With so much chaos, someone will do something stupid.

I just finished reading Orphans of Chaos by John C Wright. When I first started reading this book, I was immediately awed by the writing. How can somebody write something that makes you feel like you are reading something haunting and wise and sad and inquisitive and beautiful? Authors like that amaze me.

I took the book along with me when I went to a book sale at the library in Fullerton. I go early to get a good place in line. But even though I'm early, I can never get there early enough to be at the front of the line. Seriously, I think some of those book scouts and dealers sleep there. Still, I usually end up being one of the first ten people in line. The weird thing is, the longer I stand there, the farther back in line I become. Without even moving. It's a strange phenomenon that must have something to do with something I don't know anything about because I never took advanced math or science in high school.

So, on this occasion I was there at the library, waiting for the sale to start, and I was passing the time reading Orphans of Chaos. One of the other sellers waiting there said to me, "How do you like that book?" And I said, "It's great!" And he said, "Isn't it amazingly written?" And I said, "Yeah!" And he said, "He's a great writer." And I said, "Yeah!" Scintillating conversation like this makes waiting in line a not unpleasant thing to do.

Anyway, here's an example, from page 27, of Wright's brilliant writing:

I do not know how old I was when I found the notes, but I must have been quite young, because I remember that I had to stand on tiptoe to reach the handles of the cabinet where the cleaning things were kept. We had been told to scrub the floor of the dining hall, a task usually done by the servants, because of some prank Colin had pulled involving a bucket of fishheads. None of us was willing to turn Colin in, not even Vanity, even though (I am sure) everyone knew who had done it. This was back before we chose names, so it was Quartinus we were all mad at for getting us in trouble. I remember it was spring, and the great windows were wide open, and I could smell the new-mown grass of the playing field outside, and I remember how dearly I wanted to jump and play, rather than kneel and scrub.

And there's more like that. I wish I could finish off quoting that page and the next, because it's one of the best passages, but you'll just have to read it yourself. In fact, the first five chapters are really lovely. Wow.

The story is told from the point of view of Amelia, who has been raised in isolation as a human but who is really the daughter of the Titan Helion, and she is a fairly sympathetic character, which is always a plus with me when reading a book.

As I read on, however, I started noticing a couple of drawbacks. Not that the quality of writing changed. No, it was something else. A couple of somethings, actually.

One: the story, as I said, is about some offspring of the Titans, except one of the five kids is really Nausicaa - and why she's there, I haven't yet figured out - but they have been kept isolated (imprisoned, really) by their Greek mythology-type captors (like the North Wind, for instance) for many years and raised as human children, with periodic memory erasures when they start figuring out too much so that they reset to the beginning every so often. So the "boys" and "girls" in the story are, I suppose, realistic in the sense that, being in their teen years when the story starts, they are curious about body parts and sex and such, but most of the boys I knew when I was a teenager thankfully had the manners to keep comments regarding such things to themselves in mixed company. And we girls certainly never discussed the subject except amongst ourselves. One of the "boys" in this story, however, is extremely annoying to read about because he can't keep his mouth shut or his hands to himself. His behavior is not a huge drawback for the book; I just don't like reading about annoying characters, is all, and he is an extremely annoying character.

Two: the kids have conversations like this bit from page 156:

"If [says Amelia] I used a crayon to draw the circumference and another crayon to color in the area, the first crayon would lose a bit and the second a bit more. Use a third crayon to color the surface of a balloon, and a fourth crayon to somehow fill in the entire inner volume of the balloon. The first crayon loses a bit and the second crayon loses a whole lot. Rotate the balloon in the fourth dimension to create a hypervolume. The first crayon fills in the volumes of the six balloons that form its hypersurface, the second crayon has to fill in a hypervolume raised to the fourth power. You see the difference would be enormous."

Quentin blinked. "I don't get it."

Victor said, "Why six?"

I said to Victor, "Oh! You're right! There are only six points on the hypersurface where the axis intersects it that form three spheres. I guess I was confusing the number of right-angle intersections with the Kissing Number, which in the case of 4-D equals 24. I was fooled because I was thinking that if a sphere is all points equidistant from a given point such that x2+y2+z2=r2 [those 2s are supposed to be superscript], then a four-sphere would satisfy w2+x2+y2+z2=r2. This implies that for any values where one axis, let's say w, falls to zero . . ."

Victor held up his hand. "Now is not the time."

And I thought, "When is ever the time for talking like that?" For people like me, anyhow, who never took advanced math or science. As King Sylvarresta said when Raj Ahten took his Wit: "Ghaaaah!"

