Flowers of Evil

Nederlands: Public domain: Portrait de Jeanne ...

Nederlands: Public domain: Portrait de Jeanne Duval par Charles Baudelaire, 1850 Jeanne Duval licence : Publiek domein author: Charles Baudelaire (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Always be a poet, even in prose.” – Charles Baudelaire

He was young and wealthy. Only 21 and the inheritor of large fortune, the young man lived in opulence on the Isle St. Louis in France. He was ready to find his place in the world and become a proud member of the elite. And then he met a women.

Her name was Jeanne. He was also young, but not nearly so naive. She’d just arrived from Haiti and had started work as a cabaret girl. In a smoke filled club at the seedy end of the Champs Elysees, she sang a song, risque in nature. In the audience sat young Charles. He was smitten with her.

She was nothing like the kind of woman he was supposed to fall in love with. She was not of a landed family, she did not care for equestrian sports. She possibly did not know the proper order of eating utensils on a table setting. But no matter, she was ravishing. The next day, Charles sat in his carriage and watched the delivery boy give her a bouquet of red roses. This was their beginning.

His friends were horrified. Many pleaded with him for reason, no doubt, but he could find nothing better to invest his fortune in than her happiness. He was prepared to give her anything she could ever want, as any love-struck man would do. And so he began to frequent that dark part of the city where brothels and opium dens lined streets filled with scoundrels and harlots.

He stood out like the proverbial sore thumb – a well-dressed and well-heeled man cavorting with patrons of back-street bars. Instead of trying to elevate his dear love’s state, he preferred to meet her down at her own.

His poetry, already sentimentally dark, began to turn like a decaying flower into something much more striking. And like a flower withers and dies, his poetry remained in its decay, its beauty magnified. His were hymns sang to sorrow and death. He once said, “I can barely conceive of a beauty in which there is no melancholy.” That melancholy, that realization that beauty has a darker nature, helped him to pen Les Fleurs du Mal, widely known as one of the greatest works of poetry ever written.

And of Jeanne? She was his constant companion, his ravenous, biting muse. Illiterate though she was, she would sit and listen as he read his poetry for her, then yawn and raise a foot for him to kiss. He would often position her in the sunlight and draw every curve of her body, his pencil practicing in place of his hands. Below one of his most intricate sketchings of her, he wrote the following inscription, “Quaerens quem devouret.” It translates as: “Seeking whom to devour.”

Jeanne introduced him to opium. They tore their lives down together. They fought. She spent his money with abandon. And yet, he needed her. When his money was gone, she sold every last thing he owned. She began having affairs with his friends, and even sold herself on the street. But Charles couldn’t get out of her spell.

At last she left him, a broken, drug afflicted man. He lived out his life in the shadow of her absence. He even paid her expenses as she lay sick and dying. He never got that first taste of bitter, anguishing, delusional love out of his heart.

Some say she introduced Baudelaire to the animistic and pagan religions of her native Haiti. There are rumors that she was some kind of enchantress, casting a spell on the good looking man in the back row, damning him to a life in her hold. But in the end, whether enchanted by spells or by beauty, the addiction is the same, is it not?

”The man who, from the beginning of his life, has been bathed at length in the soft atmosphere of a woman, in the smell of her hands, of her bosom, of her knees, of her hair, of her supple and floating clothes, … has contracted from this contact a tender skin and a distinct accent, a kind of androgyny without which the harshest and most masculine genius remains, as far as perfection in art is concerned, an incomplete being.”

Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867), French poet, critic. Artificial Paradise, An Opium-eater, VII. Childhood Sorrows (1860). On men who have been raised by women.

Unintended Consequences

English: `Stone circle` in a small open space.

English: `Stone circle` in a small open space. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While doing research for my new novel, I stumbled across something fascinating, and disturbing. One of the primary settings in the book, a church in southern England (which I won’t name because I don’t want to risk spoiling the story) appears at first glance to have a history dating from early in the last millennium. It has classic gothic architecture, with a form and design used in many of the churches that dot the island. But if you take a closer look, you see something doesn’t look quite right. There’s something odd about its foundation.

Around and under the base of the church, in regular intervals, are large, odd shaped rocks that have been incorporated into the structure. A little poking around and you’ll find the answer to what these rocks are. They comprise an ancient stone circle dating from the Bronze Age, used for centuries before the first missionaries reached the English soil by druids and others for worship and burial.

The church is built right on top of a pagan ritual site.

