A Place for Horror

The Question of Horror

I’ve never been fond of the horror genre.  I just don’t see the point of being scared or (more often) disgusted or repelled by a story.  As Randall Munroe of xkcd puts it:  “I know everyone’s into what they’re into, but I have never understood horror movies.”

Approaching the genre as an outsider, then, my question is:  why is there such a genre at all?  Is it just the desire for a thrill?  Or is the whole interest in horror merely morbid?

An interesting remark in a Diane Duane story recently gave me an inkling of what the function of horror stories might be.  As we’re coming up to Hallowe’en, I thought the point might be worth examining this week.

Horror, and Genre Horror

Alien - movie posterTo be sure, one sometimes bumps up against horror elements incidentally in the course of pursuing other types of stories.  I did watch the movie Alien when it came out in 1979—but that was because it was science fiction, not because it was horror.  It’s both—I recall coming out of the theatre literally shaking.  But I don’t think I’ve watched it a second time.

In a similar way, there’s a good admixture of horror in Jurassic Park (I’m thinking mainly of the 1993 movie).  Plenty of “jump scene” shock moments, and gore; and I have rewatched that one, but it’s for the other elements, most notably the sheer wonder of seeing the paleontologists encounter actual living dinosaurs.  As the xkcd comic mouseover observes, I enjoy it because dinosaurs are cool.  I’m willing to go through a good deal of bad stuff in a story if the good stuff makes it worthwhile.

Even a nice song can turn up unexpected horror elements.  The title song from Carole King’s Tapestry album is a lovely meditative piece that begins “My life has been a tapestry of rich and royal hue . . .”  Pleasant, yes?  But the lyric gradually drifts into a dream, or maybe a nightmare:  the end of the song gives us “. . . A figure, gray and ghostly, beneath a flowing beard / In times of deepest darkness, I’ve seen him dressed in black / Now my tapestry’s unraveling, he’s come to take me back . . .”  That’s rather disturbing, though the song is so pretty that one hardly notices the rather dreadful image.

The Stand - book coverBut what little I have seen of genre horror makes clear that it has its own conventions, its own tendencies and interests, that go beyond these occasional elements.  I recognized this when I read Stephen King’s novel The Stand (1978).  While the story is essentially a fantasy, it has a science-fictionish premise:  an apocalyptic pandemic that wipes out most of humanity.  So I approached it as an SF novel.

Some characters are escaping from New York City (if I recall correctly) through a tunnel jammed with stopped vehicles, which are occupied by the decomposing bodies of plague victims struck down at the wheel.  Not a pleasant place for a trek.  So they enter the tunnel, are appropriately horrified by this commuter charnel house.  They continue on.  And on.  And on.  And at some point I found myself wondering, why are we still in this tunnel?  I get the point.  Why aren’t we moving forward with the plot?  And it dawned on me:  that’s the SF reader’s reaction.  But this is horror.  The dreadful experience of going through the tunnel is the whole point for a horror reader.

Similarly, in Weird Tales-type stories like ”Shambleau” and others of C.L. Moore’s early work, it seems clear that the horror elements are the purpose of the story.  And it’s a durable purpose.  There’s still a thriving cottage industry of pastiches, games, and academic interest in H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos stories, though Lovecraft has been dead since 1937.  (At least, we think he’s dead . . .)

Science Fiction Monsters

The Demon Breed coverOn the other hand, compare this with an SF story that merely has horror elements.  There’s a sizable subgenre of science fiction monster stories, even if we throw out the B-movies and Godzilla remakes.  James H. Schmitz was particularly good at these.  Take a look at his collection A Pride of Monsters:  short stories like “The Winds of Time” (1962) and “Greenface” (1943) have structures very like traditional horror tales.  And the excellent short novel The Demon Breed (1968) makes use of horror tropes in telling an intense adventure story.

But while “Greenface” may read as a horror story, Schmitz’s other monster tales don’t come across that way.  There’s a difference in tone and mood.  Even though there are fairly horrid suggestions in “The Winds of Time”—the (extremely intelligent) monster in that story “preferred . . . to have its snacks still wriggling-fresh as it started them down its gullet”—we don’t dwell on them.  It reads to me more like an SF problem-story, where the characters must come up with inventive means to extricate themselves from a difficult situation.

Similar observations apply to, say, A.E. van Vogt’s assembly of monster-stories The Voyage of the Space Beagle (1938-1950)—or even van Vogt’s “Asylum” (1942), an early envisioning of science-fictional (as opposed to fantasy or religious) vampires.  The tone and mood are different from those of a true horror tale; they’re appealing to a different audience.

The Appeal of Horror

Why do we include horror elements in a story?

The most obvious answer, from an F&SF perspective, is conflict.  If we’re dealing with an epic or an adventure, we need to see that the evil our heroes are fighting against is, in fact, evil.  And one easy way to do that is to show the bad guys doing horrible things.  Maybe the threat is not merely death, but any of several Fates Worse Than Death.  Not only bodily death, but the soul itself (the theology is a little murky here) is at stake.  Not merely enslavement, but cannibalism.  We accentuate the menace against which the main characters are striving by making it a “parade of horribles.”

More broadly, horror aids contrast.  The good stands out better against a background of evil:  we can more readily appreciate the good when it’s juxtaposed with the bad.  When we return to the Shire, we appreciate it more than in the initial chapters, because we’ve seen far worse places.  (Of course, Tolkien’s actual treatment of “The Scouring of the Shire” is more nuanced and complex than that simple contrast suggests—but the simple contrast still underlies the conclusion of the story.)

Ringwraith looms over hobbitsIn this connection, Darrell Schweitzer notes that Tolkien has an unexpected knack for horror writing (The Fantastic Horizon, ch. 2).  The central concept of the Ring itself is pretty darn creepy:  an innocent-looking but almost-sentient magic item that gradually subverts the wearer’s will.  The Black Riders pursuing the hobbits through a seemingly-idyllic Shire—the night attack on Weathertop—the attack of Shelob at Cirith Ungol—Tolkien knows how to invoke the awful as well as the awesome.

But while these uses explain some horror elements in other kinds of stories, they don’t fully account for the horror genre.  If the horrible is not set up as opposition or contrast, but rather as the main preoccupation of the story, it must be there for some other reason.

Immunization

Interim Errantry coverDiane Duane’s collection of three Young Wizards stories, Interim Errantry (2015) includes a 2011 Hallowe’en story, “Not In My Patch.”  Early in the story, senior wizard Carl Romeo is talking to Nita, the main character, about the reason for elaborate Hallowe’en displays:

“But who doesn’t like being safely scared, occasionally?  Pleasantly scared, by something that can’t really hurt you?  . . . It starts getting you used to fear . . . so when you come up against something really scary, you can cope a little better.”

