My Favorite Kind of Strange

When you mention fantasy to anyone, they typically think of sweeping epics like the Lord of the Rings trilogy or Game of Thrones. Just like when you mention horror, they think of a million Stephen King titles or gory films like Saw or Hostel. Now I do love a good fantasy epics and I can enjoy a splatterfest too, but those aren’t the areas I love about fantasy and horror. My tastes run into the surreal, the inexplicable, the creepiness that lingers with you for a long time afterwards.

I thought I would describe some of my favorite scenes that have lingered with me over the years. All of these I believe are from fantasy films/books, but they’re such dark scenes that it’s easy to see the subtle terror in them.

1. Witches

When people think of this 1990 film, they typically get caught up in the amazing effects for the transformation of the witches, or the way they transform the boys into mice. These were some of Jim Henson’s last pieces that had his personal input on them, so it’s entirely understandable that they’re what most people think of when they recall this film. However the section I loved was at the very beginning. Years ago I struggled to figure out where this scene came from because it felt so very different from the rest of the movie.

You can’t tell me that isn’t terrifying! I remember being shocked that it was from such an amusing film like Witches of all things. In doing research, they ended up changing the plot of the film around quite a bit because Roald Dahl thought it would be too frightening for children. I’m so glad they kept this scene in!

2. Return to Oz

This fabulous film from 1985 doesn’t get enough credit. It’s a mishmash of multiple books in the Wizard of Oz series, but it has several scenes that are far more intense than the famous 1920s film with Judy Garland. In addition to having scenes from a bizarre, unfriendly madhouse and giving the implication that Dorothy has been having hallucinations, the fantasy world is both strange and quite dangerous.

Princess Mombi is a sorceress who not only turned the citizens of Emerald City to stone, but she then went through and chopped off the heads of all the pretty young women to use for herself. Some of the creepiest scenes are with Mombi in her hall of heads.

Dorothy is far braver than I would be as a child, but I suppose this is hardly her first visit to Oz.

3. Pan’s Labyrinth

I remember sitting in the movie theater when this film came on. When people saw that it was going to have subtitles many started to leave. Then came a violent scene that involved a glass bottle and some poor guy’s head, and suddenly all those people came trickling back into the theater. Guillermo del Toro has a fabulous taste for my favorite kind of fantasy, and this film really epitomizes it. It’s a blend that isn’t entirely fantasy and isn’t your typical horror variety either. You love the monsters he creates even though they creep you out all the same.

Intense enough? I love how it’s not quite a fairy tale even though it uses all of the typical tropes, and I love how he takes it to such a dark level.

4. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

I haven’t had a chance to watch all of the BBC series they put out about this yet, only the first episode. The book however is quite a behemoth, but so worth it! If you can get past all the scenes with Mr. Norrell and reach Jonathan Strange’s sections where he shines, you will be rewarded. One of my favorite characters in this book is the gentleman with the thistle-down hair. He’s a trickster faerie who has been quite bored and finds a way to steal away part of someone’s life. He’s a little too serious for my tastes so far in the BBC version. I imagined him far more amused all the time, but maybe that’s just me. I also love the Raven King! He’s more legend than person, which makes him all the more fascinating.

Okay, enough gushing about this book. The part that made me really fall in love with it was toward the end when the realm of the faerie world begins overlapping with the human world. Roads begin appearing all over England leading into this other land, and some people are silly enough to follow it. There’s a short scene where a knight, who proclaims himself to be the Champion of the Castle, says he will kill anyone who tries to harm the Lady of the Castle. I won’t say much more, but in the faerie tale traditions, you can figure out where that goes. Oh, and there’s also a wonderfully weird scene with a crazy cat lady. This book is chock full with weirdness in fact, which is why I just couldn’t leave it off of this list.

 

That’s all for now at least. I’m sure I’ll be adding more to this list later. I’m always finding new blends of strange, surreal worlds that appeal to me, or creating my own. If you know of any books or films that you think would suit my tastes, please let me know! It’s a very niche interest, but I would love to find more stuff like it!

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke

Jonathan Strange & Mr. NorrellLet me start by saying that the world building involved in the creation of this book is phenomenal. You don’t quite get how detailed it is when you first pick it up. You don’t understand the magnitude. Then you reach your first footnote, and then it dawns on you. Not only has Clarke breathed life into these diversified characters, but behind them is an enormous tapestry that serves as the backdrop for their world.

Having just finished this giant 920-page behemoth, I think I’ll start with what made me love it and rave so fondly over it.

I. The Pros

Picturesque World

The world feels like it’s been painted on a canvas. From the battlefields of Waterloo to the sleepy, cozy visage of Venice. Clarke has quite a way with her descriptions, and at times it feels as though her world makes more sense than our own. In this world, magic isn’t something questioned or pondered about over a cup of coffee, there was actually a king with one foot in the real world and another foot in the magical world of fairy (don’t worry, I’ll get to the historical aspects of the fairy world in a little bit.) Magic is something that need only be awakened to give it power. It exists just beneath the surface, and all it takes is a scratch to bring it forth. Magic though has grown out of taste, so to speak, and the world has forgotten it. The history has been rewritten to better suit the tastes of those in the present, and therefore there does not seem to be any real need to explore magic further – especially not the magic of the aforementioned king.

