Posts Tagged ‘fantasy’

Out Damned Spot, William Shakespeare Crime-Scene Cleaner , by F J McQueen. Published by Urbane Publications, 2016

This is the most extraordinary work of fiction that I have read in a long, long time.


We expect fiction to be set in our known world, where responses to environment are known, our own experience, and as ordinary. In a fantasy work the same applies: they are all recognisable people in recognisable situations, it is the details that are different.
But what if one’s responses to the environment became other than the known? What if the environment became other than our experienced world?

The shift, here, is in cognition: something is different, something is ‘other’, and nothing becomes accessible to the ‘predictive text’ of our inner narration.

The story centres around the nodes of Shakespeare’s main plays. We navigate a world that opens, like the Shakespearean world discovering its America.
Will Shakespeare is on the last day of his work as a hospital doctor. What had gone wrong? We presume that something had. And why was he woken once more at midnight with that terrible sound? One that no one else could hear?
The ordinary of that world, though, was not our ordinary.
He set up next day as a Crime-Scene cleaner. The crimes? The plays are littered with the wrongfully dead.
His cleaning fluid – and here we enter a world truly chilling – is mysteriously provided for him by nine seriously unsettling people. Or are they all emanations of one? And their price? A meal of oneself.


There is a short story by Leonora Carrington, Cast Down By Sorrow, where the narrator meets the elderly but coquettish Arabelle Pegase. She speaks of her clothes, and mentions a dress she has that is made from cat’s heads,
What was your reaction to that? Horrified, like mine? And yet I think that her intention with this image is something else – it is a changed aesthetic, even a changed system of ethics, that she is describing.
It is used as an artistic, painter’s, image, visual and tactile, rather than humanistic.
And similarly here, the images in this book have their own wholeness, inner logic, that is not literary in the narrow sense that it is being used more and more at the present time.

There is an incident where a soil boat appears – or is it a grave? It takes you places; it takes you to the river of time where golems struggle to hold back a certain day. Made of clay they crumble constantly as they strain and struggle to keep hold against the flow of time. As they crumble new ones take their place, a constant renewing. But you sense the struggle, the need.
These are not literary images, but visual images – they could work as graphic images in a graphic novel. The visual, this is where the where the book’s Venn-structure overlaps the most.
But, some might say, golems do not appear in The Plays. No, but they are part of the sensibility of the period, of the wider environment of the time. And also of our time.
This is one of the many aspects of the book I especially like, it’s willingness to not stay harnessed to ploughing the narrow furrow of what we now take to be The Plays.

Take MacBeth’s three witches, they make their appearance early on in the tale, transposed as oracles, in a hospital cupboard. And they prophesy… impossible things. But the impossibles become increasingly possible as the tale deepens into itself.

How does it work? One crack in the world-self narrative we spin for ourselves – one crack, and a different take on reality becomes possible.
It is a cognitive shift.

In another’s hand the story could become whimsy – but that does not happen. The images are impactful, the writing of a very high standard, and the overall imagining quite devastating in its range and implications.




Posted: September 9, 2018 in Chat
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In the beginning was silence.
Ok, waves smashed on rocks long ago eroded, and great winds whipped trees out. Avalanches roared.
When the great Silures climbed out of stifling swamps, the hectic seas, they grew up and developed into monstrous beings among the plenty of the lands, and all those sounds around them.
And so, when eventually their small hunting area became scarce of game, they needed wider ranges.
They noticed the sounds around, noticed how it was the louder and more fierce sounds, made them all run, leave empty grounds. And the louder better. And so,
‘Rumble, ruMBLE, CRASH, CRASH!’ they roared.
It worked, the others fled. Was that an avalanche? Was there a storm coming?
The new hunting ground was theirs.

Of course, other Silures had developed these tricks long ago, though some were only just catching-on. Was there one progenitor of tactics, trickery? You could say it was the most idle, or arrogant, the most selfish, unpopular, most ignorant, the bullies of the groups, tried this out. All to different degrees of effectiveness.
And so a competitiveness developed between them; each marshalled their weaker siblings and those who hung around for the pickings.

In the beginning was… relative… silence.
It was when the apes came down from the trees…. This happened wherever there was a long period of bad years, of droughts, fires, and the trees died a long way back. It happened everywhere the new weather patterns created from scrub and forest, bare pasture and grasslands.

The apes were crammed into smaller areas – they needed space. And also, they were curious. Their times of plenty, in the distant past, left them hungry, with a hunger they could not recognise, and nothing could assuage. Maybe if they searched in these lands, so antithetical to their natures, they could find the lost things.

