Thanos and the Night King Have a Beer in Heaven

Contains spoilers for Avengers: Endgame and Game of Thrones up to season 8, episode 3. You have been warned.

EXT: A beautiful seaside landscape at sunset, with no sound but the wind and the gentle wash of the waves. Two Adirondack chairs sit facing the ocean, with a cooler in between them. In one chair, sipping from a Heineken and occasionally sighing, sits the Night King from Game of Thrones.

Enter Thanos, the villain of Avengers: Endgame, from a path that leads inland over low, grassy hills.

THANOS: Hey, Night King. Mind if I join you?

NIGHT KING: Yeah, sure. I’ll just be thinking in circles all night otherwise.

Thanos sits and fishes a coors out of the cooler. Night King hands him a keychain bottle opener. They drink for a beat in silence.

THANOS: What’s eating you, N.K.?

NIGHT KING: Man. Tons of things. First of all, how are the two of us even in heaven? We both did some pretty terrible stuff.

THANOS: It’s theologically shaky, but I was just asking St. Peter and Gautama about it, and they said that by being a fictional character, you bring joy to millions even if you’re the bad guy. Since stories need villains, villains get to be in heaven because we let them have stories. And this place is so big you don’t have to see anybody you don’t want to anyway.

NIGHT KING: Joy to millions. Yeah.

He takes a long swig. Thanos sets his bottle down.

THANOS: Oooo-kay. I know what this is about.

NIGHT KING: It’s not what you think.

THANOS: Don’t hold back, bro. We’re gonna talk you through this funk. Let it out.

NIGHT KING: It’s just that everybody loved watching you get defeated! Like three critics on Earth didn’t like the movie where the Avengers finally killed you. But when I get my death episode, which was built up to for at least as long as yours, by the way, everyone’s all ambivalent about it. All I saw the first time I checked Heavenbook up here were a bunch of thinkpieces about whether it was “narratively satisfying” or “underwhelming” or “why was a seemingly immortal zombie lord being treated as less of a threat than Cersei.”

THANOS: It can’t have been that bad.

NIGHT KING: I met Ned Stark, Thanos! He apologized to me!


NIGHT KING: I’m sorry. I raised my voice there.

THANOS: It’s cool. I know you’re feeling a lot of emotions right now.

NIGHT KING: But you get where I’m coming from, don’t you? We’re two of the scariest bad guys in 2010s pop culture, and we both got defeated on, like, the same weekend. People should have been losing their minds. We had such a great last episode where everyone talked about their backstories and stuff to make you care. And, you know, I thought it was really dope when Arya stabbed me using the same sword move she demonstrated on Brienne last season. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that while it paid off Arya’s arc really well, it didn’t actually pay off the show’s.


NIGHT KING: Also, the only guy I personally kill is Theon? Really? I couldn’t even take out Jon Snow? The guy doesn’t have any superpowers! He just has a sword and a wolf he keeps forgetting is there! All the people you killed had superpowers!

THANOS: You want to know what I think?

NIGHT KING: Totally. Please. You know I value your opinion.

Thanos takes one more drink while he figures out how to phrase this kindly.

THANOS: So the first thing I should mention is that I didn’t actually manage to kill any named characters in my final installment either. Natasha and Tony both sacrificed themselves, and Steve literally died of old age.

NIGHT KING: Yeah, that sorta violated the established rules of time travel, didn’t it? Also it’s kind of weird that Black Widow didn’t get a funeral.

THANOS: Minor black marks on an otherwise excellent film.

NIGHT KING: Yeah. (sighs deeply) I know.

THANOS: Also, I was personally against the “fat Thor” subplot. But we’re talking about you, not me. Have you thought about the fact that maybe people just appreciate our two universes differently?

NIGHT KING: How do you mean?

THANOS: Well, like Pete and Sid said, we both provide viewers with catharsis. But people go to superhero movies to get a particular sort of catharsis: they want to laugh and cheer and experience eucatastrophe, with moments like Captain America finally wielding Mjolnir.


THANOS: That’s not why they watch your show, though. Game of Thrones is all about morbid realities and deconstruction and pyrrhic victories. If it’s got one unifying theme, it’s the idea that human nature makes a better world impossible, which is the exact opposite of what Avengers stands for.

NIGHT KING: Wait a minute. Do you think that’s why nobody really cared that the Avengers undid the Snap through time travel, but everyone felt sort of cheated when Jon came back to life?

THANOS: Yeah, that’s exactly it. Every story makes a contract it has to fulfill. Your show won its place in the cultural conversation by killing off characters like Ned, Rob, Catelyn, Oberyn, and Shireen when it made sense in the story, even if it was shocking to the viewer. You took risks in the name of building a narrative that felt meaningful and lived-in.

NIGHT KING: It’s actually Robb.

THANOS: Whatever. Point is, you were all about tearing down something I played perfectly straight. A Song of Ice and Fire even has the character of Sansa to show how romantic “knights of the round table” tropes are attempts to sanitize much of what went on in the real European medieval period. And what are the Avengers if not the modern-day knights of the round table?

NIGHT KING: I think I understand what you’re saying. You’re saying I should have gotten to kill more important characters. Shit, I really wanted to take out Jaime.

THANOS: No, that’s not it, man. What I’m trying to say is–it was never actually about who got killed. It was about why. It was about showing that you were going to try and tell a story that had never been told before. People felt like you didn’t follow through on that promise.

Night King raises his beer, then puts it down without taking a sip.

NIGHT KING: You know…

THANOS: Take your time.

NIGHT KING: I’m starting to think it was a mistake for a show about human flaws and failures to have an unstoppable supervillain in it at all.

THANOS: That might be going a little too far.

NIGHT KING: It’s not, though! We were supposed to be painting in shades of moral gray, but there’s me walking around as the ultimate evil that you can’t understand or reason with? I force the whole show onto a moral spectrum that’s totally at odds with its themes! And if I’m supposed to be a metaphor for climate change or the inevitability of death or whatever, how does it make thematic sense that you can kill me a dagger? God, I’m such an idiot!

THANOS: Look, N.K., I appreciate that you’re going through a rough time right now. But I’m not trying to make you feel worse. I’m trying to build a place we can heal from, together.

Thanos pats the Night King on the back while the Night King cries it out. Eventually, Night King gets a Kleenex from his pocket, blows his nose, and gets another Heineken out of the cooler.

NIGHT KING: Thanks. That helped.

THANOS: I’m glad.

NIGHT KING: I did want to know why people liked your death so much more than mine.

THANOS: So then have you considered–

NIGHT KING: Can you imagine me in one of your movies? I bet I could have taken out the Hulk, easy. (shadowboxes)

THANOS: C’mon, bro, I’m trying to make a point.


THANOS: Have you considered that your presence in the story had the potential to add a whole new thematic dimension, but you were just poorly used by your writers?

NIGHT KING: What do you mean?

THANOS: One of your writers came right out and said he thought themes were for eighth-graders. It’s pretty clear that they don’t have anything profound or meaningful to say about power, mercy, war, love, or any of their other themes, and that for at least a season they’ve just been writing whatever lines will look best superimposed on a moodboard. But you’re different. You represent something your show has never been willing to say outright…

Thanos gestures to the whole beach scene.

THANOS: …that we’re all going to wind up here one day, and therefore there’s literally nothing more pointless than spending any time killing each other even faster. Resisting you represents the hope of a better world, of burning a torch against the night–this season’s billion-dollar chiaroscuro budget should have made that clear enough. But none of the characters in Game of Thrones have any clear idea of what a better world looks like, because their writers don’t either.

NIGHT KING: So the problem isn’t that I was dispatched too easily, or that I didn’t kill enough characters on the way…

THANOS: Go on, you’ve almost got it.

NIGHT KING: Or even that I was a poor tonal fit with the rest of the show…the problem is that I was treated as an obstacle to the fight over power, when I represent something so much more important than who gets to sit in a pointy chair! That’s why people didn’t like my death as much as yours!

THANOS: Yes! Nailed it! (chugs the rest of his Coors)

NIGHT KING: It all makes sense now. It would be like if Iron Man survived after he killed you, and then went to find Captain America and said “hey, fucker, we’re still having a civil war. Put up your dukes.”

THANOS: If there’s one thing I’ve learned from dealing with heroes all the time, it’s that when things get bad, people help each other. They realize they need each other. When everything is the worst, that’s when people’s ability to hope for better things charges into overdrive. Game of Thrones could have been a show about characters building a better world from the ashes of one that had become unsustainable. Instead they decided to roll around in the ashes and wallow.

NIGHT KING: Like the endless struggle over power is the only thing that’s ever going to matter. Can you imagine spending eight seasons and millions of dollars just to say that?

THANOS (shrugs): Some people like the sound of their own voice so much they’ll scream into the void just to hear it.

NIGHT KING: Heh. Sounds like a line from my show.

THANOS: You deserved better, buddy.

NIGHT KING: Thanks, Thanos. Good talk. I think I’d like to be alone now, if you don’t mind.

Thanos crushes his can and gets up.

THANOS: No problem, man. It’s getting dark anyway. I know that’s more your thing.

NIGHT KING: But hey, at least there’s one thing we can always agree on…

THANOS: What’s that?

NIGHT KING: Fuckin’ Starks.

THANOS: Fuckin’ Starks indeed.

Thanos turns to walk back along the shore.

Fade out.


On Spoilers

When I say that I don’t care about spoilers, people seem to think I’m not telling the truth.

“He claims he doesn’t care if we talk about Game of Thrones before he’s seen it,” my family thinks, “but Sam has a long and annoying habit of staking out intentionally contrarian viewpoints, so this is probably one of those. In actuality, he is riven by the fear of spoilers. Consumed by it. As are we all.”

It’s true. I do have that habit, and I’m working on it, because it is annoying. But this isn’t one of those times. I would never violate somebody else’s right not to be spoiled because of my beliefs that spoilers don’t matter, but for me personally, I really, literally don’t care if you tell me about the plot beats of new books, movies, TV shows, or video games before I’ve read them.

A recent Vox article about spoiler paranoia has inspired me to expand on my opinion here. That piece’s thesis is pretty simple, if you don’t want to read the whole thing: as evidenced by the bizarre filming process of Avengers: Endgame, bending over backwards not to spoil things leads everyone to jump through hoops that make movies worse.

The idea that fear of spoilers is changing the way movies get made is especially galling to me, and I can express why in five simple words: to me, ruining stories doesn’t ruin them.

The Potter Example

Let me set a scene. It’s July 20, 2007, and you’re standing in line to get your copy of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows when it gets into the bookstore at midnight (as long as we’re time-traveling, you might as well imagine it’s a Borders). As you’re leaving the story with your copy under your arm, a guy drives by with his window down.

“Harry is a horcrux!” he yells. “He dies but gets better and then he marries Ginny! Fred and Hedwig don’t make it! Snape wanted to bone Harry’s mom!”

And other such charming phrases. For maximum visual irony, his car has a spoiler on it. Before you can shoot out his tires, he’s screaming onto the interstate to spread chaos elsewhere.

Here’s my question. At this point, knowing many of the book’s major reveals, do you toss it in the garbage?

Of course you don’t. Below, I’d like to list the reasons why.

1. You can’t be sure the spoiler is telling the truth

You probably aren’t in the habit of believing everything people scream at you from moving cars. But you also don’t believe everything you read on the internet, or even that you hear in person–you may love your friends, but you still tune out Dave when he starts talking about chemtrails.

Spoilers, though, are granted a weird exemption from skepticism. We’re so annoyed that somebody has ruined the ending for us that we don’t stop to ask whether they know what they’re talking about. This is important wisdom not just for enjoying pop culture but for navigating the entire world in 2019: a statement is not automatically true just because it is upsetting to hear.

When we get to the story ourselves, we can actually preserve a lot of the suspense and surprise by remembering that it’s still an open question whether the spoiler was at all correct. Fans who saw The Empire Strikes Back in its original theatrical run frequently reported that when Darth Vader claimed to be Luke’s father, they straight-up didn’t believe him. Now, it’s our generation’s turn to cultivate the spine to tell Darth Vader he can shove it.

2. There are other reasons to experience stories than to find out what happens next

Yes, I do understand this is a major source of enjoyment for readers and viewers. It is for me too. And I also understand how many people identify with the Russian scientist who stabbed his colleague for telling him the endings of books, even though that was likely a product of madness from the Antarctic isolation. This point, though, is really critical, and I believe everyone gets it, even if we don’t talk about it much.

Harry Potter and his friends are beloved characters. We enjoy spending time with them. We like luxuriating in their magical world. We cheer for the themes of protecting the helpless, fighting for equality, and living meaningful lives. All of these are things that are not damaged, in any way, by knowing beforehand that Harry is a horcrux.

Some of the greatest works of Western literature, including the poems of Homer and the tragedies of Shakespeare, ruin their own endings in the first lines. By line 15 of the Odyssey, we know that Odysseus’s crew will be killed after slaughtering cattle belonging to the sun god; by the same point in Romeo and Juliet, we know that the title characters will die and thereby end the fighting between their families.

Similarly, nobody who buys a ticket for an action movie is in any doubt about whether it will end with the protagonist bringing the villain to justice. You know the ending of the story going in, and you still sit down, because there’s so much more in a good story than a few major plot beats, and it’s all so much harder to ruin.

I’ve harped on this before, but I’m going to keep repeating it whether anyone likes it or not. The difference between a story and a surprise is the difference between a Vegas magic show and your friend who does card tricks when they’re drunk. The reason we all stopped caring about M. Night Shyamalan movies is that nobody gave a crap about anything that happened before the reveal.

To really beat this into the ground, if the best value to be gotten from stories was from the steady reveal of plot beats, nobody would ever reread books.

3. Being spoiled does take something from the experience, but it adds more than it takes

A series of studies conducted at UC San Diego suggested that people actually derive greater enjoyment from a story when they’ve been spoiled. The researchers theorized that knowing the plot beforehand allows a reader or viewer to appreciate everything else in the story more, because they aren’t distracted by waiting to find out what happens. In other words, watching a movie again to appreciate all the subtle hints at the twist ending is just as pleasurable if it’s your first viewing.

There is definitely a thrill that can’t be replicated that comes from discovering new twists as they happen, but to me, that’s a very small part of the experience of being told a story. That’s what makes it so frustrating that spoiler culture privileges it above everything else. If you love something, says spoiler culture, what you care about is what happens next. And so, the natural connections people forge around things that should be beloved cultural touchstones–the very foundations of nerd culture–are limited by the necessity of tiptoeing around what should be the least important part of those stories.

4. Even so, don’t spoil things for people

I want to be absolutely clear about this. If what people want is not to be told what happens at the end of the next installment of their favorite story, nobody has the right to decide otherwise–I don’t get to decide what’s good for someone else against their will, ever, and I don’t have the right to decide what beliefs do and don’t count as legit.

I’m just hoping that, eventually, spoiler culture will die down on its own. It’s frustrating and limiting, and in a small but real way, devalues what I love.

The Ultimate Halloween vs. Christmas Cage Match

All right. Buckle the heck up, because I’m about to take you people to school. It’s time for me to settle the ultimate debate: which is the best holiday, Halloween or Christmas?

A few things before we start. Yes, I’m aware they’re both wonderful times of the year that provide a great deal of joy to many people, but this is America, and nothing has value here unless we make it defeat something else. Yes, I know Thanksgiving should be involved in this, but Thanksgiving is just a big amiable doofus sitting in the middle of this fight, unaware it’s going on, so I won’t bother it. And yes, I know that they play very different cultural roles and it doesn’t make sense to compare them apples-to-apples, but this post is not about making sense. It’s about winning.

I’m going to compare Christmas and Halloween by every metric I can think of, and at the end, only one bruised and bloody holiday will be left standing. And now, further ado.


Christmas might seem to have this locked up, right? It’s the music holiday. Only 4th of July has as many tunes instantly come to mind. But much like 4th of July, I mostly like Christmas songs because other people around me like them and I want to hang out. Because the fact is lots of Christmas carols are–as my brother likes to say–boring as schmaitz.

Sure, there’s some great stirring ones. “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” never fails to get me hyped for Baby Jesus, “O Holy Night” and “Good King Wenceslas” are bangers, “We Three Kings” is goth AF, and while my favorite, “Do You Hear What I Hear” is controversial, I contend there’s nothing more rousing as long as you can find a singer, or singers, who isn’t, or aren’t, lobotomized.

Unfortunately, all that dies once your initial writing date gets on the wrong side of the “Silent Night” line. Then you wade into a minefield of what I call “boomer carols” or “songs that could put one to sleep even if one were currently riding a motorcycle.”

“White Christmas”? Get the cocoa, kids, Bing Crosby’s using all four of his notes!

