Silent Snow, Secret Snow

I read the short story “Silent Snow, Secret Snow” by Conrad Aiken when I was 13 years old. It is probably his best-known short story. I returned to it quite accidentally this past week though with thoughts of snow coming for this weekend and more than a slight identification with the story’s protagonist.

I see that the story is sometimes listed as psychological, fantasy or even as a horror story.

The boy in this story, 12-year-old Paul, is finding it hard and harder to focus on schoolwork. He is also feeling less connected to his family. Both those feelings were in me at 13.

He does more and more daydreaming and those daydreams are more and more about snow. One morning while still in bed he only hears silence from outside. It is the silence that happens when snow muffles sounds. But when he looks outside, there is no snow.

He sees secret snow that can surround you with a comforting silence and attachment from the world. His detachment is increasing. It’s hard to even get out of bed and get dressed.

I don’t think my parents had any sense of how I felt. Paul’s parents call in a doctor after telling the doctor about the secret snow, Paul runs to his bedroom and wants nothing to do eventually call a physician, who makes a house call to examine Paul. After revealing that he likes to think about snow, Paul runs to his bedroom and wants nothing to do with the doctor or his parents – or the world.

At 13, I don’t think I probably recognized any psychological symbolism in the story. Fantasy over reality and even isolation over social relationships didn’t seem to me to be wrong. They seemed reasonable responses to what was whirling around me that year.

I also didn’t fully recognize that Paul was slipping into depression or even sliding toward something that might be labeled schizophrenia at that time. The snow and the white noise of it become more powerful. “The hiss was now becoming a roar—the whole world was a vast moving screen of snow—but even now it said peace, it said remoteness, it said cold, it said sleep.”

“Silent Snow, Secret Snow” appeared in 1934. FDR was in his first term in office and the country was in the midst of the Great Depression, while a fascist government was in power in Italy since 1922, another fascist government was established in Germany that year as the Nazis gained control of the country. It was certainly a time when escape from reality would be understandable.

It was also a time when the theories of Sigmund Freud were popular and began to be used to interpret literature. When the doctor asks Paul to read a passage from a book taken from a shelf in order to see if he has any eye problems, the book (which I only discovered through researching this essay) is Sophocles’ play Oedipus at Colonus. Is Aiken giving us a clue?

I also learned just this week that the Aiken family had a history of mental illness. When Aiken was eleven, his mentally ill father shot his mother, then himself. His sister later suffered serious mental issues and was hospitalized and Conrad worried about what might be hiding in his own mind.

Conrad Aiken wrote in several forms and genres, but preferred poetry and short stories. He wrote several novels which I found in my town library and I read Conversation because it seemed to be about people who were creative but I don’t recall liking (or understanding?) it.

Aiken also was a poet. He was a modernist and not what I was trying to write at that time or what I was reading, but I did get a book of his poems at the library. He received the Pulitzer Prize for his Selected Poems (1929) and a National Book Award for his Collected Poems (1953).

I read other stories by him, but it was this one story that has stayed with me.  I am not alone in having this story remain or perhaps haunt the memory. The story appears in many anthologies, and I found it online too.

The soundtrack for that part of my 13th year definitely included the Beach Boys’ “In My Room” and “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times,” the latter from the brilliant Pet Sounds album that came out that year and which I played over and over in my bedroom. I think Brain Wilson in the mid-1960s would have identified with Paul too.

Through the Looking Glass of Time


I just saw Alice Through the Looking Glass, the sequel to Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. Both star Johnny Depp and Mia Wasikowska, with Helena Bonham Carter and Anne Hathaway but the sequel (directed by James Bobin) is crazier than the Mad Hatter.

I am a fan of all the Alice books by Lewis Carroll, and I enjoyed Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. I also enjoyed the Disney animated Alice in Wonderland when I was a kid. Back then, I liked the Cheshire Cat. In the mid-1960s, it was the hookah-smoking Caterpillar that got all the attention. “One pill makes you larger. One pill makes you small,” sang the Jefferson Airplane in “White Rabbit.” We knew that Lewis Carroll had to be tripping on something.

I was ready for a Burton sequel. I was okay when they announced another director because the original casting was intact. It’s been six years since the first film was released.

