Short Story: Shadows in the Gloom (HSC English Extension 2 Major Work)

Last year, I completed the NSW HSC (finished Year 12 and graduated from High School). One of my HSC courses was English Extension 2, whereby I basically spent the whole year working on a single 8000 word short story.

At the beginning of the year, my English teacher told me that taking Extension 2 would be like falling in love: throughout the year — during school-term and holidays, in class and out of it — it would consume a huge amount of my thoughts and emotions and energy. Having finished the project, I can say that she wasn’t far wrong. There were times when the project was further from my mind than it ought to have been, but when you add up all the brainstorming, planning, research, writing, rewriting, re-rewriting, editing, polishing and reflection that have gone into this project, it far outstrips the effort I have put into any other of my pieces of fiction (even ones that were much longer).

Why am I posting it here today? My reasons are twofold. First: as always, I want readers of this blog (both regular ones and chance visitors) to enjoy. But second, I also want to post this for the sake of other students taking English Extension 2 who want to get a feel for what some of their peers have written. Personally, I loved reading the works of previous Extension 2 students during my creation of this piece, so I hope you enjoy reading mine now (but don’t plagiarise!). Also, if you’re trying to get a feel for the marks that short stories get: this one, together with my reflection statement (which I might consider posting if anyone expresses interest), got me 44/50 (43/50 internally, 45/50 externally).

Feel free to give me feedback — it will help my future writing, even if I consider this particular project finished. And please do also comment if you have any questions about English Extension 2 that you think I might be able to help with. Otherwise: enjoy!

******

I looked toward the bus, a dark shape against the hazy orange sunset. They had shut the hatch on the engine and a stream of insignificant figures, silhouetted against the sky, climbed, back-stooped, up onto the road and boarded the bus. It was finally fixed and we were to continue the long journey from Banlung, Ratanakiri province, to Phnom Penh.

It was dark inside as I climbed aboard. Seat-backs and passengers’ faces were black against the windows. I stumbled over cargo in the aisle. As I sat, I saw that the man in the seat next to me was awake.

He was a short man, with brown skin, brown eyes and a flattish nose. He was unshaven, but his beard was thin and he looked young. So far, he had spent most of the trip asleep, but now he was looking vacantly out of the window. Behind him, the orange haze had turned dull brown, and the rubber trees beside the road cast deep shadows. As the bus began to move, the shadows fell across his face like a shroud.

“Dark deeds have happened here,” he murmured, all of a sudden.

“What’s that?” I asked. He did not respond.

“You’ve seen bad stuff, haven’t you?” I asked at length.

“I have,” he replied softly, still gazing at the twilight.

“I know all about it,” I said. “I’m here because an NGO I sponsor has stuffed up.”

“NGOs, development companies… damn their lies and false promises. People are bugs under their feet, shadows on their land.”

“I try to change that.”

“Sometimes it’s not possible. Leave, cut your losses.”

“Tell me,” I said. “What have you seen?”

For the first time, he turned from the window. He looked at his feet. “It’s not a story that flatters me,” he said at length. “But I’ll tell you.”

Behind him, the sky was dark purple. A car sped in the other direction, no headlights on. The stranger began his tale.

 

 

My name is Dara. My parents were refugees from the Khmer Rouge. I myself was born in the United States, but I was Cambodian and I felt pride in my country, deep sorrow for its tragedies. I dreamed of returning one day and helping to restore Cambodia from the horrors of its past.

Last year, I heard about a Vietnamese rubber company operating here. Perhaps this was the way forward for the country, I thought. It would mean capital investment, exports, employment —  a way to finally ease Cambodia out of the quagmire. I applied for a job and was offered one as supervisor in Ratanakiri.

A month ago, I flew into Phnom Penh. I remember peering out the plane window to get a first glimpse of my homeland. I saw a patchwork. Squares, rhombi and trapezia, all different shades of green and brown, and then, in much larger patches, a tidy green sea. I would see plenty of that green sea at ground-level.

A week later I left Phnom Penh for Banlung; the first stage of my journey into the remote country. At dawn, the driver arrived in an old Mercedes van. He sprang out cheerfully, shoved my bag under a seat, and we were away, chugging off down the narrow street. Even at that hour, there were hundreds of scooters on the streets of Phnom Penh, weaving around the cars like water around so many pebbles. Lanes were disregarded, indicators given a holiday and traffic signs ignored, but everyone knew their place and ended up where they wanted to go.

As we left Phnom Penh behind, the flat ground began to undulate gently. Rice-paddies and marshes gave way to rubber plantations, that tidy green sea I had seen from above. It was after the lunch-stop, though, that the land changed in earnest. The previous undulations had been mere bumps, now the countryside rolled beneath us like waves. In the distance, I could see the forest, dark and ancient. We passed over bridges; crossed creeks, ponds and the great Sre Pok River, lying dormant like a monstrous python among the trees. There was a vitality in this land; the trees, the hills, the red earth throbbed with it. The waterways carried it like lifeblood. Perhaps in this rich land we would find the power to heal our scars.

An hour later I was standing outside the arched, steel gate of the company’s headquarters, trying to get in. The driver had wrenched out my bag, claimed his payment, and leapt back in to drop off the other passengers, leaving me alone on the roadside. Through the steel bars I could see the building; concrete, two storeys high and painted mustard yellow. In front was a gravel yard bordered by short grass, with a few scattered saplings standing in islands of bare dirt.

“Hello,” I called. “Anybody there?”

Nobody answered except three sturdy dogs, who had been sleeping on the porch. The largest, a black mongrel, barked at me with fury. People in neighbouring houses and roadside shops watched placidly. The sun beat down and sweat trickled from my armpits.

I yelled out several times before a man finally appeared, slouching up to the gate with a hefty bunch of keys. He was pimply, and wore an unbuttoned shirt which let his balloon of a belly march out in front of him.

“You’re the new fellow?” he asked, as he tried keys in the lock.

“Yes, I’m Dara.”

He yawned. “I’m Bunty. The Manager’s inside.”

He tried every key in the bunch, and some twice, before he finally found one that fitted, opening the gate a crack for me to squeeze through. As I walked towards the building, the big black dog followed, still barking. When Bunty opened the front door for me to enter, the dog followed me inside.

The room we entered was smoky and dim. In the middle stood a tremendously bulky wooden table, surrounded by several massive cylindrical stools. Each was crafted from a single piece of luxury wood and looked about as comfortable as a slab of marble. The only person in the room was a man in a shiny, black swivel chair. As we entered, he spun round to reveal a pale, narrow face, with ears that stuck out incongruously. He exhaled some smoke and dropped a cigarette butt onto his desk. I waited, hoping he would send the dog out, but he didn’t.

“Hello,” I said, to break the silence. “Are you the Manager?”

“Yes, indeed,” he murmured. “Manager of Ratanakiri branch. Prestigious branch these days.”

“Pleased to meet you, then,” I said. “I’m the supervisor.”

“Ah, good. Thought you’d be along one of these days.”

I was confused. I had emailed him twice, confirming the date of my arrival.

“I sent you my itinerary,” I said. “You didn’t…”

“Ah, yes,” he said placidly, “but you never know.”

My bag was getting heavy. Bunty slouched off to another room.

“Well,” said the Manager, “I hope you enjoy it here. Once you’ve settled in, you’ll visit a few plantations. Give them some tips. Then…” but his phone rang, and he answered it.

By now my bag was very heavy. I let it drop to the floor. Was there anywhere to sit, besides those great wooden stools? I dodged the dog as he made to snap at my ankle, and looked appealingly to the Manager, but he seemed not to notice.

“What was I saying?” he asked, when he’d hung up. “Ah, yes. You’ll go up to Ou Yadaw district, to oversee a new plantation. You may have to do some of the preliminary work there too.”

“I look forward to it,” I said. Actually, I looked forward to a shower and then bed.

“Yes,” he said, lighting another cigarette. “Well, that’s good, then.” He seemed to be done with me.

My enthusiasm was dampened by his lackadaisical attitude. If this man was to bring development, it would be a very lazy kind. Was I wrong to hope in this company? Was there no escape from the shadow of the past? But then, maybe this man was largely irrelevant. Only ordinary Cambodians could bring lasting change. They would bring prosperity to themselves, not merely have it granted to them by a man in a black swivel chair.

The next morning seemed like a holiday. I rose early, but nobody was about. The black dog lay on the porch and growled when I came near, so I meandered about the yard as far from him as possible. Finally, close to noon, Bunty rode in on his motorbike and offered to give me a tour of the town.

As we rode into Banlung, the smooth tarmac road widened before us into a grand dual-carriage way. On the right side of the road were tall concrete buildings, more impressive than any I’d yet seen. To the left, I could see a broad valley, thick with trees. Plantations or forests, I couldn’t tell.

“Let’s go down to Lake Konsaeng,” said Bunty. “Have a beer.”

This was the life; sitting in the shade sipping beer, across from the smooth, blue lake. Across the road, a few people had spread out mats right on the lake’s edge. Cars purred by; a Lexus, a Hilux, a Prius. Young people rode past on scooters in convoys, chatting with each other; the passengers texting on smart phones.

On the way back we passed a magnificent house; huge, with tall, marble gate-posts and a uniformed security guard sitting behind the gate.

“Who owns that?” I asked, in awe.

“New governor,” replied Bunty.

“The governor? Fancy that. He any good?”

“A wise man: doesn’t interfere much. Open to investment.”

The company’s headquarters, asleep when we left, was wide awake when we rode back in an hour later. The gate was thrown open, two cars parked in front, and half a dozen men were hanging around in the yard. The Manager was on the porch, his phone glued to his ear.

“Yeah, we have a problem,” I heard him say, as I approached. “Didn’t clear the village … Tried to stir up an uprising … Got someone to replace him.”

He hung up, and started slightly when he saw me.

“A few… troubles, up in Ou Yadaw,” he said. “We’re leaving now. Get your things.”

