Happy Halloween!

31 10 2012

It’s that most wonderful day of the year (second only to tomorrow, when Target has its post-Halloween clearance sale!). To celebrate, and to thank everyone who supported Plaguewalker, especially through the media blitz and area readings of the last week, here’s a ghost story I penned. Enjoy.

 

Everyone Knows

This really happened.

Ghost tale tellers are like fishermen and lawyers, always swearing their whopper is for real. But I can guarantee this story is true because I was the one running down a night-black gravel road in my pajamas, too scared to look over my shoulder.

I had a summer job in college as a public health intern in northern Canada. Part of my job was to take the coastal ferry from one tiny fishing village to the next, delivering stacks of pamphlets and posters reminding the locals not to drink and snowmobile, or to get their children vaccinated.

One evening, I arrived in a town large enough to have its own hospital. The staff was surprised to see me—there’d been a mix-up and no one was expecting me until the following week.

A gruff caretaker threw my bag in the back of his pick-up and said he’d take me to temporary housing for the night.

We bumped over dirt and gravel roads cut into moorland and through dark pine forests for several minutes, leaving the sparse lights of the town some distance behind us.

I was about to ask where he was taking me when we passed a radio tower looming over a low building. The sign on its brick façade—Royal Canadian Mounted Police—was reassuring.

A thinner gravel track, little more than two wheel ruts through overgrown grass, led from the back of the station toward the forest. We turned onto it.

Perhaps a half mile down the road, I saw a lonely mailbox with the number “5.” Beyond sat a white house. The curtains were pulled. The lights were off.

“We put the visiting doctors and dentists out here,” volunteered my reluctant chauffeur. “You’ll stay in the basement apartment. Nobody lives in the house no more.”

He watched as I struggled to get my backpack out of his truck bed, then waited just long enough for me to open a door at the side of the house and switch on the lights. I heard the wheels of his truck grumble over stones and uncut grass as I stared at narrow wooden steps leading down.

The apartment was sterile as a hospital ward. Everything was painted white. The walls were bare. There was, however, a box mix of macaroni and cheese in the pantry, a pot and a spoon. Soon I had a warm meal that reminded me of home, or at least of places that were more welcoming.

I read a bit and then settled into a twin bed in the corner room. I turned off the light.

It started.

Footsteps.

Heavy and shuffling, they walked from the bedroom door to a point above my head.

And then…

BAM! BAM! BAM!

The sound of something hard and blunt, wielded with force.

I turned on the light and sat up.

Silence.

Pipes banging in an old house. The wind. A curious raccoon. Could be anything.

I held my breath, listening. Satisfied it was nothing more than my imagination, I turned off the light.

Creak-creak-creak-creak.

The footsteps crossed the space above again.

BAM! BAM! BAM! BAM!

I switched on the light.

The noises stopped.

Surely I’d read too many scary books, seen too many slasher flicks. Alone in a remote location where I felt less than wanted, it was natural I would hear noises and assume the worst.

I would turn off the light, and I would hear nothing more than an old house settling for the night as wind smacked tree branches against its walls.

I turned off the light.

Silence shattered into footsteps, faster and angrier now it seemed. Then that dreadful banging.

Well, I had read a lot of scary books and seen a lot of slasher flicks and I realized at that moment I was the fool in the first act, the one who dismisses every portent of evil upstairs and ends up skewered, beheaded, boiled or shredded.

I turned on the light just to find my wallet and my boots.

The noise stopped, but terror already had consumed me. I bolted up the stairs, threw open the door, and ran.

I should tell you I am not much of a runner. I was the kid who dependably brought up the rear in gym class.

But that night, I ran.

I navigated the dark gravel road by the sound of my feet crunching on the crushed stone, imagining a thousand horrors advancing behind me.

I ran all the way to the Mounties and burst into the tiny reception area breathless and shaking.

A pair of them, seated at a shared desk, looked up with less surprise than one might expect when a wild-eyed woman in pajamas turns up after midnight.

I spilled the whole story. The footsteps. The banging.

The Mounties glanced at each other.

I expected them to cluck their tongues and dismiss me as a city girl scared by a raccoon.

“They shouldn’ta put you in Number Five,” one of them sighed. His calm sent a fresh chill through me, top to toes. “Everyone knows not to put a single woman there.”

“Come on, we’ll take you to the hospital so they can find another place for you.”

