The Wrath of Khan

IMDb
Image from imdb.com

How do you feel, Jim?”

 

Did you ever read a book or watch a movie as a kid and think, “Hot diggity, that was great!”, only to leave it for a long time, get some grey in your hair (seven hairs exactly), and then come back to that movie you loved as a kid only to finally realise how brilliant it was?

Okay, maybe that was a bit specific. But that is my experience with what is undeniably the best of the Star Trek movies: The Wrath of Khan (1982).

When I was little, I could only appreciate how fun the movie was. I wasn’t equipped to appreciate how Nicholas Meyer paints his space opera of revenge with themes from classic literature. I can now.

After Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) failed to gain the box office numbers that Paramount wanted, The Wrath of Khan was given a much slimmer budget (11 million US dollars to the first movie’s 35 million). Screenwriter Nicholas Meyer was brought in to create a sequel to the plot of the 1967 Star Trek episode Space Seed. The result saw Kirk, Spock, and the crew of the Enterprise fighting against the wit of Khan Noonien Singh (played by the brilliant Ricardo Montalbán, who insisted that his chest be visible at all times). The reduced budget meant that this movie was shot in a series of tight angles and close ups. The acting, and the script, had to rise above the special effects.

trekcore
Image from trekcore.com

The movie opens with Star Trek’s Catch-22, The Kobayashi Maru. The young Vulcan trainee Saavik is sitting in the captain’s chair, trying to rescue a ship. Klingons attack. The ship is destroyed. We see Spock, Uhura, Solo, and Bones. Everybody dies. End simulation. Enter Admiral James T. Kirk. Thus the movie starts with the idea that at some point, we must all face a no win scenario.

I have no problem saying that this movie is William Shatner’s best run as Kirk. Never before or again is this character so nuanced or layered. “How do you feel?” Bones asks near the beginning of the film.

Old,” Kirk says. Shatner’s delivery of the line and the tired, grim look on his face say more than I ever could.

And so begins the literary themes of Wrath of Khan, with Kirk’s journey through the conflict of Peter Pan. He is no longer the young flying adventurer he once was. Kirk is afraid to grow up. This is contrasted beautifully with Khan, the superhuman who does not age. Themes of aging, sacrifice, and death are the blood of this movie, running throughout every scene as Kirk and his companions have to face that old inevitability of the no-win scenario. And if aging and sacrifice are the blood of the movie, then revenge and obsession are the bones (no pun intended, Dr. McCoy). Nicholas Meyer, the literature expert and author that he is, makes it easy for us. Let’s look at the books on Khan’s shelf:

thegeektwins.blogspot
Image from thegeektwins.blogspot.com

Shakespeare’s King Lear, Milton’s Paradise Lost, The Holy Bible, Dante’s Inferno, and Melville’s Moby Dick.

Yeah, okay, it doesn’t take a genius to spot the tribute this movie pays to Moby Dick. Khan literally hunts Kirk to the point of self-destruction while quoting Melville’s classic. Similarly, the reference to the bible is pretty easy to spot. Everybody is fighting over the invention of Dr. Carol Marcus, called Genesis, a device that can literally make new life by creating an entirely new planet, though interestingly it first has to destroy whatever is already there.

But for Paradise Lost and Dante’s Inferno, you might have to look a little deeper. Because of course, this is the second appearance of Khan Noonien Singh. In his original TV appearance in Space Seed, Khan is cast out of the enterprise for attempting to take over the ship and kill the crew. He and his followers are abandoned on an empty planet. When Kirk asks if this will be preferable to imprisonment, Khan answers, “Tis better to rule in hell, than serve in heaven.”

So if Space Seed is Satan being cast out of heaven, then Wrath of Khan is definitely the devil rising from the pit to war with God. Is Kirk God for the purposes of this story? Um… I’m not sure how to answer that on the off-chance either William Shatner or George Takei ever read this and explode (each for completely different reasons).

As for King Lear: Kirk is the king, and has been the king for far too long, and Khan has come to bring down the kingdom, only to ultimately fail.

What runs through all of these great works are the themes of revenge, sacrifice, and loss. The most famous line of the movie is not a reference to what has come before, but of course Spock’s iconic “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one.”