I went off in a daze. The morning had been so relaxing I’d half-expected the afternoon off as well. When I got back, the Manager informed me that we would travel separately. Bunty and I would stop at a few places along the way, but tomorrow we would meet up in a remote Jarai village.

“Wait in the car,” he said. There was a shiny gold Lexus and a rusty grey Camry. He pointed at the Camry.

I waited in the hot car for half an hour before we left. Bunty had ridden home to pack his bags. As we drove out the gate — Bunty and I in the Camry; the Manager and the others in the Lexus — I realised I hadn’t been told what to do at the “other places” we would go to first. I tried to phone the Manager, but he didn’t pick up.

For the first part of the trip, we sped along the smooth tarmac road with the windows down. No air-con, but the breeze was okay. We glided up and down long hillsides, where tall, swaying rubber trees peopled the slopes. Gazing into the plantations was magical. Sunlight struggled through the leaves to form dappled patterns on the ground, dancing as the branches swayed in the breeze. As we sped past, the rows of trees flashed by like snowflakes; each was similar to the last, but not identical. Occasionally a bird would fly through the trees keeping pace with the car, weaving its way amongst the trunks, continually disappearing and re-emerging.

Before long, we turned onto a side-road leading into the plantation itself. We were arriving. Suddenly there were worms wriggling in my belly, rats gnawing at it. The people here would assume I knew my job, but I had no idea. I’d look like an idiot.

“Time for you to do your stuff,” said Bunty.

“What the hell is ‘my stuff?’ The Manager didn’t tell me anything.”

“Just give them some tips,” laughed Bunty. “Tell them about plantation maintenance.”

I looked at the trees. This was a young plantation; the trees were already tall, but they still had light bark and sparse branches. I supposed I could “give some tips”. A group of workers and supervisors assembled and I found myself standing before them. So I gave them some tips. I started falteringly, but soon gained confidence and regurgitated all the things I’d learnt in Plantation Management.

The group sat in silence while I talked. When I finished, they came alive. A few disappeared and came back with two large pots and some firewood, and they began cooking rice and a stew. It smelled delicious and I sat down, faint with hunger.

A young man sat beside me. I asked him his job.

“Labourer.”

“Pay good?”

“Decent, five dollars a day.”

“An improvement from what you did before? You have a field round here?”

“An improvement,” he said. “But I’m not from here. I’m from Kandal province.”

This surprised me. Did the company have far-reaching impacts, providing jobs for even those from other parts of the country?

“Are there many, like you, coming for work from other provinces?”

“Yes, lots,” he said. “Lots from Vietnam, too.”

It was late afternoon by the time we set off again. Already it felt like a very long day. The paved road gave way to a path of fine, red dust, inches thick. We rolled up the windows, but the sealing had long since worn away, so the dust still came into the car like so much water into a leaky boat. It was a long trip. We sped through the dust for half an hour before turning onto a smaller road, so rutted and pot-holed that the bottom of the car kept scraping the ground. We were jolted like popcorn on this road for another half hour before we finally pulled up outside a small, brick company building just outside a village.

The village was fairly typical. Fifty or so huts thrown together randomly, some of them wooden and more imposing, while others were thatched bamboo. There were a few trees, and clumps of weeds and bushes in places, but mainly it was bare, dusty dirt with plastic bags, bottles and wrappers scattered across it.

It was the forests, though, that made this village different from the others I had seen along the way. They loomed behind it, reaching full thickness only a few hundred metres behind the last huts. Mighty trees, black against the darkening blue sky.

This time I succeeded in ringing the Manager for instructions.

“Do a bit of a survey. Ask our man there, he’ll tell you what to do.”

“Our man there”, the company official in that village, was a quiet, mouselike fellow. He found it hard to believe my job description was as vague as I claimed, and he strung up hammocks for us to sleep with a face immobile and grim. In the morning, though, I set his mind at rest. We surveyed the area so thoroughly that I had the impression he’d never seen such expert preparation.

Our work took us out to the edges of the forest, down small roads and tracks, and on one occasion some way into it. But going in with my colleagues, focussing on our work, the cool, dark, ancient feel of it was reduced. Afterwards, though, I went in alone to relieve myself and to look around.

The forest was thick. I waded through grass, ducked under the tall shafts of bamboo, and hoped that none of this nature, which pressed tightly on all sides, was hostile. I thought of malaria. But malarial mosquitoes only come out at night. No, a bigger worry would be snakes, or even those hairy caterpillars….

The trees came in all shapes and sizes. There were behemoths towering forty metres above my head. There were medium-sized trees; narrow, upright youths, children of the ancient towers — and also, occasionally, more leafy, spreading fruit-trees. And there were saplings, small, yet seeming to say ‘One day I will loom above you too’.

The forest had a timeless aspect. Surely it was as old as the earth. It had stood, just thus, when mankind landed on the moon. When the atomic bomb devastated Hiroshima, not a tree was disturbed. Even when Marco Polo passed near here, centuries and centuries ago, these forests already stood, as ancient then as they were now.

That was when I spied the plastic bag. A regular, clear, flimsy plastic bag, snagged on the tip of a bamboo stalk. Were these forests really so unchangeable, so eternal? They might have been as old as time, but they weren’t going to last much longer. Even now they were being polluted by plastic. And soon: fire and chainsaw. I would bring the fire and the chainsaw — I and my company. These dim, ancient forests would be razed — and in their place? A new forest; an artificial one. A forest all in rows, so neat, so orderly. As you drove past in your car, the rows would flash by like movie frames, or like letters spelling the word ‘MAN’.

We pulled out of the village at noon; the final stage of our trip into the remote north had begun. What would we encounter, at our journey’s end? What were the “difficulties” that the Manager had hinted at? I pictured some wild beast coming out of the forest. Perhaps a tiger, orange stripes glowing like flames, striding to and fro in the dark night, paralysing everyone with fear.

We came to the banks of the great Se San River. There was no bridge, so we eased the Camry onto a little boat and began the precarious crossing. A careless movement by any of us could have capsized the boat and sent the car to the bottom of the river.

The road on the other side had not been built for Camrys. Often I could have walked faster than we drove, as we pushed through the tall, dry grass; thumped the bottom of the car on the uneven road; and purred cautiously across tenuous bridges. Frequent clearings gave way to thick forest; but the dust remained thick, and the car would slide, as if on ice. We spewed great clouds of dust into the air, befouling the cool, dark rainforest, turning green leaves brown with the hue of imminent death.

Abruptly, we rounded a bend and before us was a little village. The forest came up close to it on several sides, leaving only enough space for a few small fields and vegetable gardens. The huts in this village were mostly thatched bamboo. A few women walked ahead of us wearing back-baskets, and an old man sucked his pipe as he watched our approach. In the midst of this, the Manager’s Lexus was parked; a spaceship from another planet.

His driver was squatting beside the car when we piled out.

“What’s happening?” asked Bunty.

“We’re waiting for the police. Things got worse.”

“Worse?”

“He’s shut himself up with a gun. Won’t come out without a fight.”

As they discussed the situation, I gradually guessed at what had happened. The mysterious criminal was in fact an employee of the company whom they had posted to this area to do some job. Instead of doing it, he had pledged allegiance to a self-proclaimed “King” of the Jarai people, and set himself up as the King’s envoy.

“He’s raising money for the King’s independence movement,” Bunty told me. “Or so he says: I think he spends it on his house.”

“Independence?” I asked. “Who from?”

Bunty didn’t answer.

The police — one in an immaculate full uniform, one wearing his police top over a pair of knee-length shorts, and one wearing only a pair of old trousers, but each carrying AK-47s — rode in on one motorcycle late in the afternoon. The Manager came out and shook hands with the shirtless policeman, the most senior of the three. I expected him to explain the situation to them so they could immediately arrest the Envoy (as we took to calling him). Apparently, though, there was business to attend to first.

“It will be more expensive,” said the shirtless policeman. “He has a gun.”

The Manager stared at him icily, and they spent the next few minutes haggling over the price. It seemed a strange concept, to me, paying the police to do their job. Something about it was out of place, almost disturbing; like hugging your parent for punishing your sibling.

As the policemen prepared to arrest the Envoy, a small crowd of villagers assembled in a wide arc around his tall wooden house to watch. They were a motley group, short and thin but muscled and tough, some wearing traditional, centuries-old dress, while others wore jeans and T-shirts. I waited by the car, where I could see the villagers, but not the police. I had no desire to witness the arrest, much less to be caught in the cross-fire.

The villagers stood stock-still, passive and unblinking, until the guns went off in a series of deafening cracks. At this, several young children, who had been standing in the front, ran, squealing, behind their parents. One elderly woman stumbled backwards, twitching and wheezing, and as she tried to get away, she fell to her hands and knees in convulsions. I thought of my parents: the nightmares, the spasms, the shortness of breath. The scars from deep wounds take a long time to heal.

I didn’t stay after that. I decided to wander down the road by which we’d come; I’d return when it was over. As I walked in the dappled shadow of the trees, I wondered what the villagers would do now. Would they fight to free the Envoy of their King? Or would his arrest convince them that the hope he promised was false? In any case, it would be our job to show them that hope lay in unity, not independence. Their best chance at happiness would be development… but would it be worth the loss of the forest?

By the time I returned, the police had apprehended the Envoy. It had grown too late  to take him to the police station, so they had simply tied him up and thrown him into the corner of his house.

That night, we slept in the Envoy’s house. He himself was a tall man, dignified, almost noble, even as he sat in the corner, bound hand and foot. He would be uncomfortable, spending the night in that position. The policemen, by contrast, slept in luxury on his soft double bed, cradling their AK-47s like teddy-bears. I, the Manager, Bunty and the others strung up hammocks.

Sometime during the night, when all was as black as prehistory and only starlight shone through the barred window, I awoke with a full bladder. I groped my way down the stairs and wandered a little way beyond the house to where I watched my urine form a pool on the ground which reflected the stars in all their majesty.

As I re-entered the house, I heard a stir in the corner. It was the Envoy. Instinctively, I made my way toward him. I tried to make out his form, but it was too dark to see even his outline.

