The All-Time Great

The western world has been determinedly turning out pop-culture Christmas stories for a solid 150 years. There is the classic It’s A Wonderful Life, the overrated Frosty the Snowman, and the classically overrated Gift of the Magi. But the best of them all – possibly even the first of them all – is A Christmas Carol. Its greatness is made of many parts; I will here name five of them.

The characters. Ebenezer Scrooge is immortal. Dickens sketches his portrait in sharp, strong strokes – the covetous old sinner – and embellishes it with detail and variegated colors. He’s triumphantly awful in the beginning, in an entertaining sort of way; his sympathetic side emerges as soon as the spirits do, because it is rather gaming of Scrooge to debate the ghost of Jacob Marley over whether it actually exists, and you must admire anyone who responds to a haunting with personal insults (“There is more of gravy than of the grave about you!”). The rest of the story effectively shows his souring and then his softening.

Other characters occupy their own territory in civilizational memory. Jacob Marley and the Ghost of Christmas Future are chillingly evocative, and if Bob Cratchitt and Tiny Tim live under the accusation of being saccharine, they still live.

The writing. There are excellent film versions of A Christmas Carol, by which I primarily mean the one with George C. Scott. But the narrative and description of the written story are a delight that cannot be replicated in any movie. Dickens’ story breathes with color, wit, and feeling; he could – and did – describe an apple and give it character. If you can read Marley or the Ghost of Christmas Future without your blood being a little chilled, you were cold-blooded to begin with. If you can read his descriptions of food without getting hungry, you’re not even alive.

The supernatural character of the story. Technically, only Marley was a ghost. The other three were spirits. Still, the Ghost of Christmas Future is as harrowing an apparition as old Marley. A Christmas Carol is captivating in part because it seamlessly weaves Christmas story with ghost story, sentiment with horror. The story aims for the heart. It makes no qualms about playing on the nerves as well. A Christmas Carol creates, for its stage, a nexus of the spirit world and the world as humanity has made it – and it is unforgettable.

The sentiment. A Christmas Carol beats with sentiment – richly, warmly human sentiment. It ranges without shame from lunges at primal human sympathies to refined elocution. Tiny Tim is the height of the first; the second is scattered throughout the text, one of my favorite examples being the Ghost’s rebuke to Scrooge’s dismissal of the poor as surplus population: “Oh God! to hear the Insect on the leaf pronouncing on the too much life among his hungry brothers in the dust!”

To be fair to Dickens, his sentiment was not entirely without a sterner note. Marley strikingly refused Scrooge’s plea for comfort: “I have none to give. It comes from other regions, Ebenezer Scrooge, and is conveyed by other ministers, to other kinds of men.”

Which is the sort of thing that really lets you know where you are in life.

The joy. I’ve written before how Scrooge’s cold heart is manifested in his joyless life, and his return to human sympathies is a return to fun. Scrooge is recalled to charity; he is also recalled to joy. One of the charms of A Christmas Carol is how innocently and wholeheartedly it rejoices in the material pleasures of Christmas. There is nothing ascetic or gloomy about its view. The story makes no difference between goodness and happiness, between high sentiment and simple pleasure. They flow simply, naturally together – and that is wonderfully attractive.

Frozen II: They Tried

Given Frozen‘s smashing success, and Disney’s philosophy regarding capitalization of past successes, Frozen II was almost a mathematical inevitability. Now the deed’s done and the movie’s out. The good news is, they tried.

Frozen II strikes out into new territory. It expands its world with history and with mythology, though with the inadvertent effect of making Arendelle look … small. (It is a question for political scientists: Can it be a kingdom if it can all fit on a cliff?) Frozen II wisely preserves Anna’s and Elsa’s gains. Their relationship, though not entirely seamless, is fully restored. Even their parents – who, with such loving intentions, almost destroyed their daughter in the first movie – are softened in this second telling with the emphasis that they really did love. In this way, Frozen II provides a welcome kind of catharsis for its predecessor.

