Last night This American Life replayed one of my top five favourite stories. Just South of the Unicorns is the true tale of a lonely teenager in the Eighties who hops a plane to Florida in search of his favourite fantasy writer, Piers Anthony.
The story appeals to me on a hundred different levels. It should go without saying, that being gay and wearing Coke-bottle glasses made me an outcast in school who found solace in Science Fiction and Fantasy stories; Andy, the teenager who embarks on the quest, was from Buffalo, which is due South of my hometown of Brampton, Ontario; but what makes the story so relatable are the books of Piers Anthony.
I’ve never read one of Piers Anthony’s books but I remember looking at them at Coles bookstore in Shoppers World. They always had these crazy covers with half naked men and women on them, which were like prepubescent soft core porn. They were sexy and amazing at the same.
What makes Just South of the Unicorns beautiful is how it slowly reveals itself: the narrator’s description of his obsession with Piers Anthony and the author’s place in Science Fiction; how he comes to know the teenager that ran away to meet him; and the retelling of the meeting itself. It plays out like an epic fantasy set in the suburbs.
The rebroadcast of the episode happened to coincide with my coming home from an evening of watching Excalibur at friend’s place. Dorey and I are only a few years apart in age, and although we were raised on opposite sides of the country, we had similar tastes in escapism growing up.
Dorey and I both love cheesy SciFi movies from Seventies like Logan’s Run and Soylent Green, and cheesy Epic Fantasy movies from the Eighties like Conan the Barbarian and Beastmaster. The plots of the movies are usually better than the special effects, but they almost always expose a bit of male flesh, which is the wet t-shirt contest equivalent for a queer adolescent.
For the last couple of years, Dorey and I had been trying to get our hands on a copy of Excalibur. We looked on iTunes, and in secondhand DVD stores, and then last year we were at Barnes & Noble in Seattle, and I asked the cashier if they had it on the shelves.
The cashier was barely legal to work and had to sound out the name of the movie as he typed it into his computer. Without saying a word, the cashier left his little nook and led Dorey and I to one of the shelves. Not only did they have it, but it was only $5. Were I not a better friend, I would have fought Dorey for it, but since we were in Seattle for Dorey’s birthday, I let him have it; however I drew the line at buying it for him.
I still can’t remember the first time I saw Excalibur. I remember seeing a clip of it during the 1982 Academy Awards when it was nominated for Best Cinematography. I want to say that I saw the copy my brother taped from Pay TV, but I also remember recognizing Helen Mirren, Patrick Stewart, and Liam Neeson, so that doesn’t seem possible. All I know, is that I associate the film with those feelings of adventure and nudity that I lived for in my early teens.
The other people we watched the movie with last night hated it: it was too long, the story didn’t have a clear focus, the lighting was too dark, and the acting terrible. They had a point, but I still loved it because it’s like a live action version of those Piers Anthony covers I used to ogle at as a kid.
You can take the kid out of the SciFi/Fantasy section of the bookstore, but you can’t take SciFi/Fantasy section out of the kid.