He whispered to me. “Hey there.” His whisper was deep and enchanting. “Dara, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” I returned, my own whisper flat and powerless. How did he know my name?

“Can you untie me? I need to use the toilet.”

I moved forward, under the spell of his voice, but then checked myself. “Untie you so you can do a bunk? I don’t think so!”

“Dara,” he murmured. “I fight for a just cause.”

“Extorting money and spending it on your house?”

“I take voluntary contributions!” he whispered menacingly. “For the independence of these people. And a worker is worthy of his hire.”

“You’re mad. You’re ruining these people.”

“You’re the mad one,” he returned, “if you think it’s better to force them off their land into poverty. You’ll destroy the country.”

I wondered if what he said was true. But then, hadn’t he himself worked for the company, before he switched to something that paid better? This man was just a voice, an idea. The idea sounded good, but it was hollow; a balloon that would easily pop.

It was only then that one of the policemen awoke. He growled at the Envoy and must have reached out of bed and lashed him across the head with his AK-47. At any rate, there was the sound of a blow and my interlocutor whinnied in pain and fell silent. I slunk back to my hammock, but spent the rest of the night turning over the conversation in my head.

I rose the next morning to the droning of chainsaws. The hut was deserted, except for Bunty, who was snoring loudly in his hammock. I barely noticed him; my eyes were drawn to the corner from which that compelling whisper had emanated during the night. It was empty. There was no sign that anyone had been there.

Though it was still early, the village was like a disturbed ants’ nest. The two younger policemen strutted here and there, shouting at people to stir themselves because it was time to move. From out in the forests came the buzz and whine of chainsaws, accompanied at intervals by the crash of trees falling to the ground. Birds flew, squawking, over the village, fleeing their felled homes, and all around dogs barked, disturbed by the activity and needing to make some noise.

In the midst of this, the Manager stood in the shade of the Envoy’s house, placidly smoking a cigarette. I moved over and stood beside him.

“What’s my job here?” I asked. “It’ll be weeks — months — before they finish cutting the forest.”

“You’re to go to a village further along the road. Get the people to move out.”

I was annoyed; this hadn’t been in my job description.

“They’ll leave willingly?” I asked.

“Don’t give them a choice.”

The next village appeared to be the final frontier. It was the end of the road, surrounded by the forest like an overshadowed cul-de-sac. People looked up in surprise to see the car approaching; some seemed vaguely apprehensive, others merely curious. Small children scampered out of view to peer at me shyly from behind the posts of their huts. They were an isolated people, untouched by society. It would be a difficult time for them, regardless of what benefits we might deliver in the future.

A man came out to greet me as I pulled up in the rusty Camry. He was short but well-muscled, and his face had a solemn, intelligent look. He introduced himself as Kroh, and agreed to take me to the village Chief.

The Chief’s house was smaller than the Envoy’s, and fashioned from bamboo rather than wood. It was cool and dark inside, and a breeze rose through the spongy floor. Hammocks were slung from poles, mats were spread out on the floor and a small pile of traditional tools and artefacts lay in the corner.

The Chief himself was a tiny man. He was sitting with his back to one of the poles supporting the house and weaving what seemed to be one of the back-baskets I had seen the women wear. As I entered, with Kroh, he put his weaving aside and rose to greet me, shaking my hand with both of his. With regret I informed him of my errand. His face turned grave, and he sat down again.

“You cannot do this,” he told me. “Without the spirits’ approval, you will fail.”

I asked him if the spirits would really disapprove. “Development is good for the country,” I said. “It will be difficult at first, but in the end, you’ll be better off.”

I didn’t sound convincing. To him these were lies, false assurances. He could not imagine that the destruction of the forests could bring about anything but evil. As I turned to leave the hut, my brain was seared by an image of his face, a picture of hopelessness and sorrow. Perhaps my father had worn the same look forty years ago, when he learned that his village had been burned by the Khmer Rouge.

As we left the Chief’s hut, Kroh invited me to stay with him. I accepted, with a word of thanks, but inwardly I was disappointed. How could I tell him to leave after sleeping in his own home?

An hour later, I was seated to dinner on the springy bamboo floor of Kroh’s house, surrounded by his extended family. All of us ate in silence: myself, Kroh, Kroh’s young wife and child, his parents-in-law and his parents-in-law’s unmarried children — ranging from a bearded young man down to a nappy-less youngster who pushed his plate away in favour of his mother’s breast-milk. I wished I could push my plate away too. This was the last food these people would produce on their land, and I shouldn’t have been the one eating it.

Midway through the meal, Kroh addressed his family. “Do you know,” he said (in Khmer rather than Jarai, clearly for my comprehension), “that this man has come to make everyone leave the village?”

Evidently they didn’t. Their faces tightened.

“But,” he said, “Mr Dara says he is doing it for the good of the country.”

“Absolutely,” I said, trying not to wither under the hard stares. “Look, I understand this is very difficult for you all, but in the long run it’s for the best. You’ll get jobs on the rubber plantations. You’ll have shops here selling all sorts of things. And medical facilities. It’ll be great.” It sounded hollow.

Kroh looked caught between a laugh and a grimace, but he quickly turned grave.  “None of this will happen,” he said. “The best jobs are filled by people from other provinces and by Vietnamese. And shops,” he looked at his father-in-law. “What is our shop?”

“The forest is our shop,” said the old man. “We get everything we need there, for free.”

“Tomorrow, I will take you to the forest,” said Kroh. “You can see for yourself.”

The next day, Kroh and his father-in-law took their crossbows and we headed for the forest. I was struck, more than ever, by how overshadowed this village was, how hemmed in. It was the final frontier. The forest surrounded it like a great cloud of fog, broken only by the road heading back the way I’d come. A few thin tracks seemed to disappear into it, like cracks in a concrete wall. But were they made by men or by squirrels? And did they lead anywhere, or were they a trap, drawing you into an inescapable maze? We followed one of them now, pushing through like ants into the towering forest. It was dark in here, ominous. What would we catch, I wondered? Would anything catch us?

“We cannot catch the big game anymore,” Kroh had told me. “Leopard, gaur… tiger. My father caught them. Now they don’t live here. I can only catch squirrels, civets, snakes.”

Even so, as we pushed aside bamboo shoots and draping lianas, I imagined facing a remnant tiger. Would we win or lose? Were a few crossbows any match for the largest of the cat-kind? Almost as terrifying would be a snake. A snake wouldn’t fight like a sportsman, it would leap out and strike the heel, injecting poison and death.

Lost in my thoughts, I didn’t notice that the others had stopped silently, bows held in both hands. I blundered past them and tripped on a concealed root, falling heavily.

“Sshh,” hissed Kroh. “Get up, quiet.”

I rose and scanned the foliage. I couldn’t tell what they had sensed, but they were tensed, ready to fire. Suddenly a blurred shape burst from the trees, squawking. Kroh and his father-in-law both let fire and the creature fell to the forest floor with a soft thud.

“What was it?” I asked.

“Monkey,” said Kroh.

And so it was. A large, male, golden-furred monkey with one arrow in its leg and another in its chest. Kroh pulled out the arrows and put the kill into a plastic bag. He looked satisfied. This was meat; this was nourishment.

I thought we would return to the village after that, and I wasn’t sorry; the forest was tall, dark, powerful. I could understand why these people believed it was the abode of the spirits. It didn’t strike me as a resource so much as a force to be contended with; an entity, sublime and threatening. People talk about the sea like that, but what’s the sea, really, except a body of water? The forest is different: the forest is a living thing. The forest breathes. It grows. It lives. It dies. The forest is powerful. And yet… it would be no match for 21st century man. The thought was somehow terrifying. Even if I didn’t believe in the spirits, it was impossible to stand in the forests and not fear the supernatural. What punishment would there be for a man like me, helping to destroy these mighty palaces?

We didn’t go back to the village. Instead, we turned another way, coming to an area of sparser forest where the trees were younger and smaller.

“This area was cleared for rice,” said Kroh. “Eight years ago. You can tell from the growth of the plants.”

Kroh’s father-in-law began examining one of the trees. There seemed to be some sort of resin covering the branches. He took hold of something stuck in the resin, and began carefully working it free. It wasn’t until the last bits of the sticky substance were pulled off that I realised what the thing was: a bird! They had smeared some sort of glue on the tree to catch it. These people were resourceful; they might not have cars or factories, but they had the wits and the know-how to survive.

On the way back, Kroh stopped to pluck some little black berries from a plant on the forest floor.

“A medicinal plant,” he told me. “Good for bronchitis.”

It seemed to me that the forest was good for everything. It was like a mother for an infant child. Its milk was so rich, so nutritious, these people didn’t seem to need much else. Maybe we should all start to rely more on the milk of the forest, I thought. Enough of turning its trees into chairs and beds and massive cylindrical stools. Enough of razing the leafy palaces to plant a bit of rubber. Why should the healing powers of the forest be extinguished like a candle? The berries were good for bronchitis. What else might they be good for? Swine flu? Dengue? Cancer?

The sun had sunk low by the time we returned. Kroh’s wife and mother-in-law took the kills and began skinning and plucking off feathers. Kroh and I sat down inside.

“We need the forest,” he told me. “Without it, we’ll be digging for gems that aren’t there, or looking for jobs where there are none. Our women will work in karaoke bars in Banlung, and even those who don’t will have to be careful…”

“How so?”

“My sister lives near where rubber workers have quarters. She doesn’t dare go far alone anymore.”

“Can’t you protest?” I said at length. “Fight back?”

“People don’t realise what’s happening. They’re given some money for their land, so they accept it, buy a motorbike. But the main reason is,” he said softly, “they’re afraid.”

The room suddenly seemed much darker. Outside I could see the flame of the cooking fire through the cracks in the bamboo walls. People moved in front of it, silhouetted eerily against the flame.

I left the hut. I wanted to get away from these people. I didn’t want to feel their problems. There was an old radio in the boot of the car; I pulled it out and called the Manager.