“Like being vaccinated,” Nita said.  “The weakened bugs make you immune . . .”

This idea suggests a wholesome purpose even for stories that focus primarily on the horrible.  The stories may not be quite as frivolous as the jack-o-lanterns and orange-and-black bunting that we see at this season.  But we can still say to ourselves, “it’s just a story.”  We expose ourselves to the scary or appalling in some degree without having to go through those experiences in real life.  Because there are scary and appalling things in the world; and we don’t want to lead so sheltered a life that we’re wholly incapacitated or unmoored if we should meet them.  As Nita says, it helps us develop an immunity.

Redheaded cartoon witch on broomstickWe can go even further.  If we learn to laugh at horror, we can to some degree deprive it of its self-importance, place ourselves beyond it.  (In the passage excerpted above, Carl notes that the Lone Power “really, really hates not being taken seriously”—a sentiment echoed to good effect at the end of Poul Anderson’s Operation Chaos.)  Call it whistling in the dark—but this attitude may help prepare us, in some small way, for those times when we do encounter horror in real life.  It may explain why our Hallowe’en decorations tend toward the ridiculous and cartoonish.  “Here’s a witch no one could be afraid of.”  (In this connection, I can’t resist citing to one of my favorite treatments of the Cthulhu Mythos.)

May you all have a happy Hallowe’en, then, and may all your fears be as abstract and hypothetical as the Great Pumpkin.  “Forth now, and fear no darkness.”

White moon with crow and bats (Pixabay)

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The Manly Virtues—Regency Style

Heroic Virtues

Picture of Regency heroThe “hero” of a romance, the male lead, holds up a mirror to a given age’s conception of the virtues a man should have.  If the romance is to work at all, the hero must be someone we’re willing to see the heroine give her heart to.  He may not be perfect; in fact, he frequently has flaws or emotional wounds that help provide obstacles in the story.  But he has to be admirable enough to win our approval.

We’re not talking just about the kinds of physical attributes a woman might sigh over.  The reader is supposed to respect the man as well.

This assumption is largely tacit.  Probably no one in the story comes right out and says “this is what a man should be.”  It’s a matter of what the story presents as desirable or worthy of respect.  We can learn a lot more from how the story treats a character than just what the author tells us.

In other words, romantic stories can give us clues about the archetypes or role models for males (and of course females) in a given period.

These ideals aren’t necessarily the same in different eras.  Cultural differences affect what qualities we see as admirable.  There’s a fairly constant core—virtues that are respected in every generation—but there’s also a good deal of divergence.

 

Hero Types

There’s a fair amount of variety in the heroes of Georgette Heyer’s twenty to thirty Regency novels (the count depends on how loosely one defines the Regency period).  We can see this from the fact that attempts to categorize the heroes have to deal with a lot of exceptions.

The standard division, originating with Heyer herself, proposes two principal archetypes.  Jane Aiken-Hodge, in The Private World of Georgette Heyer (1984), is quoted in Laurel Ann Nattress, Heyer’s Heroes:  Immutable Romance Archetypes, on Austenprose (2010), as saying that “Georgette Heyer put her heroes into two basic categories: the Mark I hero, who is ‘The brusque, savage sort with a foul temper’ and the Mark II hero, who is ‘Suave, well-dressed, rich, and a famous whip.’

Dorothy Dunnett added in a Washington Post article (1984):  “If hero Mark I was firmly based on Charlotte Bronte’s Mr. Rochester, Mark II is the very embodiment of Sir Percy Blakeney, Baroness Orczy’s languid aristocrat of The Scarlet Pimpernel” (links and italics added).  TV Tropes’ Creator page on Heyer notes this division of heroes (and a corresponding classification of heroines).

The Foundling, coverBut these dual archetypes don’t exhaust the roster.  Nattress notes that the Duke of Sale in The Foundling “perhaps requires one to add at least one more category to Heyer’s own classification scheme, since he, like the heroes of Charity Girl, Cotillion, and Friday’s Child, is neither “suave” nor “brusque.”  That’s four stories that apparently escape the Mark I/II dichotomy.  Nattress adds:  “In addition, one might have to create a small category for Heyer’s military heroes who are neither ‘suave’ nor ‘brusque’ but instead have a penchant for behaving in unexpectedly unconventional ways, and which would contain the heroes of Beauvallet, The Spanish Bride, The Toll Gate and The Unknown Ajax.”  We’re now up to eight exceptions.

Common Characteristics

On the other hand, the romantic heroes do have a pretty consistent set of common features.  Let’s divide the personal qualities—not the characters—into two groups (no relation to the Mark I/II character types).

Group 1 features:  General

  • The hero has plenty of money. Sometimes this is important because the heroine is in financial need; sometimes it isn’t, because she’s not.  But the male lead is almost always solvent, if not extraordinarily wealthy.  A rare counter-example is Adam Deveril of A Civil Contract (1961), whose attempt to achieve financial stability for his family is a main plotline of the story.
  • Black Sheep (Georgette Heyer) coverHe typically looks good, both in the sense of physical handsomeness and in that of being well-dressed and “put together.” A rare counter-example here is Miles Calverleigh in Black Sheep (1966), who is described as a man “with harsh features in a deeply lined face, a deplorably sallow skin, and not the smallest air of fashion” (ch. 3, p. 34).
  • He’s kind to his lady. They may start out at odds; he may be brusque or formidable to others; but to the heroine, at least, he is considerate and caring.
  • In a pinch, he’s cool under pressure. There may or may not be any situation in the story that calls for physical courage; but if so, he’s got it.
  • Loyalty and, more narrowly, fidelity to his lady is another hallmark. We’re talking here about fidelity after they fall in love.  Heyer makes clear that the hero has previously sown his wild oats, which makes him experienced in carnal matters and confident in his wooing.  But once he falls for the heroine, all that is behind him.

It should be noted that Heyer’s novels do not deal with actual sexual activity at all.  Physical attraction, while it is obviously present, does not feature largely in the storylines—so it is not a requirement that the hero be outrageously sexy.  In this respect Heyer differs considerably from many modern genre romances, even Regency romances.  (On this aspect of Heyer’s character, see Jennifer Kloester’s biography Georgette Heyer: Biography of a Bestseller (2011).)

The Group 1 traits are probably common, in some form, to the ideal mate for a woman in any era.  Having plenty of money, in particular, may represent a kind of wish-fulfillment for the traditional female reader (Heyer’s 1920s-1960s audience):  the hero is someone who can be relied upon to provide a safe support for the necessities and amenities of life.

