Leonardo Dead Vinci

I am presently hard at work on my latest novel The Many Beautiful Deaths of Miss Floretta Deliverance Hughes, which has been a far more difficult challenge than my first novel.  The draft I am building now is actually my third attempt to tell this character’s story without becoming sidetracked by secondary characters or peripheral, historical weirdness.  I am also hoping this time it will have some sort of actual plot.  The struggle is real people.  
The following is an extract from the chapter I am working on at this very moment which, for now, I have titled Bone Fires. It is a conversation between Floretta and Sergeant Fury, a cat-stodian of the dead.  It’s a nice teaser and fairly indicative of the book’s style.
The accompanying illustration is by Elizabeth Snider aka The Sewing Artist

 

flora‘Is this what you imagined your afterlife to be?’

‘Not exactly.’

‘Explain.’

‘Well,’ Floretta hesitated to compose a thoughtful and (mostly) truthful answer to the Sergeant’s question.  ‘I suppose I imagined more black.’

‘More black?’  The black cat arched an amused and inquisitive, whiskered eyebrow.

‘I certainly didn’t imagine you,’ she blurted out rudely.

‘Really?’  Fury pitched a tone of mock indignation.  ‘A girl with a death wish and a passion for Egyptology never expected her afterlife to include a cat?’

‘Death wish?’ shrieked Floretta with genuine indignation.  ‘Why, I never—

‘In the cellar of the vicarage with a knife,’ declared the cat, as if presenting evidence for the prosecution.

‘Dagger!’ countered Floretta.

‘A dagger with crumbs on the blade from slicing the morning’s bread.’

‘My resources were limited.’

‘You efforts to catch consumption by drinking nothing but milk for a month were rather entertaining,’ the cat continued.

‘I researched the topic thoroughly, I’ll have you—

‘But not nearly as amusing as your attempt to hang yourself with a dress.’

‘Christening gown!’ argued Floretta.

‘Death wish!’ accused Fury.

If he could have, she was certain the cat would have dramatically pointed a finger at her.  She tossed her head to show him in no certain terms how offended she was by the case he had presented against her.  In truth, she felt more than a little disconcerted as she realised this cat caretaker of the dead had clearly been watching her for some time.

‘Do you deny it?’ he demanded through narrowed feline eyes.

‘Categorically,’ Floretta declared.  ‘I had no wish to die.’

‘No wish to—

‘I simply wished to make certain that, were I to die, my death would be neither messy nor ugly nor accidental.’

‘So, your suicide attempts were rehearsals?’

‘I like to think of them as…’ she paused again, trying to form just the right words to describe her forays into Beaux Arts Macabre.  ‘Preliminary sketches of the sort which The Old Masters used when building their grand, artistic visions.’

‘Leonardo Dead Vinci,’ suggested the cat wryly.

‘Exactly,’ Floretta punctuated, deliberately ignoring his obvious overtone of sarcasm.

 

 

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Tea with Cecily

The following excerpt from my Young Adult horror novel in progress, The Many Beautiful Deaths of Miss Floretta Deliverance Hughes, is accompanied by the artwork of illustrator Elizabeth Snider.

Recently deceased Mia Walsh makes her way to The Church of All Hallowed Souls in an attempt to confront her father (the vicar) over his accusations against her (sort of) ex-boyfriend.  She is accompanied by long-time ghostly resident and would-be post-mortem mentor, the Victorian poltergeist Floretta Deliverance Hughes.  Whilst hiding from her mother behind a gravestone, Mia comes face to face with a nightmare named Cecily.

CecilywebLater, Mia would not remember if she had screamed or not.  Perhaps she had been too terrified even to rely on what had rapidly become her post-mortem, knee-jerk reaction to most things.  The face of the girl in the churchyard with the sing-song voice definitely made her want to scream.  Once the girl might have been pretty with her long golden curls, creamy skin, ripe, peachy mouth.  But something terrible must have happened to that lovely girl.  Some tragedy had drained her former beauty.  And her eyes.

Where are her eyes?

They looked as if they had been gouged out with a pair of forceful thumbs or plucked out with hot pincers or—  Mia didn’t’ care to consider any more horrific alternatives.  No evidence of past trauma there now—no marks or scars or weeping blood at all.  But no eyes.

Wait.  Mia looked more closely.  There were eyes down there somewhere.  Very deeply set and very small.  Like tiny jet beads on a black dress.  Maybe the horrible thing that happened to this nightmare girl had been too much for her eyes to cope with and they shrank, retreated as far back into her skull as they could.   All around the pin-prick, bead-black eyes were rough charcoal smudges of flesh, indigo, purple and black, which swept between the curves of her blonde eyebrows and the apple blush of her cheeks.  Twin bruises swirling toward two, twinkling dark stars in a vortex of horror.