“Hello, it’s Dara.”

“What do you want?”

“Supposing there’s a protest? A lot of people aren’t happy.”

“Is there a leader?” he asked.

I paused. “Yes.”

“Then, we arrange for him to disappear.”

I stumbled through the darkening twilight. A cacophony of cicadas started up in the trees, each one mimicking the Manager’s words. Their raucous chirps ricocheted through my brain: “we arrange for him to disappear”, “for him to disappear”, “him to disappear”.

Goosebumps erupted on my arms and I shivered; my hair stood on end. Before me, a shadow flitted through the trees — perhaps a person, perhaps a dog. The people were nothing to the company, they were merely shadows in the gloom beneath the trees. They might as well be dogs as people; they were to be shoved aside, stuffed in a corner, while the great work of fattening one’s wallet went on. The forest, the lifeblood of the people — it was an un-liquidized asset, waiting to be liquidized. An asset to be sold, expended without thought for those who’d come later. This was no vision for a greater Cambodia; for a return from the years of ignominy. Each person’s grand plan was to look out for himself, fill his own belly, enlarge his own purse.

As I wandered back into the open, the dark blue sky began erupting into stars. This calmed me. I returned to Kroh’s hut as the waning moon began to rise, blood-red, over the pitch-black treetops.

Somehow, I slept. I lay down on a mat on the floor of Kroh’s hut and was soon dead to the world. I dreamed, that night, of whispers. Powerful whispers. Whispers like the Envoy’s, telling me secrets of wealth, power, satisfaction. Grand, wonderful secrets they seemed, but were they true? For in wakefulness I could never remember what they were.

As I slept, the powerful whispers morphed into flat, weak ones. These whispers told no wonderful secrets. They sounded anxious, fearful, overwhelmed. It took some time to realise I was awake. People were hurrying to and fro across the hut and the thatched bamboo floor bounced gently beneath me. I saw Kroh standing in the doorway, silhouetted against the stars.

I half sat up, but then lay down again. Whatever the problem, I would be unable to help. I closed my eyes. The whispering of the household and of the chill breeze rising through the floor merged gradually back into the whispers of my dreams.

When I woke the next morning, the family, plus some extra children, were seated around the fire where Kroh’s wife was cooking rice-porridge. They all looked bleary-eyed and weary. I asked what had happened during the night.

“It’s the chief,” Kroh responded. “He was sick. Mad. We brought some of his children and grandchildren here.” He nodded at the extras. “It was disturbing.”

Kroh’s mother-in-law said something darkly in Jarai, looking at me angrily as though she thought me responsible.

“He’s still very bad,” Kroh said, ignoring her. “We will sacrifice a buffalo and ask the spirits to relent.”

I’ve never identified with animal-rights activists — I love meat of all kinds — but that sacrifice was sickening. The buffalo whimpered, it grunted and finally it screamed out in animal agony as they jabbed it again and again with their instruments of torture. It was as though the more pain they inflicted on the beast, the more the spirits would take notice and relent. I wondered why they did this, rather than use their forest medicines. Surely that would have been more effective, and substantially cheaper? But a deep-seated fear will breach all reason.

I saw many emotions in the villagers that day. In the eyes of the Chief’s family: fear and pain. Across the faces of the slaughterers: determination and even fury. But when the beast finally died, its great carcass stretched out on the blood-soaked dust, and when they began to carve it up and light fires to cook the meat — then I saw something else: hunger.

How often did these people eat meat? Undoubtedly they were better fed than my parents during the Pol Pot years. These people weren’t subsisting on milky water, eaten before and after a gruelling day in the fields. But they were thin, they were short, they were clearly undernourished. And my company would send them from their lands, from the source of their food supply. I didn’t feel I could eat. Until now I had eaten their food, slept in their beds, drunk their water. And in return, I was driving them out. Now that misfortune had befallen them, I couldn’t feast on their meat.

Then they brought out the wine. Rice wine in tall, narrow gourds with bamboo straws sticking out the top. The orgy of eating became an orgy of drinking. Villagers congregated in two or three huts where they sucked at the straws with gusto.

“Dara,” called Kroh, spying me from a hut. “Come and drink with us.”

The wine was strong. I gasped for breath after my first sip, and the liquid remaining in the straw slid back down with a plop. I sucked again, this time prepared. It still burned my gullet as it went down, but in a pleasant, distracting way. I could forget myself, drinking this. I could forget the misfortune I was bringing to these people. No doubt they could forget themselves, too; forget that within days they would leave their home, their forest, their livelihood.

Some of the men began to sing. One brought out a strange stringed instrument, fashioned, seemingly, from a gourd. I listened for a while, sucking on the bamboo straw, the music flowing over me like warm sunlight. Then I sat up and began to sing too. I didn’t know the words, but that was immaterial. I hardly knew the tune, but that didn’t matter either. What mattered was that we were together, unified, fighting misfortune.

Kroh’s wife appeared in the hut. I thought she had never looked so beautiful. But when she glanced at me her face showed disgust. She marched over to her husband and grabbed his collar. He rose to his feet and struck her across the face. The wine turned to acid in my stomach and I burped into my straw, feeling sick. Was I dividing even families? Everything I touched was falling apart.

I rose. It was time to go. I wouldn’t help the company any longer, but neither would I stay and fight it. These people would do better without me. I would go away, instead, and tell the world what the company was doing. And if that didn’t work… well, maybe I could try something else; unleash the mother’s milk. The forest was good for more than just rubber…

On the homeward journey, the tree branches encasing the road melded into a woven blur above my head. The constant thumping of the car over the bumps became a sort of static, the humming of a radio. I opened the window a crack and the wind whispered, enticingly, into the car.

A shadow appeared on the road, coming the other way. What was the shadow? Perhaps a motorbike, perhaps a dog. But no, I thought, it simply was a shadow, nothing more.

Suddenly I felt drawn to the shadow; I twisted the steering wheel toward it. As I passed it by, I heard a thump. A loud thump. I felt it, too. It couldn’t have been the shadow, I thought — shadows don’t make thumps. I looked in the rearview mirror. There was a motorbike overturned on the road, its rider stretched out in the dust. That was strange: I didn’t remember seeing him as I drove past. I didn’t stop, though — the shadow wasn’t there. I kept driving, jolting under the woven blur of the treetops.

I woke slowly the next morning. I was sprawled across my bed at the Company Headquarters. I remembered: the shadow. I rose to my feet. What should I do? If I confessed to my crime, I could never say a word against the Company. They would have it in for me. Better to leave quietly, pretend nothing had happened. Hopefully the motorcyclist would be okay — and later I could go back, make it up to him.

But just then there was a knock at the door and I opened it to find the Manager. One look in his face told me he knew everything.

“He’s been paid off,” he told me, and left.

My heart sank. I was in their debt. One word against the company and it would all come out. What was the point of trying to do good? It always got twisted. I’d do evil without meaning to, hurt the people I was trying to help. I’d do better not to try, to keep myself to myself, mind my own business.

 

 

He fell silent. Cars flashed by, some like black wraiths, with no headlights, others blinding us with full beam. The glow of the city rose before us; soon we crossed the Japanese bridge, passed over the murky waters of the Tonle Sap River.

“Dara,” I said at length, “don’t give up now.”

“There’s no point. I tried to build up Cambodia, I joined hands with those pulling her down.”

I was silent. Outside the window, neon lights flashed. Towering billboards displayed girls talking on mobile phones and men drinking beer. Shop windows gleamed.

“Think of the forest,” I said. “Think of the people of the forest.”

The bus pulled up in the station. We stumbled down the aisle, tripping over cargo and suitcases. A crowd of motorbike-taxi and tuk-tuk drivers gathered round the door of the bus, but we pushed past them and stood together on the dim side-street. Deep shadows lay across the road.

“I’m calling a friend to pick me up,” I said. “Want a lift?”

Dara didn’t answer. He was gazing into the shadows, lost in thought.

“Ancient forests,” he murmured. “Been there since the beginning. Millennia ago there were people, wading through the grass, pushing aside the vines. They caught fish in the  bubbling streams; used their crossbows to shoot sugar gliders and their traps to catch tigers. The trees, the behemoths, towered over them, dark, ominous — and yet kindly and wise.… And medicines,” he said, his eyes lighting up. “Medicines. Europeans were bleeding themselves to death trying to get better, and all the time these people had medicines.”

He looked up at me. “Before … the accident, I was beginning to think a lot about the medicines.” He paused. “Why is everyone going after rubber, or just logging for wood — why don’t they go for the medicines?”

“You could go for the medicines.”

We stood together in silence. Dark buildings loomed around us, a concrete jungle. Ugly brick walls surrounded every dwelling, their tops lined with jagged glass. In the gutter, bulging plastic bags shone dully; further along an old man in tattered rags lay curled up asleep.

“Wait here,” said Dara at length. “I need to buy a bus-ticket.”

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Flash Fiction: Cold, Blinding Light

Thanks to Rachelle O’Neill for organising this flash fiction challenge! Sorry I am late in posting my story. Thanks as well to Athelas Hale for giving me my prompt: as instructed, I will write a story inspired by the visual below.

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Flashes of light. Cold, blinding light. It explodes around me. Shoves its way through my scrunched up eyelashes. Fills me with numb terror.

Where am I, that this light is assaulting me? My brain throbs and my body aches, but I don’t know why I am here. How did I come to be at the light’s mercy, shelterless and alone?

I stretch out my hands: my knuckles rub against a hard, cold surface. The same surface juts into my spine; it protrudes against my shoulder-blades and skull. I lie on the surface, exposed. I feel naked — I am at the light’s mercy. It pummels me in its fury; it thunders and it roars. There is nothing to come between us, to shelter me from it.

A hazy image emerges in my throbbing brain. A distant memory? I am in a fire-fight. I am shooting against a horde of enemies, outnumbered and outgunned. But in the midst of it all, beside me is a friend. Together, we fire at them. Together, we have shelter.

