2021: My Year in Books: The Infographic

Happy New Year Eve everyone! I will have some fun putting together the “nerd data” in an upcoming post–including more charts! Gotta have charts. And behind every chart is a great spreadsheet! Stay tuned for 01/10/22.

Meanwhile, I wanted to share the Goodreads “My Year in Books” infographic, with some brief reflections and book discoveries. I’m pleased to say that I met most of my goals this year, and exceeded them in some cases (though in my full write-up I’ll admit that I missed a couple of reading goals). You can see the online infographic here, but this post covers the basics.

“You’re really good at reading, and probably a lot of other things, too!” Well shucks, thanks for the encouragement Goodreads! In 2021, I have learned about some things that I am good at that I have been trying to develop–as well as some things that I am not good at but probably should get over. I have learned more about how to work well when motivated and a bit about how my mind works with new ideas. In terms of yearly reading goals, unless I am on an award committee of some kind, I doubt that I’ll ever repeat my 2019 success again–that period where I was at the most productive time in my PhD thesis writing. However, I did well in 2021, reading 138 books (my spreadsheet shows 139). 

I can certainly see a pattern emerging, where a natural rhythm for me is not 154 books, but 117-138 books per year. Indeed, the average is 128.4 books (whether tallied for the whole 7 years or leaving out high and low, 2019 and 2015, which is kind of neat). Next year, I am setting my reading goal for 132–a stretch, a goal that takes work and intention in a heavy teaching year with fewer lit courses, but a goal that rhymes with the last 4 years of reading.

For, reading-wise, I have learned that I am lazier than I would wish. I yearn for that dynamic, all-engrossing ability I had as a young adult to simply immerse myself in a book! Part of my goal for 2022 is to look for bedtime readings that enthrall me. Thus, I do tend to use the book list and page number count to motivate me. In 2021, I was up a bit in terms of books (138) and sheer page numbers (43,285), though, I saw a tiny drop in the size of books, down to 313 pages/book (from 315 last year).

I have been openly mocked for this, for good reason, but my average book rating is 4.0 stars–which is actually low for me (last year was 4.2). I rate books too highly–even though this year I tried to be tougher. It comes from my years ranking music, where 5-star reviews go to songs I want to hear most often, rather than a rating for the genius and exceptional works that land in my feed.

To be fair, I try not to read books that warrant 1, 2, or even 3 stars. My fiction and self-learning DNF pile is high. Unless I am made to do so, I simply won’t read something that isn’t good–though inevitably the 3-star books land on my desk, books that are “good but not my thing” or “good, but missing something.” Often, my 3-star books are simply things I’ve read that I’m disappointed in. In 2021, I rated a number of classics that I did not love, so they landed in the 2-star pile.

And, especially, I tend to read great authors who write 5-star books–C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, J.K. Rowling, L.M. Montgomery, Frederick Buechner, Octavia Butler, Marilynne Robinson, Ursula K. Le Guin, Flannery O’Connor, N.K. Jemisin, Margaret Atwood, Shūsaku Endō, Madeleine L’Engle, Anne Rice, Jane Austen, Charlotte BrontëStephen King, and Haruki Murakami. Besides reading Lewis (18 books, and 1 read twice) and Montgomery (17 books, and 1 read twice), this year I focussed on Ursula K. Le Guin (22 books, and 2 read twice), attempted a Shakespeare play a month (and a couple of biographies), and read through this year’s Hugo nominees, including Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse, The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin, Harrow The Ninth and its companion Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir, Network Effect by Martha Wells, The Relentless Moon and 2 other Lady Astronaut books by Mary Robinette Kowal, and Susanna Clarke’s beautiful and evocative Piranesi–and, for the first time, Clarke’s Regency-era fantasy, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. While I did not love every feature of these books, they are global-class writers–and Piranesi was such an astounding work of fiction that I am reading it for a second time, this time with a rich audio reading by Chiwetel Ejiofor.

Thus, I read good books! Why do anything else? And, unsurprisingly, most of my 5-star reviews in 2020 are rereads, though I did make some great discoveries: 

  • In literary criticism, I found myself deeply engaged with Ebony Elizabeth Thomas’ gorgeously designed and well-written transmedial study in critical race, reader-response, and feminist theory, The Dark Fantastic: Race and the Imagination from Harry Potter to the Hunger Games. Getting to chat with Ebony as guests of honour at Mythmoot VII was pretty cool. 
  • And in reading The Dark Fantastic, I was pleased to go back to Toni Morrison’s powerful lecture series-née-book Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (and also my first review of 2021).
  • In theological works, I read the new edition of Miroslav Volf’s (for me) life-changing Exclusion & Embrace, and finally read through Willie James Jennings’ stunning 2010 work, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race.
  • Also a theological discovery, Mark S.M. Scott’s Pathways in Theodicya book that came at the perfect moment in my paper on L.M. Montgomery’s theodicy-making in Anne’s House of Dreams.
  • In the overlap between theology and literary criticism, Michael Ward’s After Humanity was an excellent guide to C.S. Lewis’ The Abolition of Man, and resulted in my most profitable and thoughtful experience of what is (arguably) C.S. Lewis’s most important work of non-fiction.
  • My favourite book in the Blogging the Hugos series was actually a previous year’s nomination, Tamsyn Muir’s creepy and sassy, Gideon the Ninth. Of the 2021 Hugo-nominees, though I am biased, I think that Clarke’s Piranesi may end up being a “great book,” one we keep with us. Other than Piranesi, the book I was most attracted to was Roanhorse’s Black Sun–though the Hugo winner, Network Effect, was pretty fun.
  • In 2021, I was rereading my favourite Ursula K. Le Guin books. My favourite new discoveries this year were her astonishing 1971 standalone dream fantasy, The Lathe of Heaven, as well as the concluding volume of the YA series, Annals Of The Western Shore, her 2007 Powers–nearly Le Guin’s last book. 
  • My biggest 5-star surprises are no surprise to fans and critics. This year I discovered Mary Doria Russell’s staggering book, The Sparrow–and joined some other book lovers for a discussion of the text (and you can join in here). I have the sequel queued up, Children of God, but am afraid to begin it! On an educational whim, I read Madeleine Miller’s The Song of Achilles with a student, and quite enjoyed it (see my review and reflections here and here). And with new glasses that allow me to return to graphic novels again, I hit the first one on my list: Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen (a Christmas gift and a great read).

Here is the rest of the infographic and stay tuned for more in January!



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Announcing my New C.S. Lewis Course at the University of Prince Edward Island (Registration Open for January 2022)

C.S. Lewis is one of the more prolific public figures of the 20th-century. A scholar, educator, poet, fantasist, and cultural critic, this author of the globally famous Narnian chronicles produced work in dozens of different genres and modes. Thus, I am pleased that in Winter term 2022, I am going to be offering a local, live course at the University of Prince Edward Island that focuses on Lewis from the angle of leadership, communication, and culture.

Using the seven Narnian children’s novels as core texts, combined with some lessons from Lewis’ life and work, this course brings together traditional close-reading and book discussion with thematic questions related to leadership, communication, and culture.


From the Narnian adventures and characters, and from some aspects of C.S. Lewis’ public life, the course provokes conversations about models, values, and methods of leadership, including topics such as:

  • C.S. Lewis as a “Public Intellectual” (considering Samuel Joeckel’s The C.S. Lewis Phenomenon);
  • Institutional, political, personal, intuitive relational, and moral modes of leadership in Narnia (in conversation with Aaron Perry’s Leadership Philosophy in the Fiction of C.S. Lewis);
  • 4 qualities of “Transformational Leadership” in Narnia:  Idealized Influence, Inspirational Motivation, Intellectual Stimulation, and Individual Consideration (from Crystal Hurd‘s research, and perhaps in conversation with her upcoming book, Leadership of C.S. Lewis: 10 Traits to Encourage Change and Growth); and
  • How Narnia subverts, challenges, or deepens the reader’s images of a leader.


Drawing upon recent research and book discussions driven by students’ questions, this course looks at C.S. Lewis’ life and work in various ways:

  • C.S. Lewis and the craft of communication (which is the title of Steven A. Beebe’s new book, though others have written on this topic, such as Gary Tandy and James Como);
  • C.S. Lewis as a writer, including conceptual development, drafting, editing, and publishing (and we may take a peek at Corey Latta’s C.S. Lewis and the Art of Writing);
  • Lessons from C.S. Lewis as a world-builder;
  • Creative collaboration and communities of authorship and the role of beta readers in producing texts (with the work of Diana Pavlac Glyer in The Company They Keep and Bandersnatch);
  • C.S. Lewis as an educator (including research by Joel Heck and others);
  • Narnian reflections on education, logic, common sense, and reading “the right kind of books”; and
  • Some analysis of other modes of communication by C.S. Lewis, including letter-writing, the short essay, radio broadcasting, philosophical argument, controversialist writing, and the novella as a thought experiment.


This course explores the relationship of text and culture in three ways:

  1. cultures within the fictional world;
  2. the culture from which the stories emerged; and
  3. the cultures that receive the text.

Culturally related topics include:

  • C.S. Lewis’ biography and worldview;
  • C.S. Lewis as a cultural critic;
  • The ways that race, class, and culture operate in The Chronicles of Narnia;
  • How The Chronicles of Narnia create a space for thinking about cultural expectations like the roles of boys and girls, models of heroics, ethics and moral choices, and the qualities of adventure, curiosity, joy, and courage (with Monika Hilder‘s trilogy of books on C.S. Lewis and gender);
  • The ways in which adaptations triangulate text, culture, and artistry;
  • Translations of texts, including places where translation is politically subversive or used to build culture;
  • A brief look at certain literary methods and theories—such as biographical criticism, readers response criticism, postcolonial theory, feminist, gender and queer theory, the New Criticism, and the New Historicism—and the ways that C.S. Lewis dialogues with these approaches;
  • The Chronicles of Narnia as a resource for contemporary cultural criticism; and
  • Using stories to dialogue within our own questions.

Students will have the opportunity to respond to the Narnian chronicles and course topics in classroom discussions and course projects designed to explore diverse pathways to learning.

I am offering “C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia: Leadership, Communication, and Culture” as part of my limited term appointment as Assistant Professor of Applied Communication, Leadership and Culture (ACLC) at UPEI in January 2022. ACLC is our interdisciplinary applied arts and digital humanities program, and I am very pleased to be a part of the team in this upcoming semester. The program’s goal is to connect the communication skills and leadership training of a traditional Liberal Arts education to successful post-graduation employment for students entering the workforce in a dynamic age. The ACLC program is defined by its focus on the transferability of written, oral, and visual communication skills, critical thinking, research capacity, and cultural awareness acquired during a Liberal Arts education to the world beyond academia. Technical skills, work-integrated learning, and career-related mentoring are central components of the program’s design.

In this C.S. Lewis course, using close readings of Narnia and a selection of various short Lewis texts, I am aiming to draw out lessons on the program’s main focal points: principles and modes of leadership, communication, and cultural criticism. In this course cross-listed as an English literature or ACLC credit, I have also designed the assignments to invite creative responses from students. This is a live, on-campus UPEI undergraduate class, though it could be the first few days of class are online because of COVID-prevention measures. I look forward to working with Lewis’ texts in what is, for me, a brand new context!

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A Note on “Kindred Verse: Poems Inspired by Anne of Green Gables” by Julie A. Sellers

Kindred Verse: Poems Inspired by Anne of Green Gables by Julie A. Sellers
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is more than just a chapbook of verse–as happy as I am that Blue Cedar Press is committed to publishing contemporary poetry. Kindred Verse certainly is a poetry chapbook, wherein Julie A. Sellers shares poems “Inspired by Anne of Green Gables.”