Isn’t it all a bit rapey: Sansa Stark and the Line in the Sand

got_wallpaper__sansa__season_three_by_mcnealy-d5ujhgiTwenty-odd years ago, my mother performed a great service to the world of women (not to be confused with the great service to the world she performed forty-odd years ago).  While serving on a panel entitled Women in Fantasy & Science Fiction (I’m guessing at the title by the way), she picked a fight with George R.R. Martin.  Yeah.  THE G.R.R.M.  The topic was whether or not women can be warriors in speculative fiction.  Mr Martin argued that they could not, citing all the usual evidence: women are physically inferior by nature, biology, blah-blah-blah.  To this my mother said one word: FICTION.

This word was followed by several more but that was the gist of her retort.  What is the point of speculative fiction if not to speculate?  Why not envision a world where women can exist on equal level with men?  Unicorns, elves, magic, dragons—but not gender equality?

‘Ridiculous,’ snorted my mother to G.R.R.M.  ‘Ludicrous and short-sighted,’ she added.

I like to think my mother is the reason for Arya Stark, Brienne of Tarth and Maege Mormont.  But there is a wider issue at stake here.  What is the purpose of fiction—particularly speculative fiction?  Should writers of fantasy and science fiction present a world that is recognisable to readers through the haze of magic, time, technology and space?  Or do we have a responsibility—indeed a mission—to remake the world as it could or should be?

And what do we do about rape?

This may seem like a sudden change of topic, but bear with me.  As a feminist fan of Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels and the accompanying Game of Thrones television series, I tread a narrow rope bridge covered in slippery moss and sloppy bird shit stretching over an abyss.  He created some amazing female characters who are “strong” but also flawed in the same ways the male characters are.  These women struggle to pick a path through the moral morass (or in some cases blaze a destructive trail though it) just as the men do.  Some are victims of circumstance, some agents of their own destruction, some heroic—most are all three.  That is the beauty of Martin’s world and why we are all so in love with it.  The characters try and try again, fail and fail again but do their best to thrive and survive (though, of course, “thriving and surviving” means different things to different characters).

But isn’t it all a bit “rapey”? 

I love it when people use that word.  As if the actual noun and verb of it can’t be confronted, it has to be adjectived.  Rapey.  Rape-like.  Not actual rape, you understand, just a bit rape-ish.  Because of the truth of it is too much.  Too much truth.

This morning I read that The Mary Sue, feminist fan website of all things wonderful in the world of speculative arts and sciences, has decided to withdraw its support and promotion of Game of Thrones in light of a scene featured in the most recent episode Unbent, Unbowed, Unbroken.  A US Senator has called it quits, even Rolling Stone is raising an eyebrow.  Another woman was raped on television.  I watched the episode from over the edge of my quilt.  It was quite possibly the most upsetting thing I’ve seen on the series so far—which is an achievement.

Another woman was raped on television.  Enough.  The Mary Sue and Senator McCaskill have had enough.  I get it.  I really do.  I would never presume to draw someone else’s line in the sand.

One argument fans of the show have made is that the scene is not in the books.  Benioff and Weiss did it again the same way they did with Daenerys’s wedding night and Jaime and Cersei’s graveside reunion.  I totally agree with the complaints about Dany and Drogo, Jaime and Cersei.  Those moments on screen, so profoundly different from the books, really angered and upset me.  Last night upset me too, but not for the same reason.

Last night’s scene between Ramsay and his bride actually is in the books, it’s only the bride that is different.  What happened to Sansa Stark should have happened to Jeyne Poole who is masquerading against her will as Arya Stark.  The two scenes play out very similarly—almost exactly, but with one crucial change: Sansa for Jeyne/Arya.  Does it make a difference that it happened to a major character we love—a high-born character rather than a low-born one we’re not particularly attached to?  Hell yeah.  It’s far more painful.  I was sad for Jeyne in the books; I was devastated for Sansa on the tellly.  Benioff and Weiss upped the dramatic ante in a huge way.

Another woman was raped on television.  “Rape is not a necessary plot device,” argues The Mary Sue.  True.  Rape as entertainment should not be tolerated.  True.  But I defy anyone to describe last night’s scene as “entertaining.”  It was horrendous.  I have seen rape and sexual violence handled disrespectfully and in a way which makes light of, dismisses or fetishizes the experience.  When that happens, I am one of the first to scream out in protest.   And it does seem to happen quite a lot in fiction as it does in life.  But does this mean that rape and sexual violence have no place in literature, film or television?  Should we not attempt to represent it at all?  Where should we draw the squiggly, blurry grey line?

