Friday, February 24, 2012

Story of the Week: The World Beyond the Glass

Suzanne van Rooyan's "The World Beyond the Glass" in the Winter 2012 online edition of Golden Visions Magazine is an amusing tale of a petty shoplifter who steals something more valuable than she could ever imagine.

Davey is browsing a bookstore, looking for a birthday gift for her bookish younger sister who has already read everything, when she comes across a snowglobe serving as a book-stop.

[Davey] peered closely at the ornate base carving, at the tiny steps spiralling through what appeared to be mildew-coloured marble. It wasn't a snowglobe really, more like a glitter globe. Strips of drowsy tinsel floated through the mini atmosphere, settling on the bottom in a shimmering sea. In the centre of the ocean stood a tree, flame-red in the throws of Autumn. Two moons hovered above the horizon, one silver, the other deepest indigo.

Deciding that her sister could use a book-stop as much as a new book, she waits for an opportune moment and snatches it with "practiced ease." On the walk home through the snow, with her hands stuffed in her pockets, "[a] not unpleasant tingle spread up her fingers and settled in a band around her wrist." An experienced thief, Davey soon realizes she's being followed by two figures in long, black coats with hoods secured around their faces. She tries to loose them in a market, but they stay with her and pursue her all the way to her apartment building where they wait outside, seemingly staring directly at her whenever she looks out.

In her room, she takes out the globe, wondering why it's so valuable.

[Davey] shook it, dislodging the twinkling ocean from the bottom so that silver streamers swirled in a blizzard, catching on the red tree like torn petticoats on an old woman’s wash-line.

A gust of wind billowed through the streamers, tearing them from the tree dumping several scarlet leaves on the mirror-surface lake.

Davey's eyes widened as another gust teased the tinsel ocean into frothy waves. She blinked and shook her head, not believing it. A crystal shard broke the surface of the sea, rippling and vanishing like a shiny scaled serpent, or platinum whale. 

Later that night, she wakes to find the two hooded figures standing at the foot of her bed. She learns that they are Fae, "Guardians of the Gate" enclosed within the globe and they have come to brief the new "Warden of the Realm" on her responsibilities.

Van Rooyan's writing is fluid. Vivid details create a palpable sense of place. The narrative is littered with understated humor and great similes, such as "Still they followed, like sticky shadows, like gum on the sole of a shoe you just can't get rid of." The only quibble I have are some references to the political situation of the story world. I found them superflous to the action and a bit distracting. Thieves are rather common in fantasy--Bilbo, I suppose, being the most famous. Van Rooyan creates an engaging character in Davey who is quick to realize she's in over her head. Davey is no a hero. She's ordinary, except for her skills at thievery, and her response to her situation is practical, charming, and humorous, encouraging the reader's sympathy and empathy. I can imagine more Davey stories. We'll have to wait and see if Van Rooyan has any more adventures for her thief.

To learn more about Suzanne van Rooyan and her writing, check out her website at suzannevanrooyen.com.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

CSFF Blog Tour Day Two: The Realms Thereunder

The Realms ThereunderThe movement between worlds in The Realms Thereunder is both complicated and simple. At first, I thought it inconsistent and arbitrary, but I think I've figured out the rules. It appears we're dealing with two distinct cases.

First, the underground world of tunnels and caverns that house Niðergeard and groups of sleeping knights is not technically another world but simply a place beneath the surface of modern Great Britain. Entry and exit can be achieved through magical and non-magical means. Freya and Daniel enter through an enchanted archway and leave by crawling out. The underground world also appears to be connected to the sewer system as Freya, Daniel, Ecgbryt, and Swiðgar slosh through a brick-lined sewer during their pusuit of Gád. Daylight filtered through a chandilier illuminates the chamber in which they encounter the Sídhe Nemain. So, it appears someone could accidentally fall into the realm thereunder. Enchantments protect the chambers in which the knights sleep. Freya and Daniel entered through one of these. Swiðgar explains how the enchantment works:

"The moment at which you found us was no time at all; it was what is called a 'time between times.' It was the evening--the 'even-time'--when light and dark are equal. It is a sacred time. It has a strong pull to a certain type of person. The place you found us could be called a 'place between places,' and you yourself are a person between destinies. You have started along a path that you cannot go back on." He smiled at her. "But there will be more paths to choose from and soon. Perhaps one of those will lead you to the place you seek, perhaps somewhere better" (p. 67).