And they chittered and chattered as they went, bonding their groups across the distances of the plains, deep in the grasses.

Who was it copied whom? Did the animals pick up on this new noise coming into their lands? And was this how bird calls began, imitating the morning calls of the roving bands, and the evening calls to rest? Or did the upright apes copy the new noises of birds, animals, they found themselves amongst? Then they could lure them to a sense of safety. Catch them.
Or was that for their own protection: the trickery and tactics of the Silures coming down to them in remote genetic patterns? Or was it that if they could imitate those around them, blend in, then maybe they’d be accepted?

But times, climates, terrains, change, and with them, the needs and requirements. Isolated groups sang morning bird calls to each other, becoming broken phrases, snatches of sound. A questioning note took on a certain gesture; an angry growl became a sneer.
– Echo-ing that which was inside themselves, as they clung to each other in their groups, as they passed through the dangerous places.

And cockerels copied the morning songs of the incomers. And when they themselves had long forgotten those songs, or even the state of mind, peace, appreciation, they drew those songs from, the cockerels remembered their own variations.
To try and retain some sense of wonder, some parts in the incomers grew religions from the ashes of those long forgotten camp fires.
Morning songs were now echoed in the calls summoning all to minarets, meetings, sacrifices. And the clicks of language, consonantal songs, were in the tocsin, the curfew sounds of night.

from The Arabian Nights.

What follows is an earlier version of my Sinbad chapter in Gifts of Rings and Gold




The basic arc of the Seven Voyages is that of the story of the Porter, Sinbad, and his gaining of knowledge, wisdom, and, let’s not forget, entertainment. Financially he does very well out of it too: he is given 100 gold coins every story he attends.

– The Porter begins the series of tales, bewailing his lot as a porter of heavy goods. Stopping for a rest by a wealthy merchant’s house, he finds himself invited in, is introduced to all, and introduces himself to his host: Sinbad, a merchant and sailor.

For six subsequent days he arranges his work around further audiences at the house so he can hear the tales the host has to tell. At the end of the whole tale he is a happier and wiser man: ‘The porter remained a constant visitor at the house of his illustrious friend, and the two lived in amity and peace…’.

There are many translations of the tale; a translation is, almost by definition, a version of the original. When we get to re-tellings of extant versions you get an idea of the variations possible through the ‘Chinese whispers’ of versions, and versions of versions.

For this study I went back to the version by Sir Richard Burton, 1885. The problem with this version is that it is part of the Scheherazade story, which keeps coming in at ‘inappropriate’ moments in the storyline, in the form of breaks in the narrative, then resumptions, reputedly the following night.


– The merchant Sinbad’s story is as follows: he was the son of a wealthy merchant; upon his father’s death he inherited the fortune, and led a carefree and extravagant life. Pulled-up short by the realisation he had nearly squandered it all, he converted the last into merchandise and went out into the world to rebuild, or rescue what he could of his fortune.

There follows seven trading voyages, which turn remarkably odd.

The main thing in favour of this version I am using is that it is still possible to discern an overall pattern to the voyages, which becomes lost in later versions

– the earlier voyages are voyages of acquisition: Sinbad’s whole intent is to regain wealth through trade.

– -the latter voyages are decidedly voyages of exploration.

What is gained by exploration? Knowledge: of market-resources, trading-terrain, of conditions, regions and customs. But also an invaluable network of colleagues and contacts. What is gained is trust, honour and esteem.

Wealth is only a metaphor for knowledge: worldly wealth and spiritual wealth mirror each other in the overall tale.

In Voyage 1 he sets out to sea; the ship sets down at an island, which turns out be a long-basking whale. All escape but Sinbad. He drifts penniless to another island where men take him in; he helps them with their task of luring sea stallions to cover a land mare: the resultant horse is very highly valued. He is taken to their city and introduced to the king. He becomes a trusted courtier, and wealthy merchant; he learns all about the Brahmin castes of India. He finds a ship home, regains his initial merchandise, returns home.

In Voyage 2 he sets out once more, is abandoned on an island: the ship sails without him as he has fallen sleep beside a stream. In the distance is a huge egg, he recognizes it from tales as that of the Roc bird. It arrives at sunset. In order to escape the island he ties himself to it, is taken far away to a cliff top by the bird. He unties himself and the bird flies off. Below him are huge serpents, but also priceless jewels scattered about. The serpents hide away as the sun rises. He loads himself up with these jewels. During the day sheep carcasses are thrown down to stick the jewels to their bloody skins. He has heard of this too; ties himself to one. When the local people retrieve the carcasses he is shunned as an evil spirit, until he is able to convince them otherwise, with his jewels. He is taken to safety and exchanges some jewels for merchandise, sails home trading successfully.