I asked why Number Five was no place for a single girl. They exchanged looks again.

“It’s just real remote,” one offered.

“Maybe it’s a raccoon. Maybe it’s trapped,” I suggested.

“Mmmm, we can check,” said the second Mountie.

I sat in the back of their patrol car as it crawled along the overgrown road. In its headlights, the house was bright white and dark-windowed. Dead as a skull.

“Come on, we’ll look for that raccoon,” said the first Mountie.

The door was closed but—as with most front doors for most houses in this part of the world—it was unlocked. The Mounties’ flashlights danced over one empty room after the next, the floor plan identical to the apartment below. The room above mine had been a bedroom too, once. Now it was nothing but peach walls and rust-colored shag carpeting.

“Nope, no raccoon,” said the second Mountie.

They escorted me to the basement, where I packed in seconds, and then drove me to the hospital.

“’Mornin’,” the first Mountie greeted the woman staffing emergency room reception. “Someone decided to put this young lady in Number Five for the night.”

She shook her head. “Well, it’s too late to move her. I’ll just find her a bed here.”

A few minutes later, I was alone again, in an empty room of the IC ward. When dawn came, I was up and dressed and ready to leave, but not before asking the receptionist why Number Five was off-limits for a woman traveling alone.

She replied that she’d arrange for someone to drive me to the coastal ferry, leaving in an hour.

I was embarrassing myself, I decided. It was my imagination after all, amplifying the dull thud of old plumbing and the rustle of wind. Running to the Mounties had been a moment of foolishness best forgotten.

So Number Five slid into the shadows of my memory. For a few weeks.

It was August. My internship was ending. The staff gathered for an extended coffee break to bid me farewell. Good-natured gossip blossomed into stories, and soon everyone was sharing a tale or two.

One nurse recalled a patient, a fisherman who mistook her exam room questions as amorous interest.

Most of us chuckled. My boss frowned.

“You never know where that sort of thing can go,” she said. “Remember that poor doctor up north.”

Staff who’d been around a few years nodded. Silence settled on our shoulders.

“What happened?” I asked.

“A very disturbed young man became obsessed with his psychiatrist,” my boss explained. “One night he broke into her house. Beat her to death in her own bed with a baseball bat.”

I was back in a hard twin bed, in the darkness, listening to angry footsteps above me and a terrible banging.

“They tried to put a couple nurses up in that house last year but they said ‘goodness, no!’” added our receptionist. She clucked her tongue.

I was running through darkness, my only guide the crunch of my own boots on gravel, running in my pajamas with my wallet in my hand and my heart in my throat.

“They should tear that place down,” added another nurse.

“What place?” I asked, though I already knew, the same way I’d known that night it was no raccoon, no pipes settling, no wind slapping branches against a house wall.

“House Number Five, of course,” said the receptionist. “Everyone knows.”

 

(Hey, this story, like everything else on this website, is my original work. To get specific, “Everyone Knows” is copyright 2012 Gemma Tarlach. So don’t be like the doofus who nicked my Antarctica photos and blog posts and tried to pass them off as his own. Write your own stories. Have your own adventures. Live your own life.)

 





The Next Big Thing, Week 17

30 10 2012

Usually, when someone invites me to get “tagged” and forwards something akin to a chain letter, I get disturbing images of being covered in graffiti and told something Very Bad Indeed will happen unless I send money.

So it was a nice surprise when fellow author Paul McComas invited me to take part in a global game of Author Tag, no cans of spray paint needed.

The idea behind The Next Big Thing game of Author Tag is not only for authors to share their upcoming projects, but for readers to find new fiction they might enjoy.

So here’s my moment of being “it.” Thanks to Paul for tagging me (check out his contribution here) and be sure to keep reading till the end to learn about other authors you might enjoy.

The Next Big Thing

Interviews with authors about their future projects

What is the working title of your book?

The War’s End

Where did the idea come from for the book?

Some years ago, when I was barely 20 and working in Germany, I took a bus to Prague for a weekend visit. The man seated next to me was an elderly, rather distinguished German, with military-straight posture. He was tall and slender and white-haired, with soul-withering blue eyes. His demeanor was aloof, to put it politely, and we spent the hours to Prague in strained silence.