This opens the doors to all kinds of possibilities. Perhaps the early Christians wanted to appropriate this ancient place of worship to convert the people of the area. Maybe they wanted to cover up a religion that wasn’t compatible with their own. Or perhaps, they left the stones on purpose, exposed underneath the base of the church, to proclaim the superiority of their God.

Whatever the reason, the outcome is mysterious. The church was a setting in my new novel before I knew this particularly wicked detail. I’d picked it out from a search of churches in the area due to its appearance, but honestly, I could have chosen a dozen other churches in a dozen other towns. In fact, I’d already had the story plotted, and almost 1/3rd of it written before I discovered the rune stones in a place I’d already featured prominently. I felt as if the story had led me there, as if it had been part of the story all along. I just had to discover it myself.

I have to assume that this isn’t the only church built on pagan ruins. Perhaps it is the way of the world. But I can’t help but think that something remains of those people long ago who prayed to different entities. Call it what you want – spirits, energy, ghosts – but these things remain long after the physical has died. I’ve written about it before, in my post on Sarah Winchester. Here, in this English church, things that are opposed are existing on the same ground.

One of the characters from my new novel, an old woman imprisoned for witchcraft, gave this warning: “Be careful when you mix the gods and the demons. You can’t put them all in one place and expect them to stay happy.”

I can’t wait to see what else I discover about my own story.

What have you discovered while writing? Has something ever snuck up on you, without warning, and made you think that, just maybe, this wasn’t your story after all?

The Beauty of Pain

I often wonder why the writing, films, and music I love best are often the darkest. I stumbled upon this quote from a 19th century essayist. For me, it’s an adequate explanation.

English: Despair

English: Despair (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Works of genius have this in common, that even when they vividly capture the nothingness of things, when they clearly show and make us feel the inevitable unhappiness of life, and when they express the most terrible despair, nonetheless to a great soul – though he find himself in a state of extreme duress, disillusion, nothingness, noia, and despair of life, or in the bitterest and deadliest misfortunes (caused by deep feelings of whatever) – these works always console and rekindle enthusiasm; and though they treat or represent only death, they give back to him, at least temporarily, that life which he had lost.”

— Giacomo Liapardi (1798-1837) from his diary called Zibaldone 

Flowers of Evil

Nederlands: Public domain: Portrait de Jeanne ...

Nederlands: Public domain: Portrait de Jeanne Duval par Charles Baudelaire, 1850 Jeanne Duval licence : Publiek domein author: Charles Baudelaire (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Always be a poet, even in prose.” – Charles Baudelaire

He was young and wealthy. Only 21, and the inheritor of large fortune, the young man lived in opulence on the Isle St. Louis in France. He was ready to find his place in the world, and become a proud member of the elite. And then he met a women.

Her name was Jeanne. He was also young, but not nearly so naive. She’d just arrived from Haiti, and had started work as a cabaret girl. In a smoke filled club at the seedy end of the Champs Elysees, she sang a song, risque in nature. In the audience sat young Charles. He was smitten with her.

She was nothing like the kind of woman he was supposed to fall in love with. She was not of a landed family, she did not care for equestrian sports. She possibly did not know the proper order of eating utensils on a table setting. But no matter, she was ravishing. The next day, Charles sat in his carriage and watched the delivery boy give her a bouquet of red roses. This was their beginning.

His friends were horrified. Many pleaded with him for reason, no doubt, but he could find nothing better to invest his fortune in than her happiness. He was prepared to give her anything she could ever want, as any love-stuck man would do. And so he began to frequent this dark part of the city, the brothels and opium dens that lines streets filled with scoundrels and harlots.

He stood out like the proverbial sore thumb – a well-dressed and well-heeled man cavorting with patrons of back street bars. Instead of trying to elevate his dear love’s state, he preferred to meet her down at her own.

His poetry, already sentimentally dark, began to turn like a decaying flower into something much more striking. And like that flower that withers and dies, his poetry kept its beauty, even magnified it. He found the beauty in sorry and death, He once said “I can barely conceive of a beauty in which there is no melancholy.” That melancholy, that realization that beauty has a darker nature, helped him to pen Les Fleurs du Mal, widely known as one of the greatest works of poetry ever written.

And of Jeanne? She was his constant companion, his ravenous, biting muse. Illiterate though she was, she would sit and listen as he read his poetry for her, then yawn and raise a foot for him to kiss. He would often position her in the sunlight, and draw every curve of her body, his pencil practicing in place of his hands. Below one of his most intricate sketchings of her, he wrote the following inscription, “Quaerens quem devouret.”  It translates as “Seeking whom to devour.”