With poetry in formal and experimental modes, this beautifully designed collection also includes original photographs–especially pictures related to Prince Edward Island, such as the fields, flowers, and lanes that inspired L.M. Montgomery to write Anne in the first place. Sellers also includes personal reflections that help the reader make connections between text and imagination. While the strongest poems stand on their own, the verses and images are in conversation with the eight Anne books by L.M. Montgomery, tumbling out of Sellers’ “decades-long friendship with Anne Shirley.” Rooted in images of home, the natural, and the adventurous imagination, Kindred Verse is a reflection of how Montgomery’s works and the character of Anne have reshaped this artist’s own sense of the possible.

If I were to offer a critique, it would be that I would have liked to see more of Sellers’ prose reflections. The “Preface” is delightful–the story of Sellers’ childhood encounter with Anne–and I have admired some of her other public work (see below). Especially, I would love to see Sellers more fully develop the innate sense of space that she achieves in the deeply imagistic poetry and in her invitational photography. In particular, the importance of home, of landscape, of the journey, of community and place–these things left me yearning as a reader for more connections between Sellers’ windswept Kansas landscapes and the gables and fields of Prince Edward Island that inspired Lucy Maud Montgomery and so many other writers and artists. Here is an example of Seller’s prose-poetry at its best:

Overall, I am grateful to Julie Sellers for her work. No doubt Kindred Verse is a project for kindred spirits–a collection that extends the imaginative possibilities and literary friendships that L.M. Montgomery’s fiction brings to the world.

I am pleased as host of the MaudCast, the podcast of the L.M. Montgomery Institute, to be sitting down this week with Julie to discuss her Montgomery-related scholarship and artistry. You can check out Julie A. Sellers’ website here, and she is worth connecting with on Facebook and Twitter (where she has been known to read a poem from time to time).

Julie’s poem, “Windows,” also in Kindred Verse, was published in the Journal of L.M. Montgomery Studies in 2020 (click here). The Journal has also published two other pieces by Julie–a written paper entitled “‘A Good Imagination Gone Wrong’: Reading Anne of Green Gables as a Quixotic Novel” (which I heard Julie read in 2020), and a paper in video form as part of the 2020 Vision Forum, entitled “Envisioning Kindred Spirits: Anne Shirley’s Imagined Community.” You can expect our MaudCast episode to land in late January or early February!

View all my reviews on Goodreads, and check out my thoughts on two of L.M. Montgomery’s own poetic collections: The Poetry of Lucy Maud Montgomery and The Watchman, and Other Poems.

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“The Nightmare Alley of That Hideous Strength: A Look at C.S. Lewis and William Gresham” by G. Connor Salter (Nightmare Alley Series)

This is the second post in our “Nightmare Alley” series, where a Pilgrim in Narnia looks at Guillermo del Toro’s critically acclaimed new film, Nightmare Alley, and its connections to the past. The 2021 film, which John Stanifer reviewed last week, is an adaptation of the 1946 novel by William Lindsay Gresham, the husband of Joy Davidman–the enigmatic poet and prose writer who found her way into an unlikely and tender late-in-life marriage with C.S. Lewis. Today’s piece is a provocative essay by faith and culture writer, G. Connor Salter, that looks at loss and redemption in the mid-1940’s work of Lewis and Gresham.

The Nightmare Alley of That Hideous Strength: A Look at C.S. Lewis and William Gresham by G. Connor Salter

William Lindsay Gresham plays an important but complex part in C.S. Lewis’ story. As Joy Davidman’s first husband and father of her sons, the story of his marriage ending set the stage for Lewis’ marriage happening. As noted in Philip and Carol Zaleskis’ The Inklings, Gresham’s unstable behavior not only ended his marriage, it led to Lewis becoming his sons’ guardian after Joy’s death (404-405, 457). This created the second part of the Shadowlands narrative: Lewis as unexpected father figure. Lewis’ late-life fathering led to Douglas Gresham becoming a key defender and guardian of his legacy. Without William Gresham and his many unwise choices, Lewis’ life and scholarship about Lewis would look very different.

However, not much has been said about something Gresham had in common with the Inklings: he wrote fiction. Partly this is because Gresham’s work doesn’t seem to connect with the Inklings’ work. Here is how Centipede Press described Gresham in 2013 when they released a collection of his short stories:

“Whether writing for the detective pulps of the 1940s, the sci-fi digests of the 1950s, or the lowbrow men’s magazines of the early 1960s, Gresham relentlessly indulged his fascination with crime, psychology, magic, and spiritism, investing each of these almost-forgotten pieces with his dark wit and fatalistic sense of doom.”

“Magic, and spiritism” may remind some of Charles Williams, and in fact Gresham wrote a preface for Williams’ The Greater Trumps. Some scholars may know that Lewis contributed two short stories to sci-fi digest The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, which also published at least two Gresham stories. Douglas Anderson establishes in Tales Before Narnia that Lewis read an issue of the digest containing Gresham’s story “The Dream Dust Factory.”

However, sci-fi short fiction didn’t dominate the Inklings’ output. What stands out more in this description is Gresham’s detective pulp background and his interest in “doom” and “dark wit.” This suggests someone writing hardboiled and noir fiction, a scene dominated by writers like Raymond Chandler and Cornell Woolrich. In short, Gresham’s literary scene appears far removed from Oxford dons and their (very British) tales of the fantastic.

Another reason not much has been said about Gresham and the Inklings is that Gresham wasn’t very successful during his life. His nonfiction book on carnivals, Monster Midway, has been praised but is long out of print. His Houdini biography did well and still gets mentioned today, but has been superseded by later biographies. His two novels – Nightmare Alley and Limbo Tower – have fans, but only Nightmare Alley did well. After coming out in 1946, Nightmare Alley went through multiple editions and a 1947 film adaptation from a major studio. The film didn’t score well with contemporary critics or audiences, and other than a new edition in 1986, the novel disappeared for a while.

Over the last twenty years, Nightmare Alley has returned to the spotlight. It’s been reprinted several times, most notably in a 1997 Library of America crime collection and a 2010 edition by the New York Review of Books. After various legal disputes, the 1947 film came out on DVD in 2005; critics now consider it a classic. A graphic novel adaptation appeared in 2003, and a stage musical in 2010. Most recently, Guillermo del Toro directed a remake of Nightmare Alley with an all-star cast, which hit theaters this month (December 2021). Perhaps to capitalize on this, Criterion released a remastered version of the 1947 film in May 2021.

Given this resurgence, it’s worth looking at Nightmare Alley again. This essay will look at Nightmare Alley in connection with a novel Lewis published a year prior (1945), using imagery from a speech he presented in 1944.

But first, an introduction.

Carnival Freaks and Geeks: The Beginning

Nightmare Alley opens with Stanton “Stan” Carlisle, working at a carnival with a tasteless attraction:

“This geek was a thin man who wore a suit of long underwear dyed chocolate brown. The wig was black and looked like a mop, and the brown greasepaint on the emaciated face was streaked and smeared with the heat ad rubbed off around the mouth.” (Nightmare Alley 3)

“Geek” is believed to come from the Low German geck (“fool”). In 1940s American slang, it referred to a “carnival freak” who ate live animals. Stan watches the geek in his pen, where “snakes lay in loose coils” (ibid). Snakes have pagan and Satanic overtones, which Lewis used in The Silver Chair. Stan observes that he likes snakes, but doesn’t like seeing them “penned up which such a specimen of man” (ibid). After another “carny” collects the audience’s money, Stan drops a chicken into the pen and the geek bites its head off. There’s something Gollum-ish about this scene, a life reduced to

“endless unmarked days without… hope of betterment,” (The Hobbit 87).

After the act, Stan asks his colleague Hoately, “How do you ever get a guy to geek?” Hoately reluctantly explains how the carnival boss finds an alcoholic drifter and offers him a “temporary job.” With a hidden razor, the drifter can make it look like he’s biting heads off chickens or rats, and the job pays well enough to buy liquor. After a week, the carnival boss tells the drifter he’s not good enough and fires him. “He comes following you,” Hoately says,

“begging for another chance, and you say, ‘Okay. But after tonight out you go.’ But you give him back his bottle” (7).

From there, the drifter “will geek” as long and as well as he can.

Stan’s response to this information is not disgust, but satisfaction at learning a secret. As customers leave the geek show, he

“watched them with a strange, faraway smile on his face. It was the smile of a prisoner who has found a file in a pie” (7).

That metaphor of escape proves important. Later chapters describe Stan’s upbringing, his mother leaving when he was young and Stan leaving his hometown. The carnival gives him a new community, but to him, it’s just a stepstone. He has an affair with “Madam Zeena – miracle woman of the ages” (21), and learns a two-person code system that Zeena’s husband Pete used in mentalist acts.

Having learned Pete’s system (and “accidentally” killing Pete by giving him wood alcohol), Stan drops Zeena for a younger girl named Molly and leaves the carnival. Stan and Molly become a mentalist double act but eventually Stan decides the real money is in religion. He recreates himself as Reverend Stanton Carlisle of “the Church of the Heavenly Message” (138), using poltergeist acts and psychic readings to con rich people. Molly tries to make Stan drop it, but he says he’s waiting for the big score:

“one live John and we’re set” (152).

While preparing an elaborate job targeting an industrialist, Stan assures Molly,

“if this deal goes over, we’re set. And every day is Christmas” (212).

Molly thinks,

“He had said that so many times… Always something. She didn’t really believe it any more” (ibid).

Mark, Stan and the Fellowship of the Inner Ring

If one had to sum up Stan’s quest, the best label would be something Lewis described in a 1944 speech: “The Inner Ring.” Each change that Stan makes takes him into a more lucrative sphere. Each new role is also smaller, because Stan drops people he’s used with each transition. When Stan starts conning the industrialist, his ring has shrunk to three people: himself, Molly, and the industrialist’s psychoanalyst, Dr. Lilith Ritter. As Stan and Ritter plan the con, Stan admits he needs Molly to pull it off, but calls her “a rock around my neck” (204). Stan’s view of people matches Harry Lime, shameless drug smuggler in The Third Man. When Lime’s friend Holly Martin confronts him about people that he’s hurt, Lime replies,

“Nobody thinks in terms of human beings. Governments don’t, why should we? They talk about the people and the proletariat, I talk about the suckers and the mugs. It’s the same thing.”

Thematically, Stan’s journey resembles Mark Studdock’s journey in Lewis’ 1945 novel That Hideous Strength. Like Stan, Mark deeply cares about joining an inner ring – first Bracton College’s “Progressive Element,” then the inner circles of the N.I.C.E. Lewis doesn’t share Gresham’s interest in “spook rackets” (although some of Reverend Straik’s transhumanist dialogue reads like Stan’s spiritualist jargon). However, the line between reality and perception is key to Mark’s journey. In Mark’s first scene, his Bracton colleague Curry reveals that circumstances almost kept Mark from getting his fellowship. Mark is shocked, it had

“never occurred to him that his own election had depended on anything but the excellence of his work in the fellowship examinations: still less that it had been so narrow a thing” (That Hideous Strength 17).

When Mark visits the N.I.C.E.’s headquarters, he tries to learn if they are formally offering him a position and who he will work with. No one clarifies either point, and his demands for clear answers only lead to rumors that Mark is resigning his Bracton fellowship. Mark tracks down the rumor’s source, Lord Feverstone. When Mark asks him to straighten things, Feverstone replies,

“Do you know, I find your style of conversation rather difficult” (109).

The key to being in NICE is never asking direct questions. Presumably, “their sort of chap” has the sort of mind to make it in this environment.