How this is expressed may differ by society.  In the Regency period, a fortune was generally inherited; in a modern story, the traditional millionaire romantic interest probably earned his stash.  In a fantasy or science-fiction world, the currency of survival may be something other than money per se.  But some reliable means of support is generally attractive.

The corresponding wish-fulfillment quality in a female for male readers/viewers, by the way, is beauty.  One doesn’t cast unattractive Bond girls.  It would be considered shallow for either sex to value only these qualities in a potential mate; but they do form part of the complete package for the ideal romantic interest.

In addition to the Group 1 virtues, a Heyer hero is expected to have some more period-specific qualities.

Group 2 features:  Regency-specific

  • Gentleman Jackson's Boxing Salon, 1821 woodcutThe ideal Regency gentleman, as Heyer see it, knows how to fist-fight. Typically, he frequents Gentleman Jackson’s Boxing Salon, where he attains some skill using his “fives” in an art the ladies generally deplore, but still rather admire.  At least some brief mention of this ability turns up for almost all of Heyer’s heroes.
  • Moreover, he can fight with firearms. The hero is generally a good shot, spending some of his off hours target-shooting or hunting.  Even in a story where neither fist-fighting nor shooting plays a part, these talents seem to be indispensable:  the proper hero is prepared to fight should the need arise.
  • He can ride a horse. Whether he’s a “notable whip” or merely a very competent horseman, he’s particularly good at riding, even in an era where the horse was a standard mode of transportation.
  • In Regency high society, a man’s integrity is expressed especially in honoring his bets in the ubiquitous gaming. A hero always makes good on his gaming obligations; someone who doesn’t is instantly recognizable as a villain.  (Note that this is closely related to the general virtue of having plenty of money available.)
  • Almost invariably, he has a sense of humor; frequently the heroine wishes she could share some absurd incident with the hero when he’s absent. This sense of humor may be a survival trait when you’re in a romantic comedy.
  • Last of the Mohicans action sceneIn a society where almost all one’s time is spent in social interactions, social competence is a key feature. The proper hero can cope with any social difficulty or complication.  Some of them do so calmly, with aplomb, while others may be brusque and seemingly unconventional (I mentioned Black Sheep above).  In a primitive or frontier situation—say, if you’re in The Last of the Mohicans, or a Heinlein adventure—competence may mean basic survival skills.  But in a highly formalized society like the Regency, social skill is what competence in general looks like.

Of course we’re talking about the aristocracy here—what the stories refer to, tellingly, as “the Quality.”  Heyer’s stories only glancingly involve the kinds of street urchins or poor tradespeople who grace the pages of (for example) Dickens.  While later Regencies may try to work in a more egalitarian perspective, the Heyer-type stories focus on the leisured class.

Cotillion

We can see what the essential characteristics are by looking at an exception to what one would think of as the typical alpha hero:  Freddy Standen of Cotillion (N.Y.:  G.P. Putnam’s Sons, A Jove Book, 1953, 1982).

Cotillion (Georgette Heyer), coverIn this light-hearted tale, heroine Kitty Charing is the ward of crochety old Uncle Matthew, who’s determined to marry her off, along with his considerable fortune, to one of his nephews.  Kitty’s in love with the rakish Jack, who is too proud to show up when Uncle Matthew calls the nephews together.  Instead, she convinces the amiable Freddy to pretend to be engaged to her, which allows her the London experience she’s always wanted, and (not incidentally) the chance to convince Jack to offer for her.  In the course of the story, she discovers Jack’s unlikable features, and ends up falling for Freddy after all—and vice versa, of course.

You might expect Jack to be the hero.  He’s handsome, devil-may-care, knows how to fight, and so forth.  He’s the classic powerful, assertive alpha male type.  But Jack is too selfish, and he doesn’t really care about Kitty; she’s merely convenient for him.  It’s the non-alpha Freddy who wins out.

Freddy is good-looking, but in an almost dandyish mode; a “Pink of the Ton” (p. 41).  He’s “kind-hearted and . . . uncritical” (p. 112), and expresses “ready sympathy” for Kitty (p. 210).  He professes to be frightened of intimidating types like Uncle Matthew (p. 53); but he really isn’t, and provides unexpected support to Kitty in dealing with difficult relatives (pp. 191, 258-59).  These are of course good things for the inexperienced heroine, though they’re milder virtues than the bold assertiveness one would expect of a stock hero.

At the same time, Freddy does possess the Group 2 qualifications outlined above.  He has integrity:  he’s an honest gamer (“Play or pay, m’girl, play or pay,” pp. 108-09).  More importantly, he’s courteous and magnanimous in real life.  Jack recognizes that Freddy is “wholly incapable of making so unhandsome a gesture” (p. 267), and Heyer even describes Freddy’s willingness to help someone in difficulties as “an innate chivalry” (p. 354).

Freddy shares with his lady an appreciation for the humorous (p. 306).  He is a past master of social competence:  mild-mannered though he is, he “knew to a nicety how to blend courtesy with hauteur” when necessary (p. 305), and although he lays no claim to great intelligence, he has the practical knowledge of how to get his much smarter brother out of trouble (p. 318)—practical wisdom.  To Kitty, this is genuine heroism:

“I daresay Freddy might not be a great hand at slaying dragons, but you may depend upon it none of those knight-errants would be able to rescue one from a social fix, and you must own, Meg, that one has not the smallest need of a man who can kill dragons!”  (pp. 314-15)

At the start of the story Freddy’s own father Lord Legerwood regards him as mentally negligible.  But Legerwood is repeatedly astonished in the course of the book when Freddy comes up with a clever solution to some problem at need—at which Freddy himself is equally astonished (pp. 105, 170, 305-06).  In this respect Freddy bears some resemblance to Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster (we’ll have to discuss the remarkable Jeeves and the Wedding Bells another time).

Most strikingly, although we’re explicitly told that Freddy is no match for Jack at fisticuffs, Heyer does give him a chance to knock Jack down with a well-placed blow—in response to an insult to Kitty (p. 408).  Everyone, including Freddy and Jack, recognize that this was an impulsive and lucky hit, but at that point of the story Jack’s not going to follow it up by getting into a “mill.”  So Freddy, the least likely of combatants, is left holding the field—a neat trick by Heyer.  Even in those Group 2 qualities that aren’t his strong suit, he qualifies.

Warrior Virtues in Disguise

Why do Regency heroes (at least in Heyer) have this particular set of Group 2 qualities?

