Saturday, May 16, 2015
(available through Amazon in paperback and for Kindle), ISBN: 978-1511572552
By Joey Madia
About 18 months ago, I reviewed P. S. Bartlett’s Fireflies, which I touted as a “novel that tells, simply and elegantly, the story of a family’s love.” Although family love is a strong undercurrent in her latest offering (the second book in the “Razor’s Adventures” series), Demons & Pearls is a much different read, taking as its subject matter the high-adventure world of pirates in the 1700s.
Pirates are immensely popular these days, with the success of Black Sails on Starz, last year’s take on Edward “Blackbeard” Teach by NBC, called Crossbones starring John Malkovich, and the buzz around the latest installment of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. There are also an increasing number of re-enactors and cos play participants donning pirate attire and a national “talk like a pirate day” that is always fun to participate in on Facebook.
What is it about pirates? It's a treasure-seeking, freedom-loving Archetype, full of the romanticism that has somehow bled away (for the time being) from our notions of the Old West, and Demons & Pearls takes all the best of the romantic tropes and couples them with the requisite scenes of brutality, double-crossing and the denigration of women.
Demons & Pearls centers around the character of Ivory Shepard, an independent, strong, and beautiful woman whose life has been turned continually upside-down at the hands of ruthless pirates. She has taken on the responsibility of protecting her three cousins from on-ship hazards as well as a dark, unseemly plot in Port Royal, Jamaica. Ivory, who is nicknamed “Razor” because of her weapon of choice, is a complex, compelling character. She walks a thin line between the male and female, and leaving behind the life that has caused her and her family so much misery and fully giving into it by becoming a pirate herself.
Amongst the male pirates, there are lively characters with names like Rip, River, and Red, who are vying for the captaincy and working the pirate articles of conduct to their advantage, all while trying to make a quick buck and get a girl any way they can.
Bartlett’s facility with written dialects is just as strong here as it was in Fireflies, with the “pirate-speak” with which fans of the period and genre are well familiar adding a fun and spicy rhythm. There is just enough to give an authentic flavor to the dialogue without bogging the reader down.
Bartlett also demonstrates a working knowledge of the ships of the time, adding detail and authenticity to the tale.
My one criticism is that I wish an editor had the opportunity to look over the manuscript to clean up some of the typos. The cover, typesetting, and overall design are appealing and professional and the writing is so strong that little things like a misspelled word or misplaced punctuation tend to stick out.
In the end, Demons & Pearls made for an excellent read and the end has me looking forward to seeing what is next for Ivory and the pirates.
Thursday, May 14, 2015
(1998/2015; Moria Press; paperback: http://www.lulu.com/shop/ed-baker/neighbor/paperback/product-22165655.html; free ebook: http://www.moriapoetry.com/bakerebook.pdf)
Some poets write in a minimalist, Eastern style that reads like a sutra or a prayer, as opposed to the at-times very dense poetry of Western writers. Poets writing in the former style give the reader ample space in which to graft their interpretations and morph their experiences with the work, allowing their poems to operate like myths, folk tales, and fairytales.
It was five years ago that I first reviewed Ed Baker’s work, when I received for the purpose his Restoration Letters (1972–1978)—co-authored with Cid Corman—and his solo book, Restoration Poems (1972–2007). I had been a fan of his writing and goddess illustrations for years prior, and since publishing that review, we have kept in touch through email.
Neighbor unfolds like a classic mystery (at least to this reader, who has recent experience writing in the genre) without a murder; a noir-ish exploration of the complicated relationship of the narrator and the troubled woman who lives next door to a house in which the narrator seems to be doing renovations.
The book is broken into five sections (Arousal, Calling Her, Shades, Fu:sion, and Intersections), the poetry interlaced with some of Baker’s line sketches, reminiscent of his well-known goddess drawings.
Neighbor quickly places the reader in the role of voyeur, much like watching a play in a darkened theatre, where the “fourth” wall has been removed and your participation in what unfolds is implicit rather than explicit.
With his ladder propped against a wall, the narrator let’s us look, vicariously, through a window. There is a letter slipped under a kitchen door.
