Kiss of Death: A Halloween Tale


Even the wrapper they came in was unappealing. Orange and yellow and black.

Candy kisses. Who made them? Where did they come from? No kid on the planet liked them.

When we hauled home our sacks of goodies at the end of Halloween night and dumped them out on the floor to see just what we’d gotten, we’d inevitably be saddened to find that a disappointingly large percentage of our take consisted of these hard, seemingly inedible, joyless “kisses.” But we didn’t throw them out. Our moms wouldn’t let us. That would be a waste. And technically they were candy, after all. We didn’t want to part with them, either, because of that fact. They had the virtue of at least making your mound of sugary loot look bigger. They bulked out the haul.

But inevitably, over the next few days, as we gobbled up all the other candy we’d collected, the dreaded Wrapper of Sadness began to predominate in the pile, and it got harder to avoid the realization that soon we would consume all the good stuff and then there would only be those things left, and then what? Like survivors in a lifeboat who’ve run out of food, we were now forced to contemplate the dreadful thought of eating what decency and rightness told us should never be eaten.

But we ate them. When we were younger and didn’t believe our older siblings who told us that they were gross and we’d be sorry, we ate them. First we had to get the wrapper off, and that was part of what made the candy kiss an instrument of deceit and misery, too, because half the time the wrapper was indelibly stuck in the candy and wouldn’t come off, or would only half come off. The rule was you didn’t have to eat those ones. You could throw the half-wrapped ones out because you’d given it your best shot, you’d tried to eat the thing and it had resisted.

But if you did manage to get the wrapper off in one piece, you felt like a kid who opens a present at Christmas to find socks and underwear inside. Because the candy kiss now had to be eaten, but it could not be eaten. It looked like candy but it was made of plastic cement.

We created our own urban legend around the candy kiss. It was said that if you actually ate one, it would remain in your stomach forever, and other bits of food would get stuck to it, until it made a huge ball that would block your intestines up and kill you. Truly the kiss of death.

The Knowmes


Quite possibly the most irritating beings in all the Perilous Realm are the Knowmes. This crabbed, humourless race dwells by the Sad Grey Lake in the Great Scarred Land, where they busy themselves every day at their many profitable industries, which make them rich but also make the lake more grey and the land more scarred.

 They inform anyone who asks that they are unrelated in any way to the more familiar garden-variety gnomes of the ferny woods, with their jolly white beards and red caps. And that is why they insist on the unusual spelling of their name. For they will tell anyone who makes the mistake of calling them gnomes that they are not gnomes, they are Knowmes, the keepers of Knowledge (or as they call it, Knowmledge). They value facts only, hard data, the kind of information that they can make use of for their own profit.

If someone mentions one of their hated rivals, for example Gnome Chomsky, they roll their eyes and speak condescendingly of his discredited theories.

A conversation with one of these beings will consist mostly of the Knowme telling you “I already knowm that.” Indeed, they will inform anyone they meet that whatever they knowm about is what’s worth knowming, and whatever they don’t knowm about isn’t. Although they’re not often willing to admit there’s anything unknowmn to them. Their arrogance really knowms no bounds. When confronted by information that’s new and unfamiliar to him, a Knowme will put on a knowming expression and nod knowmingly, as if it’s already aware of these facts. 

If you’re ever in the presence of a Knowme on those rare occasions when it's forced to admit there’s something it doesn’t knowm, you had better turn and run, because Knowmes deal with these situations by turning bright purple and exploding. As a diversionary gambit this is of course quite drastic, but it does have the side benefit of keeping the Knowme population in check.

 Of course there's probably much I don't know about these beings, so don't take my word for it. I'm not an expert in Knowmology.

The Little Kingdoms


A traveler riding north from the Bourne will see a range of widely-scattered hills, with a castle on top of each hill. These are the Little Kingdoms. Each is a small country, tiny by the standards of most kingdoms, generally consisting of only one or two villages and surrounding farmland clustered around the castle on the hill. The kingdoms are generally peaceful places where very little changes over the years, but they all have one curious feature: if you are a plucky, good-hearted young man or woman setting out to make your way in the world, you’re very likely to have a great life-changing adventure in the Little Kingdoms. 

These are lands of strange fortune where a woodcutter’s son can end up marrying a princess and becoming king, or where a miller’s daughter may persevere through great hardship to marry a prince and become queen. And if there is no adventure to be had within the kingdoms themselves at a particular time, the Deep Dark Forest lies to the west, and the Screaming Wastes to the east. And in fact it often happens that your adventure will begin in one of the Little Kingdoms but eventually take you to one or both of these conveniently close-by but extremely dangerous places.

