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Legendary

[1]Legends are legion.  Mythology is full of heroes, places and objects that are extraordinary, magical and unique.

Objects alone could take us hours to list: swords, shields, spears, axes, hammers, bows, arrows, slings, crowns, cloaks, robes, rings, charms, games, mazes, fruits, drinks, rivers, springs, stones, bridges, boats, ships, tables, thrones, treasures, relics, drums, harps, horns, looms, lamps, baskets, cups, mirrors, bridges, gates…on and on.

History and folklore also have given us legendary figures: Johnny Appleseed, Billy the Kid, Nat Turner, Black Hawk, Tecumseh, Ip Man, Rob Roy, El Santo.  Some legends are possibly not real: King Arthur, William Tell, Molly Pitcher, John Henry.  Still others are obviously fictional yet so vivid that we may believe that they were based upon real people: Pecos Bill, Paul Bunyan, Chen Zhen, Juan Bobo, Zorro, The Scarlet Pimpernel.

Mythical places, too, grip our imaginations: Atlantis, Camelot, Avalon, El Dorado, Tír na nÓg, Álfheimr, Ryūgū-jō, Zerzura.  Other legendary places are so ingrained in our culture that we may almost forget they were born in works of fiction: Xanadu, Oz, Vanity Fair, Erewhon.  The word “utopia” itself was created in a work of fiction, Utopia by Sir Thomas Moore in 1516.

Legendary people, places and objects are terrific tools in storytelling, but what actually creates the sensation that stirs in us the feeling that what we’re reading about is legendary?  Legendary has to start somewhere, and often that is not with what a person, place or object actually does in a story but in what he, she or it has previously done.

When a character’s outsized reputation precedes him or her, for instance, the legend is already walking, just not yet arrived.  That factor is important.  The legendary effect depends on other characters in the story having prior knowledge of, or belief about, a legendary figure, as was the case with Heathcliff, Dracula, The Magus, or Kvothe.

At the same time, legendary figures have an aspect that is unreal.  Feats are ascribed to a legend which seem incredible or even impossible.  There is an aura around the legend that inspires or terrifies in advance.  Anticipating the legend’s arrival is key to this effect.  The legend’s appearance is delayed, sometimes long-delayed.  Indeed, in some cases it may be that the legend may never actually show up on the page, as with Godot or Big Brother.

Marisha Pessl’s sophomore novel Night Film (2013), concerns investigative journalist Scott McGrath, who is obsessed with a darkly legendary horror film director, Stanislav Cordova, who has not been seen in public for thirty years.  Little is known of the man except for the scant information he revealed in a brief Rolling Stone interview long ago.  His films were shot entirely at his remote estate in the Adirondack Mountains, The Peak.  Actors were eager to work with him, but afterward never spoke of the experience and usually left the business or dropped from sight.  A bizarre, obsessive and sinister fan culture has arisen around the man and his work, with its own dark internet containing vast speculation about Cordova and the existential meaning of his films.

Cordova’s films themselves are said to be disturbing in the extreme.  Dropped by his studio, Cordova’s films are now only available in rare and expensive bootleg copies, or at secretive “red-band” screenings arranged for aficionados in underground or abandoned places.  Viewing the films has resulted in mental breakdowns, fainting in sheer terror and inspired, in one case, a man to become a murderer.   There is no doubt that Cordova’s power is legendary.  As Scott McGrath says in the novel’s opening:

Everyone has a Cordova story, whether they like it or not.

Maybe your next-door neighbor found one of his old movies in a box in her attic and never entered a dark room alone again.  Or your boyfriend bragged he’d discovered a contraband copy of At Night All Birds Are Black on the Internet and after watching refused to speak of it, as if it were a horrific ordeal he’s barely survived.

Whatever your opinion of Cordova, however obsessed with his work or indifferent—he’s there to react against.  He’s a crevice, a black hole, an unspecified danger, a relentless outbreak of the unknown in our overexposed world.  He’s underground, looming unseen in the corners of the dark.  He’s down under the railway bridge in the river with all the missing evidence, and the answers that will never see the light of day.

