Of all Mark Z. Danielewski’s gifts as a writer, perhaps the most important is his overwhelming ambition. Who else would agree to create a limited-edition, large-format illustrated ghost-story novella like The Fifty Year Sword? Widely available for the first time, the book maintains Danielewski’s trademark formatting quirks: multiple colors, relentlessly perfected formatting like poetry, and graphics derived from thread in paper, literally sewing the visual component of the story into the page.
The story begins with Chintana, a divorcée who attends a Halloween party at the foster home of five orphans. When she arrives, she discovers that the gathering doubles as a birthday party for the town’s resident home-wrecker, who counts Chintana’s ex-husband as one of her many married conquests. To avoid the bitch, Chintana joins her social-worker friend and the orphans in watching a storyteller perform as the children’s entertainment. He recounts his arduous journey to a mythical swordsmith, who gives him the titular sword, whose damage only appears once its victims reach 50 years old. As the story turns progressively darker, Chintana feels compelled to stop the action, but stays rooted to her seat, and her fears increase as the children begin to follow the storyteller’s subversively sinister instructions as if he were a Pied Piper.
The varicolored quotations indicate separate voices overlapping and collaborating on the story. In live performance—conducted by Danielewski with an orchestral score, large-scale shadowcasting, and a cast of five, including Breaking Bad’s Betsy Brandt—the effect is engrossing. It’s a heavily internal revenge tale in the guise of a spooky children’s story, complete with flashlights under the narrators’ chins. In book form, some of that all-encompassing mystery is lost. It’s the difference between reading the script of a play and seeing a stage performance. The sewn illustrations alleviate some of that missing aspect, particular in one breathtaking sequence, as the five children unlock the latches on the storyteller’s case one by one.
But as always, the burden of Danielewski’s mixed-media ambitions is that the inventive, enthusiastic style must build atop a literary work of substance. And in that regard, The Fifty Year Sword doesn’t disappoint. It isn’t an aggressively complicated cacophony of narratives like Danielewski’s House Of Leaves, or as demanding as the physically shifting narrative perspective of his Only Revolutions. The Fifty Year Sword is about revenge, fate, hubris, and the cost of personal satisfaction. In spinning this yarn, Danielewski creates within his simplest story another captivating atmospheric journey, one that defies the norm of just reading a book.
Danielewski, like his undeniably creepy and possibly ethereal antagonist, isn’t merely a storyteller. He creates experiences, multi-dimensional pieces of art that don’t conform to one genre, and that beg for physical engagement from the audience. The Fifty Year Sword follows in the tradition of Henry James’ “The Turn Of The Screw” and the work of Washington Irving, but in a distinctly postmodern context. It’s a beautifully haunting, resonant multimedia adventure.