When we arrived in the city, I glanced over and saw tears streaming down his face. I asked if he was okay. “I have not been here since the war,” he replied. I felt I was intruding on his grief, or maybe some other, equally intense emotion, so I said nothing more. He disappeared into the crowd shortly afterward. The next day, however, when it was time to board the bus again, there he was, this time smiling and animated and encouraging my terrible German, which seemed to repulse him the day before.

He deftly deflected questions about himself on the trip back to Munich, preferring instead to ask me about my visit and explain beer-making to me (hey, this is Germany, after all). But spending those hours with him, given his age–he must have been in his 30s during World War II–as well as his appearance and behavior, made me wonder what role he’d had in wartime Germany. Thanks to my overactive imagination, that led to me wondering, after the war is over and the main villain conquered, what happens to the rest of the bad guys? Where do they go? The War’s End is their story.

The War’s End is not, by the way, set in Germany or in the aftermath of World War II. I didn’t want to limit myself, or for readers to have preconceived ideas of heroes and villains, so I set it in a fantasy world that might best be described as medieval-ish. Or medievally. Whichever you prefer.

What genre/s does your book fall under?

Technically, it’s low fantasy, but I think that’s an insider term that’s meaningless to most people. It’s not a statement of quality but rather the amount of magic and other magicky elements in it. JRR Tolkien and George RR Martin write high fantasy. I, on the other hand, perhaps because I only have one middle initial and it is not “R,” write low fantasy. Superstition and perception rather than actual dragons, spells and other fantastical shenanigans are at the core of my story’s “magic,” because that’s what interests me as a writer. That and bad guys.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

Sventevit, a career mercenary who has seen better days, will always be Sean Bean circa 2002-2005 to me. The other main character, a mysterious woman who is as troubled–and as vicious–as Sventevit, would best be cast as Angelina Jolie. Angie, baby, call me. And Sean…well. Don’t make me stalk you. Again. (Though I have to say, on the two occasions my friend and I stalked Mr. Bean, he was rather gracious about it.)

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

When the battles are over, the fight to survive begins.

Will your book be self-published, self-shopped to publishers, or represented by an agency?

The War’s End will be published by Grunaskhan Books, which published my first novel, Plaguewalker, earlier this year.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

I started in the early Cretaceous, so…no, really. I had the basic notion for the story back in 1990 but didn’t start writing until the characters began speaking to me in early 2002. I wrote it on and off, probably completing the first draft later that year, then pecking away at it here and there at revisions over the years, sometimes setting it aside for two or more years at a time. For me, writing the first draft of anything is dictated completely by when I hear the characters talking to me, and Sventevit took a few extended vacations over the years.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

That’s always a tough one, because sometimes I’ll see something in my writing that reminds me of something else, and a reader will say “what?!” or vice versa. I do think that The War’s End revisits a basic question I raised in Plaguewalker: how is character formed–particularly character one might consider villainous–and how, if at all, can it be changed? Also, as in Plaguewalker, there is a lot of walking in the cold. (I suspect because it’s where I, as a writer, hear my characters most clearly.)

Who or What inspired you to write this book?

Although the man on the bus, to whom The War’s End is dedicated, inspired the original idea for the story, I think two very different catalysts actually got me writing it. The September 11 attacks and subsequent invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq provided sharp and terrible reminders that one person’s hero is another’s villain, and that we as humans have an amazing capacity to put on blinders when it comes to committing atrocities against other humans. Watching the events unfold stirred that memory of sitting beside a man that I suspect had witnessed–and committed–horrible acts in wartime.

On a more personal note, I was diagnosed with cancer in 2000, and by September 2001 I’d had two surgeries, months of chemotherapy and weeks of radiation. Throughout my cancer treatment, I felt I was at war with my own personal invader. I didn’t realize it at the time, but looking back now I can see that, as treatment ended and I entered this new and uncertain world of being a “survivor,” I felt suddenly unfocused. I had mustered everything I had to fight an enemy, and the enemy was gone. It’s only been recently, while editing The War’s End, that I see my own feelings reflected in the characters’ sense of “well, now what do I do?”

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

It’s got more sex than Plaguewalker! (A few readers have mentioned their disappointment that Marcus, Plaguewalker‘s protagonist, wasn’t luckier with the ladies.) But seriously, I write the stories I want to read. And, while I enjoy character studies, I lose patience if nothing happens page after page after page. I’d like to think The War’s End combines the best elements of getting inside a character’s head with action, intrigue and humor.

