The Fifty Year Sword
An author of striking originality, Mark Z. Danielewski is a storyteller like no other. Creating books that become interactive mediums in our hands, Danielewski is something of a cult personality that uses gimmicks to create books you in which you become a participant, rather than just the reader. His first novel "House of Leaves" was a large volume that incorporated three stories together to tell the tale of a house that was (physically) bigger on the inside than it was on the outside. Within the pages he used different fonts, colors, and layouts - a style known as Ergodic literature. When the characters become confused or lost he would put chunks of the narrative in varied places on the page so you had to search for where to read next. If a character climbed down a spiral staircase, the reader would have to turn the book as the words on the page curved around.
With his second full length book, "Only Revolutions," he told the story of a teen romance written from the perspectives of the two main characters. But it was told in such a way that if you flip the book over, you would read about the same events but told from the other teen’s point of view.
Now, Danielewski has released his novella, "The Fifty-Year Sword." Originally released in a limited edition of 1,000 outside of the U.S., the book has gotten a bit of a cult following. Readings of the story have been performed at the REDCAT in downtown Los Angeles for the past two Halloweens (and will be performed this year as well) complete with large-scale shadows by shadowcaster Christine Marie.
So what is the novella about? It’s an adult ghost story - something akin to a tale told around a campfire or late at night in an old abandoned house on a cold October evening. The story takes place at an Texas Ranch House where someone by the name of Mose Dettlesome is throwing a birthday party for one Belinda Kite who is about to turn 50. Attending the celebration is a seamstress named Chintana whose presence there is unmistakably suspect. You see, Belinda Kite had an affair with Chintana’s husband, so the two couldn’t be more at odds if they tried.
Meanwhile, a social worker has hired a Storyteller to entertain five orphans that are at the party. The Storyteller is odd and creepy and comes armed with a long black box that he places on the floor in front of the orphans. This is when he begins the story of how he came to own a curious sword that appears bladeless. He regales them with an epic journey through mythical places in order to retrieve the object of which its purpose holds a diabolical secret.
"The Fifty-Year Sword" is a clever little horror story that resolves in a sort of "Twilight Zone" way that is both unsettling and satisfying. However, Danielewski’s tricks of the page seem a bit more pointless this time around with the entire narrative being told by each of the five orphans - sometimes with partial sentences and even single words being "spoken" by a different character. These sentences and words are separated by colored quotation marks that represent which character is speaking. However, there is no Key that tells us which color represents which child and ultimately the gimmick doesn’t really go anywhere.
The book is also full of illustrations that represent a sort of "stitching" which fits into the narrative, but again, within the confines of the book become only superficial trappings. The story stands on its own without the devices, so one wonders if this was done in order to justify selling it as a full size novel. There are moments where the tricks on the page are effective, but ultimately, the point of it was lost on me.
The story is fun and creepy and makes for a good late night tale to tell your friends on some sort of Edgar Allan Poe night. But the trappings of the book aren’t necessary and end up confusing, rather than enlightening. Still, Danielewski is an author that never fails to intrigue. How can he not when his next project is a 27 volume project called "The Familiar" that concerns a "12 year old girl who finds a kitten?"
"The Fifty-Year Sword"
Mark Z. Danielewski
by Mark Z. Danielewski