Here's another example (page 316):

I bent that world-line into a knot. The controlling monad for that group of chemicals was inert, and the final causes of the atoms were deterministic, controlled entirely by Newtonian cause-and-effect. The monad tilted in the Fourth Dimension and came awake, bringing its meaning-axis to bear. Quantum uncertainty increased in the atomic mixture. No different than what I had done to restore Quentin's memory to him. New branches and stalks erupted on the monad's tree of possible futures. It was no longer determined and inert.

Actually, now that I'm writing it, I understand it better. I think.

Other readers have mentioned another drawback: that this book is the first of three that tell the story of these Chaos Kids, and as such it is rather introductory in nature, and the real story doesn't get going until book two. I don't know. I agree it's definitely an introductory book. But I was more disappointed to find (around chapter 9) that there were all manner of multi-dimensional mythological creatures involved. I had kind of hoped it was something else, or someone else. At various points throughout the second half of the book, there were some pretty lengthy expository conversations. Those helped me to come to terms with the creatures and what they were doing in the story and why, but they certainly slowed the action. On the other hand, there was enough stuff going on to keep my interest. I wonder: if it had not been so beautifully written, would I have kept going during the slow parts?

But it ends with a small bang that makes me want to read book 2. So that's good, eh?


Chase 'em away! Chase 'em away! I'm afraid . . . Need your aid . . .

Christmas and Winter and the holiday season remind me of the Moffat books by Eleanor Estes.

Yay Rufus!

And it's all because of one word: chilblains. Somebody in the book, probably Jane, was always worried about chilblains when the cold weather set in. I didn't even know what chilblains were, but it sounded bad.

I learned a lot from reading the Moffats. I learned about dressmaker dummies, and what it's like to have to move and to get your first library card and to grow up during wartime, and about making a fool of yourself in front of your peers, and helping someone who's in trouble. I also learned new words like chilblains, and what it was like to be really cold in the winter, something that seems rather far-fetched here in southern California where winter means you actually might have to put a sweater on if you go outdoors in the evening between Thanksgiving and St Patrick's Day.

We were downtown a couple of weeks ago, sitting on lawn chairs on the sidewalk with the rest of the town, waiting for the commencement of our local Christmas Parade at dusk, and Gary wasn't even wearing his jacket. He couldn't remember a time when it had been this warm at the parade. No chilblains for us!

Going to the Christmas parade is a tradition for us, mostly because the high school marching band is in the parade, and our kids have all been in the band over the years. Well, that's not the whole reason. I remembered going to Christmas parades when I was a young child and I thought my kids, when they were little, would also enjoy the experience. It's so Moffat.

I don't remember a Christmas parade in San José where I grew up. But before my grandparents moved away from Watsonville, we used to go down there for the parade. It was sometimes chilly enough that my grandparents, parents, and aunt and uncle would stay in the car (they were avoiding chilblains, I guess). But they still wanted to be able to see the parade, and that meant getting the people standing in front of the car to somehow move away. So they told my brother and sister and cousins and me to make nuisances of ourselves by running around in the crowd, making noises, singing, and being just generally bratty.

I remember a Stanford U drinking song we used to sing - I can't remember who taught it to us, my mother or father or some other adult relative - but it was the kind of song that rhymed "beer" and "cheer", "wine" and "fine", and "whiskey" and "frisky". (I looked up the lyrics here. Either I've apparently remembered it wrong, because there is no "wine" verse in the listed lyrics, or else my parents substituted it for one of the other verses.)

Can you imagine how delightful it was for us to be ordered by our parents to be rotten and rude? "Yes, children", imagine the adult responsible for your upbringing saying to you, "Run amok through these grownups, bump into them, be as annoying as possible, and sing a song about getting drunk while you're at it." What a lovely Christmas gift!

This year it was just Gary and I at the parade. Most of the kids have moved on, and the last of them was in the marching band. I got my camera out, prepared to take pictures when he came along with his shiny new trumpet.

I took a picture of the Marine Corps band just fine:

I took a picture of the Cool Horses pulling the Old Steam Fire Engine just fine:

I took a picture of my favorite Vintage Auto just fine:

But when the band came along, some chucklehead, in fact a whole pod of chuckleheads, walked right in front of me, obstructing my view. I had to run down the street a block or two and get ahead of the band again so I could try taking another picture. Even then, people still got in the way.

I began to wish I had a group of little ones that I could teach songs to and command them to annoy the chuckleheads out of my way. Because an adult bumping into people and singing loudly about being drunk would just get arrested. And that's not Moffat.


How many of us have to die for your happiness?

A while back I was volunteering at the Bottom Shelf and a woman came up to me and said, “Would you happen to have any of the Mistborn books?”

I said, “The what?”

