Greetings, readers. Today for a change of pace I decided to share a little something I wrote a while back. This is a three-page short script, taking a character and location I created for one of my other projects and putting them in a slightly… different setting. Enjoy!
Category Archives: Fiction
YA Fiction, Elitism and the Culture of “Should”
By now I’m sure nearly everyone in the writing world has read or heard about the Slate piece on how adults should be embarrassed/ashamed to read Young Adult literature. (I’m not going to link to it, because I refuse to give them the clicks.) I couldn’t possibly have missed it – when I checked Twitter on Thursday morning, my timeline was a seething mass of fury. And I… well, went off implies a brief explosion. This took place over the course of nearly three hours, prompting what I consider one of my top five greatest honors of my entire internet history:
And, you know what? It was. When I get up a good head of steam on some righteous anger, it looks a little like this:
More often than not, I’m reduced to outraged sputtering, but every now and then I am able to find and use my words, and I will show you the life of the mind, even within the limitations of 140-character posts. But Twitter is so ephemeral that I wanted to collect my thoughts on this topic somewhere more permanent.
Firstly, on whether YA fiction has merit: of course it does. It has the same percentage of bad, mediocre, good, and transcendent as any other category (and it is just that, a marketing category). I challenge anyone to deny that Code Name Verity and Rose Under Fire are serious, important books; or that the characterization and sense of place in Beautiful Creatures are exquisitely nuanced; or that the impact of socioeconomic privilege on the characters in The Raven Boys is poignant and boldly truthful. But even beyond the merits of subject matter and of craft — what of imagination and fun? I find Middle Grade and YA novels to be imaginative in ways that many adult novels are not; their target audience, after all, is not assumed to have figured out who they are or how the world works or what is and isn’t possible. (Not that any of us adults really have either, though a lot of us like to make a good show of it, either for our own peace of mind or for the sake of conformity.) As someone who’s always becoming, always questioning and growing, I find a great deal to relate to in MG/YA books — we’re all “coming of age” in one way or another, wherever we are in life, and I love the sense of possibility inherent in stories about young people. It’s not that possibility only exists for the young; it’s just that a lot of us stop seeing it at some point. Whether that point feels like comfort/stability or stagnation/suffocation depends on the person.
I can’t begin to tell you how many adult novels I’ve read — mostly for various jobs I’ve had — that focus on an upper-class, middle-aged character, usually from the general vicinity of New York City, who feels dissatisfied with and stifled by their life. Certainly, this is a subcategory of book the same way, say, faery stories are a subcategory of Fantasy or space operas are a subcategory of Science Fiction — but if you think I have one ounce of sympathy for the privileged one-percenter chafing at the restrictions they placed on their own lives when they chose conformity (or just accepted it, being unaware of any other options)… ahahahaha. Stories like that might as well be science fiction compared to my rural upbringing and an adulthood spent struggling to create my own life as I want it to be rather than as I’m told it must be. But, “the 1%”/”the 99%” aside, those books are about people who are miserable because they don’t see possibilities in their lives. I’d always rather read about the people who discover possibilities, and who set off on their own paths before falling into that grey flannel prison. It’s not escapism, it’s inspiration. (For some, it’s salvation — the number of readers who have gotten through difficult times in their lives with the help of “escapist” or “lowbrow” fiction of various kinds must be in the hundreds of thousands at least.)
Secondly, on attitudes fostered by Internet echo-chamber culture: I don’t know what angers me more — Slate-ism (“everything you love is inferior because you love it and are therefore not thinking critically/like an adult”) or Tumblr-ism (“everything you love is harmful because everything harbors *isms of various sorts and you are doing harm by choosing to see the good in flawed work”). I’ve had a hate-on for Tumblr-ism for some time now, but Slate-ism is akin to the elitism of the college English department I fled without looking back, the favoritism of certain subject matter and media in the fine art world, and the blinkered attitudes of some media critics towards non-“Prestige” television; I’ve been fighting it longer and on multiple battlefields. Both seem to boil down to the following ideas: love is blind, joy is infantile and good is a fairy tale. Pernicious lies, every one, born in the festering cynicism of holier-than-thou intelligentsia, disillusioned idealists, and the kind of people who have bought into the ideas fostered by the “Eat your vegetables” approach to reading that’s taught in what I imagine is a majority of high schools and colleges. It seems that not only is adulthood Serious Business, but to be an adult you have to choose the serious, the important, the high-fiber no-sugar no-salt no-fat no-taste grey flannel suit life and thoughts and attitudes. Anything else isn’t really adulthood. Which seems a rather juvenile and simplistic view of adulthood, don’t you think? Especially considering that childhood and adolescence are Serious Business too, especially when you’re right smack in the middle of them — a fact that MG/YA fiction illustrates exquisitely, whether in realism or in metaphor, time and again.