This is repeated twice throughout the film, once far closer to the beginning, and then at the end, in Spock’s death scene (AKA the most well done death scene in modern cinema). That is what links all of these stories. Khan forced his crew to hunt for Kirk, putting his needs above theirs, and they all die for it. Spock chose to die, putting the needs of his crew above his own. In this, Spock takes a step forward and manages what none of these classics of literature ever managed to do: he beats The Kobayashi Maru test. Self-sacrifice was the thing that never occurred to the characters in Moby Dick, or Lear or Paradise Lost.

swiftfilm
Image from swiftfilm.com

All of this is bookmarked by themes of aging. Yes, the crew of the enterprise are getting older. Yes, Jim Kirk is not the young man he was in 1966. Instead of ignoring the aging of its actors, this movie actually makes it integral to the plot. Kirk’s fear of aging, of becoming irrelevant and outdated, is even juxtaposed by the superhuman that is Khan, who refuses to ever age or die, and whose chest is still shiny and visible at all times.

Kirk admits at the end of the movie that he has never faced death. “Not like this,” he says. At this point Kirk has beaten the adversary who rose up from hell. He has watched the creation of new life with Genesis. He has found a new reality as a parent, and Spock is dead. This is all what makes Star Trek II the best movie of the franchise. It is a fascinating character study layered with a reverence for literature and the themes of loss and revenge.

How do you feel, Jim?” asks Bones McCoy at the beginning and the end of the film. In the beginning, Kirk is beginning to feel his age, being left behind by a newer, younger generation. At the end, Kirk has lost his best friend, and watched as a new planet roared to life. This is the most complicated and nuanced the character has ever been, or ever will be again.

Young,” he says in the end.

I feel young.”

scifanatic
Image from scifanatic.com

-Contributed by Ben Ghan

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Lonesome no More!

Different writers speak to different people. There can be lots of writers that you like, and lots that you don’t. But I think for each of us, there are a few writers who speak to us in a way that most do not.

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Image from isfdb.org

For me, Kurt Vonnegut Jr. is one of those writers. Slapstick, or Lonesome no More! (1976) is not the most famous or celebrated of Vonnegut’s work—in fact, it was poorly reviewed upon release. Nor do I think it is necessarily his greatest book. It might be more fitting for me to be writing on Slaughterhouse Five (except I’ve already done that), or The Sirens of Titan, due to my love of stories concerning interplanetary travel and aliens.

Instead I’m going to talk about Vonnegut and my affection for him through the lens of Slapstick, because in a very personal way, I think it’s beautiful. Because this book is very much about being personal, and about finding a connection with other human beings, whether it is rational or not.

Hi-ho.

That’s the storytelling hiccup of Vonnegut’s narrator. Whenever the story has to change pace, or jump to a different part of the narrative, that is how he signals it.

When reading someone like Vonnegut it’s important to read the foreword, a tiny, honest slice of the author’s mind as it was when the strings of the book were all pulled together.

So I will preface what the story is about with what Vonnegut says on the very first page of my copy.

This is what life feels like to me.”

Hi-ho.

wychwords.wordpress
Image from wychwords.wordpress.com

Slapstick is the autobiography of Dr. Wilbur Daffodil-11, the last president of the United States of America, who tries to solve the problem of American loneliness before Western civilization is destroyed by a plague unleashed by China.

Like so many of Vonnegut’s works, the narrative is wonky, anecdotal, and often non-linear. He explains much of Wilbur Daffodil-11’s life story right from the get-go, because the slow reveal of information has never been Vonnegut’s style. His storytelling is more about his desire to share an idea, or to bring himself closer to his reader in some way.

Wilbur and his twin sister Eliza are born looking like ugly, Neanderthal-like creatures. When separated, neither twin is very smart. Believing that they are brain damaged, Wilbur and Eliza’s rich parents lock them away in a mansion in Vermont, where they are expected to live out short half-lives and then die.

But Wilbur and Eliza survive. Slowly, they discover that while apart, each of them operates as half a brain. Wilbur is the left brain: logical, rational, and able to communicate. Eliza is the right brain: vastly creative and with high emotional intelligence, but unable to communicate herself properly.

