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Writing That’s “Charged and Alive” with Meaning

Steve Charles—“In his ability to create complex characters and pair them with suspenseful situations, Simmons stands almost unmatched among his contemporaries.”

That’s the last sentence from Publisher’s Weekly’s starred review of Black Hills, the just-published 27th book by Dan Simmons ’70. To go with the starred review his book Drood (more recently chosen among the Top Books of 2009 by Publisher’s Weekly and by Stephen King in Entertainment Weekly) received when it came out around this time last year. To go with the starred review his 2007 bestseller The Terror (also named a Top Book of that year by Amazon.com and Entertainment Weekly) received when it came out.

So Dan’s on a roll. But that’s not the reason I’ve been looking forward to the publication of Black Hills more than a year. Sixteen months, to be precise, since Dan was generous enough to let me read drafts of the first 79 typed pages and a section of the amazing vision in Chapter 14. And then left me hanging, wondering the true nature of the “possession” of the main character, Paha Sapa, by the ghost of George Armstrong Custer. Would Paha Sapa as an old man working for Gutzon Borghlum, succeed in blowing up the faces of Mt. Rushmore? Would that act exorcise the ghost? And did the book The World Without Us, which Dan had seemed fascinated by when I last visited, have some role in what I’ve heard is a remarkable final chapter of the book?

But as much as the unfolding events, I was looking forward to hearing Dan’s voice in this book. I know Dan’s reverence (though he might object to the use of that word) for the Black Hills area, his irritation with stereotyped and inaccurate depictions of the Lakota, and there was an intimacy and conviction in the chapters I read that reminded me of what has moved me most in my favorite Simmons works, several of which are among my favorite books, period.

One of the great pleasures of knowing a writer and his work over time is that each new book seems like a journey with a trusted guide. I always look forward to seeing where Dan will take me next, but this time the voice announcing the trip seems even more intriguing. A little like the morning in my teens when my father woke us up and said, “It’s time to go to Hawaii.” He knew we could not even imagine the beauty we were about to see.”

Okay, so Dan’s taking us to the Black Hills, not Hawaii. There’s a ghost, a survivor of genocide, and a likely explosion. So the comparison breaks down. Which is why Dan’s the writer, and I’m not.

But the voice I heard in those first chapters made me want to go along for the ride. Led me to believe I would find something true and numinous, the latter a word I had not recalled until I read this section of Black Hills:

“Numinous, the teacher and poet and historian Doane Robinson tells Paha Sapa, means everyday things charged and alive with spiritual or supernatural meaning surpassing all normal comprehension.

“Paha Sapa almost laughs. He does not tell Mr. Robinson that his—Paha Sapa’s—life had been numinous up until the time it had been taken over by wasichus and the Wasicun world.

“The world of his childhood had been literally alive with unseen meaning and connections and miracles; even the stones had lives and stories. The trees held sacred secrets. The prairie grasses stirred with truths half-heard in whispers from the spirits that surrounded him and his band of natural free human beings. The sun was as real a being as his uncle-father or the other men walking past him in the daylight, the stars over the plains shivered from the breath of the dead walking up there, and the mountains on the horizon watched and waited for him with their revelations.

“Numinous. Paha Sapa almost smiles when Doane Robinson teaches him that wonderful word.”

My favorites of Dan’s works, from Song of Kali and Phases of Gravity to Summer of Night and Winter Haunting to Worlds Enough and Time and Muse of Fire—have been charged with spiritual meaning for me. The pages I read from Black Hills were leading me that direction. So I’ve been anticipating, to put it mildly, the rest for over a year now.

It’s interesting that Dan’s book Black Hills is being published as Wabash welcomes to campus the young writer Benjamin Percy, who describes his own stories as “literary genre.” He elaborates in this interview with PopMatters editor G. Christopher Williams:

“A lot of contemporary “literary” fiction is full of gorgeous metaphors, gorgeous language, with so many stories ending sparkling with epiphanic dew. And along the way, sadly, not much happens. It’s as though authors have lost touch with what made them fall in love with reading: plot, story. And I think there’s something healthy about getting in touch with this again.

“So I’ll take a haunted house story or a Western or a tale of revenge and reinvent it through a literary lens, honoring some of the archetypes and conventions, breaking others over my knee, in an effort to make the reader feel at once moved and entertained.”

Having read some of Percys’ work, I’m really looking forward to hearing more. And the thought of his meeting with our own young writers is exciting.

I’m excited, too, to see the artificial walls between “literary” and “genre” fiction dissolved by artistry and imagination by writers like Percy, Jonathan Lethem (who was here earlier this year), Michael Chabon, and Karen Russell. Beautifully written books with unforgettable characters where something actually happens!

Of course, Dan Simmons has been doing this for years. Which is another reason I’m so looking forward to getting my copy of Black Hills.