29 October 2011

Alice Sebold's "The Lovely Bones"

The 2002 cover.
This book has touched many readers in a profound and personal way. When it debuted in hardcover in 2002, every member of my family picked up their own copy based on rave reviews, TV blurbs, personal anecdotes from fellow readers, etc. For some reason I didn't follow suit and get my own, I was too busy thinking about other things at the time (college, probably).

My mother had a copy, my brother had a copy, and my sister had a copy. I don't remember my Mom and brother's specific reactions to the book, but I know they were positive. What I do remember is my sister's reaction to it. The book appealed to her emotions based on the relationship between the sisters: Susie, who is deceased, and Lindsey, who lives on without her (and in a way, for her).

 Based on my own sister's reaction alone, I knew at some point I needed to read this book: does she see us in it? Is the love the sisters share for each other like ours? Is the sisterly relationship between the girls something she and I have, or something we should aspire to?
With all of those questions floating around in my brain, somehow I still didn't pick it up and read it. Even when the film came out in 2009 I didn't pick up the book. I saw the movie last year when it was available on demand, and only then did I go...Hmm. Maybe I should just read the book. This was because I didn't care for the film. I thought it was trying to be two separate movies--a meditation on life, death, and family, and then a crime thriller--and just didn't pull it off. I figured the book would unite the two styles, and anything it had to say about death, family, life, and the afterlife, would touch me on a personal, emotional level just as it did my family.

I tried to read the book right after the movie and stopped after the first few chapters...I just ran out of steam. And this was before my father died that year, so it wasn't because I was particularly sensitive to the subject of death...I just couldn't get through the book.

So here it is, October 2011, and now I can say that I've read The Lovely Bones from cover to cover (hooray for it being assigned for school). And when I was finished, the first thing I thought was: Is there something wrong with me? Because this book appealed to so many people, and I didn't get emotionally attached to it or profoundly touched by it on any level. It was well-written with some lovely turns of phrase and ideas behind it, but in the end, for me, it was a book where not a whole lot happened.

And I don't want to be negative about this book, I really don't...I want to like it very badly! But...

The book felt like Susie's afterlife to me, except without the cute dogs or Evensong or nice weather or intake counselors and gazebos.  As in: This book feels like an eternity. Or Purgatory. As in: I am detached from the world and characters inside this book, and I keep trying to connect with it somehow, but I can't, so I'm relegated to just watching what happens passively and in silence. 

And maybe this was the author's goal, for the reader to experience how Susie's afterlife affects her; so we are in Susie's shoes throughout and we have to deal with the disconnect just like she does since she died. The problem is, as a reader, I don't like being passive, I don't like being disconnected, I don't like wandering around and watching the world pass by me. So even though this book is well-written and we truly get a sense of what it's like to be in Susie's predicament, I didn't want to be in Susie's predicament. This is probably why it was so hard for me to get through this novel on the whole.

I disliked Susie's mother and never felt sympathy for her, and I sniffed her affair with Len miles and miles away; when Butch later says "fuck you" to her, I thought, "Hell yeah! You've got it right!"  I never got the feeling that Susie's mother left the family to deal with her grief; it always seemed like her mother was stuck in the land of regret, wishing she never became a mom, and when the family unraveled at Susie's death, she took the opportunity to leave and live as a non-parent under the guise of that grief. I can't believe she had the audacity to send postcards to her kids at every place she visited: "Hello, I'm in Dayton. Ohio's state bird is the cardinal." "Reached the Mississippi last night at sunset. It certainly is a big river" (Sebold 220). If I was her daughter, I'd hate her more and more with every postcard, because to me, it would feel like she's rubbing it in my face that she's free to travel and do whatever she wants, and sorry, I'm living life and having fun and you can't come with me! So, you bet I was pissed off when she came back in the story after the father's heart trouble, and things seemed sort of okay between all of them. Except Buckley. Thank you for saying what I feel to your mother. 

