Thursday, March 1, 2012

Winterland Coming to a Soul Near You

WinterlandWhat do you get when you mix a bit of Cormac McCarthy's The Road, John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, and George MacDonald's Lilith together in southern California? If the proportions are just right, you'll get Mike Duran's Winterland: A Dark Fairy Tale, a novella detailing a woman's journey through the wreckage of her mother's soul. I'm not sure if the subtitle is wholly appropriate. The "Dark" part is certainly apropos but "Fairy Tale"? The protagonist enters another world, but it's not the world of faerie that most readers of fairy tales would expect. It's not a world of wonder but one of utter despair and desloation reminiscent of McCarthy's. Her guide describes it as "her world--the wreckage or, better yet, the ripening of everything she's chosen." He later clarifies, saying "this freeway--your mother's--is populated by her: her regrets and beliefs, her inner voices and imaginary friends; the things she's let grow." I think writers sometimes attach "Fairy Tale" to a title to put readers on notice that realism will soon be tossed out the window. Enough quibbling about the subtitle, on with the summary.

Eunice Ames, a recovering meth addict, is driving west on the 210 near Los Angeles. She's going to see her mother, who is dying in a hospital from brain cancer. Mother and daughter are not on good terms and haven't been for a long time. An onyx crystal, a gift from her mother, hangs from the rearview mirror.

According to her mother, onyx helped one achieve emotional balance and build self-confidence. Mother was up on her onyx and convinced that her daughter required such alternative assistance.

Eunice thinks it "a bunch of hooey" but took the crystal as a sign of peace, a concession to her dying mother. Strange things begin to happen as Eunice approaches an overpass. A snowflake lands on her windshield and then a man that no one else sees runs out in front of her. Eunice slams on the brakes and spins out of control. She takes the twirling crystal with her when she exits her car, expecting to find the mangled remains of the man she hit. Instead she finds nothing except empty road in front of her and a massive logjam of cars behind her. A man from a Lexus stopped behind her offers assistance.

The vast concrete landscape silhouetted the Lexus man, as did the brume sunset, transforming him into a cardboard cutout against a movie screen. A drug-induced mirage could not have looked more surreal. Then, as Eunice stood staring at the man, the panorama behind him seemed to flutter--a slow-rolling spatial distortion that swept across her field of vision like a ripple on the surface of a glassy pool.

Eunice steps through that pool into a type of parallel world where "both the freeway and skyline were growing gray, becoming sepia replicas of themselves, a dreary world of ash and bone." As in his novel The Resurrection, Duran takes a few shots at New Age pagainism. Many Wiccans believe that souls go to a place called Summerland, a place of eternal summer, for rest and reflection. Eunice's mother calls the land of her soul Winterland. As soon as Eunice enters Winterland, she meets Joseph, a young man with a deformed skull and a limp. He tells her that they must reach her mother at the end of the road and collect a few fellow travellers along the way before her mother becomes stuck in Winterland. Eventually Eunice decides to follow Joseph across the desolate and highly symbolic landscape.

They first meet Mister Mordant, a disgusting hybrid of various species, who whines and complains about everything and insists that nothing is his fault. They next enter the "swamp of Mlaise" (love those names) where Eunice strays off course and finds her grandmother in a cottage. Granny Em had committed suicide. Duran provides a great depiction of the horrors of suicide for the surviving family. Eunice finds that whenever Granny Em turns around, her back is always facing Eunice. Her grandmother is the "Lady of the Perpetual Back." Eunice flees in terror from Granny Em's cottage. They next arrive on the Plains of Cinder and pick up a new fellow traveller named Reverend Ash, who inhabits the creaking Tower of Industry. Ash is consumed with rules and cleanliness and walks on stilts. He goes on and on about the Law and the futility of Eunice's quest. Towers are a common sight in fantasy landscapes. Consider Tolkien's The Two Towers. Duran's Tower brings to mind Rapunzel--it imprisons a single person--or the Twin Towers--it's on the verge of collapse. The third traveller is Sybil, who appears as a child and leads them through a maze into a veritable Garden of Eden enclosed under a ruined blimp. Sybil is adroit at telling lies. Sybil's taunts about the truth compel Joseph to explain precisely who their fellow travellers are.

Your mother has nurtured three spirits. Sybil's one of them. They're parasites, consuls of hell--all of them, concerned with only one thing: maintaining real estate. They've been passed down through your family for generations. Well, when you went to rehab, you interrupted the food chain. And they don't like you.

Eunice has one more creature to face, one more bridge to cross. And remember that onyx crystal? It shows up again too.

The landscape of Winterland is laden with symbol and imagery that come alive with Duran's vibrant descriptions. It will require multiple readings to make all the connections. The narrative lags at some points as the conversation of the characters seems to go over the same points at times but the story is compelling enough to hold most people's interest to the end. Just imagine Joseph telling you to keep reading as he's telling Eunice to keep moving forward.

For more about Mike Duran, see his blog at and my remarks on his novel The Resurrection here and here.

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