Fictional places

Last year my birthday happened to be on the first night of White Night. I’m not a huge fan of crowds so I’d never bothered going before, but my tram heading home goes past Carlton Gardens so I figured why not take myself on an impromptu date around the park and go glorified Christmas light spotting?

It was really incredible though, and thinking about it I can’t believe it was nearly a year ago. There was this ominous ‘oommmm’ sound playing like you were entering a pagan forest and a woman on the Exhibition Building that looked like a god you could ask advice to. Basically it all felt very surreal, like the closest thing I could get to living in a magical fictional place like Wonderland, Macondo or whatever reality the Mighty Boosh takes place in.

So lets talk fictional places in literature given that we’re all currently very boring and restricted to fantasy based travels. I’ll be real with you though, in hindsight majority of the fantasy places I chose for this post are more terrifying than magical.

The Little Prince (Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, 1943)

According to this beloved French children’s classic, one of the perks of space travel is that the lifeforms found on other planets are just solitary humans in charge of their one planet. Each space person has a flaw yet they’ll also be keen for a chat, and ultimately you’ll leave their planet feeling as though you’ve learnt something about what’s really important.

The little prince lives on an asteroid known as “B 612”; its notable features include three small volcanoes, the baobab trees which the little prince needs to weed out every day to ensure they do not overrun the whole asteroids surface, and a talking rose – his one companion who’s a bit high maintenance and pretentious but means well.

Although the little prince does love his pain in the ass rose friend, he chooses to explore the universe to see if there are other friendships he can make. Before landing on earth in the desert he visits six other planets, each with just one adult inhabitant (who each need to check themselves).

There’s the elderly geographer who has never seen any of the things he records, a lamplighter who meticulously extinguishes and relights a lamppost every thirty seconds as the days on his planet only last a minute, a drunkard who drinks to forget the shame of drinking (so few children’s book nowadays have drunkards in them it’s a shame), or the alien/starman I relate to most in this book – the narcissist who is very proud of being the most admirable/datable person on his one-man planet.

The Midwich Cuckoos (John Wyndham, 1957)

In the eighties there were these identical adult triplets who were separated at birth that reunited and what they did with that was start a restaurant called Triplets. For some reason it makes me think of Midwich Cuckoos cause all children in that are described as looking eerily alike and them all pooling together for a zany business opportunity would also be a great alternative happy ending.

I so wanted to like this book. In theory the plot sounds well up my alley: everyone in this unnoteworthy (and fictional) isolated English village mysteriously fall unconscious for 24 hours, when everyone wakes up they initially seem unharmed yet after a month they realise every woman is pregnant. There’s a conspiracy, evil mysterious blonde-haired youths who have collective powers, plus there’s a great Simpsons reference to it, what’s not to love?

It isn’t bad but it just would’ve been improved with a lot more focus on the children acting like wrongins’ and a bit less philosophical brooding (the book didn’t even give detail on the village-wide riot the children instigated – I was pretty salty, I wanted details told in real time). Surprisingly though this book gives an interesting perspective on the real stigma a woman would face at that time unexpectedly falling pregnant without a partner, and I like that it wasn’t glossed over as a detail.

The Princess Bride (William Goldman, 1973)

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I read this for the first time a few months back, and I’m so glad I saved this gem for such a dogshit year. It such a magical, light-hearted, wholesome, funny book to get lost in when reality is a touch dull as fuck.

Embarrassingly when I was a kid and saw the 1987 film adaption it wasn’t my cup of tea (I’ve since done a re-watch and clearly younger Ellen’s judgement can’t be trusted).

Goldman presents the book a “good parts version” of a (fictional) book by S. Morgenstern – a fictional author from the fictional country, Florin. His commentary and fictional facts about the history of Florin are scattered throughout the story, and like the film adaption Goldman’s introduction tells of his father reading The Princess Bride to him when he was sick (in reality he wrote it for his daughters).

It’s set in medieval Florin, where the main character Buttercup reluctantly agrees to marry the heir to Florin’s throne, Prince Humperdinck, after her one true love – a poor farm boy, is presumed dead.

Now Florin is a pretty wicked and terrifying fictional place; it has a fire swamp, cliffs of insanity, shark invested water and an underground “Zoo of Death” where Humperdick collects deadly (fictional) animals to hunt. I’d be open to visiting there, even though it’s national mortality rate is likely really high.

The Shadow over Innsmouth (H.P Lovecraft, 1931)

While the decrepit fictional seaport town of Innsmouth isn’t Lovecraft’s most famous fictional city, it is a bus ride away from the one that appears the most in his stories, Arkham. Plus I opted for Innsmouth over Arkham cause its more menacing and dangerous.