The image fades. I am not in a fire-fight. I have no friend with whom I can find shelter. I am alone, exposed, facing the angry light.

*

There is a gap in the light. Relief floods me. Is this the end? But as my terror lulls, I become aware of the wetness. Wetness on the cold, hard surface — the ground. Wetness in my hair as it lies limp across my face. Drops of cold wetness falling on my nose and lips. I turn, and lay my cheek against the cold, hard, wet ground.

The light explodes again, as suddenly as it ceased. This time, it allies with the wetness. The sodden ground explodes too, echoing the great light.

I begin to tremble. I shiver uncontrollably. How can I remain here? How can I survive against the light and the wet? I need a shelter. Something to come between me and the light’s fury.

Then I sense it: a warm, dark shape. Can it be real, or is it a good dream?

The shape moves slowly over me. Slowly, it blots out the scorching light. Slowly, it makes the thundering of the light cease.

What is the shape? It seems like a friend. It exudes warmth, and shelter and darkness. The shape plays about my cheeks like warm breath. It seems to shield me from the cold drops of wetness falling on my face.

I try to reach for the shape, but my hands are leaden. I groan in despair. But then, suddenly, there is gentle pressure on my wrists. Is the shape bearing down on them. Is this shape a physical thing? Could it be a person — an actual friend?

Words seem to float from the shape. They waft down toward me.

“We need you,” breathes the shape. “I need you.”

A drop falls on my lips. But it is not a cold drop — it is warm, and tastes dark. It tastes salty. It must be a drop from the shape.

How strange that the shape should say that it needs me. For clearly, I am the one who needs the shape. I need its warmth and its protection. I need its darkness and its friendship. I don’t know where I am, but with the shape there, it doesn’t matter. I am no longer entirely at the mercy of the light.

The warm, dark shape is my defence — my shelter. My shelter from the cold, blinding light.

Book Review: Hope Beyond Cure

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We will all, one day, die. That realisation can be a terrifying thought, and one that we are remarkably good at pushing to the back of our minds, but we all have to face it at some point.

Nothing sets you face to face with your own mortality quite as squarely as stage-4 lung cancer. In Hope Beyond Cure, David McDonald tells the story of his own cancer diagnosis. After twenty years of pastoring Crossroads Christian Church in Canberra (my own home church, when I’m in that part of the world), he and his family were getting ready to move and get involved in ministry all the way over in Darwin when cancer arrived and completely demolished their plans. Within a couple of weeks, he went from having big hopes for future ministry to looking at probable death within about a year. This little book is about the hope Dave has — real and powerful hope — even in the midst of his cancer.

Dave notes that there are many things that can give us hope during our life. We can have hope in medicines, in a healthy lifestyle and in loving relationships with others. He reminds us that these are all good things, but, ultimately, they don’t bring lasting hope — all of these things will come to an end with death. Instead, Dave’s primary purpose is to point to a deeper hope, a hope beyond death. He warns us against getting so caught up in the very good hopes that we have in medicine and lifestyle and all the rest that we forget about the very best hope we have — the only hope that will last. I think nearly all of us, in our quest to ignore the reality of death, do this only too often.

So what is this “best hope”, this hope beyond death? Dave explains that it is based on the gospel of Jesus Christ and “the reality that Jesus Christ was crucified, buried in a tomb, and then resurrected from the dead”. He clearly explains that our deepest problem is “not cancer — it’s sin”. It is as a result of our sin that God has allowed pain and suffering to come into the world, but he still loves us and sent Jesus to suffer our punishment in our place. “We can find hope in the face of our own deaths by placing our faith in Jesus’s death. Without Jesus we’re headed for death and judgement, but with Jesus we can look forward to a hope-filled future in relationship with God.”

Dave is careful to show his audience that this hope based on faith in the gospel of Jesus is not misplaced; it is not a crutch invented to soften the difficult reality of death. He honestly tells us how, when faced with his own death, he began to question whether the message he had believed was real. He had to be completely sure. In the book, he shares with us some of the things that have convinced him that his faith is absolutely based on the truth, including the persuasive evidence for the resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is a really important part of the book, because it shows us that this “hope” is not about making dying people feel good — it’s a genuine, substantial hope that’s based on verifiable truth.

Not only does Dave remind us of the wonderful hope we have in Jesus, he shows us how this hope should influence our life. “…faith and hope set us free to love. We know longer need to worry about our own needs, because God has them covered. And so faith and hope set us free to live — right here and now, even in the midst of pain and suffering — in love”. He reminds us how Jesus suffered terrible things, and how God worked through that terrible suffering to bring us hope. “In a similar way, God is able to bring about great good through our pain and suffering.” Dave relates how God has used his own suffering with lung cancer for great purposes, including in helping him to show love in various ways to others affected by cancer. This was quite inspiring and challenging, I found, because it shows how our hope is not just a passive thing, an insurance, rather it’s something that should motivate us to reach outwards and bring hope and love to others.

Hope Beyond Cure is only a short book, but it’s very encouraging and also potentially quite confronting. It’s a great book to read and to give to anyone: Christian or non-Christian; healthy or sick; young or old. We will all die one day, and we all need to be reminded about the hope that exists beyond cure because of what Jesus has done. It’s especially powerful because it is written by someone who has experienced cancer himself, and been faced with death. It doesn’t feel trite or superficial or misguided: it’s honest and real, as written by someone who has grappled with the big questions that we all have to grapple with some time (but that most of us are putting off).

I will also add that this book has been especially encouraging for me because I know Dave’s family personally, especially his two younger children. I’ve been very encouraged by them and their faith, which was clearly strong even when their Dad was diagnosed. It makes the book all the more powerful, because you can see how their hope actually impacts their lives.

If you want to get a copy of this book, I believe you can order it from http://www.matthiasmedia.com in the US or http://www.matthiasmedia.com.au in the rest of the world. You can also read more stuff from Dave at his blog, macarisms.com.

In which Leinad graduates from high school

On Tuesday, Leinad walked into a large, brick church building and sat down on an old sofa in the foyer. He waited around for a while, glancing briefly over a sheet of paper with some scribbled facts about Mexico City’s pollution and crown-of-thorns starfish, before standing up to chat nervously with a young man in a bow-tie. Presently, an elderly man entered the foyer and ushered the two young men into the large church hall, which was filled with desks — all empty, except for two which had booklets reading “2014 HSC Geography Exam” lying on them.

The two young men sat, nervously emptied their pencil-cases as the old man intoned the malpractice warning, and then tensed, ready to begin.

Three hours and five minutes later, having filled in 20 multiple choice bubbles, answered four sets of short-answer questions, and written eleven pages worth of essays, Leinad straightened up. As he walked out of the church hall into the bright, spring day, he was filled with one sublime thought: he was done with school forever. The only thing preventing him from skipping down the street was his backpack, filled to bursting with books to be returned to school.

******

I have, of course, been very busy with study and exams — and more study, and more exams — for quite some time. Two years ago, I quit homeschooling and started studying in the public school system by a distance. Though I was fortunate to have excellent teachers and classmates, and I learnt a lot of things, the sharp increase in workload kept me from regular blogging and recreational fiction-writing for quite some time.

But now it is over! After a hectic three and a half weeks, in which I sat 18 hours worth of exams (and wrote about 86 pages of essays, 18 pages of short answers, 20 pages of Maths working, and filled in 57 multiple choice bubbles), I am free. Just in time to catch the second half of NaNo WriMo!

As I write this post, I am on the plane home from my exams (I had to travel a fair way to sit them). Earlier in the flight, I began my NaNo Novel. It’s the first novel I’m writing since 2011, and I daresay my skills in writing long fiction have grown rusty (if I ever had them), but I am eagerly taking on the challenge. My hope is that by the time I start University in mid-February, I will have written and polished my first ever high-quality novel.

But I won’t bore you by blathering on about my life. I’m writing this because I’m so relieved and happy to done with school (and because I can’t seem to sleep on this flight). But you shouldn’t be relieved and happy. Your NaNo Novel is calling you. You should be writing.

Stutter

Like a stutter,
You draw the pen across the page, then blot it out.
Try again.
It must must be perfect this time.
Perfect?
Does perfection exist?
Will you ever see him on the treadmill at the gym,
Or catch his shadow passing round the corner of Main Street?
Is anything perfect?
Are our spidery black marks on the paper flawless?
Maybe not.
But, like a stutter,
They take a shape of their own,
And can become
Beautiful.

Teens Can Write, Too September blog-chain: Let’s Begin

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Hey everyone. Do you know what day it is today? I just looked at the calendar… and it’s the 26th of September. Which means I’m scheduled to post in the TCWT blog-chain! Usually, by this time, I have my post ready-written and perfectly pedicured, manicured, with eyebrows plucked and all the wax out scraped out of the ears and burning brightly as candles. But today, unfortunately, due to my swottish and procrastinatory tendencies important exams coming up, the day has somehow arrived without me having written post. So bear with me as I try to come up with something quick.

This month’s prompt is terrific: “What are your favourite book beginnings and/or endings?” This is a really interesting topic to consider, because beginnings and endings are a crucially important part of any story. Stuff this up, and chances are you’ve stuffed up the whole thing. On the other hand, get it right and you’ve gone a long way towards writing someone’s favourite book. So let’s go through and look first at some of my favourite beginnings, then some endings, and then at a couple of stories that did really well with both.

1. Beginnings.

Thinking of favourite beginnings was much harder than I thought. I could think of heaps that were really good, but no absolute stand-outs. Nevertheless, I’ll give you a couple of my best picks, and try to pin-point at least part of why I liked them so much.