At the same time, it moves the characters onward from their ending-places of the last film. The movie’s first song invokes a theme of change and the whole story plays out in deep autumn, the imagery of change. The autumn setting also allows a refreshed, brighter palette beyond the white and blue that dominated the first film. Indeed, the film’s strongest element is its visual artistry. So much of the movie – from the fall grandeur to the exploding magic of Ahtohallan – is a pleasure to behold. Other sequences stand out for their excellence – Elsa’s unburial of Ahtohallan‘s secrets, Olaf’s hilarious retelling of Frozen, Anna’s moment of resolution in crisis.

There is real merit in these scattered elements of Frozen II. But the story never unites them into a comprehensible whole. (Fair warning: From here on in, this review is replete with spoilers – but you don’t care, do you?) Magic heaves through the story, but there is no making sense of its operations. The magic slingshots, at the convenience of plot, from being wild and heedless, like a force of nature, to being focused and merciful, like a benevolent deity. This incoherence muddles the whole story. If Ahtohallan calls Elsa, why does it attempt to kill her for answering the call? If the Enchanted Forest hates the dam to the point of destroying Arendelle, why does it never have a go at destroying the dam itself? How does a person become a spirit?

The movie makes a great point of uncovering a painful family secret. The pain is largely mitigated, however, by two factors: (1) The secret principally involves dead people nobody cares about; (2) It is inexplicable. The skeleton in the royal closet is that Elsa’s grandfather treacherously gave unto the Enchanted Forest people … a dam. As treacherous gifts go, this lacks imagination; not a lot of subtlety is possible with a dam. And this wasn’t some cheap, logs-on-rocks dam. It was a stone behemoth. It was the Hoover Dam of vaguely magical, vaguely Scandinavian kingdoms. Its nature as a dam was exceedingly obvious. It should not have taken any strenuous mental exertion to forecast the result of the dam being a dam. Yet only by magic and near-death is the shocking secret exposed: The dam was a Trojan horse in that it blocked the water. I thought about this too long, and now it’s funny.

But Frozen II was made for children, and no doubt they like it better than I do. Frozen II has flares of creativity and even a kind of emotional wisdom. Its confused plot and incoherent mythology leave it uneven. Taken altogether (as all things must be), the movie is all right. Probably it is even good, if you spare it close examination and just enjoy it.

The Least Dangerous Men

Today’s subject is ghost stories, because ’tis the season.

Ghost stories would, under modern classification, be sorted into horror. But they inhabit the outer fringes of that category and have a stronghold in more reputable categories (see: Hamlet and A Christmas Carol). There is nothing niche about the ghost story. Ghosts are immemorial and omnipresent in human stories, older than writing and haunting every culture. They make the flesh crawl, whether you believe in them or not.

One peculiar aspect to the phenomenon of ghost stories is how little they have to do with the next world. As a matter of pure logic, ghost stories imply an immortality of the soul, even if a kind of immortality that no one wants. But immortality is for the living, and ghosts are nothing but dead. Ghost stories offer no glimpse of the other side. It is, after all, the special tragedy of ghosts that they don’t make it to the other side but linger, without point or place, on this one.

The potency of ghost stories comes from how simply, but powerfully, they play on human instincts about death. People enjoy ghost stories because (this is the kind of creatures we are) people are afraid of ghosts. And it’s a singular kind of fear, half nerves and half spiritual. C.S. Lewis defined the fear perfectly in The Problem of Pain – the strange fear we have of dead men who are, as he points out, “assuredly the least dangerous kind of men”:

Suppose you were told there was a tiger in the next room: you would know that you were in danger and would probably feel fear. But if you were told, “There is a ghost in the next room,” and believed it, you would feel, indeed, what is often called fear, but of a different kind. It would not be based on the knowledge of danger, for no one is primarily afraid of what a ghost may do to him, but of the mere fact that it is a ghost. It is “uncanny” rather than dangerous, and the special kind of fear it excites may be called Dread.