“Jingle Bell Rock”? Has a less rocking song ever been recorded, possibly excepting “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree”?

“Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer”? Merry Christmas, children! Everyone in your life will ignore you for being different, until that difference becomes convenient for them!

And am I the only person who’s noticed that “The Christmas Song” and “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” are the same song? I feel like I’m shouting about Derek Zoolander’s looks every December with this one.

Point is, you have to compare the music of Christmas and Halloween along two avenues: classic and popular. Halloween puts up a good fight on classic, with Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, Danse MacabreNight on Bald Mountain, and Der Erlkonig, but they can’t stand up to all the pre-1900 Christmas carols–plus the secret designated hitter, Handel’s Messiah.

But there’s also pop. This is where Halloween truly shines.

“Thriller.” “Don’t Fear the Reaper.” “Ghostbusters.” “Music of the Night.” “The Time Warp.” “I Put a Spell on You.” “Somebody’s Watching Me.” “Spooky Scary Skeletons.” “Monster Mash.” “Season of the Witch.” “This is Halloween.” “Werewolf Bar Mitzvah.” “Werewolves of London.” Tell me you wouldn’t rather listen to that playlist than the 85th cover of Frosty the Snowman.

Totally unbiased winner: Halloween


Another one that starts out obviously going one way and then veers another due to my vested interest. Everyone loves Christmas movies, right? You gotta! What’s Christmas without A Christmas Story, It’s a Wonderful Life, Love Actually, uh…Elf

This is very hard for me to finish. Because I don’t like any of those movies. A Christmas Story is funny, but not the 46th time. It’s a Wonderful Life is a great 20-minute film with a two-hour prologue. Love Actually, as has been better pointed out in The Atlantic, is extremely unromantic, ignoring every part of love between lust at first sight and marriage (the whole movie should have been about Bill Nighy’s character anyway).

There are some gray areas. How the Grinch Stole Christmas is a classic, of course, but it’s like eight minutes long, and five of those are the song. A Charlie Brown Christmas, same deal, but every holiday has a Peanuts special, so Charlie Brown can’t be definitively claimed. Same with The Nightmare Before Christmas, which both sides get, so it’s a wash. And no, Christmas, don’t try claiming Jesus Christ Superstar–are you trying to take all Easter has left?

Elf, The Polar Express, (except for the part with the evil Christmas hobo) Miracle on 34th Street (except for the part where Santa clubs a guy into unconsciousness) and the others are all fine, I guess, but I’d never watch them anytime other than Christmas. And that’s the main point here. I can think of only two “Christmas movies” I’d want to watch for reasons other than celebrating the season: Die Hard, and Hong Kong kung fu classic It’s a Drink! It’s a Bomb!

“But Sam,” you say, like the hypothetical strawman you are, “maybe Christmas movies are a weak bunch, but I don’t like horror movies. How can Halloween win this one?”

All right, listen up, because this is central to my argument. Not all Halloween movies are horror movies, and vice versa. If you don’t like horror movies–and I don’t either!–you can watch any number of horror-themed movies that aren’t actually scary.

Once you realize this, practically every genre opens up. Want a film that captures the spirit of Halloween without frightening you? Check out ParaNorman, newcomer The House with a Clock in its Walls, or my favorite that I watch every year, Over the Garden Wall (which is actually a miniseries). Feel like an adventure? There’s The Mummy, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, or Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Romantic sorts are especially in luck–they get Sleepy Hollow, Let the Right One In, Ghost, Corpse Bride, The Shape of Water, or hell, Twilight if that’s what you’re into. Would you rather laugh? Shaun of the Dead, Zombieland, Scream, Young Frankenstein, What We Do in the Shadows, and Hocus Pocus are all season-appropriate. Sci-fi nut? Alien, Predators, and Pitch Black are all right there. There are even musicals–The Phantom of the Opera, Sweeney Todd, and Wicked–that’ll make you forget all about White Christmas.

Many of these movies are ones I’d call my favorites any time of the year. But if that enormous cascade of great cinema didn’t convince you, consider two other points. First, Halloween-appropriate movies have been considered great art throughout the history of film: Psycho, Jaws, The Silence of the Lambs, Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, and Get Out are all milestones. Can you name any Christmas movies with the impact of any of those? Didn’t think so.

And second: modern Christmas traditions were heavily popularized by Charles Dickens in “A Christmas Carol.” A story about–can anyone tell me?–ghosts. The original Christmas story was actually a Halloween story.

Obvious winner: Halloween


One thing that’s true about both of these holidays: if you love them, you love decorating for them. Halloween fanatics can’t face the season without their jack-o-lanterns, fake cobwebs, and spiders; Christmas lovers go nuts on the lights, fake snow (assuming their area doesn’t get real snow), and inflatables.

It’s all great. Both in different ways, of course. The key to Christmas decoration is extravagance: it’s a celebratory festival, and light displays are a fantastic way to display your joy. I myself remember many happy evenings on the Trail of Lights in Austin, and there’s even a TV show, The Great Christmas Light Fight, where people compete to greet the season using numbers of gigawatts that would make Doc Brown tell them to settle down a little.

On Halloween, the best decorations come from ambience and performance: being the star of a terrifying scene. Halloween tends to come in stories, which is probably why I gravitate toward it, or would if I weren’t a perfectly impartial cage-match referee. A Christmas village is a static thing, but a Halloween haunted house, or even a well-decorated trick-or-treat destination, involves you in an unfolding scare.

All that said, it’s hard to weigh the breadth of Christmas against the depth of Halloween in this area. So I’m declaring…

Winner: Tie


Holidays don’t appear in a vacuum, as I’ve already alluded to. Which holiday has the coolest origin?

Christmas has gone through a lot of iterations over the years. Yule celebrations are as old as human civilization in temperate climates, at least in Europe: celebrating the moment when the days become longer again makes perfect sense. Many people know that the birth of Jesus Christ wasn’t celebrated by Christians in the first few centuries that was a thing you could be, and that the Pope chose December 25th as Jesus’s birthdate so it would coincide with the pagan Roman festival of Saturnalia.

Disclaimer: this next argument is lifted almost wholesale from Jamie of the British History Podcast, and I’ll pay him back for this theft by telling everyone reading this to go listen to an episode before you keep reading.

You back? Good. Halloween went through much of the same process as Christmas: a pagan harvest holiday, scheduled due to the natural rhythms of the year, re-branded into a Christian occasion by a church powerless to stop the heathen revelries. In Halloween’s case, All Hallows’ Eve festivities were said to just be the prelude to All Saints’ Day on November 1.

What I find interesting is that, before both were Christianized, Saturnalia had many of the same characteristics we associate with Halloween today: masks and costumes, general revelry, and the reversal of traditional social rules. At Saturnalia, masters waited on their slaves at table; on Halloween, children demand treats from adults and are indulged instead of punished.

Anyway, the exact argument I’ve stolen from the BHP is that while Christmas has been wholly sanitized by 1,500 years and the work of Washington Irving and Charles Dickens, Halloween never lost its pagan edge, no matter how hard the priests tried. It’s Samhain, the night the world of the spirits is closest to our own. A night for the superstitious, the credible–for those who refuse to accept that the purpose of existence is to avoid fear and discomfort. A night when the oddballs, the outsiders, can be hailed as just another part of the masquerade.

Of course, Christmas plays a different role. While Halloween is about letting madness into our brutalist lives, Christmas has come to represent kindness and generosity as people share what they have to help others make it through the long night. But that will score it points in a different category.

Christmas’s current incarnation can sometimes feel like an invention of the modern world. Halloween feels like a message sent from long ago: a magnificent standing stone, or barrow for a great king, that nobody can move no matter how hard they try. Which one do you think Susan Cooper’s biggest fan is giving the edge to?

Winner on points: Halloween


Tradition, tradition! Having examined the trappings of the two titans of festivity, we now dig into the marrow. What actually makes Halloween all-hallows’ eve, and Christmas the celebration of nativity? Let’s review them point-by-point.


Costumes: For one night, city streets and genteel suburbs are transformed into the dealer room at Comic Con. However, the pressure to wear something cool and creative can stress out those who don’t enjoy it.

Trick-or-Treating: This is a sad one for me. I still remember that feeling of having the freedom of a neighborhood at night, even though I had parents tagging along. It was beautiful, testing those limits, so of course everyone now wants to destroy it.

If you only read one paragraph of that article, read the one about the researcher who has been updating his study on Halloween sadism since 1981, and hasn’t seen a single instance of any child being fed a razor blade or murdered on Halloween by anybody they didn’t know. Halloween is supposed to be about letting fear into your life; instead, we’re ruining one of its most hallowed traditions because nobody wants to be scared. A. and I didn’t get one child at our door this year.

Haunted Houses: I love these. Even more so because my friend who works in one has given me a direct line to all the backstage drama. Sure, they can be cheesy, but the performers put their hearts into it, and I’ve seen some great effects and well-staged scenes. And if you don’t like being freaked out, an escape room can give you the same feelings in a safer environment.

Candy: I still love it. But growing up has taught me about all the horror in the chocolate supply chain, so I can’t stand to buy it anymore.

Ghost Stories: In recent years, this has become one of my favorite ways of celebrating: gather with friends in costume and trade scary tales. H.P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allen Poe are mainstays, but I tend to bring either “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” or my abridged version of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”

Pumpkin Carving: Why don’t we do this year-round?

Other: I’ve talked before about the reasons my completely unbiased self prefers Halloween, and this is another. I don’t honestly love many of its traditions in themselves. I love the potential for weirdness this holiday always holds. One year I wore a Captain Hook costume on a tall ship and had a sword fight with Peter Pan on the boom. Another I spent on a friend’s roof, dropping a fake corpse whenever anyone walked by. Then there was the year I got menaced by Stupendous Man in my calculus class. Or wandered the neighborhood as a mummy with my bandages realistically unraveling.

Nothing weird ever happens to me on Christmas, in other words.


Presents: Xkcd has pointed out that at some point Christmas became our most meta holiday, entirely about discovering the meaning of itself. Personally, I think that came about because everyone feels awkward getting presents and decided to collectively pretend we don’t care about them. But screw that, because presents are great, both to give and to receive–you get the warm fuzzies of watching someone open something you know is perfect for them, plus then you have a bunch of cool stuff you didn’t pay for.

Christmas Morning: This is much like defecating, in that no two people seem to do it in exactly the same way. Do you open presents the night before? Do you make a big deal out of stockings? When do you have breakfast? How long do you torment the children for? To church or not to church? But it is hard to beat the extraordinary feeling of peace. Looking back, that’s what I loved most, even though there are other places to get it.

Stockings: Like trick-or-treating but your feet don’t get tired, the food is better, and your parents let you do it.

Trees: I have been hard on Christmas for letting go of its pagan roots, but this thing where you put a tree inside your house for no reason, and enough people do that to maintain a year-round industry, has me like bottom-picture Drake.

Family: It could be said that Halloween is a holiday for friends, Christmas for family. I’m very lucky–my family is full of strong personalities that inevitably clash when you put them in a house for a week, but by and large, we all love each other and look forward to the togetherness, especially since we don’t see each other much the rest of the year. However, it’s hard for me to rate this highly given that I think the general idea of “family comes first” is toxic for people who don’t have families as kind as mine.

The result here is our first victory for Christmas, with qualifications: my love of Halloween is personal, as I’ll discuss more later, but too many modern issues are dragging it down right now.


This will be a fast one. Halloween has got candy and apples, pretty much. Maybe roasted pumpkin seeds if you’re into that. If it’s being celebrated right, as a harvest festival like its origins demand, you can have a feast, but those functions are largely handled by Thanksgiving now.

Christmas demands a feast. Several, usually. While the nature of the food is less circumscribed than on Thanksgiving, the only requirements are that it be hearty, ample, and shared with the less fortunate. Christmas gets the win since Halloween just isn’t a food holiday.


Here’s a really intangible one that nonetheless makes or breaks how much I enjoy a holiday. How does it feel to be out on the streets this season?

At Christmas, everyone is bundled up, scarfed and hatted. Their breath clouds as they hurry from door to door with their hot cocoas and peppermint teas. People carry stacks of brightly-colored bundles to their cars, while on the next corner, some singers in Dickens garb are absolutely crushing “O Come All Ye Faithful.” There’s some lights on the underside of a bridge and you have no idea how they got there. Everybody seems dedicated to making life slightly nicer.

On Halloween, the spirits of dark netherworlds and fae realms are conjured by hanging bats, fake tombstones, and spider webs. People wear cloaks outside, linger in cemeteries,  mix food coloring into everything. There’s organ music coming from somewhere you’re pretty sure doesn’t have an organ. Everybody seems dedicated to making life slightly more interesting.

Let’s remember what I said before. Festival days are about stirring up life so it doesn’t settle into boredom, even if you’re required–like most of us–to follow a routine. On Christmas, we are kind and generous because our culture doesn’t usually incentivize that. On Halloween, we court fear because our culture is otherwise built entirely around avoiding it. What this means–for all of us–is that the true meaning of these holidays is what we get out of them.

And ultimately, that’s why Halloween is the victor on atmosphere. Because it’s a personal decision, and Halloween, as I have discovered by writing this post, is just the one that I’m better at. Halloween is about coming to terms with the enormous things: death, the size of the worlds, the massive sweep of our ancestral history and the ghosts it left. Understanding those things breeds generosity like mold on a jack-o-lantern.

But I haven’t really found that it goes the other direction. For all that I love about Christmas, it has a way of shrinking the world until it’s small enough to be cozy. Halloween expands the world and tells us that in the end, we are the ones that keep each other warm, shoulder to shoulder around the fire.


Who wins this cage match? For me, Halloween. For you, who knows? This took me longer to write than I expected. It was a process of learning that festivals give us a chance to examine what’s important, and that will never be the same between two people. Here’s my goal, though: remember why we celebrate, and not just in the classic meta-Christmas way.

For as long as there have been festivals, they have marked the passage of time so that we can feel connected to the universe. They are about the sun and stars, the crops and snow, the dead and the ones we love, not just about “generosity.”

That said, Halloween movies really are better. Fade out.

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (abridged)

Welcome to the Halloween Special! This is a little service I’m providing to people who might find themselves in the position of needing a great creepy story to read on this night of spooks and spectres, or any other similar night in the future. I love Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow–it’s atmospheric, hilarious, and can trace a direct line of descent to Over the Garden Wall–but Irving is on par with Victor Hugo as a master of digressions.

Absolutely, the digressions are the point. But I also here present a version I cut down to less than half its original length. This one goes over very well as a performance for an audience who might not want to sit through several pages of locating the Dutch settlers of the Hudson Valley in America’s founding myths, not to mention enough food porn to give George R. R. Martin a stomach ache. Feel free to use it or steal it however you like!

As a side note, this means new generations can be introduced to the fact that Ichabod Crane is not, in fact, the hero. Enjoy.


In the bosom of one of those spacious coves which indent the eastern shore of the Hudson, at that broad expansion of the river denominated by the ancient Dutch navigators the Tappan Zee, there lies a small market port, which is generally and properly known by the name of Tarry Town. Not far from this village, perhaps about two miles, there is a little valley or rather lap of land among high hills, which is one of the quietest places in the whole world. A small brook glides through it, with just murmur enough to lull one to repose; and the occasional whistle of a quail or tapping of a woodpecker is almost the only sound that ever breaks in upon the uniform tranquillity.

From the listless repose of the place, and the peculiar character of its inhabitants, who are descendants from the original Dutch settlers, this sequestered glen has long been known by the name of SLEEPY HOLLOW, and its rustic lads are called the Sleepy Hollow Boys throughout all the neighboring country. A drowsy, dreamy influence seems to hang over the land, and to pervade the very atmosphere. Some say that the place was bewitched by a High German doctor, during the early days of the settlement; others, that an old Indian chief, the prophet or wizard of his tribe, held his powwows there before the country was discovered by Master Hendrick Hudson. Certain it is, the place still continues under the sway of some witching power, that holds a spell over the minds of the good people, causing them to walk in a continual reverie. They are given to all kinds of marvellous beliefs, are subject to trances and visions, and frequently see strange sights, and hear music and voices in the air. The whole neighborhood abounds with local tales, haunted spots, and twilight superstitions; stars shoot and meteors glare oftener across the valley than in any other part of the country, and the nightmare, with her whole ninefold, seems to make it the favorite scene of her gambols.

The dominant spirit that haunts this enchanted region, and seems to be commander-in-chief of all the powers of the air, is the apparition of a figure on horseback, without a head. It is said by some to be the ghost of a Hessian trooper, whose head had been carried away by a cannon-ball, in some nameless battle during the Revolutionary War, and who is ever and anon seen by the country folk hurrying along in the gloom of night, as if on the wings of the wind. His haunts extend to the vicinity of a church at no great distance. Indeed, certain of the most authentic historians of those parts allege that the body of the trooper having been buried in the churchyard, the ghost rides forth to the scene of battle in nightly quest of his head, and that the rushing speed with which he sometimes passes along the Hollow, like a midnight blast, is owing to his being belated, and in a hurry to get back to the churchyard before daybreak.

