Sometimes I get lost in songs.
The cage I find myself in, at times like this, are made of sound – tiny notes meshed together and harder than steel, even if they can be broken by pressing the Pause button – but the stuff in the cage, filling the void between bars and sloshing in the empty space around my (metaphorical) flesh is raw emotion.
I have an unusual relationship with emotion. Mind you, I have an unusual relationship with most things. I’m fairly typical like that.
Let me explain what this feels like…
I am sitting wrapped in myself, raw emotion slopping and swimming around me like ocean water. The bars of the cage hold it in even though, were it water, it would run out freely. I can see the world beyond the bars but I can’t reach it, can no longer touch it, and the spirit that drives me from moment to moment, propelling away from my birth and inexorably toward my death, is coloured with this visceral response, the invisible emotional broth. I can feel a weight on my chest – in my chest – pressing my heart down and making its beat laboured, difficult. My neck tenses as waves of sensation ripple across my skin, making the hairs rise. I can feel this song reach down via my ears, plunge into my torso, grab me by the solar plexus and squeeze.
The song is Wake the White Queen by the Crüxshadows, from the Album ‘Where’s Neil When You Need Him?’.
In case you aren’t familiar with the works of Neil Gaiman, which is unlikely but I suppose technically possible, this one was written inspired by a very particular tale written by that master wordsmith: Mirrormask. It was made into a movie (same name) in 2005 and starred the phenomenally talented Stephanie Leonidas (recently seen playing Clara in the 2015+ science fiction series Killjoys) in the lead role of Helena (and her mirrored counterpart, daughter of the Black Queen). It’s an amusing and surreal trip through an elegantly-crafted dreamworld rich with symbology; if you haven’t watched it then I do recommend it.
As per the link above you can listen to Wake the White Queen on Spotify, though it’s unhelpfully not under the Crüxshadows. Instead it is found under the ‘Where’s Neil When You Need Him?’ album, probably for legal reasons. You can also (probably) find Mirrormask on the iTunes Store for rent or purchase and maybe other sites as well (though I can’t find it on Amazon Prime or Netflix, but that might just be because international copyright laws can be a screwy at times).
On an unrelated note, Helena is one of my favourite names of all time, and this story is one of several reasons why.
Without being too spoilery, the gist is that Helena is stuck in a dream, which is also a world. This world functions (in a manner not dissimilar to the famous Wonderland of Lewis Carroll fame) on its own internal logic and often behaves in ways that seem initially to be nonsense but which do, in fact, have recognisable rules. Part of brave Helena’s challenge is to figure out how these rules work in order to achieve her goal: waking the White Queen. Sadly, the realm is being threatened by the Nothing, a black tendril-wielding void, so Helena’s quest is very time-sensitive.
While it’s a familiar tale to anyone who’s read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland or watched The Neverending Story, it is (as always) the way that it’s told which makes the difference.
Another important point is context. Helena hasn’t just become locked in a dream world – she’s fled there, retreated from a harsh reality that all too many people are forced to face: her mother has cancer. In fact, her mother is undergoing surgery to remove a tumour from her brain.
Anyone, absolutely anyone, who knows me and who pays attention will understand why this film and this song grasp at me. I haven’t really updated this site since shortly after the death of my mother, and it is for a variety of reasons. Perhaps I will write my thoughts on the matter of her death. Perhaps I never will. Time will tell.
This song seizes my heart for more reasons than my mother, though. My oldest brother died of cancer. My father has struggled with it (and, as far as we can tell, has beaten it back for now). There is every chance that cancer is a real and relevant factor in my future. I have friends who have battled it and other relatives who have died to various forms of it.
How many times have I wished that I could go on a grand and daunting adventure in order to cure it? What would I give to be able to do something – anything – to prevent it from harming and killing those I love… or those I’ve never met? I don’t have the capacity to become a medical professional. I give to cancer-related charities when I can. But what if I could reach into myself, find some wondrous solution and just… fix it?
I can’t do any of that, of course. There is no deus ex machina that will pull a cure from nothing. Waiting in the ICU when my brother Colin was struggling for his life, waiting to hear back about my father’s lymphoma and other cancers, watching my mother fight against agonising pain – I have never felt so useless, so powerless, so lonely.
Who wouldn’t want to take the power back?
Take me with you, poor Helena…
Sadly, we are mortal and must deal with mortal issues within the mortal realm. There is no Mirrormask, no White Queen to wake, and while there is certainly a creeping horror threatening all we hold dear, it comes in more insidious and horrifying forms than cancer.
‘Worse than cancer?’ Yes. I hate cancer – fuck cancer – but there are worse and more far-reaching things in the world. This post isn’t about that so I’m not going to get into it but I bet most people reading this can think of a few already. After all, at least with cancer you can sometimes, circumstances allowing, cut it out.
So does this song tug at grief? Does it wrench at the very human desire to help, or at least to be able to help? Is it playing on the equally human wish to be able to run away from reality’s harsher aspects, the escapism impulse that saved lives when it drove our ancestors from physical threats like cave lions, but is less productive when those threats are abstracted and/or out of our realm of influence?
The answer, of course, is ‘yes.’ It does all of that and more. It is extremely well-crafted and my respect and admiration goes to the Crüxshadows for it.
But it does leave me in that cage for a time, desperate to get out and yet longing to stay…