“a woman waiting/invitations
getting to know her”
She tells him: “My father molested me when I was young”; the narrator later confirms she was “gone into by her father.” She is troubled, self-sexualized, and perhaps unstable.
Their “relationship” is consummated fairly quickly, the narrator describing her sexual appetites, capabilities, and her body with an initial reverence reminiscent of the poetry of Leonard Cohen and Rod McKuen:
“eaten her ripe fig from
tree of heaven between
her there and me ...”
But over time, the metaphorical reverence melts away, and we are left with the bluntness of
Time passes, and my read is that the narrator is doing odd jobs for the neighbor. There is wiring and ladders, and continuous imagery of her garden, which she tends, while he works. Their relationship continues its dynamic tension, power constantly shifting, with the narrator professing:
“deliberately/I had kept/my/distance”
even as he tries to “get a better/view/across the way/for days shades/up/blinds open”
“the shade was up”
In both the poems and the illustrations (a series of abstract line drawings of the female shape, open and impressionistic) the window and its shades and blinds are prevalent. Both passageways and a code, these are the mechanisms of memory, as one is titled: “A Man Contemplates Sketch Pinned to Wall.”
In the sub-section “Calling Her” the voyeurism increases: “her shadow-dance/behind the drawn/shade”
Or later in the book, in a poem called “The Eyes”:
Throughout the book there is admonition by the narrator that the poems and drawings are most important; the imagination more real than the “reality” of the trysts:
“as this run of poems the
book is become yet to be
“it was never her/mound that he had/wanted it was/
on a poem that/his words had made”
“he had drawn her/like she had/drawn him”
But the poetry then seems to work upon her, drawing her in (or out):
tinted windows/all around auto”
Although, as we see, even the windows of her car have the potential to hide her secrets.
“the shade/came down/abruptly/the window too/it was that final/these poems are/what/is/left/of the relationship”
Within the dynamic tension, there is at times overlap with the structural and sexual:
“back doorwide invitation to
And Kafka-esque perceptual transformation, as he likens her to a mantis that
As the book proceeds, the illustrations begin to change. Just before the section entitled “Fu:sion” there are two portraits that might be of the author/narrator. In the 1999 drawings, the female subject looks skeletal and monstrous.
By this stage in their voyeuristic dance, it is clear just how much she enjoys the game:
“her habit was/to watch him/watching her”
In the final section, “Intersections,” the narrator more fully articulates the somewhat selfish nature of the relationship:
“he had had his own ex-/pectations of woman/in the window”
and in the next to last poem:
“it/had/never/been/her/sex/that he was after”
In its movement from voyeurism, to passionate sex, to the roller-coaster of rejection and reunion, to the admonition that it was all about the art, Neighbor takes us on a journey full of shadow and mystery, leading the reader to the harder questions about why we do what we do, both as people and through our expression of our experiences as art.
Friday, May 1, 2015
(Larson Publications, www.larsonpublications.com, 2014). ISBN: 978-1-936012-72-5
A decade ago, I lost someone very close to me. My Aunt Annette was not only a favorite family member; she was a spiritual teacher who first instilled a love of myths and stories in me. At the time of her death, her husband, a counselor and spiritual teacher in his own right, suggested that I read Neil Donald Walsch’s Home with God: In a Life That Never Ends to help me process the profound sense of loss I was feeling.
In the years since, I have turned to that book many times, as I have lost other family, and some close friends and mentors. I recommended it to those I knew who were dealing with losses of their own.
Elaine Mansfield’s Leaning into Love, for the reasons that I will explore in this review, is the book that I will now turn to and recommend first in times of sickness and loss.
First, because it is so personal. Mansfield, who was a nutritionist and personal trainer before her husband’s two-year battle with cancer and his subsequent death, leaves nothing out as she tells the story of their journey. Their love and commitment to each other through decades of partnership is made all the more real and precious as Mansfield relates the darker moments, both before and after Vic got sick. There were times when the struggle was too much for Mansfield to handle, and she took much needed alone time to recharge; times when she felt that Vic’s experience of illness became the dominant story, leaving her own story of a spouse’s experience of the illness unheard and unappreciated; and the moments where these two very much in love individuals had a difficult time connecting. These very human moments are often left out of discussion on grieving and loss, and yet they are essential.
