John Crowley's all-new essay "Totalitopia" is a wry how-to guide for building utopias out of the leftovers of modern science fiction. "This Is Our Town," written especially for this volume, is a warm, witty, and wonderfully moving story. One of Crowley’s hard-to-find masterpieces, “Gone” is a Kafkaesque science fiction adventure about an alien invasion. Plus: There's a bibliography, an author bio, and of course an Outspoken Interview, the usual cage fight between candor and common sense.
About the Author
John Crowley won the Award for Literature of the American Academy of Letters in 1992 and the World Fantasy Award three times. His novels include Little, Big, the four-volume Egypt Cycle, and most recently, Four Freedoms.
Read an Excerpt
By John Crowley, Terry Bisson
PM PressCopyright © 2017 John Crowley
All rights reserved.
This Is Our Town
When I WAS YOung I lived in a place called Timber Town. It can be found in a book called This Is Our Town, which is part of the "Faith and Freedom" series of readers, and was written by Sister Mary Marguerite, SND (which stands for Surs de Notre-Dame) and published by Ginn and Company, copyright 1953. Catholic children read it in the fourth and fifth grades.
Timber Town was a small river town, where exactly the book never said, but it would have to be somewhere in the Northeast, maybe in Pennsylvania. Upriver from Timber Town was a place called Coalsburg, which was where the trains from the mines came down to load their coal onto barges. Downriver from Timber Town was a city of mills called Twin City, because a part of the city was on one side of the river and another, poorer part was on the other side. These names were easy to remember and understand, even for young children. River ferries and trains ran from town to town and farther, down somewhere to the sea I suppose. In the double title page you can see us kids high on a hillside, looking over the river valley and the mills and the church. We wear the saddle shoes and the striped shirts and flaring flowered skirts we did wear then, and in the pale sky are pillowy clouds and the black check-marks of flying birds. I can still feel the wind.
The book tells stories of then and now, of the flood that hurt so many houses in Timber Town and nearly washed away Coalsburg: I saw all that, I was there. The book has stories of long-before, when miracles happened to children like us in other lands, and stories of saints like St. John Bosco, after whom our school was named. But most of the stories are about our town, and the nuns in our school, and the priests in the church, and the feast days and holidays of the months one after another. The stories are all true and of course they happened to us or we caused them to happen, or they wouldn't be in the book; but the book never told everything about us, nor all that we could do and did.
* * *
It has been a long time now since I last saw my guardian angel. Of course I know she's here with me all the time whether I can see her or not, and I can hear myself tell myself the words she would once say to me to guide me and keep me from harm, but I haven't seen her as herself, the way I guess all kids can.
I remember how she stood behind me at my First Communion, her hand on my shoulder, and how it was the same for all of us in white kneeling at the rail as the priest came closer to us, going from one to the next. We never talked about when or how we saw our guardian angels but we all knew. My brother Thad walked along beside the priest, in his cassock, with his hand on his breast, carrying the little tray on a stick (the paten he told me it's called) to hold under our chins as Father Paine placed the Host on our tongues, in case some tiny fragment of the Body of Christ fell off, because every fragment of the Host is God, at least for a while. Perhaps because it was the first time, we didn't feel — at least I didn't — the wondrous warmth and sweetness, the dark power too, that comes with swallowing God. It would come gradually, and we would long for it.
After Mass was done we all went out into the sun and the trees in flower and marched — or went in procession anyway — around the church to the white statue of Mary, crowned the previous Sunday with pink roses that had shed petals all around the statue's base. I never much liked this statue, white as the plaster casts in the library, her eyes unable to see. And there we sang.
My white dress and my little white missal and my white kid gloves were all put away and I was sitting on the back steps wearing dungarees, my feet bare, and she said (my guardian angel) that a sad thing about being an angel is that you can never partake of Communion like living people can. Angels know that it is a wonderful thing and they can know what their person feels, because they know their person and they know God. But they can never have it themselves.
I asked: Does that make an angel sad?
Well, my angel said, nothing really makes an angel sad.
And then she clutched her knee in her linked hands, just the way you do when you're sitting with crossed legs, and said There are angels for other things than people. Every animal in the world has a kind of angel, a little one or a big one, who's born with the animal and vanishes away when the animal dies.
Will you vanish away? I asked, but she laughed the way she does and said I am yours forever and will always be with you.
She doesn't have wings, and a long time ago when we were younger I asked her why. I don't need wings to come and go, she said. The pictures only show us with wings because that's the only way people can think of us, able to ascend and descend, run messages, see to the whole wide world. But big feathery wings or little wings stuck to their backs — who could ever fly with those?
I thought about that and about how birds' wings are their arms really.
Does Cousin Winnie have a guardian angel? I asked. Cousin Winnie wasn't a Catholic and didn't say prayers or go to any church.
Of course he does.
What is Cousin Winnie's guardian angel like?
Just like me. But older and ... quieter. Actually I don't know what he's really like.
