Tag Archive | fantasy

WandaVision gives us some answers and fills in Wanda’s backstory

© Disney+

The penultimate episode of WandaVision gave us a lot of answers, revealed a lie or two, and set the stage for a big battle. I think it also showed us that this show should not be thought of as a spin-off. It has leaned into the things that television does well, telling a story more nuanced that any of the big movies are able to with their set pieces and epic battles. Not that next episode won’t have a battle, because that seems inevitable at this point.

Episode eight, “Previously On” is not as delightful as episode seven, nor as fun as episodes one through six, but we’ve reached the point where answers must be forthcoming, and since the show centers around Wanda’s trauma, that means things have to be a bit more serious, at least for no. I can’t say more without spoilers, so the rest of the review will be behind a cut-tag

Before I get into it: this show appears on Disney+, and may I remind you that Disney corporation is refusing to pay Alan Dean Foster and other authors money they are owed for media tie-in novels.

Spoliers ahead!

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Seriously, every single sentence below is full of spoilers…

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Seriously, turn back now!!!

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I warned you!!!

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Seriously, spoilers ahead!

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WandaVision goes Modern while really breaking all the walls

© Disney+

Things really got moving in this episode, “Breaking the Fourth Wall.” I think we may have learned enough that it’s possible to start making some judgement calls on some of the plot and delivery decisions made in earlier episodes. Despite the fact that there was a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth during the first about hour after the episode became available for streaming. Disney+ was experiencing problems. For some people the service crashed completely and didn’t come back for a while. A lot of others experience multiple long pauses in the middle of the action. Many are inferring that a lot more fans of the show are waiting up on Thursday night until the episode becomes available, and simply overwhelmed the system.

This episode gave us a couple of answers to questions swirling around the underlying mystery and hinted at more to come. I’ve seen a few people already claiming that the reveal near the end of this episode completely eliminates a few other fan theories, and I think those people are jumping the gun. Which I will get to below. But before I get into any spoilers, I think it is worth mentioning that for the first time in the series there is a post-credits scene. I won’t tell you what it is above the break, but just in case you’re one of those people who stop playing or skip to another show once the credits start, you might want to stick around this time.

One more thing before I get into it: this show appears on Disney+, and may I remind you that Disney corporation is refusing to pay Alan Dean Foster and other authors money they are owed for media tie-in novels.

I can’t say more without spoilers, so…

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Seriously, every single sentence below is full of spoilers…

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Seriously, turn back now!!!

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I warned you!!!

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Seriously, spoilers ahead!

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Read More…

WandaVision Brings Tricks, Treats, and a Growing Menace

© Disney +

Last week brought us the 6th episode out of 9 of WandaVisiom, entitled “All-New Halloween Spooktacular!” I’m still enjoying the series a lot. But I realized after I finished my review last week, that if the answers to the various mysteries they are aiming to aren’t close to my guesses, the series may have gone completely off the rails. Two of my favorite fan writers have commented that it’s nearly impossible to review this series because you can’t tell whether things make sense if you don’t know the ending. So maybe it’s okay that I’m somewhat conflicted. This review is so late because I kept trying to write it without it being a long recap of the episode.

Before I begin my spoiler-heavy review, because this show appears on Disney+, I am morally obligated to tell you that the Disney corporation is refusing to pay Alan Dean Foster and other authors money they are owed for media tie-in novels.

This is the first episode where I was completely clueless as to who they were doing an homage to during the opening credits. I mentioned previously that due to various life events I watched virtually no television in the 1980s, right? So, due to very different life events1, I wound up missing a lot of television and other pop culture events in the 1990s.

Other viewers, more knowledgeable than myself tell me that the show skipped over the 1990s entirely to make a full-throated embrace of Malcolm in the Middle which aired from 2000 until 2006. And I’ll take their word for it.

The rest of my review/partial recap is rife with spoilers, so don’t scroll down or click below if you don’t want to be spoiled!

I can’t say more without spoilers, so…

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Seriously, every single sentence below is so full of spoilers you need a vomit bag…

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Seriously, turn back now!!!

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I warned you!!!

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Seriously, spoilers ahead!

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Read More…

Bullying, gender, and the importance of horses – or, more of why I love sf/f

Across the Green Grass Fields is the sixth book in Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series;

I read the sixth book in the Wayward Children series by Seanan McGuire a bit over a week ago. While I tried for several days to write a review, I realized that I couldn’t really talk about it without talking about the fifth book in the series, and how that left me feeling. But for some reason I didn’t write a review of the fifth book last year. My draft of the review of the sixth book wound up having more than a thousand words about the fifth book, so I decided to separate them and publish that review last week. And now I think I can tackle the sixth book.

There are spoilers ahead, though I try to avoid the biggest ones.