To be honest, I didn't get into the other characters at all, either. Lindsey and Samuel are probably the only ones I liked "watching," because their relationship seemed picture-perfect despite all the crap life throws at the Salmons (although I do think it's a little weird that Susie watched them have sex for the first time). Grandma Lynn is a hoot, so I guess I'll add her to my "like list." Susie's father was a good enough man but I didn't care about him; I didn't care about the Singhs or Ruth or anyone else. And I actually didn't like reading anything Susie learned about Mr. Harvey...because I didn't want to have sympathy for him, or try and learn anything to justify (lay the foundations) for his actions. I didn't want to hear Susie tell us that Harvey tried to stop himself from killing people by killing animals, and I didn't want her to fill us in on Harvey's crazy Mom and Dad. It didn't matter to me, because it still never revealed motive, but instead just a behavioral pattern, which still didn't matter because the guy was a murderer.  And the case to get him caught just didn't hold my interest...it went cold. Like a lot of murder cases in real life.

And lastly...I don't know. Don't get me going on the whole Ruth/Ray/Susie thing. That didn't ring authentic to me on any level. I didn't buy it in the movie, either.

Wow! There we go. That was an emotional response!! Sorry, I stand corrected. I guess it did speak to my emotions. But I was looking for kind of a happy, warm fuzzy feeling like, "I'm glad to be alive. I do hope I have a long and happy life, just like Susie tells us at the end. I love my family, I'm so happy, la la la. And there's hope for when we die, even though no one wants to die."  I didn't feel anything like that. I didn't feel what my sister felt when she read the book, either.  I felt happy I finished the book on the second try, and that I finished so I could post about it.

Source:

Sebold, Alice. The Lovely Bones: A Novel. Boston: Little, Brown, 2002. Print.

22 October 2011

Alejandro Amenábar's "The Others"

The 2001 movie poster.
I can't believe this film was made ten years ago. Where did the time go? Ten years ago I graduated high school and became a college freshman. And yes, ten years ago I went to the movie theater and saw this film.

It's memorable enough that I very well knew the ending when I watched this again for my Horror genre class, and there were even some visual images that I thought I'd shelved that came back to me right when I sat through the opening credits.

It's a great ghost movie, very stylish, very good with pacing, very atmospheric, and very, very pretty to look at. 

If anything, the film reminds me of an old-fashioned play, and I mean this as a compliment. The movie has an antiquated feel to it anyway, given the time period (1945, Jersey-The Channel Islands) and the illustrious old manor house and lands in which the movie's set. But something about the structure and pacing reminds me of 19th century theater, as well as the visuals and even the character mannerisms and dialogue.

Visually, the film seems tinted with gray and sepia, and lit by gaslight (technically lit by candles and oil lamps) which helps with the antiqued look. The musical score enhances this (composed by Alejandro Amenábar, who also wrote and directed the film) with its hints of Romanticism and emotionalism...the strings are a wonderful effect, particularly the cello when it's played in the higher octaves. Very beautiful, and melodramatic (in a good way).

And now here's a mystery for all of you....I'm embarrassed that I haven't found the answer to this, considering I have a background in theater and play writing....

I've spent hours and hours looking up a very specific narrative device used in 19th century theater and melodramas regarding exposition. I have not found the term yet and it's driving me crazy because I feel that The Others employs this technique to a degree, which contributes to its classic feel.

Here goes--

In older theater of the time, the most common form of narrative exposition is provided by secondary characters, namely of the lower social classes, like servants or housekeepers or tutors. They nonchalantly have a conversation where they gossip about the major characters, and therefore very obviously inform the audience everything they need to know before the major characters show up on stage (an example of this device--see Act One of Ibsen's Hedda Gabler).

There is a magical little term for this type of narrative device and it eludes me! I've looked in all my theater books and I can't find it...arrgh!  

Anyway, in The Others, the three servants, led by Bertha Mills, often have scenes that function as little asides...they don't always serve as exposition or explanation, but they sometimes they're there just to reinforce that there's more to the story than meets the eye. 

You know, sections where they cut to servants from the main action just so we can hear things like "Mr. Tuttle, I've reached the end of my tether. Uncover the graves" or other phrases along the lines of biding time, or waiting for the moment to reveal the truth, or having patience, etc. etc. Or casual remarks about the state of the house and their Mistress's sanity/ability to uncover the truth, and how the children are doing. The use of this device really works for the film's style, and I appreciate it...especially since (SPOILER) the servants are actually from the 19th century. See how that works?

