From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Author Spotlight: Megan Arkenberg

For this Author Spotlight, we asked Megan Arkenberg a few questions concerning  her story, “The Celebrated Carousel of the Margravine of Blois,” appearing this month in Fantasy Magazine.

What was the inspiration for “The Celebrated Carousel of the Margravine of Blois?” 

My original concept for this story—and I have no idea where it came from—was the part I now think of as Antoine’s subplot, the ghost hunter in search of his wife’s ghost. Porphyrogene, her rambling house and lost (unnamed) lover provided a foil for Antoine and a setting, but, though I found her too fascinating to drop, I couldn’t get her story to mesh with Antoine’s.

While attempting anything and everything to paste the two halves together—including, in the first complete draft, a marriage proposal—I saw photographs of some gorgeous earrings by Elise Matthesen called “The Celebrated Carousel of the Margravine of Blois.” The pair of quartz horses, with their legs folded beneath them rather than lifted mid-prance, gave me the image of a magnificent carousel standing dilapidated and rusting in Summerfall’s gardens. It became clear immediately that this carousel and its builder, Porphyrogene’s lover (still unnamed but now identified with the Margravine of Blois), were going to take center stage in my uncooperative work-in-progress.

I bought the earrings and carried them around for two weeks, and the story, now titled, came together quite nicely.

What is the significance of the name Porphyrogene? I know this word is used in a certain poem by Edgar Allen Poe. Was this connection intentional? 

Partly. The word “porphyrogene” is from the poem “The Haunted Palace,” which also appears in “The Fall of the House of Usher.” Before my breakthrough with the carousel, the story was swimming in motifs from Poe—beautiful lost women, destructive grief, the will to resist death, a house that strangely mirrors its owner’s state of mind. Summerfall is almost literally a “kingdom by the sea.” So I owe more than a few of my themes and situations to Poe, and Porphyrogene’s name is an acknowledgement of that creative debt.

I also picked it with a hint of irony—a colorful name for a woman for whom life has lost its color. Colors of any sort are nearly absent from Summerfall, with the exception of red and gold for the Margravine of Blois, and purple is especially “absent” in the name of the lost Violeta. For me, purple and red are the most vibrant, lively colors, and it interested me to associate them with characters who are either dead or consumed by grief.

I like to sometimes ask questions directly from the text of a story. In “The Celebrated Carousel of the Margravine of Blois,” Antoine asks Porphyrogene “Why does it have to be the carousel—some unfinished business, left behind for you?” Well, why? 

One of the traditional reasons for spirits to linger on earth is unfinished business. So the idea that the Margravine wanted to repair the carousel is a bit of wishful thinking on Porphyrogene’s part, a justification of her hope that the Margravine has stayed in Summerfall as a ghost. To Porphyrogene, the carousel is both a physical remnant of the Margravine and a reason for her to remain in spirit.

Antoine has a better understanding of the situation. He knows that the Margravine’s return to Summerfall before her death was motivated by the desire to see Porphyrogene again—the carousel simply isn’t important. But accepting the carousel’s insignificance and the fact that the Margravine willingly left it behind means accepting that the Margravine is gone completely—no ghost, no haunting, no working carousel—and that’s something Porphyrogene isn’t prepared to do.

This is, in part, a ghost story. It left me with a nagging question: Which are more haunting? The ghosts you can see, or the ghosts you can never see again no matter how much you wish you might be able to do so? What do you think? Why? 

I think I would prefer to be haunted. To have some remnant of the dead remain in the world, with me. In itself, the impermanence of human life and human achievement is sad but not horrifying; but when I picture specific people, specific personality quirks, specific works of art, it becomes really terrifying to me. Writing this story was in part an attempt to wrestle with and accept the fact of that loss.