I was predisposed to love this series before I read the first bopok, after hearing the author explain that the inspiration for the first story was her own reading of tales (when she was a child herself) in which a child or group of children were transported to a magical world where they had a world-saving adventure but then were forced to go back home and just be ordinary kids again! And as a kid I had felt exactly the same way as I reached each of various fantasy books that I read.

For reference, I wrote about the first three novellas in this series here. And then I wrote about the fourth book (which left me sobbing uncontrollably) here, and the fifth here.

When Seanan McGuire explained how she came to write the award-winning first story in the series, she mentioned specifically the original My Little Pony cartoon as one of her inspirations. I was exactly the wrong age when the original series came out, but the more recent My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic series roped me in. So much so that for several years now with a group of friends I have been running a tabletop roleplaying game using the Fate system to run a campaign in the My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic universe, with the twist that we are crossing the series over with the Cthulhu Mythos (with a heavy sprinkling of things like Ash vs Evil Dead).

The upshot of all of this is, that once the title of the sixth book, Across the Green Grass Fields and the official blurb was released, I was essentially vibrating in great anticipation for the book. Because it was going to be about kids crossing through a portal to a world of adventure, but also specifically the original world which had inspired the author to start the series. So since this story would be about the aspect of this theme about which the author feels most passionate, presumably it would be one of the stronger entries in the series. Given that the fifth book was “merely” Really Good, but was therefore a letdown (for me) from the Stupendously Incredible that was the fourth book, I really wanted this book to wow me.

So, the book follows a young girl named Regen—who happens to be really into horses—who is having a bit of difficulty navigating grammar school. She had two very good friends, until one of those friends did something which the other friend felt wasn’t properly girlish and thus needed to be shunned. Regen feels very badly for the shunned friend, but also feels she can’t risk losing the regard of the bullying friend. There is some discussion to be had about whether deciding to stop being friends with someone should be regarded as bullying, but I’m afraid I come down on the side of the shunned girl’s mother that this behavior is a form of bullying.

Some years later, Regen begins feeling more insecure around her remaining friends because they seem to all be going through puberty and she isn’t. When she talks to her parents about it she finds out that she is intersex, specifically she has androgen insensitivity. They explain how the doctors discovered it, and reassure her again and again that this doesn’t mean anything is wrong with her. It’s just she won’t undergo puberty on her own, but she can with hormone replacement therapy.

This revelation bothers Regen even more. The next day at school she makes the mistake of telling the bully who she thinks is her friends. This does not go well, and she flees the school grounds, intended to go the long way back home. In the wooded area she is walking through toward home, she finds a mysterious door, which she goes through, and she winds up in another world.

She meets some of the inhabitants (a family of centaurs), and is informed that whenever a human comes to the Hooflands (which is what they call the world) something big will happen, and the human will save the world. Regen doesn’t want to save the world, particularly when she hears some of the stories of humans who came before her who all disappear after saving the world.

The Hooflands are inhabited by a lot of mythical creatures, all with some kind of hoof or other. The unicorns seem to be dumb animals (and are raised as livestock to be eaten by the centaurs). There are kelpies, fauns, perytons, and so forth. Some of species do not get along with others. Kelpies, for instance, are describe as mindless beasts and monsters.

Regen lives with the centaurs for a time. The happy family is disrupted because the Queen of the Hooflands puts a bounty on Regen. The centaurs relocate to a place where they think the Queen can’t find them and live there more or less happy for several years. Until it becomes clear that the Queen is evil and is hurting the other inhabitants of the Hooflands, so Regen sets out to try to save the world (without vanishing afterward).

There was, for me, a big problem with the book. The opening chapters, while Regen is dealing with the difficulties at school and discovering that she is intersex and so forth was extremely compelling. You know how some people yell at the TV when a character does something foolish? I was talking to the book when it became clear that Regen was about to tell the bully about her gender. I knew it was going to go badly, and McGuire had me on the edge of my seat about how badly it would go and what happened next.

But, again, this is how I experienced the book, not long after Regen arrived in the Hooflands almost all dramatic tension evaporated. I literally fell asleep while reading the second half of the book. Twice. It took me two more days than it ought to have to finish it because it just wasn’t grabbing me.

I’ve read other reviews of people who absolutely loved the book and found it rivetting to the end. The writing is good. There is not a big glaring plothole or anything like that. I just wasn’t able to make myself care about what happened to the Hooflands. I kept wanting to know what was going to happen when Regen got back. It just didn’t feel like anything important was at stake within the Hooflands part of the story.

This doesn’t mean that the book was badly written. It means this falls into the category of books that aren’t for me. This is not the first time that I have encountered this phenomenon with an author whose stories I otherwise adore. For whatever reason, this one didn’t grab me.

And I’m not happy about that! Because I really wanted to adore this book. I wanted it to move me the way book four did.

I might try to re-read it again later. Maybe I was just not in the right place mentally that week for it to resonate for me.

I still highly recommend the series. As mentioned above, there are people out there who absolutely loved this one. So maybe you will, too. I’m still looking forward to the next book. I hope it’s one that grabs me.