And probably most of all, you've got good old-fashioned Christianity/Catholicism in the mix. Yes, there are still Christians and Catholics in this world who practice and believe, but for the most part we've embraced secularism, or are at least trending that way. God and the Afterlife aren't so embedded in the daily lives of the populace as it has been in the past...so the dialogue regarding Limbo and Purgatory and Damnation in this sense helps with the authenticity of the film to its time period as well as contributing to the classic, old-fashioned style it displays so well.

I think this film holds up over time. As with all movies that center on a big "aha!" twist ending, once you learn the twist, it may lose its punch, but on the whole this movie can weather repeat viewings. There's great, emotional performances (I have a soft spot for Nicole Kidman's character when she breaks down to her husband about the war that "had nothing to do with us!"), great atmosphere and tension, and again, the film is visually stunning.  

Source:

The Others. Dir. Alejandro Amenábar. Perf. Nicole Kidman. Miramax/Lionsgate Films, 2001. Streamed through Netflix 19 October 2011.

15 October 2011

Stephen King's "The Shining"

The 2002 cover.
Roque. Stroke. Good shot!

Ah, The Shining. My favorite Stephen King novel of all time. Probably my favorite horror novel of all time. The last time I read it was in 1997, right after watching the miniseries King scripted for ABC.

It was one of the few moments where everyone in our house piled in front of the television in silence. The miniseries scared the crap out of us and we were obsessed with it! Given that all the kids in the house were teens (me and my brother were 13 and my sister 16), obsessiveness is usually a simple thing to fall into at that age.

Picking up the actual novel was the next logical step. So at age 13, I read the book, which was the scariest thing I'd ever read, and reread, and reread...and then that summer, right when me and my brother turned 14, we actually got our great aunt and uncle to take us to The Stanley hotel, where King stayed and where the miniseries was filmed.

The obsession continued. We watched the Stanley Kubrick film and idolized the The Simpsons Treehouse of Horror version (The Shinning). We quoted from the novel randomly at awkward points in real conversations (Roque, stroke!!) and I even wore an elaborately decorated REDRUM tee shirt as much as I could at the time. I recited the little snippets of songs King included in the novel (Roll me over in the clo-oh-over, lay me down and do it again) even when I didn't know the actual song or what the lyrics meant. We even defaced one of the unfinished walls in the basement laundry room...if you look closely you can see in kiddie pencil scribbles quotes from the book. And yes, "redrum" appears again on the walls.

I guess we were special children growing up.

Anyway, The Shining  became the official Ambassador of Horror for me...I'd read the genre before, but this was the first book I loved, and it set the standard for me. Every horror novel I read after The Shining always got quickly compared to it, no matter how hard I tried not to.

And then for some reason, I took a very long break from reading horror altogether. I'm not sure what happened. I just stopped wanting to read them one day...and I don't remember which book I read that helped me into that decision (yet oddly enough I knew that I wanted to write horror even after giving up on it). Aside from the occasional short story, the next time I read horror regularly was in 2010, for my first Readings in the Genre class at Seton Hill. I'd say it was about a ten-year break from the genre altogether, if I'm recalling it correctly.

When we were assigned the book for this term's Horror Genre class, I felt a tiny twinge of fear: I love The Shining, but it's been forever since I read it! Would I still love this book? We've heard about looking at the past with rosy-hued glasses, or absence making the heart grow fonder...so I guess I was afraid that I'd read it this time around and end up calling my past self a moron for liking it so much. I wanted it to scare me still, and I wanted it to be good, and I wanted it to be effective.

Verdict: Still holds up. Still creeps me out. And The Shining is still my Knight carrying the Banner for Horror Fiction. Huzzah!

But I've read it with new eyes...obviously they're older, but they're more open this time around. I've been educated as a fiction writer, so I viewed the text as a writing student or novelist would. And this time around, things that got on my nerves when I was a young teen made far more sense to me now.