What do we do about rape?

This brings me back to my initial question on the purpose of speculative fiction.  I could just as easily throw this open and ask: what is the purpose of art itself, but I want to zoom in on speculative art because, to me, fantasy and science fiction are in a unique position to reflect or remake the world.  The best speculative art is a balancing act and the best artists mirror back to us truths about the familiar world around us in a way which shows those truths in a new light while also leading us down, or at least pointing the way toward, a different road.  Justice, suffering, identity, pluralism, equality, tyranny—speculative art explores these themes in tragic, comic, thought-provoking, life –affirming and world-changing ways.

Rape is a reality in our world. One in three women will experience sexual violence at some point in her life.  Not fictional characters, real women and real violence and real rape.  For many years, I worked as a rape crisis counsellor, educator and consciousness raiser.  Rape is not some amorphous concept to me, I’ve been on the front lines and seen the casualties.  For all its faults, Thrones strives to depict a truthful and brutally honest medieval-inspired fictional world which includes violence of all types.  If the intention is truth, truth cannot be ignored.  To ignore rape would be a disservice to those who have lived it.

But there are ways to creatively, sensitively tell the truth about sexual violence, include it in your narrative without perpetuating rape culture and misogyny and without glamour or titillation.  As a feminist and creative artist, I think last night got it right in an emotionally gut wrenching way.  The camera showed very little of Ramsay but focused first on Sansa, pulling us into her experience.  Then, rather than stay with her which could have been gratuitous, it pulled back to close in on Theon’s reaction as a way to mirror and model our own response.  It worked on me.  I was right there with him: frozen in tear-streaked horror as a girl I’d seen grow up was violated.

Was it awful to witness?  You bet.  Was it unnecessary and excessive?  Not if the writers want to stay true to the world they have created and to the vicious monster that is Ramsay.  Sansa knew what was coming.  None of us, the loyal watchers of the show, thought for one second that Mr Bolton was going to be as respectfully kind as Tyrion.  The writers practically held our hands as we all walked up those stairs together.  Could they have stopped the scene after Ramsay’s line about not lying to one another?  Possibly.  But this show has never before shied away from its own brutality.  Why would it start now?

Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken, a very darkly funny title when you think of it (too soon?), was a deal-breaker for many feminist fans.  I totally understand why, but I do not agree.  I find the casual, background images of violence against women on the show far more upsetting.  The tavern scene in Two Swords: while The Hound threatens to eat all the chicken, the poor tavern keeper’s daughter is having a very unpleasant time of it.  Oathkeeper: the Night Watch mutineers are putting Craster’s wife-daughters through the mill while Karl drinks wine from Mormont’s skull.  I find those casual, background incidents far more insidious than Sansa’s wedding night.

If you’re going to tackle sexual violence in a story, tackle it up front and honestly.  Images of sexual violence in art are upsetting and should always be upsetting, but I don’t believe they should be eliminated.  Silence is the cloak which hides the truth of what so many real women experience.  Do we black it out or do we depict rape with respectful honesty from the victim’s point of view?

Do I think Benioff and Weiss are guilty of gratuitous sex and violence?  Totally.  But last night I think they hit the right note for me, even if that note was discordant and horrific.  Does it turn me off enough for me to tune out?  No.  Because only half the mission has been fulfilled.

What is the purpose of speculative fiction?  Tell the truth and tear the veil off the ugly secrets of humanity.  There is violence, suffering and horror.  Any fairytale can tell you that.  But once the truth is revealed, a good speculative artist should show us another way.  Give us dragons, needles, oaths to keep and beautiful wedding nights under the stars— as Dany and Drogo were in the books and should have been in the show.  This is more true to G.R.R. Martin’s novels.

I hold out hope Benioff and Weiss will not leave us to wallow in the mud.  I also hold out hope that Drogon will swing by Bravos to collect Arya and the two of them will make winter bleed fire all over the Boltons.  Here’s hoping.

Mother: a excerpt from The Many Beautiful Deaths of Miss Floretta Deliverance Hughes

229038_10150232086718659_724701_nIn honour of Mothering Sunday, here’s a totally appropriate and not at all creep-tastic excerpt from my work in progress YA Horror Novel The Many Beautiful Deaths of Miss Floretta Deliverance Hughes.  And happy Mother’s Day to my own dear Mama. xox

 

From the archives of St Becket’s Church of England School, 1963

Priscilla Reid never heard anyone actually say: “The Old Cloakroom is haunted.”  Neither did anyone enter it, unless they were being dared to.  It was difficult to put a finger on why.  The room just felt wrong.  Dark, cold, vacant and solitary but somehow crowded and exposed.  Perhaps it was the spectre of time which made the room eerie.  All the things that had happened here, all the people who had passed through.  Six hundred years of joy and misery and fear and laughter captured in stone. Yet no other place in the original wing of St Becket’s School had the same feeling of wrongness, though they were all just as ancient.