I suggest that the ideal underlying Heyer’s heroes is that of a warrior caste gone to seed.  The aristocracy depicted in these stories seems to have occupied itself almost exclusively with trivialities:  gaming, fancy dress, gossip, absurd customs and manners enforced by exaggerated social sanctions.  But that aristocracy originated in the feudal system established in England after the Norman Conquest.

Hohensalzburg fortressThe basic “social compact” of the feudal system was that a warrior caste was given overlordship of specified lands in exchange for military service—particularly in the cavalry, the realm of the traditional knight.  From the standpoint of the king, a vassal drew on the resources of his lands to equip himself and his companions to provide soldiers for the king at need.  From the standpoint of the common people, the local lord provided defense in wartime, kept the peace, and administered justice, in return for his authority over his fief.  Not that the commoners had much to say about it, of course—but there were reciprocal obligations of the lord to his people:  noblesse oblige.

Over the ensuing seven hundred years, the notion of holding lands in exchange for service gradually degenerated into a system of pure inheritance.  Succeeding landholders might be anything but warriors, and their support to the Crown was more likely to be financial than military.  Yet some of the original ideal remained, a sort of ghostly glamour in the name of remembered glory.  The Dorothy Dunnett article quoted above continues:

And the moral etiquette of the books is very much in the comfortable tradition of her time.  Behind the Corinthian stands Bulldog Drummond, defending his honor, his land and his lady; and behind them, the courts of chivalry from the days of “armor,” Georgette Heyer’s favorite period.

Our Heyer heroes may spend most of their time playing at vaguely military-like sports:  riding, boxing, shooting.  But if there ever is a call for soldiery—there they are.  And the Regency aristocrats do go to war.  Much of the Regency period overlaps that of the Napoleonic Wars, and campaigns on the Continent frequently play a role in the background of a Heyer romance.  In this respect, a classic aphorism about war and sports is apropos:

“The Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton,” the Duke of Wellington did not say – although as the Victorian era’s principal supplier of epigrams, he certainly should have. [footnote omitted]  For apart from war and preparation for war, it’s in competitive athletics that the Clausewitzian combination of a distilled past, a planned present, and an uncertain future most explicitly come together.  (John Lewis Gaddis, On Grand Strategy (NY:  Penguin Press, 2018), ch. 1, p. 26.)

We may note briefly that Heyer’s heroines fit the pattern too.  Looking at the covers of the books, one may be tempted to think the women in the stories are purely ornamental, representing the “prize” of the warrior:  “None but the brave deserves the fair” (Dryden).  But in fact the ladies in these romances are frequently estate managers, skilled at family governance and the organization of veritable armies of workers—just as one might expect from those expected to keep things going on the home front while the defenders are away at war.  There’s more to these decorative ladies than meets the eye.

The particular sketch of the ideal male in Heyer’s Regencies, then, may be rooted in a much older ideal:  to employ a favorite phrase in jest (oddly enough) of Wodehouse’s, the parfit gentil knight, sans peur et sans reproche.  Like Tolkien’s hobbits, the Regency gentleman conceals unexpected resilience beneath an apparently trivial surface.  He makes an interesting contrast to more contemporary models of manhood.

The Great American Read

PBS is conducting a poll asking about our favorite novels in connection with a TV mini-series, “The Great American Read.”  Through October 17, we can vote each day for one or more of 100 candidates.  I haven’t watched the TV shows—but the poll alone is fascinating.

The Great American Read, logo

In my area, Fairfax County Public Libraries is running its own variant.  They’ve broken down the 100 books and series into brackets, like a tournament.  We vote on a series of pairs—which of the two we prefer—and the candidates get whittled gradually down to a climactic final round.  They’re about halfway through at the moment.

The Best and the Best-Loved

Looking at somebody else’s “Top Ten” (or Top 100, or generally Top N) list is always interesting.  We may be talking about books, classic rock songs, movie heroes and villains, or almost anything:  the most common reaction, I suspect, is when we look at some of the entries and ask ourselves, how could that possibly have gotten on the list?  Or, conversely, how could they ever have left out this?

Obviously a list of the “twelve tallest buildings” or “five longest rivers” is going to be relatively uncontroversial.  But when there’s no quantitative measure that can be applied, the lists are bound to have a subjective element.  Reading them stimulates us to ask—what could were the listmakers have been thinking when they made those choices?

With the Great American Read (“TGAR”), the subjective side is even more emphasized, because the list (and the poll) is about “America’s 100 best-loved novels,” not the best novels.  The criteria aren’t the same.  There are books we respect, but don’t like.  My favorite piece of music, as it happens, isn’t what I would judge the greatest piece of music.  A more personal appeal is involved.

Someone for Everyone

It’s clear that PBS was at pains to include something for everyone.  The books cover a wide range of genres.  The list includes plenty of “classics”—the ones we got assigned in high school—and also a lot of popular volumes that couldn’t be considered classics by any stretch of the imagination.  (I suspect there are no high-school reading curricula that include Fifty Shades of Grey.)

In other words, we’ve got our “guilty pleasures” right alongside acknowledged masterpieces.  I always enjoy the way alphabetical listings produce similarly odd bedfellows:  on my bookshelf, Jane Austen rubs shoulders with Isaac Asimov, while Tolkien is bracketed by James Thurber and A.E. van Vogt.

Adventures of Tom Sawyer, coverAlice's Adventures in Wonderland, coverAlmost any reader should find something to vote for in the TGAR collection.  If you don’t like Tom Sawyer, how about Alice in Wonderland?  Not enthused about The Godfather—try The Pilgrim’s Progress?  If you’re not in the mood for 1984, maybe you’ll find Anne of Green Gables more congenial.

By the same token, I’m guessing almost no one would accept every book on the list as a favorite.  If there’s someone whose personal top ten list includes The Handmaid’s Tale, Atlas Shrugged, and The Chronicles of Narnia, I’d like to meet them.

The F&SF Division

Isaac Asimov, Foundation, coverIn my own sandbox, the science fiction and fantasy field, the listmakers came up with an interesting cross-section.  I was a little surprised to see Asimov’s Foundation series on the list:  it’s great stuff, and an SF classic, but I’d have thought it was “inside baseball,” widely known only among card-carrying fans.  Another classic, Frank Herbert’s Dune, is probably more widely read.  (I notice the entry for Dune is not marked as a series, which is a good thing.  While there are quite a few follow-on Dune books, after the original the quality drops off exponentially.)