WandaVision Goes Even More Meta in “A Very Special Episode…”

© Disney+

Time for a review of the latest episode of WandaVision: “A Very Special Episode…” Since I keep taking too long to finish these, I’m going to try to do a bit less verbose in my recapping and focus on reviewing. And before we get into that, I want to mention up front that while I thus far love this show playing on Disney+, it is still unfortunate that the Disney corporation is refusing to pay Alan Dean Foster and other authors money they are owed for media tie-in novels.

This week’s episode continues the trend seen in the first three where Wanda, Vision, and the town of Westview moves through the decades with styles, decor, and so forth evoking sitcoms of a particular era. This episode has moved into the 80s, and while i recognized the styles and at least the homages during the opening sequence to Family Ties, but I have to confess that while I am familiar with a lot of the sitcoms of the 50s, 60s, and 70s, I didn’t watch much TV during the 1980s1. So I probably missed a bunch of subtle stuff in this one.

This episode moved back and forth between the viewpoint of Wanda and Vision inside the reality bubble, and the scientists and agents outside. With some direct interaction that did not go very well. It was interesting, it was intense in places, and the mystery managed to deepen some more. I don’t think I can say more without spoilers, so if you don’t want to read those, stop now!

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Seriously, spoilers ahead!

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When the lightning burns, the wolfsbane blooms, and the autumn moon is bright – or, more of why I love sf/f

I have been trying to write a review of the sixth book in the Wayward Children series by Seanan McGuire, and realized that I couldn’t really talk about it without talking about the rest of the series, and I had somehow neglected to write about the previous book when I read it last year, so I need to talk about it before I jump into the latest. So, this will be a review of the fifth book. For reference, I wrote about the first three novellas in this series here. And then I wrote about the fourth book (which left me sobbing uncontrollably), here.

I should preface this with this statement: before I read the first book in this series I was predisposed to love them, as the author had explained on a panel at a sci fi convention I attended, that the inspiration for the first story was her own reading of tales (when she was a child herself) in which a child or group of children were transported to a magical world where they faced danger, monsters, and adventure but managed to save that world… and then were forced to go back home and just be ordinary kids again!

And I definitely loved the first book in the series, as well as the next several sequels.

The fourth book, In An Absent Dream was—for me—the most devastating, but the first three had been pretty moving.

When the first teasers for the fifth book came out, I must admit I had mixed feelings. The first book had introduced us to Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children, a refuge for those children who were not happy to be sent back to mundania after having slipped through the shadows into another world. Among the children we met in the first book were the twin sisters Jack and Jill, who had been to a world of horrors. And they had turned out to be central to the mystery of the first book. The second book in the series is a prequel to the first, and tells the story of how Jack and Jill (or Jacqueline and Jillian as they were known by their parents) went to that world, had their adventure, and come home.

It was clear from both the announced title of the fifth book and its official summary that we were going to be treated to yet another adventure involving Jack and Jill. And while I had enjoyed the first and second book in the series, there had been a whole lot of other characters introduced in the first and third books whose stories I really wanted to learn more of. So giving yet one more book to Jack and Jill, who had already had two books, seemed like it was giving the shaft to some of the other characters.

On the other hand, the magical world that Jack and Jill had traveled to, known as The Moors, was based on the old Universal Horror movies of the 1930s and 1940s. And I loved those particular movies, which had contributed quite a bit to how much I had loved the second book in the series, Down Among the Sticks and Bones. So I wasn’t really complaining about getting to spend more time there.

McGuire has explained several times that the series is set up thusly: odd-numbered books will be set at the school and involve groups of children who have already had at least one magical adventure on their own working together to solve a problem, while even-numbered books will be straight up Portal Fantasies where we see one or more children going to one of the magical worlds for the first time, and how that transforms them.

So. Come Tumbling Down begins with Jack unexpectedly coming back to Eleanor West’s school after taking her deranged sister back to the Moors and needing help. Several characters accompany Jack and her resurrected girlfriend, Alexis, back to the Moors to try to stop Jill from doing something truly horrible that will (among other things) cause great harm to her sister, Jack. Not to mention cause a lot of other bad things to happen to the mostly innocent bystanders trying to live their lives on The Moors.

It is clear right away that something is very wrong. Jack and Alexis explain the situation, and beg some of the students of Eleanor West’s school to come back with them to The Moors to stop Jill’s evil plan, because Jack can’t do it without them. A couple of the other wayward children we met in earlier books, as well as at least one we haven’t seen before this book answer Jack’s call and go back with her to the Moors.

