More Than Meets the Eye (Or, What Lies Behind the Horn-Rimmed Glasses . . .)

She was quiet, so quiet, in fact, that sometimes it seemed she wasn’t even there.  It was as if she blended in with the beige walls, the gray metallic chairs, the very molecules and atoms in the air.  The other students would criticize and argue and critique–but she barely said a word.  The professor, a bald man originally from London and since moved to western New York State. would sometimes single her out.  “To prime your pump,” he would explain.  It was a creative writing workshop, after all.  Students were expected to participate, not just sit there, looking down at the small wooden desk attached to the right arm of the chair.

workshop

 

Her name was Renee.  Her wardrobe was as subdued as her manner–plain, dark clothes, sweaters, usually, and a pair of retro, black, horn-rimmed glasses that gave her the look and feel of someone from a generation three decades earlier.  She would spend much of the class period adjusting those glasses as they continually slid down the bridge of her nose.

glasses

 

The chairs were arranged in a semicircle, encouraging face-to-face interaction as we discussed and dissected each other’s short stories.  Renee would always sit at the back corner of the semicircle, as far away from the professor as she could arrange herself.  Every class period, four students would turn in a new story, distributing a copy to the teacher and each student in the class.  The following week, the four stories handed out in the previous class would be critiqued.  Additionally, each member of the class would write comments on the hard copy of the story, and return them to the author once the oral critique was finished.  For those students who did not participate so much verbally, this offered a way to express their opinions in a more comfortable manner.

critique

 

But Renee didn’ t even do that.  Not only didn’t she participate in class, but her written comments were, to put it mildly, brief.  After I had turned in my first story of the semester, she had written, “Cool,” on the top of the first page, emphasizing it with a loopily-drawn smiley face.  That was it.  She hadn’t jotted one word in the margins, and nothing at the end.  I asked others in the class if she had offered anything more on their stories.  She hadn’t.  She just continued to blend in to the background, gray on gray.  Even the instructor seemed to give up.  By the semester’s second month, he no longer called on her.  She just sat there, period after period, saying nothing.  A locked, featureless door.

door

 

Then the day came when she was scheduled to share one of her own stories with the class.  I overheard a student, who sat close to me, whispering to another, “I bet it’s probably like two pages or something.”

But it was not two pages.  And it was not what anyone had expected . . .

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Throughout the opening chapters of The Eye-Dancers, Mitchell Brant, Joe Marma, and Ryan Swinton each dream of the girl with the blue, swirling eyes.   The “ghost girl,” they call her.  After all, in their dreams (or are they more than dreams?), she appears less like a flesh-and-blood creature of this earth and more like a wisp, a breath, a denizen of the spirit world.  They fear she is a ghost who is haunting their dreams.

ghost

 

But is she?  Is their first impression the right one?  Or is she less than she seems?  Or, perhaps, more than she seems?

And once they are transported through the void and find themselves in the variant town of Colbyville, they encounter many other things that cause them to question their surroundings, their perceptions, at times even their own sanity.  Science wiz Marc Kuslanski is there, too, and he offers (or tries to offer) a sensible, rational, scientific reason for everything.  But as he learns over the course of the novel, not everything can be explained away.  Not everything can be pigeon-holed and classified and packed neatly into its own box.

Not everything is what it appears to be at first glance.

illusions

 

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When I took Renee’s story home that day, I honestly did not have high expectations.  I guessed reading her story would be a chore, just something to get through.  And her title, “Dead Man Walking,” struck me as cliched.  I did not give her the benefit of the doubt.

Then I read the first paragraph.  It drew me right in to a brutal world, where a dead man walks among the living, works with them, looks like them, loves them, hates them, and, every now and again, eats them.  He isn’t a vampire.  He isn’t quite a zombie.  He’s just . . . dead.  But not dead.  It was a graphically violent story, merciless in its portrayal of the lead character and the people he comes across in his experiences.  From our perspective today, in the second decade of the twenty-first century, a story like this may sound derivative, or least inspired by, the zombie and “undead” mania caused by hit shows such as The Walking Dead.

walkingdead

 

But this was back in the mid-1990s.  Renee’s story was, without question, her own, and she had a very distinct and original voice.  Her prose was edgy, yet literary, vulgar, yet elegant.  In a word, it was riveting.

When the following week’s workshop met again, there was a buzz among the students.  Even the professor, an unflappable sort, seemed off his game.

He cleared his throat, his way of signaling it was time to begin.  The whisperings and murmerings among the students came to a stop.  We all looked at the instructor, waiting.

“Our first story to look at today is ‘Dead Man Walking.'”  He cleared his throat again, glanced at Renee.  “And as we always do, we’ll let the author have the first word.  Renee?”

The class looked at her, and she looked up, meeting our eyes for what seemed like the first time all term.

“Well,” she said, with a smile, “as you probably know by now, my stories tend to be a little bit crazy.  And loud.  Very, very loud.”

For a moment, you could have heard the proverbial pin drop.  But then someone laughed, and then another, and then another.  Renee joined them.

And here we’d all thought she was just the quiet girl with the horn-rimmed glasses who sat at the back of the room. . . .

istimp

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

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