This story was born out of a writing experiment. In it, I was using an image I had seen (not the one above, which the editors kindly and appropriately chose for this piece) as a vehicle for a story. The image was particularly disturbing. I enjoy surrealist art, creepy art, and disturbing art, and I thought it would be fun to do a story taking a sort of Lovecraftian twist on the power of art. It wasn’t until much later that I remembered Lovecraft’s story, Pickman’s Model, and I realized that something of that story had permeated through my subconscious into my own work.
Kritik was also an experiment in writing flash fiction. As a flash piece, it fails, because it is just over 1,400 words long (flash is typically under 1,000 words), but it is one of the shortest stories that I have managed to write that feels like a complete work. In further experimenting with the work, I chose to write it in first person plural, my intention being to give the reader an invitation, a sense of participation in the story. My hope is that the effect allows you, the reader, to be a part of us, the characters in the story, a silent lurker in the corner, witnessing the horrors unfolding before you.
I hope you enjoy!
Special thanks goes to the editors of Speculative City, Meera Velu and Devon Montgomery, who put an enormous amount of love and hard work into their new magazine. Speculative City looks fantastic and I am humbled to have my words appear next to the work of so many other talented writers and artists.
Some exciting news today! “The Titan’s Daughter,” a story I co-authored with my friend and co-conspirator Evan Dicken appears today on the Gallery of Curiosities story podcast. Evan is an immensely talented and entertaining writer whose writing has appeared in Analog, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and many others. (Hint: Go read some of his other stories – they’re fun and awesome!)
Gallery of Curiosities did a bang-up job with the production. They clearly put a lot of love and hard work into producing this story and it shows.
A very, very special thanks to Ms. Ella Turenne, whose performance as the narrator exceeded my wildest expectations.
It’s immensely readable, a practical reflection on the times we currently live in and practical, thoughtful actions on helping to ensure our society doesn’t slide further towards tyranny. It’s a collection of twenty essays such as “Do not obey in advance” and “Be reflective if you must be armed” that follow with some practical advice and some historical evidence on how the failure of individuals in the twentieth century to heed these maxims brought about tyrannical governments and police states.
I encourage you to read and reflect on this book. I promise it’s an easy read and well worth it!
In the spirit of Snyder’s book, I’m going to be writing a series of short essays on my own thoughts related to the threats we face and what we can do about it.
Take Responsibility for the Face of the World
I recently attended a corporate retreat where we discussed corporate culture and what we can do to change it. The lesson I took away from that discussion was that there is no “they” who define culture. The amorphous “they” is “we.” We are the ones that define the culture around us.
This expands well beyond office politics. It extends into every aspect of our lives. We create the society that we live in, we create the culture around us, and the things we say and do (or choose not to say or do) implicitly and explicitly helps to shape the culture of our society around us.
We like to think that we would do the right thing in difficult circumstances, but it is much easier to turn away and ignore the situation. “Surely,” we say, “if I saw someone being attacked, something terrible happening, I would stand up and fight against such injustice.”
But how far does this extend? Does it extend to a racist joke by a colleague at a cocktail party? Does it extend to a bigoted viewpoint expressed by a casual acquaintance or a friend? What about a blatantly false “alt fact” espoused by a beloved family member? It’s much easier to let such things slide in the moment. We’re trained and taught to avoid discussing politics in mixed company. Why cause a fuss?
We now find ourselves living in a world where racism, misogyny, homophobia, bigotry, hatred, intolerance, and lies are part of our day-to-day politics. Speaking out against these things is essential, even if it means creating an uncomfortable situation. It takes courage, and courage isn’t easy.
Don’t wait for someone else to do it first. Failing to speak out against a view you find distasteful or hateful is tacitly endorsing such a view. And this is dangerous. It shows those around you that you’re willing to accept such views, that they’re “okay with you.”
Here’s a choose-your-own-adventure scenario:
You’ve just met Bob, Juan, and Sally at a dinner party held by a mutual acquaintance. The topic turns to the local news and Donald Trump’s insistence on building a border wall. “About time,” Bob says. “Those illegals are all rapists and drug smugglers.” He looks at Juan. “Not you, of course.”
Juan and Sally look from Bob to you. What do you do?
If you tell Bob that he’s wrong and that his views are unacceptable, skip to Scenario A.
If you wait for someone else to respond first, skip to Scenario B.
