Monday, July 14, 2014

Clouds

A great ship of the sky, white-prowed and silent, serenely sails across the great blue ocean of air, on its way towards high summer.


I think many of us have found imagery in clouds. On warm summer days, especially, I find myself glancing skyward, watching as great fleecy mountain ranges and mysterious island fortresses glide and morph through the blue expanse above.

As a child, I recall many a lazy summer day spent lying in the grass, seeing great billowy armies clash without sound, or dinosaurs evolving into solemn Zeus-like heads pondering the patchwork green below. They were hypnotic to me, the way they would come together and fly apart without a sound, like some great silent show being played out for those who would look up. They seemed remote yet somehow friendly, enjoying the summer along with me.

Then there were days when the gray thunderheads would roll in, sparking actinic light. Crawling fingers of lightning running on the undersides of the clouds, or jutting down in sudden flashes, would reveal for a moment the roiling, angry masses gathering their wrath. Rarest of all were the green clouds, their color unsettling and threatening; when they rumbled in from the West - always the West - even the trees seemed to shiver as the air grew cold with the advance of the primal violence that was about to be unleashed.

As the year began to wane, I would see more and more of the somber gray clouds of autumn roll in. Here in Ohio, much of the autumn and winter sees the sky become an unbroken blanket of gray that persists for what seems like months at a time. Or, it seemed that way to my younger self. Yet I never felt gloomy because of the cloud cover; it always felt like Halloween, and Halloween was always my favorite holiday.

I hadn't meant to write about clouds today. When I sat down to write, they were what first came to mind. Perhaps they did so because they remind me so much of the constant mutability of life, with the way it is always steadily changing into something else. All is ephemeral, destined to be something else before much time has passed. That is why I don't write here about politics or some of the other ever-changing elements that make up our society. Certainly, I have strong opinions about any and all of it...but in the end, I'd rather spend my time here pondering the eternal, rather than hashing out or arguing over something that will inevitably change into something completely different before too long. Deep down, I suppose I'm incurably optimistic; I believe we - humans as a species - will muddle through all our troubles eventually. The cloud cover will always break apart in time, the thunderclouds will pass over and disappear after their fury is spent, and the bright clouds of summer will return to reflect our dreams back to us.

It figures that after Midnight I ponder so much about bright, sunny, cloud-spangled skies.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Insomnia, and the thoughts it brings.

Friday before last, or, rather, early that Saturday morning, I was dealing with yet another bout of insomnia. Like ol' Ben Franklin, I've found that rather than lying there and grasping towards the sleep that refuses to come, it's better to get up and let the bed cool off and allow the still of the night to settle in around me.

It was a warm night, star-filled, the just-past-full Moon then low in the sky, glowing through haze and the remnants of clouds. It was just past 4AM. The rush and hum of traffic on the turnpike, five miles away, was right at the edge of hearing. A few stray lightning bugs flickered on and off, out late.

A clatter and banging was making its way up the street. Before long, a king-cab pick-up drawing an impressively long fishing boat rushed past, heading for Lake Erie. The silence that descended in its wake was again broken, this time with the sound of voices.

Next to where I live is a clear-cut corridor over which high-tension wires are strung. It makes for a good deer run, and herds of them occasionally make their way from east to west and back again.

Looking west, as always.
This night, though, the deer were absent. The voices I heard faded into hearing from across the night-fields; it was a young couple picking their way through the dark. I never saw them, as I was on the porch and a small thicket stands between me and the corridor. His voice was quiet, hushed; hers was louder, blurred by drink, her laugh floating merrily on the breeze. They hurried on into the night that was soon to be unequivocal morning.

The quiet returned, and eventually I called in my little dog and returned to bed, where sleep finally claimed me. I briefly thought about how a multitude of stories surrounds us, even late into the night, with us just barely in the background, like bit players in a movie. And, of course, the same is true in reverse; the grand theater of our own lives plays out with others inhabiting their own supporting roles, barely noticed, if at all.

Times like these remind me of this meme I ran across, the word and definition originating at the rather wonderful Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows.