Mark’s N.I.C.E. duties also involve misperception. Feverstone tells Mark they need “a sociologist who can write” to “camouflage” the N.I.C.E.’s agenda (41). Later, he’s asked to write two articles about a riot that N.I.C.E. has planned. His new colleagues laugh when Mark asks how he can write about events that haven’t happened, and Feverstone declares,

“You’ll never manage publicity that way, Mark” (127).

Once Mark finishes his articles, he does not “awake to reason, and with it to disgust” (132). Instead, he justifies it, rationalizing that

“he was writing with his tongue in his cheek – a phrase that somehow comforted him by making the whole thing appear like a practical joke. Anyway, if he didn’t, somebody else would” (ibid).

The Magic is Over: Facing Reality

Ultimately, both Stan and Mark have their illusions crushed when they meet people from their pasts. For Mark, this happens when he meets Dr. Cecil Dimble and asks where his wife is. Dimble observes that

“Studdock’s face appeared to him to have changed since they last met; it had grown fatter and paler and there was a new vulgarity in the expression” (214).

Mark tries to get Dimble on his side, but Dimble refuses to play. He confronts Mark with the fact that his wife is hiding because N.I.C.E. has “insulted, tortured, and arrested her” (216). Mark asks if Dimble really thinks he would arrange for police to manhandle his own wife, trying to “insinuate a little jocularity” (216). Dimble doesn’t find it funny. He makes it clear that he knows what Mark has become:

“I don’t trust you. Why should I? You are (at least in some degree) the accomplice of the worst men in the world. Your very coming to me this afternoon may be only a trap” (219).

Dimble finally tells Mark that while he doesn’t trust him, “If you seriously wish to leave the N.I.C.E., I will help you” (ibid). Lewis describes this moment in religious terms:

“One moment it was like the gates of Paradise opening – then, at once, caution and the incurable wish to temporize rushed back. The chink had closed again.” (219-220).

Mark asks for time to think, and Dimble replies, “If you insist. But no good can come of it” (220). the N.I.C.E. captures Mark immediately afterward and as he contemplates his life in a cell, he realizes “what a fool – a blasted, babyish, gullible fool- he had been!” (242).

For Stan, this moment of truth and offered grace happens after his con game has failed. He abandons Molly and Dr. Ritter to live on the run, and finds Zeena’s address in a magazine. Zeena has left the carnival, she now owns a farm with her second husband, ex-carny Joe Plasky. When Zeena first sees Stan (like Dimble seeing Mark), she doesn’t recognize him: Stan has lost his distinguished looks, becoming “a tall figure, gaunt, with matted yellow hair” (262). Once she recognizes him, Zeena tells Stan where Molly is and rebukes him for mistreating her: “I hope she’s forgotten every idea she ever had about you” (263). Stan tells Joe and Zeena all, justifying a recent crime but admitting his other mistakes:

“I had my chance, and I fluffed, when it came to Molly” (265).

Once Zeena and Joe offer to connect him to a nearby carnival, Stan’s demeanor changes:

“The Great Stanton ran his hands over his hair…in his face Zeena could see the reflection of the brain working inside it. It seemed to have come alive after a long sleep” (265).

Once Joe leaves the room, Zeena tells Stan she’s guessed that he poisoned Peter and asks him to “come clean.” Rather than confess, Stan does a mentalist act, appearing to read Zeena’s mind for Pete’s last name (which he learned earlier from Dr. Ritter’s research). Gresham describes the transformation as Stan gets into his act:

“The Great Stanton stood up and thrust his hands into his pockets. He moved until the sun, shining through the wind of the kitchen door, struck his hair. Soap and hot water had turned it from mud to gold. His voice this time filled the kitchen; subtly, without increasing in power, it vibrated” (Nightmare Alley 266).

Like Mark, Stan throws away the offered grace. He prefers to hold onto the inner ring identity he’s acquired. As with Mark, things get worse after Stan rejects grace: he goes into a bar before interviewing at the new carnival, wearing a suit and a straw hat which “added class” (270). One drunken binge later, Stan arrives “hatless, shirt filthy” (274) to his interview.

Inferno or Purgatorio: Is There Any Way but Down? 

After their descents, Mark and Stan have different reactions. Mark realizes his mistakes after the N.I.C.E. captures him, and finds an escape via what Stan would call a “spook show.” the N.I.C.E. delegates Mark to watch someone they think is N.I.C.E., “a useful test” (273) to prove his loyalty. The man, not unlike Stan, is “very allusive” (308). Eventually, Mark discovers that the man is a “tramp” – or, in Gresham’s language, a hobo, like Stan becomes. The hobo doesn’t care about telling the N.I.C.E. who he is, or demanding release. For him,

“the main thing, obviously, was to eat and drink as much as possible while the present conditions lasted” (310).

Mark plays along with the hobo, realizing he has joined a new circle, only

“with no more power or security than that of ‘children playing in a giant’s kitchen’” (ibid).

Eventually, the real Merlin shows up posing as a translator and the N.I.C.E. follow his suggestions. Mark plays along, and ends up at the grand N.I.C.E. banquet with his co-conspirators. Eventually, Merlin’s powers make people babble “gibberish in a great variety of tones” (343), creating panic. Just when the panic reaches its height and people are fighting, animals break into the banquet hall. Carnage follows, with some people killing each other and others devoured by animals they were experimenting on previously.

If Stan were in Mark’s place at these events, it’s hard to say how he would see things. The pantomime, initiation into a new inner ring, and references to magic are all things Stan would be familiar with. Given that, he would likely accuse Mark and his pals of orchestrating it all, asking them who tamed the animals to arrive at just the right moment. To him, it would be the nuttiest spook show ever assembled… but unlike all of his stunts, here the magic is real. And like the hero returning from a strange magic world, Mark gets away from the carnage and at last arrives at “some place of sweet smell and bright fires, with good and wine and a rich bed” (380) where he reconciles with Jane.

In contrast, Stan doesn’t achieve confession and reconciliation after his descent. When he arrives drunk to interview at the carnival, the owner dismisses him at first. Then before Stan leaves, the owner changes his mind:

“I got one job you might take a crack at. It ain’t much, and I ain’t begging you to take it; but it’s a job. Keep you in coffee and cakes and a shot now and then. What do you say? Of course, it’s only temporary – just until we get a real geek” (275).

The fact Nightmare Alley returns to the geek show may make it seem nihilistic. However, that assumes the characters (or the audience) haven’t learned anything. What Gresham does is present a hero who sees how degraded people can become, and the hero’s search to get ahead brings him to that level. Stan learns early on that alcoholism creates a geek. He knows from talking with Zeena how drinking ruined Pete (who, like Stan, was a talented performer once upon a time). Despite these warnings, Stan starts drinking about halfway through the novel. When his grand plans fail, his bottle is all he has left. This is the story of a man avoiding every clear warning and paying the penalty.

Given how Mark’s redemption involves him finding healthy inner rings (the “children in the kitchen” ring of him and the hobo, the renewed marriage when he returns to Jane) it’s worth noting that Stan’s descent involves entering a new inner ring. However, Stan’s last inner ring (the geek pen) is the logical extension of all the negative inner rings he has entered. Every ring that Stan entered meant hurting more people, and each seemed to offer new treasures. Instead, each one left him lonelier, more degraded. The geek pen is the most degrading (and most exclusive) carnival position: none other is so vulgar. Like the final location in the innermost circle of Dante’s Inferno, this last inner ring is a lonely spot with only one inhabitant.

Conclusion: Notes on Fairy-Tale and Noir

Nightmare Alley and That Hideous Strength both explore the temptations of the inner ring. Both Lewis and Gresham create heroes who sacrifice their morals to enter inner rings, and use the motifs of reality versus perception, deception versus magic. George Orwell said in his review of That Hideous Strength that despite the magic elements, “in essence, it is a crime story.” Given that Nightmare Alley is a crime story and how Mark and Stan’s journeys parallel each other, it’s interesting that Lewis and Gresham’s heroes take such different directions in the end.

Granted, Nightmare Alley’s characters are skeptical of all things supernatural. One could argue the difference boils down to Gresham and Lewis’ differing worldviews – one believing in the spiritual world where a benevolent God offers redemption, the other in a material world where no God offers redemption. Ryder W. Miller and others have read Stan as a stand-in for Gresham, highlighting Stan’s alcoholism and his wife leaving him. The Wade Center reportedly contains a 1959 letter where Gresham wrote that “Stan is the author” of Nightmare Alley.

However, claiming one-to-one parallels between Stan and Gresham quickly runs into problems. Joy Davidman had a spiritual experience in spring 1946, several months before Nightmare Alley’s publication in September 1946. Diana Pavlac Glyer notes that when Joy told her husband about her experience, he said “he, too, was interested in Christianity” (11). This marks it hard to say if Gresham was a committed materialist when writing the book. Furthermore, Glyer notes that Joy “had a hand in” both of Gresham’s novels (ibid), which complicates whether Nightmare Alley only shows Gresham’s worldview. As Lewis would say, we must avoid “the personal heresy.”

Perhaps the simplest reason why Mark and Stan converge at the end is genre constraints: they are heroes of two different journeys, set in different story traditions which each has organic rules about how a journey can end. G.K. Chesterton wrote in 1936 that many readers misunderstood The Man Who Was Thursday because

“they had not read the title page… The book was called The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare. It was not intended to describe the real world as it was” (The Man Who Was Thursday, 180).

Lewis makes a similar comment in the preface to That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grownups:

“I have called this book a fairy-tale in the hope that no one who dislikes fantasy may be misled into reading further” (8).

Reading That Hideous Strength as a fairy-tale gives Mark’s last act some context. It’s a strange twist of events, veering from a seemingly realistic world to something more dreamlike, from one tone to another. However, this tonal shift isn’t unusual in traditional fairy-tales. The Grimms’ first version of “Red Riding Hood” goes from terror (the wolf swallows Grandma and Red Riding Hood) to gore (the huntsman opens the sleeping wolf’s belly) to triumph (Grandma and Red Riding Hood emerge from the wolf’s belly) to slapstick (the heroes fill the wolf’s belly with rocks and he falls down dead) (Zipes 87). If this isn’t bizarre enough for modern readers, an epilogue says “it’s also been told…” that another wolf came later, which Red Riding Hood tricked into drowning (Zipes 87-88).

Granted, “Red Riding Hood” is an oral story collected in print, not composed for print. However, it’s not too different from the tonal shifts in George MacDonald fairy-tales like “Cross Purposes.” Heroes using trickery to defeat the enemy (a prince disguising himself to meet the princess) also appear in many fairy-tales. Fairy-tales allow for shocking twists where implausible redemption happens. The last act of Mark’s story, complete with him playing at being a magician’s escort and a real magician making it all better, fits the fairy-tale tradition.

Nightmare Alley is not fairytale but noir, a label that requires some unpacking. Library of America republished Nightmare Alley in their 1997 collection Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1930s and 40s. The book jacket describes noir as “evolving out of the terse and violent hardboiled style of the pulp magazines,” which is fairly accurate. Hardboiled fiction, developed after World War I through writers like James M. Cain and Raymond Chandler, emphasizes tough attitudes and corrupt urban institutions. Chandler’s seminal essay “The Simple Art of Murder” criticizes Golden Age Detective Fiction writers like Dorothy L. Sayers for making crimes and solutions too neat. However, Chandler adds that “in everything that can be called art there is a quality of redemption.” He finishes the essay arguing the detective must be a moral figure in an immoral setting. Thus, hardboiled novels like The Maltese Falcon are bleak yet have a moral center.

Noir, hardboiled fiction’s descendant, comes from roman noir, a French term which referred to gothic thrillers before it described crime thrillers. Whether this change happened in the 1920s, or in 1940 to market Cornell Woolrich’s The Bride Wore Black, or in 1945 when publisher Marcel Duhamel started the imprint Serié Noire, depends on which scholar you ask. Things got more complex in 1946 when Nino Frank used film noir to describe a new kind of American crime film, often adapted from hardboiled novels like Chandler’s The Big Sleep. Chandler himself worked on a noir film, co-writing Double Indemnity.

