Category: thriller

Happy Birthday…From me

Every year my birthday rolls around and I do my level best to ignore it, dismissing its significance.  This drives my wife crazy (that awful epithet “fun-killer” fired at me like a curare-tipped dart) but, on the other hand, it definitely simplifies gift-buying.

“Anything you want?”

“No.”

“Nothing?”

Firmly:  “Nothing.

And so forth.  But this year, okay, I have to admit, there’s a lot to be thankful for.  We had a health scare in our family recently and that really put things in perspective.  My daily mantra of “health, happiness and wisdom” assumed new relevance…and poignancy.  Fortunately, it turned out to be a false alarm and we all breathed a huge sigh of relief.  But we had a renewed appreciation for the frailties of the flesh and the bonds of family.

Then there are the two books I’ve released this year—yeah, sure, the e-books had been bouncing about for awhile, but to walk into a bookstore and see my work sitting there, waiting for some curious reader to happen along…well.  Sends a shiver through me just thinking about it.

Yeah, it’s official.  We’ve cleared the proof and Of the Night is good to go.  For sale as of…NOW.  You’ll find pricing and shipping info in my Bookstore.  Click on the book cover (above) and ogle the artwork, browse the jacket copy.  If you order your copy from me, I’ll be happy to sign it.  Otherwise, you can get it through your local bookstore, from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, etc.

I love this book–it’s a fitting companion piece to So Dark the Night.  Scary, darkly humorous, a short novel you’ll zip through in one or two sittings.

To accompany the release of Of the Night, providing a kind of fanfare, is a CD worth of new  instrumental/ambient music I’d added to my Audio page.  I call this selection of musical oddities Language With No Vocabulary and I’m making it available to you free—play it, download it to your heart’s content.

Here’s a sample cut, a luvly little number I call:

Cidades Fantasmas (Ghost Cities)

(Photo by Jason Minshull)

“So Dark the Night” (Various)

Where to begin?

Let’s start with the fact that orders for So Dark the Night are rolling in.  The book continues to sell on Amazon and in a variety of formats.  Friends and people who’ve followed my work for a long time have been clamoring for their copies and I have done my best to oblige as quickly as possible.  On Friday, Sherron and I made a quick trip in to Saskatoon and hit some of the major bookstores.  Now readers in my favorite city will be able to buy So Dark from McNally-Robinson, Indigo Books, Turning the Tide and Stu Cousins’ fabo music emporium, “The Vinyl Diner” (on Broadway Avenue; tell him I said “hello”).  Even donated one copy of the Saskatoon Public Library.  Why not?

Jim, the manager at Indigo, provided me with my most gratifying reaction of the day.  I introduced myself and I could tell he was hesitant about taking on any new stock but as soon as he got a look at the cover, he grabbed the copies I’d brought in with me.  Thanks, Jim.

I’ve been plugging the book wherever possible but, of course, one walks a fine line when doing any promo; I don’t wanna come across as a “shill” but, at the same time, I’ve got a wonderful book that should make everybody’s summer reading list so I want to do what is necessary to spread the word.

I’m preparing for the reading and book launch we’re having here in town on Thursday, trying to decide which excerpts to read, rehearsing, etc.  I like to put on a good show…especially when I have my pal Laird Brittin “opening” for me, playing a couple of original tunes, including two we wrote together.  It’s going to be a fun evening so if you’re in the area, swing on by.

Last night Sherron and I searched out locations around town and shot footage for a book trailer we’ll be cutting together this week.  Plan on releasing it on YouTube and I’ll be sure to let you know when it’s up and running.

My thanks to the people who’ve already bought and read So Dark the Night, dropping me notes filled with kind words and praise.  Folks, you’re the reason I keep putting pen to paper.  It sure as hell ain’t the money or any desire for fame, I’ll tell you that.

To you, this author dedicates his work…and his life.

Reading and Book Launch

“So Dark the Night” is here…and ready for ordering

All right, readers, it’s official.

So Dark the Night is now available and ready to be added to your bookshelves.  Maybe you’ll take Stefan Dziemianowicz’s advice and slot me in between Jorge Luis Borges and William S. Burroughs.  I think that would make a very nice fit, frankly.

There are a number of ordering options open to you.  You can purchase my novel through Amazon.com and a number of affiliates there or you can pick up the e-book OR you can buy the Kindle version.  However, if you’d like signed, personally inscribed copies, I’m afraid zipping your orders my way is the only way to manage it.  If that’s your choice, click on this link and it will take you to my bookstore where you’ll find So Dark the Night and several of my other titles (though most of them are available in very limited quantities).