All throughout the novel, Wilbur repeatedly claims that Eliza is the smarter of the two, but nobody ever knows this, because she cannot read or write.

Through a strange telepathic power, Wilbur and Eliza become a single great intelligence while in physical contact with each other, far beyond that of an ordinary being. Together, Wilbur and Eliza realize that it is their bond that has allowed them to survive their childhood. It was their togetherness. While hidden in the mansion where their parents kept them locked away from the world, Wilbur and Eliza devise a plan to save all of America from the loneliness that they have saved each other from.

Their plan is to give every American a new middle name based on random objects and a number from 1-20. Everyone with the same name is to be cousins, and everyone with the same name and number are to be siblings.

This is how Wilbur Rockefeller Swain became Dr. Wilbur Daffodil-11.

goodreads
Image from goodreads.com

But then Wilbur and Eliza are separated for revealing their intelligence. Because he can communicate, it is deemed fit for Wilbur to enter society, while Eliza is condemned to an asylum. Once apart, neither of them is a whole person, and they become unable to think of themselves as the special geniuses of Wilbur and Eliza, but as two dull entities, which they nickname Bobby and Betty Brown. Eventually Eliza leaves the asylum and emigrates to the planet Mars. She would die there. Her tombstone reads like this:

Here lies Betty Brown.

As for Wilbur, living the life of Bobby Brown without his sister, he runs for President of the United States and wins. He runs the campaign that his sister had created when the two of them were children, with the slogan that became the subtitle of the book itself.

Lonesome No More!

And even as western civilization crumbles around him, at the very least, nobody is alone. Everybody in America has a great wealth of brothers and sisters and cousins. Nobody is left alone.

Hi-ho.

There is more that I could say about the novel itself. I could get into what happens with Wilbur’s parents, his grandchildren, and his doctors. I could get into his interactions with life after the fall of western civilization. But I won’t. I don’t want to spoil it. If the tidbits that I’ve given you are enticing, then go read the book. But what I have laid out, that desperate need to be close to another person, is the point of Vonnegut’s novel.

Instead, I’m rolling all the way back around to the preface of the book. Vonnegut gave this story the title Slapstick because that is how he sees it. He sees this story as something grotesque and horrible but also somehow gut-wrenchingly funny, like watching someone fall down the stairs in a Laurel and Hardy movie. Situational poetry, he calls it.

On the third page of the preface, Vonnegut sums up his thinking with a small anecdote. When about to go away, one of his three adopted sons said to Kurt: “You know—you’ve never hugged me,” So I hugged him. We hugged each other.

Kurt Vonnegut wrote this book because of his sister Alice. Three days before Alice Vonnegut died of cancer, her husband died in a train accident. Kurt was with her when she died. After, he adopted her three children. One of them is the adopted son he hugs in the preface to Slapstick.

So this is a novel about closeness. It is about the closeness one can have to family, or simply to other people in general. It is an examination of the sense of closeness that Kurt Vonnegut felt with his sister Alice. It is very funny, and secretly very brutally sad. It’s slapstick comedy.

Hi-ho.

I wanted to write a post on here about the strange closeness one can feel to a person they have never met. I wanted to write about the way a book can speak to you, even though you never have and never will enter the author’s thoughts. I wanted to write about Kurt Vonnegut, because his many novels, short stories, and lectures speak to me in an alien and personal way. These are novels that have had an unnaturally large effect on my life, and the way I live my life.

So I picked Slapstick, a meditation on the strange and alien closeness human beings can have for one another. Perhaps Vonnegut doesn’t speak to you the way he speaks to me. That’s okay. There are many, many other books and other writers out there, perhaps waiting to speak to you in the same or similar way. I pick up one of his books, and I read it as if the author is speaking to me in that strange and personal way, a small stab to attempt the premise of the book, to be lonesome no more.

Thank you, Kurt.

Hi-ho.

-Contributed by Ben Ghan

Review of Wychman Road by Ben Berman Ghan

wychman

It’s an age-old question, one that has embedded itself in the consciousness of humanity for as long as we can perceive, and that dares us to consider the impossible: What would we do with god-like powers? What if we could enter the minds of our peers; if we could be faster than they are, stronger; if we could make them do whatever we wanted?

