The Gray House

I stumbled upon this while researching magical realism, and before I knew it I’d read all thousand pages.

This is one of the stranger books I’ve ever read. It’s definitely not fair to call it Fringey – 99.99% of the book takes place inside one home, and if the characters leave their home they are immediately stricken with a mysterious plague until they return.

THE GRAY HOUSE was originally written in Russian by Armenia author Mariam Petrosyan. I suspect she might be a little insane in a wonderful way.

The best way to enjoy this book is to go into it entirely unprepared. If you’re feeling adventurous and you have two weeks of reading time to kill, stop reading my blog and go read THE GRAY HOUSE before you obtain any of those pesky expectations.

 

 

Reading a thousand pages is a daunting task, though, so I’ll review the book for those who like to know what they’re getting into. No ending spoilers, of course.

One of those books where your imagination must fill in expository gaps, THE GRAY HOUSE ostensibly involves a group of students in a boarding school for the disabled. They’ve formed their own chaotic society, and the adults never enforce any rules. Think LORD OF THE FLIES. The Laws the teens follow are idiosyncratic and follow a lot of child-logic. So far, everything is perfectly in accordance with the laws of physics, if rather far removed from psychological and sociological probability.

Soon, though, you start seeing subtle mention of supernatural abilities among the students. Remember, it’s a home for the disabled, so the protagonists are in wheelchairs or use prosthetic arms or lack vision or the capacity for speech. They throw around the word “Jumper” and you experience interludes set in a place enigmatically called “The Forest,” despite the fact that none of the students ever leave the House.

As the depth of your experience progresses, you remain unsure if the ‘magical’ part of ‘magical realism’ is ‘real.’

While Petrosyan shares with us the details of the world of the House, you never know if the kids are engaged in imaginative worldbuilding of their own, or if the House has supernatural abilities of its own. You can only theorize if the drastic changes effected upon the House denizens are a result of psychology or of magical forces. You’re only getting tiny glimpses, often disguised as fairy tales and anecdotes and unreliable narrators, of the magic.

While the author spares no detail of ‘mundane’ life in the House – we know volumes of information on the fifty-odd male seniors and their homemade society – she gives us only sparse tidbits about the real mystery. This leads to unbearable tension like I’ve never before experienced as a reader. You don’t know how they’re going to solve their problems. You don’t know what their problems are. You don’t even know if it’s all real.

You start forming theories, though you have little to go on. You start analyzing possible metaphors, and you’ll never know if you’re right. You read on, in mortal fear of a vague (but somehow disturbing) threat coming to pass.

You get to the end and you see how all the nothing comes together and made something magical, impactful, and chilling.

 

This book has a very dark feel to it. You know the House is not safe, yes, but you also come to picture everything in dim lighting and foreboding gray, despite the colorful personalities and backgrounds of the House’s inhabitants. I love that. I love the implausibility and the way my imagination had to provide every detail. I love the way I know these characters so well now, despite how high the character count is.

You’ll spend some time not confused, but a little lost. It’s an important distinction when it comes to reader enjoyment. Lost – that’s a good thing.

One Hundred Years of Solitude

I saw that title and I knew I had to read it!

I was not disappointed. ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE, by Gabriel García Márquez, is one of the Fringiest books I’ve ever read!

I highlighted about a hundred passages that could have come straight from THE FRINGE HIKERS, if only I was as clever a writer as Nobel-laureate Márquez. The book is categorized as ‘magical realism,’ which could also perhaps apply to THE FRINGE HIKERS. Both are not quite Tall Tales, but share many elements with the stories of Daniel Boone, Calamity Jane, and John Henry.

It’s about the Buendía family, showing several generations of life in their South American village. Every member of the family, including the founder who crossed the mountains in search of the sea, is exceptional in some way. None have flashy magic, but there are gypsy fortune tellers, impossible weather events (such as four years of constant rain), and supernatural alchemists. What I’d like to talk about most is the magic of fate in this book, since it ties in to my own manuscript.

The founder of the little town is definitely a Fringe Hiker. At one point, he tries to cross the swamp and finds himself lost for weeks. He returns and proclaims it impassable. When his wife heads out, however, she returns in four days bearing trade goods from the village on the other side of the swamp.

He believes in, and experiences, the perversity of the universe. The harder he tries, the more lost he becomes.