You’ll find all the necessary info there, including shipping rates.

What can I tell you, folks?

If you’re looking for a fast-paced, exciting read, a thriller in every sense of the word, So Dark the Night is for you.

Imagine a combination of “The X Files”, H.P. Lovecraft and Raymond Chandler and you’ll get at least some idea of what I’m talking about.  It’s the perfect “summer reading” adventure, featuring the most likable and endearing tandem of sleuths since Holmes and Watson.  Plus the book will scare the living crap out of you.

What more could you ask for?

So…check out So Dark the Night, buy it, request it from your local bookstore (tell them it’s distributed by Ingram and, likely, Baker and Taylor) or your public library.  Spread the word, tell your friends, Facebook about it, text each other your favorite quotes…or just kick back and indulge yourself with a powerful, literate offering, “a spook show that delivers everything it promises”.

And, needless to say, drop me a line here or at blackdogpress@yahoo.com with your thoughts and impressions.

I guess you can tell:  I…am…pumped.  Who wouldn’t be?  This book cost me 3+ years of my life and now that I’ve got it in my hands, I can honestly tell you it was worth every moment I devoted to it.

But don’t take my word for it:  pick up a copy and see for yourself.   Or, if you like, here’s an excerpt you can browse, a sneak peak at the best supernatural thriller since Linda Blair puked pea soup all over Max von Sydow:  

So Dark-excerpt

“Bedevilled”–A scary new short story to start your summer!!!

A couple of things to cover this time around:

The proof copy of So Dark the Night arrived and we’ll get pictures up soon.  It’s a beautiful book—the folks at Lightning Source have done a brilliant job and we couldn’t be happier with the finished volume.  Unfortunately, there were a few minor glitches:  for one thing, we forgot to add the cover price (yeesh!  what dopes!) and there were a couple of formatting mistakes inside that needed tweaking.  So we sent in a revised set of cover and text files and that should be it.

In the meantime, the proof sits on my desk, just as pretty as you please.  At least five or six times a day I walk over, pick it up and ogle it, turning it over and over in my hands.

So…unless there are any unforeseen problems, we should be going into production in the next ten days and I’ll begin taking orders for So Dark the Night at that time.  Or you can buy my book through Lightning Source (and eventually Amazon and wherever else I can get it)

Watch this space.

For those of you who are currently seeking some fun reading, I’ve decided to post my newest short story, a work of suspense called “Bedevilled”.

This one has two main sources of inspiration:

The first was Roman Polanski’s “The Tenant” (terrific creepy film and the perfect evocation of Roland Topor’s short novel) and the second…well.  We’ve all seen the stories on the news, an obscene act of violence perpetrated by someone who is clearly delusional.  Our initial, knee jerk response to gruesome incidents like the killing on the Greyhound bus is to wash our hands of the assailant, throw away the key, put him out of his misery, etc. etc.  But, of course, as a writer my curiosity is piqued when I try to divine the thinking of such an individual:  what in God’s name would cause them to act out in such an extreme and horrific manner?

And so I wrote “Bedevilled”.

I have to say, now that the novel’s done and at the printer, I find I have some extra time to do things like journaling and writing short stories and I’m enjoying myself immensely.  “Bedevilled” challenged me and I think the end result is a solid short story.  I’ve played around with the formatting on this one, tried to make it more readable and eye-friendly (in PDF form).  Let me know what you think, dear Readers, especially you folks using devices like the iPad, Kindle, etc.  Do you like the fatter margins, find the spacing agreeable?

Let’s kick off the summer reading season with a tale of psychological suspense, shall we?

Click on the link below and…enjoy!

Bedevilled

The Waiting Game

The latest communication from Lightning Source indicates the proof of my novel So Dark the Night will be printed tomorrow (Tuesday, April 20th) and, if there are no obvious glitches, sent off to me a short time afterward.

(Sound FX:  Fingers drumming anxiously on desk top.)

In the meantime, I’ve decided to post more of my strange, ambient music—it’s on my “Audio” page, just scroll down past the spoken word stuff and you’ll get there.  Really love these pieces, which I’m calling (collectively) Intervals.   There’s been a big progression since my first offering and one tune from this latest batch in particular stands out for me:  can you guess which it is?