For example, when I was 13
(I had just gotten pointe shoes for ballet the first time and they made me six feet tall when I'd go up, tallest girl in the class on or off tiptoe and now taller than my sister, ha ha she won't beat me up now)
I couldn't understand TELL THE TRUTH, YOU JUST SKIPPED OVER IT, YOU DIDN'T TRY TO UNDERSTAND why King did these quirky little things in the narrative when all I wanted to get to was the story
--not the story, who cares about the story, I just want to see the ghosts--
and see what happened next. But now that I'm older and learning about writing fiction I hope this MFA is worth it add the thousands of dollars I borrowed from the government to the twenty-thousand I borrowed for undergrad oh my god my books better be turned into movies that make stupid amounts of money or I will be a slave to debt forever I can see how this method of showing multiple POVS
--I'm still learning about POV by the way (Tim Esaias, yeah) oh crap did I spell his name right-- and intimate trains of thought really are an expert way of putting the reader inside the minds of the characters, and considering how easily distracted human beings are (I forgot to put the milk back in the fridge, hold on) and how a single image, sound, or sense of smell
I can't seem to forget you
The first time I ever met you
Your Windsong stays on my mind
can make the attention span change course, the format of the narrative reflects the human mind rather well. I hated this at first (I can make allowances, though) and hate it when other authors do it;
(And it sure seemed like this style came up in Straub's writing in Ghost Story)
I don't forgive them for it or have the patience to read it
(if you're still here with me, great)
 so either I have an extreme bias towards King (plausible) or other writers just don't pull it off with the same finesse (also plausible).

Such as myself. I hope you appreciate (or at least recognize) that the above was a lame attempt at a King impersonation. And I didn't mean it in a snarky way...I actually admire that King can do this. If King made himself into a brand (he kind of is, to be honest), the style above is certainly one of his trademarks. I hated reading it when I was younger but I appreciate it much more now, and I can understand how difficult it is to pull off. Hats off.

I even caught onto things that are obvious now that I overlooked in the past. For example, Part Three of the novel is called The Wasp's Nest. When I was younger, I thought the title was selected because the next scene had Jack Torrance on the roof fixing shingles when he finds the nest. My brain went, "title of section" = "chapter event." But now I see that the entire event of the wasps nest foreshadows (or is a metaphor for) the nastiness of the Overlook Hotel itself.

Quickie rundown: Jack is the caretaker for the hotel. He finds the wasp's nest hidden underneath the roof and the bugs sting him. Jack thinks he's wiped it out with the bug bomb but when his son Danny gets a hold of the nest by keeping it in his room, the wasps not only reappear but in a huge swarm. They sting everyone, of course, and Jack is horrified: "They had come back. He had killed the wasps but they had come back [...] And suddenly he found he didn't like the Overlook so well anymore, as if it wasn't wasps that had stung his son, wasps that had miraculously lived through the bug bomb assault, but the hotel itself" (King, 149-150).

Good call on Jack's part, and a great setup on King's part. Think of it like this: the wasp's nest is the hotel's evil. People think it's dormant because they can't see it, but it's alive and humming beneath the surface. Jack is the caretaker (and the Caretaker), so he finds the nest while doing work on the hotel itself. Jack thinks he's done his job (using the bug bomb) but when Danny, who has the shining, is brought in the picture, things get crazy. Danny's shine is powerful, and when it comes in contact with the hotel, it enables the ghosts and evil things to manifest...more than the dead brought to life, and more than "pictures in a book" (King 100). So...the fact that about 50-100 wasps explode out of the seemingly "dead" nest when Danny's around is a good clue as to what Danny's power can do to the hotel's.

It's been a pleasure rereading The Shining. I could go on with examples (which would probably help make this post a bit more academic and critically sound) as to how this time, the book seems richer to me than before, but I'm done waxing euphoric. Instead, I'll leave you with a picture from the vault:

Image (cc) KEB
This is my photo collage from the trip to The Stanley. For most of my time growing up I ridiculously over-documented everything with photos and albums. Thought you guys would get a kick out of this.

I am so happy that my handwriting doesn't look like that anymore. :)

Source:
 
King, Stephen. The Shining. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1977. Print.

07 October 2011

Beauty and the Beast retold--a work in progress

Beauty and the Beast by Warwick Goble (1913)  
Hello, all. The last time I talked about my MFA thesis novel was here. This was a wonderful post because I got a lot of comments and input when I wrote about my adaptation of Beauty and the Beast...it's wonderful to see that people care about what you want to write and are interested in it.

Here's the thing: since this is my first novel ever, in the beginning, I made stupid mistakes everywhere and spent a lot of time rewriting (I still make mistakes, but they're not as stupid).  And after rewriting, I resubmitted the same chapters over again to my mentors. Speaking of mentors, they are the pinnacle of awesome. Shout outs to Tim Waggoner and Scott Johnson!

