BY GRAHAM JOYCE
In the traditions of the Fantastic, the motif of the Woods looms large. Christopher Golden’s Strangewood emerges, trailing clouds of glory, from those very traditions. The Woods is a place of archetypal force. The writer who invokes the power of the greenwoods knows that the stakes are high and the list of antecedents long. In fact it would take a book on its own to chart the treatment of the theme and the antecedents are too rich to catalogue here.
In fact I ought to write it, though I know I won’t because it would take too long. But if I did I could talk about how fairy tale tradition locates so many of its glorious stories — Hansel and Gretel, Babes In The Wood, Red Riding Hood, just to name three — in the Woods for very particular reasons. Or why A Midsummer Nights Dream by ol’ Will Whatsisname has to be located in the Forest of Arden; or about Kipling’s Man-Cub, just like Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan, being raised in the jungle by animals.
In their brilliant cataloguing of Fantasy motifs the encyclopaediasts Clute & Grant generated the phrase Into the woods to denote the process of transformation or passage into a new world signaled by entering woods and forests. It is very often that, but it’s actually even more specific, and certainly more than the usual fantasy portal to transformation. For the Woods is a very literal place of both dark and light. Of beaten pathways and uncharted zones. Of twists and turns. A place where you may encounter strange allies or enemies masquerading as friends. It is the primal locus of fear and wonder. In other words, in the fiction of the Fantastic, the Woods is so often the psychic correlative to the condition of Childhood.
The Woods stands in for the budding consciousness of the child, the individuation of character, and the ultimate emergence from the woods represents the passage out of childhood. Or to put it another way, the passage out of unconsciousness and into self-consciousness. For example, CS Lewis launches the children of his Narnia sequence into the woods before having them emerge as heroes. But — and it’s a big but — the protagonists do not have to be children. More recently and in works more complex, varied (and dare I say superior to Lewis), Charles De Lint (Greenmantle), Rob Holdstock (Mythago Wood) and Ramsey Campbell (The Darkest part of The Woods) — just to name a few — explore the awe-inducing presence of the Greenwood and its role in the human psyche.
Christopher Golden takes this rich tradition and braids it beautifully with another pattern recognisable to the connoisseur of the Fantastic concern: that of the artist (in this case a writer) haunted by his own creations, Stephen King’s The Dark Half and Peter Straub’s more recent In The Night Room being too very fine examples of the species. All writers work with antecedent forms. What separates the mere copyist from the creator (and Christopher Golden along with all the authors mentioned above is a superb creator from antecedent form) is the originality of vision that makes a story worth recasting in a persuasive new form.
In the case of Strangewood, what Christopher Golden does is to complicate all of the above by positing the question of the relationship between Childhood, Creativity and the Imagination. These are indeed haunting themes for all writers, especially authors of the Fantastic. There is, after all, a relationship between vulnerability and the imagination. What can be more vulnerable than the image of a small child in the woods? And what can be more clever than that device by which Christopher Golden brilliantly contrives to have not only the child, Nathan, at risk in the woods; but also to render the adult hero of the narrative, Thomas, as simultaneously the responsible father and the original child, the “Our Boy” of Strangewood.
It’s a master-stroke of story-telling, and one which elevates Strangewood, pushing it into that prized place in which the story is mysteriously larger than itself.
So there is in Strangewood an exploration of the complex relationship between a writer’s family dynamics, childhood, imagination, creativity and children. All of this is offered in a fascinating double narrative, where Strangewood reaches out, root and branch, to impact upon the world of its creator.
Thomas, the protagonist of the story, is an author who suffers an extreme responsibility for the things he has created in the children’s novels he writes. A terrible revenge is visited on his own child. The novel links a disintegrated marriage, which of course threatens the happiness of the child Nathan, with the internal collapse of the Fantasy world — Strangewood — created by the author Thomas. The question is whether the crisis is precipitated by the flawed nature of Thomas, or by the crisis of his marriage; but whichever it is, in this case “the sins of the father are visited on their sons.”
Unlike most modern Fantasy that constructs either a hermetically-sealed universe or enters another universe via a portal concealed in this world, Christopher Golden locates his story in both the contemporary and the Fantastic world and gives equal weight to both. Because his real interest, his real subject, is the imagination, the true portal, the primal mentalistic woods that demark the land between the contemporary world and the Fantastic world.