A lovely image paired with a lovely concept; I'll try to track down who made it to credit them.
Of course, this is a subject I've discussed more than once here, the notion of us all passing into and out of the lives of others, even if unnoticed. The sheer randomness of how we know the people we know, how easily the people we care about might never have passed into our lives, perhaps with others coming to fill similar roles brought to us in just as fickle a manner, is something that often runs through my mind. It makes me think of just how precious those we have connected with are, just how fragile those connections were initially, and how much sheer potential there is of all the connections that we have yet to make.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Long Memories

Occasionally I swing by the cemetery where my father is buried. I do it for the sake of my mother, who has some mobility issues and can't go by there as often as she would like. So I check in and make sure the plants and flowers she places there remain and are intact. The Old Man himself would certainly scoff at the whole affair; he would see no point in either planting anything there, or in me checking on it. But it's more about what my mother wants than what he would have wanted. I occasionally joke that I go to make sure he's still there; if anyone could, by plain meanness, rise from the grave, it'd be him. Sounds cold, I know, but it's the kind of joke he'd appreciate.

This cemetery is fairly old, and contains the gravesites of many of the folk who founded and built the town I live in. I have no particular interest in spending a lot of time in graveyards, but while I'm there, I do take note of the variety of headstones and monuments. There are many implicit stories to be found, whether it be the tiny headstone set apart from any others, carved simply with the word "Baby," the couple for whom thirty-three years separated them in death, or the couples headstone on which the date of death of the second person remains blank. Recently, I noticed this:

I don't know who Sarah Laird was. Somebody does, though, because those artificial flowers are fairly new, and the living plant behind the stone can't be terribly old. The better part of eighty years later, someone still remains who cares about Sarah.

I think about many of the people here in this cemetery, and how so many of them may be long-forgotten. In some cases, their names have been softened and blurred by time and the elements, until even the stone has forgotten them...
On Memorial Day and Veterans Day, someone goes through the cemetery, as their counterparts do in so many others, placing stickers and small flags on even the oldest headstones that stand above the remains of veterans. So, for them, our collective memory does remember them and their contributions. Even then, though, many, if not most, of their stories are lost to history. The tales of who they were, what they dreamed, whom they loved...are now gone.

I've written of the grand procession of lives that winds its way through time, and how each member of that procession has his or her moment on the stage of life. I've rambled on about how those who came before us set the stage which we eventually take, and how we, in turn, set the same stage for those who come after. I ponder on how we remember those from the past, and how we will be remembered ourselves. The graveyard is the indicator of the answer to both those ponderings.

That is why seeing that someone still remembers Sarah Laird, still feels strongly enough about her, remembers her clearly enough, to decorate her resting site, both surprises me, and fills me with a bit of joy, a gleam of hope. For a couple of years now, I have worked against my natural inclination to live in the past, and to start living in the present and look towards the future. I cannot, however, fail to feel more than a bit of affinity for this person who decorates the grave of one so long away. This is important; this was a person, once a living, laughing, loving human being, with hopes and aspirations and achievements, and, maybe, some sorrows, who loomed large in the heart of someone, almost certainly many someones. Now, one of those someones pushes back the great night of oblivion to remind us all, in some small way, that those who came before us do matter, that in some way they do live on, if only we choose to remember them.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Time, and Old Pictures

They seem remote, our ancestors, a gulf of time between us, their cultures differing from ours to the point of being alien. The details of their lives are lost to us, with lightning-flash moments sometimes all that remains, capturing an instant that often has little context for us to divine what these phantoms were like.


Granvil Dexter Black and Hester Florence Tenney, my paternal great-grandparents. Granvil was born in 1870, Hester in 1874, meaning this picture likely dates from the 1890s. This was almost certainly taken in Upshur County, West Virginia. The Blacks lived in Virginia and West Virginia from Colonial times, back to at least Alexander Black in the 1760s.
I know scant little about my cousins and aunts and uncles from the Old Man's side of the family, let alone my ancestors beyond a generation or two before mine. My father seemed to have little interest in his family; there were a number of his siblings that I never met, and he never spoke of them. One of his brothers, perhaps the only remaining one at the time, I first met at the Old Man's funeral, and he seemed just as taciturn. Old, white-bearded, almost gaunt, I only recognized the relation by way of the piercing eyes. He himself would pass before much more time had passed.