Nothing about the kingdoms is guaranteed, however. Many young adventurers have come to the Little Kingdoms expecting to make their fortune, only to end up no better off than they were before, or in many cases worse. Strength, good looks, and courage aren’t necessarily going to guarantee you a successful adventure, especially not if you show up with the assumption that because of your gifts you’re entitled to a happy ending. Many bold young men have come here and failed at some task, only to watch their foolish, inexperienced youngest brother succeed. And even a happy ending isn’t necessarily going to stay happy. There have been cases of poor but deserving young men who won the hand of the princess and became king, but who later became obsessed with holding onto power and through their own greed and malice ended up losing their kingdom to other poor but deserving young men. In the Little Kingdoms you can start poor, become a king, and lose it all again. In this way the kingdoms know change while still remaining much the same over the years.
When it’s time for knight-apprentices of the Errantry to go on their first solo adventure, they are often sent to the one of the Little Kingdoms. As these are places of relative stability and predictability, an inexperienced knight-in-training is not likely to end up in too much trouble. But then again, in the Perilous Realm nothing is certain. Even the familiar and quiet Little Kingdoms can hold surprises.

City of Readers

A story (slightly edited for this blog) from my collection The Logogryph, about a utopian city of readers. I’m not sure, but it might be Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan.

  The city is surrounded by a wall two thousand paces in circumference, and by an encircling moat as well. The houses of the citizens are roomy and comfortably adorned, solid and strong in construction. Everywhere there are wide doorways and broad courts, with benches and shade trees. The houses all have tall windows of fine glass let in the light from all sides.
The streets themselves are made of the hardest flagstones, which are frequently replaced, as the nightly pacing of the city’s numberless insomniacs and sleepwalkers swiftly wears them out.
            The grand temple, dedicated to those few citizens who have attained transfiguration, is both imposing and splendid, built of ornately carved stone, full of lit candles, and admirable for its polished and immaculate shelving. The numerous relics of the Transfigured are laid out with simple dignity in alcoves: most moving are the pairs of bent and tarnished wire spectacles, which give silent testimony to many diligent hours.
Adjacent to this temple is an enclosed hermitage, in which literary agents, publishers and other sinners are received as penitents. If any of them, however, is found to have relapsed into their former vices they are weighted with broken inkstones and thrown into the moat. Thus these functionaries learn to adopt a modest and a holy life; evil rumour is rarely heard of them.
There is also a university in this city, but scarcely a book is to be seen in its halls and residences, and indeed the students make a great show of their own ignorance and laziness, so much so that young people have flocked from far and wide, upon report of the great orgies of time-wasting to be enjoyed here. And it would seem that the parents and older citizens not only tolerate but encourage such behavior, for, as was explained to me, how else will the young acquire the discipline needed to idle away the rest of their lives with books?
It is believed that within the city there are at present over five hundred optometrists and sixty thousand librarians. Eighteen of these latter, usually the most capricious and heterodox, are chosen yearly as anti-censors, whose duty it is to ensure that no book is ever banned or prevented from reaching any reader. There is also a body of officials whose function is to ensure that any disturbing or scandalous volumes are distributed at random through the city, in order that the wrong reader may come upon them by accident, and so complicate and deepen her reading life with matter that she may otherwise never have encountered.
You may well ask how such imposing walls and grand houses are constructed in such a city.  Whence comes their obvious wealth? The answer is that the people do as much work as is required to maintain life and enjoyment, and as the rest of their time is given over to reading, they squander neither a moment nor a penny on dubious pursuits like gaming, whoring or investing. Surplus funds go into a public trust which is meant to be shared out equally amongst all, although it is true that this ideal is seldom realized: not because those in charge of the funds are avaricious or deceitful, but simply because they are too wrapped up in the latest novel to be diligent with tallies and figures.
Even though many people here print and publish their own books, carts of volumes arrive daily from many lands. From China arrive slim chapbooks of poems and philosophical fragments, the pages woven of fine embroidered silk, or painted in tiny hand on plaques of delicate porcelain. From Italy are brought collections of tales both fabulous and bawdy, the pages of which smell strongly of pepper and cheese. From the northern lands come a great many heroic epics wrapped warmly in the skins of fox, ermine, sable and lynx, or stowed among salted herring. The English ship their famed tragedies and comedies in amongst casks of ale and boxes of silverware. From the new world, by way of Spain, come books of magic spells and fat novels, inked with leopard’s blood and bound in precious stones from the beds of poisonous rivers.
            It is also wondrous how much produce is brought into the city day after day. Trains of wagons come in through the gates loaded with eggs, meat and fish. Flour, bread and pastries arrive in tremendous masses; nonetheless, by evening nothing is left in the marketplace to be bought.      
            It is not the citizens themselves who devour all of this bounty of the earth, however. Instead, they purchase it for the numerous household guests who visit at all times of the year, in order to escape their own clamorous, hectic lives. As anyone who devotes a life to books well knows, tranquil solitude is a kind of vacuum that attracts the noisy and the inquisitive. Rather than struggle against this law of nature, almost every citizen operates, from out of his own house, a tavern for feasting and wine-bibbing. When friends and relations arrive on the doorstep with their luggage, their sunburns, and their sticky children, the inhabitants heat up the stoves, prepare succulent dishes, fetch in musicians and harlots, and let all proceed as it will, while they themselves retire to some sheltered spot, where the enjoyment of a book is perhaps given even greater relish by the adjacent din.
            Of course, for such a large and noble city, this means that there is much licentiousness and vandalry. Brawls erupt often between rival mobs of visitors vying for the spoils. Hardly an evening goes by without a skirmish or an ambuscade, and when such clashes occur, there is no one to separate the contending parties. There are no magistrates such as we know them, no officers of the law, no collectors of revenues other than those who collect the tax on wine, which everyone must pay. If outright robbery is committed, or murder, or any other disruption of the civil peace, the ire of the citizenry at having their reading interrupted by the necessities of law and order leads to swift vigilante trial and justice, though most often even the rumour of one of these avenging mobs of disturbed readers is enough to drive an offender from the city in terror.
            Truly any city would be better off without such evils, but you will find few here beset with worry about the matter. Books are made of paper and ink, they will remind you, but also of foolishness and immoderation. And so those whose lives are the most plagued by tumult and trouble are those in whom most often you will see the signs of approaching transfiguration: the pallid, almost translucent skin, the soundless step, the fading shadow. On faces lined with long forbearance and great suffering you will find the light in the eyes that comes from another place, from the knowledge that one day soon, their loved ones will awaken to find them gone from their beds, from their sofas and benches and hammocks, and will then, with mingled contentment and eagerness, begin the search for them in the pages of books that they have not yet opened.