Has your interest indeed been piqued? Watch this site, as well as The War’s End official home, for updates and sample chapters. And be sure to check out these authors, who’ve all agreed to take up The Next Big Thing baton:

Catherine Fitzpatrick, author of deliciously detailed American historical fiction

Rachel Waxman, new YA author whose debut is a page-turner

Ryanne Skalberg, tutu-wearing Iowa girl and Antarctic explorer with tons of stories to share

Thanks as always for reading!





The Most Important Thing I Did Today…

25 10 2012

Proudly wearing my “I voted early” sticker next to the wicked cool cameo my friend Z got me.

…was vote.

Yes, today marked my television debut on TMJ4’s The Morning Blend (live tv, no less…live morning tv, in fact), as well as the arrival of not one but two glowing reviews of Plaguewalker that made me turn Sin (the color of the blush they talked me into buying at Sephora. I now realize I don’t need to wear blush; I just need people to tell me constantly how wonderful the book is). If you haven’t seen the stories, check them out online at OnMilwaukee and the Shepherd Express.

(Big thanks to Kim, Molly, Tiffany and the rest of The Morning Blend crew, Bobby and Colleen at OnMilwaukee and Dave at the Shepherd Express, as well as Paul, for negating my need to apply powder blush.  I’ve been overwhelmed by how positive and encouraging the media has been about Plaguewalker. Returning to Milwaukee is coming home.)

Today may have been the height of the Plaguewalker media blitz, but the best moment of the day came when I completed my early voting ballot downtown (the second best moment of the day, I will admit, happened shortly before that, when I scored a sweet parking space right in front of the municipal building). It’s a privilege, people, and, maybe because I’ve lived and worked in places without any kind of democratic process, it means something to me.

Those of you who know me well are probably still stuck on that mention up top about being on tv, voluntarily, something I managed to avoid for more than a decade as a journalist. Yes, it’s true. As much as I would prefer to conduct publicity for Plaguewalker entirely from a remote (preferably subterranean) lair, I believe in the story enough to put on eyeliner and yak about it, and myself, in public.

I felt nauseous the entire time, but two things saved me from turning into a YouTube clip called “WOMAN VOMITS ON LIVE TV.”

Shaking and sure this would end in tears as I sat in the green room, I was lamely watching the show they had on the tv there. Maroon 5 came on–I am not a fan–and I was immediately taken back to the road trip my buddy Jeff and I took in New Zealand to go sea kayaking, when Jeff sang “Moves Like Jagger” in a perpetual loop for the sole purpose of annoying me (success!). Remembering that godawful song, how we nearly capsized the kayak miles from shore because we were trying to slop as much water as possible on each other while New Zealand fur seals swam all around us and looked at each other as if to say “what’s up with those two?” made me forget completely about my impending television debut.

When I was called to “get mic’ed” (okay, I admit, it is kind of cool to be told “we’re going to mic you now”), I discovered the segment before mine was a Well-Dressed Man fashion show, complete with rather fetching models. Well, hello.

By the time I sat down and chatted with Molly and Tiffany, I was totally oblivious to the cameras. Until about halfway through, when one of the presenters made a gesture and I followed it like a dog catching sight of a squirrel. I caught a glimpse of myself on the monitors.

EEK! I’m on tv! How the hell did that happen? Why?? Bring back those men! Bring back Maroon 5, fer crissakes, anything, anything other than my face on the screen! In the video you can see my eyes go wide and I lose my train of thought, but fortunately I asked myself WWMD? (What Would Marcus Do?) and recovered quickly.

By the way, I do not recommend adopting WWMD as a decision process. If you’ve read Plaguewalker, you’ll understand. And if you haven’t, well…here’s your chance. I’ll be reading from, talking about and signing copies of the novel 7 pm tomorrow (Friday the 26th) at Boswell Book Company, 2559 N. Downer Ave., and again 2 pm Saturday the 27th at Wauwatosa Public Library on 76th and North, where I’ll share billing with author Paul McComas.

After Saturday, the media blitz is blissfully over (for now…there are some other things in the pipeline) and I’ll be able to get back to editing The War’s End and a collection of short stories…and posting more about my trip to Norway, which quite frankly I enjoy writing about way more than myself!