Busy days around here:  Sam, Liam and a number of their friends (shout out to Sean, Dylan, Jess and the rest of the crew) are deeply involved in a short film project that keeps getting bigger and bigger.  I applaud their ambition.  Sherron has her own film on the go, an abstract bit of business for which I’ll be supplying music.  But the deadline for the local, library-sponsored film short film competition is looming, so I hope their post-production efforts go well or they’re gonna be scrambling.

Meanwhile, I’m fretting over the impending arrival of the proof, beating my brains out trying to find ways to better promote and distribute my independently produced books.  I welcome your input and advice on both these points.

Let me know what you think of Intervals too.  And keep watching these pages for more info on the release of So Dark the Night, a supernatural thriller with a heart of gold.  Your summer reading is on its way.  And I promise, you won’t be disappointed.

Coming Soon…

Another long interval between posts and, again, all I can do is mutter, “sorry, busy” and then get on to the matter at hand.

First of all, the cover and text files of my novel So Dark the Night have been uploaded to Lightning Source and we have been told to expect a bound proof of the book in the next week or so.

The process of prepping the book, getting the files formatted properly, meeting Lightning Source’s very complicated and detailed specifications, took some doing.  Honestly, the folks at Lightning Source are great, helpful and quick to respond to questions.  Full marks to them for that.  But their process is so amazingly convoluted it would scare the living bejesus out of anyone with little or no tech savvy.  Fortunately, my wife Sherron is fearless and possesses endless reservoirs of patience.  She needed every last drop.  She worked for hours on consecutive nights, trying to make sense out of the printed guide supplied by Lightning Source and then, God help her, doing her best to master Adobe Pro 9, which we needed to complete the process.  She was a trooper, I tell you, plowing her way through while her husband (that’s me) had to take frequent “time outs” to maintain his composure and rein in his well-known impatience and incendiary temper.

And let me also single out our cover designer/graphic artist Chris Kent for praise, salute him for assistance and tolerance above and beyond the call of duty.  When Sherron finally had to throw up her hands, he graciously agreed to meet with her and help her get those &$#@ing files sorted out.  Chris, you da man!

So now it’s wait for the proof and see if there are any glitches that need correcting.  This is computers we’re talking about, after all, semi-sentient creatures showing the first stirrings of consciousness.  God knows what that proof will look like.  Lightning Source has a promotional offer on right now–for the next month they’re waiving their set-up fee of $75.  So I guess I should consider this, my initial shot, a freebie.  Nothing to lose, right?

But if all goes well, we’ll get the proof, it’ll look fantastic and production can begin immediately.  I’ll put in an order for 100 books and we’ll arrange a launch, peddle the books to Regina, Saskatoon, Edmonton.  Send fliers to the indie bookstores still out there (damn few of them) and prevail on friends in far-flung places like Vancouver, Toronto and Los Angeles to flog the sample copies I send them.

What else can I do?  Newspapers have slashed their book review pages–and, even so, indie/self-published work constantly had a hard time getting any kind of acceptance from the mainstream media.  No one in Canada reviewed Righteous Blood, despite the review copies publisher Peter Crowther supplied at my insistence (sorry, Peter!).  Should I try my luck with their on-line counterparts?  BookNinja and Bookslut, places like that?  What think you, Readers?  Where do you go to get your reviews, information on interesting new releases?  Let me know…

I’ve checked into shipping and, hoo boy, have prices ever skyrocketed in the past few years.  Mailing out copies of So Dark the Night is going to be a pretty costly proposition.  Tentatively, here are the numbers we’re looking at:

So Dark the Night—$17.95 per copy (U.S. & Canada); £13 (U.K.); €14.75 Euros (Europe)

E-Book:  $9.95 (U.S. & Canada); £6.50 (U.K.); €7.50 Euros (Europe)

Shipping:

$12.00 (Canada)

$8.00 Surface (USA)  $9.50 Airmail (USA)

$16.50 (Air)  Overseas

I’ll be making half the book available as a free PDF and I’ll also be recording the entire book, which you’ll be able to hear (free) as an MP3 download or podcast.

And there you have it; you’re now completely up to date.

Besides getting the book ready, I’ve had to register Black Dog Press as a business ($110.00) and check on my PST and GST status (thankfully, neither applies to a micro press like mine).  To keep myself sane, I’ve been creating more music, which I hope to post in the next few weeks.  For those of you who liked my “Soundtrack For A Science Fiction Movie Never Made” (thanks for the kind words, by the way).  Anyone who hasn’t popped over to my Audio page for a whole buncha free stuff to listen to and download should check it out.

