If you host an annual literary Halloween party where a creepy tale by Poe or Lovecraft is read aloud in candlelight, this year you might try “The Fifty Year Sword,” especially if your guests are postmodern Goths. Mark Z. Danielewski’s unhallowed novella is a narrative trick-or-treat for readers who like to be challenged as well as entertained.
Looking back years later, five adults take turns recounting a terrifying Halloween party thrown for them as orphan children in East Texas at the home of “a 112-year-old nut job.”Also attending were a social worker, a seamstress and the party’s featured entertainer: a morose, hulking man called the Story Teller. He unfolds a tale about his quest for a weapon to wreak vengeance, which he found in the form of a “fifty year sword,” one that will kill its victim in “the final second of the fiftieth year.” At the climax of his tale, he invites each of the orphans to open one of the five latches of the sword case. . . .
The Story Teller’s tale of vengeance seems to be a coded account of the rage felt by a seamstress, a Thai immigrant named Chintana, for Belinda Kite, who stole her husband. (Everyone in the novella has an unusual name: The five orphans answer to Tarff, Ezade, Iniedia, Sithis and Micit.) The tension between the two women crackles throughout the novella, a psychodrama elevated to mythic proportions by numerous references to cutting and shearing. As in many classic ghost stories, the bloody conclusion provides the catharsis the protagonist needs to get on with life.
But two striking qualities distinguish this eerie narrative from other ghost stories: the language and the book’s design. The narrative is a species of prose poetry that resembles Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” and, at times, James Joyce’s “Finnegans Wake.” Preparing himself for his performance, the Story Teller folds his legs until
“he no longer
hrowling or gulking but sat
overdraped in his strange
silveryblack tunic, his head heavily
He speaks in a “rumbidilling voice,” lowers his head “dramatatically” and describes a sword blade as “milky white,/ glossy/ and cold, like/ a fog creeping low across/ a morning before/ a funeral.”
As in his previous novel, “Only Revolutions” (2006), which was a finalist for the National Book Award, Danielewski brings a poet’s resourcefulness to this eldritch tale, brilliantly fusing the sound of Anglo-Saxon poetry to the sprung rhythms of Gerard Manley Hopkins, all the while making our flesh creep. And as in his first novel, the magnificent “House of Leaves” (2000), he makes creative use of typography: Some pages are full of text, others contain only a phrase or a word, and in others, the text and illustrations share the space. Danielewski takes a sword to the typical layout of a novel and hacks his words and sentences into various shapes and configurations, a s/word dance of astonishing virtuosity.
The book is visually ornate, too. The text appears only on the left-hand pages — the sinister side, as it’s called in heraldry. Most right-hand pages are blank, except for a few dozen instances where the fanciful artwork spills over. Stitched illustrations appear in full color, most dramatically when the orphans unlatch the sword case. Different-colored quotation marks distinguish the various narrators; it would take many a winter’s night to unravel who says what, but the novel is as entrancing to look at as to read.
“The Fifty Year Sword” first appeared in 2005 as an expensive limited edition, seen only by collectors. (A new deluxe edition with latched box and Nepalese binding is also available for $100.) This gorgeous trade edition, slightly revised, gives further evidence that Danielewski is one of the most gifted and versatile writers of our time.
The second volume of Moore’s study “The Novel: An Alternative History” will be published next year.
the fifty year sword
By Mark Z. Danielewski
Pantheon. 285 pp. $26