What talent or distress is it, exactly, that divides writers and their ilk from the rest of the population? Why do they seek such extended recourse to the depths of the forest or to the rear of the flickering cave? Certainly Christopher Golden knows that the human psyche in a state of distress can construct almost any solution to its problems. Nothing is too wild or incredible, and, as you are about to find out from this book, those close to the furnace of the imagination can smell the ash and flame of the root and branch of Strangewood.
Achill Island, August 2006
"Is it true? Is it really true?" shouted The Boy, as he stared up into the green-blue sky above Strangewood.
"Yes, oh yes," replied Fiddlestick the dragon, and he swooped and soared and looped and spun in figure eights above them, making The Boy and all of his Friends very dizzy indeed.
"I should have known!" The Boy cried. "I should have known this very morning! It's an absotively gorgeous day, too warm for autumn — and it is autumn now, you know! Too warm for autumn, and I should have known today was going to be something special! A day like no other!"
The Boy watched Fiddlestick a moment longer, but it was difficult to watch the dragon for long without getting a crick in his neck, being as how the dragon was up in the air and such. Then The Boy whooped and laughed, and did one of the cartwheels he was forever trying to teach Brownie the Grizzly, without any luck.
Brownie laughed and tried a cartwheel anyway and fell into a big, brown pile of giggling fur.
They were all laughing and dancing in the small clearing behind Grumbler's cottage, which had been a sad place for a while, but was now a happy place again.
There was a ringling jingling jangling noise, and The Boy looked up happily to watch as Mr. Tinklebum appeared from the Winding Way and ding-dong rang-ran into the clearing.
"He's right, Our Boy! Fiddlestick is right! Word has been passed along by Clapper and Trumpet and so many others, along the Winding Way all the way from the Land of Bells and Whistles! They've been seen, they've been seen, coming down the Up-River. The Forest Rangers have confirmed it!"
Mr. Tinklebum ran up to The Boy, his bell bottom tolling with joy at every step. Laughing Boy yelped his hyena laugh, and Brownie danced, and they could all hear the sing-song, scritch-scratch, wind chime melody of Fiddlestick's tiny wings, beating the tune of flying music.
Gourdon Squashhead was the last to arrive. His autumn job was to watch over the Big Old Orchard, to keep it safe from the Crow Brothers, Dave and Barry. When The Boy saw Gourdon today, he cried out in pleasant surprise, because Gourdon was not alone!
The Crow Brothers had arrived with Gourdon himself.
"Oh, indeed, this is a special day when the Crow Brothers and Strangewood's only scarecrow can put aside their grudges," The Boy said. "We shall have a big party, now. A welcome home, please don't go again party. A we've missed you terribly party. A house re-warming party! Yes! Yes indeed!"
All of The Boy's Friends cried out in agreement. They were excited at the prospect of a party, but what an occasion! To have their old friends returning at last!
A moment later, as The Boy danced with Brownie, Fiddlestick cried out from above.
"They're here, they're here!" he shouted down, and the music of his wings picked up in tempo and volume.
"Quiet up there, I can't hear myself think!" Gourdon yelled at Fiddlestick.
"That will be enough of that, sir scarecrow," The Boy chided him. "We're all a bit excited, don't you know?"
The Winding Way crinch-crunched from the shadowed forest, and The Boy became nervous at first. Then he realized what the sound was: big, booted feet and hoof-hands on dry autumn leaves.
"Helloooooooo!" The Boy shouted. "Grumbler? Feathertop? We're here, all of us, waiting for you at Grumbler's cottage! Hellooooooo!"
Out from the shadows between the trees stepped a cranky looking dwarf wearing a green felt fedora. By his side was a happy little pony whose head was tufted by a sprig spurt splotch of lime green feathers.
"Grumbler!" The Boy cried with pleasure, rushing toward the dwarf. "Feathertop!" he shouted gleefully, opening his arms wide.
"You've finally come home!" The Boy said excitedly. "You've both finally come home to the Wood!"