Priscilla began to feel the effects of the room from halfway down the corridor.  It pulled goose pimples from the flesh on her arms and back and neck.  She’d left her cardigan at her desk back in the library.  The light dimmed.  Priscilla’s pulse quickened.

Don’t be daft.  It’s just an empty room. Nothing here but a frightened girl’s satchel with an overdue book in it.

Swallowing her fear she carried on into the cloakroom.  Whoever took Delia Jackson’s bag did a proper job of it.  The little canvas satchel lay crumpled in the far corner at the very end of a long row of those eerily empty coat pegs.  The thief must have thrown it from around the corner—hard enough to crush a plum Delia must have been saving to eat on her way home from school.  Dark, purple liquid seeped through the light beige fabric of the bag, staining it like blood.

Priscilla felt a strange, swooping sensation in her stomach.  As if the floor had just dropped from under her and she was falling from a great height, the wind pulling at her hair and her dress, making the bow of her collar flap against her chin.  Against the dizzying wave of nausea, Priscilla squeezed her eyes shut.  Little lights bloomed behind her eye lids: black then white then red. Bright, glowing, blazing red.  She forced her eyes open and all was still again—only the corridor and the cloakroom beyond.

Run.  Just run and grab it and run back out and hope no one is waiting at the opposite end of the hall to see you looking stupid. Her feet refused to obey.  Right, on the count of three then: one, two, three!

Priscilla pushed off from the stone wall, pelted into the freezing cold air past the empty coat pegs to the far end of the darkened cloakroom.  She gathered Delia’s satchel into her arms.  Spinning on her heel she launched herself back to the safety of the corridor.  Then, in the middle of the very wrong, very old cloakroom, she froze.

The bag moved.

Priscilla held her breath and waited.  Perhaps she had only imagined it.  The bag twitched again.  Then a third time before it began to squirm.

The bag thrashed wildly in her arms as if it didn’t want to be held.  Had Delia brought a cat to school?  Hidden in her bag?  Is that why she was too frightened to collect it?  She looked down at the canvas satchel.  Its light beige fabric blended with the skin on her arms.  The same colour, the same texture, the same—flesh!

The bag cried out.  A high, insistent, piercing wail instantly recognisable to any parent.  Priscilla opened her trembling arms and an infant’s face stared back at her, red mouth opened wide in an angry howl.  Its tiny fists and feet flailed.  Its spine stiffened and curled, stiffened and curled in a writhing motion.  The stain on the fabric of the bag was not from a squashed plum. It was a layer of blood which coated the new-born skin of the crying baby.

A sharp pain took root deep inside her, awakening a memory she had hoped would stay forever dormant.  It rose up from the secret place where Priscilla had hidden that horrible, wonderful, painful moment pulled from her at last by a high, insistent, infant cry.  The cry of her son.

That was all we had, wasn’t it?  One moment of wailing together before they took you from me, my darling boy. 

Maternal instinct moved her to stroke the infant’s fine blonde hair, damp and slightly pink with natal blood.  Tears streamed down Priscilla’s face for several moments, until a though occurred to her and she jerked back to look properly at the baby in her arms.

Blonde?  No.  Not blonde.  Her boy had most certainly not been blonde.  His hair and eyes and skin had been dark.  Like his father’s.

In response to her touch and her thoughts, the baby began to change.  Its flesh darkened, staining baby peach skin to a rich teak.  Fair and fluffy hair thickened, coarsened and blackened around her pale fingers until the babe in her arms became the son she’d known all too briefly.

My boy.  My darling, forbidden Indian boy.   

Unable to stop herself, she leaned down to plant a kiss on the dusky forehead of the squalling, bloody infant. The secret, thrice-cursed son she’d given away because he’d been born to the wrong parents in the wrong place at the wrong time.  But here he was in her arms at last.

‘Have you been here all this time, my son?  Is this where they brought you?  Were you waiting for me?  Were you, lad?’

In between questions she peppered him with kisses.  Gurgling happily, the flailing baby’s hands playfully they knocked aside the librarian’s tortoiseshell, cats-eye glasses.  Then tiny brown fingers grabbed fistfuls of Priscilla’s smooth, blonde locks and pulled with fierce tenacity.  The infant screams grew louder, wilder, sounding less like a baby and more like some enraged predator.  Priscilla tried to pull away but the baby’s grip was strong.  The sensible thing would be to release her hold on it, to let it drop to the floor.  But she couldn’t bring herself to do it.