He can't see his guardian angel, I said. Can he?
Well you know what? my angel said. Grownups can't, mostly. Can't see or hear them.
I thought then that that was the saddest thing I had ever learned. And now I know it's so.
My mother wasn't born a Catholic. She went to many different churches, she said, and in school she learned to play the organ, and sometimes played in the churches her family went to. They moved a lot from town to town until she came to Timber Town and met Dad. Sometimes I think she was the only person in Timber Town who wasn't Catholic; but when she married Dad of course she had to become a Catholic, and she did, and she was glad about everything we did and the holidays and the feast days coming like chapters in their turn. But the one thing she went on loving were the hymns and the music in the churches she'd grown up in. And because she sang them in her soft voice as she worked or cooked, we learned them too; at least I did. She sang Abide with me, fast falls the eventide and she sang Jesu, joy of man's desiring and Praise God, from whom all blessings flow and I sat in silence and listened, and the words and the music entered my heart and still remain there.
She had a way of talking about things like saints and hymns and Bible quotes that made it seem she thought they were not serious or important to her, that they were like funny old poems or Bing Crosby songs, but I think that was because she actually loved them and wanted to protect them. She called the Thursday of Holy Week Maundy Thursday (we pretended she'd said Monday Thursday, and laughed every time, every year) and she knew of saints we hadn't heard of. Like St. Swithin. If it rains on St. Swithin's Day in June, she said, it will rain for forty days; and if the sun shines it will shine for forty days. He was also the patron saint of apples. She would sing:
High in the Heavenly Places
I see Saint Swithin stand.
His garments smell of apples
And rain-wet English land.
Mom's cousin Winnie came to stay with us now and then — when he had to rest, she said. We were told to call him Cousin Winnie as she did, even though he was older than Mom and I don't know whose cousin he really was. I also didn't know what he did in the world or what he had to rest from, but I do now. He would arrive weak and thin and shaking and be put into the little room at the top of the house and my mother would take care of him, though I was never sure she really liked him that much. He was a dim sort of person, at least when he was resting. When he got stronger he would help around the house. One thing he was good at was card tricks. He told us the Devil had taught him, and that's why we could never see through his tricks, but I don't think he believed in the Devil any more than he believed in God.
When he came to rest in our house for the last time he did none of those things. He didn't get up at all. When I brought him coffee in the morning it seemed he had been crying. He was gray-white like the worn old sheets he lay on.
I told Mom he was dying. I was sure of it, and my guardian angel was sure of it too. And I said she should call Father Michaels to come. Father Michaels is the parochial vicar and helps Father Paine. Cousin Winnie's not a Catholic, she said. But I knew what I knew and I just looked at her and looked at her until she went to the telephone.
Father Michaels came and talked with him a long time with the door of the little room shut. We waited in our rooms or in the kitchen and didn't make a sound. Cousin Winnie died a little while later.
I asked Mom: Did Father Michaels win his soul?
Well I don't know, my mother said. Winnie said a prayer at the end. And crossed himself. So I don't know.
Did he make a good act of contrition? I asked, because no sin can be forgiven without that.
Well, my mother said. He had a lot of sins to recount, and I doubt he got to all of them.
Then he would only go to Purgatory.
Uh-huh, my mother said, and even though she was crying she was laughing too. You bet. For a good long time too.
In the book This Is Our Town there are more chapters about the great flood than about anything else. It nearly washed away my house and other houses, and did wash away houses of miners and other people in Coalsburg; their houses came down the river in parts and pieces, roofs and fences and once a doghouse with a little goat riding on top of it. My brother went out with his friends in the fireman's rescue boat and rescued the goat. Along Second Street, which runs along the river, the water reached the windows of the first floors and kept rising. The gas and electricity stopped and we lived by lamps and candles and ate from cans. There is a chapter about how Mr. Popkin refused to take his ferry out for fear it would be swamped and lost. There is a chapter about how Father Michaels went up the river with an old man in a little motorboat to bring the Blessed Sacrament to the man's friend, who was dying. It's very dangerous, the man warns Father Michaels. We will not think about danger, Father Michaels replies. My life would be worth nothing if I am afraid to save others for Christ.
And then the Church of Saints Peter and Paul, our church, began to sag to one side as the earth and stones were washed away along the bank where it stood. It was decided that the school children should be taken to Twin City and stay in shelters made in the big school and the parish hall, sleep on cots, and go to Mass in the huge dark church there. We were among strangers.
The sisters who taught at St. John Bosco had come too and shared rooms with the Sisters of St. Joseph in their convents, and they came to the big church to Mass and to the special services held to pray for an end to the flood. It was like a big engine had doubled its power. Not all nuns are smart, and not all nuns are good; I knew that even then. But all of them have the power that God grants to all of us to bring about what we desire and need, and that power is greater in them. It's like the difference between the Twin City ball team and the Yankees.