Two Rage-Inducing Protagonists

A surprising aspect of this book is that the magician who you will likely identify with better isn’t introduced until well into the novel. I suppose when you have so much heft to your manuscript, you can afford to belay your star character until a little later on. Mr. Norrell isn’t a bad guy exactly, he is just very particular. That is to say, he’s stuffy, socially awkward, and despises change. So it’s surprising to see that he is the main instigator in the revitilization of English magic. At times he can be insipid, simple-minded, cruel, and a downright thief. However, you understand why he does it. You don’t approve of his actions, but you don’t think he should be shot for it either. He’s a rather unlikeable main character, and then once he surrounds himself with scoundrels like Drawlight and Lascelles, he becomes a bit of a puppet between the two.

Then comes Jonathan Strange, an entirely different type of magician. He is gregarious and sociable, but since he has more wealth than he knows what to do with, he ends up going into magic out of boredom. Once Strange becomes Norrell’s pupil, that’s when the real meat of the novel comes forth. It takes a good chunk of the book to get to this point of course, but the build-up is quite worth it. When Strange goes to assist the British military in the Napoleonic wars, and then is targeted by the fairy “gentleman with the thistle-down hair”, you find yourself pulling at your hair. He never does what you want him to do, when he ought to do it. He can be very short-sighted, and (as apparently many magicians do), buries his head in books for far too long.

This is quite an interesting set of characters for the reader to be rooting for, but you do indeed find yourself understanding both sides of their tale.

Land of the Fairies

The way that the fairy world is handled was perhaps my favorite aspect of the book. Frequently in folklore fairies are seen as tricksters, deceivers, and shape-shifters. It’s amusing to see how an entire land of the fairy world could be so similar to the real world, but not quite the same at all. Seemingly innocent locations are turned into horrific scenes of slavery and servitude, and arrogant or overly curious bystanders could find themselves forever trapped in a spell. The fairy world isn’t just a place down the road, or in another country, it appears as another reality, and frequently overlaps with the real world in ways that you wouldn’t imagine.

At one point when Strange views this disconnection of worlds, he watches a man walk down a typical street, deftly dodging various tree branches in the fairy realm which he can’t see, but intuitively knows that they are there. It’s a subtle magic, and the craziness of the fairies reminded me very much of the Endless seen in the Sandman series, though not nearly as cohesive. The main fairy that we follow is arrogant, petulant, and his powers are too great for him to manage them properly.

II. The Cons

Worth the Time to Read

I am a very slow reader. I take my time with books, especially ones as complex as this, so it was quite a time commitment for me to choose to read this book. My friends had been urging me to give it a try, promising that I would love it. At over 900 pages (in my eBook copy at least), that was a difficult decision. I could easily see this being divided up into three parts like the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but the plot is so complex that I imagine some readers would find it hard to pick up where the story left off.

Unsatisfying Ending

The ending, though it closes all the loose ends so to speak, didn’t leave me very satisfied. I wanted to find out more, and I wanted to know the ultimate fate of our two main characters. The fact that this wasn’t clear made me a bit sad, but to be honest, when writing a book this long I could imagine she was reluctant to add even more onto it with a more detailed ending. I would have stayed along for the ride, though I could see some jumping the bandwagon when it went beyond 1k pages.

Footnotes Galore

The footnotes take some getting used to. They span several pages, and can be quite engrossing. The end result is that you’ll find yourself reading through pages of footnotes at the end of a chapter, and forget what was going on in the main storyline. It’s truly a testament to the breath and depth of Clarke’s world, but especially on some eReader devices, I could see this causing problems. My personal copy didn’t link back easily to the original footnote, and frequent bookmarks can cause confusion. It takes the flow out of the writing somewhat, but usually the footnote stories are quite enjoyable, so I honestly can’t count this against the book too much.

III. Final Rating

I can say without hesitation that this book was easy for me to give five stars on. Sure the length is intimidating, but that really shouldn’t dissuade you from trying it out. It’s worth the time, and you’ll appreciate it once you’ve finished it. Especially if you’re a fan of fantasy, surreal worlds, and the Victorian era.

  1. Is it a fun read? Absolutely! Toward the end of the book, I was having trouble putting it down, and flew through a few hundred pages without even realizing it. The build up can be slow, but the pay off is very worth it at the end.
  2. Would you recommend it to others? Oh yes, definitely. It’s probably going to be up there with epic fantasy tales that I love (I’m a die-hard LotR fan), and it will certainly influence my views of magicians from now on. This almost felt like a case study of two magicians, so I feel like I’ve been given a behind-the-scenes look at the daily troubles magicians have to deal with. Harry Potter has a lot of politics in his future, that’s for sure!
  3. Would you re-read it? Simply due to the length, I don’t think so. However I’m a big highlighter and note-taker. I’ve peppered my copy with plenty of markings to keep me entertained the next time I’m picking it up to flip through a few pages.
  4. Does it stick with you?Can’t you tell? 🙂 The original friend who recommended this book told me that she was disappointed when she got to the end. She had gotten so used to being immersed in this Victorian pseudo-realistic magical world that it was sad to have to leave it. I found I had the same trouble myself. It sticks with you so much, that you’re frustrated that you can’t find more written on this very eclectic mixing of genres and styles.Though, I guess I could hop over and read on The Ladies of Grace Adieu, but I think I’ve left my partially read Dark Tower Book 4 gathering dust for too long, and I need time to digest this book a bit more. For such a long read, it’s going to be with me for quite some time.