She explained that it was a fantasy series that was really, really good and her son wanted to read the next in the series. She then described a bit of the premise, which I didn’t really understand, but she was so enthusiastic that it caught my interest anyhow.

So out loud I then answered her that we didn’t have those books in the store, but in my head I was wondering why the heck I never even hear about cool book series (serieses? What’s the plural of series? Is series plural already or is it like deer, where it can be singular or plural?) until like the last installment is ready to come out or even until the series has been around for so long that they’re making a tv show out of it.

I decided then and there that things have got to change.

The lady had told me the author of the series was Brandon Sanderson, so I did a little research and discovered that, besides being an author, he also taught in the English department at BYU. My first thought was “Can there any good thing come out of Provo?” Speaking of fantasy, I mean. But I kept my ears peeled. My eyes, too. But there wasn’t a single Brandon Sanderson novel available in our library, and the request list was a long one, with many people before me. Well, I would have to wait.

A month or so later, I read that Brandon Sanderson was going to be in San Diego at a book signing for the third (and, as far as I know, the last) installment of the Mistborn series. I decided to go get me a signed book. When I got to the bookstore, after only getting lost once, I discovered that Sanderson was in company with another fantasy author, David Farland, who would be signing his latest publication.

Well! I thought happily. Two authors for the gas price of one.

David Farland, I learned from overhearing someone talking in the bookstore, is not only the author of the Runelords series. He is also Dave Wolverton, who has written scifi. I had actually read some scifi by Dave Wolverton, not knowing (because I’m a fantasy ignoramus) that it was the same author. I was a little disappointed: if I’d known, I’d have brought along my two Dave Wolverton books to be signed.

But it was an enjoyable event anyway. Both authors read a bit from their latest releases, answered some questions, and signed books. When it was my turn, I found both authors to be funny and friendly and approachable, and Sanderson wasn’t even affronted when I told him I hadn’t read anything by him, yet. They both told me about their websites and how I could get the older books in the series. I asked if I could take a picture, and David Farland said yes very graciously and posed nicely, and my hand was shaking so his picture came out blurry. Rats.

Brandon Sanderson

David Farland

In the last few weeks, I’ve still been looking, without success, for Mistborn books. I commiserate with that lady who wandered into the Bottom Shelf. I did, however, have access to the first Runelords book, entitled (of all things) The Runelords.

You can’t judge a book by its cover, the saying goes. And when I saw the cover of The Runelords, I had to ask myself why the two mortal-looking characters were dressed like they’d just stepped out of a 1940s MGM medieval epic. It kind of turned me off, because it made me think of the kind of “What ho, my lord!” dialogue that irritates me about a lot of what I’ve heard termed “medievaloid” fantasy. In fact, Farland’s characters do use the term “milord”, which was annoying, but I was able to get past it. Fortunately, the book itself was such a mixture of intrigue and creepiness and adventure and love that I was able to ignore the strange artwork. (It does become clear, near the end of the book, what’s going on in the picture, but the costumes they’re wearing are totally a fabrication of the artist’s imagination.)

When I say the book is creepy, I mean I found myself really creeped out by the idea of giving “endowments” of power to other people. For instance, people volunteered their wit, their sense of smell or touch or sight, their stamina, their grace, etc, to the nobles and their warriors so that the leaders could be successful in fighting their enemies. At first, I thought it was kind of silly, some of the things they gave. But it became increasingly apparent that many of these traits were intertwined or interdependent – like you needed extra stamina to deal with the increased brawn, and you needed more grace than usual to deal with the additional metabolism – and it was interesting to see the whole rune culture unfold. I told Ian about it, and he decided that our cats have been involved in swapping endowments: Skipper has seven endowments of fur, and Piper has given away an endowment of wit. I don't know which category it is (grace? metabolism?), but all three cats have donated something there. I don't know how else to explain their diminished capacity to properly digest food.

Anyway, I really enjoyed reading The Runelords because it was well written, it was exciting, it had a few strong sympathetic characters (one of them female) that I could root for, and it had a nice love story that was very well balanced – not too much, not too little. It also had a very creepy villain. Ew. Raj Ahten, in my opinion, is way creepier than Darken Rahl in Wizard’s First Rule. I think they were both creepier than Sauron in LOTR, though neither was as powerful nor as evil. Although that may be because we really don’t get to see much of Sauron. But anyway….

I also really liked the philosophy the main characters espoused – the good ones, that is. Where Wizard’s First Rule tells us that people are stupid and that all living things thrive by murder (or whatever it was) and that we must live our own lives, The Runelords tells us that “Few men, even among the wise, understand the great power one can gain from service” and “We are all intertwined. Man, plant, earth, sky, fire, water. We are not many things, but one thing.” And then there was this conversation between Gaborn the Runelord and Binnesman the Earth Wizard:

“Is happiness everything?” Gaborn asked.