We get to see aspects of this world that weren’t covered in Down Among the Sticks and Bones, which is cool. But as the rest of the quest unfolded I had a bit of a problem. Most of the characters that Jack persuaded to come back weren’t actually needed to complete the quest. Honestly, exactly one, and only that one and only for one specific task of the characters that Jack begged to come back with her did anything that actually contributed to solving the problem. All of the other actions that contributed to the solution were performed by Jack on her own. So most of the characters (including one who paid a very significant price) were not needed after all. Their only purpose in the plot was to get hurt (or worse) to create some tension, and not actually to contribute to the final solution.

It can be argued that Jack didn’t know that when she pled her case early in the book… but the author should have known that, and should have structured the story somewhat differently.

Mind you, I enjoyed the quest, its solution, and the new things we learned about the Moors. I just think the author dropped the ball at a couple of points in the plot, is what I’m saying.

However, the over all story—most importantly the explicit revelation that what some people call a monster can actually be the hero of the tale—was very entertaining and quite good. So like every other story I’ve read by this author, by the end despite some things not going the way I thought, I was still left mostly happy with that tale and looking forward to the next story in the series.

But it didn’t feel either as tight nor as poignant as the fourth book. And maybe I should just accept that sometimes an author hits their stride on every single aspect of a book in an incredible way, and other times they only hit it on say three out of five major components.

I mean, I liked the book. I went back to reread it and enjoyed it the second time. And as soon as I knew their was another book in the series coming out I preordered it. Which means, I guess, that I’m saying some of the books in this series are Incredible and Stupendous, and others are merely Really Good.

And that’s okay.

WandaVision Interrupts the Program to Give Some Answers, and Raise More Questions

© Disney +

Time for the next installment in my weekly WandaVision episode review. I reviewed the first three episodes here. I’ll try to to stick to one episode at a time going forward.

This week’s episode, entitled “We Interrupt This Program” gave us a lot of answers while raising many more questions. It is also chock-full of connections to and characters from other parts of the Marvel universe. Which is cool for nerds such as myself. But I want to stress that you don’t have to be familiar with all of those other things to understand. The show is still doing a fairly good job of framing this story in a way that people who aren’t familiar with the other properties can follow and be just as perplexed about what’s going on as the rest of us. There is one bit at the beginning of this episode that might need a bit of extra explaining for someone who isn’t Marvel obsessed, but even then they gave some explanation that I think might have been enough for those not familiar.

So, I’m going to limit the body of this review to only what happens on screen, and if I feel the need to squee about any of the bonus things along the way, I’ll toss that into footnotes.

The only non-spoilery thing I can say is that this episode tells us what was happening from the point of view of government agents and scientists who are outside of Westview. Which is way the viewers (us!) gets some answers, obviously.

I can’t really say anything more without spoilers, so, if you don’t want to be spoiled, stop reading now.

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Seriously, spoilers ahead!

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What do you call a fourth wall that’s entirely inside the production, or, Let’s talk about WandaVision

© Disney+

The new series from Marvel, WandaVision dropped on Disney+ a couple of weeks ago, and I was thinking of doing an episode-by-episode set of reviews, as I’d previously done for Star Trek: Picard, but I didn’t get the first one done within a week. Anyway, we’ve now had three episodes (“Filmed Before a Live Studio Audience”, “Don’t Touch That Dial”, and “Now in Color”) which gets us far enough along that I feel I can comment on what I suspected the main themes of the show will be as well as just talk about how those episodes work.

First I wanna make a few unspoilery comments: this show is not a typical superhero adventure. It has a lot more in common with Twins Peaks than shows such as Arrow or Daredevil. You also don’t have to have watched any of the Marvel movies to understand what’s going on. Within the opening minutes the show tells you most of what you need to know to understand the framing mechanism: she has some sort of magickal powers, he’s not human, they are in love and they are trying to fit into a stereotypical suburban family neighborhood without any of the neighbors realizing who or what they are.

To me, it also became clear very early on that this show is more likely a horror-type mystery than a thrilling adventure/action story. A number of other reviewers I’ve read didn’t pick up the horror-vibe until episode three, so your mileage my vary.

I don’t think I can say anything more without spoilers, so if you don’t want to be spoiled, turn back now.

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Cuddle Your Gays, or, let’s talk about positive queer representation in sf/f

Television screen with the words, “Gay suffering in media.” Several guys watching the screen. One says, “I've had enough of this, dude.”

Same, my friend, same.

I wrote recently about the Bury Your Gays and Gayngst tropes and why they aren’t just tiresome, but also hurtful. That particular post was inspired by a conversation I almost joined elseweb on the subject. Since then at the same location the topic has veered over into a discussion of queerbaiting. When someone there gave an excellent example, other people jumped in to say the show in question shouldn’t be criticized because while it did engage in a lot of queerbaiting, it also had a couple of token recurring supporting characters at various times. Which wound me up a bit about how tokenism and bad representation are additional sins to lay at the feet of the creators—three wrongs don’t make a right—and don’t excuse actively misleading your audience (and publickly mocking them for falling for it again and again)…

But I’m tired of explaining why so many bigoted stereotypes, bad representations, tokenism, and the rest are both bad writing and immoral behavior. I’ve written about them before and I’ll surely write about them again, but I’d rather talk about a show that treated its gay character right.

