Tag Archives: Fiction

Flash Fiction: The Bottom Shelf

Everything would be over at midnight. The parties were winding down, the shops were empty, the people who just couldn’t wait were lying in the gutters. There had been a pervasive miasma of alcohol, sweat, and vomit all over downtown for the last week, and Richie was reminded of that when a stray breeze blew across Peachtree Street and almost straight into his sinuses. Like with everything else that had happened that day, a little voice in his head piped up and said “That’s the last time you’ll ever smell that.” Like with everything else that had happened, he ignored it.

He could hear drunks in the street, occasional sirens, a random sound of maybe a cat rummaging through the garbage. Pets had taken over the city; people who knew they didn’t have more than a few days left on the planet apparently didn’t care about making sure Rover or Boxy or Colonel Kittypants was comfortable. That still offended him a little, but he had other things on his mind.

The front doors of the Central Fulton County Library had long since been shattered, probably during the early days of the riots before everyone realised there was nothing anyone could do about it and everyone… and everyone was damn near a literal description… shifted into drunk orgy mode. Richie had walked past three couples, a triple, and some permutation he’d never seen out of a Hieronymus Bosch painting, just in the last block. He’d been invited and propositioned in more ways than he could count. And if he was being perfectly honest with himself, he might have considered it a couple of days ago. But now, he only had an hour left, and he knew exactly whom he wanted to spend it with.

The third floor, general collections, was mostly untouched. Some of the computers had been ripped out, but by the time the looters got to the library, everyone had figured out that they couldn’t take anything with them to Heaven, Hell, or Detroit, wherever they wound up. He angled his flashlight off to the right, but not too far. Regardless of what was going on, he didn’t want to step on anything like broken glass or a book that someone had knocked off a shelf. Especially not the latter.

The card catalog had of course been moved to the cloud and was therefore completely useless, but that didn’t matter. He’d long since memorized the number that he was looking for. 821.17. And even before he learned that everything was going to blow up, he would have been able to find this shelf in the dark. Faced with a half hour left on the planet, there was only one thing that he wanted to do. And he had nothing else on his mind until he turned the corner and pointed his flashlight right into a woman’s face.

She was sitting crosslegged, across from the shelf he needed to go to, and had a camper’s flashlight strapped to her forehead. To her credit, once she blinked a few times, she adjusted to the new lighting and looked back down at her book. She kept at least part of an eye on him, though, something he did when he was reading in public and was worried someone might start talking to him. He really didn’t want to interrupt her reading, but he didn’t think there was anything else he could say in this situation.

“I’m Richie,” he said.


He slid over to the 820s and ran his light along the spines.

“I didn’t think anyone else would be doing this. It just seemed like too good an idea.”

“There’s no better one.”

“What are you reading?”

Canterbury Tales.

He turned around, careful not to point the light directly in her face. “Me, too. At least, that’s what I came here for.”

“Good choice,” she said.

“I’m looking for the original, though. The Middle English version.”

“They only have one copy,” she said, and held up her thick brown tome.

He walked across the aisle and crouched down next to her. Something crashed outside but neither of them jumped. Things had been crashing for weeks, and it it was ‘the big crash’ neither of them would have time to think about it, anyway.

“And no, you can’t read it when I’m done, either,” she said, and smiled at him.

“I’ve always liked the original,” he said. “It was a little tricky when I first tried to read it. Okay, a lot tricky. But…”

“…it’s part of English heritage. It’s like reading the DNA of our language.”

He looked at her, amazed. “Exactly. And what better way to spend the last hours of the English language than reading the first hours?”

She looked up at him. She was smiling, but there was something else in her eyes as well.

“Which one were you going to read?”

“‘The Pardoner’s Tale,’ probably. It was a toss-up between that and the Prologue. You?”

“‘The Miller’s Tale.'”

“That one? That’s nothing but a long medieval fart joke.”

“Oh, kiss my nether eye, okay? I like it.”

“Well, maybe I can just read one of the translations, then.” He was almost standing up again when he heard the most horrifying, godawful ripping noise. Then she handed him the first half of the book.