Here’s the problem. They took Lewis Carroll’s title and the characters, but they chucked the plot. That is always a bad sign.

Actually, I thought I might even be okay with the new plot because they slipped in one of my favorite things – time travel.

In this version, Alice still enters the magical looking glass and goes back to Wonderland. She discovers that the Mad Hatter is acting madder than usual. He needs closure about what happened with his lost family. To do that, Alice has to travel through time.

She finds and hijacks a Chronosphere and zips through time to deal with her friends and their enemies at different points of their lives.

Alice Through The Looking Glass flopped at the box office. I doubt that the reason was that there are too many Carroll purists out there.

I watched it and I was entertained. It wasn’t great filmmaking, but the effects were well done. the outrageous performances were, well, outrageous, as i suppose they must be in Wonderland.

The film sent me back to the books. I was delighted that as an Amazon Prime person, I could get all four Alice books free on my Kindle. Most people don’t know there is more to Alice than just the first Wonderland book. The tetralogy includes Alice in Wonderland, Alice Through the Looking Glass, the Alice-related fantasy verse The Hunting of the Snark, and Alice’s Adventures Underground. That last one is the shorter, original Alice in Wonderland manuscript which Carroll wrote for his friends and family. They encouraged the mathematician to expand the book and send it to a publisher.

Martin Gardner wrote in the introduction to his The Annotated Alice  “that life, viewed rationally and without illusion, appears to be a nonsense tale told by an idiot mathematician.”

Lewis Carroll, an imaginative mathematician, believed that nonsense was the hidden art of language.

In the first chapter, Alice is playing with her kittens in the house and she starts to wonder what the world is like on the other side of a mirror’s reflection. Isn’t that a kind of mathematical thought too?

She climbs up on the fireplace mantel and pokes at the big wall mirror behind the fireplace and discovers that she can step through it. On the other side is a reflected version of her own house. She finds a book of poetry with “Jabberwocky” in it. It has reversed printing but she can read it by holding it up to the mirror. She can see that the chess pieces from her house have come to life, though they remain small enough for her to pick up.

The second section of the book actually has a lot of changes in time and spatial directions as plot devices, so maybe that inspired the new film. There are lots of plays on mirror themes – things are opposite, time goes backward.

Alice says that she thinks time is a thief.  She gets no argument from me on that.


Roald Dahl + Steven Spielberg = The BFG – book written by Dahl. Film directed by Spielberg, from Disney.

The story of a young girl, Sophie, and the Giant who introduces her to the wonders and perils of Giant Country. The BFG is a Big Friendly Giant, unlike other inhabitants of Giant Country. 24-feet tall but not like Bloodbottler and Fleshlumpeater (who are twice as big and known to eat humans).

Sophie is a 10-year-old girl from London that BFG brings to Dream Country where he collects dreams and sends them to children, teaching her all about the magic and mystery of dreams.

Disney’s The BFG comes to theaters July 1, 2016. Start reading now.

books by Roald Dahl

films by Steven Spielberg

The Codex

codex page

Here is a book that blurs the line between surrealism and fantasy and pretends to be a book about things that are real. The Codex Seraphinianus is a book that was first published in 1981. People seem to agree that it is a strange book and also that it is a beautiful book.

This week the always interesting radio program/podcast To the Best of Our Knowledge did a program about it and some other “magic books.” Magic may be a strong label for the book, but it is one that is often attached to this visual encyclopedia of an unknown world written in an unknown language.

It seems ancient, but many readers also say that it is made for our information age. Coding and decoding may be something we associate with ancient writing, but it’s just as much as part of our sciences (computers, genetics) and literary criticism.

Calling it by the Latin codex recalls an older time when one needed to distinguish this type of book with pages from a scroll. The author, Luigi Serafini, is an Italian artist, architect and designer. So, the Codex Seraphinianus is, with a Latinisation of his name, is “the book of Serafini.”  His name comes from seraph which is a type of celestial or heavenly being in the Abrahamic religions. Literally they are “burning ones” a synonym for serpents when used in the Hebrew Bible.

