Myth is an extremely rich vein that writers have always mined. This year was no exception, as demonstrated by Kate Summerscale's splendid nonfiction study of a 19th century murder, "The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher" (Walker: 380 pp., $24.95).
In 1860, the well-to-do Kent family awoke one morning to find that 3-year-old Saville, the youngest son of the family, was missing from his bed. A search of the house and grounds led to the discovery of the little boy's body in a privy, his throat, the family physician said, "cut to the bone by some sharp instrument." Though an open window in the drawing room seemed to indicate the killer's place of entry, Detective-Inspector Jonathan Whicher soon realized that the real murderer was either a member of the family or one of the servants. Whicher's pursuit of the murderer -- never solved, though Summerscale offers an intriguing theory -- captivated the English public and, the author argues, influenced the rise of the detective in 19th century English literature, from Dickens to Wilkie Collins.
Where myth comes to play most visibly, however, is in Summerscale's frequent allusions to the myth of the Minotaur and Theseus' following of a ball of thread -- called a "clew" -- into the maze in order to kill the monster. It becomes clear, in Summerscale's book, that although the murder occurred in a house in the English countryside, it could just as well have been in Crete -- that country house also turns out to be a labyrinth containing a savage creature.
One of the more exciting aspects of reading "Steampunk," edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer (Tachyon Publications: 400 pp., $14.95 paper), is noticing how much this group of writers -- Steampunks are writers who create fantasies combining the Victorian era with advanced technologies -- seem in a direct line of descent from the Classical Greek mythmakers. Consider any of the stories in this splendid anthology--whether it is Joe R. Lansdale's about a steam-powered giant or Jay Lake's about a being known as a god-clown --and it is not difficult to think of the Greek artificer Hephaestus in his Mt. Etna workshop.
In Homer and elsewhere, we learn that he built brazen bulls that puffed fire, a golden bed for the Sun, the automata that helped him in his workshop, a guardian made of bronze who fought the Argonauts, and golden chairs and beds rigged with traps to catch the other gods in their lust. Who else, then, deserves to be known as the patriarch of the Steampunks?
Did Michelangelo study the Kabbalah and Talmud? It's all right there, above our heads, as Benjamin Blech and Roy Doliner demonstrate in "The Sistine Secrets" (HarperOne: 336 pp., $26.95). Despite the book's "Da Vinci Code"-type subtitle -- "Michelangelo's Forbidden Messages in the Heart of the Vatican" -- the book doesn't come from the Dan Brown School of Antiquity and Intrigue. Instead, the authors conducted a sober study of Michelangelo's work in the chapel and found many oddities that can only be explained in terms of a knowledge of Judaica, for instance: Why does the serpent in Eden have arms? Why, in that scene, is the Tree of Knowledge a fig tree instead of an apple tree? And, hey, why does the shape of "The Last Judgment" resemble the tablets of the Ten Commandments?
Lauren Groff's "The Monsters of Templeton" (Voice/Hyperion: 364 pp., $24.95) gives us a portrait of Templeton, a place very closely modeled on Cooperstown, N.Y., birthplace of baseball -- and Groff. But, as the title suggests, there's also a monster involved -- an enormous, amphibious creature that has lived in Lake Glimmerglass, which the town is situated on, for centuries (and whom Groff cleverly inserts into earlier citizens' diaries and reminiscences). As the novel beings, Glimmey (as the strange but overall benign creature has been nicknamed) dies and floats to the surface just as Wilhelmina -- Willie -- returns home in disgrace.
A brilliant archeology student, Willie fell in love with her Stanford professor, had an affair with him in the Alaskan tundra, then, when the professor's wife arrived, beat it back to her hometown. Willie is in a state of incompletion -- she's unresolved about the professor, her doctoral work is unfinished, and when she touches her flat stomach, she feels the pulse of their child. Willie never knew her father: Her mother, Viv, told her that she was the product of wild sex in a hippie commune. But now, with this homecoming, Willie learns from Viv that she is really the daughter of one of Templeton's citizens -- though Viv is reluctant to reveal who that man is.
As Willie pursues a detective-like inquiry to determine who her father is, a science team also studies Glimmey's corpse, struggling to understand how it fits into our ideas of evolution. The parallel between the two inquiries is deftly handled by Groff in her first novel.
Christopher Priest's reissued novel "Inverted World" ( New York Review Books: 322 pp., $15.95 paper) presents the reader with a city surrounded by high walls and a populace unaware that the entire polis sits upon tracks, pulled by a giant winch in order to stay ahead of a crushing, slowly moving gravity field.
Thinking of Los Angeles, of this sprawling metropolis that I call home, it is difficult to grasp living inside a portable society so finite as the one Priest portrays. And yet, he convincingly presents the circumstances of life in "the city of Earth" through the experiences of Helward Mann, the narrator, an apprentice in a guild system that keeps this city moving. There are guilds for laying track that recruit laborers from the areas the city passes through to survey the land ahead (which makes the menacing gravity field puzzling: Why don't the locals try to escape it?). In all of this, I kept imagining those ancient notions of the cosmos that depict our world as resting atop a tortoise's back or surrounded by a menacing ocean -- the same fragility and danger in those images is true of Helward's world.
We follow Helward's training in the guilds, and we learn that this city has been on the move for 200 years, crossing rivers, chasms and broad expanses. The cause is a vague apocalyptic event known as "The Crash," and when the reader finally learns the true nature of "The Crash," it is difficult not to be awed by the cleverness of Priest's invention. You feel the kind of surprise and exhilaration here that you do when a magician reveals (though they're not supposed to) the simple method behind an illusion. Considering that Priest went on to write a magician's story in "The Prestige," that comparison seems just right.
Owchar's "The Siren's Call" column appears monthly at www.latimes.com/books.
FAVORITE BOOKS/MYTH AND LORE
The Siren's Call: New narratives, old myths
Books by Kate Summerscale, the Steampunks, Christopher Priest and more
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