Thus, the line between hardboiled fiction and noir is complex. To some extent, they are each linked to particular wars – hardboiled comes after World War I, noir during and after World War II. Paul Schrader argues in “Notes on Film Noir” that noir films vocalized returning veterans’ disillusionment, and Sheri Chinen Biesen takes a similar angle in Blackout: World War II and the Origins of Film Noir.

Megan Abbot argues the key difference is that hardboiled fiction is “an extension of the wild west and pioneer narratives.” Terrible things happen in those stories, but they generally end with justice restored. This theory fits Chandler’s idea that the hardboiled detective brings morals to an immoral world: like a Wild West sheriff, he keeps the peace. Noir is more ambiguous. Wrongdoers generally get punished, but that doesn’t mean all things are redeemed. Thomas S. Hibbs argues that noir flirts with nihilism, but something else happens:

“Nihilism has arrived, not when we cease to have happy or obviously just endings, but when the human longing for happiness, communication, love and justice is mocked as unintelligible, pointless, and absurd. However much noir may flirt with or engage the possibility of nihilism, it typically resists succumbing to it. Noir persists in depicting the human longing for love, for truth, and for communication as noble and admirable, as constitutive of what it means to be human. What noir precludes is a happy ending that restores all that has been lost. It denies that the slate can be wiped clean, that costs and consequences can be averted.” (Arts of Darkness 63-64)

Even noir films with happy endings are often bittersweet. On producers’ insistence, the 1947 film version of Nightmare Alley ends differently than the book. After becoming a geek, Stan runs around the carnival in a drunken rage and discovers Molly, who’s been looking for him. Molly forgives Stan and says she’ll care for him. On the 2005 DVD commentary, film historians James Ursini and Alan Silver call this ending “somewhat redemptive” – Stan doesn’t return to the top, but he’s got hope again. This may be true, but as Kim Morgan points out, there’s something dark here. Earlier scenes showed Zeena caring for Pete and Pete admitting he’d be a geek without Zeena. Thus, Molly saying she’ll care for Stan feels like a foreshadowing. The story has gone in a circle, and it’s not clear whether they will relive the last couple’s fate.

As demonstrated earlier, Fairy-tales can have shocking redemptive twists. In noir, redemption is partial or penitential. Some noir films near fairy-tale territory with “it was all a dream” twists (The Woman in the Window) and similar devices. Still, even those heroes never achieve anything like Mark’s turnaround in That Hideous Strength. Noir is more interested in penance than triumph. Thus, Stan must bear the full weight of his choices. Things may get better in some unwritten future, but for the moment, Stan walks the dark path he brought on himself.

Connor holds a Bachelor of Science in Professional Writing from Taylor University, and lives in Colorado. His writing has included award-winning journalism, an article on T.H. White’s legacy for A Pilgrim in Narnia, and over 300 book reviews for The Evangelical Church Library Association. He presented an essay on C.S. Lewis and Terence Fisher at Taylor University’s 2018 Making Literature Conference, and released a short story series, Tapes from the Crawlspace, in 2020. 

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Christmas With J.R.R. Tolkien: The Father Christmas Letters

My little 2015 piece on J.R.R. Tolkien’s funny and endearing Father Christmas Letters has had quite a spin around the internet this week. I cannot think of a better Christmas note for you, dear readers of A Pilgrim in Narnia, than to touch this up a bit and send it back out. I have come to love Tolkien’s peculiar artistic eye, which is captured especially well in the gorgeous and rich Mythopoeic Award-nominated Bodleian exhibition book, Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth, edited by Catherine McIlwaine. I have since found another copy of The Father Christmas Letters, which our son will receive as a gift when he has his own little ones to entertain–whether at firesides or in classrooms or in library book clubs. Deepest wishes on this holiday season, and may all your polar bears bring joy and light!

What a find! At a yard sale a good friend scored a copy of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Father Christmas Letters and she was good enough to give it to me.

Published by his daughter-in-law in 1976 on the 3rd anniversary of Tolkien’s death, this is a stunning collection of art and humorous writing. If there is one more gift you would like to get for someone you love–for an older child with a great sense of humour, or any Tolkien fan–there are multiple editions available of this out-of-print special edition in used bookstores online.

The story of this book is itself a great story.

From his first child’s toddlerhood to the end of his last child’s Christmas innocence, long before he became the author of The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien wrote letters from Father Christmas each year. These letters were carefully delivered to the Tolkien family mantel during advent. They include beautiful art, hand-drawn stamps, the hilarious antics of a polar bear, and personal notes in Father Christmas’ shaky handwriting. The children received these letters each year with delight and wonder, finding themselves lost in the myth as long as they could.

I am thrilled to own this book and wish I had: a) thought of it myself, being a lover of Christmastide creativity and advent antics; and b) the skill to do it. So I will let the work speak for itself, posting a few examples of the artwork and some transcripts.

On this page, Father Christmas writes to 3 year old John in 1920:

tolkiens-father-christmas-letters-pageDear John,

I heard you ask today what I was like & where I lived. I have drawn ME & My House for you. Take care of the picture. I am just off now for Oxford with my bundle of toys–some for you. Hope I shall arrive in time: the snow is very thick at the North Pole tonight:

Yr loving Fr. Chr.

The polar bear is a fan favourite. Here he has tumbled down the stairs,creating all manor of Christmas chaos in Claus Manor. The note from Father Christmas began: “What do you think the poor dear bear has been and done this time? Nothing as bad as letting off all the lights.”


The reference to “letting off all the lights” was 1926, where the Polar Bear set off “the biggest bang in the world, and the most monstrous firework there has ever been.” HIlarity ensued in the North Pole. The beautiful cover image is of the Aurora Borealis fireworks that only Santa Claus could keep in his basement.

Tolkien Northern Lights

While most of the book is typescript, there are a couple of examples of copies of the original letters. Here is one in the introduction, a letter of 1933. It tells of peril, where Christmas was almost lost to Goblin attack. The Tolkien Christmas has more elements of violence than the average fireside tale!

Tolkien Father Christmas Letters forematter

There is another letter in a later edition (2001) that is a neat read, and the transcript is in this 1976 edition:

Cliff House
Top of the World
Near the North Pole

Xmas 1925

My dear boys,

I am dreadfully busy this year — it makes my hand more shaky than ever when I think of it — and not very rich. In fact, awful things have been happening, and some of the presents have got spoilt and I haven’t got the North Polar Bear to help me and I have had to move house just before Christmas, so you can imagine what a state everything is in, and you will see why I have a new address, and why I can only write one letter between you both. It all happened like this: one very windy day last November my hood blew off and went and stuck on the top of the North Pole. I told him not to, but the N.P.Bear climbed up to the thin top to get it down — and he did. The pole broke in the middle and fell on the roof of my house, and the N.P.Bear fell through the hole it made into the dining room with my hood over his nose, and all the snow fell off the roof into the house and melted and put out all the fires and ran down into the cellars where I was collecting this year’s presents, and the N.P.Bear’s leg got broken. He is well again now, but I was so cross with him that he says he won’t try to help me again. I expect his temper is hurt, and will be mended by next Christmas. I send you a picture of the accident, and of my new house on the cliffs above the N.P. (with beautiful cellars in the cliffs). If John can’t read my old shaky writing (1925 years old) he must get his father to. When is Michael going to learn to read, and write his own letters to me? Lots of love to you both and Christopher, whose name is rather like mine.

That’s all. Goodbye.

Father Christmas

Thanks to Letters of Note for the transcription. Here is a picture of the original letter:

tolkien-original christmas letter

Also included in this letter are these pictures:

tolkien-christmasmas-letters 1925

I hope you will find a copy of this book for yourselves. They really are a delightful read and a wonderful Christmas project idea. I’ll leave you all with just a few more pictures:

Tolkien Father Christmas Letters 1933 tolkien-christmas illustrations Tolkien-FatherChristmas-polar-bear 1931

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“It Ain’t Hope If It’s a Lie, Stan”: Thoughts on Guillermo del Toro’s Nightmare Alley by John Stanifer (Nightmare Alley Series)

This is the first post in our “Nightmare Alley” series, where a Pilgrim in Narnia looks at Guillermo del Toro’s critically acclaimed new film, Nightmare Alley, and its connections to the past. The 2021 film is an adaptation of the 1946 novel by William Lindsay Gresham, the husband of Joy Davidman–the enigmatic poet and prose writer who found her way into an unlikely and tender late-in-life marriage with C.S. Lewis. Today’s piece is a thoughtful review of the film by über pop culture aficionado, John Stanifer.

“It Ain’t Hope If It’s a Lie, Stan”: Thoughts on Guillermo del Toro’s Nightmare Alley by John Stanifer

The connection between Narnia and Guillermo del Toro’s new film, Nightmare Alley, is a loose one but still well worth examination.

Nightmare Alley is based on the 1946 novel of the same name, written by William Lindsay Gresham. It was almost immediately adapted for the screen, in 1947, with Tyrone Power playing the lead. The proceeds from the book and the film rights gave Gresham his biggest financial success as a writer, allowing him to buy a large house in Staatsburg, New York, for his wife and two boys.

That wife was Joy Davidman, who would later marry C.S. Lewis after she and Gresham divorced. The two boys were David and Douglas, to whom C.S. Lewis would dedicate The Horse and His Boy.

In 1960, after Joy died from cancer, Gresham took a trip to England to visit with his sons and to meet Lewis. While at the Kilns, Gresham asked permission to make an audio recording of Lewis. Lewis said yes and read aloud from Chapter 3 of Perelandra, Chapter 13 of That Hideous Strength, and the prologue to The Canterbury Tales. The Rabbit Room recently made that recording available to the public, and the proceeds are being donated to the Marion E. Wade Center at Wheaton.

Two years after his visit to The Kilns, Gresham would overdose on sleeping pills in a room at the Dixie Hotel in New York, the same hotel where he had written Nightmare Alley almost 20 years earlier.

The seeds of Nightmare Alley were planted during the 15 months Gresham spent as a medic on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War. Joseph Daniel “Doc” Halliday, a male nurse, told Gresham stories about carnival culture, and everything that went along with it, that clearly made an impression. When Gresham got back to the States, those stories became part of the macabre tapestry of Nightmare Alley.

Nightmare Alley is primarily the story of the rise and fall of Stanton Carlisle, an ambitious young man who joins up with a traveling carnival, learns all their best tricks, and then runs away with a woman in the troupe to strike out on his own and fleece money from the desperate.

In the book, Stan starts his own church, conducting seances for wealthy clients and giving them advice that sounds like a blend of Christianity, New Age mysticism, the occult, and the self-help section at your local bookstore. His “services” even include the occasional hymn.

Del Toro’s Nightmare Alley is an R-rated, but not especially graphic, streamlining of that story. Tyrone Power is replaced by Bradley Cooper, and Cooper is joined by an all-star cast including Cate Blanchett, Willem Dafoe, Ron Perlman, Rooney Mara, and more.

Although religion feels somewhat less central to del Toro’s take on this con man’s journey, there are still some thought-provoking sequences that borrow heavily from Christian imagery. Early in the film, when Stan is helping the troupe track down their “geek,” he follows the geek into a tent ominously labeled “The House of Damnation.” The tent is full of exhibits illustrating the Seven Deadly Sins. One of those exhibits is a mirror. One can’t help but feel that this is symbolic of the journey Stan is about to take into the heart of his own darkness over the course of the film.