In Miracles, Lewis digs into the source, and meaning, of our fear of the dead:

It is idle to say that we dislike corpses because we are afraid of ghosts. You might say with equal truth that we fear ghosts because we dislike corpses – for the ghost owes much of its horror to the associated ideas of pallor, decay, coffins, shrouds, and worms. In reality we hate the division which makes possible the conception of either corpse or ghost. Because the thing ought not to be divided, each of the halves into which it falls by division is detestable. … [O]nce accept the Christian doctrine that man was originally a unity and that the present division is unnatural, and all the phenomena fall into place.

The existence of ghost stories tells us nothing about ourselves except that we have noticed that we die and wondered if something might survive. It is our reaction to ghost stories that is revelatory. It is the shudder, the flesh-crawling horror. It is the dread and the sense of the uncanny that show how instinctually and how inexplicably we feel about death, about the broken unity of a human being.

It’s not all grimness. Even ghost stories have their happy endings, or at least their hopeful ones – when the ghost is able to leave this world, to finally travel to the other side. And that also tells us something of ourselves, doesn’t it?

Four Classes

At the beginning of the summer, I was looking for a book of fairy tales to read, ideally one that included stories on which no Disney film has been based. I found Gertrude Landa’s Jewish Fairy Tales and Legends, and I was enchanted.

This collection is charmingly fanciful, and at times playfully absurd. It is, moreover, unique in the different flavors of fairy tale it offers. The book is admirably broad-minded in its inspiration, drawing from Scripture and history and legend. I am going to briefly sum up the four classes of fairy tale in this book, prefaced by two observations. One of these is positive, and the other less so.

One, the book is unusually effective in merging religion with stories. I have tried to cipher out why the book succeeds as it does, and I think the fairy-tale form has a great deal to do with it. As fairy tales, these stories shrug off the burdens of detail and solemnity. They respect religion, yet treat it with lightness and frankness. This is certainly not the only way to treat religion, and probably not the best way, but it is an enjoyable way. Now, the second and negative observation: There is moral dissonance in the casual acceptance of slavery sometimes glimpsed in this book. It’s jarring, and in the most flagrant instance downright chilling.

And onto the four classes:

Secular. Although most of the fairy tales in this collection are religious to some degree, a minority makes nothing of religion, one way or another. Among these are some of the more lackluster offerings, such as “The Red Slipper” and “Abi Fressah’s Feast”. But this minority also includes the superior “The Princess in the Tower”, which is at once the most democratic and most effectively humorous tale in the collection.

Biblical. I use here a narrow definition to cover only those stories directly based on biblical narrative. Of course, directly based can still be loosely based, as many a Hollywood film has demonstrated. These are not Sunday-school stories. They only involve Sunday-school characters, drawing them out from the Bible and into a world of fancy. Thus Pharaoh suffers somewhat whimsically in “The Higgledy-Piggledy Palace” and David rides a unicorn in “From Shepherd-Boy to King”. Minor figures in Scripture are granted starring roles, though not to any glory. In “The Paradise in the Sea”, Hiram grows convinced of his own immortality – and deity.

Religious. Truthfully, most of the book could come under this heading. I use it in order to group the fairy tales that invoke religion without pirating the Bible. A representative example of this is the prophesying rabbi of “King for Three Days”. “The Rabbi’s Bogey-Man” is a more compelling instance, and the most imaginative is found in the synagogue in the heart of Ergetz, the land of demons, djinns, and fairies – for, it is explained, they also have all manner of religions. This tale, “The Fairy Princess of Ergetz”, is the best in the category and possibly the best in the book. In all these stories, there is no self-consciousness about religion, no sense of argument or defense. It simply is, like the sky.

Historical. A handful of the fairy tales play out in quasi-historical settings. “The Palace in the Clouds” occurs somewhat vaguely in Assyria; “The Pope’s Game of Chess” occurs much more definitely in Germany. But not too definitely. These are still fairy tales, and history is a source of invention rather than strict facts. “King Alexander’s Adventures” is the most striking example of the historical fairy tale, not least because in it, history so dizzingly meets religion and myth.