Like Arkham, Innsmouth is found in Massachusetts (it is also loosely based on the real city of Newburyport, Massachusetts), and the main character who takes the ill-advised day trip there is a student of Arkham’s Miskatonic University.

The town reeks of fish, and during the day it appears virtually abandoned with its few inhabitants all sharing odd similarities in appearance with ‘queer narrow heads with flat noses and bulgy, stary eyes’.

Cut a long story short, for decades the villagers have been breeding with aquatic monsters known as the ‘Deep Ones’ with their offspring’s being part human/part amphibian hybrids. Once these offspring’s reach maturity they transform into Deep Ones and leave Innsmouth to live in an ancient undersea city. As with many Lovecraft stories the moral seems to be never go anywhere new.

Catching Dreams with a Trumpet & a Briefcase

“There are good reasons why we don’t want our eyes to be open, what does the world mean ‘How come I am a huge participant in this huge enterprise known as reality?’” 

That quote is from existentialist/debbie downer, Søren Kierkegaard, who believed that the majority of us sleepwalk through our lives. And he has a point really, some days you just do what you have to and internally replay Seinfeld quotes until its finally time you can head home and read your book (my life truly is gripping at the moment).

Then there’s French Philosopher/big-ol’ dandy, René Descartes’ how do you know you’re not just dreaming argument for Dualism (which to me will always sound like a really good name for a belief that duelling is the best form of conflict resolution); this suggests that there are instances where dreams feel so real that when you wake up, for a second you question whether it really happened, and therefore all reality is questionable.

And he has a point too really! Regularly when I’m sleeping in for five more minutes, I’ll dream that I’m not a dropkick and I’ve already made my way out of bed and I’m on the tram, and then I’ll wake up extra shitty with myself that I still have to psych myself out of my comfy-comfy bed.

Because dreams can be all lucid and weird, their origins and meanings – as well as their connection to our reality – is a theme that’s always ripe for fictional exploration. Whether you’re fond of the idea of the BFG roaming the streets of a night and sending nice dreams your way via trumpet. Or you’re re-watching Twin Peaks and you think Dale Cooper’s theory that “dreams come from acetylcholine neurons fire high-voltage impulses into the forebrain, these impulses become pictures, the pictures become dreams – but, no one knows why we choose these particular pictures” has some good points; seeing dreams as representing more than simply something your brain does to entertain itself for several hours of inactivity, makes life seem a bit more mysterious and almost magical.

So let’s talk dreams in literature and then leave feeling slightly jaded that so far your dreams haven’t shown strong signs that they have the power to shift reality or read the future!! I do feel a little ripped off, at the most my dreams are occasionally a laugh.

Slaughterhouse Five (Kurt Vonnegut, 1969)

I learnt a fun-fact a few weeks back, apparently Kurt Vonnegut managed a SAAB dealership in his day; SAAB’s were a underrated car, I respect Vonnegut more knowing he sold a babe magnet car then went home and wrote some classics of 20th century American literature, and he could also draw a tasteful a-hole – what a triple threat that man was!

For a while I didn’t want to read Slaughterhouse Five because the only thing I knew about it was that it references David Irving – a Holocaust denying ‘historian’/all round shithead whose research on the Dresden bombings has since been discredited. And its hard because at the time Slaughterhouse Five was written/published there was no way for Vonnegut to know that Irving would later be best known as a notorious Holocaust denier who exaggerated the death toll of Dresden to militarise historical memory. But it still isn’t great though that new editions don’t point this out to readers.

Anyway I’m side-tracking, I did eventually read Slaughterhouse Five and as a work of fiction it is really good aside from that one thing. In particular I love before the story begins how Vonnegut talks about the promise he made to the wife of an old war buddy that the story he would ultimately write would not glamourize war as the wife felt that books and movies sold a lie to young people by romanticising war.

Based on Vonnegut’s own experience as a prisoner of war who witnessed the Dresden bombings and it’s aftermath, the main character, Billy Pilgram, is too an American POW who witnesses the destruction of Dresden. Yet cause this is a Vonnegut book, Billy has this unique problem where he’s become ‘unstuck in time’, and occasionally when he feels asleep he’ll wake up at various different points in his life.

Billy’s presence in his past and future never alters his fate, it’s just something he can do, and I respect Billy for going with it and never really analysing why it is he has this gift.

Watership Down (Richard Adams, 1972)

I’ve written about Watership Down in a previous post so I won’t repeat myself too much here. Basically Fiver is the sensitive member of team. He’s a bit psychic and when he tells you he’s had a dream that the whole warren is in danger and every rabbit needs to leave now, he’s know what he talking about so don’t laugh at him just because he’s a wee bit eccentric.