This sounds similar to the way that children are brought into Narnia. They go to Narnia for a purpose, whether or not they are seeking Narnia, but are free to do the wrong thing and suffer the consequences once they get there. Similarly, Freya and Daniel are not seeking it but are allowed into the Realm Thereunder, but still have free will to act as they decide. The "certain type of person" and "person between destinies" part sounds rather vague. Alex provides a further explanation when he enters the knights chamber inside Morven, using a technique he learned from his father.

Alex put his hands up against [a chiseled stone wall] and cleared his mind, thinking only of being between. He had no intents or aims in life; he was open to all options. He was standing at the crossing of all paths. He visualized this last thought as standing in a country road with signs pointing in all directions (p. 272).

This is different from Lewis. The enchantment can be unlocked at a certain time of day by a person in a specific state of mind. Betweenness is the key. Alex demonstrates that one can put themselves in the proper state of mind. Two children who have just turned thirteen are by default in that state of mind.

The second case is travel to and from Elfland. Daniel enters Elfland through the lych-gate at the church and when he leaves, comes out through the lych-gate. Like the enchantments discussed above, the time of day, particularly "even-time" plays a role. The crossing is also limited to certain places. The elf who assists Daniel in crossing back has a list of places in Elfland and when they will be active. To these conditions, another is added. If someone carries one or more objects from the destination world, they are more likely to make the crossing. When Daniel first jumped to Elfland, he was unwittingly carrying a leaf from a tree that grows there. When he left Elfland, he carried several items from modern England supplied by the merchant elf assiting him. (Daniel bought the assistance at a high price. Many of the elves inhabitting Lawhead's Elfland are unscrupulous.)

It's important for a fantasy world to have consistent rules with regards to anything magical. You might be able to play fast and loose in a short story but not in a novel. If the magic seems arbitrary, the reader will probably become frustrated and loose interest. Our world works according to consistent rules. An invented world should follow suit.

Although Lawhead achieves consistency in his magic, the text suffers from a couple glaring inconsistencies that jarred me out of the story. What's strange is that the errors occurred not hundreds of pages apart but within less than a page of text.

The first inconsistency happens when Ecgbryt threatens to slice up some annoying gnomes.

"I think I understand," said Ecgbryt calmly, drawing his axe. "Hold by, gnome. I am a master axeman and this will be done quickly . . ." (p. 248). ... Ecgbryt was laughing as he sheathed his sword (p. 249; emphasis mine).

I've read the intervening text a couple times and there is no mention of Ecgbryt changing his axe for a sword or drawing one. He is known for wielding an axe.

The second inconsistency occurs when Daniel, Freya, Ecgbryt, and Swiðgar decide to split into pairs to follow different paths in the sewer.

They decided that Ecgbryt would go with Freya, and Swiðgar with Daniel.... Daniel and Ecgbryt walked down the tunnel, along with the flow of the sewer water (p. 341; emphasis mine).

It's sad that these kinds of errors mar an otherwise good story.

In conjunction with the CSFF Blog Tour, I received a free copy of The Realms of Thunder from the publisher.

Book Giveaway: Fellow CSFF blogger Sarah Sawyer is hosting a contest during the tour so stop by her blog to register.

To read more about Ross Lawhead and his work, check out his blog at www.rosslawhead.com/blog.

To read what other CSFF bloggers are saying, follow the links below.