Ben Berman Ghan’s Wychman Road is the newest installment in the literary exploration of this particular tantalizing possibility. His novel follows the journey of two characters, one who is thrust into a world of unimaginable power, and one who has gone way too far down a dark path and yearns to regain his lost humanity.

First and foremost, what is rewarding about Ghan’s novel is the bond forged between his protagonists. Joshua Jones is a traumatized, century-old veteran trapped in the body of a twenty-two-year-old, while Peter Alexson’s inexperience in his harsh new world runs far deeper than his adolescence. The novel dedicates much of its time to carefully developing the brotherhood between these unlikely companions, and it is the strength of their friendship that drives the plot forward, leading to moments of self-realization and sacrifice.

The characters themselves are believable and unique in their own right. Joshua’s strong, stoic exterior reveals a softer, more childlike nature; and Peter’s complex feelings as a kid who receives ultimate power at the cost of great tragedy realistically flips between him feeling like Superman and wanting his uncomplicated life back. With this novel, Ghan demonstrates awareness for both its genre and the nature of youth.

The horror elements of the story stand out as the most refined and skillfully crafted. Ghan’s real talent shines in creating moments of suspense and foreboding, and his villains are a particular treat, combining a sadistic charm with some truly horrifying action. Ghan’s vision of the corruption of ultimate power is embodied in the characters of Christopher Patera, whose detachment from humanity after millennia has twisted him into a kind of monstrous god-figure, and McGrath, whose gleeful fascination with children, and with breaking them down into sad empty shells, evokes the bad-touch-spine-shivers every time he appears.

As we delve deeper into Joshua’s twisted past, we get some truly excellent flashback sequences, darkly humorous and deeply disturbing. These are some of the best in the novel, as Ghan’s wit aAnd wickedly black comedy shines through in these horrifically entertaining scenes.

Wychman Road is a worthwhile read for any fan of the speculative. This novel does well in carving out a hidden fantastic world within the familiar landscape of our own Toronto streets. It is an absorbing beginning to what I imagine will be an action-filled and engaging series.

-Contributed by Amy Wang

OXFORD: A Cradle of Fantasy

Modern fiction and fantasy have an unquantifiable amount of geographical, cultural, and institutional origins, but only a few of these places can be credited as continuous sources of literary innovation. These locations may even deserve the title of “birthplaces”, for they have inspired many genres of literature, including: classic and modern, children’s and adult, fantasy and speculative fiction.

One of these literary cradles is the city and University of Oxford. Although the university’s precise date of establishment is not known, scholarly activity in the city dates to Medieval England, as far back as the 1090s. That’s right, Oxford has been an active site of scholarly pursuits and literary innovation for more than 900 years.

The university is therefore considered the oldest educational institution in England, and the second oldest in Europe, only preceded in establishment by the Italian University of Bologna. Oxford increased dramatically in size and student population after 1167, and gained a royal charter between the early and mid-1200s.  This essentially gave the university official recognition and the allowance of institutional power. Over time, Oxford came to be made up of several departments and divisions. The most notable aspect of its structure is the 38 colleges, which were created at different times ranging from the 1200s to just about a decade ago, and were established by various religious and political groups, educational departments, and influential individuals.

map of oxford
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/University_of_Oxford#/media/File:John_Speed%27s_map_of_Oxford,_1605..jpg

For those who love fiction, the magic of Oxford is not only in its incredible history, but also in the world-changing works of literature that have emerged from within its walls. These works and their respective authors have influenced, and continue to influence, the concepts of fantasy, children’s literature, secondary worlds, modern fairytales, and the writer’s agency. A fraction of the renowned poets and authors who graduated from and/or taught at Oxford University include: C. S. Lewis, Lewis Carroll (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson), Aldous Huxley, T. S. Eliot, Oscar Wilde, Percy Shelley, J. R. R. Tolkien, Graham Greene, John Fowles, Philip Pullman, and Thomas Warton.

While the educational origin of these authors is significant, the most amazing aspect of these authors’ connection with Oxford is that it was, for many of them, the actual location where they wrote some of their most influential works. For some, the setting of their stories also took place at the great English institution, ranging from C. S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia to Pullman’s His Dark Materials. Incredibly, several of these and other acclaimed authors associated with one another for many years—gathering in Oxford pubs, restaurants, and gardens to discuss their work. In some cases they shared deep connections and long friendships, supporting one another through personal hardships and inspiring each other through faith and creativity.