Other SF picks are more contemporary.  We’ve got The Martian, which I’ve mentioned before, and Ready Player One, which was just made into a movie this year—both good choices (by my lights), though not yet perhaps seasoned enough to be classics like the Asimov and Herbert entries.

We’ve got the comedic Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the classic Frankenstein, the satirical Sirens of Titan, the young adult Hunger Games, SF horror in Jurassic Park, dystopian tales in both 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale.  We have what you might call prehistorical fiction, The Clan of the Cave Bear, which I’d class as a variety of SF, and time-travel romance in Outlander (also recently come to video).  A Dean Koontz novel, Watchers, which I’d never heard of, may represent the SF thriller.  Then there’s Atlas Shrugged, which probably belongs in SF given a technological premise, although these days it’s more often thought of as a political tract.

Of course it’s always possible to regret the omissions—Heinlein or Brin or Bujold, for example—but a list of 100 nationwide favorites in all genres is never going to be able to pick up every quality work.  Since the TGAR candidates were largely chosen by a random survey of 7200 Americans, it’s easy to see why more widely-read examples are favored, whether or not they represent the highest quality.  The focus on American readers also introduces some selection bias, which might account for omitting, say, Arthur C. Clarke.

Lord of the Rings, coverOver in fantasy, the “high fantasy” epic is well represented by The Lord of the Rings, The Wheel of Time, and A Song of Ice and Fire (Game of Thrones), with the children’s division held down by the Narnia tales and Harry Potter.  Again, there are some familiar subgenres:  satire (Gulliver’s Travels), whimsy or children’s books (Alice, The Little Prince), horror (The Stand), young adult (Twilight).

I was a little surprised to see three entries in what one might call the Christian fantasy column:  The Shack, Left Behind, and something called Mind Invaders.  When an item turns up that you’ve never heard of, it’s a useful reminder of how far-ranging people’s tastes really are.

An Author’s Range

The list can also spark some interesting reflections on the range of a prolific author.  Probably most people would pick Dune as Frank Herbert’s leading entry, and Pride and Prejudice as the most well-loved of Austen’s several great novels.  But the only candidate for Dickens on the list, for example, is Great Expectations.

Great Expectations, coverNow, I’m fond of Dickens, but Great Expectations isn’t one of the stories I particularly like.  Yet it does seem to come up frequently whenever Dickens is mentioned.  (I don’t even hear quite as much about A Tale of Two Cities, which we did read in high school—possibly chosen for school because it’s relatively short; assigning a class one of Dickens’ doorstoppers would have consumed an entire semester’s worth of reading time.)  Is Expectations really representative of Dickens’ best?  I’d have picked Little Dorrit or Our Mutual Friend, say, if I’d been in on the original survey.  Or David Copperfield, maybe, as the most accessible to a modern reader.  But, again, the list suggests there’s a reservoir of interest in Expectations that I just don’t happen to share—a broadening thought.

In a similar way, it may be harder to come up with the most representative Stephen King or Mark Twain novel—there are so many of them.  (The listmakers did confine themselves deliberately to one entry per author, which makes sense.)  Even within a single author’s oeuvre, it’s intriguing to see which work a majority of readers picked as outstanding.

Incommensurable Goods

After enough of this kind of reflection, we may find ourselves with a certain skepticism about the whole comparison process.

The Fairfax County bracket system, entertaining as it is, only strengthens this impression.  There is a sorting algorithm to create a ranking by going down the list and placing each item in turn in relation to those above it.  And it’s fun to weigh random pairs of works against each other, even within the particular classifications the libraries used (Classics, Midcentury, Late Century, Contemporary).

But the match-up process yields some odd results.  (I understand sports tournament designers also have to take care to ensure good playoffs.)  There’s some plausibility in a face-off between Pride and Prejudice and Wuthering Heights.  But what should we make of pitting Anne of Green Gables against War and PeaceThe Great Gatsby against Alice?  In some cases the entries hardly seem to be in the same weight class, so to speak.  It strikes me as a no-brainer to match The Lord of the Rings against Where the Red Fern Grows, a novel I’ve never heard of.

Even within a given author’s work, one can wonder about how conclusive a comparison actually is.  There’s a scale factor that makes some matches clear:  Asimov’s sweeping Foundation series seems a more logical “top” candidate than even an excellent short story like “The Last Question” or “Robbie,” just because of its greater scope and size.  But it can be hard to decide between stories on the same scale—two great short stories, say, or two very different novels.

Natural Law and Natural Rights, coverAt this point I’m reminded of an argument made by philosopher John Finnis in his Natural Law and Natural Rights (1980).  Noting that one of the classic objections against utilitarianism (“the greatest good for the greatest number”) is the inability in practice to reduce all possible good and bad things to a uniform measure of “utility,” Finnis takes the position that there are a number of categories of human goods that can’t be reduced to each other.  His list of such goods includes life, knowledge, play, aesthetic experience, friendship, practical reasonableness, and religion (ch. IV.2, pp. 86-90).  These goods aren’t interchangeable.  They are literally “incommensurable”—they can’t be measured against each other.

It’s possible that some similar principle of incommensurability applies to the books we’ve been discussing.  Would I want to give up, say, Pride and Prejudice in favor of The Lord of the Rings, or vice versa?  They’re unique achievements, and we realize something quite different from reading each of them.  We might be able to create some rather vague order of precedence—for example, by the traditional question of what one book you’d want to have with you if marooned on a desert island.  But that’s not the same sort of comparison as equating a dollar with ten dimes.

On the other hand, the fun of weighing (note the measurement analogy) one story against another suggests there’s some common element, or elements, in our enjoyment of a good book.  If nothing else, such match-ups can get some entertaining discussions going.

The World Around the Corner

The World Premiere

The World Around the Corner coverI’m excited to have my romantic comedy novella The World Around the Corner in print as of last week.  Or in virtual print, at least; it’s out as an e-book from the Wild Rose Press.  (Details are available on the story’s page.)

Uncharacteristically for me, TWATC isn’t science fiction or fantasy.  The only potential SF elements are some very minor advances in gaming technology (and perhaps in automobile design).  Some parts read a little like fantasy, because there’s an online role-playing game (an MMORPG) involved.  In that respect there’s a faint resemblance to Ready Player One (book and movie), where an online game plays a major part in a much more serious SF story.  But TWATC isn’t really about games or technology; it’s all about having fun with the characters.

You’re Who?