Del Toro’s Nightmare Alley, at 140 minutes, runs almost half an hour longer than the 1947 film. One might think that means more of the book ends up in the film, but that isn’t strictly the case. We don’t see quite as much of Zeena, the older woman who runs the carnival with her husband Pete, as we do in the 1947 version. Both films use Zeena’s Tarot cards as a foreshadowing, but neither film gives them as key a role as the book does. In the book, every chapter is named after a different Tarot card, which provides the symbolic framework for what happens in that chapter.

It’s impossible to discuss some of the 2021 Nightmare Alley’s more powerful moments without spoilers, so rather than ruin the experience, I will say that I think the core message of del Toro’s adaptation can be summed up in a single line of dialogue:

“It ain’t hope if it’s a lie, Stan.”

That line has had me thinking since I left the theater. Stan starts out drawing oohs and ahs from crowds by revealing personal details about the members of the audience, details that are really a mix of educated guessing and sleight-of-hand. But that isn’t enough. Eventually, he graduates to promising people contact with their departed loved ones. Sure, he’s making big money by fakery of the most intimate kind, but what does it matter (so he tells himself) as long as he’s giving the victims hope? That’s a good thing, right?


Or maybe all those false promises can lead to violent, tragic consequences.

The R-rated material in del Toro’s film is used sparingly, shocking us out of our complacency with the brokenness of the people we are watching onscreen. Stan’s greed for gain leaves a trail of shattered lives (and even a shattered face or two).

I personally don’t subscribe to the belief that the book is always better than the movie. The book, the 1947 film, and the 2021 del Toro film all tell the same story in their own way. All are worth a look, but be forewarned that the tone and content (in case it isn’t obvious by now) are a long way from tea parties with fauns (not that Narnia doesn’t have its own share of darkness, but we never dive into it quite as deeply as we do in Nightmare Alley).

Many viewers will judge Tyrone Power’s performance as Stan to be the more mature of the two; Cooper’s Stan feels like a younger, more vulnerable version of the character, a lost child who has never been loved the way we all hope to be loved by our family and our friends. That being said, Cooper plays his role well and is joined by a wonderful array of veteran actors. Blanchett trades in her elf ears to play Lilith Ritter, a psychologist who attends one of Stan’s early performances and shows him, shall we say, that there’s more than one way to prey on the desperate, and maybe his isn’t the only game in town.

Del Toro’s Nightmare Alley is a dark fable that shows us the final consequences of deception on both the deceiver and the deceived. If you’re up for something different from the typical fare . . .

. . . then HURRY, HURRY, HURRY to the nearest cinema before this show pulls its stakes and leaves town!


It should be noted that Gresham’s participation in the Spanish Civil War bears relevance to much of del Toro’s previous body of work. Several of his films depict the Spanish Civil War in various ways, perhaps most famously his 2006 dark fantasy Pan’s Labyrinth.

Like Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Pan’s Labyrinth features a young girl who has had her life disrupted by war. Curiosity and imagination help her deal with the horrors in her life. She even meets a faun, though don’t expect this faun to be as cuddly as Mr. Tumnus!


John Stanifer is a librarian and English tutor by day and a crime-fighting vigilante by night. He reads 100 books a year and tries to follow C.S. Lewis’s advice to re-read books as often as he reads new ones. His own book, Virtuous Worlds: The Video Gamer’s Guide to Spiritual Truth, was published by Winged Lion Press in 2011 and represents an effort to dispel the negative associations video games so often have in Christian circles.

His scholarly interests tend to land somewhere at the intersection between literature and pop culture. One of his more recent essays, “Cosmic Horror vs. Cosmic Redemption: C.S. Lewis and H.P. Lovecraft,” was published in The Faithful Imagination (Winged Lion Press, 2019).

Over the past few years, John has dressed up as C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, H.P Lovecraft, and Edgar A. Poe at various pop-culture conventions. He is happy to be called a nerd and is basically a 12-year-old living in a 36-year-old body.

John holds a M.A. in English from Morehead State University and is currently working on an A.A.S. in Cyber Security & Info Assurance from Ivy Tech Community College.


Downing, David. “The ‘Lost’ C. S. Lewis Tapes on the Ransom Trilogy and Chaucer.” Off the Shelf: Blog of the Marion E. Wade Center, 2 Oct. 2020, https://wadecenterblog.wordpress.com/2020/10/02/lost-lewis-tapes/?fbclid=IwAR0jiI2yV15s6_uy_n6iHMkn87eAlm8_2ib5moTI-CsDIupKGYUDIDCK86Q.

Duncan, Paul. “William Lindsay Gresham: Nothing Matters in This Goddamned Lunatic Asylum of a World But Dough.” Miskatonic University Press: RARA-AVIS, 3 Jul. 2000, https://www.miskatonic.org/rara-avis/archives/200007/0019.html. Accessed 17 Dec. 2021.

Polidoro, Massimo. “Blind Alley: The Sad and ‘Geeky’ Life of William Lindsay Gresham.” The Skeptical Inquirer, vol. 27, no. 4, Jul/Aug 2003, pp. 14-17. ProQuest. Accessed 17 Dec. 2021.

Not wanting to show too much, here is the teaser trailer for Guillermo del Toro’s Nightmare Alley.

Someone has created a little trailer for the 1947 film:

And you can find the entire film smouldering 1947 classic with Tyrone Power here:

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Announcing the Nightmare Alley Series on A Pilgrim in Narnia

Following months of rumours and all-too-enticing hype for eagre film-lovers in a lean year, last week finally saw the release of Guillermo del Toro’s critically acclaimed new film, Nightmare Alley. Guillermo del Toro is a genius of dark fantasy with Academy Award-winning films like Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) and The Shape of Water (2017). This period adaptation has high production value and a huge cast, including Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Willem Dafoe, Rooney Mara, and Mary Steenburgen.

From the trailers, it looks like del Toro wants to languish in the smokey, eye-gazing, overwrought one-line dynamic of the 1947 film noir version of Nightmare Alley, combined with a thriller energy and horror sensibilities that back-stages atmospheric features of carnival life, both luring and lurid.

Indeed, while the trailer wants us to think that true monstrosity is always off stage–and there are some intriguing nods to the ’47 film even in this short trailer–I have no doubt that del Toro is trying to help us reimagine both terror and monstrosity in us as well as in the the creatures beyond our understanding.

Why the interest in this particular film at A Pilgrim In Narnia–especially since the film did not release in my small shire-like land of Prince Edward Island?

While I am a fan of thrillers that flirt with the fantastic and will certainly see this film, the connection for friends and pilgrims of Narnia goes deeper. As it turns out, both the 1947 and 2021 films are adaptations of the 1946 novel, Nightmare Alley, written by William Lindsay Gresham. And William Lindsay Greshamis is, in fact, Bill Gresham, the husband of Joy Davidman–the American poet and prose writer who found her way into a surprising late-in-life marriage with C.S. Lewis. So while Joy Davidman’s life and work–including her compelling poetry and mercurial personality–loom much larger for me than a one-hit-wonder novelist from the ’40s, the connection keeps me intrigued.

Davidman’s biographer, Abigail Santamaria, describes Nightmare Alley‘s impact on the Gresham household where both Joy and Bill were struggling writers, pressed to the edge as parents and artists trying to hold it all together:

Nightmare Alley, published on September 9 [1946] had begun generating press as early as July 7, with the Washington Post promising a “sinister and compelling piece of fiction” that would “shock some readers but send the public clamoring to the bookstores.” And it did. The novel, a work of brilliance, would become a noir classic with a cult following for decades to come.

But first, a bigger payoff presented itself: Twentieth Century-Fox bought the film rights for $50,000. And the studio invited Bill to Hollywood for the first two months of 1947 to collaborate with writer Jules Furthman on adapting the novel for the screen. In January, Bill took a train west. The picture, starring Tyrone Power and Joan Blondell, would be produced at lightning speed for a New York City premiere at the Mayfair Theater on October 7, 1947. The windfall was more money than Bill or Joy had ever seen, and they knew exactly how they wanted to spend it. “We looked around for the biggest house we could find,” Bill said. After two years of living and writing in a cramped three-room apartment with one, and then two babies, the Greshams wanted a home with land where Davy and Douglas could grow “husky and brown and tough and mischievous. That is all one can ask.” And they “had to have a woodlot,” Joy insisted. “We wanted the feeling of walking in our own woods.” Ample workspace was also a priority, private studies in which to think and write. Both of them had new projects in the works…. The future once again promised great things. Now they could settle down. Now everything would be fine (Abigail Santamaria, Joy: Poet, Seeker, and the Woman Who Captivated C. S. Lewis (p. 178-9).

I have no doubt that Gresham’s Nightmare Alley will find its way to my bedside table and we’ll find a way to stream the film–even this far into the North Atlantic. As the connections run deep, however, and as del Toro’s work is richly complex and visually stimulating, we are offering a “Nightmare Alley” series here on a Pilgrim in Narnia, bringing in some our friends as guest writers.

  • On Wednesday, I’m thrilled that we’ll be publishing a review of Guillermo del Toro’s Nightmare Alley by John Stanifer, fan culture man about town
  • Next week, I am excited to release a piece by arts and culture writer, G. Connor Salter, with his piece, “The Nightmare Alley of That Hideous Strength: A Look at C.S. Lewis and William Gresham”
  • Early in the New Year I will share my own thoughts on Nightmare Alley
  • On the evening of Friday, Jan 7th we are hoping to have a live video conversation about Nightmare Alley, Joy and Bill Gresham, and connection with C.S. Lewis–more details to follow.

I am also open to publishing high quality, thoughtful reviews or essays on this topic from readers of A Pilgrim in Narnia over the next couple of weeks. Send pitches to Brenton at junkola[at]gmail[dot]com. Meanwhile, catch Nightmare Alley in films if you can and await Wednesday’s review. And you can find the entire creepy, smouldering 1947 classic here:

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The Heroic Gideon and Harrowing Features of Living in the Ninth: Thoughts on Tamsyn Muir’s Necromantic Dream Vision (Blogging the Hugos 2021)

In our 2020 Hugo Award roundtable, I was tasked with presenting Alix E. Harrow’s gorgeous gateway fantasy, The Ten Thousand Doors of January. Though I chose the book simply for its name and cover design, I came to love the story. I am still disappointed that did not win. It’s a story that still resonates with me.

Of the stories described by my co-panellists, the novel I was most interested in was Gideon the Ninth. As Muir’s second book, Harrow the Ninth, was nominated in this year’s Hugo novel category, I relished the chance to pick up the series.

The first two books of Tamsyn Muir’s Locked Tomb series are genre-bending marvels. As postapocalyptic tales with horror elements, gothic not merely in atmosphere but also in the creative use of literary motifs, these stories are a rare melange of famous and infamous genres I love to read. In particular, without becoming campy or inauthentic, the stories include all the best elements of dying earth science fiction, cult-survival post-apocalypse, haunted house horror, and chivalric romance.

The Locked Tomb world is itself as sophisticated in construction as its literary design. What makes these novels sing, however, are their characters. Indeed, with 30+ active characters, Gideon the Ninth can be a baffling book to begin. However, soon enough, many of these characters exit the stage in glory or ignominy, and the Dramatis Personae at the front of the book—as well as a few google searches for fan infographics—kept me moving along.

While each of the central characters is skillfully drawn, it all begins with one of my favourite heroes of science fiction, Gideon Nav, an indentured servant to The Ninth House.