Grumbler the dwarf stopped at the edge of the clearing. With his eyes narrowed and his mouth in a twist they all remembered well, Grumbler looked past The Boy at the cottage he'd once lived in. He glanced around at the others, who smiled and sang and danced a jig for him. Grumbler looked at Feathertop, who whinnied and looked back at Grumbler.
"I'm so glad you've come home," The Boy said, calmer now, but just as happy.
"Well," Grumbler replied, his voice a bit deeper than The Boy remembered. And much colder.
"It isn't as though we had much of a choice . . .”
—an excerpt from Fly Away to Strangewood
by TJ Randall. The last, unfinished Strangewood story.
There was no fanfare to announce the moment when Thomas Randall's life began to change. No dramatic storm, no sudden enlightenment or shift of fortune.
It simply happened, much like the mundane act of turning a light on, yet without even the sudden illumination to mark the event. And Thomas himself did not even notice that anything had changed.
But everything had changed.
The waitress clinked a sweating bottle of Dixie Crimson Voodoo onto Thomas Randall's table at Live Bait, where he waited for his agent to arrive for their late lunch meeting. According to her name tag, the waitress was named Beverly. She was an extraordinary black woman with chocolate skin and a metal bolt through her tongue that flashed when she thanked him for her tip. Something so sexy about that.
Then again, all the waitresses at Live Bait — and waiters too, for that matter — were sparklingly good-looking. There was a myth about New York, and Los Angeles as well, that every waitress was an actress or a model. One particularly sluttish woman in L.A. had even proudly introduced herself to Thomas as an "AMW."
Naive fool, he'd asked, "What's an AMW?"
She'd bestowed upon him a particularly condescending smile and chirped in Clueless tones, "Actress, model . . . whatever!" Then she'd laughed, a self-conscious cackle that tossed her hair back and made her breasts heave just enough to confirm their impossible roundness. Impossible, that was L.A., all right.
Which was why, after the first animated film from Disney, entitled simply Adventures in Strangewood, Thomas had moved his family back to Westchester County, New York. Mission accomplished.
On the other hand, he didn't really have a family anymore.
Thomas wiped several beads of condensation off the neck of his Crimson Voodoo. He loved that ale mainly because he loved New Orleans, where it was made. Part of him wanted to live in New Orleans, but it was just too damn hot down there, and too exotically alien. Manhattan was his town. Dangerous, yes, but since he lived in Westchester, Manhattan's dangers seemed more exotic than risky. Thomas also preferred the Northeast because, simply put, he needed seasons, a sense of time passing.
"Can I get you another?" Beverly asked.
"Hmm?" Thomas replied, then looked down to see the bottle of Crimson Voodoo nearly empty.
"All this heat," he observed, and waved a hand over the bottle. "It must have evaporated."
They grinned at one another, and Thomas agreed that, yes, he would have another beer. He was thirty-two, divorced from Emily less than six months, and the father of one son, Nathan, who was five. Beverly the waitress was barely old enough to drink — if that — sexy as all get out, and flirting with him. It wasn't any serious flirting. Thomas wasn't an idiot. But it was a pleasant kind of energy passing between them, and he enjoyed it just for that.
The second bottle of Crimson Voodoo replaced the first. Beverly put it down precisely where the other had sat, as if the small ring of condensation were a bulls-eye. Thomas moved the bottle. Maybe just his way of keeping count, marking the passing of the first dead soldier. For a moment, he watched Beverly move, admired her athletic build, the black shorts and sneakers, the white socks and tee, even the dirty little green apron. She was curiously unadorned for a New York woman, particularly one who wanted to be a model or an actress.
He observed her. Writers are like stalkers in that way, he thought self-consciously, and not for the first time. He was watching her too closely, too carefully. And so he forced himself to look away.
His gaze drifted around the small restaurant area, perhaps a dozen unsteady tables in use by employees. That's how Thomas always thought of them. They weren't his employees of course, or the restaurants, but they were somebody's. Manhattan at one P.M. on a weekday was little more than one huge business lunch. Find a hip yet cheap place to eat, all the better.
Live Bait fit the bill. The little Cajun restaurant was at Twenty-Third Street and Madison, a neighborhood with more than its share of publishing houses. A trendy spot for editors, agents, and writers to run into one another, by accident or design.