So let’s talk about Julie and the Phantoms.

If you’re not familiar, Julie and the Phantoms was recently released on Netflix, and it’s about a high school girl whose mother has recently died. An aspiring musician in a music program at school, Julie has been unable to bring herself to perform. After getting dropped from the program, she decides to clean out her mother’s music studio as a step in trying to move one. Among her mother’s things, she finds a demo CD for a band she has never heard of. When she puts it in the player, three ghosts are summoned from limbo.

The ghosts are three members of what was a four-member boy band. The three boys died in 1995 after eating bad street food on the night before they were supposed to debut at the Orpheum Theatre.

At first it seems that only Julie can see and hear the boys, but they soon discover that if she is singing with them, everyone can see them and hear their music. With a cover story that the boys are holograms, Julie embarks on a journey to find her voice.

Yes, it’s cheesy, yes it’s a teen musical show. But it is well done and in these troubling times, a story with a big heart is exactly what some of us need.

Warning: There are some spoilers below…

One of the three boys in the band, Alex, is gay. We learn this very early on when one of his bandmates mentions how Alex’s parents weren’t exactly supportive when he came out. That one line is the only point in the show where anything approaching the usual cliched approaches to handling a queer character happens.

Early on the boys meet another ghost, a skateboarding cutie named Willie. It is clear in just a few lines of dialogue the Alex and Willie are attracted with each other and awkwardly flirting. Alex’s two straight bandmates take it in stride. “He is totally into you!” “And he’s cute!” They treat their bandmate’s queerness very matter-of-factly. The dialogue would not have sounded out of place in a more typical show if the object of Alex’s flirtation had been an opposite sex character.

Which is how it should be.

The subplot that Willie is involved in (he is under the thumb of a villainous ghost who is trying to enslave the three band members) doesn’t cross into any of the gay cliches, either. Their roles in the story are based on their personalities, not their sexual orientation. Their orientation is just another fact about them, not the defining characteristic of everything they do and say.

None of the bad things that happen to either of them have anything to do with their orientation. Not even the villain says anything even vaguely homophobic about either one. Neither is killed (I realize they are ghosts, but it is made clear that bad things can happen to ghosts in this fictional world) at the end. Neither of them realizes it would be better to be with an opposite sex person.

If you don’t happen to be queer, none of those statements may sound extraordinary—but trust me, having all of those things be true about a queer character in most works of fiction that aren’t explicitly aimed at a queer audience is an extremely rare event.

Furthermore, neither the show runners nor the network said anything in advance about how “and we have gay characters!” and then expecting to get congratulated on their open-mindedness. That is extremely rare, as well. In fact, that other show I mentioned in the opening paragraphs, not only did the network and people running the show keep crowing about their gay character–they even put such crowing into the mouth of one of the straight characters in the opening episode.

Now, all of this isn’t exactly an accident. The director of Julie and the Phantoms is Kenny Ortega (who is also one of the producers). Ortega is probably most well-known at this point as being the director the first High School Musical TV movie and several of the sequels. You might also recognize his name as the director of 1993’s Hocus Pocus. He in much less famous as being one of a couple of actors who—in 1972 when this was a very risky thing to do in any career, even theatre—came out in the pages of The Advocate, one of the nation’s oldest gay and lesbian publications.

During the press interviews after the release of Julie and the Phantoms, when asked about the characters of Alex and Willie, Ortega has said, “Alex is the character I wish was there for me when I was growing up, and who never appeared.”

Which makes sense. Speaking for myself, as a scared closeted kid growing up I was not interested in seeing stories about gay bashing or coming out and being rejected or the other usual queer story lines. I wanted—needed—to see queer characters living ordinary lives, facing the same challenges and triumphs as all the other characters in those stories.

Which is what Julie and the Phantoms gives us. And I’m so glad it does.

Unauthorized sons of Tarzan, or, how an almost friendship encouraged my love of sf/f

This cover looks very similar to what I remember of the copy that was donated to the public library when I was in middle school…

Many, many years ago on a Sunday afternoon 11-year-old me was sitting in the back seat of my grandparent’s gold Ford Galaxie reading the latest copy of Galaxy Science Fiction Magazine. Sunday morning church service has recently ended, and while my grandparents and Mom were mingling in the after service coffee event, I had persuaded Grandma to let me have her car keys so I could go read my magazine in peace. My space adventure was interrupted by someone tapping on the window. I looked up to see Donny, who I knew because his father was the best friend of my grandfather. I rolled down the window, half-expecting him to tease me for not being down at the church social.

Instead, he pointed to my magazine and said, “I didn’t know you were into science fiction! Who are you reading right now?”

I had met another fan. Which was a very rare thing through most of my childhood.

