All comments from Butterbur's Woodshed, and used here by permission of the authors.
Blaylock, James P. All the Bells on Earth
"It was going to be a wet Christmas. And a strange one-"
Simply marvelous. Blaylock is perfecting his skills to higher and higher degree. I would have voted for The Paper Grail had I been on that year's committee, and this is much better. I actually find myself worrying that the Christianity in this story, while it is never heavy preaching, may turn off some of the voters we need; because I would really like to see this excellent book win. We really need to give Blaylock the Aslan sooner or later, anyway, for he writes--so to speak--more like Charles Williams than Charles Williams does. Except that he is totally American, totally modern, and very funny - and does not have the vagueness that can be so annoying in Williams.
You think De Lint has acceptable scene painting--but when you read Bells you feel this rain and you walk these streets. And there is not a word of excess here, where De Lint's book seems about twice as long as it needs to be.
Though the book is deeply serious, there is a good deal of hilarious humor in it. But little of it can be quoted or excerpted, for it is the bloom upon the story, rather like Lewis' remark that Chesterton's humor was like the flashing of a sword-blade when a man is fighting. Another Lewis quote that fits here is what he said about George Herbert: "Here was a man who seemed to me to excel all the authors I had ever read in conveying the very quality of life as we actually Iive it from moment to moment." I see myself and my friends and acquaintances in Blaylock's people, especially his hero and heroine: the tiny moral struggles which (as Auden said) make every tea-table a battlefield; the little deceptions and shabby tricks we work on ourselves and on others; the annoyances and frustrations that would make up all of a typical "modern novel" but at the same time the joys and the satisfactions and the occasional ecstasies that are inextricably mingled with the annoyances but never get into the modern novels. Blaylock, like Williams, uses the supernatural simply to point out to us the reality of our own more prosaic lives and choices. There are also similarities, though lesser ones, to Lewis, chiefly the Lewis of That Hideous Strength. At first I could find no Tolkien resemblances, but then I thought of one, and it is a point on which I think Blaylock (and Tolkien) actually excel over both Lewis and Williams; but I don't want to discuss it as it would definitely be a spoiler. Maybe in my next 'zine. Anyway, I can't imagine anything more in the spirit of the Inklings. Well, you get my drift:
This book should get the MFA.
Has it got faults? Well, I thought it rained a little too much in this book; rain is good and purifying and all that, but I ended up feeling soggy. And the ending is perhaps a little too pat, especially the discovery about Darla's marriage. However I must say I loved lawyer Goldfarb's devastating appearance, even if he is a deus ex machina.
The book has a most unique McGuffin (I've been wanting to use that word). Promises--if you read Bells, you will never feet quite the same about the Bluebird of Happiness. And if you have always wondered where those dreadful awful kitschy intolerably money-wasting and environmentally destructive things come from that turn up as offers in junk mail catalogues--now you will know.
in Butterbur's Woodshed #29, July 96.
Responding to Mary S. Re: Blaylock. I agree that "Blaylock is perfecting his skills to higher and higher degree." I'm not sure that I think this book is better than Paper Grail, however. It seems to me that this book is moving away from the Charles Williams novel. It may be better. Blaylock needs more time to settle into my unconscious, I think. I've only finished this book fairly recently, and I am very impressed, but not entirely happy with the book. I like what you say about what Blaylock brings to a book that is NOT in a conventional, non-fantasy book. But I'm not sure that I believe it. Yes, I see the people around me in this book. No, I'm not sure that the good things of life never get into those other, modern novels. But as I've said before, while Williams uses the supernatural to point out the reality of our prosy lives, as you acutely observe (good point, I like that!), Williams gives us a vision of Heaven, or at least of the Heavenly City, the New Jerusalem or New London, more likely, and I don't think Blaylock has much of a clue in this department. That may ultimately be the true failing of Hand's book, perhaps Blaylock is just finessing it better. But I'm not sure about this. I really appreciate all your insights as I try to work this out.
Written for Butterbur's Woodshed #28 (May 1996)
Mythopoeic Fantasy Award Nominees
All the Bells on Earth by James Blaylock
Blaylock's latest novel follows the pattern of his earlier books, The Last Coin and The Paper Grail, infusing modern West Coast culture with elements of the bizarre, which surround a Parsifal-like protagonist. Walt Stebbins, the story's hero, lives in Orange, California, where he runs a mail order catalogue service of novelty items out of an ever-increasing number of sheds in his back yard. A package delivered by mistake contains, among other unusual items, a pickled bluebird in a Mason jar, which turns out to be much more than it seems. Soon Walt, his family, and two local clergymen are up to their necks in weird coincidence and shady characters who've apparently sold their souls to the Devil. As in his earlier novels, Blaylock seasons his story with off-beat characterizations and loony humor. Here, Walt's Uncle Henry tries to rope Walt into producing a line of Pope-related items for his catalogue, including Pope-pourri [myrrh and other spices packaged in a "Pope-shaped" decanter] and a Corn Cob Pope, which can also be used as a Pez dispenser.
Unfortunately, All the Bells on Earth doesn't come up to the standards of either of the two earlier books, particularly The Paper Grail, which is a strikingly original grail quest story. I enjoyed reading this book and meeting Blaylock's new stable of off-beat characters, but I don't feel that the story has enough substance to be labelled as really mythopoeic.
April 28, 1996
All the Bells on Earth was also a tremendous read, I'm not sure if it is mythic only because I'm not sure what mythic means. But this is definitely in the Inkling spirit. An excellent book. I found this story to be frightening, suspenseful, surprising, funny, and true to life. The characters where entirely believable. How people talk (and don't talk) to each other--even those they love dearly--was amazingly well done. The multiple references to damn and hell were cunningly if multiply placed. Bluebirds will forever look a bit different to me. And what the hay was the golem (gollum, gollum) made out of? Wax? I never quite figured that out. There were some unresolved issues at the end, but nothing to take away from the overall narrative. The ultimate salvation of Argyle was abrupt and seemed out of tone with the rest of the book at first reading, but the more I thought about it, the less it bothered me. The prayers of children are powerful. This book truly deserves serious short list consideration, possibly even the award. My biggest problem with the book was its title: the copy I was reading had an illustration of the bluebird jar near the bottom part of the title, and my dyslexic scrambled mind read the title as "All the Bell Jars on Earth" [Sylvia, where are you now?], The trials of living in my wacky whirlwind house ...