He considered it a trick of his whimsical fate to have searched for the sea without finding it, at the cost of countless sacrifices and suffering, and to have found it all of a sudden without looking for it, as if it lay across his path like an insurmountable object.

Much like a Fringe Hiker, his family proves very hard to kill. Not a single soul in the entire village dies in the first ~thirty years of the story. Even the children who grow up to be soldiers survive against impossible odds.

“Tell him,” the colonel said, smiling, “that a person doesn’t die when he should but when he can.”

From the moment of birth, they seem doomed to share their father’s curse. Each child is different, but their defining feature is solitude, incarnate in many different ways.

He was silent and withdrawn. He had wept in his mother’s womb and had been born with his eyes open. As they were cutting the umbilical cord, he moved his head from side to side, taking in the things in the room and examining the faces of the people with a fearless curiosity. Then, indifferent to those who came close to look at him, he kept his attention concentrated on the palm roof, which looked as if it were about to collapse under the tremendous pressure of the rain.

At least that’s what I see through the lens of someone who thinks about the Fringe all day.

The writing makes the everyday feel supernatural in a way that really inspires me.

He became lost in misty byways, in times reserved for oblivion, in labyrinths of disappointment.

…that paradise of disaster…

…consuming itself in the inner fire of bad news…

The book shows dozens of the ways in which people deal with loss and eternal hopelessness. How they bear it alone. To me, that’s an appealing side of the coin of disaster.

She asked God, without fear, if he really believed that people were made of iron in order to bear so many troubles and mortifications…

It reminded me a lot of BIG FISH: tall tales, interesting larger-than-life people, intense interpersonal trials. I’m a big fan of ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE, and I think I shall have to read it again to find all the patterns and brilliant turns of phrase.

One final note: Unlike THE FRINGE HIKERS, ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE isn’t appropriate for children. It actually gets quite uncomfortable and weird at times. There are entire chapters focused on violence, sex, and incest. But overall, it’s a fun book, the kind where you don’t even need a happy ending.

Happy Towel Day, all you hitchhikers!

Douglas Adams died in May of 2001. We’ve held Towel Day on May 25th ever since, to honor his memory. And not just for his literary contributions, either.

Adams was the author of the influential HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY, a sci-fi satire trilogy consisting of at least five books, depending on how you count them. It started as a radio show, actually, and eventually became a miniseries, a mediocre star-studded movie, and a video game.

H2G2 is about a hapless ape descendant, Arthur Dent, on his trip across the galaxy after Earth is destroyed to make room for a hyperspace bypass. Adams embraces the concept of “everything that can go wrong, will go wrong, and in the least convenient way.”

I love this series and I’ve read the first one at least a dozen times. It’s stuffed with dry humor and lots of really good one-liners. But the plot is really interesting too, once you see past the silliness. I don’t really think that was intentional.

The picture H2G2 paints about galactic hitchhiking culture lends itself really well to references and jokes in pop culture. The hitchhikers have their own vocab, their own ethics, their own philosophies – just like a Fringe Hiker. They accept that life isn’t going to be easy. It’s just the cost of a great adventure: a cost they’re more than willing to pay.

The most useful item a hitchhiker can have is a towel. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has this to say about the towel:

A towel is just about the most massively useful thing any interstellar Hitchhiker can carry. Partly it has great practical value. You can wrap it around you for warmth as you bound across the cold moons of Jaglan Beta; you can lie on it on the brilliant marble-sanded beaches of Santraginus V, inhaling the heady sea vapours; you can sleep under it beneath the stars which shine so redly on the desert world of Kakrafoon; use it to sail a miniraft down the slow heavy River Moth; wet it for use in hand-to-hand combat; wrap it round your head to ward off noxious fumes or avoid the gaze of the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal (a mind-bogglingly stupid animal, it assumes that if you can’t see it, it can’t see you — daft as a brush, but very very ravenous); you can wave your towel in emergencies as a distress signal, and of course you can dry yourself off with it if it still seems to be clean enough.

More importantly, a towel has immense psychological value. For some reason, if a strag (strag: nonhitchhiker) discovers that a hitchhiker has his towel with him, he will automatically assume that he is also in possession of a toothbrush, washcloth, soap, tin of biscuits, flask, compass, map, ball of string, gnat spray, wet-weather gear, space suit etc., etc. Furthermore, the strag will then happily lend the hitchhiker any of these or a dozen other items that the hitchhiker might accidentally have “lost.” What the strag will think is that any man who can hitch the length and breadth of the Galaxy, rough it, slum it, struggle against terrible odds, win through and still knows where his towel is, is clearly a man to be reckoned with.