In what appears to be an intergalactic experiment in human re-formation following the destruction of Earth, a great necromancer has resurrected the lost dead of a dying human species, reseeding them among nine planets to become the great houses of the necromancer’s undying empire. The Necrolord’s first house is served by the other eight, whose characteristics are captured in the poetic preface to Gideon the Ninth:

Two is for discipline, heedless of trial;
Three for the gleam of a jewel or a smile;
Four for fidelity, facing ahead;
Five for tradition and debts to the dead;
Six for the truth over solace in lies;
Seven for beauty that blossoms and dies;
Eight for salvation no matter the cost;
Nine for the Tomb, and for all that was lost.

At the back of these two novels is a summons by the Emperor-god for representatives from the eight service houses to travel across the universe to Canaan House in order to win a chance to gain immortal Lyctorhood. Though the twins of the Third House change the game a little by producing two heirs of necromantic power, each of the eight houses sends a two-person team: the house’s necromancer and the cavalier who defends the necromancer.

Each house brings with it strengths that the others must face as enemies or use as allies. The Second House excels in skills (both in the sword and death magic), the princesses and prince of Ida of the Third lead by charismatic strength, the Fourth forges alliances, the Fifth understands the link between life and death, the Sixth has scientific and historical sophistication, the Seventh produces quick-blossoming wit and beauty that fades quickly, the Eighth is a hermitage of religious zealots who commit all their skill to knowledge to righteousness, and the Ninth House keeps the Locked Tomb.

There are other layers to the houses, so that the Second is the Emperor’s Strength, the Third is the Mouth of the Emperor, the Fourth the Hope of the Emperor, the Fifth his Heart, the Sixth his Reason, and the Seventh his Joy—while the eighth and ninth are the protectors of the “tome” and “tomb,” respectively, the biblicists and liturgists of great power and commitment.

At the centre of this story is The Ninth House, whose royal priests serve as caretakers of a cult that protects the balance of power in the universe: a figure entombed eternally, lying still in undying death, the kind of corpse that one should definitely not fall in love with.

The sole heiress of the Ninth House, Harrowhark Nonagesimus–for reasons that are simultaneously self-centred and sacrificial–greatly desires to become an immortal Lyctor, the sword of the Emperor. As her house’s historic cavalier is more suited to writing heroic verse than to being a hero, Harrow chooses to make Gideon Nav her cavalier prime.

While Gideon truly is an expert in the sword and thus an excellent choice to twin with Harrow’s genius as a necromancer, Gideon is far from happy with the honour. Indeed, when we meet Gideon at the opening of Book 1, she is in the midst of attempting her umpteenth escape—not just from the castle entombed within the depths of the sacred mountain, but from the planet itself, as the entire planet is the Ninth House. With laconic wit and sardonic fatalism, Gideon has been trying since childhood to escape the extremely creepy and downright abusive holy house of the Ninth.

In escaping the Ninth House, Gideon longs to serve the Emperor as a swordsman, but her antipathy of Harrowhark goes much deeper than a simple relation of master and slave. Near contemporaries of birth, Gideon and Harrow have been locked in a cycle of mutual hatred and violence for as long as they have been conscious of one another. Following one of the weirdest battle scenes I have ever encountered in the first chapters of a book, Harrowhark bribes a reluctant Gideon into serving as her cavalier prime for the upcoming contest, promising freedom and commendation should they survive. Fiercely independent and antagonistic in skillsets and personality types, Harrow and Gideon slowly learn that to succeed in Canaan House—indeed, even to survive the contest’s quests and the blades of other houses—they must work together. To win the game, they must draw into intimate connection Gideon’s finesse with the blade and facility to gain allies with Harrow’s precise work in death magic and her blade-sharp intelligence.  


With this premise in place, Book 1 (Gideon the Ninth) is primarily about the search for Lyctor knowledge in Canaan House, which soon becomes a fight for survival against unseen foes. Book 2 (Harrow the Ninth) is about Harrow’s further growth in necromancy and her seeming psychological degradation. The books link and overlap in timeline, creating one of the more unusual serial relations I have ever encountered.

The linguistic play, character motivations, imagery, and world-building are each so complex and visually detailed that I must admit that I struggled to find my footing in reading these novels. That said, I loved Gideon the Ninth. I revelled in Gideon’s brilliance as a character, including both her extremely caustic sense of humour and her emerging heroism with loyalty at its core.

However, while I loved its root story, Harrow the Ninth was extremely difficult for me to get into. Not only does it have all of the admirable complexities of its prequel, but the newest novel includes a number of alienating features.

On the one hand, it is a sequel that absolutely requires knowledge of the first book. Like Gideon the Ninth, the intricate details of the fictional world are revealed slowly throughout the novel, requiring a good deal of trust and imaginative openness on the part of the reader. There are times when I wonder if the slow-drip intravenous approach to revealing speculative universe structures demands too much. In any case, few writers could do what Muir does in terms of visual imagery, atmosphere, and (meta)physics.

On the other hand, the eager reader of Gideon the Ninth is going to be completely baffled by the protagonist as we see her interior life in Harrow the Ninth. At least, I was that eager reader and I was puzzled and disoriented by the first half of a sequel that, in principle, picks up just after Gideon’s tale but somehow also lives alongside the previous novel.

Tamsyn Muir is clearly a writer who demands much from her readers. While Gideon the Ninth is, for me, not just a work of imaginative genius but also the centrepiece for a character I loved from the first page, Harrow the Ninth is a strong sequel in that Muir continues to write with imagistic sophistication. Indeed, she has extended her initial reach somewhat with an experiment in point-of-view—one that seems to risk even more in the second novel’s epilogue.

Imagistically, Muir succeeds as Gene Wolfe and Roger Zelazny do in creating a lovable/unlovable hero character in an alien, visually-rice environment, where the classic demands of heroism are renegotiated but never lost entirely. Muir goes further, however, in creating sparky, bright, and vulgar dialogue that somehow works in continuity with a story that is soaked in a dark, brooding, and grave literary environment. Indeed, “gothic” is not merely a description of genre and atmosphere in these novels, but a dramatic understatement about the poetic sophistication that Muir employs. 

How do you do gothic so well and create dialogue and interactions that are laugh-out-loud comical without either degrading the necromantic atmosphere or creating a parody? Perhaps I am simply unaware of a whole genre of funny and effective gothic nightmares set in space with vivid and varied characters filled with witty banter and humorous unexpectedness. I suspect, though, that Tamsyn Muir is simply very good.

I also suspect there are miles of depths within these novels that I am simply locked out of. Frequently, I feel like there is a pop culture or literary connection on the edge of my imagination, but I can’t quite find it. I even feel like if a character said, “They don’t advertise for killers in the newspaper” or “I am not left-handed” or “Strike me down in anger and I’ll always be with you” or “Ever have that feeling where you’re not sure if you’re awake or dreaming?” I would finally understand the joke.

One of the things I feel like I begin to understand is Muir’s linguistic playfulness. In dozens of names and hundreds of little word choices, Muir teases up and recreates philological wonders rooted in Latin and Greek words, but entirely at home in the many duels in these books—whether the militant artistry happens to be the rapier, the two-handed sword, philosophical logic, scientific understanding, healing, team-building, necromantic bonework or bloodplay, occult magic, neuromancy, ancient (i.e, contemporary to the reader) firepower, ecological warfare, geocide, theocide, a criminologist’s eye, or naked men wrestling Greek style in a astrophysical plane that is (I think) at least partly a metaphor.

There are a lot of battles. Fortunately, Muir is one of the greatest writers of hand-to-hand combat that I have read in this generation of science fiction novels.

I get the word-play. I love the verbal inventiveness. I also get the value of the risk in transgressing genre—and I suspect there are even more structural elements at play than I have described. For example, there is the question of romance in the more contemporary sense—but one befitting a chivalric tale. Though it has been touted as a queer sf tale, the Locked Tomb series is, only sort of, a kissing book. There are romantic interests and crushes and an occasional kiss, as well as a theochromatic orgy off-screen in the second book. Each of the kisses, at least to my recollection, is organic to the moment and critical to the tale.

However, beyond the kissing, what I like about reading this series is that other things matter in the relational matrix of the story’s moral heart—things like friendship and bravery and honour and creativity. I like that these are, at their heart, orphans’ tales, with the orphan longing for parental love, guidance, and mentorship. I like that it is difficult to know who to trust—for each book is also, generically speaking, a mystery—but I like even more that it is difficult to learn how to trust. For it is a lesson the reader needs to be as aware of as the characters in the tales, whose hearts and bodies and minds are in the line of fire.

If I did not discern the clues of mystery at the heart of the Gideon the Ninth labyrinth quest clearly enough, I feel like I understood the necropsychophysiological detective story that drives Harrow the Ninth—even if I didn’t get all the details. So although I struggled with the first half of the book, like Gideon the Ninth, the sequel has an absolutely riveting penultimate section. As the second novel came to a close, however, I must admit to a return to befuddlement. For the critical distinction of the Gideon-Harrow story that I discerned in the details of the series has not turned out to be the radical mystery that the novel wants to solve. Or at least not yet, for there are two more stories to come.

Gideon and Harrow are books that could only be written in a visual age, in an age of haunted house horror shows and epic fantasy films and bored aristocrats on television and video games with swordfighters with their backs to the wall in institutional bathrooms and hotel lobbies. As a reader who rarely visualizes the background details but instead allows imagery to wash over my reading experiences with atmospheric energy, I really feel that I am at a distance from the imagistic richness of Muir’s magical world.

I would love to see these worlds come alive on screen. But who could do it? How it be done except with an ill-fitting ensemble production team with Ang Lee on breathtaking photography, Christopher Nolan on time-layering action sequences, Guillermo del Toro on fantasy visual design, Ridley Scott on neo-noir dystopia, Tobe Hooper on horror sf elements, Tim Burton on spooky weird, Jim Sharman on costume, and Lilly and Lana Wachowski on how to make a super cool pop culture phenomenon that lives on the edge of the ridiculous—with consultation by Stephen King and Neil Gaiman on ensuring that the rest don’t miss the core of Muir’s world-building genius? I don’t know if it can be done, but Denis Villeneuve’s recent work gives me hope.

Thus, while the second Ninth novel was more harrowing than the first, I highly recommend Tamsyn Muir’s postapocalyptic space-age detective stories of necromantic heroism.

Blogging the Hugos 2021 (Tentative Schedule)


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Hugo Award 2021: Best Novel Signum Roundtable (Sat, Dec 18th, 6pm Eastern)

As I announced in my “Blogging the Hugos 2021” series launch, I am once again joining Signum University’s Hugo Award Best Novel Roundtable. In a gala zoom event that no doubt will rival the Worldcon ceremony in DC, I will join six Signum friends to discuss The 2020 Hugo Novel nominations. Here is the recent event announcement, followed by some of my own reflections:

Hugo Award 2021: Best Novel Roundtable 

If the answer is always reading good Science Fiction and fantasy, then the question must always be “How can I best spend my time and escape the normal confines of our day?”

Join us at 6pm Eastern on December 18th for our non-affiliated Hugo Awards evening, when a panel of Science-fiction and Fantasy readers will each talk about one of the shortlisted titles in the Best Novel category of the 2021 Hugo Awards!

Each reviewer will take five minutes to introduce their novel and talk about what they liked or didn’t like about it. We will then open up for a wider discussion, taking questions and comments from the audience.

The audience will then vote on which novel they most want to read, and which they think should win the prestigious Best Novel Hugo Award. The actual winner will be announced at DisCon III, shortly after our event!

It will be a journey of discovery, exploration, mind expansion and just plain good fun.

About the Hugo Award

The Hugo Award is an annual literary award for the best science fiction or fantasy works and achievements of the previous year, given at the World Science Fiction Convention and chosen by its members. It was first delivered in 1953.

Click here to register!

Brenton’s Pre-Roundtable Reflections on the Blogging the Hugos Series

I must admit to being somewhat naive when I decided a “Blogging the Hugos 2021” series was a good idea.

