There was a time when, if you asked me what other world I would most like to travel to, I would have answered Narnia every time. Up until the 1980’s that is, when I read Borderland (New American Library, 1986).
In Bordertown I saw not the innocent magical land of childhood that seemed to reject the hyper-hormonal teen I grew into, but a place that embraced my older, alienated self—full of artists and magic and music—the place I knew waited for me somewhere if only I could find the road, the place where I would find adventure and belonging. It was Greenwich Village and Haight-Ashbury with elves! I gobbled down every subsequent anthology that came out and every novel based in that world.
I seem to remember that there were quite a few shared world anthologies in the eighties—a wonderful conceit where various authors brought their own styles, imaginations and stories to a mutual universe. The other series that I followed was “Thieves World.” (Created by Robert Lynn Asprin in 1978, this has also had a 21st century reboot). I don’t remember much about Thieves World now except the medieval-like setting was populated with larger than life rascals that may have descended from Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and Gray Mouser with a touch of Robert E. Howard thrown in, who hung out in taverns and got into magic tinged trouble. I couldn’t tell you the character’s names or what they did.
Ah, but Bordertown, on the other hand—even before I re-read the stories last year (after a very long gap) I knew that I still yearned to party at The Dancing Ferret, and I could tell you the ferret referred to was called Lubin, and that he was the companion of a sexy powerful fellow named Stick who might really be a dragon. I could still envision the bohemian, tawdry, exciting streets of Bordetown’s Soho, and remembered clearly that it was dangerous to drink the water of the Red River, and if you rode a motorcycle powered by a spell box, be prepared to be tossed into the street once in a while—because while technology doesn’t always work in Bordertown, neither do spells always work the way they should. Ask Wolf Boy, one of my favorite characters long before I wrote about werewolves myself.
Thieves World was in my memory as cartoon characters outlined in heavy black felt pen, but Borderland remained elegant, subtle watercolors full of flowing lines and etchings created with hatching, stippling, magic and life. Pre-Raphaelite paintings not of characters from Tennyson but motorcycles screaming down cobbled streets, elves in leather and lace thrashing out folk-punk in a crowded bar, and tall, handsome women with blue Mohawks or tumbling silver hair, who could wield a wrench as easily as a spell.
Bordertown remained a part of me.
Who would have known, two summers ago, when I sat down to dinner with various publishing people and writers attending the American Library Association annual conference, that before midnight rolled around, I would have an invitation to travel to Bordertown. It started innocently enough—some of us were talking about fantasy books we loved. Borderland came up, and Holly Black admitted to me that she was going to edit a new Borderland anthology with Ellen Kushner.
OMG! OMG! OMG! I was so excited that I almost fell off my seat. I was a total squealing fan girl gone wild. Holly must have thought I was demented. She must have also realized how much I loved those books, because she asked if I might be willing to write a story for the book. I didn’t even think twice.
Of course it all seemed doable months away from the deadline, but like images in a car’s side mirror, deadlines are much nearer than they appear, and there came a day when I really had to get serious. I turned the house upside down looking for the anthologies still in boxes from when we first moved in. I re-read the original stories, scribbling notes on characters and places, and conventions. I created a map as I read, all the time bemoaning that no one had already done so. That map expanded, sprawled, changed proportion and became smudged and dog-eared as I edited it according to each story. I swear some of those streets changed course and led to different places the more stories I read. Was I interpreting the clues wrong, were the writers not careful, or did Bordertown streets truly not want to behave? If Bordertown really was a magical merging of many cities, maybe the streets themselves were more than one street. Finally I decided that the roads of Bordertown did change occasionally and eventually I let my character, my girl Lizzie, express that thought.
“Sometimes I wondered if Bordertown rearranged itself every so often. I had found streets that I was sure hadn’t been there the day before, and occasionally streets I thought I knew spat me up in unexpected places.”
And when I started to write, it wasn’t like I was telling a story, it was like I walked into those familiar streets and discovered new ones as I explored with Lizzie—like Damnation Alley that cuts across from Hell Street to South Street, and the appropriately named Woodland Road inhabited by feral houses. I turned a corner onto Green Lady Lane one day, and found another great club to hang out in—Sluggo’s, a bar with sympathetic magic consequences. And I discovered a new band to follow—Lambton Wyrm. I could feel the gritty bricks of the abandoned houses under my fingers as I headed south from Soho, and I knew exactly why Hell Street got its name when I came across a Shell station with a decaying sign.
As I wandered, Bordertown merged with my urban childhood haunts. The feral neighborhood Lizzie squats in is populated with the Edwardian row houses and bombed buildings of my childhood in post WWII Bristol, England, and the ruined school where she keeps her stash of art supplies is a combination of my first school on another South Street and all the abandoned buildings that I have explored—I could smell the crumbling plaster, decaying paint, and rat droppings. Lizzie’s house number is my first house number, and her street name that of another of my childhood streets. Lambton Wyrm is named after a folksong from Northeast England where I moved to when I was seven-years-old, and the lead singer speaks in a dialect from that region.
Yes, I’ve always recognized Bordertown and when I began to write about Bordertown I realized that it recognized me, too. Bordertown accommodated me and we intertwined. Now not only is Bordertown part of me, but I am part of Bordertown. I have walked in the place I dreamed of.
I hope you’ll walk there, too.
Annette Curtis Klause was born in Bristol, England and moved to the United States when she was a teenager. She daydreamed constantly while growing up, and she turned some of those fantasies into stories and poems. Her novels include The Silver Kiss, Blood and Chocolate, and Freaks: Alive, on the Inside! Her latest story, “Elf Blood” is published in Welcome to Bordertown, and you can also check out more from Annette at her blog.