All I know about this picture is that Granvil and Hester are the first two seated adults to the left in the front row. Again, this must have been taken in the 1890s in or near Upshur County, West Virginia.
The ephemeral nature of life has always fascinated, or perhaps I would be more accurate saying haunted, me. We move ahead with life, rarely looking back, and even blood ties fade in importance as time alters and ends relationships and lives.

Hester, by then called Granny Black, sits surrounded by her grandchildren, sometime in the late 1930s; notably absent is Granvil, who died in 1937. Granny Black would live for the better part of three more decades, passing in 1964. But now a face familiar to me enters the picture, literally; that's Emmett, eventually to be called by me the Old Man, second from the left in the back row. Not a bad haircut, I must say. Of the rest, I only ever met his sister Lucille, second from the right in the back row. She is still living, but since the Old Man's death she has moved and did not give us contact information. I suspect his death was harder on her than I imagined it would be; she was the only one of his siblings who had any kind of relationship with him that I know of.

It's a relentless thing, time is, dragging us all along whether we want to make the journey or not. What should I, or anyone, expect, though? Time has even ground down the Appalachians of West Virginia, softening and blurring and reducing those once-towering peaks, their long-hidden hearts now close to the surface, sleeping under a thick blanket of forest. Time sends even the mountains to their death-beds, dreaming in their dotage.

Lloyd Black, one of the children of Granvil and Hester, 1905-1968. The Old Man's Old Man. Rather dapper-looking sometime in the 1930s, I'm guessing. My father so closely resembled his father that it was eerie. I was convinced this was a picture of my dad for a good while. They apparently shared a temperament, too, by my grandmother's account.
Time has been compared to a river. It's an apt comparison, if you think of it as having many twists and turns and rapids and falls and placid pools along the way, with the ending coming anywhere on its length. All rivers lead, eventually, to a sea, figuratively and literally, and perhaps that is why we are so drawn to these waters.

The Old Man himself, in 1964, along the shore of Lake Erie, the Cleveland skyline in the distance.

The currents and eddies and waves of time's waters constantly push and pull us apart, making the close bonds of family, friendship, and romantic bonding even more precious in the time we have with them. Yet many seem to strive to help along those watery forces, working to catch waves and ride currents to new souls with which to bond.
My mother, Calcie.

Some of us are restless, seemingly always yearning for something or someone new, the unknown a powerful draw. Some of us, like me, long for permanency, to travel the great river of time with those with whom we are familiar, as though onboard some great temporal cruise ship, in that way defying - futilely in the end, I admit - the unstoppable flow.

My parents, October 1964. I would not enter the timestream for almost a year-and-a-half.

But is it really futile? Are we not, in some small way, attempting to impose some structure upon the universe with such defiance? Are we not agents of order working to at least slow the effects of entropy, the great river that washes all away before it? Are not the bonds we have with each other, whether those we are born with, or the ones we create ourselves, akin to a great lattice upon which our lives can find purchase to grow, like ivy up the side of a house? I like to think that creating such a structure is one of the ways we have of becoming eternal.

I make my appearance in 1966. My mother and I seem to be enjoying a nice day in Cleveland.
Most of us don't do any of this consciously, of course. Day to day life occupies our attention until, perhaps, one day we look up and see how far along the river we've traveled, and gauge how much further we can expect to go. That's when we truly begin to think seriously about making our mark upon the eternal.

The Old Man, my sister Bonita, and me, likely sometime in late 1968. I believe that's a '64 Galaxie behind the Mercury Montego station wagon.

Legacies are varied, and each of us can choose what to leave behind. Children, works of our hands, ideas...they all extend us into the future beyond our span of years, moving a bit of us farther along the river. Is it enough? For some, I'm sure it is. Even if it isn't, it's truly the only choice, unless you choose nothing. And that seems to me like no kind of choice to make.

