The Starless Sea

Erin Morgenstern crafts a story-labyrinth

What’s your story, the one you live by, the one you are living—the one you tell yourself to live? We are all stories and we live to consume stories from and about others. Sometimes, we write and read a story about story and story telling. It’s a venerable genre and a difficult one to try, as writer or reader, requiring a sensitive touch lest it cease to be fiction and veer toward something drier, airier, pedantic. “The Starless Sea” is a story about story and story telling—a very ambitious and very complex story with other stories nested within it on multiple levels, almost like a video game.

Video games are another form of story telling. Games outsell books (and movies) worldwide. More people play stories than read them.

Erin Morgenstern has said that she immersed herself in video games while writing her books, especially this one, and it shows heavily, some say too heavily, in the book’s complex structure, which intertwines several non-linear plot lines through which characters wander in loops—lost in time and place, confused, and frustrated (as are some readers). 

All storytelling is (or can be) immersive. Narrative stories tend to be linear, sometime multi-linear. By words (or images) alone, they immerse the audience (reader) in an interior imaginative experience. The narrative storyteller controls the story line, leading the audience (reader) through the story along a singular path to a single end. Greater complexity places greater demands on the memory and imagination of the audience.

A game is a story structured for active participation by the audience (player) who enters into the story and directs branching story lines by taking actions and making decisions. Games immerse the reader in an exterior spectacle and sound. Digital art informs the player’s experience of story in a game. In a game structure, the storyteller sets the stage and characters, and plots multiple paths (story lines) for the audience (player) to follow to one or more endings. Each player directs and affects the storyline, climax, and resolution by choosing alternatives. Games are non-linear by design. Games, especially computer-based video and VR games can be complex because the game manages the complexity for the player.

In “The Starless Sea”, Ms. Morgenstern attempts to render the exterior complexity of a video game within the interior imaginative experience of the reader. In lieu of digital sights and sounds, she deploys dazzling descriptions, creating images and situations that can induce the waking dream state sought in all storytelling. The game space includes our “real” world but plays out mostly in an immense, seemingly infinite “underground” world devoted to stories and books rendered in myriad scribed media, housed in libraries of every kind, all surrounded by a mysterious starless sea. Time and space are mutable. The burden of managing that complexity falls heavily on the reader. For some readers, including me, that is a delight. Others may think she would have served this story better by designing and building it as an actual game.

“The Starless Sea” IS a game wherein the player (the reader) must solve the mystery of what’s going on in all these stories. What’s the back-story? Who are these characters and how do their stories relate? What is the meaning of the symbols–crown, key, sword, and bee—that figure so prominently? What about the cats and owls? Who or what is the Owl King? Some of those answers are provided and some not so clearly. You may need to read the book more than once to figure it out and I suspect, like a game, it has as many explanations as readers.

Most ambitiously, the story addresses the capital-M Mystery of story itself. What is it? How does it shape its audience? How does it shape the “real” world? The book is layered with nested manifold metaphors and similes that amuse, bemuse, beguile, and maybe irritate the reader at every turn of phrase, page, and plot.

Stories come to life in the telling—quicken within us or do not. We are drawn to follow the tale—spell bound, enchanted, entertained—or not. “The Starless Sea” did cast a spell upon me, did enchant and entertain and I was reluctant to see it go. I can no more provide a precise recap of its story and stories than I can for a dream. I expect / want to dream it again.

Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes

A classic tale for every age

Are you one who finds or has ever found carnivals and side shows both fascinating and creepy? Are you perhaps one of the “October” people, drawn to the fading colors and dying light of shorter cooler days? Have you tasted the tart sweetness that lies at the heart of bitter melancholy?
Ray Bradbury certainly did and poured all that and more into his classic fantasy novel, Something Wicked This Way Comes. Like most of his novels, this tale had its genesis in his Midwestern youth. This is one of his “Greentown” books, set in the mythologized and renamed Waukegan Illinois of his boyhood—properly paired with his Dandelion Wine, a dark autumnal shadow to that novel’s bright sunshine. It’s not a sequel but the books are thematically tied—and that’s a fitting topic for another post.
Its themes include time’s passage, youth craving maturity and freedom, maturity looking back upon youth with regret, the strained bonds of both friendship and parent-child love, and the sinful siren songs of dangerous shortcuts twixt youth and maturity and damaging abdications of maturity’s responsibilities.
Jim Nightshade, chafes under the anxious smothering care of his widowed mother and wants to grow into greater freedom as fast as he can. Will Holloway, his best friend, is in no rush, mindful of how his father’s age exceeds his mothers. That father, like many inhabitants of Greentown, rues his age, feel’s death’s immanence, and longs for paths untaken, chances not taken, energy unavailable for greater engagement with his son.
Into this mix of desire and regret, steams the ancient steam train hauling Cooger & Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show, something more than a carnival with mysterious sideshows, something wicked. Its steam calliope plays a siren song of dreams fulfilled and youth regained. The denizens of Green Town respond to its call, some more than others. Some dreams become nightmares.
It is indeed a pandemonium. Its sideshows display panoply of unnatural human disfigurements. Its maze of mirrored infinities can trap susceptible souls. On its carousel, time spins forward for some and backwards for others to the dismay of both. Sinister Mr. Dark presides over the shadow show and sets his eye upon restless Jim Nightshade as a fitting partner in pandemonium. Will Holloway needs his father’s help to save Jim from his own dangerous yearnings and Dark’s depredation.
I have read this novel several times at different stages of my own passage through time. As a youth, I identified strongly with Jim Nightshade’s desire from adulthood and liberation from the strictures of youth. I too wanted the carousel of time to spin me more rapidly into more exciting and dangerous adventures and indeed, it did, spinning me wildly and sometimes prematurely both to grownup delights and to mature dismay at my youthful foolhardiness. In my late maturity, I identify more with Mr. Holloway, ruing the inexorable fade of youth’s vigor and regretting some things done and even more things not done that might have been. A classic work offers itself anew to every age, within your own life and across time to different generations. Ray Bradbury wrote more than one classic and Something Wicked This Way Comes counts as one such, at least to this reader.

The Halloween Tree

Ray Bradbury and Halloween—yay!

The Halloween Tree - Kindle edition by Bradbury, Ray, Grimly, Gris.  Children Kindle eBooks @

This year I wanted two things for Halloween—an appropriate Halloween read and at least a brief respite from horror, both in fiction (which I enjoy) and in life (and there seems no end to real-life horror these days). Ray Bradbury’s THE HALLOWEEN TREE, which came to my attention just at the right time, satisfied both wishes. As the title says, it’s all about Halloween and it’s a welcome alternative to horror—real and imagined. BUT—you may interject—it’s a book for kids! So? Halloween brings out the kid in me—as I grew up, it was always my favorite holiday AND I like well-written children’s books—AND this is RAY BRADBURY, one of my lifelong mentors in wordcraft and spellbinding storytelling. This neat little novel did not disappoint. It sends a group of twelve-year-old boys on a journey through time wherein they learn Halloween’s “hidden” history and each makes a profound sacrifice to save the life of a friend. It ranges from cave dwellers huddled around a fire, to Egyptian tombs and mummies, to British druids, to the Notre Dame Cathedral, to Mexico for the dia de los Muertos. Like most of Bradbury’s work, it’s limited to a kind of literary equivalent to Norman Rockwell’s nostalgia for a never-quite-real Americana and still, for all that, it’s a beautiful cascade of words and phrases by a master writer and storyteller with an expansive and generous spirit. It lifted my own spirits in this darkening season and that’s just what I wanted.

Penny Dreadful

Penny Dreadful is fantastic serial story telling at its best.