This was for us to know: prayer is how the world is managed. The Epistle to the Thessalonians says Rejoice always, and pray without ceasing. I prayed at night before I went to sleep and in school before classes. I prayed when I walked and when I waited. I prayed in prayers I knew as well as my own name, and I prayed in my own words: that Dad could keep his job in Twin City in the machine shop where he cut gears — I didn't know what that meant but Dad loved his job, and though it seemed the shop would fail I prayed as hard as I ever had and it didn't fail. I prayed that Mom would stop smoking Old Golds because they aren't good for your lungs, and though I never told her I was praying for it there came a day when she stopped. She never said a thing about it, just stopped forever; later on when cleaning the living room she came upon an old pack half-empty and looked at it a long time as though she couldn't remember what it was.
Prayer isn't for things, Sister Rose of Lima told us. Prayer is attention: to God, to the soul, to the Virgin, to our hearts. Praying is for help to those in need, strength and courage for ourselves, honor and thanks to God. But I knew, and I knew she knew, that it was for things too: you had only to pray for something and receive it to know that. Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and you shall find; knock, and it shall be opened to you. God made that promise to His Church and He can't take it back. Father Paine said that if we pray for what will harm us or harm others God must give us that too — though it may come in a form we don't recognize, and won't like. There must be a whole bureaucracy in heaven that is managing these things, putting everyone's prayers together with everyone else's and assigning the work of carrying to God the prayers made to all the varied saints who are patrons of this and that, of health and work and the soil and the sufferings of people.
I have prayed for what might harm me, and I have prayed that others might be harmed, or at least obstructed. I have wondered if those prayers were answered in ways I can't know.
The rain stopped at last and the water receded, leaving everything filthy and covered in mud. We returned to our beloved Timber Town, but we kids decided it ought to be called Mud Pie Town now. The church hadn't fallen into the river but it would take a Capital Campaign to raise the money to fix it. Father Michaels said we should pray that the Capital Campaign would succeed, though he knew that many, many people were badly off now because of the flood, and the bishop doubted the money could be raised. But by July the money had been raised and the men of the parish were volunteering to help fix the church.
It was the day before the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin, which is a Holy Day of Obligation, which means you must go to church just as if it were Sunday. There were extra confessions to go to on this afternoon, which I could now go to and had to do, if I wanted to go to Communion in the morning, which I did. In the pew I did my Examination of Conscience and I couldn't find anything except the time I told my brothers to shut up because I was doing my homework, which was a lie because I was just reading a book.
There was a line for confessions. Waiting in my pew I read my Instructions for a Good Confession. What is a sin? A cruelty to others; a false representation of ourselves; a failure to honor God and the Saints in all the times and places we can, in all the ways we can, as often as ever we can.
I had falsely represented myself to Thad and Willy and so I guess I had sinned. I hadn't been sure.
In the dark of the booth I confessed to Father Michaels. I asked him himself to forgive me, because the priest has the power to do that. Father, forgive me for I have sinned. When I was done with my one sin he spoke in Latin and blessed me (I could see the faint motion of his hand through the screen) and he told me to say a decade of the Rosary and he was shutting the grate when I said Father, can I ask you something? And he said Certainly.
Is it true that older people can't see their guardian angels and talk right to them and hear them?
He paused for a little and then said: They hear them in a different way. They see them in a different way.
But I knew from the little pause that it was a priest's way of saying Yes it is true. And he said: Our Lord tells us that faith is the evidence of things not seen, that what we believe but can't see has substance.
I said Oh. Thank you, Father. And he shut the grate.
I went to kneel in the pew in front of the Mary altar, where Mary is holding the baby and also holding out a rosary, which makes her look a little like a busy mom doing two things at once; but her face was as serene as always. I said my penance, the beads passing through my fingers as I murmured the prayers one by one, and with the saying of it my sin went away from me and my heart was cleansed. That's a nice feeling, your sin going away like dirty water down the drain. It would probably be a sin in itself to go out and sin just to feel that feeling. But I thought of it.
I went out of the church and sat on the steps and took my Brownie cap off (it was the only hat I could find that afternoon) and a group of nuns from the convent next to the church were going by together, their habits sweeping up the dry leaves that lay on the pavement. The beauty of them moving all together, the airs lifting their veils, their smiles and voices — they sang together, the younger ones, out of simple good cheer. I thought of being a nun, singing and never sinning again. Yet maybe the beauty of it was that it was something to see and not something to be, like geese you see in the autumn sky following the leader, all the same but each itself, and you want to join them. I felt I was among the nuns even though I wasn't, and wouldn't want to be, not really.
Excerpted from Totalitopia by John Crowley, Terry Bisson. Copyright © 2017 John Crowley. Excerpted by permission of PM Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsThis Is Our Town,
Everything That Rises,
In the Tom Mix Museum,
And Go Like This,
Paul Park's Hidden Worlds,
"I Did Crash a Few Parties" Outspoken Interview with John Crowley,
About the Author,