Such is the general purport of this legendary superstition, which has furnished materials for many a wild story in that region of shadows; and the spectre is known at all the country firesides, by the name of the Headless Horseman of Sleepy Hollow.

In this by-place of nature there abode, in a remote period of American history, a worthy wight of the name of Ichabod Crane, who sojourned in Sleepy Hollow for the purpose of instructing the children of the vicinity. The cognomen of Crane was not inapplicable to his person. He was tall, but exceedingly lank, with narrow shoulders, long arms and legs, hands that dangled a mile out of his sleeves, feet that might have served for shovels, and his whole frame most loosely hung together. To see him striding along the profile of a hill on a windy day, with his clothes bagging and fluttering about him, one might have mistaken him for the genius of famine descending upon the earth, or some scarecrow eloped from a cornfield.

His schoolhouse was a low building of one large room, rudely constructed of logs; the windows partly glazed, and partly patched with leaves of old copybooks. From hence the low murmur of his pupils’ voices, conning over their lessons, might be heard in a drowsy summer’s day, like the hum of a beehive; interrupted now and then by the authoritative voice of the master, in the tone of menace or command, or, peradventure, by the sound of the birch, as he urged some tardy loiterer along the flowery path of knowledge. Truth to say, he ever bore in mind the golden maxim, “Spare the rod and spoil the child.” Ichabod Crane’s scholars certainly were not spoiled.

I would not have it imagined, however, that he was one of those cruel potentates of the school who joy in the smart of their subjects; on the contrary, he administered justice with discrimination rather than severity; taking the burden off the backs of the weak, and laying it on those of the strong. When school hours were over, he was even the companion and playmate of the larger boys; and on holiday afternoons would convoy some of the smaller ones home, who happened to have pretty sisters, or good housewives for mothers, noted for the comforts of the cupboard. Indeed, it behooved him to keep on good terms with his pupils. The revenue arising from his school was small, and would have been scarcely sufficient to furnish him with daily bread, for he was a huge feeder, and, though lank, had the dilating powers of an anaconda; but to help out his maintenance, he was, according to country custom in those parts, boarded and lodged at the houses of the farmers whose children he instructed. With these he lived successively a week at a time, thus going the rounds of the neighborhood, with all his worldly effects tied up in a cotton handkerchief.

The schoolmaster is generally a man of some importance in the female circle of a rural neighborhood; being considered a kind of idle, gentlemanlike personage, of vastly superior taste and accomplishments to the rough country swains, and, indeed, inferior in learning only to the parson. Our man of letters, therefore, was happy in the smiles of all the country damsels. How he would figure among them in the churchyard, between services on Sundays; gathering grapes for them from the wild vines that overran the surrounding trees; reciting for their amusement all the epitaphs on the tombstones; or sauntering, with a whole bevy of them, along the banks of the adjacent millpond; while the more bashful country bumpkins hung sheepishly back, envying his superior elegance and address.

It was often his delight, after his school was dismissed in the afternoon, to stretch himself on the rich bed of clover bordering the little brook that whimpered by his schoolhouse, and there con over old Mather’s direful tales, until the gathering dusk of evening made the printed page a mere mist before his eyes. Then, as he wended his way by swamp and stream and awful woodland, to the farmhouse where he happened to be quartered, every sound of nature, at that witching hour, fluttered his excited imagination. Another of his sources of fearful pleasure was to pass long winter evenings with the old Dutch wives, as they sat spinning by the fire, with a row of apples roasting and spluttering along the hearth, and listen to their marvellous tales of ghosts and goblins, and haunted fields, and haunted brooks, and haunted bridges, and haunted houses, and particularly of the headless horseman, or Galloping Hessian of the Hollow, as they sometimes called him. But if there was a pleasure in all this, while snugly cuddling in the chimney corner of a chamber that was all of a ruddy glow from the crackling wood fire, and where, of course, no spectre dared to show its face, it was dearly purchased by the terrors of his subsequent walk homewards. What fearful shapes and shadows beset his path, amidst the dim and ghastly glare of a snowy night! With what wistful look did he eye every trembling ray of light streaming across the waste fields from some distant window! How often was he appalled by some shrub covered with snow, which, like a sheeted spectre, beset his very path! How often did he shrink with curdling awe at the sound of his own steps on the frosty crust beneath his feet; and dread to look over his shoulder, lest he should behold some uncouth being tramping close behind him! And how often was he thrown into complete dismay by some rushing blast, howling among the trees, in the idea that it was the Galloping Hessian on one of his nightly scourings!

All these, however, were mere terrors of the night, phantoms of the mind that walk in darkness; and he would have passed a pleasant life of it, if his path had not been crossed by the woman.

Among the musical disciples who assembled each week to receive his instructions in psalmody was Katrina Van Tassel, the daughter and only child of a substantial Dutch farmer. She was a blooming lass of fresh eighteen; universally famed, not merely for her beauty, but her vast expectations. Her habitual dress was a mixture of ancient and modern fashions, as most suited to set off her charms. She wore the ornaments of pure yellow gold, which her great-great-grandmother had brought over from Saardam; the tempting stomacher of the olden time, and withal a provokingly short petticoat, to display the prettiest foot and ankle in the country round.

Ichabod Crane had a soft and foolish heart towards the sex; and it is not to be wondered at that so tempting a morsel soon found favor in his eyes, more especially after he had visited her in her paternal mansion. Old Baltus Van Tassel was a perfect picture of a thriving, contented, liberal-hearted farmer. He seldom, it is true, sent either his eyes or his thoughts beyond the boundaries of his own farm; but within those everything was snug, happy and well-conditioned. His stronghold was situated on the banks of the Hudson, in one of those green, sheltered, fertile nooks in which the Dutch farmers are so fond of nestling.

As the enraptured Ichabod fancied all this, and as he rolled his great green eyes over the fat meadow lands, the rich fields of wheat, of rye, of buckwheat, and Indian corn, and the orchards burdened with ruddy fruit, which surrounded the warm tenement of Van Tassel, his heart yearned after the damsel who was to inherit these domains, and his imagination expanded with the idea, how they might be readily turned into cash, and the money invested in immense tracts of wild land, and shingle palaces in the wilderness. Nay, his busy fancy already realized his hopes, and presented to him Katrina, with a whole family of children, mounted on the top of a wagon loaded with household trumpery, with pots and kettles dangling beneath; and he beheld himself bestriding a pacing mare, with a colt at her heels, setting out for Kentucky, Tennessee,—or the Lord knows where!

From the moment Ichabod laid his eyes upon these regions of delight, the peace of his mind was at an end, and his only study was how to gain the affections of the peerless daughter of Van Tassel. In this enterprise, however, he had more real difficulties than generally fell to the lot of a knight-errant of yore, who seldom had anything but giants, enchanters, fiery dragons, and such like easily conquered adversaries, to contend with and had to make his way merely through gates of iron and brass, and walls of adamant to the castle keep, where the lady of his heart was confined; all which he achieved as easily as a man would carve his way to the centre of a Christmas pie; and then the lady gave him her hand as a matter of course. Ichabod, on the contrary, had to win his way to the heart of a country coquette, beset with a labyrinth of whims and caprices, which were forever presenting new difficulties and impediments; and he had to encounter a host of fearful adversaries of real flesh and blood, the numerous rustic admirers, who beset every portal to her heart, keeping a watchful and angry eye upon each other, but ready to fly out in the common cause against any new competitor.

Among these, the most formidable was a burly, roaring, roystering blade, of the name of Abraham, or, according to the Dutch abbreviation, Brom Van Brunt, the hero of the country round, which rang with his feats of strength and hardihood. He was broad-shouldered and double-jointed, with short curly black hair, and a bluff but not unpleasant countenance, having a mingled air of fun and arrogance. From his Herculean frame and great powers of limb he had received the nickname of BROM BONES, by which he was universally known. He was famed for great knowledge and skill in horsemanship, being as dexterous on horseback as a Tartar. He was foremost at all races and cock fights; and, with the ascendancy which bodily strength always acquires in rustic life, was the umpire in all disputes, setting his hat on one side, and giving his decisions with an air and tone that admitted of no gainsay or appeal. He was always ready for either a fight or a frolic; but had more mischief than ill-will in his composition; and with all his overbearing roughness, there was a strong dash of waggish good humor at bottom. This rantipole hero had for some time singled out Katrina for the object of his uncouth gallantries, and though his amorous toyings were something like the gentle caresses and endearments of a bear, yet it was whispered that she did not altogether discourage his hopes.

Such was the formidable rival with whom Ichabod Crane had to contend, and, considering all things, a stouter man than he would have shrunk from the competition, and a wiser man would have despaired. To have taken the field openly against his rival would have been madness; for he was not a man to be thwarted in his amours, any more than that stormy lover, Achilles. Ichabod, therefore, made his advances in a quiet and gently insinuating manner. Under cover of his character of singing-master, he made frequent visits at the farmhouse.

From the moment Ichabod Crane made his advances, the interests of Brom Bones evidently declined, and a deadly feud gradually arose between him and the preceptor of Sleepy Hollow. Ichabod became the object of whimsical persecution to Bones and his gang of rough riders. They harried his hitherto peaceful domains; smoked out his singing school by stopping up the chimney; broke into the schoolhouse at night and turned everything topsy-turvy, so that the poor schoolmaster began to think all the witches in the country held their meetings there.

On a fine autumnal afternoon, Ichabod, in pensive mood, was suddenly interrupted by the appearance of a man in tow-cloth jacket and trowsers, who came clattering up to the school door with an invitation to Ichabod to attend a merry-making or “quilting frolic,” to be held that evening at Mynheer Van Tassel’s.

All was now bustle and hubbub in the late quiet schoolroom. The scholars were hurried through their lessons without stopping at trifles, and the whole school was turned loose an hour before the usual time, yelping and racketing about the green in joy at their early emancipation. The gallant Ichabod now spent at least an extra half hour at his toilet, brushing and furbishing up his best, and indeed only suit of rusty black, and arranging his locks by a bit of broken looking-glass that hung up in the schoolhouse. That he might make his appearance before his mistress in the true style of a cavalier, he borrowed a horse from the farmer with whom he was domiciliated, a choleric old Dutchman of the name of Hans Van Ripper, and, thus gallantly mounted, issued forth like a knight-errant in quest of adventures.

It was a fine autumnal day; the sky was clear and serene, and nature wore that rich and golden livery which we always associate with the idea of abundance. The forests had put on their sober brown and yellow, while some trees of the tenderer kind had been nipped by the frosts into brilliant dyes of orange, purple, and scarlet. As Ichabod jogged slowly on his way, his eye, ever open to every symptom of culinary abundance, ranged with delight over the treasures of jolly autumn; and soft anticipations stole over his mind of dainty slapjacks, well buttered, and garnished with honey or treacle, by the delicate little dimpled hand of Katrina Van Tassel.

It was toward evening that Ichabod arrived at the castle of the Heer Van Tassel, which he found thronged with the pride and flower of the adjacent country. Brom Bones, however, was the hero of the scene, having come to the gathering on his favorite steed Daredevil, a creature, like himself, full of mettle and mischief, and which no one but himself could manage. Old Baltus Van Tassel moved about among his guests with a face dilated with content and good humor, round and jolly as the harvest moon. And now the sound of the music from the common room, or hall, summoned to the dance. Ichabod prided himself upon his dancing as much as upon his vocal powers. The lady of his heart was his partner in the dance, and smiling graciously in reply to all his amorous oglings; while Brom Bones, sorely smitten with love and jealousy, sat brooding by himself in one corner.

When the dance was at an end, Ichabod was attracted to a knot of the sager folks, who, with Old Van Tassel, sat smoking at one end of the piazza, gossiping over former times, and drawing out long stories about ghosts and apparitions. Several of the Sleepy Hollow people were present at Van Tassel’s, and, as usual, were doling out their wild and wonderful legends. Many dismal tales were told about funeral trains, and mourning cries and wailings heard and seen about the great tree where the unfortunate Major André was taken, and which stood in the neighborhood. Some mention was made also of the woman in white, that haunted the dark glen at Raven Rock, and was often heard to shriek on winter nights before a storm, having perished there in the snow. The chief part of the stories, however, turned upon the favorite spectre of Sleepy Hollow, the Headless Horseman, who had been heard several times of late, patrolling the country; and, it was said, tethered his horse nightly among the graves in the churchyard.

The sequestered situation of this church seems always to have made it a favorite haunt of troubled spirits. It stands on a knoll, surrounded by locust-trees and lofty elms, from among which its decent, whitewashed walls shine modestly forth. Over a deep black part of the stream, not far from the church, was formerly thrown a wooden bridge; the road that led to it, and the bridge itself, were thickly shaded by overhanging trees, which cast a gloom about it, even in the daytime; but occasioned a fearful darkness at night. Such was one of the favorite haunts of the Headless Horseman, and the place where he was most frequently encountered. The tale was told of old Brouwer, a most heretical disbeliever in ghosts, how he met the Horseman returning from his foray into Sleepy Hollow, and was obliged to get up behind him; how they galloped over bush and brake, over hill and swamp, until they reached the bridge; when the Horseman suddenly turned into a skeleton, threw old Brouwer into the brook, and sprang away over the tree-tops with a clap of thunder.

This story was immediately matched by a thrice marvellous adventure of Brom Bones, who made light of the Galloping Hessian as an arrant jockey. He affirmed that on returning one night from the neighboring village, he had been overtaken by this midnight trooper; that he had offered to race with him for a bowl of punch, and should have won it too, but just as they came to the church bridge, the Hessian bolted, and vanished in a flash of fire.

All these tales, told in that drowsy undertone with which men talk in the dark, the countenances of the listeners only now and then receiving a casual gleam from the glare of a pipe, sank deep in the mind of Ichabod.

The revel now gradually broke up. The old farmers gathered together their families in their wagons, and were heard for some time rattling along the hollow roads, and over the distant hills. Ichabod only lingered behind, according to the custom of country lovers, to have a tête-à-tête with the heiress; fully convinced that he was now on the high road to success. What passed at this interview I will not pretend to say, for in fact I do not know. Something, however, I fear me, must have gone wrong, for he certainly sallied forth, after no very great interval, with an air quite desolate and chapfallen. He went straight to the stable, and with several hearty cuffs and kicks roused his steed most uncourteously from the comfortable quarters in which he was soundly sleeping.

It was the very witching time of night that Ichabod, heavy-hearted and crestfallen, pursued his travels homewards, along the sides of the lofty hills which rise above Tarry Town, and which he had traversed so cheerily in the afternoon. In the dead hush of midnight, all the stories of ghosts and goblins that he had heard in the afternoon now came crowding upon his recollection. The night grew darker and darker; the stars seemed to sink deeper in the sky, and driving clouds occasionally hid them from his sight. He was approaching the very place where many of the scenes of the ghost stories had been laid. In the centre of the road stood an enormous tulip-tree, which towered like a giant above all the other trees of the neighborhood, and formed a kind of landmark.

As Ichabod approached this fearful tree, he began to whistle; he thought his whistle was answered; it was but a blast sweeping sharply through the dry branches. As he approached a little nearer, he thought he saw something white, hanging in the midst of the tree: he paused and ceased whistling but, on looking more narrowly, perceived that it was a place where the tree had been scathed by lightning, and the white wood laid bare. Suddenly he heard a groan—his teeth chattered, and his knees smote against the saddle: it was but the rubbing of one huge bough upon another, as they were swayed about by the breeze.

About two hundred yards from the tree, a small brook crossed the road, and ran into a marshy and thickly-wooded glen, known by the name of Wiley’s Swamp. A few rough logs, laid side by side, served for a bridge. As he approached the stream, his heart began to thump; he summoned up, however, all his resolution, gave his horse half a score of kicks in the ribs, and attempted to dash briskly across the bridge; but instead of starting forward, the perverse old animal plunged to the opposite side of the road into a thicket of brambles and alder bushes. The schoolmaster now bestowed both whip and heel upon the starveling ribs of old Gunpowder, who dashed forward, snuffling and snorting, but came to a stand just by the bridge, with a suddenness that had nearly sent his rider sprawling over his head. Just at this moment, in the dark shadow of the grove, on the margin of the brook, he beheld something huge, misshapen and towering. It stirred not, but seemed gathered up in the gloom, like some gigantic monster ready to spring upon the traveller.