Hence a phrase which has passed into hitch hiking slang, as in “Hey, you sass that hoopy Ford Prefect? There’s a frood who really knows where his towel is.”

So carry your towel proudly today and let everyone see you’re someone who knows where your towel is.

Homes of the Fringe

Fringe Hikers have trouble reaching home.
Some of my Fringe Hikers in the book have iconic homes, such as the cozy cabin in WINTER WANDERER. Or the homey cottage in MOSAIC.

I imagine it looks something like this shelter at the Backbone Ridge Campground in Tennessee.
backbone ridge shelter mossy roof stone chimney
The roof leaks, moss has overtaken it, the stone hearth is the social center of the homey place.

At other times, I’ll see a home and I’ll know in my heart some kind of wanderer or mystic lives there. Someone who doesn’t need thick walls to barricade themselves from nature. Someone whose life experiences have led them away from conformity and then some.

Here are a few examples from my travels on Earth:

Homes Belonging to Hikers

A hunter's cabin on a stony mountain. Not much more than a bed inside, and some pictures of ducks the owner would like to shoot someday.
A hunter’s cabin on a stony mountain. Not much more than a bed inside, and some pictures of ducks the owner would like to shoot someday.
A bold memorial reminiscent of Roman architecture. Up near Virginia's border with West Virginia.
A bold memorial reminiscent of Roman architecture. Up near Virginia’s border with West Virginia.
This amazing home sparked my imagination. I have a little story for each addition, and I love that no two wings are the same. Resourceful people!
This amazing home sparked my imagination. I have a little story for each addition, and I love that no two wings are the same. Resourceful people!
A pagoda where it always rains?
A pagoda where it always rains? I think so.
This stands on Barnrock Road. In reality, I'm sure the stone came first. To a Fringe Hiker, I'd count on the barn coming first and the stone coming in rather violently.
This stands on Barnrock Road. In reality, I’m sure the stone came first. To a Fringe Hiker, I’d count on the barn coming first and the stone coming in rather violently.
This castle in someone's backyard is mostly underground. It's not a tourist attraction or anything. Just someone's pet project.
This castle in someone’s backyard is mostly underground. It’s not a tourist attraction or anything. Just someone’s pet project.
This is more of a fringe hiker's home: a shelter on the Appalachian Trail.
This is more of a fringe hiker’s home: a shelter on the Appalachian Trail.
No comment on this idiosyncratic architecture.
No comment on this idiosyncratic architecture.
This house is barely wide enough to lie down in. Built wayyy out in the country where they don't have, or enforce, building codes.
This house is barely wide enough to lie down in. Built wayyy out in the country where they don’t have, or enforce, building codes.

Animal Homes

We can learn a lot from the animals who can make their homes anywhere. Fringe Hikers all have this talent to a greater or lesser degree, but it doesn’t feel like home to them.

crawfish hole
crawfish hole
Ah, to be able to carry your home on your back like this eastern box turtle!
Ah, to be able to carry your home on your back like this eastern box turtle!
A woodpecker's home. Hopefully a cool pileated woodpecker.
A woodpecker’s home. Hopefully a cool pileated woodpecker.
Or be able to just create a new home whenever? Sounds fun!
Or be able to just create a new home whenever? Sounds fun!
This cicada nymph was a couple feet underground, waiting for the perfect time to emerge. A creature of hope?
This cicada nymph was a couple feet underground, waiting for the perfect time to emerge. A creature of hope?
I don't know what creature lives in this perfect log, but...it's perfect.
I don’t know what creature lives in this perfect log, but…it’s perfect.

The real home of a hiker?

The real home of a hiker is right here, around the fire.
The real home of a hiker is right here, around the fire.

Grayson Highlands

Land Use

In the west, Grayson County, VA stretches skyward to become the highest point in the state – the peak of Mount Rogers at 5,729 feet above sea level. That peak is clearly visible and accessible from the Grayson Highlands State Park. Simply hop on the Appalachian Trail and hike a few miles and you’ll end up quite close.

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Trail log from the AT at the parking area

If you are worried about getting Fringed on the trail, perhaps neighboring Whitetop Mountain is more your speed; it’s the second highest mountain in Virginia, but there’s a nice road leading right up the summit. I wouldn’t try it in winter, though.