Anyway, I took for granted a lot of my time with my mentors and critique partners in the program. I should've conserved my time and energy by finishing the book instead of going back and rewriting all the time (even though the work needed some heavy editing). The rewriting problem stems from my perfectionism, and another habit: impulse writing. This is not only writing "whenever the mood strikes," but also writing with no plan in mind...just improvising as you go along.

Impulse writing is NOT a bad thing (in terms of improvising. It is BAD when you write only when you feel like it)...the key word here is risky. As in, you run the risk of having your writing take you in a completely different direction, and having this happen frequently. 

Being in a great program like Seton Hill's Writing Popular Fiction has taught me so much. And it's also confirmed a few things I already knew about myself: my best writing comes when I do not plan or outline. My best writing comes when I feel the pressure. When I overplan, over-research, and overthink, the end product requires a lot more revision and rewriting. But I can't drop-kick planning and plotting and scheduling out the window...because if I do, it leads me to the current problem I'm in...
Beauty and the Beast by Walter Crane
  • I don't have much time to finish the work, let alone revise it. I have messed up, and it's no one's fault but mine. I can still finish and do well, but at this rate it's like a devil's deal. I have ensured the project will not end easy for me!
  • By writing by the seat of my pants, I've done some awesome things, but now the story does not lead to or resemble Beauty and the Beast in any form. This is a huge deal (and something my mentors could see coming from a mile away, back when I submitted a detailed plot outline a few semesters ago).
  • By writing by the seat of my pants, I've made choices that have destroyed what little detailed plotting and structure I already painstakingly created.
All is not entirely lost, though. I can work some Beauty and the Beast magic into the novel, but only if I render it more like an archetype and less like an actual interpretation of the tale itself. 

I'm excited and angry about this at the same time. I had some really cool ideas about the Beast's castle, how he got enchanted, and what exactly the Beast's curse entails. I had several neat subplots involving all the fairytales that are concerned with beauty (Snow White, Beauty and the Beast, Sleeping Beauty...I even had Donkeyskin in there but doesn't exactly fit in with those fairytales). I had an Evil Uncle archetype, an Older Sibling Mentor, and several Supernatural Beings (like fairies and such...but the older, darker fairies, not Pixie McGee).

What's funny is even I saw this coming...a long time ago!  During my second mentor meeting with Tim (January 2011), I said, "I think...I already think I'm going to have to cut a lot of this stuff..." At the time I was considering all the fairytales. I had no idea I'd be cutting MUCH more than that.

Here are the casualties so far. Let's sing a song of farewell before we bury them: We wish we knew you, knew you well. But if I keep you, the book's gone to hell. *Sigh*
Characters:
-Kizzy Camomescro
-Lord Marcus Noreth
-The Beast/Prince

Settings:
-Northerton
-The Beast's Castle

Plot and Subplots (some literal, some metaphorical):
-Nods here and there to Jean Cocteau's masterpiece, as well as the Villeneuve version of the tale
-The Beast as Sleeping Beauty 
-Lily and Mother as Snow White & the Queen
-The Mother as Sleeping Beauty 
-Andresh as the Gaston/Avenant character from Beauty and the Beast
-Laney and Lord Marcus as the Princess and King characters from Donkeyskin
-Kale Camlo and Estella Noreth backstory
-The Beast and the Fairy backstory
-The merchant Father and his encounter with the Beast in the castle
-Pretty much all of the traditional Beauty and the Beast fairytale
-Andresh's sacrifice (involving Laney..I won't blab it cause I may be able to save it)

The Title of the Novel!
-Lily Beauty, Lily Rose
-The Fire Lily

That's a lot of cutting. Some whoppers on this list. Whew!

If I think about it, a lot of my changes were inspired by television shows I've watched religiously: FMA, FMA: BrotherhoodGame of Thrones, True Blood...and some of it's inspired by books I've read: Sabriel by Garth Nix, the horror novels we've had to read for my Genre Class...some from the research I've conducted (Buddhism, Hermetic Alchemy, Shamanic Healing, the Roma, etc.). Even my fellow writers at Seton Hill have inspired me (shout out to all my classmates in my horror class, to all the Troublemakers, and in particular to one of my crit partners-- author Jennifer Loring, who's been through chapter one and onward). Not to mention close friends and family members. Everybody's opinions and input keeps my brain whirring.