Thirdly, and most importantly, I want to address the great, steaming mountain of bullshit that is “Should”. All this policing of what is and isn’t appropriate to read or wear or do or think or say is contained in that one miserable little word. If we’re going to throw around ideas about what is and isn’t adult behavior, let’s start there. That’s what adults do, right? Ask the hard questions and examine their own lives? Serious Business, remember? So let’s unpack our “Should”s. Where do they come from? Our parents? Our communities? Our religions? Our jobs? Ideological choices made long ago, when entertaining the possibility that there was more than one side, more than one option, was too much for us to consider? Who decides what “Should” and what “Shouldn’t”? What you “Should” read, watch, listen to, eat, do? Who you “Should” love, hate, marry, work for, emulate? Who you “Should” be? I’m sure a lot of the people who are raising holy hell over the fact that — gasp — people over the age of 21 are reading books that are meant to be marketed to younger people — would be the first to stand up and call bullshit on outmoded sociopolitical “Should”s. Some pretty sweet irony, that.
I’m not casting any stones here — I have “Should”s, present and former. We all do. But, for the love of all that’s precious and important in the world, FUCK the “Should”s. Listen to your own heart and your own instincts and follow your bliss, whether that’s curling up with the latest Booker Prize winner or devouring a stack of Gossip Girl novels or reading every issue of Hawkeye or watching the Harry Potter movies over and over again. I don’t care whether you’re fifteen or fifty; if something brings you joy and causes no harm to others (which, memo to the intelligentsia: that does not count readers’ love of MG/YA hurting your feelings), you should do that as often as you possibly can. Adulthood is serious business, and to get through it all and take on the responsibility of making the world what we want and need it to be, we need to feed our whole selves — we need those reserves of hope and joy, we need that catharsis, we need those reminders of possibility and who we were and who we could be. And whether we find that in Harry Potter or The Fault in Our Stars or the new Jay McInerney or a well-worn copy of The Catcher in the Rye — or, hell, all of the above; we are human, we contain multitudes — doesn’t matter at all, as long as we find it.
Short Fiction: Foolproof
Just a little something for Halloween.
Special thanks to Mere for the
enabling encouragement and notes, and to Andy for the nightmare fodder inspiration. You guys are evil the best.
by Elizabeth M. Thurmond
The landlord still hadn’t fixed the middle two stairs. Kind of hard to do everything a guy needed to do without the neighbors knowing all his comings and goings. If the neighbors weren’t all deaf, stoned or both. Maybe the rats noticed, but they didn’t matter so much.
Door locked. Groceries away. Dinner in microwave.
Another Hungry Man dinner. More low-budget living. Not that that was a permanent situation. Just a few days more. Worth the wait, even if the TV-dinner mashed potatoes tasted like spackle.
Must be the downstairs neighbors. Better wait a while, in case one of those potheads decided to knock on the door looking to borrow a cup of Cheetos or something. A little TV, maybe. Rabbit-ear antenna on a black-and-white TV… another temporary situation, though it was getting old watching staticky reruns of The Big Bang Theory every night til the neighbors went to sleep.
Rats. He’d found them gnawing on his equipment again last night. No matter how many traps he set out, there were always more. There might be a better way to handle the situation, but… no. Not til he was ready. Best not waste time and energy on the rats.
Not a sound except the rats. Everybody else in the building must be asleep. Time to get to work. First, the storeroom.
He had to admit, it was creepy to go in there and see all the faces staring at him. Plastic, porcelain, wood. Painted eyes, shabby clothes. The product of endless searching through thrift shops and antique shops and even the garbage. The ones with only one leg wouldn’t do, but one arm was enough for most. He preferred two, but beggars couldn’t be choosers.
