History degrees involve a copious amount of reading so given how much academic research I’ve been done in the past two years one would be surprised to know that I still find time for recreational reading. I’m not the most accomplished and traveled reader, having only scratched the surface of a few genres by experiencing a handful of their masters. That is to say Arthur C. Clarke and Phillip K. Dick for science fiction, Tom Clancy and Vince Flynn for military/political thrillers, Bill Bryson for travel writing, and Tolkien for ‘high fantasy’. I’ve long since graduated from the school of J.K Rowling and have been casually looking for another supernatural fantasy/urban fantasy story to win me over. Then… along came Christopher Robert Cargill.
I’ve been following Cargill’s work ever since he was a contributor for ‘Aintitcool‘ and for the now-defunct ‘Spill.com’ which was a branch of ‘Hollywood’. So, when I heard this writer was branching out into the urban fantasy genre I was keen to see where he would go with it. As it turns out he went in a satisfyingly grim direction. So far Cargill has published two of (I think?) three entries in his trilogy, the two books being Dreams and Shadows and Queen of the Dark Things. Dreams and Shadows, published in 2013, bears the header “A Modern American Fairytale” on its cover. What does that actually mean though? At a first glance it seems quite simple to grasp but… does that make Harry Potter a modern British fairytale? What is the qualifier here? Is it purely geographical? Is it the content and tone of the story itself? The truth I think is somewhere between the two. The majority of Cargill’s stories take place in Austin and it is considerably darker than any of Rowling’s ventures. Harry Potter’s adventures largely take place at Hogwarts and became gradually darker as its titular character grew older.
What I think separates Cargill’s work from, to use my previous example, Rowling, is that the lore Cargill utilizes to create his story borrows from mythologies across the world and uses them as more than a pistache, more than just a background. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed Rowling’s adored series but as the entries came along I became increasingly aware that it was becoming formulaic and at times I felt as though I was reading a high school drama that happened to be set in a supernatural magical world. It wasn’t until The Deathly Hallows that I felt the story really upped the ante (if you read it you know why) and broke from it’s languor.
I won’t be spoiling much about Cargill’s two stories but I’ll need to go into a few plot points to explain why I think they’re great. The story begins with a baby called Ewan Thatcher being abducted by fairies and taken to live in the Limestone Kingdom, a magic realm outside Texas. Another young boy called Colby Stephens, meanwhile, meets Yashar the genie and obtains the typical three wishes. The most important wish that completely throws Yashar is that he turn Colby into a wizard and open his eyes to the world mortals cannot see beyond the ‘veil’. Despite going ahead with the request Yashar hesitates and warns Colby that he himself is cursed so that all the wishes he grants inevitably come to bad ends for their recipients, and given the nature and scale of Colby’s wish he fears the absolute worst. Colby and Ewan’s paths cross on the day Ewan is meant to become a true fairy through a ritual in the Limestone Kingdom and when Colby and Yashar realize what is really about to happen they intervene. As a result of their intervention Ewan is cast out of the Limestone Kingdom and is left at an orphanage by Yashar as he and Colby embark on another adventure. The second half of the story, considerably darker in tone, follows Colby and Ewan in their early-mid twenties with a dishevelled, damaged, and jaded Colby attempting to lay low from the world Yashar enabled him to see and Ewan as a devil-does-care rock musician with only vague memories of his childhood in the Limestone Kingdom. Consequences from their past adventure in the Limestone Kingdom catch up with them and soon Colby and Ewan find themselves contending against fairies, gnomes, shapeshifters, magical beasts… and the forces of hell itself.
What really makes Dreams and Shadows and Queen of the Dark Things work is that they contain tropes people have come to expect from fantasy stories but instead of embellishing stereotypes go against the grain and give us something simultaneously new and familiar. Is such a juxtaposition possible? Evidently so. An immense level of research into the mythologies of the world has gone into Cargill’s work and it shows, as he takes previously established stereotypes of fantasy/urban fantasy and paints a more vivid and accurate picture of what the essence of the supernatural entails. Both stories have their seldom humorous moments, their shrill sinister moments, and their moments of sincere dark philosophy. That’s not to say however that Dreams and Queen are stories over-the-top with darkness just for the sake of being so but it is worth noting that it does contain dark elements. Something that always irks me is when I see novels or films trying too hard to be hard-boiled for the sake of looking ‘mature’. One of the best things any story, in book or film, can do is be aware of what it is and if necessary go beyond it to push the envelope. Sometimes it is necessary and sometimes it really isn’t, and that awareness is the hallmark of a good writer. Cargill falls into the former category as the turf he is treading has been trodden before by other and (with all due respect) better known authors, he would have therefore felt the need to go beyond the material he was working with and do something with it that made it stand out. Alas, he has and the result is this series you see me writing of here.
Making a story’s setting or aspects of its lore geocentric runs the risk of embellishing it with stereotypes, and this is something that Cargill avoids expertly. He’s done his research for everything that he writes about and it shows, as lesser authors such as Stephanie Meyer would have taken the easy route and either butcher established lore or taken it in directions that completely contradict the essence of its origin. Sure, both his stories contain popular culture elements that will be quickly recognizable by various groups but it never goes to the extent that neophyte readers will be left dangling in the wind. For example, Cargill uses the Germanic lore of ‘The Wild Hunt’ in Dreams but places it into a context that is instantly recognizable and relatable. Likewise he does the same thing in Queen when he delves into the Aboriginal lore of ‘Dreamtime’ and gives his readers an adventure of discovery into an increasingly obscure and dying culture. Being a former student of Classical Studies and as someone who researches the lore of mythology and cultural anthropology as a hobby these stories and instances such as these within these stories were great to see brought into a contemporary context.
So, what does “Modern American Fairytale” mean? I guess it means two things. On a geographical level the story largely centers around American locations. On a literary and stylistic level however it conveys a sense of maturity to a genre that is usually associated with children’s fare. The term ‘Fairytale’ usually evokes bright and colorful imagery and light-hearted stories of the fantastical. This is the rug that Cargill doesn’t merely pull out from under his readers, it’s the rug he throws onto the fires of hell itself.