My mother's mother, Marie Holbrook, surrounded by grandchildren. My mother's side of the family is also hillfolk, this time in the rugged, coal-rich hills of eastern Kentucky. Not as much information and photographic evidence exists as on my father's side. That's me to my grandmother's left, screen right, with my sister next to me. My cousin Anna Ruth, nicknamed Boo Boo, sits on the far right, highly amused by something.

My maternal grandmother was widowed in 1962, four years before I was born. Until the end of her life in 1998, whenever asked why she had never remarried, she said, simply, "I am married." For her, death was not an impediment to love, and did not render that bond void. I always felt that she truly understood the eternal. For her, there was, ultimately, a point to existence. For her, entropy was illusory.

From left to right: me, with an aggravating smirk; my brother, Emmett; and, of course, my sister, sometime in 1970.

That's not an easy way to live. It requires moving against the current, heading through rough waters when smoother ways are easily surrendered to. I'm not saying it's superior, or the way for everyone to live. It's a strong choice, though, and our lives are defined by our choices.


My father's youngest brother, Zane. 23 years my father's junior, he was the Old Man's favorite sibling. One hell of a handsome kid; too bad those handsomeness genes skipped my generation. I remember him from one vivid visit, probably in 1968, when he was on leave from the Marines. I remember being transfixed by his dark, deep, piercing eyes, and the sadness that even then I could feel. That memory has stuck with me my whole life.
It's easy to feel lost as we move along time's river. The choices we make have a cascade effect, altering our course in ways that may seem minute when made, but which can become insurmountable, at least in our minds. It's easy at that point to feel that the currents of time have us in their control. That's why that great lattice, those interconnected bonds, are so important. They help remind us of the eternal.

Newspaper notice of the death of my uncle Zane, in December, 1971. It's all very sad, and the part that haunts me most is: Since his discharge, friends said, he had demonstrated a despondency which had not been a part of his personality before his military service.

Life seems to be an unending string of moments, of pivot points, where we can set sail in new directions or surrender to the whims of the current. Either way, we choose to remain in the river, charting courses as best we can, even if that course is no course at all.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

99 1/2

So I've been contemplating a long while on what to post about next on this blog. I'm sitting at 99 posts, and I've been overthinking what to do for 100. Of course, this gives me the opportunity to post a link to a great song...

Sometimes it's nice to hear the pops, hisses, and clicks of vinyl records. Plus it's Wilson Pickett, and it doesn't get much better than that.

I often think about penultimates, such as the number 99, and the borders between things. Penultimates hover just before consummation, never quite seeing completion. Borders represent the meeting between two or more things, and often have a strange, otherworldly quality to them; 99 is almost 100, but 100 has a definite mystique all its own. A penultimate, then, could be seen as a type of border, or at least something that lingers on a border between the old and the new, between a journey and its end.

One of the things I love about stormy weather is what I call the "thunderstorm moment." It's the moments before a storm truly explodes, when you can feel the electricity in the air, smell the water in the atmosphere, and when you can sense the impending violence. It's the border between the calm and the tempest, the penultimate moment of the building energy. There is a timeless feel to the thunderstorm moment, timeless yet ephemeral. It's a magical, frightening, thrilling slice of time.

Lately I've been feeling this thunderstorm moment in a spiritual sense, feeling something growing and building, an energy about to break loose. What it is and how it will manifest is beyond my ken, but I'm enjoying the moment while it lasts. Eventually, once it does break, I'll be posting a true post 100...or, if it doesn't, I'll harken back to grade school days and do post 99 3/4...

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Ephemera

I started a Tumblr some time ago that lay fallow for a long while until I was recently reminded that I had it. I thought about what I would do with it that was different from this blog and my Pinterest page (which I mentioned here). I decided I would start posting the marginalia I found in my books. I have a lot of books, and while marginalia is a bit more rare than you would expect, I have found enough to at least keep the Tumblr going for a little while.