Gillian Adams
Red Bissell
Keanan Brand
Beckie Burnham
Melissa Carswell
CSFF Blog Tour
Theresa Dunlap
Emmalyn Edwards
April Erwin
Victor Gentile
Tori Greene
Nikole Hahn
Ryan Heart
Bruce Hennigan
Timothy Hicks
Christopher Hopper
Jason Joyner
Carol Keen
Krystine Kercher
Rebekah Loper
Marzabeth

Shannon McDermott
Rebecca LuElla Miller
Mirriam Neal
Eve Nielsen
Nissa
John W. Otte
Donita K. Paul
Joan Nienhuis
Crista Richey
Sarah Sawyer
Chawna Schroeder
Kathleen Smith
Donna Swanson
Rachel Starr Thomson
Steve Trower
Fred Warren
Dona Watson
Shane Werlinger
Nicole White
Rachel Wyant

Monday, February 20, 2012

CSFF Blog Tour Day One: The Realms Thereunder

The Realms ThereunderTo be honest, I have not yet finished this month's selection, Ross Lawhead's The Realms Thereunder, a situation I hope to rectify this evening. The destination is in sight but there are a few more turns in the tunnel.

Set in England and Scotland for the most part, the story centers on Daniel Tully and Freya Reynolds and goes back and forth between their present lives and what happened to them eight years before when they were schoolmates, both thirteen years old. On a school trip to a church in Abbingdon in the Britsh Midlands, the pair go missing and are found two months later in Scotland. They stumble on a passage in the old church to a world underground. There, they encounter warriors from Alfred the Great's time and a fortress city called Niðergeard on a vast underground plain that is under seige. Evil forces and creatures dwell deep underground. Centuries before, they were driven from the lands above ground. The defenders of Niðergeard are part of the defences that keep the evil at bay.

The other half of Daniel's and Freya's story finds them in Oxford. Daniel is living on the streets while Freya is a student. Their earlier experiences have effected them in dramatically different ways. Daniel still carries on the fight against the evil they encountered underground. He's convinced something momentous and possibly horrific is about to happen, that the evil is welling up and invading the present. Freya is mentally unstable and suffers from a compulsive disorder. She wants to forget about what happened beneath the church but the experience has reshaped her view of history, which is now rather unorthodox. Daniel and Freya are being pursued because of what they know from their past experience and, like any good thriller, it's not clear who is friend and foe.

Another thread of the narrative follows Alex Simpson, an officer in the Northern Constabulary. He's tracking crime in Scotland, looking for crime patterns--missing or mangled livestock, suicides, robberies--that might point to suspicious activity and finds it in Caithness, a sparsely populated area in northeastern Scotland. I would like to see more of Alex, but Lawhead only gives us a few chapters, perhaps laying the groundwork for the next book in the series.

Movement between worlds in Lawhead's story takes place at certain doorways, usually arches, and at between times, such as the time between day and night. These passages are also only open to certain people. The passage in the Abbingdon church opens beneath an arch and then closes, returning to a stone wall. Daniel passes from present-day Oxford to Elfland when he passes under the arch of a lychgate. The Realms Thereunder is a unique mix of fantasy and suspense elements, but it reminds me of many other books. First, with the name Lawhead on the cover, I can't help thinking about ley-travel from Stephen Lawhead's Bright Empires series when Ross Lawhead's characters jump between worlds. Like C. S. Lewis's The Silver Chair and Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere, much of the action takes place underground. The elves Daniel encounters are a far cry from the generally noble elves in Tolkien. Lawhead's elves are dangerous, a mix of good and cunning nastiness, reminiscent of Lord Dunsany's elves or those brothers from Neil Gaiman's Stardust who must kill off their siblings to claim the crown.

In conjunction with the CSFF Blog Tour, I received a free copy of The Realms Thereunder from the publisher.

Book Giveaway: Fellow CSFF blogger Sarah Sawyer is hosting a contest during the tour so stop by her blog to register.

To read more about Ross Lawhead and his work, check out his blog at www.rosslawhead.com/blog.

To read what other CSFF bloggers are saying, follow the links below.