I’ll drop a line or two when the proof arrives, maybe even include a few pictures.  We’re on pins and needles around here.  Nervous as expectant parents.  Counting the hours and hoping for the very, very best…

A Few Quick Notes…

So Dark coverFirst, let me give a quick plug to a new site devoted to writers and writing.  I received a note from one of the administrators and after making sure they were legit and not just a money grab directed at desperate, wannabe writers, I promised them I’d drop a word in my next post.

Lit Drift looks smart and hip and whoever designed their site did a smashing job; appearance-wise it’s one of the best author-oriented venues I’ve come across on the web.  Their only revenue is derived from advertising and they don’t promote any specific print-on-demand outfit or offer editorial services at ridiculously inflated prices.  I say pop over and see what they’re up to; I like the way they operate.  And if you need further convincing, they give away free books every Friday and darn good ones at that.

Another thing I want to bring up is the possibility that I may offer both my novels, So Dark the Night and Of the Night through Lulu.com.  My pal Ian Sales (watch for him, he’s gonna be a superstar on the Brit sci fi scene) has worked with them and approves of their bare bones approach to publishing.  The author presents his/her manuscript and they print copies as each new order is received.  No overhead, no piles of books moldering in a warehouse somewhere.  Traditional publishers take note.

There’s a bit of a process that goes along with this decision, including revising the manuscripts and making sure they’re basically typeset and ready for printing, clearing up a few typos folks have pointed out to me, polishing them to an even brighter sheen.   I’ll also have to secure permissions from the artists who provided me with such wonderful covers and prepare some jacket copy and…

You get the idea.

of-night-final2Drop me a line and let me know your thoughts–how many of you would be interested in securing copies of the two books?  So Dark the Night, because it clocks in at around 400 pages, will likely retail around $18-20 and Of the Night in the $14-16 range.  That’s an estimation but likely pretty close to how it will end up.

And, finally, I wanted to tell you how much I’ve been enjoying mucking about with Garageband, the music program that came with my iMac.  Folks, I have been making some lovely music, a series of atmospheric pieces, instrumentals ranging from cool ambient tones to rockin’ riffs.  I’ve recorded about seven or eight minutes so far, often so immersed in a piece that an entire afternoon will be gobbled up and I won’t realize how much time has elapsed until I hear the boys downstairs, home from school.

I’ll be adding the best bits to the blog later on–it’s a thrill to have another mode of expression open to me.

Enough for now.  More promo work to do today (the burden of an indie artist) and then, hopefully, a couple of hours of Garageband later on.  Getting lots of hits on the stories I recorded and posted last week so I guess folks are enjoying them.  There will be more to come soon.  Just keep tuning in…

page-1

Four New Short Stories! And ya read ’em here first…

imagesSometimes my Muse is merciful.

An idea will occur to me and all at once I’ll see the story with such perfect clarity that writing it down is a mere formality, almost a matter of taking dictation.  “Daughter” was like that.  “Also Starring”. “RSVP”.  A couple of others.  Not many.  It doesn’t happen nearly often enough for my liking but when it does, I’m almost sickeningly grateful.  Practically grovelling.

Because usually it’s the opposite.  A tale like “In Dreams. Awake” for instance, was a monster.  You can read it by clicking on the Stories tab (above) and if you do, it’s almost certain you’ll ask yourself:  “What’s he going on about?”  The story in question is not some post-modernist mind-bender, the kind of dense, inscrutable, erudite text beloved by college professors and potheads;  nope, it’s a relatively straightforward narrative, with few bells and whistles.  My problem was that I hated the tone of the story, the narrator seemed so cold and remote. I did draft after draft of that sonofabitch, trying to make the protagonist more sympathetic and likable.  But the story resisted me, my Muse digging in her heels, insisting I put aside my misgivings and follow orders.  Finally, I had to give in and the story is what it is.  A fine tale but I have a hard time even looking at it because that rotten bastard was so difficult, each word, each syllable a struggle.

But that was nothing compared to what happened this summer.

I’ve told you a little about it.  I spotted the Esquire fiction contest–they provide the titles, participants write the stories–and, as a writing exercise, I wrote on each of the themes they posted.  And I described my astonishment when the stories turned out to be linked, sharing the same central character.   Believe me when I assure you that I had no intention of writing four stories based around this Conrad Dahl fella.

