Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Guest Post: "Something Like" by Dale Nelson

As young readers, we were captivated by certain stories and books.  The ones we most loved we probably have gone on reading over again ever since.  In the early years of our reading lives, we sought books new to us that would have something like the same magic.  The obvious thing to do was find books with similar plots and that were marketed as being something like what we already loved.  

Loving The Lord of the Rings, we noticed books that publishers marketed as being in the Tolkien tradition – which, if you are my age, meant everything from Silverlock to The Tritonian Ring to The Weirdstone of Brisingamen to the Gormenghast books to Lord Foul’s Bane to The Sword of Shannara and many more.  If we were lucky, something kept us from tackling some of these too soon, and enabled us to sense, even as young readers, that others weren’t worth reading at all.  But likely enough we read our way through lots of journeys across imaginary landscapes inhabited by beings venerable, noble, or ghastly.   A few of them might remain favorites, even though some of the stories in this group now don’t seem all that Tolkienian; and some of the books we read back then we couldn’t chew our way through today if we were offered good money to do so.

What we didn’t realize during much of our reading lives was that sometimes, perhaps often, when we wanted “something like” Tolkien, it wasn’t necessarily an imaginary world romance that we desired.  We wanted something that would evoke an excitement and the stirring of imagination like Tolkien’s masterpiece did (and still does).  But, at least as we grew older, this mood – I’ll call it that for convenience – this mood might not require a work of fantasy, and, in fact, if mood like this is what we really wanted, the day could have arrived in which the right non-fantasy might be more pleasing than almost any so-called “Tolkienian fantasy.”

For example, one might find Patrick Leigh Fermor’s Long Walk trilogy* more satisfying than any number of works of fantasy, when in the mood in which one would love a long narrative about striding through wonderful changing landscapes, sleeping rough and waking with a fine appetite as the morning sun casts long shadows over hills and distant forested mountains, traveling on foot eagerly or maybe wearily and encountering people who speak other tongues and whose memories are rich with lore we have never heard, and making progress over many months to a remote destination. 

To take a different author – if you read Lovecraft in your early teens, he may have captivated you and you may have sought, in other authors, something like some special mood that you’d found in HPL.  It may have been years before you realized that you really aren’t all that fond of pulp horror and never were; that what you relish in Lovecraft is a mood compounded of curiosity, uneasy reverie, and antiquarian appreciation.  If that’s so, then you may derive far more satisfaction from reading Joseph Mitchell’s essay “Up in the Old Hotel” than stories by Lovecraft’s epigones, with their rigmarole of plot and “Mythos” allusion.

It will probably take time and wide reading to find our way to these books, essays, and stories that are, obviously, not imitations of the books we already know and love, and yet are (for us) rewardingly “something like” them.  Writers of paperback blurbs probably won’t help us.  I’m not sure that we will have lots of great discoveries if we try first off to abstract out the things we like in our favorites other than plot and genre, and then try to formulate a means of finding so-far-unread things that will also offer this or that mood or quiddity.  Rather, it’s likely to be the case that we realize only after we read “Up in the Old Hotel” that it engenders a mood something like that which we experienced in reading “The Shunned House,” and so on.  It’s liberating when we realize that we are free to let go the type of search for “something like” books that depends on binding ourselves to similar plots and genre.

Conversely, how sad if it happens that we read deeper and deeper into a genre, with ever more diminishing returns of enjoyment, till the time comes when we throw off the whole thing as something we have outgrown, casting aside not only a series of inferior works but even the original – and still excellent – one that got us started.

*A Time of Gifts; Between the Woods and the Water; The Broken Road – a young man rambling from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople in 1933-1934; see also Nick Hunt’s Walking the Woods and the Water.

© 2016 Dale Nelson


  1. Dear Dale,

    Thank you for such a wonderfully evocative reminder of what those books and those times meant to us - and to why we continue to read and be influenced by these deep feelings.

    I might also add how reading "A Voyage to Arcturus" led some of us to study Gnosticism, or reading and re-reading "Phantastes" pointed the way towards a wider (and wilder) world of walking tours.

  2. Beautiful posting -- thank you.

    I think it might go the other direction as well, from realism to the fantastic. Reading Algernon Blackwood for the first time evoked everything I loved about "nature writers" Aldo Leopold, Edward Abbey, and David Abram, but with renewed potency.

  3. Tolkien, Lovecraft, Leigh-Fermor, Mitchell--all favorite writers of mine, too, especially the last. I admire L-F but do think he tends to overwrite. Oddly enough, I've never thought that about Lovecraft--he needs, and uses, histrionic excess in his stories. His letters and essay show little sign of it. Anyway, a very interesting piece.

  4. A spot on accuracy concerning the literature we read as youths and our hunt for books that procure similar sensations. As with Lovecraft, I seek authors who have the same singular imagination that fuses astronomic science with supernaturalism and mysticism.

  5. I wonder what someone's book shelves -- mine, someone else's -- might look like if one did try classifying books by the "mood" they prompt in oneself rather than by author or genre. In my own case, that might mean that Alan Garner's The Weirdstone of Brisingamen would end up next to Geoffrey Household's Rogue Male and Stevenson's Kidnapped -- since they all deal with flight across vividly realized British landscapes -- rather than being shelved on the same shelf with Garner's Owl Service or Strandloper. These three books by different authors conjure a certain mood of excitement that unites them and makes them distinct from much of what else was written by their authors.

    Again, C. S. Lewis's Perelandra might end up shelved next to a lavishly illustrated book of Botticelli's paintings, because of its rich Renaissance Christian-pagan mythology, rather than next to the other books in Lewis's space trilogy. Both conjure a mood of -- call it Neoplatonic rejoicing in beauty.

    1. Love this idea (and the Perelandra connection)!

      I would love to see additional "mood companions" for shelves suggested by you and others here.

      Here's a couple of my own:

      Holdstock's Mythago Wood and Lem's Solaris.
      Lewis' The Great Divorce and Faulkner's "The Bear."

  6. When I began to explore Lord Dunsany's characteristic fantasy-world tales, with Ballantine's At the Edge of the World collection (issued when I was 14), I'd have linked him with Tolkien as a creator of high fantasy (genre). But their works engender very different moods. Tolkien's impart a sense of gravity and renewed wonder at the world, while Dunsany's seem to me to be all about creating a mood of ironic amusement and charm. I wonder if the mood Dunsany evokes is closer to the mood one gets from the Oz books than to anything in mature Tolkien.