The Plague Continues To Spread…

23 10 2012

…I love saying that, for all sorts of reasons. As I mentioned (promised? threatened?) yesterday, this is National International Intergalactic Plaguewalker week. Yesterday I had the honor of rambling about Marcus on Milwaukee Public Radio and today, online culturezine Third Coast Digest posted a Q&A with me.

Thanks to Tom, Dan and Jennifer over at Third Coast, and to Stephanie at Milwaukee Public Radio’s Lake Effect, for supporting Plaguewalker, and thanks to all of you who’ve read it. It’s a weird but wonderful thrill to be suddenly on the other side of shows and sites I’ve followed as a fan.

I’ve got some other exciting news in the works that I’ll be posting soon, as well as a Halloween treat, but I really hope I see a lot of you 7 pm Friday at Boswell Book Company, 2559 N. Downer Ave., or 2 pm Saturday at Wauwatosa Public Library (76th and North). In addition to doing a few dramatic readings, I’ll be talking about my travels (including my beloved Antarctica), Plaguewalker, and my next novel, The War’s End. I also plan to be wearing really cute shoes.





Can You Hear Me Now?

22 10 2012

Today marks the start of the official Plaguewalker week (I know it’s official because I wrote it down in my planner, right below “laundry.”) Things kicked off with my very first radio interview ever* this morning on WUWM’s (89.7 FM) Lake Effect.

[Technically, I’ve been on radio twice before, during my years as pop music critic for The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. The first time, I was a guest on a local rock show where the sum of my contribution was saying “absolutely” four separate times. The second was on a Top 40 station in Ohio or Iowa–one of those states that starts and ends with a vowel–providing thought-provoking, expert analysis on whether parents should let their tween daughters listen to Avril Lavigne. (Answer: uh, yeah.) The Lake Effect interview was, however, the first time I have said a full sentence on-air. And I said a lot of them.]

I was anxious about appearing on Lake Effect for a number of reasons. Wait. “Appearing on” doesn’t seem right. Sounding off? Voicing on? Whatever.

First, based on my previous radio moments (and they were moments) as well as my voicemail greetings past and present, I do not enjoy sounding like a sullen 16-year-old with a chronic sinus condition. I also hate that I ramble, that I use the word “and” the way Germans use “doch!” or as meaningless filler…aaaannd, oh, I could go on.

Then there’s the fact that I’ve listened to and enjoyed Lake Effect for years, largely because the guests always sound so smart and experty. I did not want to be memorable for being the first guest to, uhm, sound otherwise.

In any case, the Lake Effect studios are downright sexy. Everything is sleek and the lighting is as flattering as candlelight. Producer Stephanie Lecci made me feel like I was chatting with an old friend, and I almost forgot there was an enormous fuzzy microphone inches from my face.

Almost.

I did remember what my high school choral director, Sister Mary Gomolka, used to say. Whenever you want to improve your voice, whether singing or speaking, smile. It prevents one from being flat (well, perhaps not in my case, based on the grimace she often sent my way during practice) and shapes your words in an attractive manner. During the Lake Effect interview, every time I noticed the mic, I would think smile, smile, dammit, smile! I believe this had the unintended consequence of making me look insanely happy to be discussing death, torture, interrogation and the plague.

In any case, I suspect a combination of Sister Mary’s words of wisdom and Stephanie’s impressive post-production skills made me sound okay in the end, so much so that I’m willing to post it here for you to listen.

I hope you’ll not only check out my gleeful ramble about pathogens, rotting corpses and a missing moral compass, but also that you’ll stop by either of the events winding up Plaguewalker week: my Friday reading at Boswell Book Company on the East Side or my Saturday afternoon tag-team of terror reading at the Wauwatosa Public Library over in, well, ‘Tosa.

And stay tuned for a Halloween treat I’ll be posting as we near that most wonderful day of the year.





18 10 2012

Catch up on the latest Plaguewalker updates and stay tuned for an exciting (well, I think so) Halloween treat!

Plaguewalker, a novel

If you think I have a whole heap of groan-worthy plague puns just waiting for the right moment, you’re correct.

Since leaving Norway and returning to Milwaukee earlier this month, I’ve been busy on a number of fronts, including getting ready for the official intergalactic launch of Plaguewalker on Friday, 26 October, at Boswell Book Company (the link will take you to Boswell’s general upcoming events page. Check it out. They bring in a wealth of great authors from near and far). Part of that includes doing press, something I have discovered I don’t particularly enjoy.