“That isn’t true, Bob,” you say. “I would encourage you to investigate the facts from an unbiased source. That kind of viewpoint is bigoted and racist, and I find it unacceptable.”
Bob’s face reddens. He snarls a curse at you, then stands up and storms off.
You look around the table. Juan is visibly relieved. Sally looks after Bob, then turns her attention to her plate.
You glance over at Juan. He’s clearly uncomfortable, but says nothing. Sally smiles at Bob. “I heard all about those Mexicans on the news. Isn’t it just awful? I hope they deport every one of them.” She doesn’t even look at Juan.
I won’t pretend that life is as easy as this little scenario. It isn’t. These kinds of situations are difficult. But the point is that every time we choose Scenario B – for whatever reason – we implicitly endorse the Bobs of the world. Not only does that make Juan feel isolated, it also makes Sally feel safe expressing her own bigoted views.
We create the world we live in, the culture and the society that surround us, and we are responsible for it. Failing to speak out against bigotry, misogyny, homophobia, racism, lies, misinformation, or any kind of intolerant or hateful view is a kind of endorsement of that view. Failing to speak up tells Bob and Sally and Juan and everyone else that, even if you don’t agree with Bob, you believe that his viewpoint is an acceptable one to hold in our society.
The more that happens, the more we will find our politics and our media and our culture treating such views as legitimate ones to have within our society. But the more we speak out and say, No! Such views are unacceptable. They are the foundation of repression and the antithesis of freedom, the more isolated and marginalized such views will become.
The morning dawned bright and clear, sun beaming down on the snowy mountains and hills. We got an earlier start today as we had lots of driving to do and many exciting vistas ahead of us.
The first leg of our journey actually had us backtracking a short ways to Keldur, a farm featured in the 13th c. masterwork of epic poetry, Njál’s Saga. The farm sits in a great empty expanse on the volcanic plain below Hekla. A natural spring bubbles up from the ground just outside the farm grounds, which are dotted with turf-roof buildings from various eras, including ruins dating all the way back to the 10th century. It was strange to imagine making a life out here in this rocky, frozen wasteland for century after century, but clearly someone was still doing it, as evidenced by the cattle lowing at us as we explored the farm grounds.
We returned briefly to Hvolsvöllur for a visit to the Saga Museum. A hall of tapestries, illustrations, and audio files takes you through the entire history and tale of Njál’s Saga. The museum also featured a photo booth where you could dress up as a viking warrior, and a mead hall! I wanted a tanker of mead but it was only 10:30 in the morning and the tavern-keeper apparently was still asleep.
We ventured along the ring road, Iceland’s most famous (only?) highway that encircles the entire country. We were flanked on our right by the Atlantic ocean, distant coast, and islands rising out of the mist. On our left, rocky cliffs rose above us capped with snow and ice, like an endless wall that stretched all along the southern coast of Iceland.
We stopped first at the famous waterfall Seljalandsfoss, which was mobbed with busloads of tourists. Due to the angle of the sun and the cliff, we were in the shade and it was icy cold. The wind caught the spray from the waterfall and blew it down over us. The gravel path and the rope marking it were covered with ice, such that it became nearly impossible to approach very close because you kept sliding back down the walkway! Some brave (stupid?) people had ventured off the path and up a staircase marked “closed” to a path behind the waterfall. I’m sure that it was covered in thick ice and they all probably fell to their doom. We fled the tourist horde.
As we drove on, I became increasingly possessed by a need to stop and take pictures, so we pulled over at a small roadside stop. It turned out to be a viewing point for the Eyjafjallajökull volcano (pronunciation), once again safely covered in snow and ice after the massive eruption in 2010, when ash from the volcano shut down flights over most of Europe. It looks quite picturesque now, with a small farm nestled at the bottom of a mountain.
Onwards to Skokarfoss, a much more stunning waterfall in the small village of Skogar. Also flooded with busloads of tourists, this waterfall was somehow more charming, maybe because the visitors were spread out more, or because of the way the sunlight struck the water as it tumbled over the falls, spreading out a double-rainbow over the valley. Denise and I braved a climb up fifteen flights of rickety stairs for a view from the top of the falls. We were not disappointed, though the climb and the descent were as exciting as the falls itself! It was easy to imagine how the locals developed folk tales of these mystical falls, how one could believe in trolls and elves and lost treasures.