St. Francis’ vision of a seraph in a fresco attributed to Giotto

The book is about  360 pages long (editions vary) and you can’t “read” it because the alphabet is unintelligible and using a writing system that is likely to be a false writing system modeled on our existing Western-style writing systems. Though we can’t read it, it seems to be left-to-right writing in rows, with uppercase and lowercase letters and some that also function as numerals.

The language of the book has interested linguists for decades. According to Wikipedia, the number system used for numbering the pages has been decoded by several people as a variation of base 21. Some experts have said the letters are used in ways similar to Semitic writing systems with an alphabet that resemble Sinhala alphabets. I’ll have to accept others knowledge, because for me it is just a strange and interesting and, perhaps, magical code.

The delight of the book is more for the hand-drawn, colored-pencil illustrations that include mostly fantastical flora, fauna, anatomies, fashions, and foods. Parts remind people of M.C. Escher and Hieronymus Bosch. There are also “useless” machines, maps, human faces.

So why create such a book?  The author himself says (at a talk at the Oxford University Society of Bibliophiles in 2009) that there is no hidden meaning hidden to the Codex. He calls it a kind of “automatic writing” and says he wanted his alphabet to convey to the reader is the sensation that children feel in front of books they cannot yet understand.

Automatic writing (psychography) is said to be a psychic ability that allows a person to produce written words that arise from a subconscious, spiritual or supernatural source. More magic.

You can appreciate the book as just a fantastical visual experience to page through and wonder about.  You can search for a message.

codex pages


The Graveyard Book

I have more time during the week to read than in past years, but for some reason I still seem to read more on the weekend. I was packing books from my home office bookshelves so that I can do some painting and realized how many unread books are there.

One that I am reading now is Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book.

I have always liked graveyards. Peaceful places. Nicer than hospitals.

Here’s a taste from Chapter 1 “How Nobody Came to the Graveyard

Nobody Owens, known to his friends as Bod, is a normal boy.

He would be completely normal if he didn’t live in a sprawling graveyard, being raised and educated by ghosts, with a solitary guardian who belongs to neither the world of the living nor of the dead.

There are dangers and adventures in the graveyard for a boy—an ancient Indigo Man beneath the hill, a gateway to a desert leading to an abandoned city of ghouls, the strange and terrible menace of the Sleer.

But if Bod leaves the graveyard, then he will come under attack from the man Jack—who has already killed Bod’s family…

The story of Nobody is of adventures in the graveyard  and with characters like the ancient Indigo Man, a gateway to the abandoned city of ghouls and the strange and terrible Sleer.

The book is marketed as being for middle school age readers but I question that.  That’s not because the book opens with  a family being stabbed to death by “a man named Jack” because the story gets more kid-friendly. I see it as an allegory of childhood and I think many adults would appreciate the story.

Reminiscent of Harry Potter, Bod, the boy who lives, is an 18-month-old baby who toddles to a nearby graveyard. Quickly recognizing that the baby is orphaned, the graveyard’s ghostly residents adopt him, name him Nobody (“Bod”), and allow him to live in their tomb.

The book has also been compared to Kipling’s The Jungle Book in the ways that Bod questions his new family to learn about life and death.

Neil Gaiman might be best known for creating his long running  The Sandman series. This comic series spanned over 70 issues from 1989 to 1996 and is set in a magical fantasy world called “Endless” and is both horrific and beautiful at the same time.  Initially published as a 32-page monthly comic book, hardcover editions of The Sandman were also printed by DC Comics as its popularity began to rise. The series was later published as a collection in 10 volumes, and is one of the few graphic novels to be featured on the New York Times Best Seller list.

The Graveyard Book is illustrated by Dave McKean.

Neil’s bio note on Amazon says: “I make things up and write them down. Which takes us from comics (like SANDMAN) to novels (like ANANSI BOYS and AMERICAN GODS) to short stories (some are collected in SMOKE AND MIRRORS) and to occasionally movies (like Dave McKean’s MIRRORMASK or the NEVERWHERE TV series, or my own short film A SHORT FILM ABOUT JOHN BOLTON).  In my spare time I read and sleep and eat and try to keep the blog at more or less up to date.”

His newest book is a novel, The Ocean at the End of the Lane.