Monday, 14 March 2016

Are you Afraid of the Dark-Hearted Man? The Fifty Year Sword.

Last Wednesday, Sheffield Gothic met to talk stitching, orphans, and vengeance, as we discussed Mark Z. Danielewski's The Fifty Year Sword (2005), a novel which attempts to novelise the ghost story.

Within the glossy pages, we are introduced to Chintana, a heartbroken seamstress who dreams of vengeance against her husband’s seductress, Belinda Kite. Chintana soon decides to attend a Halloween party, where she finds herself helping to watch over five orphans as they are sat before a large and hulking storyteller. This man, clad all in black, sits behind a six foot box adorned with five clasps and T50YS embossed upon the surface as he begins his story. “I am a bad man" he tells the children, "with a very black heart” and thus Chintana listens, almost helplessly, as this dark stranger relates a tale of epic travel, sudden murder, blackest hearts and a search for a weapon. It is a tale which is quickly cut short at the climax, only for the novel to climax in a whirlwind of cuts and blood. The text itself is interestingly, and unconventionally designed. There are five separate, although not entirely distinct, narrative voices, which weave together to construct the narrative; mixing and mingling, they finish each other's sentences and metaphors, in an attempt to recreate a corroborating and collaborative oral tale. 

I don’t want to spoil too much of the novella for those who have yet to pick it up, so will leave that rather enigmatic synopsis there and you’ll just have to trust me that it’s a wonderful read. Sorry, in advance, for the nightmares.

Like the great literary and Gothic detectives that we are, the reading group instantly identified a wealth of Gothic tropes that stood out within the text. For such a short novella – only one half, roughly, of its 289 pages actually contain any text – Danielewski manages to tick a lot of Gothic boxes. To begin, there is the Byronic wandering figure of the storyteller himself. Unknown and dark, he arrives like a narrator that has slipped somehow free of Melmoth and wound his way into the text, still desperate to nestle a tale at all costs. This figure also introduces the idea of the supernatural, and more specifically the idea of the ghost as, after the [anti-]climactic end of his tale the actual expected storyteller arrives out of breath and late while our dark ghostly storyteller mysteriously disappears! 

Within this spirit’s story, too, we come across the main vengeance narrative, as he describes his desire for a weapon to avenge himself upon someone. The cost of finding this weapon, though, is that the reason for his need for it in the first place, the very memory of the insult that has inspired his quest, is sliced from his body. Danielewski ticks the frame narrative and found manuscript boxes, stating in the introduction that he has done ‘nothing more than lend together these gathered and rerelated bits so as to present here a pretty peculiar and perhaps altogether alternate history of one October evening in East Texas’.

While, yes, the novel establishes itself as Gothic in this manner, and these are just a few examples among many, we do have to ask ourselves ‘why’? What does it do with the genre, if anything? Which brings me nicely to the metafictional aspects. The book is undeniably playing up it’s status as an artefact: For the most part we are presented with text on only one half of the book, the other merely remaining blank or occasionally containing an image composed of stitching; the page layout is played with to create a unique and non-linear line-reading experience as the convention of starting a new line for a new speaker is extensively abused; and the original, 2005 1000-copies-only run of the text was presented in a small box with five clasps, to reflect the sword box that the sword teller brings with him.

(N.B If anyone has a spare £200 knocking about and fancy’s making a poor academic potentially pass out from too much exposure to awesome, do feel free to 
send one of these boxed copies to Sheffield Gothic) 

All of these techniques serve to foreground the status of the novel as an artefact, as a creation, a novel and subsequently heighten an awareness of textual tropes for the reader, in our case, highlighting the Gothic elements. An argument could be made that this kind of clear signposting is emblematic of the exhaustion of literature (just emphasising the Gothic for Gothic's sake), but I would argue instead that, no, it rather it ties nicely into our theme this semester of performance- As the intro says, ‘the history of a ghost is a ghost story unto itself’ and (big breath in) the story of the fifty year sword is the story of the telling of the story of the fifty year sword.  It is a performance of a Gothic tale, that told by the storyteller, and how such a Gothic story could pass beyond the narrative and affect reality. 

What I’m driving towards here is that the metafictional elements of the text serve to emphasise the purpose of telling a ghost story, the pseudo-didactic nature of the telling. After all, what is the point of the ghost story? To scare? To warn? Both are achieved here. The Fifty Year Sword suggests that the telling of a Gothic story is a Gothic performance in and of itself, that the genre leaches out of the text via our own internal (or external) recreation of the events as we read. The novel flaunts its status as a novel with an author in order to make us aware of the Gothic, to foreground the tropes, that we may question them and their relevance/pervasion of our everyday lives.

"I am The Storyteller! today's lesson-
Further, the text asks what we can learn from these Gothic texts littered with dark themes, dark hearts and bad men- these, as Chintana rightfully asserts- are not the tales that children should be told, and they do not appear to be designed to assuage us as adults. They are not cheery, not filled with lightness, but with the dark, yet we enjoy them and return to them over and over. Danielewski emphasises this question here, asking us why we read such tales and posits a didactic, or allegorical, message to be taken (Poe spins in his grave at these words); Chintana realises that vengeance through blood, the implicit act she wishes to take out on Belinda Kite, ultimately will not heal the darkness in her heart, and will leave her, much as the storyteller reveals himself to be, as only a wandering, listless bad person with an incurable, and damningly black heart.

Overall, we found the text a wonderful read, a delightful Gothic artefact and well worth picking up and, while I've mostly focussed on the text here, there is a rather wonderful dramatic reading of the text online, which watched the first video off to begin the session. Find the first video by clicking here and perhaps read along too. At Midnight. In the Dark. If you dare.

Danny Southward is a person who read books and writes about the reading of books that read back. We are only allowed to keep him because we promised we would walk him twice a day and feed him metafictional texts, and pet him and love him. Also he's a PhD researcher at Sheffield university.

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