“I can’t believe you did that,” he said. “You… ripped a book?”

“I’ll buy them a new one tomorrow,” she said. “Anyway, this kind of literature was meant to be shared.”

He stretched out one hand and gingerly took the book fragment. She did have a point. And there were many worse things one could do at the end of the world.

He sat down next to her and leaned against the shelf. Without saying anything, she leaned against his shoulder so her camper’s light was pointing at their book. After he set the flashlight down, he took her hand and settled back and waited for the end of the end.







Book Beginnings Friday

I hope you liked yesterday’s flash piece. It was based on family folklore dating back to my early teens, and also a sneaking conviction that my cat knows a  lot more than she reveals. I think most writers have a similar belief. Plus, flash pieces and short-short stories help clear my mind for my larger projects, and I highly recommend them to anyone who wants to do any kind of creative work.

Today is also Book Beginnings Friday over at Rose City Reader, and while this week I’ve been a little light on the blogging (I’ve taken on a few students, and I’ve been mulling over a pretty big decision) I’ll catch up this week with my musings on books and movies and Hallowe’en and other fun things. Today’s ‘Book Beginnings’ comes from a book I just started, but one I’ve meant to read for years, Katherine Anne Porter’s Ship of Fools. No, not this “Ship of Fools,” though I confess that my musically-angled brain sings this song nearly every time I look at the cover. This one:

August, 1931 — The port town of Veracruz is a little purgatory between land and sea for the traveler, but the people who live there are very fond of themselves and the town they have helped to make… There is maybe a small sign of uneasiness in this pugnacious assertion of high breeding; in this and in the methodical brutality of their common behavior towards the travelers who must pass through their hands to reach the temporary haven of some ship in harbor. The travelers wish only to be carried away from the place, and the Veracruzanos wish only to see the last of them; but not until every possible toll, fee, extortion, and bribe due to the town and its citizens has been extracted. It is in fact to the passing eye a typical port town, cynical by nature, shameless by experience, hardened to showing its seamiest side to strangers:  ten to one this stranger passing through is a sheep bleating for their shears, and one in ten is a scoundrel it would be a pity not to outwit. In any case, there is only so much money to be got out of each one, and the time is always short.

It’s always nice to pick up a book and realise that you can safely sink into the comforting hands of a true master of the craft. As a former sailor, I’ve passed through many towns that seemed exactly so, or at least they did on the surface. Sometimes, such as in Newport, Rhode Island, you could dig under the surface a little and find one of the warmest groups of people you would ever meet on the planet. And sometimes, such as in… well, a bunch of other port cities… you find that when you’ve finally dug through the garbage, there’s nothing but sewage and pain and cynical, hardened creatures quite comfortable wearing their person-suits and pretending to be human.

This weekend:  book reviews, movies, Hallowe’en, and other fun things.


Flash Fiction: The Knitting Helper

Hello, Ma’am. My name is Chuck, and I can fix that for you. Yes, we do offer help for people who buy yarn at our shop. Yes, I know you’ve bought yarn here before, but this is obviously not ours.

Yes, that is indeed one of our bags, but we’ve never carried that particular yarn.

Since you asked nicely, Ma’am, and since there’s no one in the shop, I can help you, today. Yes, honestly, this is my favourite part of the job. I like helping people who are willing to learn. Please, have a seat and let me look at your project.

Yes, Ma’am, you did indeed make a mistake here. And here. And here. And this stitch is dropped. And this one. And this. I can…

No, Ma’am, please do not say you’re just going to start over. I can show you how to fix that. It’s very easy to fix.

Ma’am, please… you’re doing it backwards.

No, I’m doing it the way you need to do it. Copy my movements exactly. That’s what I meant when I said “copy my movements exactly.”

No, Ma’am, now you’re knitting more. You need to be pulling out those stitches.

No, Ma’am you don’t have to…

Yes, Ma’am, that is indeed the proper way to take all two hundred stitches off the needles at once. Yes, those words were the proper curse words one yells when doing this. No, your project isn’t ruined, Yes I can show you how to…

Ma’am, let me just fix that for you. Please hand it to me.

Please, don’t throw your knitting.