Second, because, as spiritual and based in ritual as the book is, it holds a broader view of grief and loss and ways to work through them than more traditionally based religious books such as Walsch’s. Mansfield and her husband were both deeply involved with various spiritual groups, and Vic was a scholar on Tibetan Buddhism who knew the Dalai Lama personally, but the source material for their journey was widely varied, from the poems of Rainer Maria Rilke to the writing of philosopher Paul Brunton. Mansfield also writes about the healing power of journaling, painting, working with myths, and Jungian dream work and the importance of synchronicity. The varied array of tools she provides will offer strategies and inspiration to any reader, no matter their own religious–philosophical background.
I was most drawn to the emphasis on ritual and dreams. I can attest to the power to heal that ritual provides. After my Aunt Annette passed, I wrote a memorial to her that I published on my blog and share each year on the anniversary of her leaving us. My wife and children and I went to the parks she loved and said prayers and shared remembrances, and each of us had our own simple altars to her memory. She came to each of us in dreams for awhile, before, I believe, moving on to other realms and other concerns in her new life beyond death.
Third, Leaning into Love resonates with energy. You can feel the love between Elaine Mansfield and her husband, Vic, and the love of their two sons and their family and friends coming off the pages as you read. As she describes their acreage in upstate New York, you feel like you are there, walking among the flora and fauna with them, participating in the rituals, often tied to the turning of the seasons, and being able to listen almost first-hand to their hopes, dreams, arguments, and discussions. I began to experience parallels and synchronicities in my dreams and waking life that I believe were the result of the honesty and energy of Leaning into Love.
I suggest watching Mansfield’s TEDx talk (“Good grief! What I learned from loss,” available on YouTube) just before reading the book. Her quiet, yet strong and experience-strengthened personality and voice enhance the reading experience if you picture them as you go.
After finishing the book, you can continue the journey by subscribing to the author’s blog and newsletter (elainemansfield.com). As anyone who has lost a loved one knows, the grief and sense of loss never end, although they do morph over time. I continue to learn from Elaine Mansfield as she walks her path of writing, lecturing, and learning about grief and loss and how ritual can help guide us through. Losing a loved one is perhaps the hardest of life’s hard lessons, and when the inevitable time comes that we must face it, I cannot imagine a more moving and helpful story than Elaine’s to help us in that time of need.
Friday, April 3, 2015
(Thomas-Jacob Publishing, 2015), ISBN: 978-0989572989
Frequent readers of my book reviews and creative writing are well aware of my belief that mythology, folktales, and multicultural tales, and storytelling in general, are an all-too-often missing and yet vitally important element of a healthy mind and well-functioning society (I am in the process of writing a new book about it), so when I got the opportunity to read and review this book, I jumped at the chance.
I was not disappointed.
Smoky Zeidel is not a Native American, as she tells us in the book’s Afterword. And yet she captures the syntax, symbolism, and simple beauty of the Native American expression of human experience with an artistry that makes for almost hypnotic reading.
The Storyteller’s Bracelet is the story of two young people, Otter and Sun Song, from The Tribe (more on the nonspecificity of exactly which tribe later) who are sent East to an Indian School to be trained in the ways of the Others, the Whites.
The history of the subjugation, the conquering, of the Native Peoples of North America is hopefully known to the reader of this review, so it will suffice to say that in the process of Education, there was no small amount of derision and humiliation directed at these students—forbidden to speak their language, to practice their rituals, to wear their traditional clothing—they were expected to Assimilate. There are countless other examples of this practice on the global scale—the English engineered this very thing against the Scots.
Zeidel has done her research and has woven both Native and White practices seamlessly into her story. Having been a longtime student of Lakota practices and having participated in vision quests and sweat lodge, I can say with some confidence that Zeidel gets it right. And this accuracy undergirds the more mythological and magical parts of the story.