‘This time I will never let you go.’

She held tightly to the baby and the baby held onto her, then Priscilla looked once more into her infant’s eyes.  The features changed again.  Dark eyes warm and cocoa soft hardened into something black, dilated, pupiless.  The mouth was no toothless, squalling maw either.  As the baby screamed one last time, Priscilla saw rows of razor sharp teeth.  The jaws of the baby opened wider and wider, impossibly wide. It seemed as if it would consume her head-first like a python.

That’s when she finally dropped the baby.  Priscilla staggered, blind with terror, determined to get out of the Old Cloakroom.  Her heart raced and she struggled to breath.  Something constricted her windpipe.  She moved her hand up to her neck and ten tiny fingers wrapped themselves around her.  The baby—or the thing that looked like a baby—clung to Priscilla’s back its arms and fingers clutching tightly about her neck in macabre imitation of a piggy back ride.

Don’t leave me, Mother.’  The baby whispered in Priscilla’s ear.  ‘Not again.’  Phantom tears dripped from its dilated pupils and fell icy hard on the librarian’s shoulders.  ‘Mother.  Please.  Help me.’

The infant’s tiny arms wrapped desperately about Priscilla’s neck in a ferocious embrace.  She stumbled to the stone floor at the edge for the Old Cloakroom.  The world began to spin.  Her heart began to slow.  Still the phantom bag baby held her, its terrified cries deafening as they echoed in the empty cloakroom.  Priscilla Reid clawed feebly at her neck and back hoping to pull the creature off.  Her fingers found a rope wrapped tight as a noose around her throat.  The baby was gone now.  Or she was the baby?  Priscilla wasn’t sure.  She only knew that she was being strangled.

Everything went dark and cold.  For several long moments, a silence fell around The Old Cloakroom, like a soundless shroud smothering the corpse of Priscilla Reid, school librarian.

In a far corner of the cloakroom sparked a red light, like a match being lit.  The flame burst and bloomed like a scarlet rose bud.  The glowing ember rose bloomed and stretched, its petals curling upwards, billowing in a ghostly breeze.  Its leaves puffed up then out ballooning in a fiery expanse of flowery embroidery.  The rose of red curls and billowing floral silk wafted over toward the fallen woman and the squalling, phantom infant.

‘You.’  The glowing rose scowled at the infant phantom cuddled beside the dead librarian.  ‘You swore to me you weren’t going to do that anymore.’  The red light of the rose burned hot.  ‘What shall I do with you, infant?’

Confessions of a Musical Junkie

I have a powerful, emotional and visceral connection to musical theatre.  When I go to see a musical, any musical, I start to cry.  It doesn’t matter if it’s a show I know and love or one I can barely sing along too; whether it’s a comedy or a tragedy.  You can guarantee that, before the orchestra has a chance to find their groove, I will be in floods.  (There is only one exception so far to this rule: Miss Saigon.  I really hate that show.  And Grease but I would never willingly go to a theatre to see Grease.  Unless one of my former students was starring in it and offered me complimentary tickets and it would have to be a former student I really, really, really liked.)

into-woods-movie-release-dateIt doesn’t even have to be a live stage production.  Glee held me in its saccharine grip for three seasons.  After one episode I had to phone a friend and sob about it to him.  I went through an entire box of tissues during Les Miserables.  Even the recent televised Tribute to Tim Rice had me misty eyed.  Is it any wonder that I spent most of the two and whatever hour performance of Into the Woods quietly crying into my daughter’s hair?  (She sat on my lap throughout Act Two and, for the record, hair is not terribly absorbent. #shouldabroughttissues)

Why do I get so verklempt by musical theatre?  At first I thought it was just musicals I loved at an early age: Les Miz, Into the Woods, Chess, Sunday in the Park with George, Evita, Cats (I was nine, ok?), Pirates of Penzance, Jesus Christ Superstar…  I’m going to stop listing now because this is taking too long.  But why did I sniffle through Wicked, a show I like very much but am not particularly attached to emotionally?   Why did a scene from Lion King performed at the Tony Awards reduce me to a gibbering puddle?  I hate that stupid film!

