–the way things, even things that seem so small, or so far away, are intricately interrelated.  In the story, which takes place in the year 2055, a company called Time Safari, Inc., has the ability to transport big-game hunters into the distant past via a time machine, where they can hunt dinosaurs.  But everything is very carefully calibrated and forecast.  In the world of sixty million years ago, company engineers have constructed a path, which cuts through the ancient landscape six inches above the earth.  Nowhere does the path touch the ground.  Company guides continually instruct the hunters who take the trip into the past never to leave the path (which is spelled with a capital “P” in the story to give it emphasis).  Not one step.  Not one speck of the ground on your shoes.

One hunter on the tour, Eckels, asks why.  What’s the big deal if they crush a blade of grass, step on an ant or a mouse?  The guide answers, in sum, that the ramifications of that might be catastrophic.  Assuming a mouse is stepped on by a man sixty million years before his proper time, “what about the foxes that’ll need those mice to survive?” the tour guide replies.  “For want of ten mice, a fox dies.  For want of ten foxes, a lion starves.  For want of a lion, all manner of insects, vultures, infinite billions of life forms are thrown into chaos and destruction.  Eventually it all boils down to this:  fifty-nine million years later, a caveman . . . goes hunting wild boar or saber-toothed tiger for food.  But you, friend, have stepped on all the tigers in that region.  By stepping on one single mouse.  So the caveman starves.   And the caveman . . . is not just any expendable man, no!  He is an entire future nation. . . . Destroy this one man, and you destroy a race, a people, an entire history of life. . . . The stomp of your foot, on one mouse, could start an earthquake, the effects of which could shake our earth and destinies down through Time, to their very foundations. . . . Step on a mouse and you leave your print, like a Grand Canyon, across Eternity.”

Time Safari, Inc. has even scouted out which dinosaurs will be killed naturally–perhaps by a falling tree or the attack of another dinosaur.  And they send advance guides into the past to spray-paint a red blotch on the soon-to-be-killed creatures.  Then, when the tour arrives, the machine is calibrated to arrive only minutes before the targeted, spray-painted dinosaurs were to be killed.  In this way, the balance is not disturbed.  Any dinosaurs shot by hunters on the tour were about to die anyway.

Eckels has signed up to hunt the tyrannosaurus rex, the thunder lizard.  He wants a chance to hunt the fiercest predator ever to walk the earth.

trexbody

trexhead

 

But when the moment arrives, Eckels panics, overcome with fear in the face of the thunder lizard.  In his panic, he momentarily steps off the path, accidentally crushing a butterfly.

When the time machine returns to the present day, Eckels is astonished to note that it’s not the same world he left behind when he ventured back into the past via the time machine.  There is a different president, the language is slightly off.  It’s like a different, alien world.  All from one butterfly, sixty million years in the past, which he inadvertently killed in his moment of confusion and chaos.

“No, it can’t be!” he cries. . . .  “Not a little thing like that. . . . Not a little thing like that!  Not a butterfly!”

The Eye-Dancers deals with the idea of connection, too.  In fact, one of the major themes of the novel might be summed up like this–What if two people, two complete strangers, are connected in such a way that when one of them is in desperate need of help, she is able to communicate with the other through the vehicle of dreams?  It doesn’t matter that they are separated by the gulf of a universe, that they exist in different layers of what we term reality.  It doesn’t matter that they don’t know each other.  The connection exists anyway, in ways no one can fully understand.

And so it is for Mitchell Brant and the “ghost girl” who comes to him in his dreams.  As Mitchell himself realizes at novel’s end:  “It’s like, even the things that seem so far away you can’t even imagine . . . even those things are right there with you.”

Maybe, just maybe, the universe, or the multiverse–if you buy into parallel-worlds theory–while infinite, and so vast it boggles and overwhelms the mind, is also small enough where everything affects everything else.

Just like with Ray Bradbury’s short story about the butterfly and the great thunder lizard from sixty million years ago.

So right now, even if it’s calm and sunny, or cold and snowy, or crisp and serene with the stars shimmering in the night sky like precious jewels where you are–somewhere, at this very moment, there is a storm, and Mother Nature is displaying her power and strength.  You can’t see it.  It’s miles away.  Maybe continents away.  But listen.  Closely.  Closely.  Can you hear it?

thunder

A sound of thunder . . .

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

%d bloggers like this: