Review: The Fifty Year Sword by Mark Z. Danielewski

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Publication: February 6th 2018
Publisher: Pantheon
Pages:  288 pages
Source: Bought (Indigo)
Genre: Fiction, Experimental, Ghost Story, Horror, Fantasy, Poetry
My Rating: ⛤⛤⛤

“‘They cut every time,’ warned The Man With No Arms. ‘Every time'” (Danielewski 170).

I’ve been fascinated by Danielewski’s work ever since I read House of Leaves, an incredible, brilliant, and terrifying book that has never really left me. I’ve only read one of his books since reading House of LeavesThe Familiar: Volume 1 and though it didn’t scare me like House of Leaves it was a story that stuck with me just the same.

I stumbled across The Fifty Year Sword by accident when browsing through Indigo, not even knowing it existed. It’s definitely the shortest of Danielewski’s work I’ve seen, and the $8 sale price convinced me to buy it. I don’t know what I expected; I knew it was a kind of ghost story so I think part of me was hoping for another House of Leaves or something similar. Fifty Year Sword is no House of Leaves, I don’t think anything ever will live up to that, and it didn’t scare me in the slightest, but I did enjoy it for different reasons.

The Fifty Year Sword follows the seamstress Chintana who goes to a party at an East Texas ranch only to learn the party is being held for Belinda Kite, the woman whom her husband cheated on her with and caused her divorce. Dreading the party but going despite her anger, Chintana finds herself in the company of five orphans, a social worker, and a mysterious storyteller preferring them than to celebrating Belinda Kite’s fifty years of life. But as the storyteller begins his dark, fantastical, and horrifying tale Chintana grows more and more concerned but finds she is unable to do anything about to stop the tale from being spun. And of course, the five orphans grow more and more entranced with the storyteller’s tale, especially with what might be in the large case he brought with him.

After reading this, I can’t help but see The Fifty Year Sword as a ghost story even though there are no ghosts in it. It’s just the feeling I got while reading, this is a story you read on Halloween night (as Danielewski has already done) in the dark, with only a fire (or flashlight) lighting up the room. It’s eerie, and it gets under your skin, but it isn’t scary. And it definitely isn’t House of Leaves, which isn’t a bad thing of course, but I have to stop expecting the same reaction and feelings from all of Danielewski’s works that I got from that one book.

And of course in true Danielewski style, it’s an artsy book and very beautiful. It isn’t a large book, the official page count of hardcover edition is 288 pages, and most of the story is told on every other page with the other accompanying pages being blank or pictures of different weavings. The pages are glossy, and overall it’s just a gorgeous book to look at. The inside cover of my book says it would have been $31 had I not got in on sale for $8, so I think I made a pretty good purchase when I did.

And of course, Danielewski uses colour in this book like all his others. House is still blue, only used once when recognizing the publisher. The colour isn’t so much in the words this time as the others but in the quotation marks. To give some history, no one really knows when exactly The Fifty Year Sword was first written or how it came to be in true Danielewski form, but it has been performed as a choral speaking script which Danielewski has been present at. The best way I can describe the physical book then is that it is written with five different coloured quotation marks that tell which five characters are speaking. It isn’t a script though, the sentences are split, and sometimes quotations of two different colours will share a sentence or word before another cuts in.

Does that make any sense? Kind of, maybe if you like theatre or choral speaking. Imaging the book being performed helped me while reading, even though we never know who the five different characters are speaking (though I personally think it’s the young orphans, since certain words in the text seem to be purposefully misspelled).

And that’s all I can say really, this book is really a novella, and saying too much will spoil it. Overall, The Fifty Year Sword is a quick and enjoyable read as well as a gorgeous book to look at. I think it would be a marvelous story to be performed, which could be a fun tradition some hard-core Danielewski fans could create for upcoming Halloween’s.

 

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