A Once-Upon a Time Update and Short Story Adventure

Hello lovely bloggers! I’m so sorry I missed the Sunday Salon, but I was at home over the weekend and didn’t really get the chance, between church, breakfast, my boyfriend’s dad’s choral concert (he sings in a metro Christian choir) and then a delicious Sunday dinner, I didn’t get the chance to stop by a computer for long. Also, because my brain seems to have lost ALL ability to remember even the slightest details, I left my copy of The Magicians at my parents house, which my mom is thrilled about, but the library less so. I guess the good news is that, since we’re going home again next weekend for Easter, I’ll be able to pick it up then. If my mom’s done. If she’s not? Claws people. Claws.

Anyway, on to a little acutal book reviewing, huh?! In all fairness, it’s not a book so much as a short story, but the general concept still applies. Since I was all set to read The Magicians for the Once Upon a Time V Challenge (at least until my other library holds came in) I’ve had to do some last minute improvising and instead have picked up Dark Alchemy: Magical Tales from Masters of Modern Fantasy edited by Jack Dann and Gardner Dozois, a short story collection I picked up a while ago at Half Priced Books (I think because it was around Halloween time, but I can’t remember for sure) and have relegated to the realms of the TBR pile since then.

 

The first story in the collection, which also happened to be the first story I read, is “The Witch’s Headstone” by Neil Gaiman, the, as far as I’m concerned, Lord and Master of All Things Fantastical And Mysterious. You know, this guy…

(Mmmm…Neil Gaiman….sorry. Had to take that little moment for myself)

“The Witch’s Headstone” later became a chapter in Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, which I’ve also read and reviewed before. However, I just had to read it again, both because I love Gaiman and because, to be honest, I was beginning to miss that Bod Owens.

The story begins with Bod (short for Nobody) Owens investigating the story that a witch is buried outside of the graveyard in which he lives, on the consecrated ground. After questioning both his “parents” (quick note:: I’m glossing over a good deal of the backstory of Nobody Owens because it’s not talked about in “The Witch’s Headstone”. For the full details, see The Graveyard Book. For the purposes of this review, though, it should be known that Bod is an orphan who has been, essentially, communally adopted by a local graveyard and it’s inhabitants and has been given the “freedom of the graveyard”, meaning he can see and talk to all sorts of spirits normal people can’t) as well as his teachers and guardians, Bod decides he’d like to meet the witch.

Unfortunately, Bod is a good boy and won’t violate the wishes of those who he’s supposed to obey. Perhaps it’s the power of the graveyard, then that sends him hurtling over the fence one day when the branch he’s sitting on in his favorite apple tree breaks. When he awakes, he sees the infamous witch, Elizabeth (Liza) Hempstock, standing over him. He questions her about her life as a witch, how she died, and the fact that all she wants more than anything now is a headstone, something to mark her burial space and, also, her existence. Bod then forms a plan to get Liza the headstone she seeks.

Stealing an ancient and valuable amulet from the Sleer (WE ARE THE SLEER. WE GUARD. I have a friend who has that exact phrase tattooed on the back of her neck, fun little tidbit), an ancient crypt-monster, Bod heads to a local pawnshop to sell the snakestone. When Bod tells him he found the stone in a graveyard, the man becomes enraptured with greedy thoughts of mountains of treasure and locks Bod up in an office while he calls his business partner. It’s then that Liza shows up and, hearing what a nice thing Bod is doing for her, helps him to become invisible and escape, but not before Bod notices and absconds with a heavy stone paperweight on the desk. Bod quickly returns the amulet to the Sleer (IT ALWAYS COMES BACK) and, after recieving a thorough flogging from his parents, makes Liza’s headstone out of the paperweight he stole. He mows the grass over her burial site, and leaves the stone carved just how Liza requested it:

E.H. We don’t forget.