Voyage 3 gets nastier: ship wreck this time involves going off course, and being invaded by apelike creatures from an island, who steal the ship. Inland of the island they discover a huge, well-equipped house where they shelter. It is the house of a giant, who eats them one by one, one per night. They resolve to escape: build a raft during the day, and that night they blind the giant. As they drift off he appears with his mother and hurls rocks at them; some drown, and some escape with him. The next island is the abode of a giant serpent, which also eats them one by one. Sinbad escapes this fate by building himself a coffin out of ship timbers. The serpent cannot break it. Next day he is rescued by a passing ship, the only survivor. In this instance it is he, a man with cunning and wit, who is picked up by a passing ship, and not an apelike creature as at the beginning of the voyage. The captain is amazed at his tale, and he is reunited with previous goods from Voyage 2.

The Fourth Voyage sees all wrecked once more, and the survivors drift to an island. Strange wild men take them to their king; he treats them extraordinarily well; Sinbad is wary, however, and soon finds that his fellow men are being fed adulterated food. They lose their wits, eventually grow corpulent on the fare, and are then eaten, by the king and company. Sinbad grows thinner and thinner. They take no interest in him, and he escapes. On the other side of this vast island he meets a gentle people, who take him in. He provides goods for them and becomes very wealthy by making saddles for their horses, for they have none. As written earlier, he marries, is honoured by their king, then undergoes the ordeal of the grave pit after his wife died. The ring here centres on the subject of the bestiality of living solely in the physical body. He must die in the body and mind in order to be reborn as someone worthy of his life: the man must ride the body, and not vice versa.

I think the question being asked here is: what survives when all else is taken away, one’s lifestyle, honour, even one’s life? It is the life of the spirit, I think.

Voyage 5 we once again encounter the Roc’s egg, and the island – but a member of the crew breaks it, and when the bird returns bombards the ship with rocks until it is smashed. The boat is wrecked. Sinbad lands on an island. There an old man begs him to take him over a stream, which he does. The old man will not let go, though and near strangles him. He has to be carried around like this for weeks, doing ‘his natural filth all down my back’. He is eventually dislodged by trickery, and killed by Sinbad. He is rescued; learns that it was the Old Man of the Sea, who few survive. He is taken to the City of the Apes where he is encouraged to join some workmen throwing stones at apes in trees; they throw back coconuts, which are collected and sold at market. He makes a good profit and heads for home, trading on the way, hiring pearl divers and amassing a good quantity.

In Voyage 6 the ship becomes lost, and eventually wrecked on an island. It was scattered with previous wrecks, and bales of merchandise and treasures.  His crew members die one by one amongst all the wealth and precious jewels scattered about; he himself builds a raft to allow the river to take him away, hopefully to safety. When he wakes he has been rescued. His rescuers marvel at his tale, take him to their king, who takes him in. He becomes a royal courtier in time. He becomes a kind of ambassador for his own monarch, Haroun al-Rashid, and is allowed home with all honours, a fortune, and his story embellished in gold.

The motif of treasures for all to take is repeated here. There is always a price, though. Jewels are, by themselves, useless, that men starve whilst surrounded by such wealth.

In Voyage 7 he sets out, the ship is wrecked by a whale. We have the whale motif again, and the friendly inhabitants. This latter contrasts with the early voyages where the inhabitants of other lands are anything but friendly. He ends up on an island where jewels glitter and liquid amber flows; the crew die of hunger one by one. He is about to give himself, but makes a raft to see where the river would take him. He is rescued in the nick of time and taken-in by an elderly merchant. He becomes rich, marries the merchant’s daughter. After the old merchant dies he discovers he came from elsewhere, that the inhabitants of this land, pleasant as they are, are all worshippers of Satan. They leave, with their fortune intact, and return home.

There is also a religious dimension: the Brahmins, and Indian castes of Tale 1 are here are paralleled with the worshippers of Satan. A bit harsh, perhaps? Both sets of people are very pleasant, and indeed honourable. They just have this unfortunate focus at the centre of their lives.

The Seven Voyages is clearly based in parts on the Odyssey; both books share certain central characters and episodes. However, the Odyssey was not well known in the Arabic world: translations were few and far between. We find in both books the Old Man of the Sea, who plays such a role in Voyage Five. He is surely another take on the Phorcys character in the Odyssey. We also find a Circe story: in Voyage Four, the ship’s crew is entertained by the King who feels them adulterated food until they lose their wits, become bloated and witless creatures. The Cyclops episode is echoed in the Third Voyage down to the giant, and their blinding of him, the giant throwing rocks at their raft as the float away.