Kbatz: Penny Dreadful Season 1 |

Long before cable and network TV, before affordable paperback books, comic books, and pulp fiction, when Victoria Regina reigned over a worldwide British empire, kids (and adults) found escapist entertainment in the pages of the “penny dreadful.”  The first word—penny—referred to the cover price. Educated and cultured folks used the second word—dreadful—to describe and demean their content—fantastic stories—popular tales of action and adventure, humor and horror. The two most popular genres were American Westerns and tales of the supernatural, largely from European folklore—ghosts, vampires, werewolves, and undead Egyptian mummies.

Penny Dreadful (TV Series 2014–2016) - IMDb

The late lamented TV series PENNY DREADFUL (2014-2016) encompasses both genres—horrific fantasy and guns-ablaze Western adventure in one sweeping wonderful three-season story. It’s true to its 19th-century roots, its spin on old genres is wonderfully fresh and original, its storylines are familiar but different, its characters and settings bizarre and exotic. The art design and music perfectly complement everything else. Kudos first of all to series creator John Logan.

It’s billed as “drama fantasy horror,” and delivers on all three genres. For drama, it presents an unforgettable protagonist (see more below) on her dramatic journey from selfish orphan through progressive loss and heartbreak to tragic destiny as “Queen of Darkness.” I loved her and wept for her— and tears shed are one of my criteria for effective drama. It provides enough fright, shock, and revulsion to earn its horror tag, but not so much as to overwhelm the dramatic  (and romantic) fantasy at its heart.

Penny Dreadful (2014) [S01E01] - Night Work | Josh Hartnett as Ethan  Chandler, Harry Treadaway as Dr.… | Penny dreadful, Penny dreadful tv  series, Best new tv shows

Like all good drama, Penny Dreadful is character-driven—and it’s cast of characters touch virtually every horror fantasy of the era, including:

  • Mary Shelley’s Victor Frankenstein and his Creature
  • An American Werewolf in London (couldn’t resist using that expression)
  • Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray, portrait and all
  • Robert Louis Stevenson’s Doctor Jekyll (but not alas Mr. Hyde),
  • Several characters from Bram Stoker’s Dracula, including the Prince of Darkness himself
  • An assortment of witches (one benign and others diabolical), demons, vampires, and memorable prostitutes (it wouldn’t be true to the dark side of Victorian London without prostitutes).

Their stories (artfully spun in new ways) are interwoven into the series-through-line in unexpected and intriguing ways.

Speaking of prostitutes, and just to give a sense of how these varied tales intersect—one of the downtrodden streetwalkers is Lily—the doomed (by TB) love of our American Werewolf hero. After Lily’s death, Doctor Frankenstein resurrects her as the intended bride of his Creature, only to fall for her himself, and whom she spurns in favor of the dazzlingly decadent Dorian Gray, whom she nearly destroys. Got all that? That’s only one part of just one subplot! If it sounds soap-opera ish, fear not, it isn’t.

Penny Dreadful" Fresh Hell (TV Episode 2015) - IMDb

The dramatic heart of PENNY DREADFUL, the main character—to whom all other major characters and in whom all subplots connect—is Vanessa Ives, unforgettably portrayed by Eva Green. Vanessa is a psychically gifted woman drawn to the dark side despite her essentially spiritual nature. Beset by guilt for betraying a friend of her youth, she suffers greatly—from demonic possession, madness, what passes for psychiatric care in Victorian England, physical and psychic assault by demons and witches, and seduction by a charming cultured Dracula—on the path to her fate. Good writing and great acting transform what could have been a jumbled melodrama into something elevated.