Anyway, some of what I've found has been genuinely intriguing, and worth discussing here at more length. Such as this:


Very sweet. Strangely enough, it was in this book:


I admit I'm a sentimental romantic. I find something like this, and I immediately begin to wonder how things went. Did she wait those two hours, nervously glancing at the door, only to be left alone? Or did he show up, flattered and baffled to have a secret admirer? It is, and will remain, a mystery, and that makes me a little sad. I do hope all turned out well.

Taking such chances requires its own type of courage. Our hearts are fragile things, easily injured. Maybe that's why so many rush into and stay in relationships which, even if they aren't truly bad, aren't causing sparks. The pain of opening oneself up, becoming vulnerable on a regular basis, can be a terrifying prospect, and we yearn for the security of familiar arms where we are safe away from the hunt. That's why I admire when someone does take that leap into the unknown, laying their heart out in the open, awaiting they know not what.

I'm also charmed by the "its the '90s" line. It evokes a frozen moment, a context, a glimpse into a time that, for me, seems so clear and recent, but which the calendar reminds me ended so long ago. So much has happened, so much has changed, the World has spun on in its endless whirl, countless lives have touched upon and parted from countless others...and then this bit of forgotten risk-taking surfaces to make me ponder. Not just upon this unknown person taking a chance, but upon us all, upon my life and the lives that have intersected mine, knowingly and unknowingly. But I also think about now, and the future, and the ceaseless meshing of lives that is going on and will continue on as long as people walk the Earth.

This may all sound melancholy. I can't deny it is, in a sense. Yet, it also elicits a sense of awe in me, a great enveloping sense of wonder at the endless combinations possible in life, but which are all fragile in their connections, ephemeral, and all the more precious because of that. It's the kind of contemplation appropriate for a bitterly cold night, when one is safe and warm with loved ones sleeping near and far, with Tolkien's words on my mind: "I sit beside the fire and think/of all that I have seen..."

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Ohio sunsets



Wherever you are, there are beautiful sunsets. I will not presume to think the sunsets I can see from where I live are any more or less lovely than the ones you can see when you step out just before the gloaming. I have lived in and traveled to many different places, and all of them have sunsets that can break your heart or heal it.

In La Jolla, many years ago now, I was part of a crowd on a Spring afternoon, gathered to watch as the Sun dipped below the horizon. To the north, hot air balloons hovered above the seaside cliffs, floating to grasp at the last golden rays. As old Sol sank, and le rayon vert vanished, the crowd erupted into spontaneous applause as the first cool breezes of evening swept in.

Even more years ago, I chased the Sun West across the New Mexican desert. The sky went from a thin blue to indigo quickly, with stars glittering into view brightly through my windshield.

When I lived in Camarillo, California, I would drive just north of Ventura to the beach and watch as the sunset would be obscured by the clouds brought in by the onshore flow, with dolphins swimming south to north and seals drifting serenely a few hundred yards from the beach. The clouds blew in from the Channel Islands, the lights of oil rigs outshining the stars that were near the meeting of sea and sky. The Milky Way would shimmer into view, and would become one of the first things that leaped to mind when I missed California.

I've always felt my heart pulled West, and the gorgeous sunsets here in Ohio, whether seen through the ubiquitous trees or rolling farmland, seem even more poignant after having lived in California. A continent stretches between these two states, with forests and rivers and plains and prairies and desert and towns and cities and people, a multitude of people, carpeting those lands, all receiving their own sunsets in turn.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Book Cover Bonanza!

This will be a quick post to direct anyone who has a hankering to look at a lot of book covers to the still-in-progress gallery of my personal library. Here are a few to whet your appetite:





















There's much more where those came from, and I'm still adding to it.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

In the Midnight Hour: Roxy Music, New Year's Eve, 1979

Thought I'd close out the old year and welcome a new one by passing along one of my New Year's traditions: watching and listening to the cool, sleek groove of Bryan Ferry and Co. covering a Wilson Pickett classic.


See you next year!

New Year, Old Thoughts.

