Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Lost Lore: A Review of James Scott’s Just Maybe…Stories (InkerMen Press, 2006) by Joey Madia

Every so often we are lucky enough to stumble across a collection of stories that speak to us on several levels all at once—the tone, the atmosphere, the characters, and the locales all coalesce into a whispering wind in our ear—the unconscious is awakened and vaguely recalled stories from our childhood come bubbling up to the surface of our carefully managed swamp of secret information.

This is one of those books.

From the moment I opened the Just Maybe..Stories and mistakenly read the table of contents as a disjointed, fascinating poem, I knew that I was walking in a familiar wood. I was none too surprised to see on the inside cover that the stories were all Traditional, and arranged by the author. I read each story with growing interest and a buzzing in my gut and as soon as I was done I hit the Internet, searching out the distinctive character names and when that turned up dry, entering every combination of keywords my mind put forth.

I came up as empty as the treeline as the morning sun that never quite broke through in the mysterious land of these tales.

In talking with the author, I learned that these were not traditional tales—not in a, well, traditional sense of Traditional, anyway (although they do have thematic and phrasing roots in British folklore and a feeling much like Machen)—and that Scott wanted to add a little more mystery to his already mysterious tales with those notations. The full scope of his plan included burying copies of the book around the countryside and sponsoring a treasure hunt.

My copy of the book has no author’s name on the cover, although a graphic on the InkerMen Press My Space page shows the book with the author’s name included, which works in a fine kind of juxtaposition with the way characters come and go in the tales.

The book is advertised on some bookseller sites as a found text discovered among the briar on a lonely hillside (a remnant of Scott’s original plan). The stories certainly lend themselves to such a feeling—nothing is ever too clearly defined, and most of the characters either die or disappear, the latter being the far more sinister way to go and the Narrator is a voice out of time—at certain instances he seems to be a pre-teen boy, at others middle-aged, and at still others as old as the wood itself. He speaks from a place of wisdom: “i’ve seen what you know, but know more than you’ve seen” [notice the lowercase possessive—it is used throughout and gives the Narrator his childlike quality]. He speaks youthfully of hidey-holes and says more than once “i am no big silly.” He says: “People will talk, although they have been known to stop when they are dead.” Precocious youth or fading mind of a dying man? Neither and both, it seems.

What I like most about the nearly 30 stories that make up this collection is the pervasive feeling that Nothing is what it seems (as Scott told me, there is nothing that is “just so,” referencing the Kipling tales from which his own title is a nod) and no place and no one (especially the Narrator) can be trusted. He plays with us throughout, saying (and I can picture the Narrator’s grin): “do not ask me how i know this, as i would never think of telling you” and in my favorite of the stories, “the owls of darkly lane” he says in a nastier tone: “don’t think you know the truth, because you don’t.” We are on the outside looking ever-greedily in, like the voyeurs JD Morrison truly knew we are.

There are gaps and unexplained references in the stories that bring to a knife’s point the fact that all fairy tales and just-maybe stories are derived from an oral tradition where the larger legends and archetypes are well known among the people of a certain place. This couples nicely with Bruno Bettelheim’s astute observation that fairy tales speak to the viscera precisely because they have undergone so much revision over the course of their existence. The story most representative to me of the fairytale model is “when I went to market” with its use of threes and repetition. There are also three “touches” and one of the characters, Lazily Watchful, has told the Narrator three stories.

Scott told me that he wrote the stories in ten days in a “windowless, breathless room” and the very imps and gnomes of inspiration that must have lodged upon his shoulders and keyboard-tapping fingers in that period still pervade the pages of the book. He said that the book occupies “an empty space in the wake of faded magic”—a place we can read about and imagine, but which (regrettably) no longer exists in a world so stainless-steely modern and proudly impervious to the bad ends that befall the children who populate this out-of-time woodland of briar and blood; this gnarled world of “angry and grabbing trees.”

But some of us know better.

Beyond the backs of milk cartons, bulk mailer coupons asking “have you seen us?” and Amber alerts, we know that some children simply disappear, never to be seen nor heard from again.

Where then, do they go?