Gillian Adams
Red Bissell
Keanan Brand
Beckie Burnham
Melissa Carswell
CSFF Blog Tour
Theresa Dunlap
Emmalyn Edwards
April Erwin
Victor Gentile
Tori Greene
Nikole Hahn
Ryan Heart
Bruce Hennigan
Timothy Hicks
Christopher Hopper
Jason Joyner
Carol Keen
Krystine Kercher
Rebekah Loper
Marzabeth

Shannon McDermott
Rebecca LuElla Miller
Mirriam Neal
Eve Nielsen
Nissa
John W. Otte
Donita K. Paul
Joan Nienhuis
Crista Richey
Sarah Sawyer
Chawna Schroeder
Kathleen Smith
Donna Swanson
Rachel Starr Thomson
Steve Trower
Fred Warren
Dona Watson
Shane Werlinger
Nicole White
Rachel Wyant

Friday, February 17, 2012

Story of the Week: Identity Thief

Identity ThiefWhen you crack open Milo James Fowler's "Identity Thief," prepare yourself (if you can) for a meta-fictional journey behind the mask of a psychopath. The story begins with an apology (at least our psychopathic narrator is polite) and then moves into an explanation of what he does and why he does it--an unhappy childhood, failed ambiions, and a carjacker armed with acid. Fowler's psycho is a victim, too. The first hint that we're entering a meta-fictional world is the aforementioned apology:

The story already has an inherent flaw to it, as you've undoubtedly noticed: I'm the one narrating the thing. So you know there won't be much at stake for me. I'll live through it.

The narrator is telling us more than he thinks here. He's obsessively self-conscious, has some issues with self-esteem, and likes to be in control. We learn later that he is a failed screenwriter, which explains his belief that any narrative he creates is inherently flawed. He also says that he will live through it, but after one reaches the conclusion, it's not so clear that the narrator has lived through it. The physical body is still alive but who is the narrator? Does he have an identity, or has that been murdered along with the others. The body originally belonged to Matthew Helms, an aspiring screenwriter from Indianapolis who travelled to Los Angeles to fulfill his creative dreams, but as the narrator states in reference to Matthew: "I don't even know who that is anymore."

Most identity theft involves stealing and using information to fraudulently acquire money. The narrator takes it a step further. Because of the scarring from an acid attack, he needs their faces too. He hangs the masks in a closet and slips them on and off his face like clothing. He applies oil to them to keep the skin supple. You don't want a mask cracking to pieces and falling off. That would be awkward. He targets men who are similar to his body type and who have no friends or family in the immediate vicinity. He rotates from one identity to another, keeping up the appearance that all these people are still alive, conscientiously stopping by their appartments and putting in an appearance at their job sites. No one really cares about them--a sad comment on our society--so no one asks many questions. The narrator rents an apartment under an assumed name, an anagram of "THE LONE RANGER," and challenges us throughout the story to unravel his alias. No one asks any questions about Matthew Helms disappearance either. The sawing, cutting, burning, and disposal takes place off stage.

The narrator can be whomever he wants, whenever he wants, and Matthew Helms is a fading memory until an old friend from high school contacts him through a social networking account, his last tie to Matthew Helms. The old friend is Sharon Templeton, a "vivacious brunette" who has just moved to Los Angeles and wants to resume their friendship. Her request stuns him. He hasn't heard from her in fifteen years. "The time sure flies when you're somebody else." He ignores and deletes a couple messages from her but she won't stop. Perhaps there is still a bit of Matthew left inside:

[B]efore I know what I'm doing, I've bent over the keyboard and started typing.... And before I realize it, I've already clicked SEND.

Against his better judgement, he agrees to meet her for coffee, but who should meet her and what are they going to say? And wouldn't Sharon be another perfect target, alone and friendless in a big, new city. Should he try on a new gender, too?

In the denoument, the narrator tells us that he's "quite the unreliable narrator," and mocks any disappointment we might feel at the story's anticlimax. The narrator is in charge, choosing the cast of characters, inhabitting their identities, and directing their actions. Other than that pesky Sharon, the narrator has created a perfect fictional world. Perhaps. Matt's last social networking account bites the dust. The coffin has been sealed on that life. The narrator suggests we're more like him than we realize.

