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Lately I have had a foretaste of what it means to be a parent. If you want to know what it feels like to parent a child, you should get a dog. If you’re curious about the experience of living with an adolescent, who uses your home as a place to occasionally doss and eat the entirety of your food – get a cat.

We have been housesitting in a very beautiful part of the world, just along the New South Wales coast for the last week. As mentioned previously, said house-sit involves caring for two cats, one of whom has been ill for the past few days, so we were asked to keep her indoors.

Now cats who are used to roaming free outside don’t like being kept indoors and they have no problem letting you know how annoyed they are with you. The plaintive cries and yowling of the cat sitting by the front door in my mind became anthropomorphized as ‘let meeee ouuuuuttt!’ Not only does the cat insist on complaining about this unfair (“soooo unfair!!!) detention within the house, it makes concerted attempts at escape; hisses at me when in a bad mood (read always); and decides it is important to wake me up at 4am to discuss the toilet arrangements.

So yeah, I’m feeling just as frazzled as a concerned parent. My nerves are frayed and I am one more cat incident away from a panic attack.

The Unwritten is initially a comic about the creative process involved in writing a book. It is also about fathers and sons, the inescapable shadow that a more successful father leaves behind. Tom Taylor’s father not only wrote an incredibly successful fantasy series of books about a boy wizard – he named the main character after his son. Tom Taylor has never managed to make a career for himself outside of his father’s creations. What’s more some fanatical fans of the novels have a near religious obsession with the character ‘Tommy Taylor’, and to them he is more real than the boy who inspired him.

Tom makes a small income from making appearances at fan conventions dedicated to his father’s books, where he continually is asked about the mysterious disappearance of Wilson Taylor, or the rumours that he vanished without having settled his estate. Tom has had no access to the revenue generated by the Tommy Taylor media empire.

At one another of these interminable conventions, things take a turn for the worst. Firstly a lunatic who styles himself after Tommy Taylor’s arch nemesis, the vampire Count Ambrosio appears. Then a reporter announces that a Eastern European couple have claimed that Tom is actually their son and that Wilson adopted him as a child. This revelation leads to the cultish Tommy Taylor fans turning on their ‘false messiah’, and Tom is forced to go into hiding.

Then Tom discovers that this turn of events are connected to Wilson’s disappearance. Hints that his father was involved in a quasi-masonic conspiracy begin to emerge, one that stretches down through the years and has dictated the careers of many writers. The question of Tom’s own parentage continues to raise his head. Maybe he isn’t the son of Wilson Taylor, or the Eastern European couple – what if the fans are right and he is actually Tommy Taylor. If a fictional character can become real, what else has crossed over into this world from the world of books.

When I bought this book from the excellent Kings Comics in Sydney, the teller’s eyes lit up. He assured me that while the initial issues, what with all the comparisons to J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter (as well as some overt digs at the obsessive fandom attached to the boy wizard) might seem predictable – and in many senses this is yet another typical Vertigo comic, which specializes in post-modern, literary graphic novels – by the last issue in the collection it makes a quantum leap in quality. Without giving anything away, let me just say the digression into the lives of Rudyard Kipling and Mark Twain/Samuel Clemens is wonderfully constructed.

I also found the book reminiscent of Jonathan Carroll’s Land of Laughs, a favourite of mine from way back. The estranged relationship between Tom and his father underpins the central theme of what writers owe to their creations once they are let loose into the world.

Carey and Gross have fashioned an instant classic. A must-read.

I can feel the panic welling up inside me once more, a swelling wave of hysteria and dark despair. If there was only one person I could turn to, one person to confirm that I haven’t gone crazy, that world has…But there’s not. I have nothing, no one to hold on to, not one anchor to reality except for what lies inside my head.

What lies inside my head. All these memories. So many of them, with such detail. How can they all be lies?

About ten years ago I began rabbiting on to whomever would listen about something I called ‘modern fantasy’. In a nutshell, I was on the look-out for stories set in the present day that belonged to the fantasy genre, but featured neither magical swords, or elves. A modern update of the type of fiction Hope Mirlees and Lord Dunsany wrote before the Tolkien cottage-industry swept across the genre.

Jonathan Carroll is one such writer, as is John Crowley, who’s Little, Big to my mind ranks up there with classics such as Lud-in-the-Mist. The next name I mention when discussing this topic is Charles de Lint. Nowadays I imagine his work would be pitched to take advantage of the current ‘urban fantasy/dark romance’, sub-genres. Yet his writing manages to be both highly metaphorical, while also rooted in character building. His novels tend to feature large casts of twenty-somethings faced with dreamlike realities that they have to muddle their way through, in between paying rent and dealing with lousy relationships.

Trader seems at first to be have an atypically narrow cast of characters, as it begins with two men, Max Trader and Johnny Devlin, switching bodies. Max is a luthier, a craftsman who finds it easier to judge the quality of a piece of wood than the people he meets outside his workshop. Johnny is a user, who accepts no responsibility for his life and takes a selfish pleasure in manipulating people, such as his ex Tanya, into doing favours he has no interest in returning. Only now Johnny finds himself in Max’s body and it seems all his financial woes are over. He owns an apartment, a successful business and people even stop him in the street having read an interview with ‘Max’, in specialist magazines. His body’s original owner is having a much harder time of it. Max wakes to the sound of two women screaming at him to repay money he has stolen. That same day, still confused at being trapped in this new body, he is evicted and with no money is force to live rough on the streets.