He moved through the storeroom — freezing cold, the landlord wouldn’t fix the broken window — to the back shelf, where the faces didn’t stare. The newest arrivals — Howdy Doody, creepiest puppet on the planet, and a baby doll in a diaper with all its hair cut off. Two arms and two legs on both. Best score he’d had in a while.
Rats. In the storeroom. So far none of them had dared actually chew on the merchandise, but the sounds made him twitchy. He needed everyone intact… or as intact as they were when he picked them, anyway. The clothes didn’t matter so much, but limbs and eyes…
Cursing under his breath, he left the dolls on their shelf and headed to the kitchen, returning with two rat traps loaded with cheese. He could feel all the faces staring at him again.
From storeroom to darkroom, dolls in hand. The negatives were waiting; he’d handled that this morning before he went to work at the tattoo place. Shitty job, but useful. He’d found both of his current subjects there. Most of the customers loved to show off their ink. And in this neighborhood, a lot of them wouldn’t be missed. Much.
But before the enlarger… the ritual. Chalk. Salt. Candles. Herbs.
Just enough fire to burn the herbs. Not enough to set off the lone smoke detector in the hallway. He couldn’t disable the thing without somebody finding out — landlord didn’t want the crackheads burning down his rat-infested cash cow, so the smoke detectors were checked once a week.
He almost stopped chanting. Neighbors? No, it wasn’t coming from the hall. Closer, but smaller. Rats.
He completed the ritual.
He stopped, one hand on the negative in the enlarger, to listen.
Rats? He could swear they were getting bigger… they didn’t used to be heavy enough to make anything creak.
Enough of that. On to the project at hand. Negative. Doll. Light. Face over face, eyes aligned with eyes. Another chant. The doll went heavy, thudded to the side. Somewhere, so did a body. Not dead. Coma patients all over the city. Mostly the worst hospitals. Mostly on the public dime. Still on life support — first, do no harm. Even if they couldn’t find a next of kin.
Negative. Doll. Light. Eyes over eyes.
Back to the storeroom. Two more faces now, staring.
Got him. An almost-beheaded rat, over in the corner. Two words, and four of the faces quit staring at him. Scrabbled down the shelf in a rustle of plastic limbs. Pallbearers at a rat funeral. Cheese still intact. Saved having to reload when the four brought the trap back, empty. Wasn’t too hard for four dolls to open the trap and heave a dead rat through the broken window. All they needed was a little leverage.
Another scrabble of plastic, and the four staring faces returned to their shelf. All quiet. Still. Back to the living room.
Too wired to sleep, he took out the book he’d stolen from the library and the pages he’d printed off the internet. More chants. Spells. Commands. Strategy. Targets. Not a foolproof plan yet. The first wave, the ones with the bombs, mostly one-armed, would be cannon fodder, but the second wave… that was more tricky. Easy for them to steal without leaving fingerprints; not so easy to keep from being traced back to him somehow.
It was coming from the storeroom.
He waited for the SNAP!
It didn’t come.
3am. Impossible to keep his eyes open any longer.
3:15am. Asleep on the couch, spell book and city maps in his hands.
4:07am. Rats. In the living room? Loud enough to wake him. He had traps everywhere. A quick look around — all still empty. He put the book and papers on the crate he used as a coffee table. Sleep again.
He woke slowly. His lips were stuck together. How…?
He tried to raise his arms, but something was weighing them down.
Panic. What was happening? Had the junkies across the hall come to rob him? Good luck to them finding anything they could sell or smoke.
Not the junkies. Not loud enough. Not big enough.
He didn’t realize what was happening until he hit the floor, face first. Dozens of glass and plastic and painted eyes staring at him at the dark.
He’d never asked himself if they could move on their own. They never had before.
Not a foolproof plan. Not by any means.
Wasn’t too hard for a hundred and forty dolls to heave a man through a window. All they needed was a little leverage.
The Viking Secret Diaries: Rites of Passage
with apologies to Cassandra Clare and Michael Hirst
The Diary of Ragnar Lothbrok
Survived battle. Destroyed all my enemies singlehanded. Lost sword plunging it into opponent’s sternum. Damn. Was favorite sword.
Taught Bjorn how to use sword and shield. Planning to take him to the Thing tomorrow. Lagertha says he’s too young. If she had her way he’d still be in diapers. Women.
