However, as Longfellow pointed out in An April Day, some days must be dreary and dark, and arrival of this latest issue of our newsletter serves to underline the wisdom of his words...
I'm old enough to recall when he was a real potato. Now he's just a plastic fraud. Calls himself a potato but he's got no starch. At some point whoever decides such things came to the conclusion that those vicious plastic spikes on the backs of the assorted facial features posed an unacceptable risk. To whom I'm not sure. Amazing as it may seem, even very young children have the ability to stick bulbous noses and floppy ears onto a potato without killing themselves. They might hurt their sides laughing. I reckon kids have more chance getting injured falling down on the playground than they did while playing with Mr. Potato Head.
Besides, the whole point of Mr. Potato Head was not simply that you were creating a funny face, but creating a funny face on a potato.
If you're supplying minor characters with physical descriptions, it isn't good to have a Mr. Potato Head flashback. Let's see, shall I stick on some big lips or small ones? Round eyes or squinty? How about glasses? Now, what kind of hat? They're all funny hats, of course.
Unfortunately I probably do have a mental box of features to stick on characters and maybe it isn't big enough. I tend to think of the same features and in the same varieties. Noses: big, small, straight, bulbous. Hair color: black, brown, blonde, red. Chin: weak, strong, pointed. Eyes: brown, blue, green. Ears:... Well, okay, I can't find any ears in my box.
That might be due to the fact that when I read I don't pay a lot of attention to physical descriptions, even for major characters, unless they are very exaggerated (i.e. Nero Wolf or Blind Pew) and/or play some important role in the story (i.e. the Man in the Iron Mask or the Hunchback of Notre Dame).
In real life I do not analyze people's appearance. I think most of us tend to see others based on our whole conception of them derived from their actions and our feelings toward them.
When I read exquisite descriptions of the angle of a character's cheekbones and the shape of the chin and lips and the type of ears, not to mention the precise shade of the eyes and estimated number of hairs in the eyebrows, I immediately forget every detail and picture the character as looking like I'd expect a person to look who does whatever the character does and thinks the way the character thinks.
Although I can't say for sure whether it is true, it's generally said that Erle Stanley Gardner never gave a good description of Perry Mason. Which I suppose is a bad example since everyone knows he looks like Raymond Burr.
In the end it is probably more important to give minor characters some life, let them say or do a little something, rather than depending on physical descriptions. Give them some juice, like a real potato, in other words, instead of a soulless lump of plastic.
Then again, a funny hat never hurts.
with other formats and a print edition to follow. Contributors are Jude Hardin, Natasha Fondren, Robert Weibezahl, Betsy Dornbusch, Lise McClendon, Keith Snyder, Merry Monteleone, Erica Orloff, Travis Erwin, Simon Wood, and Mark himself.
The table of contents includes the sinister line Whereby Ignorant People Are Frequently Deluded and Defrauded by Mary Reed and Eric Mayer. Naturally we're denying everything!
Consider the raging thunderstorms so often featured in ghost stories, wherein brilliant flashes of lightning reveal things the hapless protagonist would much rather not see. You know, those sinister movements by dark figures in ancestral oil portraits or oddly mottled, claw-like hands scratching at ivy-framed diamond-paned windows. Rolls of thunder shaking the walls drown out the screams of the doomed innocent locked in the attic, yet never seem to mask the grim sound of the wheels of an approaching coach and four driven by the dissolute and long dead fourth earl, inevitably arriving at the front door on the stroke of midnight, though not with the intention of delivering pizza.
Lately I've been rereading E. F. Benson's fiction and find myself admiring his use of thunderstorms, no doubt because Ninefer is set during the historic heat wave under which Constantinople sweltered in June 548, during which a statue of Emperor Arkadios was struck by lightning.
Never mind about that, let's see an example from Benson, you say?
Happy to oblige.
Consider the familiar sticky heat and strange hush heralding an imminent thunderstorm. As described in The Man Who Went Too Far, before the god Pan pays what readers can only regard as a highly regrettable visit, the pending arrival of a storm is depicted so vividly as to almost cause a headache. His prose is as rolling and menacing as, well, distant rumbles on the thunder kettledrums:
"Then, as is the habit of the English weather, one evening clouds began to bank themselves up in the west, the sun went down in a glare of coppery thunder-rack, and the whole earth broiling under an unspeakable oppression and sultriness paused and panted for the storm."
We've only twice been directly affected by the chief representative of the thunderstorm's unspeakable oppression, which is to say lightning strikes, and sincerely hope we'll never collect the third of the traditional trio of any given event.
On the first occasion lightning hit a tree towering near Casa Maywrite. The bolt split the tree's crown, travelled down its trunk peeling off pieces of bark, and continued on its nasty way underground, throwing stones up along its path. Since the tree began leaning towards the house, it had to come down. To our surprise, the task was accomplished, sawn-up logs loaded into a truck, branches and twigs chipped for garden use, and the workmen gone within three or four hours.
The second time we heard a huge metallic crash and glimpsed a split second flash of purple light. The bolt had hit our neighbour's well and then, having done it injury, travelled far enough under the intervening ground to destroy the control panel of our well.
However, an acquaintance has a more personal, if not as expensive, lightning story. He was in a cabin in the Colorado woods, watching a thunderstorm while listening to music on headphones. His player was plugged into a ceiling socket along with a light bulb, powered by a line passing about ten feet away. A bolt struck the line, there was a flash and a crash, the light bulb exploded, and his hands and feet jerked spontaneously into the air. His feet tingled afterwards for about a quarter of an hour, but he otherwise escaped with only burns on his ears.
His anecdote reminded me of another Benson story. Spinach relates how a pair of fraudulent mediums rent a holiday cottage, only to discover there is a genuine uneasy spirit lurking in the vicinity. The ghost rejoices in the name of Mr Spinach, although he does not rejoice about his situation, given he is earthbound because he can't recall where he buried his uncle after murdering him. Having been killed by lightning as he went about the grisly business, he has lost his memory -- apparently a not uncommon occurrence among those who, unlike Mr Spinach, survive a strike -- and he cannot depart in peace until he regains it.
See you then!
Mary R and Eric
who invite you to visit their home page, hanging out on the virtual washing line that is the web at http://home.earthlink.net/~maywrite/ There you'll discover the usual suspects, including more personal essays, Doom Cat (an interactive game written by Eric), and our growing libraries of links to free e-texts of classic and Golden Age mysteries, ghost stories, and tales of the supernatural. There's also the Orphan Scrivener archive, so don't say you weren't warned! Intrepid subscribers may also wish to pop over to Eric's blog at http://www.journalscape.com/ericmayer/