The hair of the affrighted pedagogue rose upon his head with terror. What was to be done? To turn and fly was now too late; and besides, what chance was there of escaping ghost or goblin which could ride upon the wings of the wind? Summoning up a show of courage, he demanded in stammering accents, “Who are you?” He received no reply. He repeated his demand in a still more agitated voice. Still there was no answer. Once more he cudgelled the sides of the inflexible Gunpowder, and, shutting his eyes, broke forth with involuntary fervor into a psalm tune. Just then the shadowy object of alarm put itself in motion, and with a scramble and a bound stood at once in the middle of the road. Though the night was dark and dismal, yet the form of the unknown might now in some degree be ascertained. He appeared to be a horseman of large dimensions, and mounted on a black horse of powerful frame. He made no offer of molestation or sociability, but kept aloof on one side of the road, jogging along on the blind side of old Gunpowder, who had now got over his fright and waywardness.

Ichabod quickened his steed in hopes of leaving him behind. The stranger, however, quickened his horse to an equal pace. Ichabod pulled up, and fell into a walk, thinking to lag behind,—the other did the same. His heart began to sink within him; his parched tongue clove to the roof of his mouth. There was something in the moody and dogged silence of this pertinacious companion that was mysterious and appalling. It was soon fearfully accounted for. On mounting a rising ground, which brought the figure of his fellow-traveller in relief against the sky, gigantic in height, and muffled in a cloak, Ichabod was horror-struck on perceiving that he was headless!—but his horror was still more increased on observing that the head, which should have rested on his shoulders, was carried before him on the pommel of his saddle! His terror rose to desperation; he rained a shower of kicks and blows upon Gunpowder, hoping by a sudden movement to give his companion the slip; but the spectre started full jump with him. Away, then, they dashed through thick and thin; stones flying and sparks flashing at every bound. Ichabod’s flimsy garments fluttered in the air, as he stretched his long lank body away over his horse’s head, in the eagerness of his flight.

They had now reached the road which turns off to Sleepy Hollow; but Gunpowder, who seemed possessed with a demon, instead of keeping up it, plunged headlong downhill to the left. This road leads through a sandy hollow shaded by trees, where it crosses the bridge famous in goblin story; and just beyond swells the green knoll on which stands the whitewashed church.

As yet the panic of the steed had given his unskilful rider an apparent advantage in the chase, but just as he had got half way through the hollow, the girths of the saddle gave way, and he felt it slipping from under him. He seized it by the pommel, and endeavored to hold it firm, but in vain; and had just time to save himself by clasping old Gunpowder round the neck, when the saddle fell to the earth, and he heard it trampled under foot by his pursuer. For a moment the terror of Hans Van Ripper’s wrath passed across his mind,—for it was his Sunday saddle; but this was no time for petty fears; the goblin was hard on his haunches; and he had much ado to maintain his seat; sometimes slipping on one side, sometimes on another, and sometimes jolted on the high ridge of his horse’s backbone, with a violence that he verily feared would cleave him asunder.

An opening in the trees now cheered him with the hopes that the church bridge was at hand. The wavering reflection of a silver star in the bosom of the brook told him that he was not mistaken. He saw the walls of the church dimly glaring under the trees beyond. He recollected the place where Brom Bones’s ghostly competitor had disappeared. “If I can but reach that bridge,” thought Ichabod, “I am safe.” Just then he heard the black steed panting and blowing close behind him; he even fancied that he felt his hot breath. Another convulsive kick in the ribs, and old Gunpowder sprang upon the bridge; he thundered over the resounding planks; he gained the opposite side; and now Ichabod cast a look behind to see if his pursuer should vanish, according to rule, in a flash of fire and brimstone. Just then he saw the goblin rising in his stirrups, and in the very act of hurling his head at him. Ichabod endeavored to dodge the horrible missile, but too late. It encountered his cranium with a tremendous crash,—he was tumbled headlong into the dust, and Gunpowder, the black steed, and the goblin rider, passed by like a whirlwind.

The next morning the old horse was found without his saddle, and with the bridle under his feet, soberly cropping the grass at his master’s gate. Ichabod did not make his appearance at breakfast; dinner-hour came, but no Ichabod. The boys assembled at the schoolhouse, and strolled idly about the banks of the brook; but no schoolmaster. Hans Van Ripper now began to feel some uneasiness about the fate of poor Ichabod, and his saddle. An inquiry was set on foot, and after diligent investigation they came upon his traces. In one part of the road leading to the church was found the saddle trampled in the dirt; the tracks of horses’ hoofs deeply dented in the road, and evidently at furious speed, were traced to the bridge, beyond which, on the bank of a broad part of the brook, where the water ran deep and black, was found the hat of the unfortunate Ichabod, and close beside it a shattered pumpkin.

The brook was searched, but the body of the schoolmaster was not to be discovered. The mysterious event caused much speculation at the church on the following Sunday. Knots of gazers and gossips were collected in the churchyard, at the bridge, and at the spot where the hat and pumpkin had been found. The stories of Brouwer, of Bones, and a whole budget of others were called to mind; and when they had diligently considered them all, and compared them with the symptoms of the present case, they shook their heads, and came to the conclusion that Ichabod had been carried off by the Galloping Hessian. As he was a bachelor, and in nobody’s debt, nobody troubled his head any more about him; the school was removed to a different quarter of the hollow, and another pedagogue reigned in his stead.

It is true, an old farmer, who had been down to New York on a visit several years after, and from whom this account of the ghostly adventure was received, brought home the intelligence that Ichabod Crane was still alive; that he had left the neighborhood partly through fear of the goblin and Hans Van Ripper, and partly in mortification at having been suddenly dismissed by the heiress; that he had changed his quarters to a distant part of the country; had kept school and studied law at the same time; had been admitted to the bar; turned politician; electioneered; written for the newspapers; and finally had been made a justice of the Ten Pound Court. Brom Bones, too, who, shortly after his rival’s disappearance conducted the blooming Katrina in triumph to the altar, was observed to look exceedingly knowing whenever the story of Ichabod was related, and always burst into a hearty laugh at the mention of the pumpkin; which led some to suspect that he knew more about the matter than he chose to tell.

The old country wives, however, who are the best judges of these matters, maintain to this day that Ichabod was spirited away by supernatural means; and it is a favorite story often told about the neighborhood round the winter evening fire. The bridge became more than ever an object of superstitious awe; and that may be the reason why the road has been altered of late years, so as to approach the church by the border of the millpond. The schoolhouse being deserted soon fell to decay, and was reported to be haunted by the ghost of the unfortunate pedagogue and the plowboy, loitering homeward of a still summer evening, has often fancied his voice at a distance, chanting a melancholy psalm tune among the tranquil solitudes of Sleepy Hollow.

Adventure Time and Ursula Le Guin’s Carrier Bag

Massive spoilers for all of Adventure Time.

I’m deeply excited for this post, since it’s a chance to write about two things dear to my heart that both left us this year: Cartoon Network’s hit Adventure Time, and speculative fiction legend Ursula K. Le Guin.

What do these things have to do with each other? It’s hard to imagine Ursula getting excited about a children’s cartoon, especially after the controversial reception of the nominally Le Guin-inspired Tales From Earthsea. However, I’m going to propose today that in 1989, Le Guin called for the evolution of a new form of fiction, and starting in 2010, Adventure Time answered that call.

Ursula K. Le Guin

Ursula K. Le Guin is one of my favorite novelists, most famous for her Hainish and Earthsea Cycles. Easily on the influence level of Tolkien, she bestrides both science fiction and fantasy while simultaneously remaining as true a native of her Oregon home as William Stafford (she was a regular guest at the Fishtrap gathering of writers, where I once worked). Her work is famous for interrogating concepts of gender, race, and class within fantasy and sci-fi.

As I wrote in my senior thesis, Le Guin is dedicated to healing the wounds of humanity that manifest themselves as gaps: between ourselves and our planet, between our women and men and others, between ourselves and our own mortality. If there is one central virtue in her novels, it is wholeness, of the kind she–and I–have found in Oregon’s wilds. If you want proof of her greatness, ask yourself: “Can I name any other authors who influenced both Margaret Atwood and J.K. Rowling?”

In addition to stories, she gave great writing advice, including admonishing her audiences not to be afraid of exposition. Here, though, I’d like to draw attention to an essay published in a 1989 anthology, in which she laid out her “carrier bag” theory of fiction. To summarize it inadequately–like all her writing, it’s easy to read yet dense with meaning–Le Guin is here proposing that the traditional model of a story as conflict hurtling toward a resolution is misguided. The original purpose of the story, and so of humanity, was to hold things, not to reach or strike things–but “the Hero” obscured this purpose as civilization grew.

It is the story that makes the difference. It is the story that hid my humanity from me, the story the mammoth hunters told about bashing, thrusting, raping, killing, about the Hero…It sometimes seems that that story is approaching its end. Lest there be no more telling of stories at all, some of us out here in the wild oats, amid the alien corn, think we’d better start telling another one, which maybe people can go on with when the old one’s finished.

In other words, while so many of the stories we hear are based on hunting, it is time for a new sort of story based on gathering.

Adventure Time

Try to keep it short. Adventure Time always did. Two hundred eighty-some episodes across eight-plus years, a near-decade of candy-colored mythbusting musical tragicomedy, Final Fantasy plus H.P Lovecraft times Philip K. Dick divided by Mystery Science Theater 3000 raised to the Charlie Brownth power, but funnier, but sadder, but weirder. And every episode still, what, 11-and-a-half minutes? Less, with an opening credits sequence only a heartless streaming service would ever skip? –Darren Franich, Entertainment Weekly

Adventure Time began as the tale of two heroes, Finn the Human and Jake the Dog, who romped around the Land of Ooo fighting evil, looting treasure, and saving princesses. All the typical elements of a day’s work for an RPG character. The first couple of seasons were best known for resembling an acid trip–one of the voice actors even called it “this generation’s Yellow Submarine.” It was fun, it was weird, it was definitely popular, but groundbreaking? Not exactly.

But then an amazing thing happened: like Lord of the Rings, the tale grew in the telling. From the very start, close observers could see the detritus of modern civilization scattered around Ooo, leading to the outright confirmation that it’s actually set on Earth–1,000 years after we destroyed ourselves with nukes in a “Great Mushroom War.” Storylines centered around long-lived characters who remembered the war and were personally affected by both its brutality and the kindness that came in its wake. As the show’s lore grew, so did Finn: he experienced heartbreak and loss, questioned his purpose, and had his identity as a “hero” constantly challenged.

Through all this, the show never lost its boundless imagination: episodes involved Finn flying to Mars, meeting his past lives, living an entire alternate life inside a pillow fort. Scripts riffed on Ovid, Shakespeare, Shelley, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. By the time Finn locates his biological father (a sociopathic space conman) and mother (a domineering but ultimately kindhearted digitized intelligence), defeats an avatar of his evil impulses made out of grass, and learns to be less clingy with girls, he’s moved on from trying to be a great hero and just wants to be a good person.

That’s the core of it, for me. Even if Adventure Time didn’t feature a prominent same-sex romance, even if it wasn’t chock-full of gorgeous scenery or positive mental health representation or anti-nihilist philosophy, even if it wasn’t funny, it would be one of my favorite works of art because its teenage hero learns “how the real world works” and becomes more empathetic as a result. “Finn the Human” isn’t a description by the end, it’s an aspiration.

What makes Adventure Time a herald of the new form of storytelling Le Guin discusses with her carrier bag? It’s not just that her allegory involves a lot of names that sound like “Ooo.” Back at the essay, we can see her distaste for “the Hero,” on every page. The Hero, she writes, has an “imperial nature and uncontrollable impulse…to take everything over.” He “has decreed…first, that the proper shape of the narrative is that of the arrow or spear, starting here and going straight there and THOK! hitting its mark (which drops dead); second, that the central concern of narrative…is conflict; and third, that the story isn’t any good if he isn’t in it.” (emphasis mine)

I’d like to spend the rest of this post dissecting each of these as they relate to the show.

The Arrow and the Spear

Writers like me get and give an awful lot of advice. Much of it centers around how to make things streamlined, clear, brutally efficient. And more often than not, books written to that standard leave me cold. Case in point: my favorite reads this year have been a labyrinthine concoction of set-pieces and character flaws (Six of Crows), a fanatically overstuffed 19th-century epic (Ivanhoe), a Slavic pastiche about how owning a magic horse is even better than you think is (The Bear and the Nightingale), an anthropological survey of thousands of years of misread history (1491), and a fantasy that sprawls more than your humble author on any soft surface (To Green Angel Tower).

These books succeed because of their detours, their atmospheres, the little eddies and currents to get lost in. A story that has trimmed every bit of its fat has also lost all its nutrition. It’ll come out the rear exactly how it looked when you swallowed it. I use these metaphors because Le Guin is concerned with food in her essay, writing, “If you haven’t got something to put it in, food will escape you–even something as uncombative and unresourceful as an oat.”

One characteristic of Adventure Time that sets it apart even from its contemporaries in the cartoon renaissance–Avatar: The Last Airbender, Steven Universe, and Gravity Falls–is its lack of any sort of overarching plot. Compared to the struggle against the Firelord, the fight for freedom against Homeworld, or the identity of the Author, Adventure Time hasn’t got much narrative drive: its most menacing villain, the Lich, only shows up a handful of times, and is almost always defeated soon after he appears.

In place of those myths, the show instead offers the story of its characters. Other than Finn’s growth from hyperactive childhood to reflective adulthood, the closest thing to a show-spanning arc is the redemption of 20th-century antiquarian Simon Petrikov, transformed by a magical crown into the immortal, deranged Ice King. To these two stories might be added the romance between Princess Bubblegum and Marceline the Vampire Queen, which burns hot and slow enough to make Jim and Pam look like Romeo and Juliet.

Much like I described in my post about The Edge Chronicles, the narrative in Adventure Time tends to punish those who become single-mindedly focused on one goal, even if it’s one that seems noble. Betty is trying to lift her boyfriend’s curse, Huntress Wizard seeks spiritual guidance, Bubblegum just wants her kingdom to be safe, but all of them suffer from only seeing straight ahead. Neither is this an excuse for indolence, though: while Jake the shapeshifting dog is the most emotionally stable character, he suffers from a poor relationship with his children, and sets out to make things right. Heroism is important, but not only in itself.

Then there’s the ending. In the essay, Le Guin bemoans that “hunting” fiction “will be, and has been, triumphant (Man conquers earth, space, aliens, death, the future, etc.) and tragic (apocalypse, holocaust, then or now).” But Adventure Time’s finale rejects both triumph and tragedy. Finn and friends avert a second Mushroom War and banish an evil demon, and their ultimate reward is…getting to live their lives. Not a lot changes. The show asks: isn’t that enough?

What’s more, a frame story suggests that the world ended again sometime after the year 3,000, and is already on its way back by 4,000. Which means none of those ends were as final as they seemed. A post-apocalyptic story that suggests the apocalypse never actually happened: how’s that for a new genre?


Le Guin again:

…when I came to write science-fiction novels, I came lugging this great heavy sack of stuff, my carrier bag full of wimps and klutzes, and tiny grains of things smaller than a mustard seed, and intricately woven nets which when laboriously unknotted are seen to contain one blue pebble, an imperturbably functioning chronometer telling the time on another world, and a mouse’s skull; full of beginnings without ends, of initiations, of losses, of transformations and translations, and far more tricks than conflicts, far fewer triumphs than snares and delusions; full of space ships that get stuck, missions that fail, and people who don’t understand.

One of my favorite things about Adventure Time is that it’s got several episodes where almost nothing happens. One episode spends half its runtime on a sentient banana voiced by Weird Al Yankovic explaining to Finn and Jake how an internal combustion engine works. Another, which parodies blockbuster podcasts like Serial, is nothing but Jake describing the actions of a regular bunny. An extremely sweet later-season entry consists almost wholly of best friends Jake and Finn sitting on a cloud, giving each other haircuts. Still others involve quests that do have real stakes, but are ultimately inconsequential.

Why do these episodes work? Simply because, like a forest, there is so much to discover even when nothing is happening. First, there’s the context, which transforms episodes from wastes of time into much-needed breathers. There’s humor, which is everywhere, as long as you’re really looking. There’s beauty–only today I was reminded of Cheryl Strayed’s line about putting yourself in the way of beauty, which is something Adventure Time never hesitates to do.

I don’t mean to suggest nothing happens in this show. Plenty of things do. There are battles, quests, deaths, villains, breakups, makeups, extraordinary heroism and tremendous sacrifices. As Le Guin tells us, fiction based on carrying things gathered does not mean nothing happens: “Conflict, competition, stress, struggle, etc., within the narrative conceived as carrier bag/belly/box/house/medicine bundle, may be seen as necessary elements of a whole which itself cannot be characterized either as conflict or as harmony, since its purpose is neither resolution nor stasis but continuing process.”