A Few Highlights

So you all know about Lorehaven, right? Great.

I began writing reviews for Lorehaven about two years ago. Lorehaven reviews are most often short, no more than 150 words, and their purpose is to help you know whether the book in question is the sort of thing you would like. Whether it is the sort of thing we would like is not of great interest. The necessary brevity, together with the desired objectivity, encourages a straightforward treatment: summary, strengths, weaknesses, conclusion – and no more than two or three sentences for each.

But I’ve been reflecting on the books I have had the opportunity to read and the privilege to review. I am going to highlight just a few, those that remain most vivid in my mind after the time that has passed. A couple of these overlap with genres, or subgenres, I don’t normally favor. This demonstrates that although the disadvantage of assigned books is that you read things you would not have chosen for yourself, the advantage is that you read things you would not have chosen for yourself.

The Red Rider, by Randall Allen Dunn. I am going to state right at the beginning that this one was too strong for my tastes. Yet it was striking, and memorable even after two years. This comes, I think, from three qualities: one, its perfect meshing of the fairy tale of Red Riding Hood with the legend of werewolves; two, its dark, dreamlike atmosphere – as if it is taking place not in our world but a worse version of it; three, the almost bizarre appropriateness of its horror elements. “Little Red Riding Hood” always was ghastly, you know.

Nick Newton Is Not a Genius, by S.E.M. Ishida. This brief novel is, technically, for children, and I won’t be backward in admitting that it matches its intended readers with a certain simplicity. But it is colorful and creative and utterly charming. Even the simplicity is played into a virtue. This world of robots and whimsy would not be nearly as much as fun if we had to enter it with the deadly seriousness of adults.

Journey Into Legend, by Henry Schreiner. This one is a throwback, and not only because it contains college students who write actual letters. The narrative – presented through diaries, letters, and other documents, its fantastical element fortified with science – is reminiscent of the great Victorian-era forays into science fiction. It’s magical realism, old-school.

Launch, by Jason Joyner. Have you ever noticed that if you squint, certain biblical figures – say, Elijah or Samson – might be superheroes, only with more religion and less spandex? This novel takes that idea out for a spin and proves it to be a lot of fun. It is also strikingly successful in creating, without artificiality or strain, the youthful, contemporaneous world of its teenage protagonists.

To Ashes We Run, by Just B. Jordan. The two greatest strengths of this novel – and you should understand that by greatest strengths, I mean the things that most appealed to me personally – are the world-building and the characters. I always find special appeal in fantasy worlds that can combine genuine mythos with a realistic consideration of politics and culture. I find even more appeal in any novel that feels, and causes me to feel, the lives and personalities of its characters.

Two Streams of Thought

I am, in the abstract, in favor of fandoms. Star Wars, Star Trek, Narnia, Lord of the Rings, Marvel, Disney, Pixar, and a thousand others – why not? They’re diverting and human and, on occasion, profound. In the concrete, I have adopted a few of my own and gotten uncounted hours of enjoyment out of it. But sometimes I wonder: How much do any of them matter?

I have not decided what to think about that. How I lean depends on varying factors, such as my most recent reflections and how long it has been since I was last on Facebook. I want to insist that it – your fandom, any fandom – doesn’t matter at all when I encounter those indefatigable people who cannot encounter a criticism or a joke against their fandoms without lodging a deadly-earnest objection. There are people who react to any criticism of their beloved fandoms as if someone had insulted Jesus; people who launch endless comment threads to defend them; people who can never see the point of any contrary argument, or the humor of any joke, or even just let it pass. They are indefatigable, but they are exhausting.

Worse yet are the infuriating people, the sort of people who drive celebrities from social media through their viciousness. There are fans – far too many on the Internet – who act as if the fictional objects of their passion matter more than real people. There are people who throw kindness to the wind on the feeblest provocation, but there is absurd blindness in throwing it away for the sake of fandom. And, really, how do people get the energy to care so much that someone doesn’t like what they do?