The Dreams in the Witch House (H.P Lovecraft, 1933)

This one’s a short story belonging to the Cthulhu Mythos (a fictional satanic god who kinda looks like the every villain is lemons bit in Spongebob).

In this tale, a student of mathematics and folklore, Walter Gilman, decides to rent out a very cheap and very cursed attic room in a house known to locals as ‘the witch’s house’ (if the locals say don’t stay somewhere listen to them you fool!!).

As Walter is a fan of both maths and folklore (how convenient) he is interested in staying in this house because it once belonged to a woman trialled for witchcraft in Salem for her belief that she knew of lines and curve patterns which could allow one to travel across dimensions. Also as you’d except, the majority of this room’s previous occupants have died in mysterious circumstances.

Every night in this room Walter has strange feverish dreams (and props for Walter for even managing to fall asleep in a room he knows has a two century trend of dead tenants). In these dreams he shifts through ‘inexplicably coloured twilight’ vortexes, and envisions the witch moving closer.

Eventually the dreams reach a point where Walter has signed a mysterious book and he’s trying to stop the witch from abducting a child, and he wakes up in the morning to hear that a child’s actually gone missing.

Long story short the landlord abandons the house and years later, when workmen are demolishing the roof they find the space above the creepy attic is filled with children’s bones and the bone’s of the witch. Basically the moral of the story is never take an interest in maths.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (Philip K Dick, 1968)

This is the book Bladerunner is based on. In this dystopia (set in San Francisco, 2021), the earth’s atmosphere is riddled with radioactive dust and the majority of people have relocated to a Mars colony. What’s more as radiation caused mass extinction of animals. protecting what little life remains has become the centre of society’s spiritual beliefs and owning pets has become so fashionable that mechanical animals are commonplace.

An incentive government offers for people willing to move to the mars colony are android servants. These androids are physically identical to humans, and the job of the main character, Richard Deckhard, is to ‘retire’ androids who escape the colony and try to disguise themselves as humans.

Despite having dream in the title, dreams are not a big part of this book’s plot. However, the religion the last earth dwellers follow, Mercerism, does involve plugging your mind into a box and fusing thought in a sleep-like trance, with a character who’s slowly trekking up a mountain to his death; the point being to encourage shared empathy.

The Lathe of Heaven (Ursula K. Le Guin, 1971)

A bit like The Butterfly Effect but with aliens; the main character, George’s dreams have the ability to shift reality to the point where the past can be restructured overnight to fit what George dreamt about.

George however hates this overwhelming responsibility his sub-conscious has, and goes to see a sleep therapist, Dr William Haber. Haber is sceptical at first but with the help of Haber’s trusty dream machine he’s been working on, Haber suggests things for George to dream about and becomes the only person who remembers what the reality was like before George fell asleep and changed everything.

The general gist is Haber gets too into having this level of power and attempts to sculpt a Utopian society, while George feels like he’s being used and tries to find a lawyer who’ll believe him. What I like about this book is that while suggestions can be made to George as to what he’ll dream about next, it’s realistic in that he has no control as to what form that idea will take as a dream.

Ghostbusting

In all seriousness I once had what I’m definitely convinced was a paranormal experience.

I was on a ghost tour of an old building with some friends on Valentine’s Day last year (I can’t stress enough I went with other people! It wasn’t some completely tragic stag valentines evening), and this burst of light went past me. I didn’t tell anyone though just cause I’d been a massive smart ass up until that point (what you’d except you know, doing the creepy hand up people’s backs and the like).

This isn’t to say though that this one experience was enough to get me one hundred percent convinced in the existence of ghosts (and to be fair we had been drinking before this tour started), but it is quite poetic to believe that places remember their history and hold onto past energy. It’s like that classic Einstein quote which those terrible ghost hunting shows tend to reference, that ‘energy can neither be created nor destroyed it can only change forms’.

Anyway so let’s talk about ghosts in literature, and judge how they’re choosing to spend their afterlife. I haven’t read A Christmas Carol though, just cause I like to go into a book fresh and I think every person knows that plot before they’ve even knew it was Dickens – thanks a lot Muppets Christmas Carol!!!

The Canterville Ghost (Oscar Wilde, 1887)

This story is more adorable than it is scary. I think it must’ve been a children’s story.

So an American family moves into this long-abandoned mansion in the UK, Canterville Chase, and they’re warned by the seller, Lord Canterville, that no one wants to live there because it’s haunted by one of his dead relatives. But the Otis family are ballers, and they move in anyway cause the place was a bargain (which I respect).

Anyway so the Canterville ghost starts making its first appearances, but the family are treating the sight of the un-dead with impressive levels of nonchalance. Especially the two twin boys whose incessant pranks on the ghost actually start making the ghost so depressed that he starts keeping to himself in his room.