I’ve always liked the kind of romance where a character has to make a discovery about who their romantic interest really is.  Jasmine isn’t immediately aware that Disney’s Aladdin, when he visits the palace as a prince, is the same street urchin she’s already met—though she isn’t fooled for long.  In Shakespeare’s venerable Twelfth Night, nobody is quite sure who “Cesario” (Viola) really is.  The same is true in the modernized high-school variant of the Shakespeare comedy, She’s the Man.  Playing around with two ways of knowing the same person is also put to good use in the case of super-heroes (or heroes generally) who have secret identities, from the Scarlet Pimpernel to El Zorro to Superman.

The Shop Around the Corner posterBut in all these tales, one member of the couple has the advantage of knowing the truth.  It puts the couple on more even terms if neither of them is aware of what’s really going on.  There’s a whole series of variations on a single story where the main characters meet indirectly and fail to connect up the two different ways they’re communicating with the same person.  This plot seems to have been invented by Hungarian playwright Miklós László in the form of a play called Illatszertár or Parfumerie (1937).  It was adapted in English into the Jimmy Stewart-Margaret Sullavan film The Shop Around the Corner (1940), which in turn gave rise to a musical treatment with Judy Garland, In the Good Old Summertime (1949), and again with She Loves Me (1963).  In these versions, the main characters are pen pals, and also co-workers.  Nora Ephron updated the treatment by making them e-mail correspondents in You’ve Got Mail (1998).

Romance And—

When we tell the story of a romance, we’re often telling a story about something else at the same time.  To be sure, this isn’t always the case.  In Georgette Heyer’s Cotillion, for example, or in Must Love Dogs, and in a lot of high-school rom-coms, the personal relationships are pretty much all that’s going on.  But generally, we don’t spend our lives doing nothing but looking for love.  We go on about our daily business, meeting our daily challenges, and stumble upon love as we go.

To Say Nothing Of The Dog coverSo a lot of romantic tales also have a storyline dealing with something that brings the couple together.  In Heyer’s The Toll-Gate, there’s an involved plot having to do with a theft of currency.  The main characters in Connie Willis’s To Say Nothing of the Dog are searching for the bishop’s bird-stump.  (It’s a long story.)  Gaudy Night is the Dorothy Sayers novel where Harriet Vane and Lord Peter Wimsey finally get together, but they do it while trying to resolve a crisis at her alma mater.  The redoubtable Amelia Peabody and her future husband Radcliffe Emerson meet in the context of archaeological investigations (Crocodile on the Sandbank).

I like the idea of a couple’s bonding by cooperating in some shared endeavor.  And we may be able to amplify that motif by having it happen twice, in parallel, like the parallel identities in the “Shop” stories.

The Camaraderie of the Quest

One of the things I’ve always enjoyed about the group quests of role-playing games, whether in D&D or World of Warcraft, is the bonding and sense of camaraderie that develops in a group working together for a common purpose.  Most traditional games like chess or Risk have the players competing against each other.  But the role-playing games typically pit a band of True Companions against third-party monsters or other opponents.

This is a whole different dynamic.  And seeing it play out in a game makes the tone both more light-hearted and more detached than, for example, in a real-life business relationship.  But for that very reason, it lacks a certain gravitas.  Suppose a couple used to fighting side-by-side in a game found they had to work together on something important in real life as well?

The Fun of the Shared Adventure

All this contributed to the idea of The World Around the Corner.  Other aspects also played their roles—for instance, a chance to share some favorite music and books.  And let us not forget the occasional opportunity, sheerly by happenstance, to achieve a truly dreadful pun, without even setting it up on purpose beforehand.  You’ll know it when you see it . . .

I hope you’ll have as much fun reading TWATC as I did writing it!

Witty Banter

Clever Conversation

Billy Joel famously remarked, “I don’t want clever conversation; never want to work that hard” (“Just the Way You Are” (1977) at 1:30).  For my part, though, I find I do want clever conversation.  (And I’m willing to work at it.)  Witty wordplay is one of my favorite things to find in a story.

Conversational sparring comes in a number of varieties—and especially in exchanges between romantic interests.  This post may run a little long, because in order to get my point across I’ve got to quote some dialogue at length.

The Well-Chosen Word

Verbal comedy can arise spontaneously in comedies of errors—misunderstood conversations, double meanings and double entendres, the confusions to which language is ever prone.

Hugh Laurie as Bertie Wooster

Hugh Laurie as Bertie Wooster

It helps if one character is an airhead.  Bertie Wooster, the amiable narrator of P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves stories, has been described (by Jeeves) as “mentally negligible.”  As the Wikipedia article observes, Bertie’s use of language is actually rather remarkable—but it lacks control.  His frequently-mangled allusions may throw his hearers for a loop, and he’s just as likely to misunderstand what they’re getting at.  This pattern is common in Wodehouse, where at least one person, often the main character, is a little muddled.

Sprig Muslin book coverBut even competent characters can be at a loss if the situation is itself muddled.  For example, in the delightful closing sequence to Georgette Heyer’s Sprig Muslin (ch. 17-18), the normally self-possessed Captain Kendal arrives on the scene thinking he’s rescuing his madcap lady-love Amanda, not realizing that he has entirely misinterpreted the situation.  Thus:

“Why,” the Captain shot at him, “did the chambermaid find your ward’s door locked?  Why did your ward think it necessary to lock her door?”

“She didn’t.  I locked the door, so that she shouldn’t escape a second time.  Yes, come over here, Hildebrand!  Our visitor wants to shake you by the hand. . . . This, Hildebrand, unless I much mistake the matter is the Brigade-Major.”

“What, Amanda’s Brigade-Major?” exclaimed Hildebrand.  “Well, of all things!  However did you find us out, sir?”

“For God’s sake, have I strayed into a madhouse?” thundered the Captain.  “Where is Amanda?”

“Well, I don’t know,” said Hildebrand, looking startled.  “I daresay she has gone down the road to the farm, though. . . . Oh, I say, sir, I wish you will tell me!—will she be obliged to wring chickens’ necks if she goes to Spain?”

“Wring—No!” said the Captain, thrown by this time quite off his balance.

“I knew it was all nonsense!” said Hildebrand triumphantly.  “I told her it was, but she always thinks she knows everything!”

Heyer is a past master at this; I’ve often thought of her as a kind of combination of Wodehouse and Jane Austen (herself a master of elegant verbal skirmishing).  Indeed, I once looked in at the annual Boston-based science fiction convention Boskone and read the program’s tongue-in-cheek explanation of why a SF convention includes a Regency ball:  Heyer’s characters were so superb at clever badinage that they must represent some kind of alternate reality—no mere humans could come up with such adroit dialogue on the spur of the moment.