I hesitate to say too much about the story itself—I found myself surprised on more than one occasion by the twists and turns the story took, and I would hate to ruin them for another reader. Instead, I’d like to spend the rest of my allotted space talking about some of the larger thematic issues at work in The Storyteller’s Bracelet.
It is clear that Zeidel’s decision to pull traditions and myths from numerous tribes instead of focusing on a specific group was an excellent one. It gives her freedom to combine the strongest elements available to reinforce her story and it guards her against offending or otherwise misrepresenting any given group. It is also then easier for the reader to get inside the symbols and freely swim around inside of them.
Zeidel also does a fine job of telling the story with balance and multiple viewpoints. As she says in the Afterword, not all Indian Schools were the vicious, disrespectful, and dangerous place as this book’s Oak Tree School is, but in the pursuit of telling an engaging and edgy story that will keep the reader’s attention (especially in our desensitized, visually and aurally overwhelmed modern world) this “heightening and compressing” (as writing theory calls it), is both appropriate and necessary.
The Whites and Native Peoples represent a broad spectrum of beliefs and actions. Zeidel has confidence enough in the tale she wants to tell to let the circumstances speak for themselves. Because all points of view are given equal weight in the core story, there is no agenda on the author’s part, and that is to be applauded. Agenda-ism is killing healthy dialogue in modern America, to our collective peril.
The notion of the bully within the educational system is an important one to examine, again falling under the umbrella of agenda-ism. What version of History or Science is being taught? How are our other social institutions, such as churches, feeding into and shaping the curriculum? How does socioeconomic status and ideas of the Privilege of the Wealthy shape our society?
An albeit rare yet connected element of this is the privileged predator in a position of power who targets children through sexual abuse. There is a character in The Storyteller’s Bracelet that is chillingly close to the convicted child predator Jerry Sandusky.
All of these pressing social issues aside, though, The Storyteller’s Bracelet is first and foremost about our collective experiences and histories as a single, whole Humanity, no matter our color, our gender, our religious beliefs, or our socioeconomic status. It is here that our Myths are most important and most resonant. When we consider that the Hopi word for the moon is the Tibetan word for the sun and vice versa, and that all ancient peoples assigned one of four colors—white, red, black, and yellow—to the four cardinal directions in their own unique patterns, then it is hard to rationalize our pervasive attitude of Other, for it seems we all started from the same central point, the Axis Mundi, as philosophers, anthropologists, and comparative mythologists call it.
I applaud Smoky Zeidel for keeping story and myth alive and radiant in our darkened modern world, and for doing it with such splendid skill, craft, and heart.
Saturday, March 21, 2015
(e-book, Lizardville Productions 2015)
This wild, well-paced ride of a book, first published in 1986, was the debut novel from poet, playwright, and academic John Gartland. The novel centers around Brian J. Carver, a bored and seemingly un-remarkable British civil servant with a Literature degree (a rich tradition in storytelling that Gartland makes anew). His is a life spent shuffling papers, writing memos, and devoting as much time as possible to his writing endeavors on the government’s bill.
The whole thing is thrown into motion (after a mysterious scene in Chapter 1 detailing various global gatherings and turmoil that later proves to be a flashback) when the Assistant Senior Inspector decides to transfer our man Carver to a new department, where he can “utilise his talents as a communicator” by “drawing up new forms, modifying old forms and dealing with correspondence about existing forms” (p. 25).
Amid Carver’s settling in to his new position in the familiar atmosphere of paperwork purgatory (including a series of maneuvers to outwit his boss, Mr. Withers), events on the global scale are ramping up and the Zonex Corporation is introduced—offering a self-assembly clock designed by one of the most famous civil servants of them all—Albert Einstein.
Zonex turns out to be wide-spread and all too insidious in its offerings, a fact we find out through the expansion of the cast of characters to include the button-down Howard Hooper (another struggling writer) and his sexually adventurous wife Helen, and the fetish-film porn auteur Don Varnier, who watches their kindky amorousness through his self-assembled Zonex binoculars and seeks out Helen for his films (he later directs a scene between two women in a bathtub full of broken eggs).