The Eagle and Child
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inklings#/media/File:Birdandbaby.jpg

Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, more popularly known as Lewis Carroll, is one of the most well-known writers who emerged from the University of Oxford. Considered to be one of the founders of children’s literature, Carroll studied at Oxford and later taught mathematics at the university for most of his life. This was also the place where he conceived of and wrote his two most famous works, the beloved childhood favourites Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass.

Alice’s story goes something like this: in the late 1850s Carroll had a strong friendship with the Liddell family, who also lived in Oxford at that time. The family included three daughters, one of whom was named Alice, and who is believed to be the inspiration and dedicatee of Carroll’s books. The idea for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is said to have originated in 1862 during a paddling trip on the river when Alice Liddell requested a written copy of the story Carroll had told her that day. A few years later in 1865, after giving Alice a manuscript and being encouraged by many friends, the book was submitted to a publisher. Soon after, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland met with amazing triumph as a bestseller. And so, it was near Oxford University, on the checkered, manicured lawns of the riverbank, under the ancient swaying trees, where Alice of Wonderland was born, or perhaps, had always been.

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image of Oxford River from traveltalesfromindia.in
alice in wonderland
image from http://www.alice-in-wonderland.net/resources/analysis/picture-origins/

Two other prominent authors inseparably linked to Oxford and whose works are world-wide classics are C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien. Both writers were graduates and later lecturers at the university. Additionally, both were part of “The Inklings”, a group of Oxford writers and intellectuals who met often to discuss literature and debate both tradition and innovation in the fantasy genre. Tolkien, while teaching at Oxford, produced two of his most acclaimed works: The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings; while Lewis wrote the well known The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the first of The Chronicles of Narnia series. Notably, the Narnia series is thought to be a product of his return to Christianity—a process encouraged by his close friendship with J. R. R. Tolkien.

Oxford, England
original photo of Oxford, England – Polina Zak

 

Visiting the University of Oxford last summer, I was completely blown away by its beauty, vibrancy, mystery, and majesty. Somewhat naively, I expected a large, lone castle on a hill, with spacious libraries, stone-laid corridors, and expansive gardens—yes, I admit it, I was expecting Hogwarts. And Hogwarts is what I got: there were rose gardens and green pathways, domed libraries and intricately carved walls, spiralling staircases and soaring towers.

But I also experienced a grand and joyous city that I was completely not expecting. Walking through both the busy streets and the peaceful gardens, it was not hard to imagine why this place was the inspiration for and the setting of so many great works of fiction. Oxford holds mystery, magic, and knowledge, and will no doubt be the origin of much more fiction and fantasy.

Oxford University
image from huffingtonpost.com

-Contributed by Polina Zak

Forty Miles of Mountain Road: Faust and the Blues

The Faustian myth, wherein one sells their soul for fame or fortune, is an incredibly popular motif throughout world folklore and literature. While the story draws on a number of earlier figures and myths, Faust by name originated in Germany in the sixteenth century. In the legend, he was a scholar who, displeased with his life and research, made a deal with the devil and exchanged his soul for insurmountable knowledge. Various retellings of the story give Faust different fates; in the earlier versions, he is inevitably damned to hell for his actions.

Of all the deal-with-the-devil stories, Faust burns the brightest. This can likely be attributed to Christopher Marlowe, whose play Doctor Faustus, published posthumously at the beginning of the early seventeenth century, brought the story to an English audience. Two centuries after this, Goethe published his play Faust, now regarded as a pinnacle of German literature. And these are only two of countless works of literature, art, and music that are derived from the original legend.

Not only has Faust inspired numerous musical works, including symphonic and operatic music by major classical composers like Gounod, Stravinsky, and Wagner, the legend has also inspired stories about the musicians’ personal lives and practices. Niccolò Paganini, the celebrated Italian violin virtuoso, was rumoured to have sold his soul in exchange for his remarkable skill. These occult associations were strong enough that after his death he was initially denied a Catholic burial by the church.