Everything in the world is defined by its interaction with everything else, but that interaction does not have to take the form of a clash. Thus, we get a show whose purpose is to hold things: relationships, insights, and scenery. To put them together and see what happens, what evolves.

No less an authority than Terry Pratchett called Le Guin an architect of “the consensus fantasy universe…dragons, and magic users, and far horizons, and quests, and items of power, and weird cities…the kind of scenery that we would have had on Earth if only God had had the money.” This easily describes both Discworld and the Land of Ooo, two of the most vibrant secondary worlds ever dreamt of–places where the quests are not as important as the seeing. Adventure Time‘s strong Dungeons and Dragons influence explains this as well, because what story has ever had less of a final goal than a D&D campaign?

By the end of Adventure Time, Finn gets it. He’s tired of fighting, even at 17. He wants his life to have more music in it instead, more love. He’s learned fighting is a means to an end, frequently necessary, not meant to be the point of living.

The Hero

Le Guin:

…the Hero has frequently taken (the novel) over, that being his imperial nature and uncontrollable impulse, to take everything over and run it while making stern decrees and laws to control his uncontrollable impulse to kill it.

And later:

…it’s clear that the Hero does not look well in this bag. He needs a stage or a pedestal or a pinnacle. You put him in a bag and he looks like a rabbit, like a potato.

Le Guin works hard in her essay to equate the term “Hero” with “control freak,” and indeed, if we look back at Adventure Time, we’ll notice this is Finn’s main character flaw. In the first half of the show, he gets into trouble for wanting everything–quests, romance–to go his way. This culminates in the controversial episode “Frost & Fire,” where this habit destroys his relationship with his girlfriend Flame Princess.

The narrative studiously avoids giving him any special treatment for this screw-up. It’s tragic, but it’s not hero-tragic, not a noble flaw leading to a destined destruction. He’s just a stupid kid who did something avoidable. This leads him to do a lot of soul-searching that culminates in what is arguably his last moment as protagonist: rejecting a cosmic deity’s offer to take him to a higher plane of existence, Finn decides to continue being part of “meat reality,” and from then on is far more obviously just one character among many.

Beginning with the magnificent, Raymond Briggs-esque third-season episode “Thank You,” Adventure Time began experimenting with stories that didn’t revolve around Finn and Jake, and some where they didn’t even appear. “Root Beer Guy” follows an unremarkable citizen of the Candy Kingdom. “The Mountain” gives the leading role to the screeching, complex-riddled Earl of Lemongrab. “Little Brother” stars a minor supporting character created from another minor supporting character. Flame Princess, introduced as Finn’s love interest, gets to shine in “The Cooler,” where her ex-boyfriend neither appears nor is mentioned.

And so on. At once, these moves reflect both a Pratchett-like desire to enrich and complicate the setting, and a confidence that Ooo doesn’t need a hero to survive. It needs humans. Even if some of them are dogs, or vampires, or made of candy.

I’ve heard people complain that, as the ending approached, Finn felt like a supporting character in his own story. While I sympathize–as I’ve said, he’s one of the most lovable characters to ever grace a TV screen, equal parts Charlie Brown, Bart Simpson, and Conan the Barbarian–I contend that these complaints misunderstand Adventure Time. It was never Finn’s story, or if it was, it was the story of Finn discovering that it wasn’t his story.

(And I should add: the fact that it does all this without one single moment of arch 4th-wall-violating self-winking tweeness does wonders to endear it to me.)

Where does that leave us?

OK, so a kids’ show from the 2010s matches up surprisingly well with a 30-year-old essay by a master writer. So what?

First of all, this should be taken as a clarion call for writers. There are so many more ways to tell a story than the ones we’re so often taught. If a story about a vampire falling in love with a sentient wad of chewing gum can work, there’s literally no idea that can’t, save for the explicitly bigoted ones. But while you’re writing, remember that the climax is not the story, and someone doesn’t have to get killed for the characters to have done meaningful work. Stories are journeys and journeys are stories and conflict is only part of both of those things.

But to think beyond writing, I’d like to share another, longer quote from Le Guin’s article.

This theory (of stories as carrier bags) not only explains large areas of theoretical obscurity and avoids large areas of theoretical nonsense (inhabited largely by tigers, foxes, and other highly territorial mammals); it also grounds me, personally, in human culture in a way I never felt grounded before. So long as culture was explained as originating from and elaborating upon the use of long, hard objects for sticking, bashing, and killing, I never thought that I had, or wanted, any particular share in it…The society, the civilization they were talking about, these theoreticians, was evidently theirs; they owned it, they liked it; they were human, fully human, bashing, sticking, thrusting, killing. Wanting to be human too, I sought for evidence that I was; but if that’s what it took, to make a weapon and kill with it, then evidently I was either extremely defective as a human being, or not human at all.

That’s right, they said. What you are is a woman. Possibly not human at all, certainly defective. Now be quiet while we go on telling the Story of the Ascent of Man the Hero.

Go on, say I, wandering o{f towards the wild oats, with Oo Oo in the sling and little Oom carrying the basket. You just go on telling how the mammoth fell on Boob and how Cain fell on Abel and how the bomb fell on Nagasaki and how the burning jelly fell on the villagers and how the missiles will fall on the Evil Empire, and all the other steps in the Ascent of Man.

If it is a human thing to do to put something you want, because it’s useful, edible, or beautiful, into a bag, or a basket, or a bit of rolled bark or leaf, or a net woven of your own hair, or what have you, and then take it home with you, home being another, larger kind of pouch or bag, a container for people, and then later on you take it out and eat it or share it or store it up for winter in a solider container or put it in the medicine bundle or the shrine or the museum, the holy place, the area that contains what is sacred, and then next day you probably do much the same again–if to do that is human, if that’s what it takes, then I am a human being after all. Fully, freely, gladly, for the first time.

Look at the world destroyed by the Mushroom War. Look at the Lich, who never says a word that isn’t about death, endings, finality. All these things–the bombs, the war, the world, the Lich–are ultimately human creations, and in the world they rule, who are our heroes?

First, Simon: a quiet, patient gatherer of the past, a devoted father figure. Then Marceline, who hardly makes a decision in her life that isn’t out of love for someone else or desire to be loved.

As time moves on, we meet others: Bubblegum, whose empathy overcomes her totalitarian instincts, and Jake, who treats the little pleasures of camaraderie as the utmost importance in life. And Finn. First the Human, then the Hero, then, at last, just human. If he’s the last of us, he’s also the best of us. All of them, together, represent a story so much better than the one we’re told about who humans are.

We look at the news every day and see the catastrophic certainty that everything, all the time, is about to end, that the arrow is going to thud into the mammoth any day now, and then where will we be? But if these are the people who will take up the fire of civilization after it’s burned low, it’s tempting not to fear the bombs when they fall.

Not Le Guin, but Camus: “Knowing that certain nights whose sweetness lingers will keep returning to the earth and sea after we are gone, yes, this helps us to die.”

5 moments from history that need to made into movies

Just like reading great books whose movie rights just get sat on, history makes me very sad that I don’t get to decide what movies get made. Hollywood loves making movies inspired by history, but doesn’t always seem to grasp the size of the idea pool it gets to work with. Stuck on the same few eras–Romans, Tudors, anything with Nazis–filmmakers neglect a wealth of true stories. Not that those things aren’t great, but I read a lot of history, and I’ve run into several relatively unknown events that demand to be filmed.

Here, for my promised non-political post and in no particular order, are five of the best. Forget stranger than fiction: these stories are absolutely strange enough to make the best fiction.

5. Edwin and Raedwald

The history: The north of England, 604. King Aethelfrith of Bernicia makes clear his intentions to unite his kingdom with neighboring Deira by any means necessary. Edwin, prince of Deira, sees his father and his entire family murdered–all by the work of one man, with a maniacal fixation on his dream of ruling one Northumbria.

Edwin flees first to Gwynedd in modern Wales, where King Cadfan ap Iago marshals an army to hold off Aethelfrith’s pursuit. This army includes a band of monks to protect Cadfan’s Britons with their prayers–whom Aethelfrith slaughters to a man before smashing Cadfan’s army and forcing Edwin to flee once more. He visits Mercia before finally being chased to the court of the man who will become his greatest ally: King Raedwald of East Anglia.

Raedwald doesn’t see the advantage right away in keeping Edwin around, so when Aethelfrith’s agents offer him a bribe to hand the prince over, he plans a betrayal. However, his wife, whose name has been sadly lost to history, excoriates him for his cowardice, and convinces him to change his mind. The two men become allies, and march off with Raedwald’s son Raegenhere to retake Deira. Aethelfrith, whose obsession with killing Edwin now verges on madness, rides to meet them.

Everything is settled at the bloody battle of the River Idle, where Aethelfrith commits his entire army straight for the flank commanded by Edwin. Too late, he realizes his mistake: instead of Edwin, he’s attacked Raegenhere, who gives his life in the fighting. Edwin and a furious Raedwald trap Aethelfrith against the river, and slay the evil king.

The movie: Seriously, just read that story again. It’s already a major studio script. Edwin’s desperate flight. His thirst for revenge. Aethelfrith’s increasingly despicable acts (Massacring monks at prayer? Come on, man, are you trying to be a Dark Lord?). Raedwald’s struggle over whether to embroil his people in a war he didn’t start. The two leads turning from suspicious allies to friends. And the utterly tense final battle.

Make it a gritty vengeance drama with high production values and a couple of great battle scenes (plus maybe one good two-on-two duel with the guys versus Aethelfrith’s ambassadors), get someone who directed an episode of Game of Thrones,  and I’d throw money at this.

The cast: To highlight the differences between the characters, I’d cast Kit Harrington as brooding, revenge-obsessed Edwin, with Norman Reedus as the older, more worldly, harder-partying pagan king Raedwald. Round out the cast with Emma Watson as Raedwald’s willful wife who maintains his kingdom’s honor when he cannot, and Taran Edgerton as Raegenhere, the heir to East Anglia tragically determined to impress his father. As for the brutal villain Aethelfrith–gotta be Immortan Joe himself, Hugh Keays-Byrne.


4. Menelik II

The history: Ethiopia, 1889. The powers of Europe–Great Britain, France, Germany, Belgium, Portugal, and Italy–have invaded nearly all of Africa and divided it up between them. Only two nations, Liberia in the west and Ethiopia in the east, remain free. Menelik II, who traces his lineage back to King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, has claimed the Ethiopian throne after a long power struggle. Knowing that only a strong and united empire can resist the colonial ambitions of Europe, Menelik establishes the capital of Addis Ababa and sets out to found modern Ethiopia.

The British have already interfered in the Ethiopian succession, and the French and Italians are on their way. While crushing the slave trade, Menelik finds time to play the colonizers off each other, skillfully letting each of them think they’re expanding their influence while they’re actually just building railroads, providing Addis Ababa with electricity, and selling modern weapons to the Ethiopian empire.

Italian envoys attempt to trick Menelik with a treaty in two languages: its Amharic version merely cedes Eritrea, but its Italian version claims all of Ethiopia as a protectorate. When he finds out, an enraged Menelik denounces the Italian treaty and prepares for war–ramping up his arms stockpiling and forging an unlikely friendship with Russia. At the Battle of Adwa, with the help of his third wife Teytu, Menelik decisively defeats the colonial army and forces Italy to recognize the absolute independence of Ethiopia.

The movie: Menelik II is a figure I greatly admire. He fought his enemies with guile, and was wise and open before his subjects, but when you pushed him he pushed you back. The story of an African empire that resisted colonization in the 19th century would be fascinating enough on its own, even without a protagonist who was a crack shot, befriended Russian poets, detested slavery, founded a national bank (it’s 2016, founding banks is sexy now), got caricatured in Vanity Fair, and may have used a non-functioning electric chair as his throne. But this one has all those things, wrapped around the battle against impossible odds. And the good guys win!

The cast: I can easily see Denzel Washington winning his third Oscar for the lead role of Menelik. He’s got the range to pull it off–he can be a wise elder, a trickster, and a force of nature all at once. Teytu, the woman Menelik thought he could never love after losing his first two wives, the woman who served as his minister and commanded 5,000 guns at Adwa, could only be Viola Davis.


3. Isambard Kingdom Brunel

The history: Let’s pivot from war and politics to a feat of engineering. In the 1820s, many Londoners are talking about building a tunnel under the Thames to reduce the intolerable congestion of the city’s commerce. Nobody seriously thinks it can be done, though. The work surface is too soft, and every attempt–including a valiant effort by Cornish wrestler-inventor Richard Trevithick–breaches and floods.

Every attempt, that is, until Marc Brunel, a French engineer fleeing the Reign of Terror, notices the way shipworms line the tunnels they dig as they go. He is inspired to design a Great Shield (The Great Shield, possible title idea), an enormous working frame riding on wooden planks that provides a temporary roof, walls, and floor for a tunnel in progress. There’s only one project ambitious enough to test such an idea: finally building the Thames Tunnel.

The Great Shield can stave off collapse–most of the time–but it can’t protect Brunel from the poor ventilation and wildly fluctuating temperatures that in 1826 leave him too sick to work. His son, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, takes over instead, and finds himself embattled on all fronts: dangerous floods are getting more frequent, his enemies in Parliament are trying to shut the project down, and the Shield is approaching the unexpected dip in the riverbed that destroyed Trevithick’s project.

Isambard has ideas. He invites paying tourists to watch the diggers at work. He plunges under the Thames in a diving bell, alone, to hurl bags of clay to fill the depression. In 1827, he barely escapes a disastrous flood that kills six other workers. When financial problems halt the effort for seven years, Marc Brunel steps back into the picture, raising the funds that finally complete the tunnel in 1841.

The movie: An inspirational story of perseverance starring the engineer action hero we need, not the one we deserve. This seemingly boring story about building an underwater tunnel with turn-of-the-19th-century technology features more hairsbreadth escapes and rapidly changing plans than The Martian. Plus, the narrative of the son stepping in to finish what his father started is too perfect to ignore.

The cast: I just found out two things about Aaron Taylor-Johnson–one, he’s English, and two, his father was a civil engineer. That’s good enough for me to put him in the role of Isambard. As for Brunel Sr., let’s have Vincent Cassel as the inspired, ailing French ex-pat.


2. Castner’s Cutthroats

The history: The other two war stories on this list are about commanders determining the fortunes of entire armies–but here in Alaska, 1942, we’ve got a tale of unconventional battles at the literal edge of the conflict. During the war in the Pacific, the Imperial Japanese Army invades the Aleutian Islands. Not only does the Alaskan archipelago offer them control of the North Pacific, it could be a staging ground for further incursions onto American soil, even the often-feared direct attack on the west coast.

Colonel Lawrence V. Castner, who the source link literally describes as “a masterful swordsman with a jagged scar running down his chin,” has an idea to take the Aleutians back. Both the Japanese and the Americans struggled against the harsh weather of Alaska, but the native Aleut had thrived there for thousands of years. Castner creates an irregular platoon of hunters, trappers, fishermen, prospectors, mushers, and mountain men, with one job: recon the Japanese positions without being detected.

Castner’s Cutthroats disdain all the army’s regulations and discipline. They don’t wear uniforms. They bring their own weapons. And they argue vigorously against the brass’s determination to wage war in the Alaskan permafrost the same way they did everywhere else. When the infantry committed to the island of Attu arrived in short-sleeved fatigues with only three days of rations, the Cutthroats advised them on how to stay warm, and fed everybody off the land.

At one point, the unit scored a victory by draining a lagoon on Adak Island to use its bottom as a temporary airstrip. In May 1943, they battled for Attu amid ice and fog, and, largely thanks to the scouting, mountaineering, and survival skills of a bunch of punks who didn’t even wear insignia, managed to take the island back. In fact, during the entire war, Castner’s Cutthroats sustained only a single casualty.

The movie: My major M.O. so far has been simple: tell stories that don’t just need to be made into movies, they’re basically already movies that require little to no cinematic punching-up. That’s what we’ve got here. World War II? Check! Action and adventure in a stunning landscape? Double check! A band of unconventional heroes, many of them from a marginalized background, who survive a harrowing fight by just being that good? You better believe that’s a check!

The cast: I’d really like to have an Aleut character at the center of this story, so let’s go with The Magnificent Seven‘s Martin Sensmeier as George Gray, gold prospector, survival expert, and part-time sketch artist who rises from wilderness roots to capture the high ground on Attu. As for Castner himself, read that quote about him again. Did you see Harrison Ford? Yes, you did. Quit lying.


1. Judith and Baldwin

The history: And at last, we head back to Saxon Age Britain, but it’s a very different place from where we left Edwin and Raedwald 200 years ago. The Heptarchy is over, leaving the House of Wessex ascendant, and the English are looking out toward closer ties with their neighbors in France. Charles the Bald, grandson of Charlemagne, gives his daughter Judith in marriage to King Aethelwulf of Wessex. He is in his fifties, she no more than fourteen.