At the same time, I realize that the desire to be haunted is really an unhealthy one. Wanting a remnant, a reminder, is not the same as wanting a person back in one’s life; the latter acknowledges the value of the dead, the way their presence enriched the world, while the former is a rejection of reality, a refusal to really face life’s impermanence. Loving someone and missing them and remembering them isn’t unhealthy, but denying their absence—especially to the extent that Porphyrogene does, allowing the question of the Magravine’s absence to consume her own life—is.

“The Celebrated Carousel of the Margravine of Blois” is a story all about clockwork machinery. Many works of literature utilize clockworks as metaphors. The current subgenre of Steampunk is filled with clockwork contraptions. In this age where everything seems to be going digital, what is it about the idea of clockwork that make it such a fertile breeding ground for story ideas? 

I like the idea of clockwork-as-metaphor, clockwork-as-symbol. I think that any kind of magic or technology—clockwork, steam engines, faerie glamour, or pixie dust—is an aesthetic choice on the part of the author that also represents a controlling mindset in the world of the story.

For me, clockwork is about rationality, empiricism, cause-and-effect, and that’s the association I was reaching for in “The Celebrated Carousel of the Margravine of Blois.” Antoine reads master clockmaker Christopher of Cloud’s digression on “the religious parallels evident” in self-perpetuating clockwork; the reference is to the Enlightenment-era Deist conception of God, as the watchmaker who set the universe in motion and left it eternally to its own devices. So Antoine’s Enlightenment-esque worldview is bound by reason and empirical data when he searches for evidence of Violeta and the Margravine’s continued existence. If the evidence doesn’t materialize, Antoine and Prophyrogene can’t comfort themselves with the idea that Violeta and the Margravine still exist in an otherworldly afterlife; the only posthumous existence they look for is the one that can be verified empirically—that is, a haunting. For me, clockwork is emblematic of this worldview. 

I guess another reason clockwork is so attractive to fantasy writers is that it replaces the wizard with the scientist/engineer—not in the science fiction sense, but in the sense that the wizard’s powers are innate and unearned, while clockwork can be mastered through intelligence and dedication. Once we accept the inherent contradiction of magical gear—somehow, little wheels locking teeth leads to sentient beings or time-travel or anti-gravity ships or immortality—once we accept the little leap in cause-and-effect, we’re left with a special ability that can be studied and worked for, not simply bestowed. It makes the women and men who build clockwork more like us—they didn’t get a free promotion to miracle-worker, after all—and also more impressive, more admirable.

…and that was a ridiculously long-winded answer to a thought-provoking question. I’d love to hear other people’s theories about the popularity of clockwork, and hope readers will share their opinions in the comments!

So, what’s next for Megan Arkenberg? Do you have any other stories or projects you would like to announce for your readers?

As I type this, I see from a message in my inbox that the Young Adult anthology Playings of the Gods is now available from Drollerie Press. It includes my retelling of the Ariadne/Thesus/Dionysus myth, “Naxos.” Readers who especially enjoyed “The Celebrated Carousel of the Margravine of Blois” might be interested in learning that it’s part of a group of stories—in my head, at least—that includes “The Copperroof War,” which appeared in the June 2010 Ideomancer and the January 2011 Labyrinth Inhabitant, and a number of pieces I either haven’t finished or haven’t found a home for yet.

My works-in-progress include Biblical retellings, haunted houses, lethal sonnet sequences, man-eating lions, textualization of the reader, and butterfly gardens. If I walked into a wall right now and cracked my head open, ideas would spill out.

T.J. McIntyre has seen his short fiction and poetry published in numerous publications including recent appearances in Everyday Weirdness, Ruthless Peoples Magazine, and Scifaikuest. He is a member of various writing organizations, including the Science Fiction Poetry Association (SFPA), and serves as a moderator for the Lobo Luna and Western Writers writing communities on LiveJournal. Until earlier this year, he published Southern Fried Weirdness, an anthology and web zine celebrating speculative fiction and poetry with a Southern perspective. He lives in a busy household in the muggy heart of rural Alabama with his wife, two young sons, an aging Doberman mix, five tiger barbs, and three salt-and-pepper catfish.