Rollo failed to see the genius in my plan to sail west. I’ll show him. I’ll show them all.
This kid. I don’t even know. First he doesn’t vote for beheading, then he didn’t want to throw apples at the guilty. Have a bad feeling he’s going to cause trouble one of these days. Still, he got his arm ring from the Earl and his kiss from Siggy. He is a man now. And getting more action than I’m going to see. Dammit, why did I promise Lagertha?
Oh, yeah. She’ll cut my balls off if I try anything.
The Seer said we should sail west so I’m taking Bjorn to see Floki. Wonder how to explain that Floki is a pervy tree-fancier…
…no, wait, that tree-groping did a pretty good job of it for me. Thanks, Floki.
Rollo showed up just in time for dinner. Going to rope him into sailing west with me and Floki.
I’m sailing. I’M SAILING!
Still not Earl.
The Diary of Rollo
Survived battle. Ragnar claims he destroyed his enemies singlehanded. That braggart wouldn’t have survived five minutes without my help.
Nephew Bjorn old enough to go drinking and whoring now. Score. I needed a new wingman.
Dear brother Ragnar is on about sailing west on the open ocean. Something about a wooden wheel with a pin in it and a magic rock. Whatever he’s been smoking, I want some.
I gotta hand it to Ragnar, he isn’t afraid to start shit with the Earl. Even if he still thinks we should sail west.
Lagertha’s got a bug up her ass just because I said she used to be a shield maiden. I haven’t seen her use a shield lately so what’s the big deal? She didn’t seem impressed with tales of my conquests in town, either. Why won’t she let me show her how I handle my sword?
The Diary of Earl Haraldson
I love a good beheading. Fuck that guy and his ZZ Top beard.
Fuck Ragnar too, with his newfangled ideas about sailing west. My ships, my raid, my decision. I am the Earl… this can’t possibly go wrong.
The Diary of Lagertha Lothbrok
Ragnar gets to go out and destroy his enemies while I am stuck stabbing eels for dinner. Came home to find him preparing Bjorn to pledge loyalty to the Earl. Bjorn too young but my dear husband insists. Men.
Politely asked Ragnar not to screw any other women while he’s in Kattegat. He agreed. He knows I’d cut his balls off if he tried anything.
Was teaching Gyda how to weave when two assholes showed up at my door looking to get laid. I beat, burned and stabbed them, then threw them out the door. I’ve got skills they’ve never seen.
Ragnar’s back. Finally got laid. Totally not telling him I kicked two guys’ asses while he was off drinking with Rollo.
Why is it every time Ragnar leaves, some scumbag tries to put the moves on me? I mean, I know I’ve got it going on, but really? My pig of a brother-in-law? Please. I have standards.
Welcome to Fiction Friday. For today, a short story.
The search for a place to park had put Martha off the Downtown art walk before she even reached the first gallery. The crowd of skinny-jeaned, jelly-shoed, romper-wearing hipsters spilling out onto the pavement did nothing to help. It was near impossible to even get into the gallery for a clear look at the exhibit, which appeared to involve old plastic doll parts, a blowtorch, and chicken feathers. She managed to squeeze back out of the room without anyone spilling two-buck Chuck on her clothes and made her way to the next gallery, which contained only half as many hipsters and (which probably accounted for the smaller crowd) some very nice black-and-white photographs of rusted industrial equipment. Martha spent a while with these, wondering if the crowds at the other gallery would appreciate their quiet simplicity or if they were too ordinary to satisfy this generation’s insatiable appetite for the “edgy”.
Once that exhibit had been thoroughly examined, she moved on. The next stop was overflowing with more wine-drunk hipsters, so she headed down the street.
Looking around for the next likely place, her gaze fell on a small storefront sandwiched between a defunct watch repair shop and a convenience store. MYSTERY HOURS, the sign above the door read. It was done in blue Art Deco tile, with a dusty, still-working brass clock set in the “O”. There was a light on inside, and the window display of antiquarian books and dusty old knickknacks was so appealing that she had to have a look around.