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Drive or hike several miles down a little 4WD road, unlatch the livestock gate, and take a break in the grassy paddock. There you might see a high-clearance pickup truck and perhaps a tent or two. This is the Scales/Elk Garden area of the Grayson Highlands. It’s been a cattle grazing area for pioneers and farmers for at least two centuries, and it was still being grazed by cattle and WILD PONIES (more on that later) when I was there.

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The roots of the mountains, and on up their slopes, are studded with relatively flat spots, which were apparently logged as soon as the area was settled. All that grazing and rocky terrain keeps those flat areas pretty clear of vegetation throughout the years, creating “balds” where the ground beneath your feet might be stone, caribou moss, or grass.

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Farmers used to sell their horses and cattle (by weight) in this area, leading to the name, “The Scales.” In fact, you can still buy colts….

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…of the wild ponies that roam the highland slopes. The ponies were introduced in the 60’s and pretty much left alone. The population as a whole is managed, but they are not pets (and they will bite you; I’ve seen it). I’ve spotted ponies all over the mountain. Certain areas are fenced off from them, but heck, I’ve seen them in there too.

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Note that a pony is not a word for a young horse. Ponies are their own breed. These wild ponies will never grow to full horse size. You can ride a pony (probably not these ponies). However, Virginia does have some feral horses, especially in reclaimed or abandoned mining areas. Horse owners dropped them off as a local coal economy declined or as agricultural laws changed. The feral horses can breed but it seems their population remains fairly stable and limited. Other times, horse owners might just have deals with the local mineral rights holders to allow grazing on reclaimed strip mines or natural gas extraction areas.

mines

I wouldn’t take a horse with me on the Fringe. I don’t think they have a dog’s natural immunity, and they’re too much a mode of transport. Something terrible would probably happen to it, and that would break my heart much more than injury and discomfort to my own person.

Nature

The trails were lined with berries of all kinds. A Fringe Hiker could stay alive out here by wading into the thorns and picking his fill. I only stayed for a bit this fall, but I sure ate a lot of berries.

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The balds are beautiful picnic spots and scenic vistas. I see lots of plant species up there that I don’t see elsewhere in the region. The ecosystems are also different.

Some of the flatter forested areas form duffy swamps, even at the high elevations. You start seeing yellow birch and spruce.

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Yellow birch has an interesting habit of growing in “nurse logs.” The seedling starts shooting up from within a rotten log that acts as compost for the young tree.

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Roots are sent out, draped over the log, until they find the real soil and dig in. The roots and stem thicken as the log rots away, until it has vanished completely and you are left with the strange sight of an adult tree whose stem doesn’t start for a full twelve inches above ground level.

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I spotted several such trees intertwined with each other.

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And even a tree that had used the hollow of a larger tree as a nursery site.

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The stones are interesting too. They reminded me of the glacial erratics in the Midwest, big stones dropped by melting glaciers. They’re very different from other stones in the area.

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I asked a naturalist, and she told me Mount Rogers is the only part of Virginia where evidence of ancient glaciation can be seen – an ice age even older than the ones that shaped the Midwest. Furthermore, Mount Rogers and the surrounding area were formed by volcanic activity!

I’ve been on so many great trails in the Grayson Highlands, and this blog only details a few areas of the park. Get out there, explore, and don’t forget to take the long way home.

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TIPS FOR NANOWRIMO

It’s National Novel Writing Month, so we’re hard at work on the Fringe Hikers book.

The goal of Nanowrimo is to write 50,000 words in a month. We are getting a little behind, so here are the tips we have found work well for reaching that elusive goal.

1. Never use one word when two words will do.
Instead of “hurry”, try “Make haste.”

2. Use the perfect continuous conditional.
“He would have been running” is a lot more words than “He ran.”

3. Use prepositions.
You can chain together a very long sentence in a short time with judicious use of prepositions.

4. Write in an analytic language like Vietnamese rather than an agglutinating one like Iñupiat.

5. Use “Very.”
Instead of “He was furious,” use “He was very angry.” In a pinch, you can double up or even triple up on your use of “very.” “He was very very very very angry.” That’s a lot of emotion!!

6. Double up for emphasis
Whenever something important happens in your story, it’s OK to put a little more emphasis on it by reiterating it twice. Don’t reinvent the wheel, just use what was successful earlier!

7. Use prepositions.
You can chain together a very long sentence in a short time with judicious use of prepositions.