Jeanne introduced him to opium. They tore their lives down together, each needing the other to pull their meaning apart. They fought. She spent his money with abandon. And yet, he needed her. When his money was gone, she sold every last thing he owned. She began having affairs with his friends, and even sold herself on the street. But Charles couldn’t get out of her spell.

At last she left him, a broken, drug afflicted man. He lived out his life in the shadow of her absence. He even paid her expenses as she was sick and dying. He never got that first taste of bitter, anguishing, delusional love out of his heart.

Some say she introduced Baudelaire to the animistic and pagan religions of her native Haiti. There are rumors that she was some kind of enchantress, casting a spell on the good looking man in the back row, damning him to a life in her hold. But in the end, whether enchanted by spells or by beauty, the addiction is the same, is it not?

”The man who, from the beginning of his life, has been bathed at length in the soft atmosphere of a woman, in the smell of her hands, of her bosom, of her knees, of her hair, of her supple and floating clothes, … has contracted from this contact a tender skin and a distinct accent, a kind of androgyny without which the harshest and most masculine genius remains, as far as perfection in art is concerned, an incomplete being.”

Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867), French poet, critic. Artificial Paradise, An Opium-eater, VII. Childhood Sorrows (1860). On men who have been raised by women.

Writing Beautifully Disturbing Things

“Thus strangely are our souls constructed, and by such slight ligaments are we bound to prosperity or ruin.”

—-  Mary Shelley, from the novel “Frankenstein” (public domain)

Although I have read almost more books that I can count by Stephen King, my favorite book wasn’t written by him. I also enjoy books not by “commercial authors,” of which – for better or worse – Stephen King is considered one of. My favorite book is “A Prayer for the Dying” by Stewart O’Nan. He writes dark literary fiction, but when I stumbled upon this book and finished it, I was shocked. This was horrifying to its core. And, delightfully beautiful.

By Stewart O’Nan

It was this book that inspired me to write in a new fashion.

“A Prayer for the Dying” is the story of a lawman, minister, and undertaker – all the same person – in a time of plague. But it’s not just his story – it’s yours as well, because the novel is written in second person.

Not many writers can pull this off, at least, not that I’ve seen. But this book is brilliant. You feel the emotions stronger, you feel the desperation as if it was yours, and you know the horror is real, because you are the one confronting it. Stewart O’Nan scarred me for life with this one, and I liked it.

But more than the unique perspective, this was the first modern horror(ish) novel I’d ever read that paid as much attention to the prose as it did to the events. The way he uses the language is an essential part of the story, for it puts you in the proper time, and the right place to see the things that are happening. It takes place before cell phones and the internet and the automobile. It is about a time when people rode trains, and bicycles, and sent messages by telegraph. I think in that time, attention spans were longer, and people looked to words not just to be thrilled, but to be enraptured.

When you think of horror as a genre, a few authors come to mind – Lovecraft, Stoker, Poe, Shelley. None of these writers would be given a chance today, because “literary horror” is not considered marketable, at least, by many in the business. But I wonder why? “Dracula” still scares me when I read it, and I’ve read it more than once. The words keep bringing me back. Poe frightens me with poetry – an art form that is decidedly on the out in popular media – and the line I presented at the beginning of this post – a line from “Frankenstein” – shows how deeply we can connect our fears to the beauty of our existence.

I wonder what you think? Is there a place in the market for a book that tells what could only be considered a “horror” story, and yet does not follow the pattern or the style of modern commercial fiction?  Would we have such staples of our culture as Count Dracula and Frankenstein’s Monster if writers of a century ago were concerned with churning out as many novels in a year as they could? Or is it our fault for wanting something much simpler to read, that doesn’t challenge us to take note of the more subtle uses of the language? Will literary horror – like a mummy rising from a tomb – live again?

Absence and Absinthe

English: John Steinbeck

English: John Steinbeck (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Writing can be toxic, like a drug, if used for purposes other than restorative and healing. I’ve found myself lately thinking about writing in ways that I’d hoped I never would. I began to compare my writing with those who I did not want to emulate, but whose style I felt pressure to conform to. I started to think of writing as a means to an end, an elevator to circumvent life’s ladder. I had begun to hope my writing would take me to where my life would begin.