Those years were weird in so many ways. I usually use the shorthand description of “ten elementary schools across four states.” That is an accurate description of what my father’s petroleum industry job did to our life. It elides over that fact that almost all of those elementary schools were in tiny, redneck towns where most people listened to country music, watched Gunsmoke and Hee Haw every week, and went to church every Sunday morning no matter what. In such communities, my mother and an occasional librarian were often the only other people I met who even knew what sf/f was.

It wasn’t just that science fiction and fantasy weren’t popular, there was also that fact that our time in many of those towns was very short. It was complicated! For instance, it was late in fourth grade that we moved to the tenth of those elementary schools, where we remained through the end of sixth grade. Similarly, all of kindergarten, all of first grade, and a couple months of second grade had been at the first elementary school I attended. So eight of those elementary schools were scattered over second, third, and fourth grades.

Anyway, there is another weirdness to that tenth elementary school: the last of fourth, all of fifth, and all of sixth grade were spent living in a small town in Utah that was very close to the Colorado border, and less than an hour drive away from the small Colorado town where I was born—the town where my parents met and married as teen-agers; the town where my paternal grandparents and one set of maternal great-grandparents lived. The same town that we would finally move back to in time for me to attend 7th, 8th, and 9th grades. But the flip side of that is that at many random intervals during my 4th, 5th, and 6th grades (and especially the summers between each) we were visiting said town—which included attending church services at the church my grandparents had been attending for longer than I had been alive.

That two plus years nearish to the town I’d been born contained a number of important turning points in my life. My paternal grandmother bought me a subscription to Galaxy Science Fiction — which she graciously renewed as part of my birthday presents for the next few years. My maternal grandmother a year later got me a subscription to The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction which she also renewed for the next few years. The older brother of one of my classmates realized that I and said younger brother didn’t know what the word “boner” meant, and thus he decided to give us a very unauthorized (and not completely accurate) education in human sexuality. And then puberty hit and that last bit became more relevant (but also mostly useless) than I’d expected.

All of those things will become important to this story eventually, I promise.

My paternal grandmother had “accidentally” set up my subscription so my magazines arrived at her house, so I couldn’t actually read them until I came to visit. Mom had driven herself, my sister, and I over to my grandparents during midday on a particular Saturday, and I had only got a short period of time Saturday night to start reading my latest copy of Galaxy. Which is how I came to be sitting in my grandparents’ car in a church parking lot trying to read my science fiction magazine when Donny tapped on the car window.

Donny was the youngest son of Mr & Mr. G. Mr G had been my Grandpa’s best friend since WWII, and after the war they had both ended up moving their families to the same small town in Colorado. Mr & Mrs G were essentially my dad’s godparents. Southern Baptists absolutely do not believe in baptizing babies, so that don’t have christening ceremonies and they don’t have godparents. But many Southern Baptist churches do “Dedication Services” for newborn babies, and at those services non-family members who are also members of the church agree to be sponsors of the child—which is just godparents and christening with different names, but we won’t worry about that.

Mr & Mrs G were slightly older than my grandparents. Mrs G had been a school teacher in the local school district for many years, and in addition to being my father’s godmother, had also been his teacher for one grade. They had three children who were similar ages as my parents. Their eldest, a daughter, was the Secretary who ran the administrative office at the Middle School. Their middle child, also a daughter, taught at the elementary school. And their youngest, their only son, Donny, was a bus driver and maintenance person for the school district.

Donny was about ten years older than me, so he was 20 or 21 years old at the time of this meeting and therefore an adult. But he was also someone that I had more or less known my entire life. But he had been someone at the outskirts of church events and the few social occasions we’d both attended. I had a vague notion that he had completed some course of study at a nearby Junior College sort of recently, and when he’d come back, he had moved out of his parents’ home and gotten his own place.

I remember that the conversation was quite fun, with him being a fan of several writers I had never heard of, as well as some that I had barely heard of. I specifically remember that he wasn’t much of a Heinlein fan, but understanding why lots of people were. Our mutual nerding out went on until the after service coffee meet broke up and everyone drifted out of church and to their cars.

It was probably two months later that I saw Donny again, since most Sundays we stayed in the small town in Utah and attended church there. We had another conversation, that time on the steps of the church about sf/f books we were each currently reading.

My family was gearing up to move to that town. My folks had bought some property. We started coming over to spend almost every weekend with my grandparents, as Dad, Grandpa, and I would work on various aspects of the plot to get it ready. My tasks over those weeks ranged from things like digging the ditch that the natural gas pipe from the newly installed meter to the house would go, or pulling weeds, or painting pipe pieces with protective sealant. At some point a decision was made to bring my bicycle from home to my grandparents’ place, because Dad and Grandpa found it useful to be able to send me on errands while they continued to work to get the property ready for us to move in.