Odysseus’ communing with the dead may parallel the death-event in Voyage Four.

A shame about the Sirens; that could have been interesting. In the Seven Voyages woman do not play any role whatsoever: Sinbad marries twice; his first marriage turns to disaster as his wife died; the second marriage, to the old merchant’s daughter in Voyage Seven, marked their joint desire to escape the company of unbelievers, and a final return home.


There is a central voyage where all changes – because, yes, the Seven Voyages of Sinbad are structured in a ring.

Each tale has a repeating pattern of shipwreck, loss, or abandonment; and resolution. This last can come from the restitution of goods/fortune from a previous voyage; or earned honours from the present voyage.

Each tale ends as it begins with the merchant safely back home and turning once more to an indulgent lifestyle. Each tale employs a change of circumstances in the middle section – each tale is a complete ring in itself.

They all add up to the overall ring of the Seven Voyages.

The changeover, in the fourth tale, is very well marked, and prepared for: it is a death experience. Where before, surviving shipwrecks and other catastrophes had been the case, in the fourth tale he is by custom of the land lowered into the grave pit with his dead wife, and a small supply of food, as well as the grave goods.

That he survives is due to his total abasement: he must kill all subsequent burial spouses, and steal their food supplies. He escapes his death-experience by following a carrion-eating animal’s tunnel to a bleak shoreline. He has become that animal almost, crawling on all-fours.

He brings out bales of grave goods as loot. When he is rescued by a passing ship he offers the captain a priceless pearl, but the captain refuses: it is a matter of honour that he was rescued, and not acquisition: honour is more important than wealth.

The changeover is marked, in the Tale 3, by escape from a huge serpent, by way of hiding inside a coffin he constructed from ship’s planks. We get a foreshadowing here of the death-experience to come.


And this brings in another aspect of the Seven Voyages, what the hard-working Porter learns, and what Sinbad the spend-thrift earns: I think maybe what we have is a vestige of a Sufi teaching tale. Either that or it is an approximation of one. The tale may have accrued this ‘atmosphere’ as Orientalism became the fashion.

I’m already on strange ground with this – so might as well go ahead. Think of the Porter as the mind, going through its everyday, then the sailor Sinbad is the heart that sees more, and can learn. The two are in accord at the end.

Think of Sinbad as the Sheik of the Sufi ‘circle’, the leader, whom the novice must submit in spirit to, must ‘become’ to liberate himself from the world, and become wholly ‘spirit’ incarnate. And then see the Voyages as the valleys of the seven ‘nafs’. The trials and tests one must undergo in order to learn the value and meaning of the true way of being, and to rid oneself of falsehood. There are reputedly three stages of nafs: the Inciting nafs; the Self-accusatory nafs; the nafs of Peace.

I do not wish to pursue this further; I am not sufficiently versed in the Quran, or Sufi lore.

So why arrange them as rings? Is this a covert indication of the Sufi circle? Memory plays a big part in Sufism, too: to remember is to remember one’s true nature under the layers of distractions and false fronts that are the world. So, the ring is a device for remembering, but maybe as a Sufi story it is also a device for remembering that the act of remembering is at the heart of one’s true self.

As seen previously the ring device is a mnemonic device: once one can remember the way to the heart, the central change, then one will know the way on from there, by repeating various motifs, events. It is essentially a device of memory. ‘The way of the heart’ is an epithet that Western writers give to Sufism. If my surmises are correct here then we do see a range of metaphors based on the image of a ring. Mary Douglas in Thinking in Circles configured another Sufi tale, the Mudhumalati, (by Manjhan, AD1545) as a complex star shape, of four triangles where chapter reflected chapter in the circle of the construction.

We can posit a construction where the whole of the Voyages are connected on various details e.g. 1 and 2 connect on abandonment; 2 and 3 are connected by serpents; 3 and 4 are connected by cannibalism etc to 7 and 1 connected on royal honour and patronage. There are many possible mappings to the tale but I cannot see a figurative arrangement. Voyages 1, 4 and 6 map out honourable positions Sinbad earns at various courts; Voyages 4, 6 and 7, map out the uselessness of jewels and wealth; and 2, 4 and 7 on the theme of peripheral value: jewels, grave goods and sandalwood.  3 and 5 connect on the theme of apes; 1 and 7 on the whale; 2 and 5 on the Roc bird. There does not seem to be an arrangement I am familiar with in this; the patterns of Muslim architecture are all based on harmony and balance. The ring is the only harmonic structure I can see here.