“Yes, ultimately I believe it is,” Binnesman said. “It should be the goal of your existence, to live life in peace and joy.”

He didn’t add any nonsense about succeeding at your goal of peace and joy by murdering other creatures.

So, I heartily recommend The Runelords. It’s the kind of book I wanted to read all the time, even at night, in bed, with a flashlight so as not to disturb my bedfellow. We were both happy, he in his slumbers and I with my book.


It's just rude to accuse me of murder!

When I first heard that Terry Goodkind’s The Sword of Truth series was being adapted for television, I was pretty excited. I hadn’t even finished any of the 11 (or 12) books in the series, and the one I had started a while ago (book 3) kind of drove me nuts. But I had heard a lot of good things about the main characters of Richard and Kahlan, which is why I went scouring around in the library to find one of the books to begin with. I always like it when the stuff I read has both strong and likeable female characters as well as male ones. I suppose that’s not so uncommon nowadays, but when I was growing up it was rather unusual to find those kind of females in fantasy and science fiction. That’s probably why I had no problem with what Peter Jackson, et al, did with Arwen and Eowyn in the LOTR films.

When I finally found a copy of book 1, Wizard’s First Rule, I knew I’d have to hurry and read it if I wanted to finish before the tv series premiered. It seemed at first a daunting task because the book is 836 flippin’ pages long (the paperback, I mean). However, only a few pages into it, I became intrigued with the story and was able to zip through it, raising my eyebrows and blinking rapidly once in a while at sudden graphic descriptions of violence, but as they were nothing worse than what you’d see on the X-Files . . . maybe . . . I continued with the fascinating story. That is, until about three-fourths of the way through when I hit the torture chapters. I call them torture chapters because, not only is Richard tortured for pages on end, but it was torture for me to have to read them. So I resorted to skimming lightly, slowing down enough to see if the word “agiel” was in the text, and speeding up again if it was. Finally, those chapters were over. I’m so relieved. But the next thing I know, Kahlan is being beaten up and nearly raped, but ¡phew! she starts screaming her way into ultra-Confessor powers at the last second. Then some very hideous things happen, and an annoyingly sarcastic talking dragon joins the crew, and there's more torture and more violence and more beatings, and finally Richard tricks the bad guy and a happy ending. Until book 2.

As I’ve gone on reading the subsequent books, I’m starting to get a little disturbed at what Goodkind puts his characters through. I’m in book 5 now, and I find myself still having to skim over things. And it’s getting to be like some sort of soap opera, like will they ever be able to live together in peace? Or will stupid things keep happening to get in their way and separate them? And why in the name of all humanity does Kahlan have to be beaten to a pulp or nearly lose a body part or be otherwise violated in every book so far? If it keeps up like that, I may not finish all the books.

As for the tv series, which for some reason is called Legend of the Seeker, I’m enjoying it quite a lot. I was initially a little dismayed at the changes made—like 1) Richard not really knowing who Zedd was in the tv series as compared to being his close friend and student since childhood in the book; 2) Darken Rahl being dark-haired, not to mention way less menacing than in the book, but maybe that’s a good thing; and 3) the women in the Midlands having long hair. I’m able to get over those changes, however. The good changes I can see are 1) the characters in the tv series talk a lot less, if you can believe it. In the books, they blather on and on, in the most unlikely situations. For instance, in book 4 I think it is, Kahlan and Cara stand around in The Pit for 10 or 15 pages talking about how Cara’s Mord-Sith power works on the poor sap who tried to assassinate Richard, when all the while the evil genius possessing the poor sap is listening and learning. Why didn’t they take that conversation to a more genial locale, away from the bad guy? 2) The characters in the tv series are, so far, not as prone to making mistakes as the characters in the book are. The Wizard’s First Rule happens to be “People are stupid”. Well, the characters in the book sure can be. 3) I don’t think there’s going to be as much violence in the tv series. At least I hope not. Poor Kahlan and Richard.

By the way, speaking of the Wizard’s First Rule and people being stupid, Zedd and Richard have a conversation about murder being the way of all living things. (Kahlan wisely decides not to get involved in the discussion.) Richard objects by saying, “Only some of nature. Like predators. And that’s only to survive. Look about at these trees, they can’t even think of murder.”

So Zedd responds that “every living thing is a murderer.” Richard looks around at the trees and sees how the big ones with lots of greenery are the pretty ones, the ones we prefer, and the scrawny little ones that can’t grow in the shade of the big ones are undesirable. He therefore concludes “It was true: the design of nature was success by murder.” Richard is stupid.