And I certainly had no idea this quartet would take up my entire summer.  That wasn’t the plan.  I was supposed to be working on revisions of my next novel.  But something happened on the way to that place, my Muse making it clear that these stories were to be given top priority and finished at all costs.

They cost me a lot all right.

So Dark coverNone of them was easy.  Not one.  And writing these pieces seemed to awaken something in me–or perhaps unleash it is a better word.  The process of writing left me emotionally, physically and spiritually exhausted, like nothing I’ve experienced since completing my novel So Dark the Night.

I’ve talked about emotional truths re:  my radio play “The First Room”.  All the facts are made up but the mood, the feeling of the piece is accurate.

I think that’s what happened here.  Conrad Dahl is not me.  Not in any way, shape or form.  None of the events depicted in the stories involving the Dahl character have any relation to real life incidents and my family is/was nothing like this.  But…the feeling…the atmosphere…

Something put the whammy into me.

And now I’m passing it on to you.  How kind of me, hmm?

I think you’ll quickly discover what I’m talking about.

The four stories below are decidedly mainstream, no vestiges of genre fiction…yet there are aspects here that are as horrifying and intense as anything springing from the pens of the thriller writers who love to keep us all on edge.  Sometimes you might be tempted to avert your eyes, cluck your tongue in disapproval.  Don’t.

Read on.  Explore and discover this character as he grows and develops, follow him from the ages of 9-20 and see how the closing pages of the last story are almost inevitable, directly attributable to the events that have preceded it.

I present the tales in chronological order for those who prefer the linear approach but, really, they can be read independently of each other and should be viewed as stand alone stories.

Feel free to drop a comment below once you’ve read them and had a chance to think about Conrad and his decidedly dysfunctional family.

I welcome your feedback and thoughtful responses…

Least

Future

Scorned

Weight

Burning Moonlight (Selected Readings)

twilightjpeg.jpgTwilight

by William Gay
(Anchor Canada; PB; $22.00)

 

“…he climbed up a chimney to a corridor above the stream and entered into a tall and bellshaped cavern. Here the walls with their softlooking convolutions, slavered over as they were with wet and bloodred mud, had an organic look to them, like the innards of some great beast. Here in the bowels of the mountain Ballard turned his light on ledges or pallets of stone where dead people lay like saints..”

Cormac McCarthy; Child of God

The comparisons are inevitable.

Two southern writers, both of whom employ lyrical, macabre prose to delineate the wicked hearts of people inhabiting places far from the lights of the city, an outer darkness where ordinary rules don’t apply.

Rather than shy away from any association with his celebrated colleague, Mr. Gay acknowledges and embraces it, to the extent that he quotes from McCarthy’s Suttree—“The rest indeed is silence”—to begin the second half of Twilight.

The similarities are there but Gay’s worldview is nowhere near as dense, unrelenting and hopeless as McCarthy’s. McCarthy is a poet, his method studied, deliberate, his word choices rich and sinuous but always scrupulously measured and metered; Gay practically gushes:

The wagon came out of the sun with its attendant din of iron rims turning on flinty shale, its worn silvergray fired orange by the malefic light flaring behind it, the driver disdaining the road for the shortcut down the steep incline, erect now and sawing the lines, riding the brake onehanded until the wheels locked and skidded, then releasing it so that wagon and team and man moved in a constantly varying cacophony of shrieks and rattles and creaks and underlying it all the perpetual skirling of steel on stone.”

-opening sentence of Twilight (italics in the original)

Gay’s Granville Sutter finds his closest fictional relative in McCarthy’s oeuvre in Lester Ballard, from the aforementioned Child of God. Both kill without remorse and don’t shy away from the bloody part of the business. There is much to fear from a man who is capable of terrible deeds, acting without flinching, proceeding without so much as a backward glance. Such a man is to be avoided and you certainly wouldn’t want one as an enemy…

Corrie and Kenneth Tyler finds themselves in Sutter’s murderous sights owing to a combination of bad judgement, a desire for vengeance and, it must be said, a certain amount of plain, old fashioned greed. They stumble across the grisly postmortem shenanigans of the town’s resident undertaker, Fenton Breece. Breece likes to ah, tamper with the cadavers he has access to in his professional capacity. Corrie is determined to make the mortician pay for interfering with her father’s body and inflicting all manner of macabre indignities on his helpless clients.