The couple have no children before Aethelwulf dies, but no sooner is he cold than his son, Aethelbald, forcibly marries his stepmother. When he dies as well, Judith, who has grown up swiftly to survive for years in a strange court without allies, returns to shelter with her father in France–only to have Charles confiscate her property and lock her in a nunnery until he can marry her off a third time.

However, Judith became a queen in Wessex, and she’s tired of letting old men decide her fate. At the convent, she falls in love with Baldwin, a count and famous warrior in Flanders. Baldwin is no Casanova, either–he loves Judith back, and is ready to fight the whole world so they can be together. When the couple elopes, Charles the Bald excommunicates them both, and sends soldiers to kill them. They escape, perhaps with the assistance of a young Alfred the Great, and embark on a harrowing journey to seek intercession from Pope Nicholas himself.

The pope forces Charles to recognize the marriage only after Baldwin threatens to go to war against France if he does not. Judith and Baldwin live the rest of their days together. Their children become kings and queens, their line eventually culminating in a little-known Norman bastard now called William the Conqueror.

The movie: There’s a lot of war in this list, so I wanted to end on a love story. And what a love story! Open on young Judith, a terrified, lonely child bride, who gradually learns to fight for herself. Go through the consequences of her attempt to take a stand, the furtive nighttime meetings at the convent wall with the dashing knight, and finally, a desperate race that tests their true love against the rage not only of the King, but of God. Tell me you wouldn’t rather watch this than another damn Elizabeth I movie.

The only issue, if I had any say in adapting this, was that in learning about this from the British History Podcast I created a headcanon that Alfred was in love with Judith himself and had to give up on his crush so she could be happy. There is no proof that happened and I need to quit pretending it did. (I will not)

The cast: We haven’t used Charles Dance yet, have we? Put him in as Charles the Bald, opposite Natalie Dormer as Judith in the role she was born for. For Baldwin, I need someone like Gerard Butler but less angry, which according the 300 continuum means Sullivan Stapleton. Finally, Asa Butterfield could steal a few scenes as young, not-that-great-yet Alfred.


So there you have it! If studios ever want to go back to making tentpole historical epics with fantastic art direction and the budgets of superhero movies, they could do a lot worse than these five true stories. Also, there’s a lot of history I don’t know–so if you read this far, I’d love to hear your own ideas for real-life dramas overlooked by Hollywood!

Scotland: The Power of Realms

This month, A. and I had an adventure. We’ve had others together–running 30 kilometers along the Danube in Budapest, exploring the windswept coast of County Clare, searching Yellowstone for Forrest Fenn’s gold. This one was more elaborate than any before, though, and we planned it entirely on our own. And we took pictures!


A burn not far from the famous Devil’s Pulpit.

Scotland’s been lodged in both of our hearts for a while now. Hers because she spent a semester abroad in London, and while she explored extensively, wasn’t able to make it beyond Hadrian’s Wall; mine because I spent a great deal of time in Edinburgh as a child, but was too young to remember. Our plan was to spend three days hiking the West Highland Way along the shore of Loch Lomond, then another three days exploring in other places around Stirling, Argyll, and Edinburgh.

I was especially excited about walking due to my love of The Old Ways, Robert MacFarlane’s ode to the power of foot travel. Carrying a copy of that book with me, I embarked on the popular WHW at the town of Milngavie, a town whose exact pronunciation we could never seem to pry out of the locals (Miln-gavy? Mul-guy? Mil-guy? Mil-gavy?).

This won’t just be a chronicle of a journey. While I walked–and while I wrote this post–I tried to understand the power that certain places can hold. What is the source of the myth of Scotland? Why do people fall in love with it, or with Italy, Japan, Ireland, or another evocative place they may never have been to? Toward the end of this post, I’ll share some of my own answers.


A. taught me to look for sleeping giants in the lines of hillsides. We decided this one is a woman tired out after a long game of fetch with her dog, lying on her back to watch the clouds. The dog is curled by her feet just out of frame to the right.

That first day, though it was walked under severe strictures of jetlag, held enough majestic sights to write this whole post. We passed a woodsman’s cabin, ruined but for its low walls, hidden in the forest on the grounds of a castle. The trail took us over stones carved with Gaelic blessings, through sheep fields, and across a hillside planted with fir and pine saplings. The seductive sent of single-malt whisky drifted over the pasture from Glengoyne Distillery. We slept under duvets that night at Kip in the Kirk, a church converted to a hostel in the national-park gateway town of Drymen (drimm-en).



The second day, we became acquainted with the highland midge. Don’t get me wrong, clouds of tiny biting insects suck, but they did occasion my discovery of the all-time greatest opening to a Wikipedia article, stating that midges are “known colloquially as ‘wee bastards.'” Let me tell you, Outlander and Braveheart do not devote nearly enough attention to midges. I want just one episode where Claire and Jamie are about to have some passionate highland sex to a soaring bagpipe soundtrack but have to stop because they’re both being bitten on their respective junks.

(Also I guess they’re in Jamaica now? What is that show even about?)


The view from Conic Hill. One of the islands hosts a nudist colony that must spend an ungodly amount on insect spray.

Over the course of the entire trip, we circumnavigated the entire loch, by means of foot, boat, and bus. We summitted Conic Hill, an edifice of 1,100 feet that provides the first great view of all 22 of Loch Lomond’s islands. We traveled by water taxi to Inversnaid, a hotel in such a beautiful spot that it inspired Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poem of the same name about “wilderness and wet”; it also once hosted Victoria. We camped in a meadow at Doune Byre and walked through the faewildest forest I’ve ever seen, and saw the isle of I Vow, where a ruined MacGregor castle has been engulfed by trees. We discovered a cave alleged to be a hideout of the legendary outlaw Rob Roy MacGregor.


A sandbar, with Eilean I Vow visible at left. The “pretty good house with gardens” of Clan MacGregor has been swallowed up by nature.

(An aside about Rob Roy: it’s easy to conflate him with the English Robin Hood, since they’re both outlaws of Britain who were written about by Sir Walter Scott. But that’s a mistake. Rob Roy is a documented historical figure whose discontent was far more rooted in the politics of his time; Robin Hood has a more timeless grievance, and may not have existed at all. That said, I hope people never stop idolizing principled brigands.)

Speaking of Rob Roy, he’s also said to have once stayed at The Drover’s, an inn founded just before Scotland’s previous parliament dissolved in 1707. It’s supposed to be haunted, and is a popular destination for paranormal hunters. I was excited to stay there, given how much I’d love to see a ghost, but we remained sadly un-haunted. I also searched around the village of Inverarnan looking for a neolithic stone circle, only to learn that they’d apparently lost it. Still, the pint was great.


The taproom at Drover’s Inn.

Now would be a great time for a word about food. A. and I walked across the Scottish landscape, but we ate our way across it too. We dined on haggis, neeps and tatties, pasties, steak and ale pie, scones, cheese toasties, and tablet; we swilled single-malts, cider, and Irn-Bru. I can now personally say three things:

1) My late grandfather’s beloved scotch is still made according to the old ways, and warms like nothing else on a rainy eve.

2) Haggis is not any weirder than any other kind of sausage. Less so, actually, since they’re honest about what’s in there.

3) Vinegar is for the fish AND the chips. It doesn’t just accidentally get on the chips. It’s part of the design.

And furthermore, isn’t it time we let go of the tired old stereotype that there’s no good food in the UK? They figured out how to use spices like a hundred years ago. Just because it doesn’t hurt to eat doesn’t mean there’s no flavor.


This archway at Dumbarton Castle is the oldest surviving part of the structure, dating to the 14th century. Wallace himself certainly passed up this staircase.

We spent the second half of the trip back in civilization, exploring castles and city streets. On day five we visited Dumbarton Castle, a fortress built into a rock in the Clyde, which boasts the longest history of any fortification in Scotland. I didn’t know before arriving that it was that Rock of the Clyde: not just a castle, but a capitol that gave its name to the ancient kingdom of Strathclyde. In its life, it’s been besieged by Vikings, imprisoned William Wallace, launched Mary, Queen of Scots, on her journey to France, possibly hosted Merlin, and stood fast against the assault of someone called “James the Fat.”

On our last full day, it was time for Edinburgh. I admit, I’d been reluctant to add this to the itinerary. No matter where I’m traveling, I like to get out of the city as soon as possible and stay there; I’ve found it can be difficult to have authentic experiences in the urban realm. I was partly proven right. The Royal Mile does kind of feel like a Scotland theme park, with its rows on rows of kiltmakers, bagpipers, and postcard shops. But there’s an undeniable thrill of being there, especially when you look up over the Princes Street Gardens and see the castle looming over you for the first time.


Edinburgh Castle, photographed while ominously veiled in fog for the start of the movie.

Another thing that makes the Royal Mile worth it–other than the meat pies, and the ascent of Arthur’s Seat, which we weren’t about to attempt on our pulverized knees–is the wealth of secret courts and hidden treasures to be found just a turn off the main road. Following one close lead us to a public garden with exotic flowers. Another led to a museum of childhood that featured an exhibit on early board games, including one about a valiant attempt by the stupidest little boy in history to reach his grandmother’s house.


Willie should never have been allowed outside.

The Writers’ Museum was my favorite, shocking nobody. It’s a barely-announced, richly-decorated shrine to three of Scotland’s great authors: Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott, and Robert Louis Stevenson. My grandmother once told the story of entering a little chapel down a side street in Rome, and finding, with no signage whatsoever, an original Caravaggio. The Edinburgh equivalent of that is a house that keeps a page of Rabbie Burns’s own handwriting like it’s not a big deal or something. I stayed an hour and had to be dragged out.


Burns, Scott, and Stevenson–three titans of Scottish letters, sharing a tapestry at last. Burns once savaged critics who mocked his poetry as simplistic: “Those who think it easy to write a poem in the Scotch dialect…let them try.”

As we made to leave, while I tried to figure out just what it is that makes a country into an obsession, the Writers’ Museum gave me one decent clue. There are probably other areas of land just as small that have produced more literary heavy hitters, but none so many that I enjoy reading–not just Burns, Scott, and Stevenson, but Arthur Conan Doyle, Iain M. Banks, George MacDonald, Ian Rankin, Alexander McCall Smith, Kenneth Grahame, J.K. Rowling…some of these people are more often called “British,” but only in the way tennis champion Andy Murray is British when he wins and Scottish when he loses.

Scotland has always been an alchemical lab for the West, in a way that both its fraught history and the persistent image of its citizens as ungroomed tartaned savages would belie (they’re ungroomed tartaned heroes, first of all). In the 18th century, while Scotland was losing its very national identity after the Jacobite Rebellion, James Hutton and Charles Lyell were hard at work birthing modern geology. Walter Scott was inventing the historical novel. David Hume was writing on metaphysics and Adam Smith on economics, Burns was joyfully preserving the dialect of his boyhood (here’s him making Ron Swanson cry 200 years after the fact), and James Watt was improving on the steam engine. And all this without even a parliament of their own.

Those modern white man-boys who bitch and moan about their identities being replaced could learn an awful lot here. A national identity is not a precious glass vase you have to constantly guard against destruction. It derives from the character of its people. Scotland was literally absorbed and still managed to make great strides in literature, science, philosophy, and culture; American neo-Nazis have a perfectly functioning government and bloated military and are still pissed off because they have to look at Mexican people. They are possibly the only people on Earth who would be beaten by Willie to his grandma’s house.

By the time A. and I were flying home, scratching every midge-bitten inch of skin we could reach, I did come to a conclusion about why we fixate on countries. To some people, Ireland, Scotland, India, Japan, or wherever else represent things both profound and bygone. Places where things are ancient, and people still live, however consciously, according to an ancestral code. A country of worship has to be not just old but somehow simple–a place where music is made for the sheer joy of it, where the booze is done right and everyone is friends while they drink, and there’s ancient spirits in the room with the regular spirits.

In America, everything is thirty minutes away from everything else. Interesting architecture is as common in our cities as spices at a McDonald’s. Nobody seems to like anybody else very much. This may sound overly simplistic, but I find it easy to argue that America, by design of all its radical individualism, is fundamentally a lonely place. Is it any wonder that so many of us reach out to places that think a hundred miles is a long way but a hundred years is a short time?

Moreover, how harmful is it that we should do so? Of course, it’s never a good idea to reduce someone else’s culture to a caricature, even if that caricature is a positive one. However, a minimum of study can transform a childlike reverence into a mature respect. Yes, people are living real lives in my idolized countries. But if I come with an earnest desire to celebrate what they’ve got and share in it fairly, I not only spend more money, I come away with a much more fulfilling experience than if I’d toured a land of pure fantasy.

A. and I walked the wildest side of Loch Lomond because we didn’t just want to go to Scotland, we wanted to get its dirt under our fingernails. I hope we succeeded. I for one am glad to now have a real, firm place in my memories.


The falls at Inversnaid. Said Hopkins: “What would the world be, once bereft/of wet and of wilderness? Let them be left,/O let them be left, wildness and wet.”

The Definitive Ranking of Every Book I Read in 2017, Part 3

I want to start this runup to the finale with some lines from John Keats, inspired by a namesake of mine. From On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer:

“Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-browed Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken…”

A good book is an unseen world. Recommending any of this top nineteen is a hill I am willing to die on. Let’s get started.

19. Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld

The first book in the alternate-history trilogy keeps the scope tight and engaging, avoiding the meandering pitfalls of Goliath. Deryn is a girl posing as a boy to join the Royal Air Force. Alek is a Hapsburg prince posing as a commoner to escape the conspiracy that killed his parents. As the Great War erupts between bioengineered beasts and giant robots, can their budding attraction survive in the face of all the secrets they have to keep?

The beauty of this trilogy is the world. The Darwinist/Clanker divide makes WWI make far more sense than it did in real life–still not justifiable, but understandable. And Westerfeld doesn’t skimp on the danger. This is no dulce et decorum war: you can smell the acrid smoke from the guns, can practically feel the alpine chill.

18. Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne

Before reading this story straight through on an airplane, I had a lot of misconceptions about it. I didn’t know that Phileas Fogg, that icon of the gentleman adventurer, wasn’t suited to undertake his wager because of any love for adventure. Rather, he’s perfect for the job because he is superhumanly punctual, the kind of man who will fire a manservant for being two minutes late with the shaving water. One of the greatest globetrotting stories of all time spends most of its length concerned with timetables and train schedules.

The wonder is there, of course, largely via the audience-insert character of Jean Passepartout. But it’s also in Fogg himself: knowing nothing about what made him the way he is, we are free to invent a whole litany of past traumas and narrow escapes that made him long for a robotic familiarity in his days. By the end, his circumnavigation has succeeded in cracking his stiff upper lip, and we discover that what we thought was a grand tour was in fact the rebirth of a man’s soul.

17. Tao te Ching by Lao Tzu

It’s arbitrary to rate this with the others, because it’s not really even a book. Nor is it a poem. Lao Tzu’s words seem as natural a part of the world as the Cold Mountain poems found scrawled on rock faces: the foundation of the only religion that seems to have conjured its own scripture as a point of completion rather than beginning. His thoughts on the Tao are to be contemplated, studied, discussed, meditated upon. But you don’t exactly sit down and read this straight through. So, instead of thinking of the Tao at number 17, think of all these other books in a north-south column, and Lao Tzu way the hell off to the left.

16. Arcadia by Iain Pears

Yes, this book does have an companion app for understanding its plot. It’s not required. But it helps.

I initially picked Arcadia up because one of its lead characters is based heavily on J.R.R. Tolkien–a respected Oxford linguist and former military man building a fantasy world in his spare time. Yet the central inspiration for Pears’s sprawling novel is not The Lord of the Rings but Shakespeare’s As You Like It, with its dichotomy of the civilized nest of vipers and the pastoral Eden. Rosalind, a student of the professor, stumbles through a mysterious portal in his cellar and find that the world he created is quite real. Meanwhile, in a brutal utilitarian future, a rogue researcher sets out to correct humanity’s mistakes using a stolen time machine.

Romances! Cold war spy thrills! Fantasy journeys! Dystopian social commentary! There is so much going on in this book, and not everything works with everything else. But what does work, works well enough to turn Arcadia into a feast on basically every level I enjoy reading on. What is the purpose of science? Will Rosalind find love? Who is the mole in MI5? Why do we turn our inspirations into literature? Can the characters avert nuclear war? Should they?

I had a great reading year. Everything in the top 20 comes with my highest recommendation, and from here on it was excruciating to put things in order. Read Arcadia. Just be forewarned that this is a lot of book, and it’s all happening at once, and you’ll like some parts more than others, and miss still other parts entirely.