We all like to wear our little masks, pretending to be someone we're not for the people around us.

To read more about Milo Fowler's writing, visit his website at www.milo-inmediasres.com.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Recent News

My flash story "A Fortuitous Stumble" is out at Avenir Eclectia. This is the first of a three-part series about Elihu Simmons, a bug hunter/pastor living on Eclectia. Travis Perry introduced the character in one of his stories and I'm burrowing him for a few stories. One of the cool aspects of this shared universe writing project is making connections between the various story arcs.

"Morphine and Chocolate" has been accepted for The Midnight Diner Volume 4: Wastelands Under the Sun. I wrote this story specifically for The Midnight Diner so I'm very happy it made the cut. Based on the medieval poem Pearl, the story follows a father one evening on his search for his missing daughter. Part of the story takes place in a diner where he encounters some very strange people and takes some journeys to bizarre places. Does he find what he's looking for? Yes and no.

"Soul Theif" is forthcoming at Fear and Trembling. The kind editors at Fear and Trembling saw potential in the first version of the story that I submitted and invited me to submit a rewrite. The accepted version is triple the length of the original. It's the story of a young man whose obsession with online gaming and neglect of his family encourages a sluagh--a creature from Irish mythology that steals abandoned souls--to pay a visit. All hell breaks loose. Many things are broken. Shots are fired.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Story of the Week: Fire Eater

Fire EaterCourt Ellyn's "Fire Eater" is a sad story of misunderstanding and misplaced trust and sympathy. Mirrah is a reformer, a priestest filled with compassion and dedicated to pacifism. A new High King, who hopes to be known as a just ruler, gives her the opportunity to reform a hellish prison in which the basic needs of inmates are habitually ignored or cruelly denied. Mirrah finds that naedes, who require water like fish, have been locked in dry cells and that gnomes, who will go mad without earth in which to burrow, have been left in cells of brick and stone. Wyvern Prison for Extraplanar Delinquents houses non-human criminals and it "rose like a black boil above the Rahnish town of Aureth." Mirrah initiates the building of a new facility which she aptly names New Hope Prison and applies the compassion that her religious training demands to all the inmates. Mirrah sums up her philosophy in a speech to one of the caregivers working in the new infirmary.

“I understand your…discomfort. But you must understand something, too, Selisse. Many of these creatures, the draeling included, share human blood. Many more are here simply because they are considered foreign, misfits, outsiders. They have been abused and neglected by men who can’t imagine that these creatures share the same pain and fear that you feel, Selisse. And until we came along, no one cared. These creatures, from that wingless harpy over there to this draeling, deserve our unflinching compassion, not because they are good or pretty, but because we have it to give.”

Mirrah takes a special interest in one of the prisoners, a draeling named Derinzan--a half human, half drilyga creature of strength and fire who derives nourishment from the sun. The draeling had been thrown in a deep pit and forgotten. The former wardens of the prison had figuratively locked him up and thrown away the key. Accused of horrible atrocities during a rebellion, he has been imprisoned for nearly a century and a half. When pulled from the pit, he is barely alive, having been denied for so long the sunlight which he must have. Mirrah takes a leading role in nursing him back to health. At full strength, he appears a firey demon, standing over seven feet tall with sharp, curving horns, red skin, bulging muscles, black talons on his fingers and toes, and glossy red-black curls that tumble to his waist. She reaches out to him with her compassion, listens to his rendition of the events that landed him in the prison, and builds trust between them. According to Derinzan, he was a scapegoat and the men he was leading in the foraging party took as much part in the atrocities as he did. Having occurred more than a century ago, Mirrah has no sources, other than the official record, to corroberate or refute Derinzan's version. He responds to her kindness with trust and nobility and Mirrah believes him.

Mirrah petitions to the High King for the pardon and release of some of the prisoners whom she believes have been wrongly imprisoned or more than adequately served their time. Derizan is among those pardoned. Mirrah escorts him to the gate. Ellyn's description of their parting sets an ominous tone.