Perhaps the thing I love most about this story, and about Bod in general, is that he really is such a loving boy. Yes, he disobeys his parents. Yes, his curiosity can get him into trouble (we’re talking stolen by demons and taken almost to the gates of hell kind of trouble) but, at the end of the day, he’s generous and caring and a truly warm heart in the cemetary. I also think that Bod gives us the chance, as readers, to read a very well written narrative told in the voice of an ordinary child (Bod never gets to be older than his early teen years) which I think is especially interesting given the fact that Bod is, really, anything but ordinary. He lives in a cemetary, for God’s sake, which isn’t a good start. But Gaiman writes him with such sympathy and love that it’s kind of easy to forget all that. And just love Bod for Bod, which is the best any writer can do, I think – to get a reader to love a character for that character, flaws and all.

I’m moving on now to “Color Vision” by Mary Rosenblum, another story in the Dark Alchemy collection, and I’m about a page in to it. So far it’s a little hard to get in to, but I also wonder if that has anything to do with the fact that I read it right after the Gaiman. After all, it’s hard to step away from the mastery Gaiman writes with when it comes to fantasy and fairy tales. However, I plan to stick with it and couldn’t be more excited to be getting some short stories into my reading diet. Because this post is so inordinatly long, I’ll go ahead and stop, but I do also want to mention that I’ve got Escape by Carolyn Jessop next on the pile (a memoir about a former polygamist who escaped with her eight children from a FLDS compound) and was wondering if any of you out there had read it? Liked it? The story seems great but the writing…eh… so I guess I’ll just have to wait and see if it picks up. Happy Monday, y’all, and happy reading!

– Chelsea

 OTHER NOTABLE QUOTES FROM “THE WITCH’S HEADSTONE”:

“It’s like people who believe they’ll be happy if the go and live somewhere else, but who learn it doesn’t work that way. Wherever you go, you take yourself with you.” (3)

A great example of Gaiman’s humor: “‘I do believe’, he announced, scratching his dusty mustache, ‘that you are getting, if anything, worse. You are not Fading. You are obvious, boy. You are difficult to miss. If you came to me in company with a purple lion, a green elephant, and a scarlet unicorn astride which was the Kind of England in his Royal Robes, I do believe that it is you and you alone people would stare at, dismissing the others as minor irrelevancies” (9).

“‘It’s not that much to ask, is it? Something to mark my grave. I’m just down there, see? With nothing but nettles to mark where I rest.’ And she looked so sad, just for a moment, that Bod wanted to hug her. And then it come to him, as he squeezes between the railings of the fence. Hje would find Liza Hempstock a headstone, with her name on it. He would make her smile. (8)

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4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Anna D.
    Apr 18, 2011 @ 20:54:12

    Mmm, love Neil Gaiman. I’m pretty sure I have a copy of The Graveyard Book somewhere, like an ebook version or something? I’ll have to pick it up and read it now, because this story sounds wonderful.

    Reply

  2. bybee
    Apr 18, 2011 @ 21:14:27

    We had a book club meeting the other day in which each person selected a Newbery winner and spotlighted it. One guy chose The Graveyard Book — and he made it sound very interesting.

    Reply

  3. Chelsea
    Apr 18, 2011 @ 23:33:46

    Anna – if you haven’t read it yet, you HAVE HAVE HAVE to read TGB. Gaiman does a great job of making each chapter stand on it’s own while still telling one narrative (kind of like interconnected short stories). Plus…SO CUTE!

    Bybee – I wasn’t aware that TGB won the Newberry. That’s awesome! Hopefully he made it sound interesting enough to go pick up – because it’s very much so worth the read!

    Reply

  4. Anna D.
    Apr 19, 2011 @ 11:48:22

    Yeah, I think there was actually some scandal surrounding his Newberry. Because he had published one of the short stories before (probably the one you read, Chelsea, lol), they were considering taking away his Newberry (or they did? I’m not sure), because I guess one of the qualifications for receiving the award is that it has to be entirely original content or something.

    Reply

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