When I was a kid, I was often struck by the idea that at any given moment, someone somewhere on Earth was celebrating their birthday. Given the number of people on the planet, it just stood to reason. As I got older, the idea evolved; I came to see that every moment was, for someone out there, the worst or best moment of their lives. Every moment, the Earth witnesses scenes of hellish violence and idyllic peace. Somewhere, someone is awakening on a long-awaited day, while elsewhere someone is lying down after a grueling ordeal. Someone is pausing in a teeming crowd, someone is sitting alone. One person gazes at noonday Sun, another sits and contemplates the stars.

It was, and is, an overwhelming thought, this rush of simultaneity, this multitude of experiences all happening at once.

When I was a bit older, a teen, I imagined that if I listened hard enough on a quiet night, I could hear the low rushing sea-sound of billions of voices, the vast blanket of human thought and interaction stretching out and around me. There was a sense of being interconnected, in the sense that we are all human and can relate to each other at a basic level, at least. It was a comforting thought, really, this notion of a galaxy of humans swirling about on their respective paths. Yet, as I've said before, it brings with it a certain sadness, as I am reminded that I will never know beyond even a tiny, infinitesimally small number of all those people; vast numbers of potential staunch friends and great loves, all to remain strangers due to sheer logistics.

The internet helped cement these thoughts for me, long after the awe I felt when I was young had dissipated. The great net that is now cast across the Earth has helped rejuvenate that awe for me, to reveal that, indeed, the multitudes live out their daily lives, advancing the human experience one person at a time, but all together, and all at the same time.

Not long from now, as I write this, 2014 will begin its advance around the globe. The changing of years is, for me as it is for many, a time to contemplate both the past and the future. The passing year has not been the greatest for me (though really, I have no reason to complain), but maybe it was for you. I hope the coming year will be good for all of us.

Happy New Year.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

A leisurely South Seas cruise...to Skull Island.


You know as well as I do, probably better, that none of us live in a vacuum. Our lives are a string of moments that teach us something, whether we choose to learn from them or not. Most of those moments aren't labeled as lessons in big, bold letters, so too often we ignore them and move along, searching and waiting to find the "real" lessons we are sure will rise into view over the horizon with luminous sails. But that's never how it is, is it?

Sometimes it's seemingly inconsequential things that have stuck with me throughout my life, causing me to reflect back on them to suss out their meaning countless times. So many moments, preserved in memory like flash-lit photos, barely noticed while happening, yet treasured for decades. A lingering glance across a frozen parking lot, a hushed conversation in a kitchen lit by the light of an old stove, a laugh shared with strangers in a crowded check-out line, a childhood argument bitterly fought on an Autumn playground, a passage from a book read at random in a cramped library, a missed phone call presaging years of silence...they all add up to a greater meaning, if only we take the time to figure out just what that meaning is.

When I write these blog posts, I hope that it's clear that most of the ostensible subjects are really MacGuffins. That is, while they are interesting in and of themselves, for me they are vectors to talk about and ponder larger issues. They are outward manifestations of an inner life. I try to approach what I'm talking about with concrete examples, and even if those examples are not the cup of tea of any given potential reader, I would also hope that the underlying intent is of some interest.

I've been a dinosaur fan since I was a kid. Even more fascinating to me are prehistoric mammals. Now, don't get me wrong, I find modern animals fascinating, too, but there is something haunting about the vast array of creatures that roamed the planet before the advent of humans. The Earth spun silently on in its solar revolutions for eons, while life spread and throve and died and returned in different forms. What we see today is a snapshot, a moment caught and examined in detail by those with the ability to really see the larger mural of existence on this planet. It's almost heartbreaking to think of all the animals that are long lost, both the ones we know about via fossils or historical record, and the ones we will never know existed. Much of what we know has to be inferred from what evidence was left behind, leading to a lot of speculation, and, by extension, fiction. So tales of dinosaurs and other prehistoric critters enthrall me, as they make me consider what they may really have been like.

It is inevitable, then, that King Kong would have piqued my interest. Back in the days before home video and cable TV, I had to wait until Thanksgiving to see what was, for me, the ne plus ultra of dinosaur movies. A local UHF station played it Thanksgiving night for years. I was easily frustrated by all the non-Kong stuff going on in the movie; I knew what people were like, for crying out loud! I needed to see what the dinosaurs and giant apes were like. It was a window into another world, and I didn't want it blocked by silly romances and huckster schemes. Kong and the dinosaurs of Skull Island were clearly the stars of the movie, even if RKO didn't seem to get that.