What did all these things do for me? It made me realize the following:
-I can make the story darker
-I can cross genres!
-The characters need to be stronger and more complex
-The story needs a lot more action and a stronger, better plot
-I need to keep my reader contract
-I want to pass The Fantasy Novelist's Exam (tee hee)
-I need to up the stakes
-There needs to be more magic in this world
-I want the story to be badass, so bring it on
-One character: Andresh Camomescro. I've made you too freaking interesting. Congratulations, you're not Avenant anymore. You are now my Beast. And I think secretly, all along, this might've been what I wanted.

Yeah, all of the above has shaken the story into something completely different, but despite all of these changes, I want to keep the story's strengths in characterization and relationships. And yes, there still has to be love in the story, too, despite all the stuff I'm tweaking...part of the reader contract, you know. What a tall order....

So.

Shit's about to get crazy! Let's see what rabbit I'll pull out of my hat next.  I'll keep you updated.

01 October 2011

Peter Straub's "Ghost Story"

The 1989 cover.
Peter Straub's  Ghost Story...we meet again, in your original, proper form this time (my first experience being the 1981 film).

There's a lot going on with this book, and I struggled to figure out what exactly I wanted to comment on. Mythology and folklore have always been appealing to me, so I wanted to latch on to Straub's use of the Narcissus motif (and loss of innocence), or the folklore of the Manitou. But, no, I'm whipping out the Keats instead.

The ghosts/evil incarnate of Ghost Story are pretty complex...they're old, ancient beings who are many forms with many names (and they're even YOU!). To be honest, I like these monsters better when they aren't given a name at all (the first time I read the phrase Manitou I deflated), but I'm honing in on the Eva Galli/Alma Mobley/ feminine wiles-spirit. In case you weren't sure what all of that encompasses, Straub dings you on the head and outright calls her La Belle Dame (Straub 214).

The 2009 cover.
 La Belle Dame Sans Merci. The Beautiful Woman Without Pity. An old folkloric symbol, the gorgeous, unattainable woman who ensnares but refuses to reciprocate the love of another...the poor lover wastes away to nothing, pining for someone who does not, (will not) give true love back. This to a degree does go hand-in-hand with the Narcissus myth (Narcissus wastes away to nothing as he stares lovelorn at his reflection, which does not reciprocate. In that myth, though, he is treated with pity and changed into the narcissus flowers). But instead of the Belle Dame's victim wasting away at his own image, he wastes away beneath hers...

Although, given Straub's interpretation, the Belle Dame is actually a part of its victims anyway, so the Belle Dame's victims do waste away from the reflection of themselves, so we're back at the Narcissus myth again. I think I just blew my own mind.

But I digress. Let's throw John Keats' poem out in the open and go from there:

La Belle Dame Sans Merci. A Ballad.

I.
O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge has withered from the lake
And no birds sing.

II.
O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
So haggard and so woe-begone?
The squirrel's granary is full,
And the harvest's done.

III.
I see a lily on thy brow, 
With anguish moist and fever-dew,
And on thy cheeks a fading rose
Fast withereth too.
 
IV.
I met a lady in the meads,
Full beautiful--a faery's child,
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
And her eyes were wild.

V.
I made a garland for her head,
And bracelets too, and fragrant zone;
She looked at me as she did love,
And made sweet moan.

VI.
I set her on my pacing steed,
And nothing else saw all day long,
For sidelong she would bend, and sing
A faery's song.
 
VII.
She found roots of relish sweet,
And honey wild, and manna-dew,
And sure in language strange she said--
'I love thee true'.

VIII.
She took me to her elfin grot,
And there she wept and sighed full sore,
And there I shut her wild wild eyes
With kisses four.

IX.
And there she lulléd me asleep
And there I dreamed-- Ah! woe betide! --
The latest dream I ever dreamt
On the cold hill side.

X.
I saw pale kings and princes too,
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
They cried-- 'La Belle Dame sans Merci
Hath thee in thrall!'

XI.
I saw their starved lips in the gloam,
With horrid warning gapéd wide,
And I awoke and found me here,
On the cold hill's side.