Please, don’t throw my knitting.

Yes, Ma’am, this will take about five to ten minutes, but afterwards, you’ll be ready to start knitting again.

Yes, this is a little tricky. Whenever I do this for my own projects I have to block out all distractions.

Yes, I do this for my own projects all the time. And I do this in the shop for customers, when they’re actually customers. Let’s just say I’ve had a lot of practice fixing mistakes. Now, give me another few minutes.

Yes, I have been knitting a long time. No, I don’t think it’s that hard.

No, I don’t think it’s that strange for a man to knit. I enjoy it, and that’s the important thing, right?

No, I did not know that you don’t know any other male knitters.

No, I did not know that you’ve never heard of a male knitter.

Yes, Ma’am, I agree that it’s strange that when you first came in the shop you didn’t know I knitted. Even though I had two needles in my hand, with part of a sweater attached and a knitting bag next to me.

Oh, don’t worry about it. When you said “Well, I was hoping to get some knitting help but I guess I’ll have to wait until the lady who owns the shop comes back” I did not mind at all. Just the other day I was pulled over by a female officer and I greeted her with “Are you sure you’re a cop? I mean, it’s awful strange for a woman to carry a gun.”

Yes, this is indeed the tricky part. Like I said, when I do this myself, I turn off the TV and block out all distractions.

Yes, I try to tell everyone else to be quiet, too. This is indeed a…

Well, duct tape if I had any. Unfortunately, I usually just ask politely.

Yes, now I’m backing up becase I made a slight mistake, fixing your mistake. I have to concentrate.

No, I usually don’t talk when I’m concentrating.

No, I usually don’t listen when I’m concentrating, either.

Yes, I can fix this.

Don’t worry, the rest of your project looks fine.

Yes, I’m through the tricky part. Now it will just take a minute and you’ll be ready to go.

Why, yes, I also go to school. I want to be a teacher.

Well, thank you for agreeing that I would be a good one.

Why, yes, I think I do have a lot of patience. I haven’t yet told you to stuff your knitting up your ass and hitchhike to the back door of Hell.  Though I may have to ensure all the sharp pointed objects are on the other side of the shop the next time you come in.

You too, Ma’am. Have a great day. Thank you for shopping… err, thank you for coming by for free help and then buying your yarn online. I’ll not be seeing you again soon, I hope?

The Eternal Champion of Ideas

Sundays are weird days, for me and for blogging. Because of my work schedule, they’re right in the middle of my four-day weekend. I usually wind up watching everybody around me go through the bittersweet motions of a last evening before the workweek begins again. Knowing that I myself didn’t have to be anywhere besides my own writing desk (and to be fair, one of the good parts of being a writer is that I can put that writing desk absolutely anywhere… a café, a bar, a bench in the Atlanta Botanical Gardens) for another day gives me a odd perspective on everyone else, I think, and I become more introspective than I usually am. Of course, I often am a little too introspective… sometimes I might drop everything I’m doing just because I’m trying to think of puns in other languages, or wondering what a tree would sound like if you sped up its sounds a thousand times, and if it sounds different in a forest where no one is there to hear it… jazzy, more independent, perhaps. Today, though, I’m thinking about Michael Moorcock’s seminal creation, the Eternal Champion. I believe I’m at a moment in my own reading where my tastes are changing again, so I’ve been thinking about what I’ve read and what I want to read next.

I devoured the six Elric books (most of which were either linked novellas, or books that really should have just been novellas) in a couple of weeks during tenth grade, a year that saw me moving twice for the first and second times in my waking life, my parents’ divorce, my discovery of an awesome D&D group mere months before the guy running it moved away, and my third, but most serious, bi-polar episode. Reading of a hero who often wanted to do the wrong thing for selfish reasons, who hated his existence and was doomed to suffer it for no known reason, really spoke to my emo-goth-ridden brain. Combine that with my discovery of The Black Company, and, well, I had quite a bit to think about and quite a bit of inspiration for my own writing.