Back in the Transformational Linguistics heyday, I took a class in Semantics. I remember we once spent a whole period discussing kill vs murder. Our text diagrammed it thusly:

A lot of the discussion had to do with varying situations, like self defense, war, etc, where the killing is deliberate but is not considered murder. Anyhow, I thought the diagram in the text pretty much cleared up the question of whether “kill” and “murder” mean the same thing, as in they don’t. So how, may I ask, does a big pine tree deliberately kill a scrawny one? Where is the deliberateness? So yeah, people are stupid. And so, apparently, are pine trees.

But even if they include that absurd dialogue in the tv series, I will still watch it. It's worth it to see Richard wield his sword and Kahlan her Confessor power.


But seriously, we have to find Halloween Night

We were in Utah during Halloween. I hadn’t planned on wearing a costume that day, but my friend who is a Librarian at the Orem city library gave me one. During the month of October, her library had been celebrating one of the best books ever (of course I mean To Kill a Mockingbird) with programs for kids and adults. They also had some giveaways, and the most popular was this button:

So I dressed up as a To Kill a Mockingbird fan. I was even complimented by two or three people.

Something else that helped me catch the mood of the day was the book The Historian, by Elizabeth Kostova. Here I was just complaining that I couldn’t find a scary book, and then The Historian comes along. It’s a modern-day (well, 20th century modern – it takes place partly in the 1930s and partly in the 1950s and partly in the late 1960s, I think) story of a multi-generational search for . . . Dracula!

The Historian isn’t a shocker, like when someone is waiting oh so silently outside the bathroom door, making sure her shadow doesn’t show along the little opening between the floor and the bottom of the door, waiting for you to finish brushing your teeth, and she waits . . . waits . . . waits . . . then you open the door to come out and she says “Boo!” No, it’s not shocking like that. While you’re reading it, you don’t shriek in a high-pitched tone that dogs all over the neighborhood could hear, and you don’t jump six inches into the air and clutch your chest like you’re having a heart attack. Also, you don’t chase your mother down the stairs yelling how mean she is.

It’s the kind of book that builds up the suspense page by page by describing strange or eerie occurrences, and occasionally there’s a scary incident where you can hardly wait to find out what happens next. It was very effective at keeping my interest and giving me the occasional chill. Yay for books like that. I don’t think you need to have read the original Dracula by Bram Stoker to enjoy this book, but I was glad I had because I knew what the author was talking about the few times she mentioned stuff from that book.

So, yeah, a scary book and a great costume: what more could you want for Halloween? Except maybe a Mounds candy bar, which I also got.


Technically, that makes you a cannibal

Speaking of Ratty, this happens to be the 100th anniversary of the publication of Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows. To find out more about it, and what kind of editions of the book are collectible, go here.

I thought about buying a little paint-it-yourself statue of Ratty (the real Ratty) in order to commemorate the event.

But they cost over $10 and you have to have them shipped from the UK, which is expensive, and besides, I don't want to contribute any more to image consumerism. I think that's why I took down all my posters, for those of you who were wondering.


Yup, when you think of shocking horror, you think of German Oompah band music.

I haven’t posted much lately because I’ve been dealing with a crashed computer and the consequent frustrating efforts to restore my technological life. I say frustrating because, even though I backed up a lot of important stuff about a week before the crash, I’m finding now as things get back to normal that a lot of “unimportant” stuff didn’t get saved. I experience occasional bouts of regret and sadness at the awareness that files I rarely used but kept on hand “just in case” are no longer available to me. Curiously, this regret is mingled with a sense of lightness as I realize how unencumbered I am by the intellectual detritus that’s built up on my computer over the years. Which, when I think about it, makes no sense because it was all electronic bits and bytes and had no “real” existence at all until I called it up on the screen. It’s not as if I cleaned out a closet and tossed a bunch of old clothes and shoes. It’s not as if I went through my books and culled out the ones I know I’m never going to read again (or ever, in the case of some titles). It’s not as if I went through the medicine cabinet and pulled out all the expired prescriptions and the ancient bottles of “Tr. Merthiolate” from the Southern Pacific Memorial Hospital, Inc, and the sticky cough drops that are so old that when you try to take off the wrapper there’s this sort of viscous webbing that stretches between the lozenge and the wrapper and it reminds you of mozzarella cheese when you pull a piece of pizza away from the whole, or of the first X-Files movie when Scully pushed her latex-gloved fingers against that fireman victim’s chest and the goo covering his corpse kind of stretched out in a disgustingly gooey way. So yeah, losing computer files isn’t anything like that.

But I’m not going to dwell on computer crashes and lost data. Since Halloween is coming up, it’s time to talk about what is the Scariest Book. I know, I already posted about The Pony Engine, but stuff that scares you when you’re a kid doesn’t necessarily affect you the same way once you’re grown up.