The first twenty or thirty pages of Twilight make for tough sledding as the evil that Breece is enacting is revealed to the reader. Corrie convinces her reluctant brother to help her extort money from Breece and it’s at that point that Sutter is called in, charged with the job of putting an end to the blackmail.

The second section of the book is a protracted chase scene. There’s too much foreshadowing of Sutter’s eventual fate and I never quite figured out his odd fixation with Kenneth Tyler. The roots of the connection remain undisclosed and, to my mind, quite unfathomable.

Twilight is a dark book, not only in terms of the disturbing imagery but also in its depiction of the backwoods people, the bleak secrets they harbour, the corruption that engenders. They are a hard and mean bunch, seasoned by grim fortune, embittered rather than ennobled by suffering and privation. Young Kenneth Tyler has no resources to fall back on when he runs afoul of Sutter, no assistance or relief forthcoming from the hostile and suspicious community he was born and raised into.

The settings are well-elaborated, the world Gay paints vivid and multi-layered. Here’s Tyler in the wilderness, finding himself shadowed bygayjpeg.jpg wild dogs. He makes camp and cooks a rabbit he has killed:

He ate and tossed the bones beyond the circle of firelight where they were contested with snarls and he could see their green eyes moving about like paired fireflies. When the meat was gone and he’d lain down to sleep with his rifle for bunkmate he could see a circle of their eyes drawn about the fire and in his mind he could see them stretched out, chins on paws, warily studying the fire and this strange god they’d adopted. As if they’d wearied of this wild life of freedom and hoped he could give them back what they’d lost of civilization.”

Mr. Gay tells a tall tale but at least he tells it well. The territory is remote, barren, depopulated, pocked with sinkholes, dotted with abandoned factory towns, overgrown graveyards, dissolving machinery. Ghosts of the past loom up everywhere.

Few acquit themselves well in Twilight and there’s no deliverance here, redemption in this case amounting to survival and little more. It’s a primal, ferocious novel, a thriller and then some.

It makes no apologies for itself, eschews pretension and therefore earns our respect.

Note: At no point during the course of this critique did its author once use the term “Southern Gothic”

 

 

coverjpeg.jpgMarco Polo: From Venice to Xanadu

by Laurence Bergreen
(Knopf Canada; HC: $36.95)

Marco Polo, the dauntless explorer. World traveler and raconteur. Shameless liar and self-promoter. Confidante of Kublai Khan. “Il Milione” and his bottomless store of fanciful tales. Respected merchant of Venice. Prisoner of war…

Held under house arrest by the Genoese after a calamitous naval battle, Marco, in his mid-forties but already packing the experiences of ten lifetimes under his belt, entertains his captors and fellow prisoners with stories of his adventures in the realm of the Mongols. Another prisoner, Rustichello, proposes they collaborate on a written account of his rambles and the two of them set to work. Rustichello is more partial to Arthurian romances, it’s true, but this Polo fellow tells a fine tale and, besides, it’s something to do to while away the long hours of captivity. Sometimes their imaginations get the best of them; Rustichello, in particular, is never one to let mere facts ruin a good story.

The embellishments they concoct diminish a great work, testifying against its veracity as an historical document. Sometimes, not content to be a mere observer, Marco puts himself front and center, undeservedly claiming credit, exaggerating his importance. Before we get too far into his Travels, his father and uncle (arguably greater explorers than their kinsman), disappear from its pages, reappearing only sporadically. Brazen egotism, a reluctance to share the spotlight…or an editorial decision, axing them to streamline the plot?

Mr. Bergreen’s conversant and agreeable biography of the Venetian explorer makes for a good introduction to the man and the era he lived in. I had no idea there were so many different versions of Travels extant, miscopied and incomplete, fragmentary or expurgated, some renditions twice as long as the others. There is no definitive text. Which is closest to the original? Historians finding it difficult resisting the temptation to fill in the gaps with speculation, extrapolations. These might amount to learned guesses…or, on the flip side, unproveable notions (Marco may have become addicted to opium during a lengthy sojourn in Afghanistan). Without hard evidence they contribute little to the historical record, suppositions based on the slenderest evidence, a tidbit of malign gossip, deserving of a footnote, nothing more.

Mr. Bergreen does an admirable job of setting the scene for us—his descriptions of 13th century Venice are convincing. He recreates the Polos’ arduous expeditions with clarity and we get a keen appreciation for the ordeals they endured throughout their three year trek to the court of Kublai Khan.