There came an afternoon during this time when I didn’t have any construction related tasks to do nor errands to run. I was free to goof-off if I wanted. So I got on my bicycle and rode to Donny’s house. Because we were in town almost every weekend at that point, I had been having enthusiastic conversations with Donny about whatever book or story had most recently caught my interest. At some point I had looked Donny up in the local phone book and found his address. I don’t know what I expected, it’s just that Donny was at that point the closest thing I had to a local friend, and we both loved the same kinds of books. He was clearly surprised to find me on his doorstep. He didn’t invite me in. We had a conversation on his front porch where I enthused about some story I had read recently, while he nodded and made the occasional comment.

It was awkward and I wasn’t sure why.

I think it was two Sundays later when Donny came up to me at church and told me that he thought I should try to make some friends my own age. “It’s fun to talk to you about books, but you I think you’d be better off spending more time doing normal things for a boy your age.” And he walked away.

He was certainly not the first adult I had known who had suggested that I should spend less time reading and more time playing with other kids. But I hadn’t thought of Donny as one of those kinds of adults. And it never feels good to have someone tell you that they do not want to be your friend.

As it happened, I had become friends with a couple of guys my age who attended the same church. And when school started that fall, I made a few more friends (but also acquired new bullies). One of the friends I met became a bit more than a friend, as we frequently found ways to fool around together.

When I saw Donny at church, he always seemed to be turning away to talk to someone else or simply walking out of the room. When I saw him at school it was different. Donny greeted and joked with all of the kids. If he saw me, he would call out my name, and make a comment like “Hope you’re reading good stuff!” It wasn’t any different than he acted with any other students, but it was infinitely more friendly than he acted at church.

One day, well more than a year after that “find friends your own age” conversation, as I was walking to school, I saw Mr G backing his truck out of his driveway, turning rapidly with a squeal of tire, and heading up the road. It so happened that Donny’s parents, Mr and Mrs G, lived in a house that was right next to the middle school. You could see their front yard and driveway from the windows in the Science classroom, for instance. Mr G didn’t normally drive that like that, so it stuck out as weird.

Minutes later, as I was talking to some of my classmates before going inside, I learned that there was a problem with one of the school bus routes. A driver hadn’t shown up for work, and the substitute hadn’t known the route. So one of the buses was somewhere out in sticks half loaded with kids while the other drivers on the CB radio attempted to talk him through the route.

Classes got underway, but there was more weirdness. While the guys in my grade were in gym class, the girls were all in social studies, and they had noticed from the social studies room’s windows a county sheriff’s deputy car driving into town much more rapidly than usual (the highway was visible from the school as well), and that he had flashed his lights before driving through a stop light and then turned uphill. Before that class was over, the girls also saw an ambulance, without its lights on, turn up the same road.

As us boys were coming out of gym class, we saw Miss G, Donny’s eldest sister who was the school secretary, hurrying out the main doors. She seemed upset. None of us had ever seen Miss G leave the school grounds while school was in session before that. And when we joined the girls in our next class we heard about the police car and ambulance.

Two class periods later the Principal announced over the PA system that Donny had died in his sleep the night before. Miss G would be taking a few days leave of absence, so some administrative things might not run as smoothly as usual for the next few days.

My memories of the funeral service (held at our church some days later): the family opted for a closed casket service; after the service Mrs G had draped herself over the casket sobbing uncontrollably, with Mr G, her daughters, and a number of others trying to offer condolences; at the reception in the church’s social hall a lot of the adults kept exchanging meaningful looks; there was whispering.

The whispering between the adults continued for some weeks. Any time adults were talking about Donny and noticed me, they would quickly change the subject. I remember several times hearing specific references to the fact that during the previous several summers, he had gone to a town known as a tourist hub elsewhere in state where he worked as a bartender. Lots of school district employees had a summer gig, usually in another town some distance away. At the time I figured that, given Southern Baptists’ feelings about alcohol, the bartending was considered something of a scandal.

The official cause of death eventually announced was a previously undiagnosed heart condition. I had concluded that the reason for all the whispering was some people in town thought Donny had committed suicide, and that the family was trying to cover it up. The whispering died down, eventually.

This book was not part of the collection, but it seemed like this long post needed a visual break…

Then one day I walked into the public library and at the spot where they usually displayed new arrivals, there was a poster thanking Mr and Mrs G for donating Donny’s entire collection of books to the library. The library staff was still processing the books, but some were available for check out at that point. His collection leaned heavily into fantasy. There were some books that I had read before, and many that I hadn’t. But the thing that really jumped out at me was the collection of Edgar Rice Burroughs books, all in hardback, including all 24 Tarzan novels that Burroughs wrote.

Most of Donny’s books had a book plate (one of those adhesive stickers that says something like, “From the Library of _______”) with Donny’s name written in his own handwriting. The Librarians chose to leave the plates visible, gluing the pocket that held the book’s checkout card to another page. They did stamp “Property of R—— Public Library” underneath each plate.