Like Marcus, I’m an introvert who prefers to do my work quietly, without fanfare. Also, like Marcus, I prefer to be the one asking the questions.

That said, much thanks are in order to a number of media outlets that are covering Plaguewalker‘s launch. I’ll post links as they become available but, if…

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Of Ships and Journeys

7 10 2012

Give me an all-access tourist pass and by the gods, I will use it.

After several minutes of Travel Math (that specialty involving the calculation of public transportation costs and museum admission fees versus opening hours and time required for movement between two points), I concluded that it would be cost-effective for me to purchase a 24-hour Oslo Pass yesterday.

I hopped on the 91, the public transportation boat, yes, boat, that putters between Oslo’s center and the museums on the Bygdoy peninsula.

Akershus Fortress, Oslo’s medieval castle, from the 91 ferry.

First stop: the Fram museum, which I’d skipped on my last trip to Oslo, back in 1999. Now it had new meaning for me and I was not going to miss it.

For starters, every pamphlet and ad for the museum mentions it has new toilets and touts them as the finest in Oslo, which peaked my curiosity (sadly, there were so many other things to see at the museum that I completely forgot about the toilets until much later in the day. I’ll have to come back just to experience them).

The Fram’s marketing also pushed the “Polar Simulator,” a “terrifying” walk through “minus 10 Celsius temperatures”…minus 10C? Ha! Hahahahahaha! Hold on, let me put on the shorts and flip-flops.

Yeah. Whatever.

But the big draw for me was the Fram itself, which was not only the vessel that Nansen and later Amundsen used to explore the Arctic, but also the ship Amundsen used for his expedition to the South Pole. You know, his successful expedition to the South Pole, as opposed to Scott’s doomed journey a few months later.

Roald Amundsen (center) and his fellow Polies, outside the Fram Museum. On the base is the simple inscription “90 degrees S.” When I saw this, my first thought was “clean-shaven? Yeah, right.” I’m sure they were not looking so well-coiffed when they arrived at the Pole.

And right outside the museum, there was old Roald “Killjoy” Amundsen and his fellow Polies, all looking as dour as ever.

I joke about Roald, but in truth I am fascinated by the way he is largely unremembered outside Norway or beyond Polar Geek circles. He was meticulous and arguably far more practical in his planning than Scott, virtues I think we puny humans tend to undervalue. He certainly was as brave. But it’s Scott who is remembered more. Is it because Robert F. was more dashing? Because we puny humans value style over substance? (Scott was brave as well, no doubt, but there was a certain arrogance to him. And while I’ll never forgive ol’ Roald for killing most of his dogs, having planned for it all along, Scott had the bright idea to bring ponies–ponies! I call Amundsen a killjoy in jest for his methodical, “adventure is just poor planning” attitude, but I’m dead serious when I refer to Scott as The Doom Of Ponies.)

Lighten up, Roald! It’s not your fault that most non-Norwegians think you wrote “James and the Giant Peach.” [My favorite thing about this photo, by the way, is that I walked up to a guy to ask him to take it for me, all ready to trot out my piddling Norwegian, and I heard him speaking Russian to his friend. So I asked him in Russian. And he was actually quite obliging. Yay! A positive Russian experience!]

Even at the Fram museum, Scott gets his own exhibition, on the main floor, no less, and when I was there, it was the most crowded area, with one man taking photos of every sign and map and display. Seriously.

I didn’t take a single one. Out of respect for Roald, poor underacknowledged bastard.

Statue of Nansen beside the Fram, which was just too big to fit in the frame from any vantage point in the museum.

The neatest thing about the Fram, by the way, is that you can actually walk around it, even down into the lower decks.

Fram: I am in you.

The Fram’s arguably biggest achievement was simply not shattering–Fridtjof Nansen, another Norwegian polar explorer who doesn’t get his due, had the great idea in the late 19th century to sail up to the Arctic and intentionally get a ship stuck in the pack ice, believing the ice would then drift over the North Pole, or near enough to it to pop out and plant a flag.

Reaction to his plan was mixed.

Some thought Nansen was daring and brilliant. Others thought he needed counseling, or perhaps an intervention.

(In Polar Explorer Valhalla, I imagine Nansen having a beer with Shackleton, the latter saying “soooooo…you deliberately got your ship trapped in pack ice, huh?”)