Derinzan stood inside the gate, wide-eyed. “I don’t know what to think of all that open space. So peaceful…” He looked down at Mirrah suddenly, confounded. “How in your goddess’s name can you be letting me go? You’re a pacifist, I’m anything but. I’ll take up a blade again. It’s the only thing I’m good at.”
“Unfortunately, that’s the business of war, isn’t it. You’re a warrior, Derinzan, not a criminal. And you deserve your freedom.”

He gave a vague sort of grin, one of sarcasm, perhaps, or of self-doubt or of scorn, and he asked, “Do I?”

Before Mirrah could encourage him or wish him well, Derinzan started along the road that wound down the island to the river. He boarded the ferry with far more confidence than Mirrah expected.

Mirrah learns the answer to his question months later and it costs her dearly. New Hope is "branded a failure across Rahn and the Verdant Mother Mirrah a fool blinded by woman’s compassion and naiveté." Derinzan tells her the truth of his past and recent crimes when the reeves bring him to the prison bound in chains. Ellyn's denouement takes her story beyond a mere tale of prison reform gone wrong. Derinzan trusts that Mirrah will see to his compassionate treatment, but as her last act as warden, she orders a cell built that will permit no light and throws away the key. Mirrah is not the only one in this sad tale who misunderstands another's character and misplaces her trust.

To learn more about Court Ellyn and her writing, check out her blog at cortllynn.blogspot.com.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Valentine's Day Gift Ideas (for writers)

Valentine's Day is fast approaching. Is there a special scribbler in your life? Or, more likely, you're a scribbler and you want to tell your sweetheart what gifts would warm your heart. First the don'ts. Don't send flowers. Those red roses will wither away on the desk while the writer stares at the ceiling, mumbling. Don't send chocolates. The writer, who already needs more excercise, will consume all those little goodies in one sitting, mechanically chewing while pondering difficult diction problems, such as whether to tag that dialog with "John said" or "said John." So what do writers want, besides publication credits and royalty checks? BOOKS. And I have a couple suggestions.

Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing
Consider Mignon Fogarty's Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing. Drawn from her Grammar Girl podcast, this reference book is full of tips on grammar and usage to improve anyone's writing, and the extensive index makes finding answers a snap. Among others, there are chapters on punctuation, pronouns, and dirty words (the ones people habituatlly use incorrectly like lie versus lay and affect versus effect). Fogarty spells out the rules with a tongue-in-cheek style that is engaging, informative, and never boring. Your scribbler sweetheart will be forever grateful.

20 Master Plots and How to Build ThemIf your sweetheart already knows everything there is to know about grammar, consider Ronald B. Tobias's 20 Master Plots and How to Build Them. No matter what you heard in that upper-level English course on experimental meta-fiction, a story isn't much without a plot. Unfortunately, critics don't talk much about plot, at least not in the way writers want to talk about it. Tobias first discusses plot in the abstract and how plot and characters interact. He then surveys twenty different plot structures, analysing examples and suggesting what the writer should be focusing on at various points in the narrative. Many of the examples are drawn from film rather than literature. I found that annoying until I realized that films tend to be much more formulaic than books. Each plot type has a self-contained chapter. You can dip in whenever you want to refresh your memory on how a revenge story or a metamorphosis story should work.

Still uncertain about a gift? Well, if you believe that you absolutely must give a food item, consider oranges. They're healthy, not messy, and peeling can be very theraputic to a writer while staring at the ceiling and mumbling.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Story of the Week: Invasion

InvasionGrace Bridges's "Invasion" mixes scenes of Kafkaesque despair with ecstatic redemption. In an unnamed city, beams of light are coming from seemingly nowhere out of the sky. (Although the setting is never defined explicitly, references to the Southern Cross constellation place the story in the southern hemisphere.) Some suggest an alien invasion but "on clear days it was paramount to idiocy to suggest there were ships of metal in the empty blue sky. The light-shafts shining golden bright eclipsed even the glory of the sun." No one knows from where the beams come but they clearly originate in the heavens. Everyone puts their hopes in the scientists who are investigating the mystery and who will surely solve it for "science could answer any question."

