Category Archives: Place

Norwegian dance is the new square dance (in Munchen)

As we build the world of Munchen, we keep making fun discoveries about the unusual real things that exist in this world. I especially love when this happens organically — when we’re writing out a particular scene, for example, or need to flesh out a character. Christine wrote last week about the strange case of lutefisk, and this week I made another find: The Norwegian Dancers of Stoughton High School.

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I discovered the Dancers as I was writing a scene for Meredith and Miles, our two teenage misfits. At first I had them doing a square-dancing unit, which I remember doing (and sometimes enjoying — though I’d never admit that!). Then I thought — but wait, Munchen is a Norwegian-settled town that still very much shows its Scandinavian roots. Maybe they don’t square dance. Maybe they… Well, is there such a thing as Norwegian dance? I Googled “high school norwegian dance” — and voila. There they were. The colorfully costumed kids of Stoughton High. Sometimes synchronicity seems to be on our side. I rewrote the scene to have Meredith and Miles doing the Norwegian springar dance, sometimes known as the pols dance, similar to the polka.

This Stoughton troupe is serious. They perform all over the country, and getting a spot on the team is competitive. Tryouts are in April, and the only open spots come about when a senior graduates. Another type of dance they perform is the halling dance, a wedding dance in which young Norwegian men compete to perform the most impressive acrobatics. Here’s a video of some of the troupe’s greatest hits:

All this gave me the idea that Miles — poor, picked-on Miles — has a strange knack for Norwegian dance. His exploration of this unusual skill will lead him to get into all kinds of adventure — and of course trouble — as the season goes on.

Here’s to strange regional high school activities!

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Filed under Place, Supernatural and Weird Fiction, Welcome to Munchen, World Building

H.P. Lovecraft and the invention of world-building

The horror writer H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937) has a huge contemporary following. Everyone who’s into scary writing knows that. There are scores of authors, both amateur and professional, who’ve continued to write stories in, or inspired by, the elaborate universe of monsters and secret cults and decrepitude he created.

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Lovecraft’s reputation has only grown since his death. His influence can be seen clearly in all the current masters of geeky horror and fantasy, including Joss Whedon, Steven Spielberg and J.J. Abrams.

Why has he stayed so popular? We certainly can’t credit his prose, which on a good day was overstuffed, on a bad  maddeningly pseudo-intellectual. (From The Call of Cthulu: “The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein…” etc. etc. etc.)

No, I’d wager it’s because Lovecraft was an early master — maybe even the inventor — of the storytelling technique known as world-building. Lovecraft was among the first authors to create a complex alternate reality and then revisit it over and over. Readers could follow him to this reality and escape their everyday concerns. All this without needing to get drunk or high — though I’m sure some people chose to do that, too!

Fast forward to today: World-building is the defining technique of contemporary popular fiction. Think of just about any recent blockbuster book, movie or TV show. Chances are it’s set in a parallel fantasy world. The Hunger Games, Harry Potter, Game of Thrones, Ender’s Game, all the superhero stories — the list goes on. Like Lovecraft’s work, these stories all take place in made-up worlds. And like Lovecraft’s work, they’re all issued in installments, so that once people have learned about a world they can immerse themselves in it over and over again — deepening their understanding of that universe each time.

All this is not even to mention the wildly popular media of video games and comic books. These are the true paragons of world-building, incorporating visual and sometimes aural components. (Hmm, the idea of the “game,” or competition, is clearly also a strong theme in contemporary storytelling. Good idea for a future post.)

What do you think? Did Lovecraft invent world-building? Is that the main reason he remains so popular today? –Justin

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Spooks, Character and Place: The Somewhat Lost Art of John Bellairs

blue_figurineGrowing up, my very favorite author was John Bellairs (1938-1991). He wrote middle-grade and young adult novels about hapless young protagonists (mostly boys) who end up trapped in supernatural adventures.

It saddens me that so few people remember Bellairs today. Oh sure, there’s an online fan community — a really great one. But he’s hardly a household name. He’s unknown even to many of my geek friends, the people who by all rights should have been salivating over his books right along with me during their awkward teen years.

Bellairs wrote great yarns. They always built to flashy climactic battles. In The House with a Clock in Its Walls, plump Lewis Barnavelt had to duke it out with the ghost of a dead sorceress in his basement. In The Curse of the Blue Figurine, the spirit of an insane priest possesses poor Johnny Dixon. Johnny ends up at the top of a mountain battling for control of his soul.

The icing on the cake? Edward Gorey drew the covers and frontispieces of all of his books. Yeah, Edward Gorey! I get chills even now, thinking about those spindly drawings of skeletons and creeps and swirling leaves.

Joyful were the days I’d go to my local library and see Bellairs’ latest book on the shelves, all crisp and shiny in its plastic jacket cover.

Looking back now, I think the appeal of the books for me lay not just in their exciting plots but in their characters and impeccable sense of setting.

My favorite Bellairs character was Professor Childermass, Johnny’s neighbor and ally on most of his adventures. Professor Childermass was so cranky and curmudgeonly that he kept a Fuss Closet in his house — a room where he retreated during dark moods to bellow obscenities and beat the padded walls.

Bellairs’ heroes and heroines were often displaced misfits — actual or practical orphans who lived far from their parents. Lewis Barnavelt lived with his uncle and Johnny Dixon lived with his grandparents. These living situations made literal the isolation and loneliness of adolescence — especially the kind of adolescence experienced by many young book readers. J. K. Rowling would take a lesson years later.

And then there were the aging, cozy-but-spooky small towns where the novels took place. Bellairs himself had lived in both the Midwest and New England, and he used his memories of both regions to great atmospheric effect.

Lewis Barnavelt and his best friend Rose Rita Pottinger lived in New Zebedee, Michigan; Johnny Dixon in Duston Heights, Massachusetts; and Anthony Monday in Hoosac, Minnesota.

All three towns were fictional but based on real places. They all featured the shabby churches, factories, echoey Victorian houses and sepulchral autumns that so dominate the memories of anyone who’s grown up in the American East or Midwest. Of course ghosts and black magic existed in these places. How could they not? And in many ways, the settings were more haunting than the supernatural events themselves.

Bellairs was heavily influenced by the work of early 20th century horror writer M.R. James. James invented the “antiquarian ghost story,” in which the inciting incident was often the discovery of some ancient and mysterious object.

In turn, he was a pioneer of the “supernatural realism” so popular in film, TV and novels today. He’s well overdue for a reconsideration. And please, when that happens: Get rid of the cartoon covers on the current editions of his books and bring back Edward Gorey!

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Filed under Books, Place, Supernatural and Weird Fiction