My conclusion is that I am Pavlovianally (there’s an adverb for you) hard-wired to respond with deep emotion to musical theatre because so many of my happiest, most fulfilling moments from the age of 8-18 can be linked to musicals: shows I’ve been in, shows I’ve seen, soundtracks I’ve listened to so often they are in my blood.  When the lights going down and the orchestra tunes up I’m transported through a worm hole where sequins, recitatives and cycloramas mix with willow trees I’ve climbed, friends and family I’ve loved, opening night jitters, closing night tears, a lighting gel sample fan I carried around for years that taught me everything I know about colour, practising my tap dancing on a discarded plank of driftwood in my living room when I was ten, my dad in a pink dress playing the role of Hysterium in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Forum when I was seventeen.

Most of all, musicals remind me of my small town high school which put on a musical every spring.  Some parts of my adolescence sucked, but once a year there was a musical and all my friends were in it.  Every night we rehearsed, every weekend we painted sets, hunted for props or made costumes and every moment I remember thinking there was nowhere else I would rather be.  On my eighteenth birthday, after our last dress rehearsal of the last show I would do on my high school stage, the entire cast sang “Happy Birthday” to me and someone brought cake and ice cream and there was nowhere else I would rather have been.  Spring is still my favourite time of year and I still put on high school shows—only now I’m the teacher/director.  Magic, memory and music combine into a heady emotional cocktail, rendering me powerless to resist the siren songs.

I should pause at this point for an interval/intermission because this blog was supposed to be a review of Into the Woods and it’s turning out to be Confessions of a Musical Junkie.

IntoWoodsTitlePage1At the age of sixteen, right in the middle of my most musically emotional period, I discovered Into the Woods and immediately claimed it as my own.  Sondheim wrote it for me.  I am as convinced of this now as I was at sixteen.  What could be more Kate than a musical fairytale?  Nothing.

For me, this show is a coming of age story in every way.  The characters and story, lyrics and themes taught me a lot about the kind of person I wanted to be but also warned me about the pitfalls of growing up and making choices.  “Nice is different than good,” Little Red Ridinghood taught me.  “Isn’t it nice to know a lot…and a little bit not,” she also sings, which resonated with me as a self-confessed Miss Know It All.  Jack warned me about giants in the sky, but also reassured me that when I came back to my small world, it would seem different but dearer.  This is what every kid needs to know when they leave home to go to university.  Cinderella and The Baker’s Wife taught me about men.  Handsome princes might be good for “whatever” but it was likely that they would be “charming not sincere” and I should wait for someone in-between.  I learned that for sure.

The Baker taught me the most because Into the Woods really is his story.  In the first act he tries so hard to complete a quest without losing his moral compass—unlike his wife who is willing to do anything to get what she wants.  But when he loses her in the second act, he loses his way in the woods.  Scared that he will become “like father, like son”, he runs from the consequences of his choices.  Everyone runs from the consequences of their desire to achieve their dreams because their choices leave a big, bloody mess on the stage.  This musical is all about choices and the consequences of those choices and the realisation that while you are chasing your dreams, others are chasing theirs or just trying to keep their heads down and get on with their lives.  The final choices that these characters face are not necessarily good ones, but you can see them trying hard and that is the point.  You will make mistakes but fix them as best you can then tell your story and hopefully the next generation will learn a truth from it.  Into the Woods is a big chapter of my Bible which, I guess makes Sondheim a major prophet of some kind.

INTO THE WOODSAs with Les Miz and Sweeney Todd, I was scared (“well, excited and scared”) to see the film.  I heard they had changed it, Disneyied it, sanitised it.  They didn’t really.  There were a few changes but mostly it was the musical I knew and loved with a cast cooked up in fairyland.  Chris Pine, Emily Blunt and Anna Kendrick are just perfect.  Little Lilla Crawford (I was scared at first that she had lip synced it but I looked her up and she’s totally a Broadway baby) is a gem.  I liked Meryl Streep, but as a fan of the show I wish they had cast Bernadette Peters so there could be one connection to the original play.  James Cordon continues to challenge my expectations and my biggest regret of the film is that he didn’t get to do “No More”.  Hoping for a director’s cut DVD.

As with Les Miz and Sweeney Todd and even Noises Off, I did find myself thinking throughout the film (when I wasn’t crying): great cast, great costumes and staging but can I please just see all these people do this on stage?  I’m a boards and greasepaint gal over screens and celluloid I guess.  I crave the live.

Treading Darkest Waters: on death, depression and other happy things

dark waterI met her in my fourth year of teaching.  A gifted young actress, musician songwriter, artist.  Able to communicate emotion through her talents with the kind of sincerity, depth and honesty that you cannot learn.

She was loved.  Oh dear me was she loved.  By friends and family.  Loved like crazy.

Later, I had to explain to some people who loved her—to my own students—that their beloved friend was in hospital because she had tried to take her own life.