One of my favorite Halloween books is Northanger Abbey, by Jane Austen.

Of course, the hilarious book cover notwithstanding, Northanger Abbey is not really a scary book. In fact, Jane Austen wrote it as a parody of the scary books of her time. That makes it a perfect book for this particular seasonal celebration because -- in the words of someone whose name I no longer know and whose words I actually don’t remember either so I’m going to have to paraphrase because I lost all that information when my computer crashed and that’s annoying because she said it way better than I can -- it describes the folly of trying to scare yourself on purpose, which is what Halloween is all about.

In case you do want to scare yourself, though, and you choose literature as your method, you may want to select something a little more suspenseful. As for me, I always thought Mary Stewart’s books were pretty suspenseful, the first few times I read them, anyhow. And I remember once, when I was babysitting for this couple who had three or four boys, and the boys were all in bed because it was getting on towards 11:00 pm and the parents had said they were going to be late, and I was bored so I looked at their bookshelves for something to read, I selected Sleeping Murder by Agatha Christie. I was in my early twenties at the time and yet, if you can believe it, I had never read a single book by Agatha Christie. I decided to give this one a try.

I really do not like being in a room late at night with a light on when the room has massive windows and no curtains. Because, when the light is on, you can’t see outside. Yet anyone who happens to be lurking out there has a clear view into the room. And they can see you sitting there, huddled on the couch, reading a murder mystery, all alone.

I’ve come across a lot scarier things since that time, but Sleeping Murder has a special place in my heart and on my bookshelf, first, because it truly gave me the creeps (I know, the circumstances had a lot to do with it), and second, because it introduced me to Agatha Christie.

I’ve never read anything by Stephen King, since I’m not really a horror fan. Horror seems like a cheap way of scaring people (like those “horrid” novels mentioned in Northanger Abbey), whereas with suspense you must take pains and use skill in creating the atmosphere of psychological fear. But that just may be the literary snob in me speaking.

Yet it seems to me that it’s getting harder and harder to “scare” people nowadays without resulting to the cheap tricks of horror. For instance, I read Dracula, by Bram Stoker, and found it interesting and entertaining, but I certainly wasn’t horrified by it like people in the 1890s supposedly were when they first read it. The increased graphic content of tv, film, and literature has made people (including me) more callous to horror and suspense. Sure, I’ve read page-turners, books that were so intriguing I couldn’t wait to find out what happens next. But I wasn’t really scared. When I try to think of a book that I’ve read in the last ten or twenty years that has really frightened me, I can’t come up with one.

Any suggestions? Any truly scary books you’ve read that don’t rely on graphic descriptions of maiming-type mayhem to frighten the reader?


There's a whole lot of irrelephants in the circus

A while back, I mentioned that the only train story I could remember from my childhood gave me the creeps. I included a picture of The Little Engine That Could.

However, The Little Engine That Could is not the exact book that made me so uneasy in my youth, although I must say that the clown in the green polka dot suit gives me a bit of the fidgets. No, the book responsible for so many sensations of apprehension and dread is actually called The Pony Engine, which is either an earlier version of the same story, or something from a parallel universe that somehow found its way to our Earth through a rip in the space-time continuum.

The other day, a copy of The Pony Engine mysteriously showed up at the Bottom Shelf, so I bought it and brought it home to remind myself of some of the more scary moments in my youth.

I don't have too much of a problem with the cover. I just have a few questions that have gone unanswered for the last 45 years:

1. Why is that bear dressed like an engineer? If he is indeed the engineer, why isn't he in the cab, driving the train? Why is he sitting out front with his legs crossed? And why exactly does he even have his legs crossed?

2. Why is that girl sitting on the smoke box? Isn't that kind of really dangerous? Not to mention extremely hot? She's not even wearing trousers, for crying out loud.

3. What's that stuff coming out of the smokestack? It looks to me like maybe that girl dumped a thousand sparklers down there.

4. Why is there an infant on this train? This is a circus train, right? Is this baby somehow part of a circus act? Do they toss it to and fro on the trapeze? Does it crawl under an elephant's foot or into a lion's mouth? I just don't get it.

5. What kind of animals are those? Why are they strange colors? What kind of circus is this, anyhow?

But, as I say, that's not the creepy part.

This is the Express Engine that refused to help the Weak Old Circus Engine after it broke down because, says the Express Engine, "I can't bother with you. I pull only the finest trains."

The Express Engine has slightly evil eyes, which is mildly disturbing. But that's not the creepy part.

This is the so-called Lone Engine, who refuses to help the Circus Engine because, in his own words, "I've done enough. I need a rest." It is a very grouchy looking train and I wouldn't want to ask it for help. But that's not the creepy part.