None of the possibilities are hopeful. Some are lured away by such things as “the song of yet to come” or by invisible beings that make the trees and bushes noticeably grow as a little girl named Piper swings on her swing and one day disappears. There is talk of cooking babies and of swallowing people whole. This village of briar reminds me of a place of the damned, forgotten by God—the kind of town or island that exists in Stephen King’s Maine-of-the-mind—a place where secrets and an unidentified, pervasive evil conspire to target the Unjust and Just alike, while most adults pretend not to see (“…the thing roasting on the spit resembling the missing Franklin boy goes unnoticed by the Cavalcade of Fools”/children with “sticky fingers, oozing lips, [and] … raw stares”). This is a place of darkness—and a place where children are always prominently in the lens (although adults get their share of abuse as well—consider the old lady tied to an old oak tree). Images such as “deceitful signposts pointing one direction and then the next” call to mine the forest on the way to Oz and the way to the witch in Hansel and Gretel.

Most sinister of all is the old man who lures a little girl away by chanting “just a little further, just a little further…” all the way to her custom-laid grave.

Will anyone make it home? And if they do, are their chances of surviving this odd land any better? After all, there are cats being skinned alive, pop up books that “get bigger at night,” and “vomit on the dinner table, what it contained, and my [the Narrator’s] grandmother’s resulting heart attack.” And the houses themselves (like those of Jackson, Matheson, and King) are not safe—there is the “house of angles,” with a “living room that had done so for far too long.”

So who are these people fighting the monsters of shadow and mostly not succeeding?

There is Swoon, who disappeared for seven years although she thought it was a mere five minutes. There is Lorelei, who becomes a queen of the wood, complete with a tiara of twigs. There is Ox Eye Daisy, who has a bulging, dripping, dead eye like a blood orange. There is mother Leftfinger and Harry-with-the-Wound, the latter of which is “grinning like a rotten apple.” Then there are the “ladies of the may”—in their kitchens are the “muffled cries of babies” and “the bits your cat was missing.”

Some of these, and other characters, recur, such as Pigskin (who had “dead rats knotted to his untied shoelaces”) and his sister Cherry (whose name evokes sexual and secret things), who is rumored to “live off bacon fat”; a “giant of a girl” who gutted owls with her knife because they “screech without feeling.”

No one here is well, which works to sustain the fairytale atmosphere. As the Narrator observes, “the words of the sick are like magic”.

The Narrator, who we once encounter “chasing a goat through the woods at dusk,” is not just an observer-reporter; he has experienced first-hand the strange goings-on of his town. In fact, his own baby sister was transformed into a hairy, monkey-like creature after he was called away momentarily under false pretenses. True to the off-kilter nature of this world, he steadfastly swears, “she will always be my new baby sister and I will love her forever.” She shows up in a later story (now with a “scaly wing”) as the lone companion of Ox Eye Daisy. Like a Carnival of Outcasts, these oddities stick together.

I find it very appealing that the Narrator (and one would presume, his creator) is forthcoming enough to let us know that the stories are subjective and their details not Absolute. He tells us: “As far as i know this is the truth, i can picture it in my mind, so it must have a certain truth to it.” And like a game of Telephone gone gruesome, he says of the stories told to him by Lazily Watchful, “i will try and repeat the stories exactly as he told them, but be warned that they might become stories of my own.” Any story we tell, whether as writers, family members, or in other facets of our lives, must, by necessity, be that way as well. Such is the plastic nature of memory and the deep-rooted desire for self-expression.

The story that hits me most viscerally is “the ugly thing that tried to sing,” which has a sinister little rhyme that recalled the equally less-than-pleasant (if you know their origins) “London Bridge” and “Ring Around the Rosey.” It goes: “all the children formed a ring, formed a ring, around the ugly thing that tried to sing.” I get the image of a child with a physical or mental disability being taunted on your average, everyday school ground.

Scott is as potentially enigmatic as his narrator. His bio simply says: “James Scott was born in 1972. He is still not dead.”

The book is laid out well, mixing typeset text with handwritten sections. Two of my favorites of the latter are “as i explore the Open countryside often i wonder, open to what???” and “like the woods i am a lyre.” Hannah Taggart’s illustrations are varied and illuminating—I especially enjoyed her rendering of the village, complete with labels as to where each event in the book took place. She has contributed artwork to the last Yeah Yeah Yeah’s album and has been having successful exhibitions as of late.

We’ll no doubt be hearing and seeing more from them in the future.

You can find out more about this relatively new and promising small press at http://inkermenpress.tripod.com (their website design is what initially drew me to them) and contact them at inkermen@stri.freeserve.co.uk or befriend them at http://www.myspace.com/inkermenpress

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