Interested yet? It only gets more deliciously twisted from here, with the arrival of packages from “Far Out Travel” that pull together the various stories into a unified whole. [Turns out that mild-mannered Carver is a “member of a secret society of visionaries” (p. 85) going back to his college days]. He brings his best friend, Arthur (think Jeremy Pevin or Jon Favreau sidekick types) along for the ride.
Carver’s involvement with a femme fatale named Suzanna is another lascivious layer of the mayhem.
If you are a fan of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, or the Illuminatus trilogy by Robert Anton Wilson (or, dare I say, my own Minor Confessions of an Angel Falling Upward) then Orgasmus is required reading. The back stories of characters like Peter Ignatius Gesto (the head of Far Out Travel) are entertaining and pull in a terrific mix of political history, pop culture, and spiritual philosophy featuring those darlings of ancient and secret orders, the Knights Templar (they figure into non [semi?] fiction books I’ve been reading lately, such as Second Messiah, Hiram Key, and Secret Germany—the kind of stuff that sets writers like Dan Brown and Brad Meltzer—and myself—all alight with inspiration).
My father and father-in-law, who were NCOs in Naval and Air Force intelligence, respectively, have always maintained that most governments are too stupid to engineer big conspiracies, but that still leaves room for the global banking cabals and their pseudo-governmental arms (Bilderberg, TLC, CFR, etc.)—the types of shadow government string-pullers “illuminated” by Conspiracy enthusiasts like David Icke and Alex Jones.
Chapter 20 caused a scribbling-in-the-margins, highlighting frenzy for me, as Gartland really ramps things up on the way to Orgasmus’ explosive climax. Fans of Wilson’s Illuminatus writings will be in conspiracy-fiction Heaven here.
Orgasmus (Organisation for Salvation of Mankind, Universal, Secret) is one of those good old-fashioned anarchist groups that were so fun to write about before 9/11, after which anything to do with terrorism and bombings became all but verboten. Still in all, despite the fact that I threw out my entire collection of Tom Clancy books on September 12, 2001, when that kind of fiction was no longer “fun,” Orgasmus is presented as tongue in cheek and a gentle reminder that we can (and should) still laugh at things like this.
Posted by Joey Madia at 4:05 AM
Friday, January 2, 2015
(Marsh Hawk Press, www.marshhawkpress.org, 2002)
In 2009 I reviewed Eileen Tabios’ Reproductions of the Empty Flagpole (2002, Marsh Hawk Press; http://newmysticsreviews.blogspot.com/2009/01/poetic-meditation-review-of-eileen.html). I encourage the reader to take a few moments to read that review, because what follows, including a reconstitution of that review as a poem, proceeds directly from where it ends.
Always pushing boundaries, Tabios, after 12 years, took the prose poems from Reproductions and reworked them as “written-sculpted” poems, likening the process in her Preface to a sculptor releasing the image from a block of stone.
While the prose poems in Reproductions employed mainly painting metaphors, this re-constituted collection brings in music, dancing, architecture, writing, and, of course, sculpture.
Revisiting and reworking one’s work is not without precedent. Poets such as Walt Whitman and novelists such as F. Paul Wilson have made edits and updates to their work over time, and I experimented for over a decade with electronic publishing of a “liquid morphing novel,” periodically adding, subtracting, and updating the content of the chapters until the book was published in 2012 (the previous versions of the chapters are archived online). Tabios says, of her own process, “I often do not recognize who then was the poet who wrote those poems” and “When it comes to poetry, I don’t want to know myself as a fixed identity” (Preface, p. 11)
Sun Stigmata is laid out much like its parent, with similar sections and the use of quotes from various types of artists. And the condition of the artist and one’s Identity (geographically, sexually, psychologically) are key subjects in the considerable volume of work Tabios has created. In “(Come Knocking” she asks, “What is the surface of reality?/With what are we grappling/when we are dreaming?” (p. 26)
Another thread I have followed through Tabios’ publications has been the dynamic tension between affluence (banking and finance, pearls and furs and gems judged upon their hardness) and Diaspora, orphans, and despair and challenge tied to place. The poems of Sun Stigmata bring these subjects forth with a tangible power. It is up to the reader to find unity in disparity; to be the catalyst in an alchemical transaction (a hieros gamos) that rises beyond Reality into the etheric realms where the nigredo of our art is born(e).