This is the creepy part. This is the train that haunted me for years. This is the Rusty Dusty Engine that complained it wasn't strong enough to help.

Well, along comes the Pony Engine to save the day, but there's just something, something subliminal or something, in this picture that really gives me the willies. Or maybe it's just a cumulative effect, one picture of horror after another, building up until the breaking point. I can't think of another book from my childhood that causes such uneasiness in me. I know this is supposed to be a story with a moral, a great lesson, but the only lesson I learned from it was no way am I going to ask people for help. It's too scary.

There's another version of this story I'd like to get. It's the 1930 edition of The Little Engine That Could, illustrated by Lois Lenski, the same person who wrote Policeman Small and The Little Airplane and all those cool books, plus many others. Isn't it friendly and non-scary looking?

A first edition of this book sells for over $500. Now that's creepy.


I think it's just elegant to have an imagination

We went to Disneyland last week. We enjoyed ourselves very much. Disneyland is a great place for remembering what it was like to be a child, when Reality and Imagination blended together so nicely instead of colliding unhappily as they are wont to do later in life. It is also a place to ponder one of Life's Great Questions: why is the line for the Peter Pan ride always the longest in Fantasyland? I took advantage of my visit to do a little investigating, in hopes of arriving at an answer to that question.

I believe the reason for the popularity of the Peter Pan ride is that, of all the rides in Fantasyland, it has the perfect combination of coolness and scariness.

In relation to this, I also think there is a connection between how frightening the film is and how frightening the ride is. If parents do their duty, they will have shown the Disney animated films to their children numerous times before taking them to Disneyland so that the children can make a connection between what they viewed at home and what they are experiencing at the park. It helps if characters from the film are walking around in the park so that kids can have their photos taken with the characters. By the way, Disneyland has improved on that aspect since I went there as a youngster. I cannot tell you how wretchedly disappointed I was, at the age of 13, to cross the bridge from Main Street to Sleeping Beauty's castle and see Captain Hook standing there. He put out his hand to shake mine as I approached. It should have been an important day for me, because no character (or Cast Member, as they call 'em) had ever paid the least attention to me before, except one of the Three Little Pigs. But I heeded Hook not. I was looking for Peter Pan. Alas, he was nowhere to be seen, because Peter Pan at that time was not on the list of Cast Members. Nor was Mary Poppins, if you can believe it. It was a sad, sad day.

I have to add that, while I was at Disneyland this time, I did see Peter Pan heading for the Cast Members Only room, and three young women of about 18 or 20 years were chasing after him, screaming his name. What folly! As if you could catch Peter Pan! He ran for it, looking back over his shoulder, and made it safely to sanctuary.

Anyhow, back to answering the Great Question.

The Coolness Factor

Now this is cool

I've said before that I consider Wendy's room my home away from home.

My room at Disneyland

The view from my window

Not only is the scenery fantastic . . .

. . . but you get to sail through the sky in a pirate ship (and I'm happy to report that when we went on the Peter Pan ride this time, we got a pirate ship with a black sail - the best kind). Most of the other rides send you through in a cart or something.

Now to . . .

The Scariness Factor

Peter Pan is not too scary for little kids. There's a bit of tension when you see Tiger Lily about to drown and Wendy about to walk the plank, but it's not serious because Peter Pan always saves the day. (Speaking of which, have you noticed how sexist Peter Pan the animated film is? Not only are all the magical females depicted as jealous airheads, but Wendy has to do housework while her brothers go off having fun, and even the Indian women try to make Wendy do chores. It's one of the reasons I no longer count it as my favorite Disney animated film. Fortunately, you don't see much of that in the ride.)

Show White's Scary Adventures, indeed! The music is loud, the sights are frightening, and that's even before you get out of the dwarves' house. Then there's the witch, who I personally think is less scary as the witch than as the queen.

I once had an English professor at BYU who told the class that, back in 1938 or 1939, after SnowWhite had finished playing at Radio City Music Hall in New York City, they had to replace the covers on all the seats in the auditorium because of all the children who wet their pants in fear of the witch while watching the film. He thought Snow White was a horrible film and Disney was evil.

Which leads me off on another tangent. So many people think Disney (using the name to represent the many different people responsible over the years for the production of the various animated features) whitewashes or sugar-coats things. Maybe so, but sometimes I think they improve things. You have to consider your audience. Really, would you rather see the wicked queen in Snow White forced to wear red-hot iron shoes and dance around in agony until she dies, or is it nicer to have her crushed by a boulder thrown on her by the dwarves? And what's so sugar-coated about being crushed by a boulder?