Vanessa has a cadre of loyal friends and supporters:

  • The American sharpshooter, Ethan (our werewolf, played poignantly by Josh Hartnett) whom she recruits from a touring wild west show, who comes to love her and ultimately saves her soul
  • Sir Malcolm Murray (Timoth Dalton) who takes her into his heart and household after his daughter disappears
  • Sembene (Danny Sapani), a formidable warrior, Sir Malcolm’s loyal friend and servant
  • Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway)
  • Frankenstein’s Creature, aka John Clare (heartbreakingly portrayed by Rory Kinnear)
  • Dr Seward/Joan Clayton (both played by Patty Lupone), two mentors, witch and psychiatrist, who aid Vanessa at critical junctures on her journey

It would take detailed notation and organization while studying all episodes to do justice to all the characters and interwoven storylines. I’ve only watched the full series twice and was too rapt to make notes. It’s worthy of a book—idea noted.

My strong recommendation is to watch this series, the best horror fantasy I have ever seen on any screen, large or small.


Image by Stefan Keller from Pixabay

The name of this blog is “Eye on Fantastic Tales. Those are the stories I love most, that I want to write and write about and which I hope you are interested in exploring and celebrating here with me.

What do I mean by fantastic tales? Precise definition is always elusive and these qualifications are personal but . . .

When I say tale, I mean a short story, novel, play, film, or TV series—a fictional story however told.

What do I mean by fantastic? That’s more complicated and needs some unpacking.

The dictionary describes “fantastic” as “the imaginative and fanciful, the extraordinary, bizarre, or exotic.” For me, a fantastic tale must have some of or all these qualities. Let’s explore each, and allow me to put my own spin on their dictionary definitions.

When I say a tale is imaginative, I mean it shows creativity and invention. It tells me a story I’ve not read, seen, or heard before—or it retells a familiar tale in a way that lets me experience it as new. An imaginative tale expands my own imagination. In my schema, fantastic tales must at least be imaginative—I can’t think of one that isn’t. Imaginative is the essential quality of fantastic. However, I’ve known many imaginative tales that I wouldn’t call fantastic. Imaginative is necessary and not enough for me.

When I call a tale “extraordinary” I mean it stands out in my experience and esteem and maybe—but not necessarily in our culture’s esteem. (Some of my favorite tales are not popular.) I wouldn’t call many or even most extraordinary tales “fantastic”—but all my choices for fantastic tale are extraordinary—at least for me. So let’s add extraordinary to imaginative as my essential qualities of a fantastic tale. Are those two sufficient?

Let’s consider the others.

When I say a tale is fanciful, I mean it’s imaginative on steroids—“overly imaginative and unrealistic” or “existing only in the imagination or fancy” says my dictionary . . . A fanciful tale is imaginative and then some—it’s “far out.” There are many fanciful tales that I wouldn’t call fantastic and not all my designated fantastic tales are fanciful—but many are.

When I call a tale “bizarre”—“strange or unusual”—I’m saying that the story would be very unlikely to occur in  “real life”. There are many bizarre tales that I wouldn’t call fantastic and not all my designated fantastic tales are bizarre—but many are.

When I say a tale is “exotic”—“foreign” “alien”—I’m saying this tale is set somewhere and or some-when other than here and now—or else its about someone or some thing not native to here and now—a stranger in our midst. There are many exotic tales that I wouldn’t call fantastic and not all my designated fantastic tales are exotic —but many are.

So, is this a long way of saying I’ll be writing about SF (speculative fiction) genre tales—Sci-Fi, Fantasy, and Horror? Yes, but . . . Virtually all SF tales are bizarre and many—maybe most—are fanciful and exotic. They are certainly not all imaginative and outstanding—ergo, they’re not all fantastic (at least in my schema).

You will find me writing about fantastic tales from other genres—dramas, or comedies, and certainly many that are action adventures. They will all be imaginative, at least personally outstanding, and have at least one other fantastic quality.

So here are my “rules” for this blog—at least until I break them.

First, a fantastic tale must be imaginative and outstanding.

Second, a fantastic tale must be one or a combination of fanciful, bizarre, or exotic.

That’s my concept of what makes a tale fantastic, which I will try to heed and cite as I write about them.

What’s your concept of fantastic? Leave a comment and join the dialog.