Time marched on, as it does, and King Kong, while retaining its mystique for me, had become time-worn and known inside-out. So, too, was its sequel, Son of Kong, which had revealed an even more varied ecosystem for Skull Island than was evident in its predecessor. There were plenty of dinosaur flicks and TV shows that came later, especially with the rise of computer-generated effects, but none held the same potential to evoke wonder as King Kong. Peter Jackson would do a remake of it in 2005, which, while drubbed critically, still managed to recover some of the magic of the original - this Skull Island was a worthy successor. Riotous with life, dangerous as a green Hell, and a glimpse into a world that might have been, but never quite was.

Some years back, I snagged what I still feel is the coolest movie tie-in book I've ever seen: The World of Kong: A Natural History of Skull Island. The book was by the Weta Workshop, the special effects folk responsible for both the Lord of the Rings movies, and the 2005 King Kong, all of which are Peter Jackson movies. Say what you will about Jackson's Kong, but the amount of work and detail put into the creation of Skull Island is astounding. I wrote a review of the book a long while ago, but I thought I'd post it here, too.

Books like this are the kind that can stick in one's memory for years. Sure, it's a fictional place, but it takes reality and tweaks it a bit into a tantalizing glimpse of what-might-have-been on some alternate timeline. I put it alongside the atlases and encyclopedias on my bookshelves, as well as other "never-were" books like After Man. To me, it adds a touch of wonder for both young and old alike to compare, contrast, and dream about far-flung places both imaginary and existing, to contemplate the borders between the real and unreal and where they shade into each other.

Introduction

The discovery and subsequent expeditions to Skull Island until it disappeared beneath the waves are revealed. The gradual shrinking of the island as it sinks into the sea is discussed, and the reader learns it is due to volcanic activity. Also discussed are the huge ruins that seem to have covered a large part of the island at one time, the builders of which are unknown.

I. The Crumbling Coast and Village

While some of the coastal creatures – such as large crustaceans and various water-loving animals like reptiles and amphibians, as well as birds and other flying creatures – are detailed, the human village is of even more interest.

The humans here are a dwindling, desperate lot, pushed to the limits of existence as they are forced into more and more inhospitable living conditions due to the encroaching sea. They are of a racial stock unlike any that are indigenous to the region, and could be the descendants of the builders of the ruins. If so, they have lost any memory of their history. The ritual sacrifices to the mighty Kong are also discussed.

II. The Shrinking Lowlands

The primary domain of the true heavy-hitters of Skull Island’s dinosaur set, such as the brontosaurus (yes, brontosaurus, not apatosaurus) and the V. Rex (V standing for vastatosaurus), a big, meat-eating tyrannosaur descendant.

The implication of this chapter is that as Skull Island sinks, the competition for territory and food forces the animals here to live a life of constant danger and violence. With so many large, dangerous animals squeezed into an area getting smaller everyday, the place becomes almost cartoonishly violent.
A study of how Skull Island is sinking.

III. The Winding Swamps and Waterways

Called the “Blood of the Island,” these wet areas ensure the sustainability of life on Skull Island.

IV. The Steaming Jungle

Perhaps the most familiar part of Skull Island, the jungles contain probably the greatest variety of life. Life forms range from graceful ceratopsians to proto-monkey creatures. There are flying lizards (“flizards,” not quite pterosaurs), a wide array of nasty-looking insects, “flying rats,” strange sorta-bats, and “burglar monkeys” (the aforementioned proto-monkeys) inhabiting the forest canopy. Below, giant flightless birds, huge centipedes, and lots of large, nasty lizards prowl the jungle floor.

V. The Abyssal Chasms

This is the deep, dark, dank, and perhaps most alien region of Skull Island. Deep fissures cleave the island, and are kept moist by the tropical climate, and very warm due to volcanic activity. Spiders, giant worms with big, nasty teeth, and weird, pterosaur-like “vultursaurs” lurk in these areas. Think of what you find under a rotting log, mix it with a lot of fungus, and make it all really big and hostile, and that’s what you have here.