Steinbeck wrote the following in the journal he kept while writing “East of Eden,” –

“In utter loneliness a writer tries to explain the inexplicable. And sometimes if he is very fortunate and if the time is right, a very little of what he is trying to do trickles through – not ever much. And if he is a writer wise enough to know it can’t be done, then he is not a writer at all. A good writer always works at the impossible.”

Those words have struck me into silence. Not because I’ve nothing to say, but because I was writing without saying much. If I’ve neglected putting down my thoughts here for some time, it’s because I have only but one thought left on writing, on creating novels, and on this whole thing that you and I have set out to do. It is that I haven’t yet begun.

For too long I was trapped in my notions of what was possible.

I wish to start again, from the beginning, and work on the impossible.

To Save a Dream

Endless road

Endless road (Photo credit: BuBcSek)

How do you save a dream?

You know what I’m talking about. If you haven’t had the moment, you will, someday. You might find yourself on the edge of a failed relationship, and all of the hopes you had for the future feel like they are dying. All of the unrealized things you will never be, all of the forever you planned your life around.

You may be facing the loss of a job, a job that gave you your identity, provided stability to your family, and allowed you to be who you’ve become.

You may even be facing the loss of your health, knowing that there’s no turning back to the way things used to be. No rescue from the suffering that has come, and will come.

Or, you could have that moment, that realization, that your possibilities are still farther away than you’d hoped they’d be by now. You look into the distance, and see only miles of road, when you’ve already walked for endless miles. And you know other’s have already made it to their destination. You begin to wonder if you’re on the wrong path.

It would be so easy to stop, and begin the walk back home. So easy to sit down on the roadside, and wait for the first car to take you back to where you started.

What do you do then? There are as many answers as there are people, and I’m interested in yours. How do you save a dream?

More Goodness Than Ever

High Fiber Cereal - now with TWIGS!!!

High Fiber Cereal – now with TWIGS!!! (Photo credit: Chasqui (Luis Tamayo))

Today I saw a television commercial for a well known brand of cereal (not the one in the picture. Think “candy in a box”). Their new campaign is also plastered over their cereal boxes. It states a fact that is meant to put us all at ease over the goodness of their product.

They say they use more multigrains than any other ingredient.

……    really?

It could be a microgram, it could be a 51-49% difference. The stuff could be slightly less than half poison, and slightly more than half corn husks and wheat germ. It doesn’t matter as long as the statement is “true.” And some marketing genius thought this would sell more cereal.

I’d like make a similar contention, in the hopes that I can, too, get people to believe anything I say. I promise that I’ve used more interesting words in my stories than uninteresting ones. I also promise that I have more correctly spelled words than misspelled ones.  I’ve also used more English words than from any other language.

Did it work?

The Valley of the Shadow of Death

Denali Rainshower - Alaska -  Mountains

Denali Rainshower – Alaska – Mountains (Photo credit: blmiers2)

That place told of in those common words, always associated with suffering, the phrase a concoction of old English and ancient Hebrew, changed many times in modern translations, but never meeting the poetic formulation that has seared these words into the vernacular.

What is it like there?

It means many things to many people. Struggle, disappointment, heartache, fear. To those of us who’ve endured the trials of sickness, it means something more. It is a place we know well.

I have some very unique views on life and purpose. I’ve tried to voice them here, but I know sometimes my words seem dark. Like a painter, writers also give impressions of the things they see, the view surrounding them. They pay attention to the nuances of light, and the subtleties of color. And they try to describe, the best they can, what they see.

Many people fear those words “…walk through the valley of the shadow of death…”  But there is something more that comes after. “I shall fear no evil.” That isn’t to say you embrace evil, or celebrate evil. It means you aren’t afraid to paint its face, or say how it looks. Because in that valley, you see it every wrinkle and scar on its face.

I’ve seen things and felt things that were a privilege to experience. The lifeless struggle of a hospital bed. The agony of hurting the ones you love with your pain. The joy of taking a drink, and having it stay down. I’ve been to the Valley, and now, I find myself recalling those scenes, remembering the stories I heard there, and writing of the darkness.

But I try, I always try, to show how the darkness doesn’t stay. We may believe it will, but it won’t. A valley is a low land between hills or peaks. On the other side of any valley is a rise. It may be a gentle slope, or it may be a mountain. On the way to the mountain, we all pass through some valleys. Most of us, when we do, are afraid.

But we should not fear evil. It can’t follow us up the mountain.

Psalm 23:4