Where Do You Get Your Stories From?

The other day someone asked me, “Where do you get your stories from?”

“From everything,” I said. It wasn’t a very helpful answer, but it felt true. For me, a story comes together from so many elements. From memories, from experiences, from a bit of conversation overheard on the bus, from odd thoughts that just pop into my head, seemingly out of nowhere.

And from other stories.

Lined up on my writing desk, within easy reach, is a row of indispensable books. Not all of them are reference works like dictionaries. Some of these books I might not consult very often but I like to know they are there. A few are, for me, the important books of my life as a reader and a writer. One of these books is The Complete Grimm's Fairy Tales.

I bought my first copy (Pantheon, Hunt and Stern translation, illustrations by Josef Scharl), back in the 1970's. Back then, like everyone else, I knew only the famous handful of Grimm: The Frog Prince, Rapunzel, Hansel and Gretel…. So it was a shock to me to flip through this massive book and discover there were hundreds of others stories. Stories I’d never heard of. Stories I couldn’t wait to read (yes, I was a strange kid). The book was $7.95 or so and I remember deliberating over it for half an hour in the bookstore because this was a lot of money to me back then, when my source of income was a paper route. But I had to have it. When I brought the book up to the counter the bookseller smiled and said, “Finally decided, eh?”

That copy of the tales was poured through many, many times and at last, after many years, the book cracked in half. So recently I went out and bought an updated version of the Pantheon edition ($26.95, but now I've got more spending money so it's okay).

Over the years I read these tales to my kids, but they always seemed restless when I did, which was not the case with other, more contemporary books and stories. It occurred to me that the tales come from a slower time, when the storyteller was the sole source of entertainment for people in small towns and villages. My kids have grown up in a faster world, where stories and images are a constant bombardment, often geared to selling something.

But I also discovered that if I read over one of the tales to myself beforehand and memorized its shape, I could tell it to the kids, and that went much more successfully. The point was not to memorize the tale word for word. Just to know it well enough that I could tell it in my own words.

So where do I get my stories from? When I sit down to write, part of me is still a kid, going quiet and listening expectantly because someone is going to tell me a story. Yes, I’m the one writing it, but deep down there’s a feeling that I’m the listener, not the teller. The story grows from all the elements it needs to grow. Sometimes it arrives as a complete surprise. Sometimes it seems like I'm not the one getting the story from anywhere. It comes and gets me. Or we both set out, the story and I, from different places, and eventually meet somewhere on a road. I like it best when that happens. That's why I always write not so much to say something as to have something said to me. The story has come all this way to be here, and I want to hear what it has to tell.