VI. The Barren Uplands

While inhabited by a variety of creatures, such as the bifurcatops, an agile ceratopsian that fills a mountain-goat-like niche, this region is most notable for the giant apes that claim it. How and why a species of huge, gorilla-like primates came to exist on Skull Island is discussed, but a lot is left to speculation.

An interesting idea that is presented is the notion that these creatures were brought to the island by the mysterious ruin-builders, and bred into their giant size from gigantopithecus stock. The species’ gradual decline, until only the mighty Kong remained, is discussed, as is the demise of Kong himself, and provides a melancholy end to this book.

Size Comparison Chart

A fold-out section at the end of the book shows the various creatures of Skull Island standing placidly in profile on a New York City street. We get to see just how large all the dinosaurs and other animals are in relation to each other, as well as in relation to humans (such as Ann Darrow/Naomi Watts), biplanes, and New York’s elevated trains.

The Good

This book conjures up Skull Island as a fully-realized, living, breathing place. It’s such an interesting place, that it makes me wish there really was such an island in the world. The book never “breaks character” and dispels the illusion, treating its subject with respect and perhaps a bit of awe. This includes a rather neat vintage-looking map on the inside covers and end-papers of the book, as well as several maps showing the climatic/ecological regions of the Island. It really seems like a place I’d like to…well, not visit, really, since it’s so dangerous. OK, maybe I would like to visit it; it's too tempting. But I’d definitely love to see a National Geographic special on it.

Another neat thing about the book is that the creatures on Skull Island are not simply frozen-in-time hold-overs from the Cretaceous era. They are descendants of the animals from that time, and have evolved various specializations over the eons.

The Bad

Honestly, I can’t find a legitimately bad thing to say about this book. I only wish it was longer and contained more artwork.

The Ugly

The carnictis sordicus is a species of intestinal parasites that somehow evolved into giant worm-like creatures, and which live deep within the chasms of Skull Island. Described as “animated stomachs” with a “sphincter-maw of teeth,” these critters made a pretty spectacular and, yes, as the book says, repulsive appearance in the recent King Kong movie. Very creepy, shudder-inducing fellas.

Why You Will Like It

Perhaps first and foremost, this book is gorgeously illustrated. The images are clear, vivid, and fire the imagination. The detail put into the ecosystem, while pushed to the limits of credibility and beyond, still shows a lot of thought and effort. This makes the book a fun read as it straight-facedly presents Skull Island as a real place.

Why You Won’t Like It

If depictions of unrealistic, pulp-magazine style jungle-clad islands inhabited by dinosaurs and giant apes don’t appeal to you, then you probably won’t like this book.

Where’s the Fun?

The fun is in the sheer chaos of the island’s ecosystem. It’s bright, colorful, over-the-top adventuring fun. Really dangerous bright, colorful, over-the-top adventuring fun. There is a cliffhanger (often literally) every few yards, with the fauna (and maybe even some flora) out to eat the unwary. Realistic? No. Fun? Hell yeah.
Giant Apes + Dinosaur Fights=Fun

Final Assessment

I love this book. It’s the best movie tie-in I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading and looking at. It can be read as a study of a place that never was.

One of the things I didn't emphasize enough, regardless of the pictures I posted, is just how beautifully illustrated this book is. There are no stills from the film; the art consists of concept paintings and drawings from the Weta Workshop, which did the special effects for the film. This is an important point, I feel, as the book establishes its own identity separate from the film. One could comfortably read and enjoy the book without ever having seen the film. 

But what does all this have to do with anything? For me, it points up the wonder and fragility of life. It shows the importance of imagination, and the firing of that imagination. It represents the manifestation of a memory, and childhood flights of fancy that can still thrill an adult. Most importantly, though, I wanted to write about Skull Island. I hope others like reading about it, and both "get" why something like this is important to me (and why other things are important to them), and actually get the book if it seems like the kind of place they'd like to visit, if only in the theater of the mind.