Or would you want to see Sleeping Beauty being ravished by the prince instead of kissed by him, and then she doesn't wake up until going into labor 9 months later? That's a lovely thing to show a youngster.

Would you rather see the Little Mermaid totally lose out on marrying the prince and then not even get her voice back in compensation, plus she ends up dying? Ugh.

Would you rather see Pinocchio fling the cricket against a wall and smash him? Actually, come to think of it, that one doesn't seem like such a bad idea.

But think of the tortures suffered by Cinderella's stepsisters - doves pecking their eyes out at the wedding celebration! Delightful.

The rides are scary enough; I don't think we need to include those horrific original endings in the films or the rides to totally terrorize and traumatize children. Kids have enough worries nowadays without being saddled with another monkey on their back.

Anyway . . . on to Pinocchio's Daring Journey.

This is also pretty scary, what with the threat of imprisonment and of being turned into a donkey, not to mention being swallowed by a whale.

I have to say, first of all, that here, at Mr Toad's Wild Ride, Disney goes out of its way to make things scarier than they are in the original book or in the film adaptation. The little journey through "hell" is completely apocryphal to both media. If it weren't for the little Dante-ish side visit, Toad's Wild Ride might almost be a contender for Coolest and Least Scary Ride. For coolness, you get to drive a car (and I was so happy that, when we went on the ride, we got a car labeled "Ratty", which is almost as good as a pirate ship with a black sail), and Toad has a beautiful library . . .

. . . and there's that lovely view of London, which is always a plus in my book.

But, in spite of the library, and in spite of the heartwarming scenery, and even if the infernal addition had never been made, Toad's Wild Ride can never qualify as my favorite ride because of the gross instance of character assassination performed by Disney against the beloved and lovable character of Ratty. They (i.e., Disney) took a generous, compassionate, helpful, immensely practical yet spiritually sensitive character from the book and turned him into a stuffy, fussy, officious boor.

The real Ratty

Disney's Ratty (so-called)

They also robbed him of his house! If you go on the Storybookland ride, they show you Toad Hall and, next to it, right on the riverbank, a charming little house with a sign over the door that says "Mole's". Mole's!! And the chick steering the boat even says it's Mole's house! Outrage! Sacrilege! Thievery! As everyone knows, or ought to, Mole's house is a snug little tunnel out in some field. The house on the riverbank is dear, dear Ratty's house, and Mole is his permanent guest. Really, it's an awful thing to turn a perfectly wonderful little animal into someone unworthy of our affection, and then, because of that supposed unworthiness, give his house to the lovable mole.

I love Ratty's house. If I can't stay in Wendy's room, then Ratty's is where I'll go.

The Alice in Wonderland ride, The Teacups, and Dumbo don't count. Alice in Wonderland is the only ride that compares in nature with Peter Pan, Snow White, etc, and it just isn't cool or scary. Nor is the film. That's what you get when you take a very clever and witty book and turn it into an animated children's film but neglect to include the cleverness and wit.

Incidentally, I noticed that, of all the 1940s-1950s-era fairy-tale inspired Disney films, Cinderella is the only one that isn't represented in Fantasyland. I wonder why that is.

Even Sleeping Beauty has the castle, and she used to have the carousel to herself, although nowadays she shares it with Arthur from The Sword in the Stone.

Personally, I'd like to see a Beauty and the Beast-themed ride. That would be a real favorite of mine, since that's my favorite Disney animated film.

I mentioned that back in the day they had no Cast Members of Peter Pan or Mary Poppins, but that they added them, oh, 10 or 15 years ago, I'd guess. My other goal for the day, besides figuring out the answer to one of Life's Great Questions, was to see Mary Poppins. I almost missed her, but then Adrien told me she'd seen her and Bert dancing out in front of Sleeping Beauty's castle. We wandered out that way to see what we could see. We were in luck: about five minutes later, she appeared!

That really made my day. She and Bert were pulling little kids out of the audience and dancing with them. I knew, at my age, it was too much to hope. . . .

After the thrill of seeing them dance and sing, we went over to get some ice cream at a shop on Main Street. While we sat there enjoying our treat, a fellow came up and started playing on a handy piano situated in the courtyard outside the shop. I think his name was Michael. Anyway, he said he expected a couple of his friends to come by in a moment to help him perform some songs, and suddenly, there were Mary Poppins and Bert again! More dancing with kids, more signing of autographs. Then I got up the nerve and asked Bert, who had wandered over near our table, if I could have my picture taken with Mary Poppins. He said certainly. So I went up to stand by her. She held out her elbow for me to put my arm through. I complied, then turned to her and said, "You're my favorite!" She said, "Thank you."

I'm glad that I'm still young enough, or silly enough, to allow reality and imagination to come together amicably.