About eight years later, White Wolf Publishing began releasing fifteen volumes full of all of the books and stories that Moorcock wrote concerning his concept of The Eternal Champion, of which Elric was perhaps the most depressive example. Of course, I started buying them; I was a horrible completist back then, something that my constant traveling, my library cards, and my lack of book space (along with my Kindle) have made a little better, though blanks spots between the books in a series still bothers me, even if I know I don’t plan on reading them. For the most part, though, I’d only read a fraction of the novels within. From Manteca, California, to Napoli, Italia, to Taura, Yokosuka, Japan, to Newport, Rhode Island, and finally to Atlanta, Georgia, they’ve followed me, taking up most of a shelf, taunting me with their unread contents. A little over a month ago, I decided I was going to finally make my way through them once and for all, and then decide whether they were worth keeping and dragging around with me or if I should find them a new home, freeing up space for books I probably really would read.

I’m about finished with the sixth novel and the second volume, and I’m honestly not sure if I’m going to read every single one of the fifteen volumes, now. They’re odd books, yes, but they’re repetitive. More than a romantic comedy, more than a Michael Bay exploding thriller, more even than Michael Bay blowing up things in a romantic comedy, they’re mostly the same idea played out many many times. And while one part of my brain says, “Well, that’s the premise… a warrior is doomed to countless incarnations in the battle between Law and Chaos, kind of like the Libertarians,” I’m finding too much repetition. 1400 pages in, and I know what will happen, for the most part, at the end of every chapter, every book. On top of that, one of the novels I’ve read so far is one I read back in ’95 and I remember liking it at the time; this time it was dry, repetitive, derivative, and mostly boring. I know this isn’t the fault of the Sword-and-Sorcery genre, either. I fully recognise the problems in the original Conan stories, or the Fafhrd and Grey Mouser stories, but they’re entertaining and enjoyable reads. In the one I’m reading now, a ghostly hero straight from the Magical Kingdom of Plot Contrivances spends two pages explaining what the heroes will have to do, and even pointing out the puzzles they’ll face along the way. In an adventure game tutorial, that’s somewhat acceptable, but not in a book. Half the fun of reading is watching the protagonists figure things out along the way, not to watch him get a standard operating procedure (complete with safety notes) before he goes to free the dragon from the sword that will stop his twin sister from taking over the Multiverse.

Why would I keep reading the series, if I do go on and read it and don’t just decide to find a bookstore that would like to buy them? The ideas.

The ideas in these books are brilliant and chilling. Certain images, like the Red Weepers, who wear wire cages around their eyes to keep them propped open at all times, or the lands of ice and obsidian, glowing red in the light of the dying sun, or psychics escaping a dying universe and fighting a mental battle with complete and utter aliens. For every chapter that I complain about stilted writing, tired plots, and way way WAY too much explanation and little actual action (odd for an action genre, isn’t it) I’ll find myself setting the book down in awe of a vision or an image.

The jury’s still out on the series. I may finish it, and I may go to my bookstore up in Chamblee with eight kilos of Elric. I will say to anyone who does read them… the ideas really are mind-blowing. Perhaps some day I’ll work them into my own stories, after first making sure that why I’m writing are actually stories. You know, that work as a narrative that engages the reader and all.

Inspiration Tuesday

Today’s the day that I try to post things that inspired me and/ or are inspiring me. In the past, I’ve posted links, pictures, memes, and quotes. I had meant to do that this morning but my cat meowed me awake so she could go outside and I wound up sitting on my back porch with a hot mug of tea and a book or two and, of course, Señorita Mija Kittypants until just before I had to leave for work.

Originally when I wrote that last paragraph, I was going to say “I failed,” but I changed my mind. Today, you’ll just get a list of what inspires me. Or at least, that’s what I’m inspired to post today.

Trees — Yes, they’re the primary reason I hike. Sure, staring off the edge of a cliff and seeing for miles over the tops of the Blue Ridge Mountains is nice, but any time I’m hiking through a grove of trees, I’m excited. (Maybe not so much during Atlanta’s pollen season.) And even though most of my publishing is done online these days, I have a deep personal relationship with paper. Anything I write has to be worth the trees that were pulped to print it. (Or the energy used to power the server that hosts it.) Many a time there had been when I realised that I didn’t want to explain to the ghost of a grove of trees that it died so I could print something I didn’t proofread, or edit properly, or didn’t work on hard enough.