But perhaps out of all music, the blues is arguably most closely associated with the Faustian myth. Arising amongst African-American communities and gaining popularity in the Deep South at the end of the nineteenth century, blues music flourished for decades and set the precedent for the birth of rock and roll in the fifties. Blues songs draw from many influences, including West African and American folk traditions and work songs, often from plantations, which recount racial, romantic, and economic hardships. Ironically, considering its associations with the devil, Christian spirituals were also important to the development of the blues. While it is an overgeneralization to say that all blues music is melancholy, it is of course sad by definition, and thus reflects the historical context of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Faustian legends surround Robert Johnson, one of the most influential and talented blues musicians ever. It was said that Johnson, out of the desire to be a great musician, met with the devil as a young man at a crossroads and gave his soul in exchange for mastery of the guitar. One of his most notable songs, Hellhound on My Trail, can be interpreted as telling the story of the devil coming for what he’s owed and the folk magic used in a last attempt to evade him. Another song, Cross Road Blues, describes the speaker asking God for mercy as he kneels at a crossroads.

The crossroads is an ominous motif in folklore and superstition, regarded as a place where one is likely to meet a ghost or, in this case, the devil. The popularity of the Faustian myth and the fact that Johnson died quite young add to the story. Although the legend has been widely discussed in this context, there is little evidence that Johnson had anything to do with the occult. However, he was said to have practiced in graveyards, as they offered a quiet, private space in which to play.

While the content of these songs is evidence that Johnson was aware of the folklore he was a part of, it is little evidence that he made any supernatural deals himself. When musicians appeal to the Faustian myth, is more for the sake of a good story than anything else. These many great musicians obviously did not really sell their souls for their talent. The ’devil’ or any other great evil feared by African American blues musicians was far more likely to stand for racial discrimination than any supernatural being. However, the key issue behind folklore is not whether any of it is ‘real’; it is the endurance of stories like the Faustian myth that fascinates us.

-Contributed by Risa Ian de Rege

Calling All Storytellers: An Original, Contemporary Fairy Tale, Please!

When I think of fairy tales, I think of mythical creatures, anthropomorphic objects and animals, happy endings, and valuable lessons fully revealed at the end. The ones recorded  by the Grimm Brothers, Hans Christian Andersen, and Charles Perrault have justifiably become classic fairy tales, with great popularity and numerous literary, film, musical, and theatre adaptations. Recently, the musical film Into the Woods, which came out on December 25, 2014, was a crossover adaptation of the Grimm Brothers’ “Cinderella”, “Jack and the Beanstalk”, “Little Red Riding Hood”, and “Rapunzel”. That film was in fact an adaptation of the stage musical of the same name by James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim, which was itself an adaptation of James Lapine’s book of the same name. And that’s just one specific revival of the classic fairy tales.

On the top of my head, within the past decade (give or take a couple of years) these are some of the film adaptations of fairy tales: Ella Enchanted, Enchanted, A Cinderella Story, Another Cinderella Story, Maleficent, Snow White and the Huntsman, Mirror, Mirror, Red Riding Hood, Jack the Giant Killer, Beastly, the four Shrek films, the three recent Disney princess films, and so many others. And apparently there’s going to be more film adaptations this year, including one of Cinderella and one of Beauty and the Beast, which I’m not too surprised about; these fairy tales are as old as time with practically no copyright laws, and they help today’s storytellers get their creative minds going with at least the basis for a story.

But where are the contemporary fairy tales?

How can there be so many adaptations, but no new, original stories? Surely some brave people have attempted to create fairy tales with new teachings of morality that are relevant to our time. Yes, some of the aforementioned (and other) adaptations of the classic fairy tales may have snuck in an extra moral lesson or two, like Disney’s Frozen with its rejection of the idea of love at first sight. But where are the fairy tales with their own original premises and new, relevant moral lessons?

As you try to think of those fairy tales of our time, keep in mind that fairy tales are short stories. I was almost going to pose the idea of The Lord of the Rings as a fairy tale, after seeing it listed as a fairy tale on Wikipedia (another reason to take Wikipedia’s words with a grain of salt). If you think about it, it does fit the genre, especially since J. R. R. Tolkien’s own definition of ‘fairy stories’ from his 1965 essay “On Fairy-Stories” describes his own literary works so well. But then I remembered that fairy tales are short stories. Oops.