Mr. Bergreen’s biography makes it clear that young Marco experiences quite an extraordinary transformation in the course of his journey through the Near East and Asia. When he first sets out he is full of loathing for the disparate cultures he encounters, their perverse sexual practices and savage, pagan beliefs. But gradually his haughty Catholic sensibilities are won over by the courage and toughness of the Mongol people. Whereas he has been led to believe they are a savage and uncivilized race, he recognizes a different reality and has a complete change of heart. He becomes their biggest fan.

khanjpeg.jpgWhen they finally reach the great Khan’s capital, the Polos make a good impression on their host—to the extent that he enlists them as part of his massive civil service.

The Great Lord’s court is a melting pot of cultures and he is not averse to using intelligent and trustworthy agents of all nationalities to fulfill his schemes and designs. Marco’s admiration for the Khan is profound: here is a canny ruler who displays ruthlessness and guile, a shrewd intelligence and, as a result, has achieved the highest seat in the world. Surely he must be the greatest of all men, wise and just in his way.

But Marco’s admiration for the aging Khan is severely tested by the evidence he sees of the ferocity of the Khan’s reprisals. Troops loyal to the sovereign lay waste to great swathes of land, killing or uprooting many people. Any uprisings or displays of disloyalty are severely punished…as Marco discovers when his duties take him through present-day Burma and Vietnam. The Mongols wage total war; frequently none are spared.

After seventeen years of devoted service to the Khan, the Polos approach their master and patron, expressing a desire to return to their homeland. He is not immediately receptive. There have been embarrassing military setbacks in Japan and, most recently, Java. The Mongols’ air of invincibility has been shattered. The Khan has lost face and feels that the foreigners in his court enhance his prestige.

But a pretext presents itself and the Khan reluctantly allows them to accompany a princess to the lands of an important ally. From there, they will have royal fiat to go where they wish within his empire.

They make it back to Venice but find that during their extended absence, relatives have presumed them dead and divvied up their possessions. They manage to settle their affairs and, thanks to the riches they’ve brought with them from the East, are able to establish themselves among the city’s gentry.

But Marco finds the sedentary life of a merchant rather boring after sharing a ger (tent) with the fierce and noble Mongols, the boldest and finest people on earth. He’s middle-aged when he’s captured after the Battle of Curzola and incarcerated at the Palazzo di San Giorgio with Rustichella.

After his release he returns to Venice, where he does well for himself. Despite his affluence and excellent circumstances, Marco earns a reputation for being difficult, litigious. He marries and sires three daughters but one gets the impression that for Marco, like Ulysses in the Tennyson poem, his friends and family “know him not”. His time in the East changed him irrevocably, set him apart from his fellow men. He is a stranger to them; he has seen things with his own eyes they cannot conceive of.

At the end he is bedridden, wasting away, a sad fate for such a vigorous and ambitious man. He dies during his 70th year, at home, likely the last place his restless soul wished to be.

coleridgejpeg.jpgHis Travels grew in fame and stature, his name acquiring the trappings of legend. Columbus read and re-read his copy of the world’s most famous travelogue. Coleridge recognized the mythic power of the stories…

After all, that’s what drew so many people to his Genoese prison: to hear wild and thrilling and bawdy yarns of exotic, far-off lands; the flora and fauna, the untamed wilderness, but, mostly, to learn of the people who lived there, their bizarre, heathen practices:

One Mongol custom in particular astounded Marco: the marriage of dead children…When there are two men, the one who has a dead male child inquires for another man who may have had a female child suited to him, and she also may be dead before she is married; these two parents make a marriage of the two dead together. They give the dead girl to the dead boy for wife, and they have documents made about it in corroboration of the dowry and marriage’…”

The two families behaved “as if the bride and groom walked among them, erasing the boundary between life and death. Afterward, ‘the parents and kinsmen of the dead count themselves as kindred and keep up their relation…as if their dead children were alive’.”

Whether secondhand or first person, real or imagined, factual or fabricated, the Travels amounted to grand entertainment to people whose perspectives were narrow and blunted. After all, foreign excursions were perilous in those times, involving no small amount of danger. Conditions on sea and land were harsh, danger ever present, travelers constantly set upon by marauders. Most never ventured far from the safety of their home villages and cities. They made for an eager but skeptical audience, their imaginations fired by accounts of worlds they would never see, while their practical mindsets insisted none of it could be real.