Nansen got his way in the end, and had the Fram built with a number of unusual features, including a super-reinforced round hull, going on the theory that the ice wouldn’t have anything to stick to and, as its pressure increased, the boat would simply rise, like a round nut squished between two fingers.

Well, Nansen’s nutball theory worked, though the Fram never got close enough to the North Pole for him to enjoy that little slice of glory.

And while the Fram also survived Amundsen’s South Pole expedition, the round hull that worked so well in Arctic pack ice apparently was the bane of crew and dogs in Antarctic waters, where it rolled precipitously in the swells.

There was also a fascinating exhibit on sextants which helped me finally understand how they work.

As for the Polar Simulator, whatevs. It was dark and cold and covered in faux ice, and, inexplicably, decorated with skeletons. The other people going through it shivered and shrieked and ran through. I paused to consider whether it was really minus 10C. I don’t think it was, though they did succeed in making the air very dry, which makes it tough to gauge a temp as warm as minus 10C, especially in calm conditions. I wanted to tell the people dashing through the faux ice cavern that it’s not the temperature, it’s the wind that gets you on the Ice, but I decided that would be insufferably smug of me.

Another poster at the Polar Simulator. You’re not fooling anyone.

After the Fram, I headed to the adjacent Norwegian Maritime Museum, which is undergoing some renovation. Fortunately, their history of ships exhibit is still open, from a 2,200-year-old dugout canoe, the oldest ship in Norway, to a chilling video simulation of how the Estonia sank. I had just arrived in Moscow when the ferry went down in the North Sea and heard it was due to faulty locks on the bow doors to the car decks. But the video shows in absolutely horrific detail how the doors first leaked, then opened, then busted off, all the while more water sloshing and then flooding in, destabilizing the ship. If the simulator is correct, there were several minutes of wild rolling until the ferry finally capsized and sank to the bottom, upside down. What I gathered from the video was that there was no way people could even try to get to the lifeboats, but there was a long period of knowing they were doomed.

The museum also had, no surprise, a number of excellent ship-building exhibits, but truth be told I kind of lost interest after the evolution from clinker to carvel.

The Gjoa, which took Amundsen and his crew through the Northwest Passage, awaiting the opening of its own triangular home beside the Fram in 2013.

Across the street from the Maritime Museum and the Fram (and the Gjoa, Amundsen’s ship when he sailed through the Northwest Passage…yeah, he did that, too, and amazingly still found time to write “James and the Giant Peach.” Yes, I’m joking. But only about the Peach. The Gjoa is sitting outside the Fram building while its own home is being built, scheduled for completion in 2013) is the Kon-Tiki Museum, where Thor Heyerdahl’s famous reed raft, and its successor, his Ra II, reside.

Originally I had no plans to see the Kon-Tiki, but it was free with my Oslo Pass and I was there, so, eh, might as well.

The Kon-Tiki

Does that sound dismissive? I’m sorry, Thor, I guess it is. Staring at the Kon-Tiki and Ra II, I thought okay, neat that you proved people could cross the Pacific and Atlantic in this primitive kind of vessel. But, while acknowledging intellectually the importance of these achievements, I felt no emotional connection.

The day was getting long. I knew where I needed to go.

It’s about a ten minute walk from the Fram and Kon-Tiki to one of my favorite places in the world. I was a little worried that maybe I was misremembering my visit in 1999, that maybe the Viking Ship Museum was not all that.

It was. It is.

Oseberg Ship

When I visited the Fram, I thought, “oh cool.” When I saw the Kon-Tiki and Ra II, I was impressed. But when I walked into the Viking Ship Museum again, I got a bit choked up.

There is something about that place.

Close-up of the Oseberg Ship

It is partly the museum itself, its austere, church-like space. (I just learned they’re planning to move the ships to a new location to reduce risk of fire and all I can say is NOOOOOOOO! Fire-proof the existing building and leave them there!)

It is partly the wise choice of the curators not to crowd the space with excessive signage and hands-on “SAIL YOUR OWN VIKING SHIP” exhibits.

Karl and the Oseberg

But it is mostly the ships themselves, at least the Gokstad and Oseberg (the deformed Tune remains as it was found, like a squashed bug). There is such elegant efficiency in their lines, such power and beauty.