Then he meets the man wearing his body, who casually dismisses him with the threat of calling the cops. After all who would believe this story?

Young Nia does. She lives in Max’s building and befriended him before the body swap happened. She can see that this new Max speaks, moves and acts completely differently. It almost seems as if someone else is inside Max, controlling him and then she begins to suspect that he is not the only one to have been changed.

The stage is set for a conflict between the two men that will cross from this world into another dimension, where their very souls are threatened by spirits and old gods.

As I said initially this seems to be a simple story a good man and a bad man trapped in each other’s lives. A magic realist The Prince and the Pauper perhaps. But de Lint brings a lot more to the table. When Max becomes homeless it is easy for people to assume when he talks about his life being stolen from him, he simply means the livelihood he squandered that led to his living rough in city parks. He meet a fortune teller names Bones, who off-handedly reveals he has invented his whole precognition gig – but that doesn’t mean it is not true. When he talks to Max about living in a second skin, he assumes the Indian means being down and out, having to reinvent yourself. Once again though, why can it not be both.

An assortment of bohemian artists and performers are introduced, the ideal people to give any credence to body swapping and ream worlds malarkey. Sometimes their interludes feel distracting though. I felt we never learned enough about Devlin, although he’s a louse seems to sum it up.

An entertaining fable, with sense of whimsy.

“You are about to see one of Carole Lombard’s best films: Mr and Mrs Smith. It’s the only comedy Hitchcock ever directed.” The angel took a long drink of soda.

-“Who’s Hitchcock?”

“Have some popcorn”

– “No, thank you.”

In the fading light, the angel turned slowly to Ling. For several moments his eyes became enormous, pinwheeling fire everywhere.

“Have some popcorn.”

Well it has been a heavy couple of days here on the blog. Weighty themes, arresting imagery…..teddy bears altered in strange and disturbing ways (seriously, James Ellroy, get help!). So for today I chose Jonathan Carroll’s The Ghost in Love. I am a big fan of his whimsical present-day fables and will mention some more about his writing later, but first off – the plot!

Benjamin Gould is a young man in the prime of his life. He loves to cook, in fact his book shelves are filled with recipe books. His kitchen is his true home and he enjoys many different kinds of tea. He’s good with his hands and rather than sulking when things don’t go his way, he will often begin working on a new table, or chair. He’s also a young man who has already endured tragedy, sadness and loss – but he’s happy now, because he’s met the love of his life. The strangely named German Landis is a ray of sunshine, a beacon of warmth and kindness. She inspires him to be a better man, to leave the bitterness of his past behind. One day she suggests they adopt a dog from the pound, but not just any mutt. They should choose the dog that has languished there the longest. Ben enthusiastically agrees and rushes out. This is what life with German is like, spontaneity and good will as natural as breathing.

Unfortunately for Ben, he dies on the way home. Even more unfortunately for Ben, German, even the dog, Pilot, and the angels in Heaven who run the whole life and death game….he doesn’t notice he has died.  And from here, things  begin to get strange.

The Angel of Death assigns a ghost named Ling to follow Ben and discover why he has not passed on. Somewhere in his mind is the reason for his strange survival. Maybe somewhere buried deep in his past is the secret of immortality, making Ben very important indeed. Important enough to scare the Angel of Death himself near out of  his wits. For if humans can suddenly learn how to master their own mortality, maybe that changes everything. Maybe in this upside-down world angels and ghosts have reason to fear humans!

Jonathan Carroll has a gift for making the mundane seem magical. In a story about life and death, angels and monsters, he makes it seem so easy. This book was a breeze to read, a light confection that felt like an old Hollywood romance. Cinema is something of a passion for Carroll, as well as dogs, so I know he’s good people. It reminded me a little of Powell and Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death, where air force pilot David Niven refuses to die and accept his heavenly award, as he has just met the love of his life, played by Kim Hunter. In Carroll’s universe dogs and ghosts speak to one another amiably, the Angel of Death is obsessed with Carole Lombard movies and your past literally can catch up with you. Maybe even ball you out for not being more careful.

The very first scene of the novel is just delightful. Ling, Ben’s ghostly ‘caseworker’, is fretting over a sumptuous feast for German, whom she has also fallen in love with. As Pilot the bemused dog and her only friend looks on, she prepares a breakfast smorgasbord of salmon, eggs Benedict, scones, soufflé, even fine coffee. The woman of her dreams arrives in the apartment, sits down at the table and is completely oblivious to the phantom feast laid out before her. It’s a beautifully sustained sequence.

One of my favourite books is Carroll’s The Land of Laughs, his first published novel. It also deals with memory, loss and death. If you read it you may come away with a newfound interest for pit-bull terriers. Seriously the man loves dogs. Whenever I encounter a book of his on a shelf I snap it up. The Ghost in Love is a treat for anyone looking for a story filled with wonder and whimsy. Enjoy.

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