Fandoms matter a great deal less than some people think – or rather, feel. But that fact doesn’t fix the measure of their true value. When I am in a philosophical mood, or have been reading the commentary of people who are, I am more inclined to see the value of fandoms. I think there is something after all to the idea of sub-creation, that even our fictional worlds are part of our heritage as God’s image-bearers. Even the apparent superfluity of fandoms, when seen through different eyes, can be charming. Touching, even. Those things that seem least necessary are often the most human.

I am conscious, too, of the significance of stories as the expression of imagination and thought, and even of fear and aspiration. Stories are a revelation of humanity, both the good and the bad. They are also an educator of humanity, for better and for worse, and probably more is learned through stories than through school.

And fandoms are based on stories. So these two streams of thought: fandoms possess genuine significance and are annoyingly (sometimes noxiously) overvalued. Unsurprisingly, I haven’t worked out any conclusion as to how much they matter. Perhaps this is the sort of question that can’t be conclusively answered (who is to say?) and it doesn’t even matter (would it make any difference to peg the exact importance of fandoms?).

But this much we can say with scientific certainty: Regardless of exactly how much fandoms matter, it is not enough to justify a social media war.

The Arc and the Epilogue

In the beginning, Pixar made Toy Story, and it was good.

Then Pixar made Toy Story 2, and it was very good.

And Pixar made Toy Story 3, and it was good enough until the last twenty minutes, when it became very good.

And Pixar said, “Let us make sequels, for therein lies boatloads of easy money, plus we have no ideas on the drawing board except one about a ‘newt’, which is apparently a lizard that looks we assume much like other lizards, except the ones that prey on tourists in Australia.” And so Pixar made Toy Story 4.

And Toy Story 4 was …

… Good.

And this was surprising.

I had no faith when Toy Story 4 was announced. I marked it, without any particular emotion, as another sign that Pixar had sold its birthright for a mess of pottage. Nonetheless, I went to see it when it came out. Even Pixar’s mediocre efforts are solidly pleasant, and just because I know their game of nostalgia doesn’t mean I won’t play. I got more than I came for; I thoroughly enjoyed Toy Story 4. It is true, though possibly faint praise, that Toy Story 4 is easily the best Pixar movie since Inside Out.

I have two principal convictions regarding Toy Story 4, not entirely congruous or contradictory. The first is that Toy Story 4 is a genuinely good movie, more enjoyable in most ways than Toy Story 3. The movie is bright, spirited, clever. Forky, its most ingenious creation, perfectly binds existential dilemmas with sunny humor – a flash of the old Pixar brilliance. It reuses ideas from the older Toy Story films, notably the villainous unloved toy and the sinister organization of Sunnydale. Yet it reuses the ideas with such virtuosity that the earlier incarnations seem like first drafts of this final, perfected version. Toy Story 4 possesses a fleetness that even Toy Story 3 lacked.

My second conviction is that Toy Story 4 demonstrates conclusively that the arc of the Toy Story films is finished. More, it demonstrates that the films, in moving beyond Andy, have lost something central and irreplaceable. The toys spent the first three films on adventures away from Andy, but the point was always to get home to him. What united the three movies into a trilogy was a thematic idea and an emotional arc. Toy Story drew the first, straightforward line: the purpose Andy gave to his toys, and the love they returned. Toy Story 2 drew the curve: the purpose would inevitably end; the love, probably also. Toy Story 3 finished the arc: the purpose completed, the story ended.

Toy Story 4 throws nostalgic glances back at the story, but it can’t connect to it. It can’t continue the arc. A better movie than Toy Story 3 through most of its runtime, it never achieves the emotional power of that movie’s best moments. It even seems a testimony to the orbital pull of Andy’s love that in this, the first film without him, the toys drift away from each other. Toy Story 4‘s disconnection from the arc of the preceding Toy Story movies might not be a loss. But it is a lack.