Although no one is injured by this new phenomenon, Emil finds the light shafts terrifying, questions his sanity, and like many other residents seeks to avoid them. Bridges's description of the mental state of Emil and the city's residents is reminiscint of Kafka's landscapes of alienation. Consider the following passage:

[Emil] had fled to the city to seek normality in the noisy streets. There had been few people. Those he saw scurried along in the shadows with their heads bent down just like his. Everyone was running scared, and no one ever spoke of it. Secretly, they avoided talking about it. They feared being mocked, even though they shared the same fear.

On his way home from the bus stop one evening, Emil struggles but can think of nothing else but the lights. Memories of his past crash into this thoughts. He recalls his mother's grief when he left the church as a teenager. In another scene of Kafkaesque despair, Bridges writes:

[Emil] dropped to his knees and lay as one dead before the fence. He tried to crawl on towards home, but couldn't see where he was going. Reaching the middle of the quiet street, his mind worked overtime trying to figure it all out.... Against all better judgment, he opened his mouth and in desperation moaned, "God!"

Unlike Kafka's characters who never free themselves from the machinations of bureaucracy and industrial society, Emil's act of desperation turns his night to day.

Bridges's prose is clear and precise, well-suited to her subject matter. She evokes an atmosphere of alienating despair and pulls off a convincing description of Emil's redemption in this story of internal struggle. It becomes increasingly clear as the story progresses that Emil runs not from any external threat as from the truth within himself that he wants to deny. The only point at which the story seems lacking is when Bridges's glosses over the myriad decisions that messed up Emil's life without naming them. Extended flashbacks would interrupt the story's flow but giving these decisions some solid form would flesh out Emil's character and situation.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Words of the Week: Slough and Slough

What does a snakeskin have in common with a swamp? (I know. Some snakes live in swamps, but we're talking etymology here not environment.) The answer is slough, one of those odd words whose pronunciation determines its meaning and whose path to modern English is the convergence of two distinct words of Germanic origin.

Slough, pronounced like slew, refers to a marshy place or mire. As a verb, it can mean to plod through mud or for a slough to engulf something. The word's origins are appropriately murky. It derives from Middle English sloughe or slo, which comes from Old English sloh, meaning muddy ground. After that the origins are uncertain. It could derive from Middle High German slouche, meaning ditch, or from Proto-Germanic *slokhaz.

Figuratively, slough describes a state of moral degradation. John Bunyan made use of this meaning in The Pilgrim's Progress with the "Slough of Despond," a deep bog into which Christian sinks under the weight of sin and guilt.

Then I stepped to him [Help] that pluckt him [Christian] out, and said, Sir, wherefore, since over this place is the way from the City of Destruction to yonder Gate, is it that this plat is not mended, that poor travellers might go thither with more security? And he said unto me, This miry Slough is such a place as cannot be mended; it is the descent whither the scum and filth that attends conviction for sin doth continually run, and therefore it is called the Slough of Dispond; for still as the sinner is awakened about his lost condition, there ariseth in his soul many fears and doubts, and discouraging apprehensions, which all of them get together, and settle in this place: And this is the reason of the badness of this ground (The Pilgrim's Progress, The First Part, paragraph 53).

Diamond Python sloughing.
Slough, pronounced like sluff, means to shed or cast off skin, to separate dead tissue from living tissue. As a noun, it designates the dead tissue that has been cast off, particularly snake skin. The modern word derives from the Middle English slughe or slouh, which means the skin a snake has shed. The Middle English words are related to the Old Scandinavian sluk and Middle High German sluch, both of which mean snakeskin.

I think it's fascinating that words with such different meanings would converge on the same spelling but retain different pronunciations. Here's a fun exercise. Use the word slough in a sentence multiple times touching on its different meanings. Then read the sentence aloud, matching the pronunciation with the meaning.

For example: The snake was sloughed while sloughing in a slough. [Read as: The snake was slewed while sluffing in a slew.]

Photo Credit: Peter Ellis. Image used in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0  License.