XII. 
And this is why I sojourn here
Alone and palely loitering,
Though the sedge is withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.

La Belle Dame Sans Merci by Sir Frank Dicksee (1903). 
I can start with making some obvious connections to Keats' Belle Dame and Straub's Belle Dame, Eva Galli/Alma Mobley. Of course, she's beautiful. He beauty varies in its representation. Depending on whom she haunts, she can be androgynous, fox-like, cold, sensual, passive, charming, etc. And as Keats' Belle Dame is wild (verse VI) so is Straub's: " [...] 'She was wild,' Sears said. 'She was frightening'" (Straub 355).

She wanders from victim to victim, and yes, she does hypnotize them into loving her. The Chowder Society is enthralled by her in numerous incarnations, particularly Lewis and Edward. She does get engaged to both David and Don Wanderley (pretty creepy if you ask me). And all these men waste away, in one way or another, under her spell. They either completely die or diminish in their capacity (a good example is Don at his university job...his love for Alma has made him ineffective).

And I can't help but compare the Knight's vision of the Belle Dame's victims in verses X and XI to the multiple visions the characters have in Straub's story. Almost every person who has died reappears to the Belle Dame's impending victim. It's hard not to think of Keats' "pale faces" and simultaneously picture Sears, John, and Lewis behind their black veils, or Fenny and Gregory Bates, or Christina Barnes, and Stringer, and, and, and--you get the idea. Even if some of these spirits are the Belle Dame's beneficiaries, the point is, they are just as much under her spell as the other living characters are.

 La Belle Dame Sans Merci By John William Waterhouse (1893). 
Lastly, here's the connection that made me rethink my opinion of Straub and Ghost Story (for the better: at first I wasn't that impressed but I've underestimated the book to a degree): DREAMS! At first I didn't like the idea that the spirits were manifestations of the imagination, because it seemed too simple, but it fits perfectly. The Chowder Society, Don Wanderley (a novelist), the painter Mobley...these men are creators, and equally haunted. It's larger than that, though.

Straub's Belle Dame taunts Don Wanderley (as well as the reader): "We chose to live in your dreams and imaginations because only there are you interesting. [...] Could you defeat a cloud, a dream, a poem? You are at the mercy of your human imaginations, and when you look for us, you should always look in the places in your imagination. In the places of your dreams" (Straub 401).

Keats' Belle Dame works through dreams as well (Verse IX). She lulls her knight to sleep and he has the "latest dream" he ever had...aka, the last dream. He woke up on the cold hill side, but that's not really waking up. As Straub's characters would say, he's "gone over" (Straub 77).

La Belle Dame Sans Merci hasn't just haunted the characters in Ghost Story, or John Keats' knight-at-arms. An excellent real-life example would be the Pre-Raphaelites, the artists and authors of the 19th century who sought to recreate an idealized version of the Middle Ages.

 Coraline's mother as a beldam...
The Belle Dame has also cropped up in modern works as well...Neil Gaiman's Coraline for example. The "Other Mother" is referred to as a beldam (in both the book and the film, if my memory serves me). Beldam = Belle Dame! See? She haunts EVERYONE, it seems, creative people mostly, but since imagination is a part of every human being, odds are she's still lurking there too. And that's how she's a separate entity but also YOU at the same time.

 ...Kristina as a beldam.
You can be one, too. Go here!
The more I think about Straub's Ghost Story, the more connections I keep making to the idea of dreams, and the monsters we make in them. He's on to something, and it's greater than his book, and greater than anything his characters in it could picture. Though the idea of it being tied to Native American myth, or animalism/spiritualism turns me off to a degree, I do like what he's done when he links it to the Belle Dame myth.

And we can tie it back to Narcissus again anyway...don't artists fall in love with their own creations, or at least instill their own love into what they create? Aren't their creations manifestations of themselves? Aren't their creations the products of their dreams?

The more I think about it, the more I like it. Kudos, Straub.
 
Sources:
 Keats, John. "La Belle Dame Sans Merci. A Ballad." Bright Star: Love Letters and Poems of John Keats to Fanny Brawne. New York: Penguin Group, 2009. 88-90. Print.

Straub, Peter. Ghost Story. New York: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, 1979. Print.