With this year’s edition of the Word on the Street festival set to run from September 28 to 30, we asked some of the writers on the wildly diverse bill to tell us about the reading experiences that shaped them. Which book left deep impressions early on? Which one overhauled the way they see and think about the world, and set them on a path to a literary life?
Here’s what Madeline Sonik told us. Sonik is a Victoria-based editor, essayist, novelist, and poet. Her latest title is the 2011 memoir Afflictions & Departures.
She’ll be reading from her work at 11 a.m. on September 30, in the Authors Tent outside the central branch of the Vancouver Public Library. She’ll also lead a poetry-writing workshop at 12:30 p.m., in the library’s Peter Kaye Room.
“There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee.”
I was five years old and the sole audience of my father’s declamation of these Robert Service lines. He had just put my Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland away, and his voice, a murmur, yet riveting, began to evoke pictures of something foggy: graveyards, for example, that I’d seen in Hammer horror films, and the murky waters of the black lagoon.
Even though my mother had forbidden me to watch such films because I suffered from what she called “overactive imagination”, my father still took me and my older brothers to drive-ins where horror movies were the staple. “Just close your eyes, little honey,” he’d say, wrapping his broad hands over my face.
It didn’t make a difference, though. Even with eyes closed, and held down, I could see everything in my mind’s eye. In fact, I could see it so clearly that an enhanced version would later plague me as I tried to sleep.
I knew already that Robert Service’s poem was going to give me nightmares—and that I loved it. My mother never would have approved. “What’s cremated?” I begged to know and felt the sublime rush of forbidden knowledge as my father told me and then finished reciting the poem.
How Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland paled in the light of this gloriously macabre and funny work, which, for all its large and unfashionable affect, still strikes me, 47 years later, as a work of consummate brilliance.