Of the books I’ve read recently, the one with the best beginning was probably Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. Initially, what’s interesting about this novel is the narrator, Lockwood. A boring name for a boring guy, but even boring people can be interesting when a good writer tells the story from their point of view. In the first chapter, this city-bloke turns up on the bleak Yorkshire moors in a jolly good mood and imposes himself on the local populace (all the while claiming that he is an “exaggeratedly reserved” fellow). There, he immediately starts coming to wrong conclusions about everything. First, he decides that his landlord, Heathcliff, is a “capital fellow” when it’s obvious he’s anything but — and then he blunders around guessing who the young lady of the house might be married to (“Heathcliff, you’re wife? No?” “Your son’s wife then? No again?” “He’s not your son? Really?” “I’m asking too many questions?”)*. This works to get a bit of humour and conflict in the story early on, but the hinkiness of the narrator also establishes a certain air of mystery and uncertainty that really gets you hooked into the story. That air of mystery is cranked up to maximum when Lockwood is forced to spend the night at the Heights and has a series of bizarre dreams in which he is visited by ghosts. Clearly this place is haunted, not merely with ghosts, but with memories. And so the beginning draws us into the story, causing us, like Lockwood, to want to discover what these memories are.

Another beginning I loved was the beginning to Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (by some famous author). There, rather than beginning with the main characters of the novel, we begin at the Riddle House (through a dream of Harry’s), where we learn about mysterious and evil goings-on that we know will impact on the events of the story. This heightens the sense of dread right from the start (all the more so because this is the 4th book in the series, and thus we understand many of the implications of the dream). After this dream, we cut to Harry, and the more mundane activities he is involved with, but we have that sense of fear and anticipation linked with the dream that draws us quickly through even the slower parts of the novel (which, admittedly, are virtually non-existent). In both Wuthering Heights and The Goblet of Fire, it’s that element of mystery from the beginning that is instrumental in drawing us into the story, and in creating a sense of tension and dread throughout the book.

2. Endings

Favourite endings were every bit as hard as favourite beginnings, but again I’ve picked a couple of excellent ones.

The first I’d mention is Walk Two Moons, by Sharon Creech. This was a wonderful book. Ultimately, it’s the story of a girl (Salamanca) trying to come to terms with her mother’s leaving, but this is bound up between the interweaving stories of Salamanca travelling across the United States with her grandparents, and the story she narrates to her grandparents as they drive — the story of her friend Phoebe, who’s own mother also left, but then came back. This story is a masterpiece of pacing: it unfolds slowly and beautifully, yet without dragging it’s feet, and the different sections of the story — past and present — reflect on each other while at the same time leaving many details obscured. And then, at the end, the last piece is placed in the centre of the jigsaw puzzle, and it all makes sense. Salamanca knew everything, she just didn’t tell us. (At this point you do feel slightly miffed as a reader, because she tells it to some random police officer after going through the whole book without tellingus.)

The second book I’d mention is The Lord of the Rings (by another famous bloke). This is, quite possibly, my favourite novel of all time, so it’s no surprise that it contains one of my favourite endings. I won’t say much about it, but I loved how the ending was expected, yet unexpected; completely foreshadowed, and yet a complete surprise. And how it so wonderfully proved the wisdom of Gandalf, because Gandalf is awesome.

3. Multis

I’ve given you a couple of my favourite beginnings and endings, now for a couple of stories that had great beginnings AND endings.

First — to move away from books, for a moment — let’s discuss one of my favourite films: Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige. This film starts off horrifically. A man drowns in (what looks like) a big fish-tank, and another man, who is caught standing outside the tank, is sentenced for his murder. It’s a dark and creepy opening scene that immediately draws us into the dark and creepy story. From here, we dive into the past to work out how we got there, watching as a tale unfolds of the increasingly bitter rivalry between two 19th century stage magicians. The story has so many twists and turns, flash-backs and flash-forwards, that one quickly forgets which way is up, but it comes together in a remarkable conclusion that turns the film upside down (if you knew which way that was), and makes you realise that the beginning was even more horrific than you thought. It’s one of those films where it clicks at the end and everything suddenly makes sense. Indeed, this film was even better because there were two clicks at the end — as my friend put it: “they blow your mind, then they blow it again five minutes later”. The beginning and the end work together perfectly to create a fantastic, unified story that turns itself on its head.

And now, the final story I’ll talk about: Gary D. Schmidt’s Okay for Now. I’ve chosen this book precisely because it has a very different kind of beginning and ending to The Prestige, and most of the others I’ve listed.Okay for Now doesn’t score by virtue of its fantastically mysterious opening, nor due to an ending that makes everything fall into place. Rather, what I love about this is how Schmidt achieves a fantastic unity of voice that is present from the first page to the last. It’s a simple, poetic, sympathetic voice that makes us love the narrator, Doug Swieteck as much as we loved Holling Hoodhood in the prequel (The Wednesday Wars) — maybe even more. Here’s how the story starts:

Joe Pepitone once gave me his New York Yankees baseball cap.

I’m not lying.

He gave it to me. To me, Doug Swieteck. To me.

Schmidt uses words tastefully and economically to very quickly build up a picture of who Doug is. “I’m not lying” is a refrain throughout the book, highlighting Doug’s struggle — growing up in a family of liars, with not being believed even when he tells the truth — while his fixation on Pepitone’s giving it “to me” highlights how unimportant he is to almost everyone.

By the end of this story many things have changed. Doug has transformed from a jerk to a really sympathetic character. He’s made many friends, and he’s gone from feeling almost totally unimportant to being very important to many people. And yet, he’s still the same guy, and he still speaks with the same voice. Here’s how the story ends:

And I’m not lying, I heard, all around us, over the sounds of the huge machines in the room, over the sounds of Apollo 11 heading to the moon, I heard, all around us, the beating of strong wings.

We’ve still got the same voice, and yet now there’s a sense of security and hope, even in the face of obstacles and even perhaps death. Now it’s “us” not “me”.

What did you think of those beginnings and endings? I think it’s clear from my selection there, that there isn’t really any formula for writing a great beginning or a great ending. Some great beginnings start by plunging you into a mystery, others just draw you in through a really interesting narrative voice. Some endings make you see the story in a whole different light, others wrap up delicately and touchingly. There’s no “right” way to do it, really. And isn’t that what makes it so much fun?

(P.S sorry I’m late — I couldn’t quite finish the blog-post yesterday, so now it’s early on the 27th and I’m a day late. Follow the blog-chain for some more thought-out and punctual posts.)

 

September 2014 blog chain prompt/schedule:

Prompt: “What are your favorite book beginnings and/or endings?” 

7th – http://vergeofexisting.wordpress.com/

8th – http://zarahoffman.com/

9th – http://thelittleenginethatcouldnt.wordpress.com/

10th – http://www.elizamcfarlish.weebly.com/

11th – http://sammitalk.wordpress.com/

12th – http://irisbloomsblog.wordpress.com/

13th – http://musingsfromnevillesnavel.wordpress.com/

14th – http://fantasiesofapockethuman.blogspot.com/

15th – http://miriamjoywrites.com/

16th – http://magicandwriting.wordpress.com/

17th – http://ttkesley.wordpress.com/

18th – http://www.brookeharrison.com/

19th – http://www.freeasagirlwithwings.wordpress.com/

20th – http://roomble.wordpress.com/

21st – http://unikkelyfe.wordpress.com/

22nd – http://erinkenobi2893.wordpress.com/

23rd – http://butterfliesoftheimagination.wordpress.com/

24th – http://lillianmwoodall.wordpress.com/

and http://www.paperdaydreams.com/

25th – http://write-where-you-are.blogspot.de/

and http://theedfiles.blogspot.com/

26th – http://insideliamsbrain.wordpress.com/

and https://anmksmeanderingmind.wordpress.com/

27th – http://semilegacy.blogspot.com/

and http://dynamicramblings.wordpress.com/

28th – http://oliviarivers.wordpress.com/

and http://randommorbidinsanity.blogspot.com/

29th – http://theloonyteenwriter.wordpress.com/

30th – http://thelonglifeofalifelongfangirl.wordpress.com/

and http://teenscanwritetoo.wordpress.com/ (We’ll announce the topic for next month’s chain.)

  • Disclaimer: these are not direct quotes from the novel.

 

Is this what dying feels like?

On Wednesday, I wrote a short story for a past exam paper question, in preparation for my end-of-school exams in October. The goal was to practice quickly writing a good story, as well as to produce something I might be able to adapt for my actual exam. The story I wrote, however — together with a Quora answer I read yesterday — did more than that. They taught me something very important about changing between points of view in a story, and about story-telling in general.

The question I attacked on Wednesday was this:

“Romanticism — a revolutionary search for feeling.” Using two imaginary voices, illustrate this concept.

Can you imagine opening your exam paper and finding yourself with just one hour to come up with a story for that question? Fortunately, for this practice, I was able to spend a good deal of time thinking about my story before I actually sat down to write. Nevertheless, I ran across a difficulty I had not anticipated. I found that changes in viewpoint character are really, really hard.

Before I tell you how I found it hard, let me tell you about the story I wrote. My story was set in Germany during the Napoleonic Wars (at which time the country was just a collection of un-unified states). A father and his son are passionately nationalistic and want to fight, not only to expel Napoleon, but eventually to unify all German-speaking peoples. However, a problem arises. Just as they are about to leave, the son falls very ill. The father leaves without him, and the son is left ailing at home. The story switches back and forth between the two characters (who take turns narrating in the first person) as they struggle to come to terms with the fact that the son won’t be able to fight.

So: how were the POV changes hard? Well, they were hard in that I found it very difficult to keep the story flowing through the changes. With each change, the story seemed to grind to a halt. There didn’t seem to be much reason for the narrative to keep moving.

Let me show you how I ended the son’s first turn of narration, and see if you agree:

“For now [for the time-being], I would observe the subtle beauties of the German country, and feel the pain, as great as the pain in my chest, that I could not fight for its unity.”

Now, leaving aside the fact that it’s a terrible sentence — really sappy, and clichéd, and boring, and all the rest of it — what’s wrong with that? Well, to me it sounds like the end of a story. It smacks of resignation. Everything has happened that will happen, the character has made all the actions he can make, and now he’s just resigned. Nothing is happening. There is closure.

That, I think, is exactly the problem — there is closure. The fact is, there shouldn’t be closure at this stage in the story.

