In Mark Z. Danielewski's new graphic novella "The Fifty Year Sword," an ominous character called the Story Teller at a Halloween party in East Texas tells five orphans, "I am a bad man with a very black heart," as he recounts his arduous journey to find the most terrible weapon. At his feet lies a box with five latches that may or may not contain a sword that exacts a horrible price.
The festivities take place at the house of the 112-year-old Mose Dettledown, more a ghost than anything else. Chintana, a Thai seamstress recently betrayed by her husband, attends the party out of social obligation, fending off the lecherous moves of the local grandees. The first person Chintana sees is the vicious Belinda Kite, who seduced her husband and destroyed her life.
This piece first ran in Printers Row Journal, delivered to Printers Row members with the Sunday Chicago Tribune and by digital edition via email. Click here to learn about joining Printers Row.
Writing in free verse, Danielewski creates a witty and dark tale of a man's quest for the perfect blade and the evil he hopes to commit. Danielewski plays fast and loose with the language, using rhythmic, intentional misspellings. The Social Worker who fails to watch her orphans receives a drink, "gratefully accepatating Chintana's concotions." The Story Teller pulls the children in with "his always low rumbidilling voice."
Danielewski broke onto the literary scene in 2000 with his "House of Leaves," a horror story in which a family discovers their house is one-quarter inch larger on the inside than outside. A film crew's resulting expedition has fatal consequences. In the book, the word "house" is printed blue at every mention, and Danielewski and publisher Pantheon put the whole book online right before the publication date. His sister, the rock-star Poe, put out an album of songs based on the novel, and the siblings performed at packed readings together. Danielewski created a diehard fan base, who parsed the novel's meaning on antiquated listservs.
Danielewski's next book, "Only Revolutions," was a fantastical road trip through 200 years of America's past and future. The first half of the novel runs at the top of the page, then you flip the novel over and read the second half. Historical timelines run up the page as the novel surges at a nonstop frenetic pace. "Only Revolutions" was nominated for the 2006 National Book Award.
Reading Danielewski's first two novels can be like climbing a sheer rock face. You hold on for dear life by your fingertips, but the exertion is worth it when you finally get to the top and see the panorama of Danielewski's literary universe.
"The Fifty Year Sword" is a much different project. Originally published in 2005 and '06 by a Dutch imprint in two 1,000-copy print runs, the book includes blue-ink illustrations created by the Dutch artist Peter van Sambeek. Some of the original 51 numbered and signed copies go for as much as $750 on book websites.
Using the actual words on the page, Danielewski takes the Story Teller down into The Valley of Salt, into The Forest of Falling Notes and up The Mountain of Manyone Paths, where he sees numerous doppelgangers of himself traveling up and disappearing. The Story Teller finally finds The Man with No Arms, who offers him a choice of weapons. It is a surreal moment, reminiscent of Ingmar Bergman's "The Seventh Seal," where a crusader plays chess with Death.
Is the armless swordmaker a craftsman or the Devil? He makes swords that kill taste, that kill breath, that kill feeling. The Story Teller settles on the Fifty Year Sword, with an almost invisible blade.
The novella takes less than two hours to read, and Danielewski's hypnotic use of language merits a reading out loud. Get in the closet at home and read fast. You may sound like Marlon Brando doing Col. Kurtz in "Apocalypse Now."
The Story Teller's tale is part Arthurian quest, part campfire story that mean counselors tell. Chintana is too paralyzed to respond to approaching danger. Closed windows fly open in the attic room. Five candle flames burn and flutter. The Story Teller bids each orphan to undo a latch on the box. When all seems lost, an unlikely heroine intervenes and carries out an impulsive act. Instead of revenge, Chintana commits an act of grace.
In the end, "The Fifty Year Sword" is a pleasure to read. It is a swift, old-style ghost story with crisp, eerie illustrations. The text itself becomes blade cuts. The tale's momentum and dark tone take over, speeding the story to its surprise end.
In the 12 years that he has been on the literary radar, Danielewski has proven himself both a charming but very private writer and canny self promoter. He usually appears only when his books are being published, making each new fiction an offbeat event. Readers of "House of Leaves" may grumble at the non-epic quality of the new book, but they miss the point. "The Fifty Year Sword" is an appetizer for what comes next.
Last fall, Pantheon announced that Danielewski is writing a 27-volume serial novel called "The Familiar," which will begin publication in 2014, with a new volume every three months. Danielewski is coming out with both barrels blazing, making a daring and dangerous publishing move that gambles his well-earned literary reputation. If he succeeds, Danielewski will cement his status as one of America's most inventive and talented literary novelists. And if he doesn't succeed? Well, that's always the risk.
Dylan Foley is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, N.Y.
"The Fifty Year Sword"