If you view it in the right mood (probably a generous mood), you can take Toy Story 4 as a kind of epilogue to its predecessors. No, there won’t be another Andy for Woody. But there will be other things. Whatever view you take, the cleverness and sheer fun of Toy Story 4 are winning. I enjoyed it, and that’s all you can really expect from the theater.

Still, I have a conviction that if Pixar makes Toy Story 5, it will not be good. It’s time to let Toy Story rest in peace. Even the epilogue has been written, after all.

A Broadened Horizon

Recently I started getting into Marvel movies. (Yes, I know. Next decade I’m going to discover video streaming services. You’ll want to be around then.) I had been aware of them for years, like everyone else on the planet, and I had even been induced to watch a few. They were very close to me, the people who persuaded me to try Marvel, and so they didn’t mind that I brought my laptop to the experience. It proved an excellent diversion.

The subtle drift of all this is that I am not what marketing specialists would call “the target audience.” The whole idea of superheroes, comic books, and comic book superhero movies left me cold. I thought it all a little goofy, a little too cartoonish: the costumes, the tights, the poundingly obvious names. These prejudices – and that is what they were, because they were not based on any substantive experience with the thing itself – these prejudices deadened my interest.

Nor, in truth, did my initial viewings jump-start it. The movies were not terrible, of course, but neither were they anything I felt impelled to see. The fighting scenes, with their 84,000 punches thrown, seemed interminable and the movies altogether too long (though in fairness, most movies are these days). I thought the franchise put a premium on action over character and wittiness over profundity. I think much the same now; at least, these are the weaknesses to which the franchise trends, and some movies surrender more to them than others.

But if my estimation of the franchise’s weaknesses is the same, my estimation of its strengths has changed. I will say the movies are more enjoyable once you piece things together and your brain stops going What so much. The talent invested in them is plainly enormous, much like the budget. But what I came most to appreciate – the true inspiration of my newfound interest – was the Cap and Loki. I may be cold to the appeal of comic books, and I may be bored by explosions and CGI monsters, but I love good characters. The Cap is my favorite kind of hero. Loki is my favorite kind of villain – and my favorite kind of anti-villain, and my favorite kind of anti-hero. Once invested in the characters, I want to know the story; I want to see the movies.

A happy fact to be drawn from all this: It is possible to overcome a viewer’s (or reader’s) prejudices and even, to some extent, his natural tastes through excellency. Good for creators, because they can win unlikely admirers; good for the rest of us, because we can have our horizons broadened to new enjoyment. Snobs think that superior taste is proved by its narrowness, but some things are gained by the wider view.

It’s a limited grace. Natural tastes can only be stretched so far, and defied even less. All my enjoyment of Thor: Dark World has not translated into a twitch of interest in Captain Marvel. I will never be a Marvel enthusiast, but I am showing up.

Even if it’s mostly for Loki’s beautiful face. And the Cap’s.

One Conception From Another

The Bible makes repeated mention of magic and witches, usually in unsparing terms. We know well the scriptural opprobrium against witches; we are in danger of forgetting the scriptural idea of witches. We all have an idea of what a witch is, but the idea is almost unavoidably an amalgam. We piece it together of a thousand stories and images. The accretion of popular myth on the Christian idea of witches is thick. Let’s consider, then, popular notions of witches and their craft and how those notions correspond with biblical ideas.

Witches fly on brooms and make wicked potions in boiling cauldrons, are associated with spiders and black cats, are often ugly and generally inclined to black clothing and pointed hats.

Yes, we’ll start with the low-hanging fruit. Yes, you already know that none of this has the barest foundation in Scripture. Simply consider that of all the symbols and imagery that collect around witches, very little of it is Christian.

Witches are associated with magic; magic is associated with spells, charms, and secret knowledge.

These associations are biblical. The Bible sorts magic, sorcery, and divination into the same category, and witches, magicians, and mediums into the same species. Further, the Bible associates spells with witchcraft (eg. Isaiah 47) and magic with charms (eg. Ezekiel 13). Meanwhile, secret knowledge is both the means of magic – remember Pharoah’s magicians with their secret arts – and the aim of magic. Divination and the consultation of the dead especially pursue forbidden knowledge.