For those who have not read or do not have access to Reproductions of the Empty Flagpole, there is a prose poem in the Afterword that one can use to compare the “original” to its “written-sculptured” expression. There is then an invitation: “maybe my prose poems (or yours!) can source some of your own sculpted poems. If so, feel free to share your efforts with me at GalateaTEN@aol.com.”
When the book first arrived I was immediately struck by the vibrantly colored cover. There is a 7-page exploration of artist Emmy Catedral’s work and philosophy included that is well worth reading. Like Tabios, she is sculpting art from re-purposed materials: in her case, yellow legal pads.
Ending Sun Stigmata is an extended poem constructed from snippets of reviews taken from Galatea Resurrects (A Poetry Engagment)—another example of ways to sculpt. A well-done review is a work of art in and of itself, as this section of the book capably demonstrates. (At least in my opinion—one could debate standards of objectivity in critique, but this isn’t journalism, it’s an extension of the art. And I’ve always admired Hunter S. Thompson and Sebastian Junger…)
“(Poetic Meditation” [based on my review of Reproductions…, 2009]
of a Reproduction
needn’t be Baudrillardian simulacra
Tabios is proof
that one need not be
just one thing
within a space
within a place
within a time
The ways of what we write.
A subtle cinematography—
A filmic flow of words.
Triumphant in triumvirate—
Poetry, Painting, Place.
Visiting “My Greece,”
“Returning the Borrowed Tongue”
Turning in its tablature
a “Triptych for Anne Truitt.”
Take the words of Others—
A quorum of quotes
from painters and philosophers
and mate them with your own
This is art created [mated]
in a laboratory of Logos, liquid
Pouring paint upon the canvas—
[words upon a page].
Never hellishly haphazard
(no matter how it seems)
Put effort into optics
so clearly can be seen:
Setting, Texture, Tone. Technique.
Nothing ever finished—
Like a sculpture made of water
Like a song without caesura
Infinite in coda
Poems ever onward
(They don’t tell us when they cease)
“Respect”: A letter found on a tourist-town sandstrip
in desolate mid-Winter—
Protruding from a can
in the alley-lit lights
on the night you closed the bar
Have you ever driven through
and fully felt the forest
like a painting from Cezanne?
Why not wonder why you didn’t
stop to drink it in?
Pirsig, in his Zen-ness
said it’s more TV—
Those mise-en-scenes from auto windows
seen but still Unseen
Read and read and written in,
The book is fin’lly closed.
Prick your thumb
On “Rose and Thorn”—
From blood, new poesy flows.
[And from that flow,
Thursday, October 9, 2014
“A Light in Darkened Spaces”: A Review of Carbon (Writer, Daniel Boyd; Illustrator, Edi Guedes) (Caliber Comics, 2014, ISBN: 978-0-9857493-3-0)
Carbon is a fantastical tale that marries new Creation mythology with the very real coal-mining-culture-at-a-crossroads narrative now happening in southern West Virginia. Daniel Boyd, a three-time Fulbright scholar and Media Studies professor at West Virginia State University, has recently joined the ranks of accomplished filmmakers (he is known for Chillers, among many others) who are utilizing the graphic novel format to tell their stories. Cinematically illustrated by Brazilian Edi Guedes (with great attention to light and dark and mise en scène), Carbon tackles the tough questions and points an unapologetic finger at large Energy Corporations and state-level politicians.
Before I go into the characters and story, a little context is called for. Having lived in West Virginia for the past 7 years, I have watched from an outsider’s perspective as the Obama “war on coal” has been playing out, and also experiencing through close friends the increased presence (and resulting damage to property, roads, and people’s lives) of the energy industry practice known as “fracking.”
