I’ve decided to revisit some of the books that formed who I was as a writer. Books I read in that still larval state, when I was ingesting everything and having it leave a visible smudge inside of me. Shardik was one of those books- I haven’t read it in over 20 years now, but it left a huge imprint on my writing, both in terms of style and subject. Other books would be things like Moorcock’s Eternal Champion series, The World of Dark Crystal, The Hermetic Museum: Alchemy & Mysticism, Sandman comics, You Shall Know Our Velocity, The House of Incest, Camus, Jean Cocteau, Gormenghast, Man, Myth & Magic, lots of Kafka, Cat’s Cradle, Into the Forest, House of Leaves…the list goes on and on. I was a very voracious reader as a teenager, and I read a lot of strange and varied things. Not just content to genre, not just content for literature, I read poetry and plays and anything I could get my hands on.
One thing I do miss about being that age was the desire to read anything, at all times, no matter what. The only thing that repelled me would have been bad writing. And there was a lot of that. Some books I wouldn’t even finish the first chapter, I would just return it to the place I snagged it. If it was used, I’d trade it in. If it was new, I made sure I kept the receipt. If it was from the library, I would return it. I needed prose that sparkled, words that sang.
Anyway, back to Shardik. So, it’s been a long time since I’ve read it, and I’d forgotten most of the beginning. One fantastic thing was how the start of the novel mirrored Watership Down, in that it started with a detailed description of flora and fauna, of nature wild and beautiful. And just when it lulls you into that same feeling, that comfort, that home, everything catches fire. That world, that single place in time, is burning to the ground.
It’s almost as if Richard Adams was saying to readers, this is not Watership Down, in any way shape or form. He then has a giant bear try to fight the flames, wrestling with it, a graphic battle of elements. And then this beautiful image of a bear moving, his whole coat on fire, back away from the flames, towards the river.
I just wanted to call out this beginning because it does so many things. It completely destroys expectations, and constantly does it at every turn. It is full of haunting imagery, a savagery of the environment. It is both symbolic, yet to read metaphors into the images is to sap it of power. You can’t say this represents that, the images have to rise up on their own, and speak to you, in a haunting, personal way.