A tiny bell heralded her entrance into something that definitely wasn’t just a bookstore. In addition to shelves of old books in all languages, a glass case displayed wrought iron jewelry and trinkets accented with stones of different colors. A corner cabinet held bottles of perfume with faded Art Nouveau labels. Looking closer, Martha was able to make out strange names like “Dusk #2” (in an iridescent blue bottle) and “Halcyon” (in a delicate clear bottle with white swirls).
A noise from a far corner caught her attention. Here an old-fashioned console TV was showing video of a modern woman staring directly into the camera. She appeared to be speaking, shouting even, but static in the picture and audio garbled her words; it was almost as though she was speaking backwards. The eerie faded image sent a chill up Martha’s spine and she turned away, only to be faced with what appeared to be a piece of parchment in a frame, but the words on it kept changing. First it said I WANT, which faded into some sort of Medieval French text, which faded entirely until the first words slowly appeared, this time in a different color. She told herself it was a high-tech trick, but couldn’t shake the thought that something wasn’t quite natural. Or the feeling that someone was…
She turned around quickly, to find a woman emerging from a curtained area in the back. It was almost a relief to discover that someone really was watching her.
The woman wasn’t much older than Martha, about thirty, with shimmering waist-length red hair. Her dress appeared to be handwoven, a simple long tunic in sage green, cinched with an iron-accented leather girdle and worn with beaten-up brown boots. She smiled. “May I help you?”
“I…” Words suddenly failed Martha, who wasn’t quite sure how to ask about the parchment and somehow didn’t think she wanted to know.
“Just browsing?” The red-haired woman perched on a high stool next to the antique cash register. “Happens a lot on Art Walk nights.”
“Is the Art Walk good for business?” Martha turned back to the case of jewelry. It looked like it hadn’t been opened in months.
The woman waved dismissively. “These young ones, with their mayfly memories and surface understanding. They only see the next gallery and the next glass of cheap wine.”
“That’s too bad,” Martha said, with a sudden feeling that this woman, though she looked thirty, was immeasurably old.
“Not really,” the woman said as she wound her hair into a knot and pinned it with a magnificent metal comb. Getting down off the stool, she joined Martha at the display case. “Those who see what’s here and appreciate it for what it is, though rare, are always worth the wait.” She gave Martha a searching look. “See anything you like?”
Martha pointed. “That one.”
“That one” was an iron ring with a green stone set in it. “Protection,” the redhead said, with another searching look. “Yes, I think that’s right.” She took a key ring that hung from her girdle by a chain and unlocked the case. Before placing the ring in Martha’s hand, she examined the stone carefully and rubbed off a bit of dust.
The green stone gleamed brilliantly, and looked dramatic against Martha’s dark skin. “It suits you,” the woman said.
Once it was on her finger, Martha knew she had to have it. She reached into her purse for her wallet. “I’ll take it.”
The redhead smiled. “An excellent choice.”
While her purchase was rung up, Martha gathered the courage to ask — “That parchment with the changing words…”
The woman’s eyes twinkled. “Just a trick for the easily impressed.”
Seeing that no further explanation was forthcoming, Martha paid, thanked the woman, and left with the ring on her finger.
It had grown much darker since she went into the shop, but not so dark that the drivers on the street could all be bothered to turn their headlights on. A taxi narrowly missed her as it blasted through the intersection she was crossing to reach the next gallery.
Once safely inside, Martha went to get a glass of wine. The crowd of skinny-jeaned boys near the refreshment table had turned a bit rowdy… she had to dodge a couple of staggering “patrons of the arts” just to get within reach of the table. As her hand closed around a plastic cup, one of the boys shoved another, who spilled his drink. It should have landed on Martha’s white blouse, but somehow fell to earth right at her feet. Another boy stumbled, and should have bumped her at least, but went careening wildly into the nearest wall.
A glint of green drew Martha’s attention to the ring on her finger. “Protection,” she mused, thinking of the red-haired woman’s words.
Suddenly weary of the crowds and the mediocre art exhibits, Martha set her cup down and walked outside. It would be dark by the time she got back to her car, and she needed to get home anyway. As she walked back to the parking garage, another speeding taxi flew up the street, hitting a puddle. Not a drop fell on her. “Protection.” Martha smiled and looked back towards the little shop, but couldn’t make it out in the growing darkness. If she didn’t know better, she’d have sworn it had disappeared. Shrugging, she adjusted her bag on her shoulder and continued on her way.