Reading the Fantastic

My view from the milk stool is on one of the courses that I’ll be taking this semester. It’s called “Reading the Fantastic.” We were given three short stories to read (before the class even officially starts – welcome to grad school) and asked to annotate them with our thoughts. The first one I read was Steven Millhauser’s “Beneath the Cellars of Our Town” which starts out reading as if it was a nonfiction piece. It’s about a town that has cellars running underneath it.

The openings to these cellars (passageways, tunnels) are scattered throughout the town and the entryways change over the years. So they’re magical.

What struck me about this story is how it’s really unknown why these cellars are there *and* citizens of other towns put down the tunnels saying that they are “unhealthy, give the citizens an unpleasant pallor, noxious effluvia (odors) rising up from the tunnels makes the soil unhealthy, taint the air and undermind the structure of the buildings and ground in the town.

Well if they don’t live in this town, why should they care?

Certainly, a town with magical tunnels underneath it is different and quite fantastical, but why can’t this difference – this magic be celebrated? It comes down to the typical, if it’s different than the norm, it’s not accepted. I’m not entirely sure what the tunnels represent – are they an escape from everyday life for those lucky townspeople?

Some townspeople want to put concessions, cafes, vending machines, stores, etc. down in the tunnels, but that gets voted down. It’s argued that commerce introduces a distraction into the quite passageways and goes against the solitary and meditative wandering … Capitalism is always a problem isn’t it?

It’s as if others are looking down on the townsfolk who have the tunnels for their escape into a magical realm that comes complete with mysterious lamplighters who stay below ground and are rarely seen. They’re slow moving elderly men, all about the same size. Could this be pointing to the fact that elderly people are often put away in nursing homes and sometimes ignored by their friends and family? Are these tunnels some form of senior home for men to live out their lives?

We live in fantastical times. Two years ago, who’d of thought that a silly little virus would turn the world upside down and kill millions of people (almost 650,000 in the United States alone). What we’re living through now has all the makings of a science fiction novel – there have been many similar novels written about a virus that all but wipes out the human race, or turns them into zombies.

This virus isn’t quite turning people into zombies – but it is affecting some of the population turning them into raving, ugly lunatics, at least on Facebook and on airplanes.

Is this vaccine a magic bullet that will save us all? Only time will tell. Meanwhile, I think I’d like to live in that town that has the cellars and use them as an escape from the craziness that is our world today.