Writers — My blog roll lists a few that I like. One in particular published my work when no one else would (you can decide for yourself whether that’s good or bad) in addition to making sure my reading list is never boring, and one was inspired by me to embark in a blog project and in turn inspired me (read:  guilt-forced me) into sucking it up and bringing this blog back on line and up to date. But I’m not plugging them this time. This time, I want to say that seeing anyone writing anything inspires me (yup, I mean guilt-forces me, again) to pull out my notebook or laptop or tablet or bar napkins, or even just ask my pub companion to hold really still while I write on his or her back. Yes, even the ‘WRITERS’ who populate coffee shops (not often on the business side of the counter… that’s where you’ll find those writers and artists who actually write and, err, art) and proclaim to all unwilling to tune them out that they will rework the very definition of fiction… once they get past page 51, at least, or such petty bourgeois concerns like ‘plot’ and ‘character’ and ‘holding the reader’s interest… even they inspire me. Even if what they’re creating is less written fiction and more oral storytelling tradition about how they too will be a great writer someday, they are creating.

Food — Rather, the preparing of food. Sometimes when I’m blocked I will walk about with a notepad, bereft of words but begging me to be able to put something down. Sometimes I’ll play with the cat, or walk the dog. Or walk the cat, which leads to confusion all around. Sometimes I’ll chew on my pen, hoping that I can squeeze the words out of my head, down the ink barrel, and onto my paper. But few things are able to really push me past that point of being unable to write like not being able to write, even if it is for only twenty or thirty minutes while I chop the onions and garlic and broccoli and garlic (never is there ever too much garlic). Sometimes I’ll even eat what I cook. And yes, sometimes I just can’t keep the words in and I’ll run madly from the range top to my table and start scrawling my ideas down with a wooden spoon lately used to stir something that will definitely leave a stain before realizing that the pen the cat knocked off the table when she jumped up there to get away from the dog who ran into the kitchen because someone was making noise in there and that someone just possibly might be able to give her some of that food, or perhaps all of it… perhaps that pen will work better, and I grab it and write down whatever it was that hit me. Often it’s only slightly more lucid than the notes I jot down between dreams (last week I sent a text message to myself that says ‘Your mission is to rescue your Uncle from Computer Rehab…’ Any ideas what the hell that means?) but it doesn’t matter, because in the process of creating sustenance for my belly (and entertainment for the pets) I almost invariably create sustenance for my head. Or my Muse’s head, maybe.

Maybe when I get home I will post a few quotes and sound bites, but really, what good is Inspiration Tuesday if I don’t talk about inspiration?

Sarah Hoyt, Elf Blood: Chapter One

The excellent writer, commentator, and self-publishing motivator Sarah Hoyt is currently serializing her new novel Elf Blood over at the Mad Genius Club. She’s a little ways into it, and I haven’t quite caught up (see my last post on moving hell), but I can speak for the first five chapters that this is an enchanting and well-written fusion of fantasy and mystery fiction. Everyone who’s listened to or read my work at Way Too Fantasy should already know that fusion fiction makes me tingle in places I never talk about in polite company (and only rarely bring up in rude company). I highly recommend you check it out.

Elf Blood, Chapter One


Workshopping: Perdido: Un Sueño

Today I’m posting information about workshopping and editing writing. Around about the time I finished my fourth full-length novel (okay, the first was just over 60,000 words but I called it a novel, anyway) I realised that I should probably actually start editing them. That is easily the part of writing that I have the most trouble with, and I don’t think I’m alone. So, I’m posting this story, a surreal fantasy story about an American (well, a USAnian) as an experiment in workshopping. Read it. Tear it apart. Help me make it better.

And it’s not just me who will be posting here. If you have something that you think is decent but just can’t seem to push over that final-draft finish line, send it to me and we’ll put it up. Maybe we can make this space an informal writing group. While every writer is different, I don’t think I’m alone in having issues with editing my own work… but I can edit other people’s work alright. I’m curious to see what the rest of you are working on, too.