Its at this point that the youngest daughter, Virginia, starts to feel sorry for the Canterville ghost and she helps him on this little quest to get out of limbo and move into the afterlife. AWWWW!!!

The Turn of the Screw (Henry James, 1898)

Honestly it’s been roughly two years since I read Turn of the Screw, and personally I found it pretty underwhelming.

I had to quickly google what the plot was as I couldn’t for the life of me remember what happened beyond – it takes place in a mansion and the children act creepy for 80% of the story. So clearly I’ve blocked this reading experience from my memory.

Anyway so according to Sparknotes, what happens is a governess is taking care of two children, Flora and Miles, at this country home called Bly, and the kids progressively act more and more strange especially at night, as the governess frequently spots them roaming around outside.

Understandably the governess becomes more disturbed by these goings-on so she’s doing a bit of research, and it turns out the ghosts of Bly’s former governess and footman, Miss Jessel and Quint, are manipulating the children.

Truly, even rereading a plot summary I can’t remember this story at all. I do however remember thinking at the time, why would you want to spend your after-life hanging out in your old workplace with only some snooty manor house children for company?

The Brown Hand (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, 1899)

So because Arthur Conan Doyle is obviously most known for Sherlock Holmes, my very immature mind hoped that this story was a grim tale of Sherlock solving a fairly simple case of how a hand got brown (I’m disgusting and I need to grow up).

This one’s pretty good. It’s about a doctor who for twenty years has been visited every night by the ghost of a former patient. This patient was an Afghan hill-man who had his hand amputated by the doctor, and for religious reasons he needed to be buried with all parts of his body. The doctor had made a promise to the him that he would keep the hand preserved with his other specimens and he could have it back to be buried with, but due to a house fire the doctor was unable to keep his promise. So the deceased patient comes back every night, searches the remnants of the doctor’s collection and then looks angrily at the doctor because he can’t see his hand amongst the collection.

The Inexperienced Ghost (H.G Wells, 1902)

I do love how the majority of Victorian-era ghost stories all seem to start in the same way, where a group of men are in a cigar room or something and they all decide to exchange ghost-stories.

In this story, a man called Clayton is telling his golf buddies about how the previous night he met a sobbing ghost, and while he’s telling this story he dies of a heart-attack leaving his fellow golfers not sure whether his story was true or just an elaborate joke.

What is sadly relatable about this story is that the ghost is crying because he’s really terrible at doing hauntings and it’s gotten to him that even in death he’s managed to find something else he sucks at.

Also Wells gets some points for this stellar pun: ‘but being transparent of course he couldn’t avoid telling the truth’ – Wells you sly ol’ wordsmith you!!!

The Mound (H.P Lovecraft, 1929)

H.P Lovecraft is to science fiction what Poe is to Gothic literature, and I am surprised/deeply disappointed in myself that this is the first mention of him on this blog.

What’s great about Lovecraft’s Cthulhu stories is that even though each are individual pieces that can be read individually and in no particular order, they interlace together through the fictional forbidden book of black magic, Necronomicon. 

In The Mound an ethnologist is visiting Binger, Oklahoma to study a mysterious Indian mound which the town is situated under. This mound is deeply feared by the locals due to the fates of the few people who have attempted to explore it. What’s more, it is said to be haunted by two ghosts, a man during the day and a headless woman at night.

And (*spoilers) while the two ‘ghosts’ haunting the mound turn out not to be ghosts but rather guards of a gateway into the underground realm of K’n-yan, I figured this story still belongs on the list because initially you do assume that the two recurring figures are ghosts. (If you’re going to start reading Lovecraft though, The Mound isn’t the best one, try The Thing on the Doorstep or The Shadow Over Innsmouth first).

Eileen (Ottessa Moshfegh, 2015)

Not strictly a ghost story either, but it uses ghosts as a metaphor often enough that I think I can bring it up here. Also it’s just impressive that for once I’ve branched out and actually read something written in this century for a change.

Recanted by the main character in her old age, Eileen takes place the week leading up to Christmas, 1962 – what would ultimately be the then 24 year old Eileen’s last week in her hometown of X-ville before she started a new life away from her abusive drunken father. It’s a clever hook because you do end up reading it pretty fast in a desperate need to know what’s gonna finally push Eileen to stand up for herself.

Specifically ghosts are regularly mentioned in relation to the dilapidated house she shares with her father, which has been left to fall apart since her mother’s death two years ago, but also more literally, her father is convinced that thuggish ‘hoodlum ghosts’ are living in their walls – which is a story-line I wish they further elaborated on.