Some people have a real talent for drawing masterpieces out of pencil and paper. The most basic strokes can create a three-dimensional image if you know how to do it, and that’s what I think Patrick deWitt, the author of The Sisters Brothers has done. This is a really unusual, fascinating book. Narrated by Eli Sisters, one of the two hired killer brothers, there is never any description of the main character in it though he’s quite matter-of-fact in describing the other men and women he encounters. Some books start talking about what people look like, and what they think and their tendencies, in a rather formulaic fashion; Eli doesn’t once describe his brother, yet by the end of the book you feel you’d recognise both of them if they walked towards you. This is a real talent, very distinct and not one that I’ve noticed in many authors (I would be interested if you have).
It’s not that I’m averse to description. The beautiful language of L M Montgomery, for example, in her passages about Prince Edward Island in Canada, is pure poetry. But I like authors who try something a little different. I remember doing an English exam in which one of the tasks was writing a letter and describing someone in it. So I did, only to be marked down by the teacher who said “You wouldn’t write that in a letter”. Of course you wouldn’t – so why tell me to do it?! The Sisters Brothers is like having Eli write you a letter, or tell you his story, and it works brilliantly.
Speaking of story-telling, my mum and I went to see some M R James stories performed by a sole actor on Tuesday. The set was beautiful; the actor in an armchair, telling the stories by candlelight. Word-perfect, he had learned both of them – Count Magnus and Number Thirteen – off by heart, and they were very eerie. M R James is a much-lauded teller of supernatural stories, and rightly so. His language is gentle yet it creates such menace that my spine turned to ice by the end of Count Magnus and the heebies (which I always imagine as small, furry creatures, like Ursula Moray Williams’s Bogwoppit) creeping my shoulderblades going home. The music played didn’t help. It reminded me of when I got locked in a church by myself while someone had put The Messiah on the stereo and left it playing loudly: the section where the choir get all het up and sing
I was gibbering in the vestry by the time the vicar came back.
I also wrote a story about a room number 13 in a hotel when I was in my early teens, but I don’t think I’d discovered M R James then. I haven’t actually written it down but I’ve Told it to various people and I suppose I ought to pop it down in case I become famous after my death and it could be a ‘lost gem’ like the Beatles’ unpublished tracks, or the Hitler Diaries.
Anyway, I must post about Halloween! I meant to post about it when it happened but side-tracked by Guy Fawkes. My baking was not the best – “moderately easy” my arse, to quote Jim Royle – as the photographic evidence shows. However I have been reassured it tasted much better than it looked.
The top photo is what it was supposed to look like.
In the evening I went to a friend’s house for a spooky supper, and then I told my ghost story ‘Writer’s Block’ by the light of a wickedly-grinning pumpkin. The story is one I wrote for a library competition. You were given the first few lines, and then had to complete the story. I must admit I didn’t expect to win, mainly because I used the word ‘piss’ in the story but also because the first lines were so feeble, my narrator started writing them, and then screwed them up and put them in the bin. Which won’t have gone down well with the judges.
Still, it was the first story I’d written in a number of years, and I’d forgotten how good it was. I don’t mean that arrogantly – but when you’ve written something good, you know it’s good because you can’t remember writing it. During my halcyon book-writing days in my teens, I’d sit at the computer, typing in fury (and probably drooling like Homer) and then ‘wake up’ not remembering I’d written certain phrases or passages. It is like someone sitting over your shoulder and running their spirit down your arm, trickling it out through your fingertips. So I don’t claim that I’ve written special stuff because I don’t think it’s necessarily me doing it.
We then watched The Woman in Black. The most classic of ghost stories, and a film which deserves to be a classic in its own right. It was my fourth time of watching it and I still screamed and jumped when appropriate.
My friend, her husband and their new delicious daughter live in a delectable white cottage in a little country village, with an enormous black iron range in the kitchen, a woodburner in the sitting room, and (this evening only) a pumpkin gurning at the back door. (Would you write all this in a letter? Do you know, I think I might.) Sometimes I get physical pain from wanting something, and I got a strong pang of home-envy that evening. Do you ever experience this pain? I used to get it when I was watching films and the hero kissed the heroine, and I got a real streak of pain across the front of my chest because I didn’t think it would ever happen to me. The kiss did – eventually – perhaps the cottage, complete with range, wood-burner and pumpkin, will do, too. Let’s hope so eh…
After the M R James performance I remembered an interesting incident which I could make a story out of – and I’m tempted not to write it on here in case someone nicks it, but I’m trusting you, O Gentle Reader, not to, mmmkay? Many years my family went for a walk at Dunwich. It’s the place where a church set on a cliff, complete with graveyard, has started slipping into the sea. Our dog, Miggy Miggy Moo Moo (full name Mig), went for a run, and came back with a human femur in her mouth. It had obviously tumbled from a slipped grave. My mum, not sure exactly what to do, but being a nurse au fait with handling dead things (even if she did faint when taking out my stitches after FingerGate) wrestled the bone from a rather piqued Miggy and, with as much dignity as she could muster, threw it into the sea. This both terrified and titillated me in equal measure: “Oh, he’s not going to follow us back home after that, is he?! “He” (or she) did not, as far as I’m aware, follow us to exact any sort of revenge for treating his remains with such disrespect, but wouldn’t it make a great story if he had? (It might have been hard with only one leg though.)
PS: I have the most delicious photo of Moo on Dunwich beach. I will get my dad to send it over and post it up here. She deserves to be shared.