Spontaneous Book Review: The Wary Traveller by M. C. Dulac
Posted by Anneque D. Machelle
The Wary Traveller by M. C. Dulac
Jim has always been attracted to the mountains. As a child he dreamt of scaling the mountains behind his grandpa’s house in Colorado. As a young man he’s lured by a more dangerous dream – a lonesome traveller looking to get off the beaten track in the German Alps.
Jim’s spending his days in Ferienstadt drinking beer in a pub that doesn’t seem all that German and talking travel plans with a few other wanderers he’s met along the way. There’s a beer festival coming up and Jim’s friends are excited – but to Jim it seems like just another party.
It’s not until he meets a German traveller by the name of Gunther that he learns the truth – the beer festival is sponsored by a Dutch brewing company, and is put on purely for the tourists. Not to be completely disappointed, Jim asks Gunther about accessing the nearby mountains, in particular the daunting Himmelberg.
Gunther is intrigued. There aren’t many like Jim, seeking something deeper than the stock standard tourist experience. He invites Jim to the real festival, the one held high in the mountains at the foot of Himmelberg. The only access is via a small train that leaves once a day and takes hours to reached the village at the mountain’s foot, a place called Himmeldorf. Jim realises that Himmeldorf must be totally isolated from the world outside: in Himmeldorf, there are only the mountains.
He agrees readily to go, and joins Gunther on the small, slow train into the mountains. Jim feels a surge of doubt – he hardly knows Gunther, and none of his travelling friends were the least bit interested in accompanying him. Can Jim trust Gunther? He doesn’t know, but he’s compelled towards the mountains, towards isolation, towards Himmelberg in particular, and his doubts are quelled soon enough. He find Himmeldorf is an almost medieval town, stern dark wooden buildings built on a steep slope, lost in a maze of mountains and valleys.
Jim is charmed despite his misgivings about Gunther. His charm only grows as the festival begins, and the masks are whipped out. Fierce visages depicting demons and skeletons, and a hell of a parade; it’s just the festival Jim’s been craving. Gunther explains that the festival is to assuage the spirits of Winter, to prevent them from stealing the unwary away from the village.
Gunther says nowadays it’s just a party, but to Jim it still feels like more. His doubts rise again, and our doubts rise with them – the Wary Traveller rides on this beautiful rhythm of Jim’s caution and recklessness. The pacing is intensely good. There are times I wanted to shout at Jim to stop and think about what he’s doing, as Gunther leads him further and further away from his friends and the safety of modern society. But just as often were the times I was completely convinced that Jim was onto a good thing, he should keep going, pushing deeper into the mystery of the Himmelberg. It’s a fatalistic story, but in a totally different way from usual. There are ill portents everywhere, and moments of great clarity where we see exactly where Jim is headed – but at times Jim sees it too and leaps joyfully towards his destiny. His constant dip and soar from unreality back to mundanity is so deftly done, the writing technique has an excellence on par with the story itself.
Add to that a deeply ingrained sense of wanderlust and that haunting, starkly beautiful setting, and you have one incredible story. The Wary Traveller had me itching to travel. It was a story that got me excited about a whole bunch of things; Jim’s obsession with the Himmelberg is infectious, and I could almost see that huge white-capped mountain and the austere wooden houses of Himmeldorf. There’s this air of expectation, and always the faintest sense of something sinister. Dulac does a brilliant job of bringing Himmeldorf’s mythology to life. The festival, wow. The winter spirits, which would have been lame or laughable written by anybody else, were vivid and exciting and wonderful and I just couldn’t wait to hear more about them.
The Wary Traveller is like Studio Ghibli made a horror movie. I loved it so much. There is nothing about it that could be better. It is shockingly good. It is a taste of perfection in short story form. I recommend you read it immediately. I’m giving it five stars.
Afterwards, I wondered if I could have changed things, and at what point I could have turned back. I guess the warning signs were always there, but curiosity is a powerful thing. Like a kid setting off on a journey from his grandpa’s back yard, I was guided only by a sense of destiny, and such small details as to whether I should have gone or what I would do when I go there, did not cross my mind. Maybe real life was never going to be enough for me. Maybe I’d always felt the desire to explore, to question, to find out the truth. Maybe it was all set in motion long before I saw the Himmelberg. Although, from the first time I saw those white-blue snowy slopes, everything that followed seemed inevitable.