Perdido:  Un Sueño




The Detective with a Funny Hat

There’s a trope, a meme almost, found among editors and publishers. A writer has a story featuring a brand-new detective, in a mystery that he claims is unlike anything ever written. He sits down in front of his fellow writers and relates the plot of what is otherwise a standard, cliché-ridden mystery story. Finally, the editor cuts him off.

“What’s different about this story?”

Everything,” he says, breathlessly.

“Are you sure? You have a family locked in a mansion for the weekend. They can’t go anywhere. The crime is a murder by poison a third of the way through, and everyone hates the victim. The red herring claims he didn’t do it but wished he had, and he becomes a red herring halfway through, right on schedule. And the real killer was actually ‘helping’ the detective solve the crime. That doesn’t necessarily make it a bad story, mind you, but what’s different about it?”

“What, are you blind? The detective is wearing a funny hat.”

This has become shorthand in some writing circles for character traits that are just pasted on like they were cut out of construction paper and glued to the guy at the last moment. These traits don’t actually affect anything in the story, but the author, and some readers, are convinced that everything is all that much more different because of the funny hat. Or suspenders. Or whatever is added in an attempt to make the protagonist stand out from the crowd.

This shows up in fantasy fiction as well. You can almost see the gears turning in the author’s mind…

I’m tired of reading about farmboy protagonists who save the world. My character is a farmgirl.

There are too many stories about magic swords. Mine is about a magic morningstar.

Elves are always magical. I’m going to make the Dwarfs magical instead.

All of these could of course make an entertaining story, but only if the story is driven by these traits. If your character is an ambidextrous transexual Finnish stamp collector with a propensity for eating Fluffernutter sandwiches whilst riding a neon-plaid Vespa, that’s fine… but only if the ambidextrousness or transexualness or stamp collecting or other traits somehow affect his character and/ or the story. Otherwise, you’ve done nothing but take a stock character, make a beard out of cotton balls and construction paper, strung it on his face, and called him a brand-new creation. This is great for a grade-school play, but not so much for professional writing. Rather than make your story stand out, it showcases lazy character development and plotting.

Why am I bringing this up? Besides having it brought to my attention in a post by Lisa Richardson at Way Too Fantasy, this idea of using superficial changes to substitute for characterization has been on my mind ever since I first started fleshing out my stories and reading books as a writer and not only a reader. In today’s world of inclusiveness and diversity, it is easy to decide you need to flip a coin and randomly make one of your characters white, or Chinese-American, or gay, or black, or on the Autism Spectrum, or anything else that you feel will make your story appeal to a wide audience. This is even worse than giving your protagonist a weird hat. This is nothing more than pandering to a perceived notion that, say, readers of a certain group will more readily read something featuring a protagonist like them, without bothering to see if your character truly conforms to that particular group. It’s easy to take a sheet of stereotypes, cut out a mask in such a way that it doesn’t look stereotypical at first, and paste it on a character that is exactly like you or your friends.

As brought up in an excellent post on the Karavansara blog, there is a lot of diversity in the world already, if you look past the surface. The idea of a lily-white medieval Europe is either the product of a racist and/ or social Darwinist mind, or is something written by a politically correct diversity crusader who is convinced that Europe = White = Evil. But from the Caliphate in Spain to the Greek and Eastern Mediterranean colonies in southern Italy to the Asiatic and Turkic tribes in Hungary and Ukraine and the Baltic countries, Europe was anything but homogenous. Hell, Germany alone was made up of about seventeen thousand different kingdoms, each with its own culture and legends and folklore.

There are many ways to make your world diverse. Start by having at least the setting conform to the real world, and not just a surface impression of it. At some level, every character is a minority of one. Find out what drives that minority and you’ll have the seeds of a great story.


That’s not a typo.

I like to talk about seeing stories from a different point of view. This is not something I came up with, of course. Two books I read and fell in love with when I was much younger are John Gardner’s Grendel and Gordon R. Dickson’s The Dragon and the George.
And even when I was un piccolo bambino I found myself copying examples of switched viewpoints such as this classic Peanuts cartoon.