15. Behemoth by Scott Westerfeld

The second in the trilogy is frequently the best, and that pattern holds true with Leviathan. With his characters and world firmly in place, Westerfeld is free to tell a story that breaks the boundaries of YA. Fresh off their victory in the Alps, Alek and Deryn head to Ottoman Istanbul, where the Clankers and Darwinists are competing to influence the Sultan. Confining the story to a single city keeps the tension high and surprising. The action is top-notch, the illustrations engrossing, and the plot never once flags.

Beyond that, there’s a sense of history, of the weight of the world crashing down onto these unprepared teenage characters. This is what steampunk, biopunk, and all the other punks are supposed to be. They’re not just about gluing gears on your corsets, as fun as that is. They’re about getting to a vantage point where you can look back on the truth of history. And isn’t it best to teach teens as early as possible that war is futile and stupid, using feelings they’ll identify with even if they’ve never known a soldier?

14. Small Gods by Terry Pratchett

This standalone Discworld religious satire is built around the kind of concept that’s so obvious only Terry Pratchett can point it out: namely, that most people who believe in a religion don’t believe in the god or gods themselves so much as they believe in the institution constructed around them. This isn’t always a bad thing–plenty of people go to church for the community rather than the prayer–but it does grant the theological establishment a great deal of power over its flock.

Small Gods is essentially a buddy road-trip story, only the buddies are a cantankerous god trapped in the body of a turtle and the simple-minded gardener who is his last true worshiper. Through their relationship, Pratchett asks questions as large as he ever does in his whole body of satire: Why should we believe? And once we understand what we ask of our gods, how can we receive it without hurting ourselves, or others? The answer the book arrives at forms fully in the final two pages, which are by themselves enough to call this the greatest Discworld book.

Yet–spoiler alert–this is not the last time Sir Terry will show up on this list.

13. A Redtail’s Dream by Minna Sundberg

I read this in the form of a webcomic, though it’s also been published as a book. A Redtail’s Dream is to the Kalavela what The Chronicles of Prydain is to the Mabinogion, which for those of you who aren’t national-epic dweebs, means it’s modern-day fiction that uses a culture’s founding myths as its fantasy world. In this case, native Finn Sundberg has taken a dream-world of animal spirits and vast forests and dropped in loser protagonist Hannu and his loyal hound Ville. To save their village from being lost in a dream forever, the pair will have to complete a series of difficult labors.

Aside from the beauty of the art, it’s a sheer joy to see a person geeking out over their own homeland’s mythology the way people do about Harry Potter on Tumblr. Way too many people now are using mythic symbols as emblems of hate (I mean white nationalists, by the way, if any of them have read this far). By contrast, Sundberg’s is a work of love, with the tender emotions to match. A Redtail’s Dream is both possessed by its origins and transcendent, the way all the best stories are.

12. Arabella of Mars by David D. Levine

The cover describes Arabella of Mars as what would happen if “Patrick O’Brien, Jules Verne, and Edgar Rice Burroughs got together and wrote a book to entertain Jane Austen.” With a blurb like that, it seems superfluous to say anything else. O’Brien contributed the wooden ships and iron men, Verne the wonder of an especially odd mode of transport, Burroughs brought his Martian worldbuilding, and since Austen was the beta reader, they made sure to wrap it all up with a marriage proposal.

But there’s more going on in Arabella than just a pastiche. Levine packs the tale to the gills with incident and adventure, always making sure his heroine is just barely up to the task. From the moment Arabella’s slimy cousin Simon announces his intent to murder her beloved brother, the story gathers speed like a ship headed for the stars. Other books on this list may have taught me more, but Arabella made me feel like a kid discovering books for the first time.

11. The Dragonbone Chair by Tad Williams

As I just decided I have always said, if it can’t level a dining table, is it really a fantasy novel? I’ve found there are three things people tend to know about Williams’s seminal Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn trilogy: 1) The hero takes 200 pages to leave the castle he starts in, 2) It inspired George R.R. Martin, and 3) It’s long enough to make Robert Jordan suspicious.

#1 isn’t a problem at all, because the events catching Simon in their snare fascinate the reader as they grow worse alarmingly fast. And #3 is unfair in inviting comparisons to Jordan. While the Wheel of Time auteur infamously spent an entire book describing 35 separate POV characters doing nothing in particular, Williams never wastes a page. As a result, The Dragonbone Chair earns its doorstopping length, as does its sequel, Stone of Farewell.

As for #2: it’s a book about kings whose civil war distracts them from an enemy approaching from the north, who is strongly associated with inclement weather. The hero comes of age through traumatic experiences in an icy wasteland. There’s a dwarf, a giant tame wolf, a sword named Needle, a character who loses a hand and replaces it with a metal prosthetic, a character who starts out in a vast grassland distant from the rest of the cast…listen, all the best artists steal.

10. Stand Still, Stay Silent by Minna Sundberg

At last we come to the top 10, and a familiar face is here to greet us. It’s fitting to rate this above A Redtail’s Dream, as Stand Still, Stay Silent was always Sundberg’s dream project–she drew Redtail to see if she was capable of finishing a comic so she could do this one.

SSSS starts out with one of the most instantly intriguing premises I’ve ever had the misfortune to not come up with myself. A plague wipes out the entire human race except for the five nations of Scandinavia, who close their borders just in time. Ninety years later, the countries have each taken on their own specific characters–helped by the fact that magic is now (sort of) real for those who have returned to the worship of the Old Gods. A group of representatives for those countries is now about to be the first since the end of the world to make a journey into the “silent world” beyond their borders.

From this beginning spins a tale in which flamethrowers and armored trucks are equally at home with trolls and dream visions, which elevates the post-apocalyptic genre by focusing on what happened to the souls of all the people that died. The art is even better than Redtail, and the characters are so lovable they tinge everything with melancholy–their friendship can’t save the world, but at least it sustains them. Genuinely shocking moments mix with unexpectedly funny ones mix with awesome worldbuilding and…you know, it’s free online. Just read the damn thing.

9. The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle

Obviously, this is one of the greatest murder mysteries ever written. Who is so jaded that they don’t feel a shiver in their soul when Sir Henry Baskerville cries, “Mr. Holmes, they were the footprints of a gigantic hound!”? I submit, though, that Conan Doyle’s crowning achievement works even better on another level: as an exploration of the power of place.

There is no way that The Hound of the Baskervilles could be set anywhere other than Dartmoor. The fog. The mires. The empty neolithic huts. The distance between human habitations. Far from a cozy pastoral, the mystery embodies the layered creepiness of the English countryside, all the more so because Holmes himself vanishes for the greater part of the action, letting us experience the fear of the more credulous Dr. Watson. Watson himself repeatedly remarks on how things that sound ridiculous in London can be believed on the moor–indeed, this fact drives the murderer’s entire scheme.

I have very little patience for writing that doesn’t acknowledge that humans live in places. Absurd minimalist landscapes or midcentury urban angst: great literature it may be, but it’s not for me. Even Sherlock Holmes, fiction’s most famous rationalist, cannot escape the truth that everything eventually derives from the trees and the rocks, the bogs and the moors.

8. Dragonsbane by Barbara Hambly

Hambly is a jack-of-all-trades for literature that’s better than it has any right to be. Case in point: the copy of Dragonsbane I borrowed features a buxom maiden with a swath of cloth strategically covering her nipples, swooning in the clutches of a glowering dragon. Fantasy from the 1980s gets a very bad rap that mostly has to do with the cover art, but still, would you expect that a book about dragonslayers and wenches turns out to be a moving portrait of a middle-aged woman struggling with her regrets? Believe it. Dragonsbane is brilliant for the same reason Mad Max: Fury Road was such unexpected fresh air–despite the fact that the man is in the title, it’s really a story about women.

Jenny Waynest is torn between two worlds. In one she is the wife of a petty lord and mother to his children; in the other, she is a solitary magic-user who bitterly regrets the limitations on her power that result from her choice to spend part of her life with the man she loves. Forced to choose, wondering if she’s already too late to make the choice, Jenny is confronted by Zyerne, a younger, prettier mage who never gave up on attaining ultimate power. Soon enough, she is also tempted by Morkeleb, a dragon who offers her the chance to become one of his kind–yet whom her husband John is bound to seek out and kill.

It’s a speculative take on a universal problem. No man is expected to give up his dreams for a family, yet so many women are expected to make the choice. And if a woman really wants to marry and raise children–and Jenny and John’s relationship is as supportive and mature as any I’ve ever read–that doesn’t make the dichotomy any less false. The way Hambly spins her entire story from Jenny’s dilemma, picking apart and reassembling her character and still finding time for epic dragon rides, should be enough to redeem all of 80s fantasy on its own, no matter how terrible the cover art may be.

7. The Janissary Tree by Jason Goodwin

“Introducing Investigator Yashim,” this book is subtitled, and I was very pleased to meet him. Yashim is one of the most interesting guys being written right now: a detective in the late Ottoman empire as Istanbul attempts to rapidly modernize; a eunuch who deals with his sexual frustrations by cooking elaborate meals; a charming social mingler equally at home conversing with the Sultan’s mother, a beautiful Russian aristocrat, a transgender dancer, or a common mule driver; and the kind of person who frequently finds himself in fistfights over boiling tanning vats or dramatic confrontations atop the Hagia Sophia.

In The Janissary Tree, Yashim must investigate several mysteries which all connect to the Janissary Order, a band of legendary mercenaries recently dispersed for becoming incorrigibly violent against their own people. What really makes this great historical fiction is the attention to detail, both in the characters and in the world. No fantasy writer could develop a city so full of richness and dark complexity as this one. And the mysteries hold up too!

6. Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brien

Speaking of historical fiction, here’s the beginning of a series that’s often called the greatest entry in that genre. For those who didn’t have a grandfather that owned the full set of the Aubrey-Maturin novels, here’s the Star Wars crawl: it is a period of Napoleonic War. “Lucky Jack” Aubrey is a skillful and daring commander at sea and an indecisive philanderer on land. Stephen Maturin is a dashing and educated surgeon, botanist, and spy who is an utter neophyte in naval matters. The two men complete each other so well that it’s no surprise they go swiftly from duel opponents to lifelong friends by means of chamber-music jam sessions.

Master and Commander doesn’t have a traditional plot, in the sense of rising action and 3-act structure. It’s the full chronicle of Jack Aubrey’s first command, from his being promoted and posted to H.M.S. Sophie to his losing that same ship (it takes no fewer than four French warships to bring him down). Like The Janissary Tree, O’Brien’s works are victories of meticulous detail, but he goes even farther than Goodwin in successfully recreating the style and dialect of the era he writes about. Will people in the future understand that these books were being written 150 years after Lord Nelson’s death? Or, like “Ashokan Farewell, will Jack and Stephen leap back across the centuries? The Janissary Tree is great historical fiction. Master and Commander is a time machine.

5. Classical Chinese Poetry: An Anthology by David Hinton

A life is not that difficult to change. When I say a book changed my life, all I mean is that it had a material and lasting impact on the way I think and act. All the top 5 books of 2017 fall into this category.

In 1915, Ezra Pound, seeking to escape from the mannered poetic traditions of the previous century, discovered the poetry of Imperial China and translated a collection entitled Cathay. He was inspired by the rich minimalism of masters such as Mei Yaochen, Li Po, and Tu Fu, who could be beautiful, drunken, political, meditative, lustful, and enraged in the course of four or eight lines about birds or a lake. His famous two-line poem “In a Station of the Metro” could be read as a direct response to the Tang Dynasty.

In 1969, beat poets Gary Snyder and Jack Kerouac became influenced by a mysterious figure called the Cold Mountain Poet, who famously inscribed his verse on rocks and cliff faces. Snyder translated several of his poems and published them in The Evergreen Review, and Kerouac dedicated Dharma Bums to him. Snyder and Kerouac saw in the nameless poet the figure of the archetypal American madman.

In 2010, Guy Gavriel Kay (who isn’t done around here any more than Pterry is) was so taken with the work of Li Po, the “banished immortal,” that he fictionalized him in Under Heaven as the perpetually inebriated Sima Zian. This character eventually dies in the same way Li Po was said to–drowns trying to embrace the moon’s reflection in a lake.

And so on. I could go on forever. The point is that westerners are forever discovering the genius of the classical poetic tradition of China, and that Hinton’s collection does the finest job yet of presenting it in its own right–inextricable from Buddhism and from East Asian history, yet entirely timeless–and that I started reading this book in January of 2017, and I still haven’t stopped.

4. The Telling Room by Michael Paterniti

It’s a story about a rushed American discovering a slow-food paradise in backwater Spain. No, wait, it’s a story about the greatest cheesemaker of all time, who is robbed of his business and sinks so low that he contemplates murder. No, it’s the story of how that American inserted himself into that cheesemaker’s life in the attempt to write the very book we’re reading now. It’s the story of a man out of step with his time, of the pull of unknown cultures, of stories themselves.

Relating the tragedy of Ambrosio Molinos, creator of a cheese called Paramo de Guzman which was briefly enjoyed by presidents and popes, The Telling Room evolves from a travelogue into a moving examination of the difficulty of living an authentic life in the modern age. When his cheese business goes under, Ambrosio believes he was stabbed in the back by his best friend Julian. When Paterniti finally meets Julian, he discovers that the truth is far more complicated: Ambrosio’s factory simply fell victim to economic circumstances. Unable to grapple with the loss, he created a more satisfying story, one that Paterniti himself gets caught up in.

Normally, I don’t go in for stories where the author makes themselves a central character, unless I’m warned beforehand that it’s a memoir. Here, though, Paterniti’s involvement provides a great deal of the book’s pathos, as he yearns for the unattainable world of Ambrosio’s quasi-medieval Castile in much the same way Ambrosio yearns for a time when people “knew how to shit.” I closed the book with tears in my eyes, realizing that The Telling Room was never a book about cheese. It’s a book about longing. And cheese.

3. Lord of Emperors by Guy Gavriel Kay

(N.B.: Guy Gavriel Kay once answered my question on Reddit, so we’re basically best friends now.)

What a difference a career makes.

The author who was still finding his feet in The Summer Tree has evolved into not only the best fantasy writer of his time but one of the best writers working in any genre. His M.O. is to take historical periods and base his secondary worlds off them–thereby obtaining a one-two punch of emotional familiarity and unpredictability. OK, says Kay, we begin in Republican Venice, or Anglo-Saxon England, or Imperial China…but you’ll never believe what happens next.

His backdrop here is based on the Byzantine Empire, from which Kay conjures Sarantium, a city so storied that merely to go there is indicative of a turning point in one’s life. In the first book of the Sarantine Mosaic duology, mosaicist Caius Crispus reached Sarantium and planned a heretical work of art even as he became enmeshed in worldly politics. Now, in the conclusion, Crispin will realize he can no longer stay isolated on his ladder while the world below succumbs to chaos.

The story that emerges is as complex and stunning as any of Crispin’s mosaics. Chariot races are elevated to mythic proportions, love affairs play out on dark streets, mechanical birds and wild boars are guides to a shadowy otherworld. This is a book that aims for nothing less than the totality of history, and doesn’t fall short of the mark. What is history but pictures on walls, knives in the dark, the screams of a crowd, a messenger getting drunk in a seaside tavern, passionate kisses, dutiful lovemaking?

There’s not a character in this book I don’t long for more time with; not an image that passes I can’t recall months later. And when old ex-presidents and heads of state die in my lifetime, I believe with all my heart that they still hear the words: Uncrown. The Lord of Emperors awaits you now.

2. Republic by Plato

There is a moment, toward the end of Plato’s account of one of the most important conversations in Western history, that veers into the unexpectedly emotional. Socrates, having finally exhausted all his debating partners, ventures forth on a long allegorical speech about a soldier chosen by the gods to return from the afterlife and report on what he found there. This soldier relates that, just before resurrection, each soul is given the chance to choose the next life it wishes to live, knowing that after choosing it will forget all about its previous life. Odysseus is last in line to choose, and happily takes the life of “a private citizen who minds his own business,” stating that he would have chosen the same if he’d gone first.

By means of this parable, Socrates intends to illustrate how the soul is capable of gradually progressing along the course of justice. Each of his friends–Glaucon and Adeimantus, Polemarchus and even Thrasymachus–has drunk of the River Lethe before, and will do so again, for a thousand years and a thousand after that. Each is capable of choosing a better life every time they pass through the underworld. These men, who one night in ancient Athens stayed up late trying to figure out the definition of justice, might be with us today, still struggling, still waiting to be reborn just that little bit better.