There should always be unanswered questions, or problems that require not resignation but an active response. Resignation might be an alright emotion to finish up with (depending on the story), but it’s not an alright emotion to leave a character with if you ever mean to come back to him. If you want to come back, there has to be something happening for you to come back to.

So: right before you change POV, make sure something happens to your viewpoint character — something that demands a response. Don’t leave him sitting quietly in a garden.

Now, that would have been the extent of this post, if not for a brilliant answer I read on Quora yesterday which suggests that this applies much more broadly than just to POV changes. The question (which can be found here if you have a Quora account) was “How does one become a better story-teller?” and the brilliant answer I read was given by one Marcus Geduld. He gave many different tips in his answer, but two sections in particular related quite specifically to what I’d been thinking about. The first section was entitled “What happens next?” and the second was “Keep the mystery ball in the air”.

In “What happens next” Geduld points out a critical ingredient in story-telling — an ingredient that novice story-tellers (including me) often leave out. That ingredient is the creation of questions, and the delayed revelation of answers. To illustrate this concept, let me quote a section of his answer:

The number-one ingredient for a story is the tension of an unsolved mystery. Stories set up questions and delay answering them. The simplest example is a question in the first sentence with the answer delayed until the second sentence:

“You know who Bob’s favorite singer is? Meatloaf!”

That’s not a very interesting story, I know, but compare it to this:

“Bob’s favorite singer is Meatloaf.”

The first version evokes (just a little) tension. The second doesn’t.

Just a short snippet there, but the implications for story-telling are profound. It causes me to think, really, that the word “story-telling” is one big misnomer. You are not, in fact, telling the story — at least, not in the plainest, most straightforward manner. You giving the reader teases, little bites — inviting them to question what happens next. You are making them interested by not telling the story, and thus arousing their curiosity.

In his next section “Keep the mystery ball in the air”, Geduld expands on what he has said. This questioning, this evasion of directly telling the story, should continue throughout. From beginning to end, the story-“teller” has to engage the readers’ curiosity. So with every question that is answered, a new question must be asked. With every POV change, a mystery must be created surrounding the character we just left. With every moral dilemma solved, the character must be presented with a new moral difficulty. When there are no longer any questions, the story is over.

Going back to my practice short story — I was so disgusted with my first attempt that I went back two days later and tried again. This time, I mostly remembered to invoke questions at the POV changes. It’s still not a great story (and I was yet to read that Quora answer at this stage), but it’s an improvement. And I think the biggest improvement is the POV change I showed you before. The second time round, rather than having the son sit resignedly thinking about nature, I had him set off to join his father — despite his sickness. This is how I ended the segment the second time round:

“My breath comes sharp and painful. The ground swings crazily up to meet me with each step. My vision blackens. What is this? I wonder. Is this a weakness that can be overcome? My vision blacks out totally. Is this what dying feels like?”

Obviously, this still isn’t perfect. You can still tell that I’m writing at top speed, and that the story really lacks polish. But don’t you think it’s a much better way to leave my character than sitting resignedly in a garden? Which segment-ending would you rather come back to?

So story-telling, I think, is largely getting your reader to ask one long series of questions. Engage their curiosity. Ask: “You know who Bob’s favourite singer is?” “Is this what dying feels like?” Don’t give them closure until you’re done.

A Short Announcement

This is a very short post to inform you that the estimable Liam Wood has just given me a guest post on his blog, This Page Intentionally Left Blank. Feel free to spend your day how you wish, but I would suggest the following: (1) head over and read my post in Liam’s blog (2) comment on my post (3) stick around on Liam’s blog a while longer and read and comment on lots of posts because Liam and his blog are awesome.

Cheerio.

Talkies, Part 1

In the late 1920s, the talkie films were born. This was the new age. Suddenly, many of the old great silent actors couldn’t compete — all that miming and slapstick wasn’t much use any more. Others, who may not have had Charlie Chaplin’s propensity for silly faces, could now charm the audience with the power of their voice.

Dialogue is a tricky thing. Some people get it, others don’t. And it’s not just a challenge in talkie films, it’s a challenge in fiction writing.

Lately I’ve been thinking a good deal about dialogue. What role should it play in my writing? How can I get it to play that role? If I want to write good talkie novels (which I do) it’s essential that I get the hang of this. Today I’ll focus on that first question: “What role should it play in my writing”. Here are some of my thoughts.

To start with, I’ve realised that dialogue needs to serve a purpose. Well, duh, you say: everything should serve a purpose. And yet, too often, my dialogue serves no story purpose at all.

So what’s the goal of dialogue? I don’t want to box us in and create imaginary rules, but it seems to me that most of the time, dialogue serves one (or more) of three main objectives: to portray character, to advance the plot or to create a certain effect.

  1. The importance of dialogue to portrayal of character is difficult to overstate. In a well-written story, a character’s speech tells us so much about them. For one thing, their accent and grammatical choices can tell us about where they are from and about their socioeconomic background. We’ve got characters like Hagrid in Harry Potter whose accent tells us that he is rustic, outdoorsy and perhaps hasn’t had a high level of education, which seems to fit perfectly with his role as Hogwarts gamekeeper. (And I’m sure someone with a greater knowledge of Britain’s accents would be able to more accurately place his geographical heritage). But dialogue can be used to show so many other aspects of a character. Are they outgoing or shy? Are they smart or foolish — or smart in some areas and foolish in others? Are they friendly and caring for others or are they selfish? Are they “talkers” who say things they don’t really mean (think Isabella Thorpe, in Northanger Abbey)? Do their actions contradict their words (think Brutus, in Julius Caesar)? Do they have superstitions (think Basta, in Inkheart)? All of these aspects of character, and more, can be shown effectively through dialogue. So when you write dialogue, don’t let it just be random words that could have been said by anybody — use it to create a powerful image of a particular character.
  2. Dialogue can also be handy in advancing the plot. This is usually because it allows the characters to discover new information — information that radically alters the course of the story. Think of Radagast arriving in An Unexpected Journey and telling the company about the evils in Mirkwood. Or Gale’s words to Katniss at the climactic close to Catching Fire, providing the plot-twist that catapults us into the final book. If you can advance the plot through dialogue, do so. (Nevertheless, not all plot advancement needs to — or indeed, should — be precipitated by dialogue).
  3. A final purpose of dialogue is to create or perpetuate a particular effect that the author wants their story to possess. In some stories, this is a sober, chilling effect — think of the The Dark Knight Rises: “it will be very painful… for you”. In other stories, the author wants to go for a humorous effect, and dialogue is an important means of creating that humour — think of Harry Potter, where jokes told by the likes of Fred and George go a long way to providing welcome laughs in a pretty dark story.

These three objectives are each, on their own, very important in a story, but dialogue can be used most effectively if it helps us meet multiple objectives simultaneously. Sometimes, the sole purpose of piece of dialogue is to develop character, or advance the plot, or create humour. Most great dialogue, however, will do two of those, or even all three. If you’ve read Catching Fire, think again to the ending: that last piece of dialogue doesn’t just catapult us into the final book, it also shows something about Gale’s character — and it perpetuates the grim, suspenseful tone of the series.

Now — and this, I’ve realised, is important — though dialogue should always serve a purpose, the fact that it does serve a purpose doesn’t meet it belongs. Sometimes, all of the things accomplished by dialogue can be accomplished even better without it. I learned this lesson in the short story / novella I wrote this year. At one stage, I tried to introduce a new character, together with an associated plot-point, through dialogue. The dialogue served the purpose of character development and plot advancement to an extent, but after a while I realised it still wasn’t the best thing to do. In the end, I decided to use narrative exposition to introduce the character and the situation, both because it would make things clearer for the audience and because it would contribute to the darkly reflective tone of the story.

In the end, then, for dialogue to be successful, it needs to serve a purpose and it needs to serve that purpose better than straight-out exposition, or any other means. This seems like a no-brainer, but I think too often I rush into writing dialogue without considering whether it’s necessary. My goal is to be more discriminatory in my use of dialogue, and while this won’t happen overnight (certainly not in my first drafts — and I’m okay with that), hopefully in time I’ll perform this discrimination subconsciously. Talkies are tough, but I don’t want to be a silent actor.

This has been Talkies, Part 1. Come back in a week or two for Talkies, Part 2.

 

Film Review: The Desolation of Smaug

Warning: Spoilers, including spoilers for parts of The Hobbit that will be covered in the third film.

I’ve been away so long you’d probably thought I’d done a Bilbo, and gone off to foreign parts in search of adventure. But no, I’m back, and I’m here with a review for the second Hobbit film: The … [drumroll] … Desolation of Smaug. Just the other day I saw this second instalment in the film trilogy that has held geeks and non-geeks alike in eager anticipation, and I’m keen to express my conflicting thoughts on it with you.

To begin with, I want to say what I said last time: the Set. Was. Awesome. Well, maybe not quite as incredible as the set for An Unexpected Journey — Mirkwood, for one, could have been a little better — but most things were really, really good. There was Erebor, again, of course (though now after decades of dragon habitation), and Laketown was terrific. Best of all was probably King Thranduil’s halls, and it was perhaps a pity we didn’t see more of it. And of course there was the entire landscape, which was surely enough to make anyone want to move to Middle-Earth… or New Zealand.

Going on to the storyline, and pacing, I can’t say I was quite as impressed. It seemed like they tilted the whole film forwards, rushing through the early parts and spending too much time (and inventing too much) in the later stages.

For a start, there was Beorn. I would have liked to see more of him than one brief scene. I suppose, in the novel, the time with Beorn was a bit of a lull in the tension which Jackson probably wanted to avoid, but perhaps we could have had a just little more? Also, though Beorn was terrific as a bear, as a man he was not really how I imagined him. The hair was good, but character-wise I thought he would be more impetuous, more volatile, more hearty. In the one scene where we see him, we see only his grave and gloomy side.