Witches are mostly female.

This is a very old and very common idea. Consider all the stories – centuries and centuries old, some of them – of female witches. Consider, too, that in the witch hunts of the late medieval and early modern West, the majority of victims were women. In the Bible, however, witchcraft is not especially associated with either sex. Infamous practitioners of witchcraft in the Bible include women like Jezebel and the Witch of Endor and men like Balaam, King Manasseh, and Simon the Sorcerer.

Witches afflict humanity with a host of seemingly “natural” maladies.

If you were to study the accusations brought during the Salem witch trials, you would see a fair example of a prevalent idea about witches: that they are the active cause of natural disasters, from human sickness to the death of livestock. There is little suggestion of this idea in Scripture. Probably the closest we come is the Egyptian magicians’ counterfeiting of the first two plagues. But these counterfeits, worked to demonstrate the power of the magicians against the power of Moses, have a very different nature than the secret, malicious attacks attributed to witches.

It may also be noted that Balak hired Balaam to curse Israel. “Perhaps then,” he said, “I will be able to defeat them and drive them out of the country.” What Balak expected of the curse, however, cannot be said. It may be that he expected some sort of natural disaster. It may also be that he expected them to be made unlucky so that he could defeat them in battle.

It is not that the scriptural conception of witches is wholly disconnected from all the other conceptions that abound through stories and cultures. There are many ideas of what a witch is. The great commonality among them is power perceived to be supernatural (itself a word of variable definition). The differences can be enough to pit them against each other in fundamental opposition. What we must learn is to discern the biblical meaning of witch from all the rest.

A Vulnerable Technique

When you had to write in school, you were probably placed under certain all-encompassing bans. “Never use the first-person” is a perennial favorite among teachers. I once had a respected professor who instructed students not to use semicolons. Now, the semicolon is a perfectly legitimate punctuation mark and has been put to many venerable uses. I believe my old professor banned it because so many people were prone to use it badly it was better that no one use it at all.

Many of the “Nevers” in writing are drawn up along a similar principle: Almost nobody does it right, so nobody should do it. Adjectives are an oft-targeted victim of this kind of reasoning. Another technique vulnerable to it is flashbacks, our topic of the day. Flashbacks possess a special nature, generally inclined to be awkward. They are written like narrative, but they are not narrative. Flashbacks disrupt the story, breaking up the flow and momentum of events to reprise old news. I have seen them done well, but I have also seen them done with extraordinary badness. Not all authors appreciate the nature or the purpose of the technique.

Two rules may be applied to the use of flashbacks. First, flashbacks must be relevant. A good way to think of this is that flashbacks must be revelatory of the story and not of the characters. What ought to be revealed of your characters can be revealed through the narrative proper: through their present talk, actions, thoughts. You might have constructed an entirely fascinating backstory, but you are telling a different story. Your story is in the present. The past throws light on the present, but the present throws light on people. There is no need of flashbacks to tell us about your characters.

Once I read a sci-fi novel that made excellent use of flashbacks. Very brief chapters, sprinkled among the narrative and set apart by italics, gave snapshots of the past. But these snapshots were keys to the story. They explained the nature of the present struggle, put forward mystery, foreshadowed the final revelation of villainy. Like all good flashbacks, they were dedicated to the story.

The second rule is that flashbacks must be brief. Again, flashbacks break the flow of the story, and for that reason they must be employed sparingly. Even if the flashbacks are genuinely interesting, people will become frustrated and impatient if the story is continually interrupted for field trips to the past. Flashbacks can spice up a story, but they should never be a main ingredient. Neither are they, in prodigious measure, likely to be altogether relevant. In the rare event that a prodigious measure is necessary, it is possible that you are starting the story in the wrong place.

The things people warn you about when you write fiction can generally be done. They just have to be done carefully. Flashbacks have been used to great effect, and you should always feel free to use them yourself. Only remember that they break the narrative and so must be very relevant and always brief.