The Tarzan books stuck out for me because I had only ever managed to find one or two of the books from the middle of the series. I was far more familiar with the movie and television versions of the character. But because Donny had the complete set, I was able to start at the beginning and read them all the way through. Based on the handwriting on the bookplates and the publication dates of the set, Donny had been at most in his early teens when he’d first read those books.

And he occasionally made notes in the margins. The notes were always in pencil and always stayed clear of obscuring any text. It was usually comments and questions about the plot. It made me feel almost as if I was finally having a conversation with Donny about some books he loved with which I was only now becoming familiar.

The Tarzan books are not great literature, but they usually delivered a rousing adventure. They are a good example of early 20th Century pulp adventures. The plots get rather repetitive, especially when one is reading them one after another. For some of the latter books in the series, I think sometimes I was turning the pages more to see if there were more notes from Donny, rather than wondering what would happen in the plot, next.

There were two other things that happened in relationship to Donny’s death which at the time should have given me pause.

The first happened very shortly after Donny’s death. I had a secret boyfriend. A guy my age who I regularly fooled around with (all very furtive with the constant fear of being caught). There was an abandoned shed in the woods where we often met to do what we did (which was actually pretty tame, but you know, guys raised in Bible thumping churches in redneck towns doing any sort of sexual thing together was pretty out there). During one of the classes we had together, I quietly asked him if we were still on for later that day, after each of us finished our sports practice (he was on the basketball team, I was on the wrestling team). He shook his head emphatcally and said. “Nope. Not for a while. No.”

I didn’t get a chance to talk to him more privately for a couple of days. He told me that on the evening after Donny’s funeral, his father had taken him aside and asked him a lot of questions about Donny, and guys at school. Including something along the line of, “You know, boys can get up to a lot of trouble with each other. Sometimes their curiosity and hormones make them do things they oughtn’t with each other. Do you know if any boys at your school are doing that?”

Being asked that freaked him out. So for a couple months he avoided being seen with me at school and just didn’t want to meet up to fool around. Eventually we started doing things again. And his dad never said or asked either of us anything about such topics again.

The other incident happened several months after Mr and Mrs G donated all of Donny’s books to the library. I was at the church potluck, and one of the church ladies that I never got along with (I think she hated children in general, and teen-age boys in particular), so I was a little surprised she walked up to me and started a conversation.

She began with, “I understand you spend a lot of time at the library.” I agreed that I did, and started to explain how much I loved books. But she interrupted to observe what a tragedy Donny’s death had been. Which I could only agree with. Then she said, “I understand that they donated a lot of books he owned to the library. And I hear that you have been reading them. A lot.” I started to explain that his collecting included lots of books I’d heard about, but never been able to read before. But she interrupted to say, “You shouldn’t fill your head with unrealistic fables and superstitious nonsense. You’d be better off reading your Bible than reading all those questionable books!”

I don’t know what I would have said if we hadn’t been interrupted by the pastor’s wife (who also happened to be a librarian at the aforementioned public library). She sort of swooped in and talked about what a serious student I was and managed to mention that a year before when a bunch of church members pledged to read the Bible together in a year, I was one of the few people who came to all 52 weekly meetings and always had interesting things to say about the section we were reading that week.

I don’t know why it wasn’t until literally decades later, when I was telling a friend about how I had wound up reading all 24 Tarzan books over the period of about a month, that I finally put all the pieces together and realized that at least some people in our church thought that Donny was gay. I mean, I knew everyone was always calling me various slurs, but I had never heard anyone refer to him that way.

So it didn’t occur to me back then that maybe the reason Donny suddenly put an end to our conversations at church was because he realized people were speculating about whether he was planning to molest me (since they believed that all gays were also pedophiles). I didn’t realize that the reason my secret boyfriend’s father had talked to him (in veiled terms) about whether any boys at school were engaging in homosexual activity wasn’t because he had suspicions about his son, but because suddenly everyone was whispering about Donny after his death. And why I chalked up the weird church lady’s conversation about fantasy books as merely attack on my personal reading habits, rather than some suspicion that someone thought Donny’s Tarzan collection (or his Jules Verne books, or the Wells, or Bradburys) were recruitment tools for the Secret Homosexual Army™.

It’s probably an extremely good thing I never got a chance to tell the church lady about how I enjoyed finding Donny’s notes in the margins of the books. She probably would have stormed the library and tried to organize a book burning!

While I don’t know why 13-year-old me didn’t connect those dots, I’m glad I didn’t. Because if I had, I would have probably become so self-conscious about what I was reading and who I talked to about what I was reading that I would have missed out of a lot of the wonderful books I read over the next few years.

I’ll never know if Donny actually was gay, or if people just assumed he was. I just know that while he was alive, he loved books that took the reader on flights of fancy about daring adventures in impossible places. And I know that for a little while, he helped me feel a little less alone in the land of the mere, mundanely possible.

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