Copy of Oseberg prow

The Oseberg gets most of the love for its prow and, I think, for the fact that it was the burial ship for two women (and their horses and their dogs and so on), which raises questions about the role of women in Viking society that they would get such a high-falutin’ funeral. Scholars have variously claimed the women to be noble and slave, priestesses, wife and mother of a chieftain, and so on.

But the Gokstad, likely a military craft before it was used as the burial ship for a man, is my favorite. It has none of the ornamentation of the Oseberg, but its lines are so splendid. I was happy just to stare at it, appreciating its construction, how it must have sliced through the waters and rippled over the waves with cat-like grace.

The Gokstad Ship

I spent 45 minutes at the Fram and the same amount of time at the Maritime Museum, and a mere 10 minutes at the Kon-Tiki (sorry, Thor). I was at the Viking Ship Museum for two hours, until closing, and could have stayed ten more. It’s not that there’s a lot to do. It’s really just three ships, a couple boats, an impressive but, in the grand scheme of museums, relatively small exhibit of grave goods found mostly from Oseberg, including the only known surviving Viking wagon.

Viking wagon or, as I like to call it, the vikingvagon.

But the ships themselves, and the space they occupy command, touch me in a way none of the other fine and well-done museums did. I couldn’t help but think back on all that’s happened in my life in the 13 years since I last saw them. When I last stood before them, I was a year away from being diagnosed with cancer. I’d just finished writing Plaguewalker, but the characters of The War’s End and The Guardian had not yet stirred in my imagination. Iceland, New Zealand, Tasmania, the Lofotens and a dozen other places were still on my must-see list. Visiting Antarctica was only a dream, one too lofty even to put on that list. I could not have dared to imagine the places I’d go and things I’d do in the thirteen years ahead of me then.

Another view of the Gokstad. I get a little verklempt just looking at the photo even now.

It made me wonder what the men who rowed and sailed those boats thought of their own journeys, those accomplished and those that were still dreams. And I wondered what the next 13 years will bring for me.

As an aside, I was particularly glad I went back to see the Viking ships because, since my last visit, there has been an intriguing development. The skeletons found with the Oseberg and Gokstad ships (curiously, no one ever mentions the skeleton found with the Tune) were reburied in the 1940s, but in 2006, citing their scientific significance and risk of losing them, they were dug up again. This time, forensic pathologists went to town on them and discovered just about everything believed about the skeletons from earlier study was wrong.

The Oseberg women are both much older than first believed: one, likely in her 80s, appears to have died from breast or abdominal cancer that metastasized to her bones and the second was in her 50s, and might have died from complications of a broken collarbone (though, given the handful of bones that remain of her, it is extremely difficult to say).

The Gokstad man was even more fascinating. An apparent hormonal imbalance caused his bones to be extremely dense and large. He was a big man, almost certainly more than six feet tall, and a number of edged weapon wounds to his bones that show no signs of healing suggest he was killed. (When found in the late 19th century, he was described as frail and elderly and crippled.) A fighting man? A chieftain who fell in battle or was done in by his enemies with an ambush after a long night in the mead hall? We’ll probably never know, but it was fascinating to read how advances in science have upended the old theories.

Sadly, science is not omnipotent. Attempts to extract and analyze DNA from all three skeletons have failed due to apparent contamination, though they’ll keep trying.

A reason to return to the museum (hopefully still in its current location) in another 13 years. Not that I needed one.

Boats and tent posts (on wall) found in the Gokstad ship

Today is my last day in Oslo, and in Norway. Tomorrow will be a long day, starting with a two-mile walk with my luggage to the airport bus stop at three in the morning (hey kids, when you find a hotel that’s a third of the going price online, don’t just look at Google maps to see how close it is to a metro stop…check when the metro runs and what time your flight leaves and when you need to be at the airport!). Then there will be the flight to Stockholm, the flight to O’Hare, the bus to Milwaukee, the jetlag-stunned greeting and catching up with my amazing friends the Shorewoodians, starting the austere diet and exercise regime, getting the car out of storage, job-hunting, ramping up publicity for Plaguewalker, finishing the edit of The War’s End, training to volunteer at the pound, looking for a place to live, and so on, and so on.

When it gets overwhelming (and it will…I mean, seriously, no carbs and job-hunting? Who am I kidding?), I hope I remember to think back to the sight of age-stained wood and lines elegant and efficient, to the thought of journeys past and future.