He’s a myth, a monster, a mortal man.

And yet I can’t help but believe that when you need him the most, Cordova has a way of heading straight toward you, like a mysterious guest you notice across the room at a crowded party.  In the blink of an eye, he’s right beside you by the fruit punch, staring back at you when you turn and casually ask the time. 

My Cordova tale began for the second time on a rainy October night, when I was just another man running in circles, going nowhere as fast as I could.

The plot of Night Film ostensibly is about Scott McGrath’s investigation into death of Cordova’s alluring twenty-four-year old daughter, Ashley, which is questionably ruled a suicide.  A childhood piano prodigy who walked away from performance at age fourteen, after a piano recital at Carnegie Hall, McGrath finds that tracing her trail not only puts him in range of the considerable reach of the secretive Cordova, but also illuminates Ashley’s effect on McGrath’s investigative assistants, a coat-check girl named Nora Halliday who is in possession of Ashley’s distinctive red coat, and a drifter/drug dealer named Hopper who loved Ashley.

In reality, though, McGrath’s investigation is of himself; or, more precisely, why and what it is about Cordova that he cannot let go, even at cost of losing custody of his adored daughter, Sam.  McGrath comes to believe that Ashley’s death has an occult aspect, reinforced by his experience of true black bone magic, and a hallucinatory sojourn at The Peak.  In the end, however, the truth of Cordova—really, of Sam McGrath—is more earthbound, human and existential.  McGrath’s quest for Cordova finally brings him face to face with the director, but what is said between them is not reported because it doesn’t matter.  McGrath has answered his own questions.  He has been changed not by Cordova but by his own quest.

Places become legendary for similar reasons.  They are places in which extraordinary things have happened, of course.  They are places that, merely by the fact of being there, transform people for good or ill.  You cannot go to a legendary place and come back the same.  There is magic there, or terror.  A legendary place is a proving ground in which a character must experiences either ultimate goodness or ultimate evil.  It’s a place to go to, but mostly a place to go to inside to find out who you truly are.

Susan Hill’s terrifying ghost novel The Woman in Black (1983) introduces a man, Arthur Kipps, whose life ought to be happy.  He lives in his dream cottage with his wife and, on holidays, visits from his four step-children and a sprinkling of grandchildren.  One Christmas Eve, though, the children begin to tell ghost stories, outdoing each other with gristly details until the exercise becomes almost silly.  Arthur is then asked to contribute a ghost story of his own.  He demurs, and when prodded reacts angrily and leaves the house:

They had chided me with being a spoilsport, tried to encourage me to tell them the one ghost story I must surely, like any other man, have it in me to tell.  And they were right.  Yes, I had a story, a true story, a story of haunting and evil, fear and confusion, horror and tragedy.  But it was not a story to be told for casual entertainment, around the fireside upon Christmas Eve.

I had always known in my heart that the experience would never leave me, that it was now woven into my very fibers, an inextricable part of my past, but I had hoped never to have to recollect it, consciously, and in full, ever again.  Like an old wound, it gave off a fain twinge now and again, but less and less often, less and less painfully, as the years went on and my happiness, sanity and equilibrium were assured.  Of late, it had been like the outermost ripple on a pool, merely the faint memory of a memory. 

Now, tonight, it again filled my mind to the exclusion of all else.  I knew that I should have no rest from it, that I should lie awake in a chill of sweat, going over that time, those events, those places.  So it had been night after night for years.

We do not even know yet what “that time, those events, those places” may be, but beyond question they have had a profound and unhappy effect upon Arthur Kipps.  And that is the point.  It is not the place itself—in this case the windswept marshes of the town of Crythin Gifford, beyond the Nine Lives Causeway, impassable after the tide rises, to the house of law firm client Mrs. Alice Drablow of Eel Marsh House—but rather the effect of the place on a person that makes it legendary.