I could easily pass over Beorn not meeting my expectations, but I confess I was disappointed with the whole section in Mirkwood. “Flies and Spiders”, and the whole of the events in Mirkwood is one of my favourite parts of The Hobbit. It is one of the most crucial parts of the novel in terms of Bilbo’s character development, and the prolonged dark, depressive atmosphere is really one of the low-points of the novel for the company, especially with the unexpected absence of Gandalf.

In the film, I felt the whole thing was rushed through so that we could get to more “exciting” action sequences with the roped-in Legolas and Tauriel. It seemed like we were in the forest for barely any time at all (and we skipped the moths with bulbous eyes and the whole affair with the black river and the enchanted Bombur) before Bilbo went up the tree for a look around, and then came down for a short, shallow tussle with the spiders before the elves popped along and whisked the dwarves away. Peter Jackson evidently decides film noir is not what he wants for The Desolation of Smaug, and Bilbo’s character development is set aside for another time and place.

Admittedly, in the film series much of Bilbo’s character development has already happened by this stage, what with him saving Thorin’s life at the end of The Unexpected Journey. And I suppose the scene with the spiders might not have been as impressive in a film as in the book, given that everything would be dark and hard-to-see — and Bilbo would be invisible anyway. I’m still disappointed, but I’ll keep these things in mind so that I don’t end up with an unfairly negative view of the film.

Once we get through Mirkwood, the movie-makers seem suddenly to remember they still have about five hours of film to fill and less than 150 pages of the novel to fill it with, so they start pulling in characters, fight-scenes and turkey-stuffing faster than you can say “Bilbo”. They probably thought they could sell a few more movie-tickets by satiating Orlando Bloom fans, as well as appeasing critics of Tolkien’s all-male cast, so they bring in Legolas and a red-headed girlfriend. They even seem to try and get in something of a love-triangle between Tauriel, Legolas and the “hot dwarf”, Kili.

I’m not sure what to think of these character additions. On the one hand, it is entirely plausible that Legolas should have encountered the dwarves, and Tolkien certainly did lay it a bit thin with the female half of the population in his novel. The fight scene with Legolas playing stepping-stones on the dwarves’ heads was just incredible, and I could mostly forgive the over-the-top nature of it because, after all, he’s an elf. On the other hand, the whole thing with Kili getting injured and staying behind, and then having Tauriel turn up to cure him, was going a bit far. There’s a fine line between balancing a gender-imbalanced cast and completely changing the story to invent love-interest.

What about Laketown? For starters, I thought the introduction of Bard was good. I was pleased with how we get a feel for the man before the big events of the next film, and especially good was the short debate between Bard and the Master. We see Bard for a man of integrity, who will help the dwarves where his conscience allows, but who feels the need to warn the people against their greed — while the Master, who really dislikes the dwarves, helps them for the sake of his popularity.

While there was some good stuff in Laketown, though, I would have liked to see a bit more of the mass joy and frenzy over the dwarves return and the expected fulfilment of the prophecy, and a bit less of Orcs creeping over roof-tops. There was some pretty funny stuff in the book with all the people hero-worshipping the dwarves and the Master grudgingly going along with it while thinking of all the costs to business and wanting to get rid of them as quickly as possible. I suppose that wouldn’t really have fit the film, though, because there was a lot of emphasis on hurrying to the mountain to get there by Durin’s Day. The film’s increased temporal pressure meant the loss of a funny scene or two, but I’ll own the resulting increase in tension was certainly a good thing.

Then there was the dragon. That scene started off well. Smaug was one magnificent piece of CGI, and the dialogue between him and Bilbo was done well. (Bilbo was visible, which irked me at first, but the most annoying thing about invisible people is you can’t see them, which doesn’t work quite so well in a film). After the initial bit, though, things went a bit downhill. All the dwarves piled down, and there was a rather pointless scene where I think they were trying to fight the dragon, with a lot of creative ingenuity, but with pretty pathetic results. It was all a bit preposterous, though, and it did seem to devalue the danger of dragon fire. I mean, isn’t this supposed to be fire hot enough to melt the One Ring itself? But here the dwarves and Bilbo are practically playing in fire and hardly so much as singeing their eyebrows, so far as I could tell.

Rewinding a bit, I think a really good part of the film was the removal of Deus ex Machina’s from the book. Tolkien is a brilliant writer, but he did have a tendency, particularly in The Hobbit, to drop miraculous escape-opportunities sometimes literally out of the sky. For example, earlier in the story, he has thirteen dwarves, a hobbit and a wizard up in five fir trees, looking set to become fifteen kebabs for a pack of hungry Wargs and goblins, when, out of the blue, swoop a bunch of giant eagles to save the day. The film-makers partially atone for this blatant copout by having Gandalf whisper to a little moth beforehand, which sort of gives us the idea he had called for the eagles.

The removal of Deus ex Machina, and the general foreshadowing of plot-twists, continues strongly in The Desolation of Smaug. The most critical point is the foreshadowing of the dragon’s bane. In the book, the passing of Smaug is a bit of an anti-climax. It’s not foreshadowed, it doesn’t happen by hand of Bilbo, or Thorin, or even Gandalf — it’s killed by Bard, an almost complete nobody in terms of the story at that point, who is only even said to be a descendent of the Lord of Dale (as far as I remember) immediately before he kills the dragon.

In the film, the thing is done a whole lot better. Early on we see something of Bard’s character. We learn about his ancestry. We hear about Girion’s attempt to slay the dragon, which only just failed. And then we learn that there is one more black arrow remaining. Just one more.

And it’s not just in the slaying of the dragon where Jackson and the screenwriters set things up better than Tolkien did. For one thing, there’s the whole affair with Thorin being pursued by Azog’s horde of Orcs. Personally, I think this subplot got a little too intense, especially in the first film, but a really big plus of the whole thing (besides its virtue in maintaining some tension through nearly 9 hours of film), is that it foreshadows the Battle of Five Armies. In The Hobbit, the Battle of Five Armies was a shock to everyone. It was a shock to Bilbo. It was a shock to Gandalf. It was a shock to the reader. In the film, I imagine it will still a shock to everyone (except those who have read the book), but we won’t complain that they cheated by bringing it totally out of the blue.

One last episode where I think they made really good use of detail in the film, was Durin’s Day. Durin’s Day is “when the last moon of autumn and the first moon of winter are in the sky together”. A rare occasion, not something to miss.

In the book they nearly missed it. They were sitting there on the doorstep, looking desperately for the keyhole, and then the sun went behind the cloud. They thought they were done for, but then it emerged from the cloud, just long enough to fit the key and enter the mountain.

In the film, they went one better. The sun set, the stars came out, the moon came down to set as well. All was lost, for certain. But hang on a minute, the … moon? The thrush knocks and the moonbeam falls on the keyhole. Bilbo calls for the dwarves, Thorin grabs the key as the hobbit nearly kicks into the valley, he fits to the keyhole.

Okay, maybe we don’t need the blow-by-blow recap, but you get the point. They made the film that much more powerful by fully utilising details that we’d been provided with earlier. They kept the subtle, implicit promise they made in the previous film: the promise that the detail of the moon was important.

I’ve said some good things about this film so far, but I’ve also made a lot of criticisms. I’ve criticised the scene with Beorn, and the whole episode in Mirkwood, and the lack of development in Laketown. I’ve criticised the scene with the dwarves “fighting” the dragon and the excessive intensity of the orc-fight scenes. What is it that I really want? Am I just being pedantic, criticising everything because it gives me a perverse pleasure?

Answering the second question first — yes, I think I mainly am just being pedantic. The Desolation of Smaug is a brilliant film, just as An Unexpected Journey was. But I do have a reason for my criticisms, I do have something that I want — or that I think I want — out of the Hobbit film series. The problem is that Jackson’s focus in his film series is different to what mine would have been.

If I had directed The Hobbit films (which, believe me, you wouldn’t want), then my emphasis would have been on humour and character development. I’m not saying I would know how to write the humour, I’m not saying I would know how to write the character development, I’m not saying I would know anything at all about directing a movie, but those are my two primary ideals — humour and character development.

Humour means more stuff like where Bilbo wants everyone to turn back for him to get his handkerchief, and where Gandalf goes off to seek the company of “the only one around here who has any sense”. True, there might not be as much scope for that in the relatively grim setting of The Desolation of Smaug as in the first film, but they probably could have got a bit more in than they did.

Character development in this film means, primarily, more stuff in Mirkwood. Less of the intense action, more bits where the little guy finds he has to act all alone.

I’m not saying Jackson didn’t manage any humour or character development — he managed both, in some places quite well. What I’m saying is that that’s where the emphasis should have been. Rather than trying to beat the Lord of the Rings at its own game, trying to be the biggest, most epic high fantasy film on the block, The Hobbit should have been gentler, funnier and every bit as touching (in a very not-soppy sort of way).

That’s not to say they shouldn’t have tried to set up for The Lord of the Rings. Peter Jackson had an advantage here that Tolkien didn’t have: he knew exactly what the sequel was. I have little doubt Tolkien would have written The Hobbit quite differently if he wrote it in the 1950s, rather than in the 1930s, due to a progression in his ideas about Middle Earth history. Making use of a wealth of material Tolkien didn’t have when he wrote The Hobbit, Jackson has been able to create a film that ties into the sequel much better than the book does. But he should not forget that though the events of this tale, as Middle Earth fate would have it, have big implications, the events themselves are not nearly so large-scale.

In the end, it was a great film. The set was brilliant, they did a great job of removing Deus ex Machina’s and of making use of every detail. The emphasis wasn’t so much on humour and character development as I would have like it to be, but having chosen to make The Hobbit trilogy BIG, like it’s sequel predecessor, they certainly aren’t failing (and their managing to fit some humour and character development in as well). In addition, they’ve managed to avoid having any really painfully over-the-top scenes in this film, such as the stone-giants in the last film. Really, I can’t blame Jackson too much at all — but I’m still annoyed about Mirkwood. Rating 4/5.

Note: My ratings are probably a little more stingy than they used to be. This was at least as good as An Unexpected Journey.