We pushed onwards to the next major tourist destination, the stunning black volcanic sands and towering hexagonal basalt cliffs of Reynisfjara beach, flanked in the distance by the natural rock arch Dyrhólaey. The beach was breathtaking, not even the busloads of visitors could ruin the view. We studied the patterns in the stones and the way the surf disappeared into the black sand before venturing onto the town of Vik for lunch. After we enjoyed the local fare (seafood soup and Icelandic beers), we ventured down to Reynisdranga beach, which had almost no tourists and equally stunning views. The rocks jutting out of the sea just beyond the shore are said to be trolls turned to stone by the sun as they were attempting to drag a boat to shore.
After lunch, we left the string of tour buses behind and ventured further east across a blasted volcanic wasteland. For the next hour and a half, there were no towns, no farms, nothing but the road and the miles of snow-covered lava rock stretching to the mountains to the north and out to sea to the south. Finally, we passed through the lava field (created by the 1783 and 1784 eruptions at Laki volcano) and reached the quaint village of Kirkjubæjarklaustur (pop 120). We drove to the edge of town to a small farm where some Icelandic ponies had gathered near the fance, presumably to greet visitors. I fed them an apple, but one of the ponies like the taste of my fingers too much and tried to remove one with his teeth!
We said goodbye to our pony friends (even the foul-tempered one who bit me), and left Kirkjubæjarklaustur, venturing out across another lava field in search of our hotel. Our GPS simply said “Drive 15 miles, then turn off the road.” This instruction sounded increasingly ominous as our drive further into the wasteland made it apparent that no one and nothing could survive out here for long. And yet, there, in the middle of the lava field, was a squat, concrete bunker like some Antarctic research station. Fosshotel Nupar. This felt like the most remote place on the planet.
Inside, the hotel was actually quite nice. Hypermodern and minimalist in design, each room features a large glass wall granting breathtaking views of the mountains and glaciers across the wastes. We drank wine and watched the sun set.
Day 2 dawned cold and cloudy. We overslept because somehow I still don’t know how to correctly set an alarm on my phone. We ate a big, hearty breakfast at the hotel and had many cups of delicious hot coffee to fortify ourselves before we ventured out on the road.
We booked our tour through Guide to Iceland. This was the first time I’ve used a travel agency, but in the case of Iceland we knew we were traveling to lots of small towns and villages, and it seemed a wiser course of action to rely on people who knew the area (Guide to Iceland is located in Reykjavik city hall), rather than trying to rely on a travel guide. Many guesthouses, restaurants, and hotels close up shop during the winter and we didn’t want to get stranded sleeping in the car.
Our tour, which included our rental car and lodging at all the places we visited, also included entrance to the Blue Lagoon (see Day 4), and a detailed and informative itinerary of places it was suggested that we visit. As this is a self-drive tour, you are free to go where you want when you want, which was just how we wanted it.
We drove out of Reykjavik towards the ring of nearby natural wonders known as the Golden Circle. Our GPS got us briefly lost (again, turns out I don’t know how to use technology as well as I thought I did), but we figured it out before we drove into the ocean. The snow was coming down hard and it was difficult to distinguish the horizon from the sky. The mountains were looming walls of white against a white sky on a white ground. A few scattered farmhouses peeked out of the blinding white. Fortunately it was warm enough that the snow wasn’t sticking on the road.
We rounded a curve and suddenly looming below us was the gray expanse of þingvallavatn, the largest lake in Iceland. We wended our way around the lake into þingvellir Valley, a National Park of Iceland. þingvellir is the meeting place of the North American and Eurasian Tectonic Plates, and the continents are slowly tearing themselves apart at a rate of a few centimeters a year (hence the valley). In the middle of the lake is Silfra fissure where you can scuba dive and snorkel, actually diving between the two tectonic plates!!! However, we bypassed this activity as it was pretty cold and the activity was very expensive for the short amount of time you got to spend exploring.
Instead, we parked and began to hike trails through the park. There is an enormous wall of basalt rock that runs along the Northern part of the lake. This is the famous “Law Rock,” or Lögberg where the Icelandic Parliament (the Alþingi) was held from 930 AD until 1799. The Law Rock has been featured in Game of Thrones (as have many locations in Iceland).