She has been on my mind and in my heart recently.  Like Robin Williams, she was an artist.  Like Robin Williams, she suffered from mental illness (bipolar).  Few people knew it.  Fewer people saw it.  I know she tried more than once to take her own life. I am guessing Robin William’s final suicide attempt was not his first either.

I’ve been thinking too about my former teacher David Foster Wallace, who killed himself in almost the same way as Williams.  Struggles with depression, struggles with substances but ultimately the struggle was in themselves.  And their struggles were widely misunderstood.

I remember breaking the news of my student’s hospitalisation to a classroom of young people who knew her well.  After the shock wore off, they had questions.  The answers were difficult.

‘What happened to her?’ one asked.

‘How do you mean?’

‘Well something really awful must have happened to push her to this.’

‘Nothing awful happened to her really.’

‘Why’d she do it then?’

I had to think about that.

‘She was sick.’

‘When did she get sick?’

‘Always.  Maybe.  A long time.’

My answer was pretty lame and I was losing my audience.  But how do you explain to someone who’s never been at the bottom of a well?  If you’ve never felt yourself drowning in darkness how can you empathise with someone who constantly treads black water?

‘It’s like having a broken leg,’ I said.  ‘If someone breaks their leg, you notice.  They limp.  Maybe they have crutches.  Or someone has a missing arm or finger.  You can see it.  And you know that person will have to do things differently.  Make allowances for their missing limb or digit.’

‘She had a missing arm, only no one could see it.  Every day she had to make allowances for that and worked three times harder than anyone else to go about her daily business.  Just not in a way anyone could see.’

And that’s the thing about mental illness.  It’s hard to see.  Because we can’t see it we struggle to understand.

Reading various on-line posts and messages about Robin Williams’ death, many are sympathetic, heartbroken.  Some use it as an opportunity to draw attention to the issue of mental illness and the quiet tragedy of depression which so many suffer from every day.  And there is confusion.  He had everything.  He was so loved.  He was so talented.  What a waste.  Some expressed anger that he would selfishly take himself out of the world that needed him.

But if you have depression, you cannot see any of that.  All you can see is the darkness around you and no way out.  Like the bottom of a well.  Your head can’t escape from the well.  Your body certainly won’t co-operate because all it wants to lie back, float, let the dark water lift your burden.

People with depression live like this–always treading darkest water.  Medication can lessen the symptoms.  Therapy can alleviate the helpless loneliness.  And sometimes it gets better.  Good days.  Better months.  But it’s not something you can snap out of.  It’s not simply a matter of shaking off the blues.  Depression is illness.  You treat it.  You cope with it.  But you can’t shake it any more than you can tell your sinuses to stop running because a cold is not convenient just now.  You can’t will a severed limb to be whole again.  You can only learn strategies for coping without it.

I have experienced depression in small doses on two occasions in my life: after the births of each of my children.  I struggled to bond with my daughters.  I felt useless.  There were many times I convinced myself both children would be better off if I gave them to someone else to raise.  I even had a plan for this that seemed totally reasonable at the time.  Breast feeding was particularly awful.  This reached a high point—or rather a low point—when I took a pair of scissors to my favourite t-shirt and shredded it just over my breasts.  At least it was my shirt and not my skin.

If I spoke to anyone about my feelings, people would almost always say the same thing: “your babies are beautiful, healthy and they are going to be fine.”  My babies were never a question.  I always knew they were fine and would be fine.  I was the mess.  I felt like I was slowly dying.

I vividly remember when I finally felt like a mother.  Or felt the way I thought a mother should feel.  My first born daughter was seventeen months old and we were on holiday together in New York City.  That was the first time I had fun with her.  It was just as bad with the second one, though I recovered faster.  I still have moments, rare though they are, when I make plans.  Plans that seem totally reasonable for about an hour.  I can’t image how it would feel to live in that dark place full time.

Some of my favourite authors have written about depression.  Matt Haig is one of the most honest.  Stephen Fry the most vulnerable.  David Foster Wallace the most eloquent in his own way.  Robin Williams spoke openly about his struggles.

She wrote about it too.  And I have written about her.  She was my primary inspiration for the character of Rowan in A Circle of Lost Sisters.  She is still here.  Everyday managing to tread darkest waters.

A Question of Comic Art

Emma_Frost_(Earth-811)I have recently become a fan of comic books.  Sorry, graphic novels.  Mostly because of my husband.  That’s what happens when you marry a geek.  You learn stuff.

While I don’t pretend to be fully versed in the comic canon, thanks to my other half and the great people at Destination Venus, I am pretty well up on the good stuff.  Fables Legends in Exile, Kill Shakespeare, Lucifer, Runaways, Neil Gaimon’s Sandman, Joss Wheedon’s Astonishing X-Men and Buffy Season Eight, Alan Moore’s everything.  Seriously, Watchmen is up there with Catcher in the Rye.