False Colours cover When the wit is one-sided— a clever interlocutor and an airheaded one—there’s some danger that the exchange may come across as a bit mean, with one character taking advantage of the other.  (“Persiflage,” another term for witty banter, is sometimes glossed as “quizzing mockery” or “scoffing.”)  But the smart character and the less-than-brilliant character can also be on good terms with each other, as in Kit Fancot’s fond teasing of his lovable but flighty mother in Heyer’s False Colours.

Flirtatious Banter

The combination of verbal sparring and affection reaches its apex when the two participants are in love with each other—whether or not they know it yet.

Beatrice and Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing (1993 movie)The locus classicus for such a relationship is Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, a comedy built largely around the contentious romance of Beatrice and Benedick.  Beatrice’s uncle explains the relationship to a newcomer explicitly at the outset:  “You must not, sir, mistake my niece:  there is a kind of merry war betwixt Signior Benedick and her; they never meet but there’s a skirmish of wit between them” (lines 50-52).  We then see them in action:

Beatrice:  I wonder that you will still be talking, Signior Benedick: nobody marks you.

Benedick:  What, my dear Lady Disdain! are you yet living?

Beatrice:  Is it possible disdain should die while she hath such meet food to feed it as Signior Benedick?  Courtesy itself must convert to disdain, if you come in her presence.

Benedick:  Then is courtesy a turncoat. But it is certain I am loved of all ladies, only you excepted:  and I would I could find in my heart that I had not a hard heart; for, truly, I love none.

Beatrice:  A dear happiness to women: they would else have been troubled with a pernicious suitor. I thank God and my cold blood, I am of your humour for that:  I had rather hear my dog bark at a crow than a man swear he loves me.

Benedick:  God keep your ladyship still in that mind! so some gentleman or other shall ‘scape a predestinate scratched face.

Beatrice:  Scratching could not make it worse, an ’twere such a face as yours were.  (lines 99-116)

The verbal sparring can shade from hostile to flirtatious; here we see it at the hostile end.  While this “merry war” has no obvious reason—except perhaps “belligerent sexual tension” itself—the conflict is often sparked by some specific friction; hence this trope’s kinship with The Big Lie.

Romantic comedy is the natural home for this kind of dialogue—especially on stage or screen.  We can go back to one of the classic screwball comedies, Frank Capra’s 1934 It Happened One Night, for examples.

[As Peter hangs a blanket between the beds in the room the main characters have to share:]

Ellie:  That, I suppose, makes everything quite all right.

Peter:  This?  Well, I like privacy when I retire.  Yes, I’m very delicate in that respect.  Prying eyes annoy me.  Behold the walls of Jericho.  Maybe not as thick as the ones Joshua blew down with his trumpet.  But a lot safer.  You see, I have no trumpet.

It Happened One Night, hitchhiking, on fenceThey both get in some good lines in the famous hitchhiking scene:

Peter:  They’ll stop, all right.  It’s all a matter of knowing how to handle them.

Ellie:  Oh, and you’re an expert, I suppose.

Peter:  Expert.  And I’m gonna write a book about it.  Call it The Hitchhiker’s Hail.

Ellie:  There’s no end to your accomplishments, is there?

[Peter tries his first method, fails]

Ellie:  I’ve still got my eye on the thumb.

Peter:  Something must have gone wrong.  I’ll try No. 2.

Ellie:  When you get to 100, wake me up.

[After several more fails]

Peter:  I don’t think I’ll write that book after all.

Ellie:  Think of all the fun you had, though.

[Ellie takes over and brings a car to a dead stop by lifting her skirt to show her leg.  In the car:]

Ellie:  Aren’t you going to give me a little credit?

Peter:  What for?

Ellie:  Well, I proved once and for all that the limb is mightier than the thumb.

Peter:  Why didn’t you take off all your clothes?  You could have stopped forty cars.

Ellie:  Ooo, I’ll remember that when we need forty cars.

Rodgers & Hammerstein gave us musical versions:  listen to the lighthearted play between not-quite-admitted lovers in “People Will Say We’re In Love” or “Sixteen Going On Seventeen.”  Clever duet lyrics abound in other old-time musicals as well:  Singin’ in the Rain, say, or White Christmas.

Music and Lyrics, Alex and Sophie with notebookFor a more recent example, I’m fond of the Hugh Grant-Drew Barrymore vehicle Music and Lyrics (2007).  Sophie (Barrymore) arrives at the apartment of Alex Fletcher (Grant), a washed-up rock star, to water his plants.  She pricks her finger on a cactus, Alex responds (with Grant’s trademark cultured deadpan delivery).

Alex:  You all right?

Sophie:  Do you have a Band-Aid and antibiotic cream?

Alex:  No, no.  And, sadly, I think I’ve lent out my iron lung.

Sophie:  . . . I’m gonna go, because, you know, this could get infected.

[She comes back the next day, with a bandage on her finger, and they pick up right where they left off.]

Alex:  They were able to save the whole hand.

Sophie:  I know; I made too big a deal out of it.  It’s just that I hate infections.  But then again, who likes them?  Maybe the people who make penicillin.

Alex:  Ah, yes, well, there’s two sides to every story.

Sophie:  That’s true.  Except for the Nazis.  I can’t really see the other side of that argument.

Sophie ends up writing lyrics to Alex’s music for a song that has to be completed within about forty-eight hours.  He’s reading her scribbled page:

Alex: [singing] Sleeping with a clown above my bed…

[spoken] “Clown” is not right.  What is that word?

Sophie:  It’s “cloud.”

Alex:  Well, write more clearly!  How can I possibly read—

Sophie:  Why would you have a clown in your bed?

Alex:  Let me tell you, it would not be the first time.

Sophie:  Yeah, I’m not surprised.

Wit in Writing

Of course we also get witty exchanges on the printed page.

For the rare Wodehouse where both the characters are clever, check out Leave It to Psmith (1923).  The dapper but absurd Psmith (“The p is silent, as in shrimp”) finally reaches an understanding with the intrepid Eve Halliday:

“Cynthia advised me,” proceeded Eve, “if ever I married, to marry some one eccentric.  She said it was such fun . . . Well, I don’t suppose I am ever likely to meet any one more eccentric than you, am I?”

“I think you would be unwise to wait on the chance.”

“The only thing is . . .,” said Eve reflectively.  “’Mrs. Smith’ . . . It doesn’t sound much, does it?”

Psmith beamed encouragingly.

“We must look into the future,” he said.  “We must remember that I am only at the beginning of what I am convinced is to be a singularly illustrious career.  ‘Lady Psmith’ is better . . . ‘Baroness Psmith’ better still . . . And—who knows?—‘The Duchess of Psmith’ . . .”

Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe detective stories, narrated by Wolfe’s irrepressible assistant Archie Goodwin, contain some of the most entertaining dialogue I’ve encountered; I’m content just listening to Archie talk.  A lot of the banter here is nonromantic:  Nero and Archie’s genuine friendship is masked by constant verbal sparring.  Archie is a past master at getting under people’s skin with brash remarks, and the normally unflappable Wolfe seems particularly sensitive to Archie’s brand of needling.

Archie Goodwin and Lily Rowan

Archie Goodwin and Lily Rowan

But there’s also Archie’s long-running perpetual flirtation with Lily Rowan, who is easily his match in wit, beginning when they meet in Some Buried Caesar (1938).  Archie is drowsing off at a rural exposition when Lily (who’s nicknamed him “Escamillo”) tugs at his sleeve:

“Wake up, Escamillo, and show me the flowers.”

I let the lids up.  “How do you do, Miss Rowan.  Go away.  I’m in seclusion.”

“Kiss me.”

I bent and deposited a peck on her brow.  “There.  Thank you for calling.  Nice to see you.”

“You’re a lout.”

“I have at no time asked you to submit bids.”

The corner of her mouth went up.  “This is a public exposition.  I paid my way in.  You’re an exhibitor.  Go ahead and exhibit.  Show me.”

“Not exhibitionist.  Exhibitor.”  (ch. 14)

Even science fiction has its moments for banter between lovers.  In the venerable Skylark of Space (1928 &1946), Dick Seaton’s fiancée Dorothy Vaneman, an accomplished violinist, sets out to lull the overworked Seaton to sleep after dinner.

Dorothy said, “I skipped practice today, Dick, on account of traipsing out there after you two geniuses.  Could you stand it to have me play at you for half an hour?”

“Don’t fish, Dottie Dimple.  You know there’s nothing I’d like better.  But if you want me to beg you I’ll be glad to.  Please—PUH-LEEZE—oh fair and musicianly damsel, fill ye circumambient atmosphere with thy tuneful notes.”

“Wilco.  Roger,” she snickered.  “Over and out.”  (ch. 6)

Crosstalk, by Connie Willis, coverThe subject matter doesn’t have to be especially romantic; it can be equally cute to watch a well-matched pair go off on an entirely silly subject.  In Connie Willis’s aptly-named Crosstalk (2016), Briddey Flannigan and her not-quite-boyfriend C.B. Schwartz have been trying, for involved plot reasons, to remember what the marshmallow shapes are in Lucky Charms cereal.  They finally find a box.

“. . . So we can confirm my findings.”

“Or not,” Briddey said, looking down at the multicolored blobs.  She picked up a pale green one with a lump of bright green in the middle.  “This does not look like a shamrock.”

“Clover,” he corrected her.

“It doesn’t look like a clover either.  It looks like a hat with a bow on it.”

“What kind of Irishman would have a bow on his hat?” C.B. said, taking it from her, turning it upside down, and squinting at it.  “Maybe it’s a pot of gold.”

“Then why is it green?  And look at this one,” she said, picking up a purple U-shaped marshmallow.  “What’s this?  The rainbow?”

“No, this is the rainbow.”  He showed her a multicolored half circle.

“Or a slice of watermelon.”

“They’re all supposed to be Irish.  What’s Irish about a slice of watermelon?”

. . . . .

“But what on earth is this?” she said, fishing a white marshmallow out of the pile.  It was oblong and had an orange line down its middle and an irregular splotch at one end.

“I have no idea,” C.B. said, taking it from her and turning it one way and another.  “An albino eggplant?”

“An albino eggplant?” she said, laughing.  “Why would they put an albino eggplant in a children’s cereal?”

“Beats me,” he said, popping it into his mouth.  He made a face.  “The real question is, why would they put pieces of chalk in a children’s cereal and call them marshmallows?”  (ch. 20)

Why it Matters

Witty banter may be entertaining in itself, but what does it do for the story?  What difference does it make in the way a reader appreciates a book or a movie?

An essentially friendly verbal duel—even if it has a bit of an edge—communicates a certain lightness and grace.  We appreciate the participants’ minds—all the more when the conversation is not about rigorous chains of reasoning, but is a kind of dancing with circumstances, responding to a situation or conversation as it develops.  (The best puns are situational.)  We admire the free play of intellect, especially when it’s used frivolously.  And in a romance, where the sensual component may contribute a certain heaviness or earthiness, the grace of wit provides a welcome counterpoint.

And then, I take the lightheartedness of banter itself to be a virtue.  With all the serious concerns we find in daily events, we need to be reminded how to take things lightly.  Susan Ashton’s “You Move Me” (also recorded by Garth Brooks) has a neat turn of phrase:

You go whistling in the dark,
making light of it,
making light of it,
And I follow with my heart, laughing all the way.

When the traditional phrase “whistling in the dark” is followed by “making light of it,” the first thought, perhaps, is of bringing light to the darkness:  making it brighter.  But “making light of it” also means treating something lightly, with levity, almost making fun of it.  The repetition of the line suggests that both meanings are present.  This is the kind of undaunted attitude that’s evoked by the frivolity of wordplay.  In other words, lighthearted wit is serious business.

There’s more.  When the participants are friends, and especially when they’re lovers, the banter is a unique way of engaging with each other.

The World Around the Corner coverThe exchange can be both a dance and a duel.  On the one hand, there’s a certain competitiveness—one-upmanship.  But the couple are also collaborating in creating a kind of manic beauty, a sort of performance art.  The best example, perhaps, is when they join in piling one absurdity on another, getting more extravagantly silly as they go.  For example, Jeff and Dana, the nascent lovers in my romantic comedy The World Around the Corner, are talking to their young friend Renée about why she likes ice-skating (and all three are avid video-gamers):

[Jeff says to Renée:]  “I remember you like ice skating, right? Why do you do it?”

“I feel graceful? It shines when you can do a trick or a turn without skidding out?”

“It feels good to do it well.” Jeff nodded. “Even if no loot drops.” Renee giggled.

“Unless maybe you knock somebody down, accidentally on purpose…” Dana said.

“…and they lose their wallet. Or a purse goes flying,” Jeff continued. “The bosses drop more loot, of course.”

“A rogue wouldn’t need to ram ’em,” Dana countered. “You glide by, doing a double spin or whatever…when they stop admiring your skill, the wallet’s gone.”

“But of course you don’t get the experience points from taking them down,” Jeff said.

When I have the chance to take part in such exchanges in real life, it’s one of the most exhilarating experiences I know of.  Finding them in a story lets us all take part in the fun.