The Republic is the portrait of that struggle. Over its ten books, Socrates and his interlocutors create and then dissect a fictional city that will become just in a mirror of the just human soul. No detail is too small for their notice. At one point, when Adeimantus points out that Socrates has forgotten to include a role for women in his perfect city, Socrates detours for three entire books to correct his mistake. Nothing is left to conjecture, heuristic, or common sense. Socrates doesn’t want a fast answer or an easy answer. He wants the right answer.

It’s this insistence that the path of justice is never out of reach that makes the most rational book in history such a touching read. We may never know if Socrates believed the words Plato puts in his mouth. We do know that Plato believed that even the most unjust soul can begin walking the long road toward redemption. The bully, the bigot, the robber baron–they will weary of evil. When that happens, those of us who are just must take their hands, like Brutha took Vorbis’s, and lead them out of the desert.

And yet, with a year as bad as 2017 was for the world, I knew the best book I read would be something that commingles rationality with faith. To my everlasting delight, it came along.

1. Nation by Terry Pratchett

When Terry Pratchett sat down to write his first book after his diagnosis of early-onset Alzheimer’s, why didn’t he return to his familiar, beloved Discworld? Perhaps he wasn’t yet prepared to face those characters, knowing that they would slip away from him. But I prefer a somewhat happier explanation: he knew he could only grieve by way of Nation.

Nation begins as a story of loss. Mau, a boy from an alternate-universe South Pacific, loses his entire tribe to a tsunami. In the days that follow, a new tribe begins to form from castaways, including Daphne, a proper English girl longing to join the Royal Geographical Society. Mau professes to have lost faith in the gods for taking everything from him, though the truth is more complicated, particularly as they keep yelling in his ear. Just as the tribe begins to feel safe, the island draws the attention of unsavory raiders. All the while, a secret lurks below the island’s surface.

So far, so good. But why does Nation deserve the top spot?

Mau begins wanting nothing more than to survive. When he sees to his survival, he starts realizing he also needs a reason to live. Behind the keyboard, Pratchett, as well, might have wondered at the purpose of continuing in the face of everything he’d lost, everything he would still lose.

But he wrote on. He poured his rage onto the page, and when there was no more rage–right about the point when Daphne literally drags Mau from death back to life–the book finds hope beneath it. In friendship and loyalty, in faith, and in the quest for knowledge. The refusal to give up grows into the determination to live, and in so doing, we learn how the Nation formed the world around it, bound to our history in the same way its gods are bound to our physical plane.

Grieving is a hallmark of life in 2018. We might grieve for America, for the planet, for civility, for innocence. Pratchett had his entire self to grieve for, and with Nation, he didn’t just write a book. He wrote his way out of the darkness. If Mau can rebuild his tribe, if Terry Pratchett can rebuild his identity through his book, we can begin to rebuild anything we’ve lost.

Perhaps we’ll die before it’s finished. But others will take up our work.

Though Pratchett wrote several more novels between Nation and his death, it’s not hard to imagine it as his final work. I picture him typing The End, nodding contentedly, and turning to face the figure standing in the doorway of his study.


“Yes,” says Terry, standing up. “I’ve finished my work.”

And the two old friends begin to walk across the desert.


And that, at last, is my completed list! Taking stock of it has been a wonderful experience, helping me figure out what lessons I took from last year–half of my life has always come out of my books. I hope to hear from some of you with your opinions about the works I listed, and to get some of your recommendations for 2018. Farewell for now!

The Definitive Ranking of Every Book I Read in 2017: Part 2

Let’s keep this rolling! Below you’ll find the books I ranked between 44 and 20 out of 64. All of these books were, at worst, very enjoyable reads that I’d happily recommend.

44. Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

A feat of storytelling to be sure. Gaiman reinvents Odin, Thor, Loki, and Freya for a new generation in a way Marvel never could. Once I finished reading his mythic cycle, though, I was left with more of the feeling of a reference text than anything else, with a certainty that the Northmen believed in enormous palaces and shapeshifting gods and magical mead, and not much understanding of why.

43. My Diary from the Edge of the World by Jodi Lynn Anderson

I picked this up at a book sale because it reminded me of The Valley of Steel in the way it weirds America. 12-year-old Gracie and her family pack into a Winnebago and head west across a land of dragons and sasquatches in hopes of staving off her younger brother’s death. A heartbreaking final twist brings young readers face to face with things they’re only just ready to deal with, but the story leading up to it is fairly slight.

42. How to Talk to Girls at Parties by Neil Gaiman

A short but fascinating graphic story about two guys trying to chat up girls who may or may not be a hive mind of omnipotent extraterrestrials. Or something. You know what, I’ve got no idea what happens in this comic, but I’m still thinking about it.

41. The Winter Fox by Timothy Knappman

I know what you’re asking: “Sam, did you read an entire children’s picture book in a store, just so your total number of books for the year could be a square number?” The answer is yes. I did do that. Someone stop me, I’m an absolute madman.

40. The Clockwork Raven by Samuel Chapman

Fuck you, it counts.

39. Five Weeks in a Balloon by Jules Verne

The second of three Verne books on my list this year, telling the story of three Europeans crossing the interior of Africa using technology that was cutting edge at the time. Rated higher than Journey to the Center of the Earth because it tells a more exciting story along similar beats, but rated lower than Around the World in Eighty Days because…well…”slightly less racist than it sounds” isn’t exactly the highest praise.

38. Sandman: Dream Country by Neil Gaiman

Gaiman’s comics are back, this time featuring a tetralogy of tales: a captive muse gets her revenge, cats attempt to take over the world, Shakespeare performs for an audience of Fair Folk, and an obscure superhero seeks her chance to die. Again, nothing at this point is bad, and there are worse criticisms than “doesn’t offer anything but a spectacular creepy atmosphere and wicked good artwork,” but something’s gotta be number 38.

37. Last Hours on Everest by Graham Hoyland

I have been a junkie for stories of old-timey men freezing to death since before I could read. Hoyland, who has summited the world’s highest mountain eight times, tells a story of the enduring mystery and allure of the disappearance of George Mallory and Sandy Irvine, while at the same time attempting the definitive summary of the evidence in that case. Through recreations, research, and interviews, Hoyland tries to figure out whether the two made the summit before their fatal accident, thus claiming the title of first climbers from Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay.

It’s a riveting and personal tale that only loses some ranks for dragging when Hoyland is off the mountain and sifting through clues. Gains some ranks back for relating that George Mallory was apparently possessed of a monumental hotness that overrode sexual orientation, sort of the Idris Elba of his day.

36-31: Scott Pilgrim series by Bryan Lee O’Malley (Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Scott Pilgrim and the Infinite Sadness, Scott Pilgrim Gets it Together, Scott Pilgrim vs. the Universe, Scott Pilgrim’s Finest Hour)

Having read the six comics that inspired one of my favorite movies, I can officially join the ranks of the insufferable book-was-better crowd. The thing is, though, it is better, and admitting that doesn’t have to diminish Edgar Wright’s film. Scott Pilgrim and Ramona Flowers actually seem to enjoy each other’s company, minor characters are expanded on, and the brilliance of O’Malley’s tale of millenial angst shines through.

None of these characters really have any problems. They’re aimless, sure, and they don’t have that much money, and some of them are gay, but that’s not much of an issue in urban Canada. And yet the emotions they do feel are so real to them that they can only be expressed by means of choreographed kung-fu battles–compared by Wright to musical numbers in the way they straddle reality and fantasy. Scott and his friends are no saints, but they explain better than anyone today why things that don’t matter can matter so much.

30. The Art of War by Sun Tzu

2017 being my Chinese phase, it was inevitable that I’d get around to this sooner or later. Let’s get one thing clear: it is not a management training handbook. It is not about business or relationships. It is about leading soldiers in the Warring States Period of pre-Imperial China. If you are treating your employees the way you’d treat the marauding troops of the Duke of Qi, something in your management style is fucked up harder than Sun Tzu can repair.

29. Selected Poems by Robinson Jeffers

Last November, I had the chance to visit Jeffers’s house in Carmel, near Big Sur south of Monterey Bay. I gazed at the tower where he wrote his poems, then went to the edge of the surf and read “The Torch-Bearers’ Race,” his meditation on the progress of civilization. The poem was utterly of the land, rocks writ into words.

Jeffers was an anachronism in his day: while Kerouac and Ginsburg were protesting the hypocrisies of the 1950s, he alone attempted to get to the root of modern ennui. He also wrote lengthy allegorical poems wherein a woman named California wants to have sex with a horse, but that’s the beauty–he is not about subtlety. The cliffs of Big Sur are not subtle. Why shouldn’t poetry be as big as the world? Why should we not shout at the impenetrable walls of civilization, rather than grumble under our breath like the beat poets (Gary Snyder excepted) preferred to do? Why shouldn’t we collectively rediscover Jeffers in 2018? Let’s make it happen.

28. The Starry Rift edited by Jonathan Strahan

The only anthology I read this year, representing 16 different authors as they pay homage to the golden age of sci-fi. You guessed it: time for a ranking within a ranking.

16. “Anda’s Game” by Cory Doctorow: Artlessly preachy about two completely unrelated subjects, and it’s weird that an adult man is deciding how a teenage girl feels about her body.

15. “Sundiver Day” by Kathleen Goonan: Beautifully evokes the Florida Keys setting, but chickens out at the ending, and winds up not being about much of anything.

14. “Repair Kit” by Stephen Baxter: Fun pulp sci-fi that’s about as layered as a sheet of printer paper.

13. “Orange” by Neil Gaiman: An interesting concept, but he literally wrote it on the flight he took to turn it in.

12. “An Honest Day’s Work” by Margo Lanagan: Riveting in its idea, but it’s a scene-setting, not a story.

11. “Cheats” by Gwyneth Jones: A moving exploration of disability and escapism that requires a bit too much explanation to be truly heartbreaking.

10. “Ass-Hat Magic Spider” by Scott Westerfeld: A short, sweet, emotional tale of the future.

9. “Incomers” by Paul McAuley: Youthful idiocy runs headlong into adult reality, but it’s still optimistic in the end.

8. “Post-Ironic Stress Syndrome” by Tricia Sullivan: A vacant-lot fistfight has intergalactic consequences in this brutal send-up of drone warfare.

7. “Infestation” by Garth Nix: How do you make vampires work as sci-fi instead of fantasy? Evidently, you gotta be Garth Nix.

6. “Lost Continent” by Greg Egan: The refugee experience in time instead of space. An object lesson in the power of speculative fiction to employ metaphors nobody else gets to use.

5. “Pinocchio” by Walter Jon Williams: Predicted Jake Paul several years beforehand, though this character is quite a bit more sympathetic.

4. “The Star Surgeon’s Apprentice” by Alastair Reynolds: It’s pretty gross. It’s also suspenseful and morally complicated and a damn good miniature space opera.

3. “The Dismantled Invention of Fate” by Jeffrey Ford: Science fiction without the science, with the beauty, with extra mind-bending. A love letter to what the genre can be when it doesn’t have to be “hard.”

2. “The Surfer” by Kelly Link: On the one hand, it’s a kid playing soccer in an airplane hangar and never going to space. On the other, it’s about everything we desperately want when we read science fiction. Majestic.

1. “The Dust Assassin” by Ian McDonald: Tragic, vivid, imaginative, sweeping. A short story should not be able to hold this much. Whole series of novels manage less.

27. Vox by Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell

I’ve written about my love for The Edge Chronicles before, and Vox, the sixth installment and second in the Rook Trilogy, is the best of the lot. It’s got atmosphere, a twisty plot, action, a dark original world, and intrigue. Its politics are far more complicated than any other middle-grade adventure, but the motivations are still easy to keep straight. There’s nothing special in the prose, and it’s got some unfortunate representation issues, but I’ll go on forever about how underrated this whole series is.

26. Natural Grace by William Dietrich

This was the first book I read for my candidacy in the Ancient Order of Druids in America. The author, who usually writes historical thrillers, has a regular column in the Seattle Times where he argues that we should preserve animals, plants, and wild phenomena “not necessarily because they are important, but because they are interesting.” Each chapter is adapted from a column and concerns a topic in Pacific Northwest ecology such as deer, alder trees, or snow. It’s not the deepest nature writing ever, but it’s entertaining, informative, and passionate.

25. The Ancient Paths by Graham Robb

Here is a fascinating and unexpected book of nonfiction. Building on years of research and miles of cycling tours of Europe, Robb advances a revisionist historical theory that would call to mind Gavin Menzies if Gavin Menzies was correct about literally anything. His assertion: in ancient times, when nothing was old except for Stonehenge, an inter-tribal coalition of Druidic priests used their skill in astronomy and geometry to create the first map of Europe, long before the Romans stormed in.

To prove this, he visits towns and temples and travels roads, revealing how they were intentionally built to make the earth mirror the mythic world of the sky. His revelations, contrary to the established idea that every pre-Roman civilization north of the Alps spent its days clubbing itself in the face like a Far Side caveman, have been favored with a measured reaction of “Huge, if true.” Which was really the best he was going to get.

If Robb makes one error, it’s that his assumption that the Druids were a Europe-wide organized group that superseded national boundaries rests on shaky evidence. It’s clear that something big was done, but who did it remains an open question.

24-20. A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket (The Bad Beginning, The Reptile Room, The Wide Window, The Miserable Mill, The Austere Academy)

As a child, the target audience for Lemony Snicket’s campily grim series, I couldn’t get into it for two reasons: first, my brother and cousin spent several months bizarrely obsessed with imitating Vice Principal Nero, and second, I took the warnings to stop reading too seriously. The book said “go read something else,” and I said “OK,” and put it down.

Picking them up again in time for the excellent new TV series, I got a much better sense of their intelligence. First of all, they’re not actually all that dark. Violet, Klaus, and Sunny endure all manner of tribulations, true, but they’re rarely in physical danger. The fact that every adult is either a befuddled moron or a member of a sinister shadow society just mirrors the worldview of the average child (and most young adults).

Further, the five books that I read take excellent care to teach lessons we too often leave children to figure out on their own. Not just the definitions of difficult words, but also truths that are at once harsh and comforting to understand. Plenty of books and movies tell kids to be themselves and live life to the fullest. Not enough teach them that they shouldn’t believe everything they read, that people who try to hurt them are doing it because they themselves are upset, or how important it is to know how to cook. They’re going to learn those things anyway. Better that it happen this way.



Check back in a little while for my top 19 books of 2017!

A Twist is Not a Story

You heard me.

In On Writing, Stephen King described a class he taught where a student turned in a short story. The story was about a suburban father who loses touch with his daughter after she makes several bad decisions. Years later, the father’s marriage disintegrates, and he visits an escort for comfort. They do the deed in the dark, and only in the harsh light of morning does he realize the prostitute was his own daughter.

You’d expect this to be the beginning of the story, wouldn’t you? But nope. As King relates, the story ended here, right at the most critical moment for the characters.

Here’s another example. At last month’s OryCon, I attended a critique session, where a writer read a sci-fi story about a family moving to a mysterious island they bought for an abnormally cheap rent. The island is infested with wolf-like monsters that scare the family into leaving. In the last paragraph, through an awkward perspective shift, the monsters are revealed to be aliens, tricking humans into provisioning the island with food they can then use for the voyage back to their home planet.

That is a fascinating concept, yet the whole story was wasted in revealing it.

I could go on and on. Every story idea ever conceived by M. Night Shyamalan, O. Henry, or another one of those initials guys also falls into this category, but that would just be belaboring the point. A thing I should probably get to.

The point being this: when you end your story with a big reveal you spent the whole thing building up to, you commit two critical mistakes. You elevate yourself above the reader, and you rob your characters of a better story.

I mentioned in my post about the 10 commandments of mystery writing that the reader should have all the same clues that the character does, but that’s not the whole story. There also need to be enough clues laid out that the reader can solve the mystery without the benefit of authorial intervention that the character enjoys.

More than that, though, it should be fulfilling, not condescending. If the whole point of your story is to pull the wool over the reader’s eyes, it winds up like one of those riddles meant to keep people distracted on long car trips. You know the ones: those awful “lateral thinking” puzzles that are just one sentence about a guy committing suicide, from which you are somehow supposed to derive a convoluted backstory about naval service, cannibalism, or the mafia when many easier answers are readily available.

Back to my two examples. I don’t want the story to end when the father realizes his horrible mistake. Show him fleeing the bedroom. Show me how they both individually deal with their guilt. That’s how a character is revealed–until then, they’re ciphers.

In the sci-fi story, let the alien scheme mean something. Let the family’s child stumble on the truth and have his world inverted by interacting with the starfarers. Let them come into conflict and find a solution.

A great idea for a twist, in summary, is only the beginning of a great idea for a story. Not the end.

In case this hasn’t made it clear, in the wake of completing The Clockwork Raven, I am focusing on short stories. I finally have a Duotrope subscription and have gotten three new ones on paper already. More posts to come!