All of this has been in the forefront of the offices in my head because I’m writing a second draft of my version of a Disney story, one that is a relatively straightforward adaptation of a classic fairy tale. What surprised me while I was writing that story was that it really was a straightforward adaptation. That is not exactly par for the course for Disney movies anymore. Not that the classic Disney versions of other fairy tales were ever close to the source material (check out the Talking Cricket’s role in the original Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi… perhaps he should have wished upon that star a little harder, eh?) I remember being vaguely disquieted as a child when I read the original fairy tales and stories that Disney bowdlerized and sanitized, but since they occasionally produced a quality work of art (such as The Little Mermaid) I lived with it. All of this ended when The Hunchback of Notre-Dame came out in the mid-nineties.

The original novel by Victor Hugo is not as well-known in the US as Les Miserables, which is a shame since it’s just as moving and thrilling as that book, and at 500 pages, about the size of just one of the descriptions of what people shouted at The Battle of Waterloo (in the abridged Les Mis, of course…) Most of us these days only know the story from the various movie versions, and while many of them are  well-done, they don’t quite capture the power and pathos of the source material. Particularly misrepresented in many versions is the character of Phoebus. The novel has, of course, the hero, Quasimodo (who is also deaf, as were all bellringers in the days before ear protection), the villain, Claude Frollo (who is possibly one of the most despicable characters in French literature I’ve come across) and the beautiful wronged Gypsy woman, Esmeralda. And then there’s Phoebus.

In the book, Phoebus is best described as a weasel. Like Reverend Dimmesdale in The Scarlet Letter, he doesn’t have the cojones to truly be a bad guy. He does bad things in a moment of weakness and either doesn’t own up to them, or blames his weaknesses, or blames other people for not taking his weaknesses into account. Phoebus, however, is so much more painfully well-wrought than Dimmesdale is. No other character in literature filled me with such pathetic disgust like he did. When people talk about what they would do if they could magically travel inside one of their favourite books and meet its characters, I don’t think of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, or Winter’s Tale, or any of the “Black Company” books, or even hanging out in a tavern in Lankhmar with the Grey Mouser and his companion. I think of how sweet it would be to step inside 15th Century Paris, find Captain Phoebus, and just smack the everloving shit out of him. No character deserves it more than he does.

So fast-forward to the mid-nineties, when I see a trailer for the Disney movie. True, I’d been a little disappointed with Pocahontas, (who wasn’t?) but the movies that Disney had been putting out since 1989 (The Little Mermaid, The Rescuers Down Under, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin) were stunning enough for me to look forward to what they were going to do with perhaps my favourite French Gothic novel. And then I saw a toy commercial for the movie, and amidst the other plasticized characters, the announcer pointed out “Brave Phoebus.”

Brave Phoebus.

This was a character that perhaps caused most of the bad things in the novel to happen, was too weaselly to do anything about it, and still somehow came out ahead in the end.

Of course, the little cynic that I keep locked in a trunk in the back of my head piped up, “Well, of course they had to make him the hero. God Forbid they make a hero out of the ugly deaf guy. I mean, really… what would that teach our children?”

I’ve never seen any direct evidence that that was the direct cause of Phoebus’ transformation but everything else that Disney’s done since then (like Merida‘s makeover from self-sufficient warrior tomboy to glamourized, sexualized, properly keeping to her own place Disney Princess) hasn’t disproved my hypothesis.

This is why us writers and artists and creators need to produce quality stories about quality people, adults and children. Real people. Warts and body odor and clumsiness, along with accidental good deeds, kind eyes, and a way of occasionally doing the right thing. (The cynical movement in literature and film is just as naïve and detached from reality as the Polyanna-esque ‘everything is sunshine and rainbows and unicorn farts movement.) Even though it may be one day Disneyfuc’d into something barely resembling its origin, the stories need to be there. And once the story’s out there, flip it over and tell it from another point of view. Or tell it backwards. Or tell a realistic version of a magical tale or vice-versa. The slippery plastic sheen of homogenous popular culture may always be more visible, but people are always willing to dip beneath it for the good stuff, if you give them a reason to.