We hiked up and saw the crystalline glacial waters of Öxarárfoss, a small waterfall nestled in a basalt crevasse. The jutting black rocks were scarred with lichens and dusted with newfallen snow. We followed the path along to the Law Rock, which towers over the valley, a true monument of kings. It’s easy to imagine, at a place like this, how the Icelandic people believed in giants and trolls and dragons and gods. What else but a giant or a god could split the earth in such a way? (The answer, of course, is volcanoes and tectonic plates!) Below us, þingvellir Valley stretched nearly as far as the eye could see until it ended at distant mountains, barely visible in the snowfall and gray light.
Though we could have explored the nooks and crannies of the valley for hours, we had so much to do, so we got back on the road. We were hungry for lunch, so we stopped at a bistro our tour book recommended, but it was too fancy. Instead, we found a small farm called Efstidalur II where we had a hamburger and enjoyed fresh ice cream while watching the cows from whom the ice cream was made.
We pressed onward to Geysir, a famous geyser from which the English word is taken! It’s actually a whole field of small and large geysers and bubbling hotpots oozing steam and boiling, mineral-rich water. Geysir didn’t erupt for us, but his neighbor, Strokkur, did, blasting water fifty feet into the air!
We made our way further up into the highlands to the most colossal of all waterfalls in Iceland, Gullfoss. The Hvítá river has carved a deep canyon in the earth, like a giant gash, and here there is a three-stage waterfall. Waterfall doesn’t really do it justice. It felt more like Niagara in its breathtaking, awe-inspiring scale. The spray from the falls had turned the rock walls of the canyon into sheets of perfectly structured walls of ice. Between the heavy snowfall and the river below, it was as if all the time-destroying powers of water were bearing down on this place.
It was mid-afternoon and we had several hours of daylight remaining, so we ventured off of our itinerary into þorsadalur Valley, where we had read that we could find several sites of 9th century viking ruins. As we ventured further up into the valley, we began to lose light and the snow continued to fall, now beginning to stick to the roadway. We found a dirt track off of Route 32 that was marked “impassable” and appeared to be quite muddy. We left the car at the road and hiked back, but the ruins were much further off the road than we were willing to venture on foot. We did spot arctic fox tracks and saw fantastic mountain vistas, but the ruins eluded us.
We were losing daylight quickly so we returned to our car. The nearest bridge was another 15 km up-river, so we ventured further up into the valley as the snow continued to fall and the light continued to fade. We finally found a wooden bridge that crossed the þorsa river and the road that would take us back down out of the valley and ultimately to our destination at Hvolsvöllur. The road was narrow and treacherous. Snow had blown over much of the roadway and visibility was low thanks to the fading light and the falling snow. At one point, a wall of ice blocked part of the roadway. We managed to avoid it, driving through drift after drift of snow, but then the roadway entirely disappeared! Only the yellow markers along the roadside guided us along the roadway.
Conditions gradually improved as we slowly drove out of the valley and across a sprawling lava field, creeping below the mighty volcano Hekla like Sam and Frodo sneaking through Mordor beneath the Eye of Sauron. After nearly two hours of joking about how long we could survive on Clif bars and Icelandic junk food should we get stranded, we reached Hvolsvöllur.
We had pizza and beer at the restaurant/bar/grocery/gas station combo (a common format in rural Iceland). The pizza was surprisingly delicious. We staggered back to our hotel and crashed. Our bed had a crevasse in the middle like the rent in the earth at þingvellir. The hotel lacked any charm but was clean. We were too tired to care.
Small details of the day: arctic fox tracks, hunting for rocks along the þorsa river, off-roading up a hill for a stunning view of the valley, annoying super-jeeps hogging up the road, BLUE BLUE BLUE glacial water, and lots of snow – we were both grateful for investing in heavy coats, boots, gloves, hats, and scarves!
After today, we were beginning to get a sense of the scale and power of Iceland. Endless miles of volcanic rock and ice with only the rarest of settlements in between. A place forgotten by the rest of the world, devoid of human habitation until the Vikings discovered it in the 9th century. Iceland might as well be another planet, and we two explorers on a distant world.
Iceland. The name conjures images of rivers of glacial ice, thundering volcanoes pouring out clouds of ash, green hills, rocky cliffs, and small, turf-roofed farms, and the meeting of the continental plates at Þingvellir. It’s people are the most literate people in the world with a rich cultural heritage including the Icelandic Sagas, the mythological Eddas, and carefully-recorded history stretching back over a thousand years.