Unfortunately, short stories aren’t taking the world by storm as novels and novellas are doing, so we could have missed those brilliant contemporary fairy tales. The only fairy tale-like short story I can think of on the spot is The Paperbag Princess by Robert Munsch. You know, that princess that teenage girls dressed up as for Halloween in high school. It’s a short story because it’s a children’s picture book, it has fairy tale elements and motifs, and it teaches girls the valuable lesson that women don’t need a man to rescue them because women are capable of helping themselves. It seems like it could be the first of our contemporary fairy tales.

Now all we need are fairy tales with moral teachings on equity and diversity, discovering one’s actual passion(s), integrity in one’s work (to be applicable to any kind of work), making the choice between what’s right and what’s easy (thanks, Rowling, but maybe a short story with that lesson for the children would be best), and on feminist values (because The Paperbag Princess really only made the prince a wimp for comical effect and wouldn’t be proper in relating the genders equally).

I certainly haven’t read all of the fairy tales ever published (yet), so perhaps one of them was progressive for its time. But if not, do you know of any short stories that could be classified as contemporary fairy tales? And is there a valuable teaching pertinent to our time that I missed and should be the moral of a fairy tale? Let me know!

-contributed by Brenda Bongolan

The Uncanny Beauty of Death, Scent, and Belonging in Perfume: The Story of a Murderer

Illustration by Ann Sheng
Illustration by Ann Sheng

I propose to start this on a whiff .

Inhale, and let it out; pick up your favourite book and close your eyes and just breathe. Let’s talk about scent and murder.

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Süskind  explores a fantastical and fabulously decadent universe. We follow the story of Jean-Baptiste  Grenouille, born at a fish market to a mother who leaves him to die after giving birth to him. She is executed for abandoning him, and so Grenouille is left an orphan in the depths of eighteenth century Paris.

There is no compassion to be found in this book. There is no happy ending. Grenouille is a monster created by the cruelty of the society he lives in and by his own unique gift: an olfactory sense that stretches beyond normal human understanding.

Grenouille is treated like an animal by those around him. His painful existence drags through a cold childhood into a miserable youth, but this story is enlivened by a rich portrayal of the senses, brought to life with Grenouille’s every breath.

We are taken through every filth-filled part of Paris, but, disturbingly, the city doesn’t come across as repulsive. Süskind makes it his duty to connect the reader to the main character in such an evocative yet delicate way that once we are present for his first murder, it becomes a disappointment to not experience the rest.

Perfume is a mix of carnal desire and disappointment, but perhaps most importantly, it is about the fear of the fleeting existence of the individual. Because Grenouille has no scent, the people around him are repulsed by him; it is this social ostracism and isolation that underlies his fear of not truly existing. He collects the scents of young girls that astound and captivate him in order to make a scent for himself out of their scents and thereby ascertain his own existence. Grenouille’s killing is almost an afterthought to this mission.

While reading, I was struck by how realistic and familiar the brutal characters portrayed were. Grenouille is the killer, but no character in the book has any shade of goodness or any other redeeming qualities.

As individuals, we tend to not recognize our sense of smell as important because it is merely one of our many senses.  But it is supremely important. Taking every scent for granted—taking breath and life for granted—is something every character in this novel is guilty of.

The importance of the power of smell is perhaps most evident in our reaction to perfume, which the book uses to highlight our desire to be individuals—to have our own scent and to be unique. In fact, many of us live our lives in the knowledge that we each have individual scents, and looking for a perfume to compliment us as we see ourselves can become a huge part of what makes us us. We share this hunt for singularity with the protagonist, and the disturbing message of the book is knowing that on some level, our stories may resemble his much more closely than we would like to admit.

The brutality of the novel is directly proportional to its fantastic and beautiful qualities. Perfume depicts the hunt of a killer not only for a victim, but also for a sense of self, which is presented as an essential beauty. Yet the fear of not being able to hold on to beauty is also present. The end of the novel is unexpected and shriveling. Despite its use of the highly fantastic, it somehow succeeds in staying unashamedly human in the rawest sense of the word.

-contributed by Magdalena Wolak