As in 2021, the award shortlist includes six highly influential and productive women sf writers. Five of the novels are part of book series, though the outlier–Susanna Clarke’s long-awaited novel, Piranesi, has its own complexities as novel referencing other work. Moreover, I felt I needed to finally read her vivid, game-changing 2004 Regency-era fantasy, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, to discern any links that may be there. While I was able to enjoy Martha Wells’ Network Effect without reading the other stories, it was absolutely essential to read Tamsyn Muir’s Gideon the Ninth before this year’s nomination, Harrow the Ninth. And though it is possible to read Mary Robinette Kowal’s The Relentless Moon, without the two preceding novels in the series, The Calculating Stars was a refreshing discovery. With The Fated Sky, I was able to read Kowal’s newest Hugo nomination with a full sense of the Lady Astronaut Universe. 

I was also, frankly, early in my fall reading when I set out to read not just the six nominees but a package of ten novels (though the longest, Strange & Norell, I had completed earlier in the year). While Kowal’s space trilogy and Wells’ murderbot novel were quick and fun reads, they were none of them short. With an Ursula K. Le Guin class in full swing, I must admit that I struggled to keep up with the reading–especially with novels of great complexity and sophistication by Susanna Clarke, Rebecca Roanhorse, N.K. Jemisin, and Tamsyn Muir. Indeed, I just finished Muir’s pair of necromantic space operas on the weekend, and my response to Jemisin’s urban apocalypse, The City We Became, was a week late and a two-part affair (part 1, part 2). 

And of the book that I was assigned, Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi?

I only have 30 pages of this evocative tale left to read and, frankly, while I understand everything that is happening, I am still entirely confused as to what the novel means. Clarke’s Strange & Norell was the perfect combination of influences for out-of-the-closet Jane Austen slash sf lover like myself. Crossing the genre and literary fiction divide, it was longlisted for the 2004 Man Booker Prize and won the 2005 Hugo Award for Best Novel–as well as the World Fantasy Award, the Locus, and the Mythopoeic Award for Adult Lit. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is one of the books that defined the decade of fiction.

Piranesi is a completely different kind of novel. On Thursday I will publish a response, question whether the much shorter and more experimental Piranesi captures that unique, world-opening, character-centred dynamic that made Strange & Norrell so important.

As a standalone novel, Clarke’s Piranesi is an outlier. In terms of literary skill within these six authors, however, there are no outliers.  

This is the second year in a row where women have dominated the list.

And, once again, though there is a bit of genre-bending, science fiction has a strong showing, with Tor/Solaris leading the pack as publishers. This is not unusual, as SciFi books have dominated through the decades, except, perhaps, during the first decade of this century, where the Harry Potter effect saw a shift in focus. As fantasists, Rowling was joined then by folks like George R.R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, and, as noted, Susanna Clarke.

Of this year’s novels, Rebecca Roanhorse’s Black Sun is most clearly in the realm of legendary fantasy, while Mary Robinette Kowal and Martha Wells are writing in classical SciFi modes. The other three books are literary blends, so that N.K. Jemisin’s The City We Became is an urban apocalypse in allegorical form, Tamsyn Muir’s Locked Tomb series luxuriously combines a handful of fantastic, romantic, and science fiction genres, and Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi is … well, I’m not quite sure yet what. As a philosophical novel, it has mythic, fantastic, and science fiction elements–though the reader must make some choices about what is fantasy and what is science fiction.

Susanna Clarke is not the only veteran in the crowd. Rebecca Roanhorse’s Trail of Lightning was nominated in 2019, and Tamsyn Muir’s previous novel in the same series, Gideon the Ninth, was nominated last year. Famously, N.K. Jemisin’s Inheritance trilogy won in three successive years (2015, 2016, 2017)—making her the only author to have an entire trilogy win, the only author to win three years in a row, and one of only five writers who have three or more wins. The City We Became is Jemisin’s fifth nomination in the novel category. It has already won the Locus award, so it is definitely a novel to watch.

However, even with Jemison—certainly a giant in the field of Science Fiction writing today—it would be unfortunate to count out Mary Robinette Kowal, whose The Calculating Stars kicked off the Lady Astronaut series with a Hugo win in 2019. Fellow SciFi writer Martha Wells has been publishing for decades, including a Nebula nomination in 1999 for The Death of the Necromancer and Hugo nominations and wins for novellas and book series. She has carefully shaped the Murderbot Diaries series that includes this year’s nominee, Network Effect—and has had the entire series nominated. On top of this, Network Effect is the novel that won the Nebula award earlier this year.

It really is a fantastic set of books, if you can forgive the stellar pun.

Thus, I hope you can join us for the roundtable ahead of the 2021 Hugo Awards ceremonies. Our roundtable begins on Sat, Dec 18th at 6pm Eastern, and will be finished before the awards are livestreamed from DisCon III in Washington, DC. You can register for the free Signum event here. Below you can find my articles in the Blogging the Hugos 2021 series thus far–with a response to Tamsyn Muir’s Locked Tomb series due out tomorrow, and a response of some kind to Piranesi on Thursday. And feel free to check out our 2020 panel (linked below) if you are looking for some great reading recommendations.

Blogging the Hugos 2021 (Tentative Schedule)


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N.K. Jemisin’s Super Strange Urban Apocalypse in The City We Became: Part 2: The City I Can’t Become (Blogging the Hugos 2021)

N.K. Jemisin is clearly one of the science fiction greats of the generation. Time will tell if she will stand with the all-time greats, like H.G. Wells, Robert A. Heinlein, Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Frank Herbert, Ursula K. Le Guin, Philip K. Dick, or Octavia E. Butler. With her triple Hugo Award-winning Broken Earth series—the only author to have an entire trilogy win, the only author to win three years in a row, and one of only five writers who have three or more wins—Jemisin may already be there. Whether or not she is officially part of “Octavia’s Brood”—the dynamic collection of social justice-oriented sf stories by Walidah Imarisha and adrienne maree brown—Jemisin is one of the more prolific of the Black women authors who resonate with Butler’s work, including Tananarive Due, Nalo Hopkinson, Nisi Shawl, and one of my favourites, Nnedi Okorafor.

I am definitely an admirer of Jemisin’s work as a world-builder and character-centred prose writer. She combines the imagistic capacity of William Gibson with Ray Bradbury’s experimental tendencies. Then Jemisin, in the tradition of Octavia Butler’s inversive perspective, applies her very own broad and diverse world-building and character-building capabilities to a story of immediacy and cultural relevance. While Jemisin is clearly a lover of story and a great reader, in all of her work there is a unique energy for a new age.

That said, even with all that is fun and thoughtful in the tale, Jemison’s fifth Hugo nomination for best novel, The City We Became, is not a story that resonated with me. The short story “The City Born Great” is brilliant and I love many of the characters and a number of fascinating scenes. In what I describe as an “urban apocalypse” in my description of the novel—you can click here to read that piece—Jemisin goes some distance in filling out the mythological background to that original New York street tale. However, as a moralistic narrative, this novel struggles to find an allegorical diction that allows Jemisin’s literary skills to reach their full potential.

Structurally speaking, Jemisin creates an apocalyptic cosmic battle within an extremely complex speculative universe framework where the world, story, characters, and cosmic battle are all meant to work simultaneously on a number of allegorical layers. This complex allegory, while having moments of imaginative brilliance, turns out to be far too unruly for this urban myth. Furthermore, where these various elements of allegory, symbol, myth, and urban identity come together, there is an essential contradiction in the moral foundation of The City We Became and the way that Jemisin has chosen to draw the vile, villainous, vicious, vapid, and valueless characters, the bad guys. Whether by accident or intention, there are a number of New Yorkers who aid the alien Foe who threatens the city of New York as a newborn entity. Thus, they are also aiding the Foe, who seeks to destroy the allies of New York, the good guys. These enigmatic end-times superheroes are the avatars of New York’s boroughs who draw together to use their unique and authentically New York skills to fight against evil, destruction, division, bigotry, and other things that destroy the soul of the city.

Before going into the allegorical and character-building questions at the heart of my concern, I admit that I love this much about this crazy, super strange and imaginative city-birthing multiverse Jemisin has made. It allows Jemisin to highlight a brilliant city while working mythopoetically. However, I’m not sure yet if the fictional world holds together. I do not require the world-building cohesion that some readers expect, and I can go a long way with architectural experimentation. I am pleased to wait until future books to find out if Jemisin’s fictional world is a work of sophisticated beauty or simply nonsense–or, more likely, a flawed-but-intriguing multiverse in between. For now, though, it feels incomplete and in movement, which might contribute to how I think the moral reality destabilizes itself.

At the level of genre, while many individual elements work well, the allegorical layers go beyond what the novel’s structure can sustain. Jemisin is attempting to work an exceptionally sophisticated genre experiment, choosing to use allegory at various levels. If it was simply that the avatars were embodiments of boroughs and cities—like the creatures of Orwell’s Animal Farm or medieval conceptualizations of “Reason” or “Ira”—Jemisin could have probably avoided creating a formal allegory. It’s kind of genius, right? Conceptualizing a city in avatar form at a critical moment of its development, where the city lives or dies based upon its ability to summon all the strengths that are at the heart of what makes that city unique.

However, Jemisin allegorizes all sorts of things in the novel beyond the boroughs or the cities, including moral choices, strengths and failures, personality traits, temptations and trials, instincts and intuitions, artistic vision, and various kinds of critical intelligences and military strengths. More than the virtues and vices of older ages who find themselves awakening as characters in a tale, these traits are part of the avatars who embody the city’s communities. And yet they also become the weapons and tools for the great battle in The City We Become.

Critical to the tale is how the avatars represent key realities within the city. Some things seem incidental, like an avatar’s gender or race or sexuality. Even then, however, it is not clear that these are pure accidents, as we see in the case of the Bronx’s avatar, a Lenape woman—a brilliant device to provide the newly born city team with roots, while evoking a plethora of other intimations and consequences related to history, race, identity, economics, and relationality. That Manhattan (Manny) is new to the city and Queens is an immigrant is beyond what is specifically necessary. But in wanting a newcomer to the city and an immigrant on the superhero team, those choices are not without some kind of connection to the character of those communities.

Thus, I suspect that none of the personal traits of the avatars are totally random (though doubtless many things emerge organically in the writer’s imagination). The avatars are more than people but nothing less than a true representative of their part of the city. In The City We Became, it is absolutely critical that the Bronx is pictured in one way and Staten Island another—not just in their superpowers, or in the way they relate to the other heroes and villains of the tale, but in all their prejudices and personalities and perspectives about what is possible.

The characters are avatars of a culture and thus allegorically significant on that level. The tools at their disposal also work on a number of symbolic layers. But the battle itself—the fight between New York as a newborn and the ancient, alien Foe, the struggle between the hopeful child and the devouring dragon (as I described in Part 1)—do we see allegorical representation here too? If you were writing New York as a lover of New York City in the late Trump era, how would you allegorize the great battle of today’s age?

I love New York City. It is one of my favourite places on the planet. But New York is not just city lights and drum circles and street rap battles and coffee and Off Broadway shows and the 10,000 things you love. Racism—and other forms of violence, discrimination, bigotry, and cruelty—are part of the make-up of the city. New York is built on blood and bone, beads and broken promises, as well as all of its talent and determination and perseverance. New York is a city of others. It is a city of migration—newcomers taking a breath and their first step out of the station into the street, the great promise of the immigrant seeking a new future, the forced immigration of racial and economic slavery that is New York’s history, the whelming tides of out-migration of its first peoples.

New York cannot just be made up of my favourite things: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Central Park, the High Line, the New York Public Library (with the lions), the Lego store, the original Ray’s pizza, my favourite ramen place on the continent, some of the last great bookstores on the planet, and the character of the city in half my favourite films and TV shows. It’s the other things too, the things not in the brochures.