I finally got to visit, accompanied by Denise, and we had a wonderful adventure together. I hope that you enjoy. Let me know in the comments if you’ve been to Iceland, if you are planning to go, or what other crazy globe-trotting adventures you are thinking of. We are already planning our next trip…
Day 1 – Reykjavik
Reykjavik is the capital of Iceland, the northernmost capital city in the world. Reykjavik is a small city, home to less than 120,000 fisherfolk, artists, traders, craftsmen, and musicians.
We flew the red eye and slept poorly on the plane, arriving at Iceland’s main airport in Keflavik an hour before dawn. We stumbled through the airport in a haze and finally managed to reach our rental car company and got our trusty rental car, a 4-wheel drive Kia Sportage we affectionately nicknamed “Kid U-61.” (We would be grateful for the 4WD in the days to come!)
We threw our luggage into the car and ventured out in the dark in our vehicle, driving the 45 minutes to Reykjavik across a surreal sort of moonscape–shadowy lava rock covered in a layer of fresh snow. The strangest thing was that there were no trees to be seen anywhere as we drove towards the city.
Reykjavik is a small city, and easy to navigate. We quickly found our way to a hillside neighborhood downtown where we bought fresh-baked pastries at a bakery called Brauð and then sat and drank our first coffee in a cute little coffeehouse (Reykjavik Roasters). The coffee was regrettably weak, but the place was charming, with a record player, strange kids books (Donald Duck in Icelandic), and locals traipsing in and out to pick up lattes.
At the top of the hill is the stunning, white Hallgrimskirkja church that stands like a monument over the city. The church features hexagonal architecture reminiscent of the hexagonal black basalt columns that are visible in Southern Iceland (see Day 3). In front of the church stands a mighty statue of the Viking explorer Leif Erikson, who was the first European to discover America. We Americans gave the statue to Iceland on the thousandth anniversary of their Parliament, the Alþingi, which was first held in 930 AD!
It was still to early to check into our hotel so we ventured down to the waterfront where we stumbled across a beautiful steel sculpture known as Sun-Craft. It sits on the bay, reflecting the rays of the sun with the sea and the icy mountains as stunning backdrop.
We found our hotel–Icelandair Hotel Marina–in the Old Harbor neighborhood. It literally sat right on the harbor. There was a salt-stained ship cradle and a collection of fishing boats bobbing outside of our window. The hotel itself felt super-hip. Very modern and trendy with a library, cocktail bar, a cinema, fireplaces, and original artwork (including glass sculptures for windows!).
We were still before check-in time, so we parked the car and headed to the Old City to meet up with a free city walking tour. The guide was informative, but it was cold that morning and our guide was painfully slow, standing 5-10 minutes at a time in front of this statue or that, and skipping past what seemed to us the most interesting things–undercity ruins at the Reykjavik 871 exhibit! We skipped out on the tour after half an hour, poked around in a few souvenir shops (oh how Iceland loves these!), and then popped in a cafe for a lunch of potato soup and a mozzarella panini.
Sleepy Denise ponders art.
After lunch, we went back to the hotel and crashed for a couple of hours of blissful, dreamless sleep. We woke warm and rested in our cozy room. In the distance, I could just make out then colossal Snæfellsjökull glacier northwest across the sea.
We ventured out to the Aurora Reykjavik exhibit where we learned all about the science of auroras, watched some cool videos, and had fun with 3D goggles. One of the reasons we came to Iceland in the winter was that we both dreamed of seeing the Aurora Borealis, so it was good to come and learn facts about it. Unfortunately, our chances looked slim as the weather was predicting clouds and snow during the bulk of our visit.
We ventured to Resto for dinner. We drank wine and shared an appetizer of salt cod in a pastry shell. Denise ordered a dish of langosteen and ling. I had grilled salmon with delicious vegetables. The meal was incredibly delicious–rich and buttery and savory and sweet and salty. All the things!
We headed back to the hotel, exhausted but well-fed. We had unwittingly arrived on St. Patrick’s Day, and there was a Jameson Whiskey party going on in the lobby. We skipped the Jameson and ordered the house cocktails. Denise’s featured gin and lemon and mine had tequila, fruit, and cream. Glad that tasty cocktails were available, if ridiculously expensive!