While recently researching WV politicians from the late 1800s for a cultural history project I was writing and for a Web series I acted in, I learned a lot about how little has changed since the state was founded during the Civil War in 1863. Coal was the means to solidifying the fledging state’s economic future and by the late 1880s all political policy was aimed toward that end. Politicians owned coal companies, and invested in them, as well as in all the corollary industries they spawned. Incidents like the Matewan massacre (the subject of a film by John Sayles, who wrote the Carbon Introduction) and the Monongah (1907), Sago (2006), and Upper Big Branch (2010) mining disasters, as well as the 2013 chemical spill near the state’s capital that made water unsafe for use by 350,000 citizens in the midst of one of the worst winters on record, have made an indelible imprint on the lives and psyche of West Virginians. I have seen plays about and been to the memorial for the miners at Monongah. This is sobering, complex stuff.
I purchased 3 acres in north-central WV nearly a decade ago, looking to get away from the changing landscape and personality of my home town in Jersey post-9/11, when deep-pocketed New Yorkers began to flee the city and relocate at the scenic shore. My wife and I, environmentally minded as we are, were anxious to give our children a simpler, more nature-connected experience of life. So it has been ironic and disheartening to watch the knife-edge dance between natural beauty and the way of life one would expect in the mountains and forests of the state and Big Energy. No. Better make that BIG ENERGY. Because of the social justice and arts entrepreneurial work I do, I have sat on several business and community service boards, attended state-wide leadership programs, and gotten to meet, talk to, and even introduce at high-level events a broad array of state politicians, up to and including the governor and a few U.S. Congressmen.
But I am, unlike Daniel Boyd, an Outsider. Something of which I have been constantly and straightforwardly reminded. So I don’t say much, though I have decided to move my family and my theatre company out of state the middle of next year.
Given this background, it was with great interest, after meeting Boyd at the West Virginia Writers Conference in June of 2014 (where he and I shared the stage with Bram Stoker Award Winner Michael Knost to read from our books—all, ironically, about sons returning to the coal fields they had tried to escape) that I read Carbon.
Coming from a Horror background, Boyd employs some variations on familiar tropes: a demon species spawned in the process of the humans-employing-Free-Will-and-God-letting-them of his Creation myth and a sort of Super-Coal that burns continuously that drives the Big Bad in the story (the head of an Energy company) to do some out-sized and horrific things (although they have clear analogs in the “real world” of Energy companies cutting costs by compromising safety in order to bulge their bottom line and fund their political payola…).
In the midst of all the Fantastical is a down-home redemption story about a local baseball hero who comes oh-so-close to the Big Leagues but blows it on a crucial pitch and is forced into the mines where his father was killed several years earlier.
As I’ve learned in my decades-long study of Story and Structure, it’s all about that identifiable hero, the one with the major flaw with which we all can identify—no matter how fantastic the genre. It’s what makes the Spielberg remake of War of the Worlds work, and why “historical” films like Pearl Harbor and Apollo 13 are compelling and watchable although we know the outcomes. It’s what made TV series like Lost and Supernatural initially so fascinating despite their outlandish, fantastical worlds and well-traveled tropes.
Like a carefully constructed film, Carbon’s dialogue is secondary to, and in service of, image, but the characters are well defined and succeed in illuminating various aspects of the central theme. And, most importantly, Boyd honors the coal miners (to whom the book is dedicated), much in the way that twenty-first-century America has done a better job of honoring Veterans by separating those who serve in the Armed Forces from the profit-enhancing corporate-patsy politicians who send them into War Zones for less than honorable reasons.
And, in the end, this is very much the point of Carbon, and what makes the “coal mining/energy question” in West Virginia so thorny and compelling: It is not the working person who is at fault, but the Profiteers (the real-life demons in the darkness) who put them in harm’s way and wreak havoc with the natural landscape and the health and happiness of those who haven’t got a voice.
Kudos to Daniel Boyd for giving them a Voice, and creating a wonderfully entertaining and fantastical journey in the process. Perhaps, like I am now compelled to do through this review, others who have been silent will now begin to speak.