There are many cities in New York. How many of them does my New York leave out? New York does not have one voice or five, but myriad voices. And while there are harmonic resonances in the song that is New York, these voices are often dissonant.

So, how do you hold all of these tensions together in an allegorical battle for the soul of the city? As cool as this story wants to be as an embodiment of New York, it falls. It could be that it is simply too much to hold together, or that more time and distance is needed to understand New York City. In any case, despite all of the imaginative and provocative qualities of the text, in Jemisin’s execution of the allegory, the moral foundation of the story begin to crumble.

One of the beautiful lessons of this age is that a commitment to diversity and inclusion is a definitive moral stand. As such, it has limits that can be transgressed. Acts of racism and homophobia are used in the novel to further the Foe’s cause and create a potentially fatal rift between Staten Island and the other boroughs. I think this is a smart choice for Jemisin. Not only is bigotry an immediate threat to many people—folks with real challenges in the real city at this moment of my writing—but it is also a cancer to a great society.

Quite frankly—and here I am sharing my personal religious vision that Jemisin and her readers may not share—I believe that here in the reader’s world, we are in a cosmic battle against evil that can manifest itself in racism, sexism, and the personal and institutional cruelty and violence that haunt our communities and that Jemisin stands against in this novel. Thus, I am sympathetic to Jemisin’s novel as antiracist, antisexist, and anti-bigoted allegorical warfare, both within the text and against a culture that sees the world differently.

It is essential that this is a moral tale. And allegory may be a tool for representing such a moral stand in symbolical form. This, however, fails in various ways.

For one, there is a great deal of inelegant writing that neither works in an allegorical mode nor highlights the characters well—including dozens of expletives and exclamations that have the storytelling force of “golly gee wow!” or “aw shucks!” in dialogue. This Batman “kapow!” bubble writing in a novel does not show Jemisin at her finest. I don’t know if an allegory can be vulgar, but I think a New York allegory must have a great deal of vulgarity. I just don’t think it is executed very well.

At other points, the interior-exterior narrator is so preachy and condescending that it just reads like an after-school special filled with meaningful glances, eyebrow conversation, and campy accents. There are a few rare moments in Jemisin’s short stories that I don’t think work, but nothing that grates like some of this descriptive prose. This is a real disappointment, for there are moments in this novel where, in the midst of battle, the description evokes the moral vision and allegorical power of Jemisin’s tale with beauty and depth—including well-placed expletives and great moral stands.

But it’s the preaching in between that makes me cringe. Combine a narrator in the midst of self-righteous condescension with the cartoon dialogue of partly-formed allegorical figures, and then add a sense of embattled paranoia—heightened, we must admit, by real tensions in the storyline—and The City We Became starts to feel eerily familiar to me. I spent too many of my young adult years trying to find sympathy with terrible American Evangelical novels to desire a return to this mode of storytelling—or, frankly, this mode of moral exhortation.

For good moral storytelling to work it also must be good art. N.K. Jemisin is one of this generation’s great artists, but world-building, description, and moral exhortation do not always work together in this novel.

Especially, though, there is the question of character development at the heart of Jemisin’s moral tale.

In Part 1 of this article and at points above, I hope I have described how rich and dynamic many of the characters are. The four main boroughs on the side of the good—representing the Bronx, Manhattan, Queens, and Brooklyn—are rich in detail, carefully complex, and well-suited to their task. It is great fun to see these boroughs come alive—and to see the monsters and allies writhe and dance their way through the streets of New York.

What about what happens in Staten Island?

Aislyn Houlihan, Staten Island’s avatar, awakes to her city-consciousness alone and frightened, but is not sought out from the others for some time. Jemisin hints in the text that this is a weakness for the superheroes, since most of New York tends to count Staten Island out. A sociopolitical outlier, Staten Island’s forgottenness is conceptualized in Aislyn, a thirty-something white woman, sad and alone, under-educated, under-employed, and under her father’s brutal control. Aislyn feels safest in her white, middle-class borough, far away from the colourful dangers of the city.

Staten Island is, indeed, set off, more white than the rest of the city, and more traditionalist, conservative, and Republican. Drawing Aislyn as hesitant about her identity with respect to the rest of the city is interesting. The inter-borough conflict works well here as well as between the other four boroughs. Giving Aislyn a kind of inherited family racism that makes her initially resist help from “foreigners” is a bold move—especially as the Foe is able to work as a devil on Aislyn’s shoulder, helping stir feelings of isolation and discomfort that fits so very well into the racist tropes Aislyn has imbibed.

It works well in concept, but the lines that Jemisin draws in this character and her world are problematic.

Aislyn’s racism is a pressure she feels intimately within her own home. As in so many American households, Aislyn’s father is blatantly racist—as well as sexist and homophobic and anti-hipster (which is, perhaps, not the same level of moral failure). However, in one of the least elegant aspects of a novel about cultural curiosity and growth in perspective, Aislyn’s father, Captain Houlihan, fits every male Irish cop stereotype that tiresome TV dramas trope out in their casual and unreflective racism. There are other inelegancies in this part of the writing, such as the ways that Capt. Houlihan—”Houlihan” an Irish name for “proud,” evoking the Proud Boys movement—uses his brutalizing power in racist policing–not inaccurate, just not as effective as it could be. Likewise, it is a bit tiresome how the narrator tsk-tsks each of the family members in turn. Aislyn’s inner tension and the resulting city chaos that follows could work really well along lines of racism, bigotry, ignorance, and villainization of the other. But I went cold as I read the alcoholic, racist, controlling, abusive, hate-filled, crooked Irish cop in the pages. Google “Irish American stereotypes” and you can see that Jemisin takes up the most long-enduring sentiments of New York’s anti-ethnic prejudices and rolls them all into one character.

All, it is important to note, in a moral lesson about how Aislyn—the stand-in for Staten Island as well as Republicans and conservatives—might end up destroying the entire city because she lacks the moral courage to distrust her family’s prejudices and open her heart to the gifts of the city’s diversity.

I suppose we could set this aside as simply a writing shortcut. An abusive, racist male cop comes to mind in the midst of a Black Lives Matters movement that has excited peace-loving imaginations but systematic change seems lacking. Google searches help fill in the Irish identity.

Unless I missed it, however, there is not a single white male character with a speaking role who is not racist.

Not just in their hearts, I mean, but actively committed to racism as a cause.

The two white males we meet on Staten Island use strength and power and systems to perpetrate real oppression—all the while using Irish heritage as a convenient cover. And the group of white men we meet in the Bronx are part of a well-organized alt-right movement. They employ a stunning array of racist images and tools to do their work. Moving past social media terrorism, blatant stereotypes, and bad art, they are willing to burn down a building with people inside because of their beliefs.

Now, I’m not talking about representation. The alt-right attack and counter-attack are some of Jemisin’s best work in the novel. Much of this battle is well written and satisfying to read, including a Lovecraftian scene of trans-dimensional demonic energy that is a thing of beauty. Far from going out of her way to seize a stereotype of white young men, Jemisin has radically understated the damage of certain groups and movements to our communities. New Yorkers of colour, especially poor New Yorkers, know what it feels like to live in that surveillance city. A thousand pages of these characterizations would not begin to name the violence and hatred that is both on the street and in the system.

I’m also not criticizing the fact that Jemisin’s team of city-fighters on “the good side” includes no white or Jewish people. A book like this needs a Scoobie Gang, a Crew of Light, a gathering of somewhat reluctant heroes who must save the world from the Foe. Any crime-fighting fellowship is meant to draw in diverse experiences. Avengers and A-teams are only as good as the different gifts they bring to the adventure. Without Ron and Hermione and Dumbledore’s Army, Harry is just a scarred, violence-entwined, demonically empowered, floppy-haired orphan with curiosity, intelligence, and awkward charm. Leagues of Extraordinary Gentlemen need to be extra-ordinary, after all. Sometimes, the extraordinary gentlemen aren’t all normal white men.

And remember, diversity is key to what the city is. 2020s New York is not late 20th-century Sunnydale or how Victorian London exists in our public imagination. Thus, the embodiment of New York is colourful, dynamic, and explosive—and far more diverse in its diversities than most of the fictional worlds we inhabit. The point of an ensemble cast is its unique assembly, and the adventure that follows is one where the seemingly random and incongruous members of the Foe-fighting crew end up being precisely who and what was necessary in the moment of direst need.

Thus, the ensemble cast of the non-Staten Island characters works at a number of levels (even when their dialogue stutters or the narrator “tells” instead of “shows”).

No, when I say that the moral foundation of Jemisin’s allegory crumbles, I mean that Jemisin has fallen against the very Foe that she allegorizes.

Her characters on the side of the “good” are lovingly drawn, filled with major flaws and critical strengths. They are each verdant embodiments of the city she loves.

By contrast, Aislyn and her father, the other white Irish racist in Staten Island, and the alt-right terrible artists-slash-terrorists are all editorial cartoons: thin-lined in character though essential to the action. Aislyn, who might end up developing the courage to think for herself in book two, has occasional moments that some readers might appreciate. But she is ceaselessly annoying—not sympathetically sad, except in her moments of greatest evil. She does not even have the moral courage to commit to the good old-fashioned racism that has so enveloped her thinking.

These are hardly characters at all, but only two-dimensional figures to contrast the real people of depth, the ones who share Jemisin’s ideological perspective.

The one exception is the Foe, a well-drawn villain—though one whose storyline slips away unfinished. It could be that the one other white woman with lines, Aislyn’s mother, isn’t fully racist but only pretending to live that way. However, that the only compelling figure on the “bad” side, the Foe, is called “Mrs. White” in a novel where all of the white characters are not simply ignored but actively vilified, is … well, I don’t know what to say about that.

It could be this is all accidental, or that I am over-reading the situation. Perhaps I missed a super cool white guy somewhere, well-rounded and with a speaking part that I didn’t remember. It could be coincidence—as it might be a coincidence that the only redhead in the novel is also super racist.

And it could be that Jemisin is caught between writing spheres, using allegory in an age where we read novels. Allegory, like fairy tale, requires a certain kind of elemental or moral embodiment in its characters. Though Aislyn might end up being something more, perhaps the characters on the side of the Foe are very much the caricatures, parodies, or archetypes that can work in this mode.

However, my concern about character development is not about the genre she chooses. My concern is that, even in allegory or fairy tale, or the kind of science fiction writing where not all the characters need to be worked out in all of their psychological depths, the author must respect her characters. Even the villains. Even the insipid characters—the cutthroats, cowards, deserters, smarmy politicians, and past-suited pissants. Even the quiet racists and their collaborators who ensure the continuation of bigotry and poverty in America. For this story to work, Jemisin must draw the heroic and heartless villains as well as she draws the daring and doubt-filled heroes.

After all, the very heart of this moral tale is about the richness of diversity, the humanness of the other, the power of the voices of the forgotten, and a cosmic stand against ignorance, hatred, and violence against the oppressed.

As a master in her field, there is a lot to admire in this new book, particularly in conceptualizing a speculative framework that is both psychological and mythic. I share Bronca’s belief that good art can inspire, transform, liberate, and transcend the mundane without being inorganic to its roots. Thus, I want this novel to win, as I want New York City to eject this Foe. Because I believe in the core message, I want this novel to be good art and thus effective cultural criticism. As an allegory, however, it fails to be compelling, even for those who are sympathetic to much of its moral core. And, ultimately, the moral foundation of the novel crumbles because the villains are drawn using the tools of the Foe rather than envisioned powerfully within the heart of that great city.

Blogging the Hugos 2021 (Tentative Schedule)

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