(Believe me, Eel Marsh House is not a place you would want to spend the night, even though I devoured the novel in one sitting, staying up with the lights on.  The stage play version which I saw in London literally made me leap from my seat screaming, twice.  There is a movie version starring Daniel Radcliffe, in case you are feeling brave.)

Legendary objects are especially potent story elements.  They have the power to grant wishes, confer wealth, transport, transform, torture, kill or grant immortality.  Again, the primary effect of such objects is not in the future but in the past.  Objects don’t become legendary; they are legendary already.   They have a prior history, and that is known to some either by direct experience or by whispered hearsay.

The magical aspect of legendary objects is important too.  Contrast a legendary object to a MacGuffin.  A MacGuffin is a plot device, a kind of letter of transit (as in Casablanca) that is sought because it is necessary for the story to move ahead.  A legendary object is different.  It changes not events but people because of its allure.  Whether or not it has true magical power is not the point.  The magic is mostly psychological.

In fact, it may be more accurate to call these legendary items objects of desire.  They may not even need to exist, or may be so elusive as to never be found, like the Maltese Falcon.  They are alive more in the mind of those they affect than in physical reality.

John Dunning’s mystery novel The Bookman’s Wake (1995) revolves around such an object, a special limited edition of Poe’s poem “The Raven”, produced by the tiny but prestigious Grayson Press of Northbend, Washington.  A rare copy, perhaps the only copy, is known to have been stolen by a young woman fugitive, Eleanor Rigby (like in the song) whom Denver ex-cop and rare book dealer Cliff Janeway is persuaded to track down in Seattle and deliver to her bail bondsman in Taos, New Mexico.

As a rare book dealer, Janeway is aware of Grayson Press and familiar with the passionate obsession of Grayson Press collectors.  However, he is not prepared for the effect that this particular volume has.  Late in the novel he holds the volume in his own hands, but it is not the book itself that changes him.  It’s the book’s effect, instead, upon the people connected to it, especially Eleanor Rigby, a beautiful, fragile and tragic young woman who turns out to be the daughter of an apprentice at Grayson Press and inheritor—or victim—of the Grayson secrets that Janeway uncovers.  But the effect has an impact on Janeway, too, as toward the end he realizes his role in Eleanor Rigby’s tragedy:

I hung around for a while: I didn’t know why.  Crustal was alone now but that wasn’t it.  She was shaken and vulnerable and I thought I could break her if I wanted to try again.  But I didn’t move except to step out from the hedge to the corner of the house.  In a while the kitchen light went out and the house dropped into a void.  Pictures began with color and sound and the case played out, whole and nearly finished, the way they say a drowning man sees his life at the end.  A chorus of voices rose out of the past—Richard, Archie, Crystal, Grayson—battling to be heard.  I couldn’t hear them all, only one broke through.  Eleanor the child, growing up as that room grew and the bookman worked in his solitude.  She read The Raven and read The Raven and read The Raven, and with each reading her knowledge grew and her wisdom deepened.  Her entire understanding of life came from that poem, but it was enough.  She heard the bump at the door and looked up from the table where she read The Raven by candlelight.  ‘Tis some visitor, she muttered, tapping at my chamber door…

The visitor was me.

Janeway discovers something we all should know: come in contact with a legendary object and it will change your destiny.  Like it or not, you come under its spell and become an actor in a drama the script of which you have not written.  It’s like killing a crow or crossing a witch.  You will cause harm, perhaps most of all to yourself.

Or–?  How would you play it?  Legendary people, places and objects are elements available to you no matter what your intention or type of story you are writing.  What you do with what is legendary is up to you, but if you do truck with such stuff, remember that it became legendary before you got hold of it; also, that it has changed people previously and will change your protagonist are surely as the sun will shine, rain will fall and graves await us all.

What is legendary in your WIP?  Who has been affected before, and how will your protagonist be changed by the encounter?

About Donald Maass [2]

Donald Maass is president of the Donald Maass Literary Agency [3]. He has written several highly acclaimed craft books for novelists including The Breakout Novelist [4], The Fire in Fiction [5], Writing the Breakout Novel [6]and The Career Novelist [7].