As a result of this recent interest and as a feminist, my attention was quickly caught by a conversation on Facebook about comic book art.  Predictably, it was about boobs.  To his credit, I think my artist friend started the conversation with a creative gripe.  It was his intention to draw attention to the poor quality of mainstream comic book art in comparison with the artwork of many of the above-mentioned graphic novels.  Realism and proportion were at issue.  The conversation soon evolved into something more.

It’s probably not possible to discuss comic book art without talking about objectification. The aesthetic of comic art is a throwback to ancient Greece in its emphasis on perfection.  Female figures have exaggerated bums and boobs.  Men have muscles which border on the ridiculous.  I take that back, they don’t border on—they embrace and snog the ridiculous.

This was the first point made by a few people in this discussion.  You cannot complain about the representation of women because the representation of men is just as heightened, just as unattainable, just as psychologically and politically questionable.  My response is: yes I can and no it isn’t.

I most certainly can complain about visual representations of women in mainstream comic books because it’s pretty ridiculous.  The only good thing which might be said is that the target audience for comic books means fewer girls have access to the images and therefore they have a limited impact on their self-esteem and self-image.  But that is a minor point.  My main issue with the argument is one of equality.  Cause there ain’t none.

ThorWCAnytime anyone says “it’s the same for men” they are wrong.  Sorry to deflate your righteous indignation, men, but you got no leg to stand on.  Domestic violence is not the same for men as for women.  Unrealistic images of male perfection do not have the same impact.  You cannot claim any sexual equality because there is none.  There never has been.  We live in a patriarchal world.  Until that changes, no argument can exist about the equal impact on the sexes of anything.

If this still confuses you, let me break it down.  A superhero in a comic book might have a detrimental impact on the self-esteem of some imperfect teenaged boy who reads it.  But within a wider, cultural context, that boy’s worth is not based on his looks.  That boy will be judged by what he does not how he looks doing it.  Money, power, intelligence and influence matter far more in the patriarchy.  Furthermore, even without comic book art, women are valued first and foremost as sexual objects.  Every institution from marriage to procreation to the division of labour and property, access to education and healthcare—all of them in some way maintain patriarchal inequality.  There are rules and norms and life or death consequences behind those boobs and bums which do not exist for the muscles.

But the far more disturbing argument I heard today is that the comic books are being made for teenage boys.  Boobs and bums are what teenage boys want.  What they have always wanted.  What they are hardwired through nature to want.  And that cannot change.  Ever.

Bullshit.

Not bullshit that men desire women sexually.  Lust away.  It’s the idea, this hard to shake idea that men are creatures of desire alone when it comes to women and the expression of that desire which I totally, absolutely take issue with.  Even more the idea that men can’t change.  Of course they can.  We can.  Humans are adatable.  We’ve been changing and evolving since day one.  You think we’re going to stop now just because we can hold a spanner properly, walk a bit taller and get our dinner from Tesco?

And yet, despite all that—when it comes to sexual equality and who does the washing-up, people—men and women—resort to a caveman argument.  Boys will be boys.  That’s men for you.  Fire-gazers and boar-hunters who have not moved past the base instincts of homo habilis.  I hear stuff like this from intelligent, progressive women all the time.  I don’t know if we’ve given up or if we actually believe this crap but I’m here to say its bullshit.

sandman1_deathCulture shapes the brains, libidos and even bodies of men and women.  Culture can change it.  Trouble is, culture doesn’t really want to.  Patriarchy benefits men.  If you’re sitting pretty in the driver’s seat, why on earth would you willingly take your place at the back of the bus?  Slowly, gradually, men are starting to learn why.  Because it’s the right thing to do in the name of equality and social justice.  And because patriarchy has plans for men as well as women.  Plans that do not always benefit all men.

Lots of men get this.  They truly do.  I know many men who identify themselves as feminist.  One of those men said something once I will never forget.  He first acknowledged that when women challenge men on issues of gender inequality, people are quick to label those women male bashers or man haters.  “I have never believed this to be true,” he said.  “If a woman challenges me on my beliefs or behaviours, it means she realises I have the power to change.  It is an act of respect not hate.  It’s an act of love.”

Patriarchal objectification won’t stop me enjoying comic books.  Some wonderfully complex female characters have been created in word and image by these men (and they are mostly men).  But my enjoyment of comics won’t stop me calling a spade a shovel.  The male-dominated genre community should really know by now that it has some serious soul searching to do.  I’ll help you do it.  I’d like that.  With respectful anger and love.