Thursday, November 12, 2015

Alvin Schwartz, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (1981)

Schwartz, Alvin, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, illustrated by Stephen Gammell, J.B. Lippincott, 1981
______, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, illustrated by Stephen Gammell, HarperTrophy, 1986 (my copy)

Rating: 7/10

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark at Goodreads
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark at ISFdb
     (view a list of editions, printings, covers, etc.)

For more Friday's Forgotten Books, please visit Patti Abbott's blog.

Given its oral tradition and its transcendence of culture which contribute to its widespread popularity, the folk tale often lacks its intended wallop of surprise. Unless, of course you, are a youngster first encountering these tales. In my youth I was introduced to many such tales through reading young adult fiction (or as we called it back in the 80s, kids' books), including re-tellings of classic tales; one particular volume I recall having had a blast with was The Headless Roommate and Other Tales of Terror, collected by Daniel Cohen (M. Evans & Co, 1980). I don't believe I've before encountered Alvin Schwartz's popular volumes, and reading them for the first time now evokes mixed responses. The book is certainly fun and the illustrations by Stephen Gammell are downright brilliant--unfortunately Schwartz's writing is at times indolent. His notes on these tales and their origins, however, are interesting, and it is great that he made the effort to share these stories with a younger contemporary audience, helping not only to spread them but to conserve them.

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is divided into four distinct sections. "AAAAAAAAAAAH!" collects jump stories, tales that are strictly oral and require that the teller, at the moment of high climax, screams in order to frighten the listener(s) and perhaps elicit a scream in return. This is the weakest portion of the book and is intended primarily for fun, to pass along an oral tradition of frightening others. The narratives themselves are not actual stories, only premises, and it is not surprising there are so many variations of each one.

"He Heard Footsteps Coming Up the Cellar Stairs..." collects ghost stories of various types. Schwartz does well in selecting variety, including a wraith, an animal ghost in the form of vengeful wolf, a haunted house, and one of the many tales of guests spending the night at a house they learn the next day has burned down, while leaving physical evidence that they indeed were there for the night (for a twentieth century take on this idea, please see my note on Oliver Onions's "The Cigarette Case"). These stories are the basis for many classic ghost tales that appeared in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when the modern short story, still in its infancy, frequently recorded standard oral tales, or variations of these. "The Cigarette Case" is only one example, and the once periodically anthologized Frank Gruber story, "The Thirteenth Floor," is another variation. This chapter is the closest we come to modern narrative, and the tale closest to the modern short story form would be the enjoyable "The Haunted House." In fact, this would make a great classic ghost tale, and I would not be surprised if it has already been rendered into one back in the period of Mr. Onions.

The third chapter, "They Eat Your Eyes, They Eat Your Nose," assembles a mixed batch of tales, from a death warning ("Room for One More") to a tale of the wendigo ("The Wendigo"). There is no distinct pattern in this chapter, nor is one offered by the author. I do like this version of the wendigo quite a bit, and its neat to see that the neat non-fantastical Twilight Zone episode "The Grave," which featured a powerhouse cast of character actors including Lee Marvin, Strother Martin, Lee Van Cleef and James Best (later known for his role on Dukes of Hazzard), had its basis in the folk tale here titled "The Girl Who Stood on a Grave."

Urban legends are collected in the next chapter, "Other Dangers," including the ever famous "The Hook," "High Beams" and "The Babysitter." We all know the story of the escaped convict/madman with a hook for a hand and the unsuspecting car that drives off with its grim prize. "High Beams" exists in various forms, and one version was filmed as the opening sequence of Urban Legend, while another tale with slightly different versions, "The Babysitter," was popularized in film via the Carol Kane/Charles Durning 1979 feature, When a Stranger Calls. Perhaps because of the twists, the creepy premises or simply the modernization, the stories in this section would seem more effective through the eyes of youngsters.

Image result for Schwartz, Alvin "Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark"Finally, "AAAAAAAAAAAH!" retitled from the first chapter, collects stories to make the listener laugh rather than scream. The humour is of course mingled with some element of spookiness, and whether one laughs depends really on one's tastes. Personally, I always liked the cats in "Wait Till Martin Comes," while "Aaron Kelly's Bones" is probably more amusing for the adult than the child.

As fun as these tales are, this particular collection is best remembered for its original artwork by Stephen Gammell. For a sampling, simply search for the art online as its splattered all over the internet (my tri-sampling here is minimal in light of the numerous art for a 111-page book). It's great that in 1981 publishers were not too concerned over distributing such disturbing images to young readers, while the readers were excited and often terrified by them: accounts of nightmares or covering up certain pages can be found on some Goodreads reviews. At some point the modern HarperCollins did feel the need to tone down the volume and re-issued Alvin Schwartz's text with brand new, and entirely different (essentially sanitized), artwork by Brett Helquist.

The complete table of contents:

1. The Big Toe
2. The Walk
3. "What Do You Come for?"
4. Me Tie Dough-ty Walker!
5. A Man Who Lived in Leeds
6. Old Woman All Skin and Bone

He Heard Footsteps Coming Up the Cellar Stairs...
1. TheThing
2. Cold as Clay
3. The White Wolf
4. The Haunted House
5. The Guests

They Eat Your Eyes, They Eat Your Nose
1. The Hearse Song
2. The Girl Who Stood on a Grave
3. A New Horse
4. Alligators
5. Room for One More
6. The Wendigo
7. The Dead Man's Brains
8. "May I Carry Your Basket?"

Other Dangers
1. The Hook
2. The White Satin Evening Gown
3. High Beams
4. The Babysitter

1. The Viper
2. The Attic
3. The Slithery-Dee
4. Aaron Kelly's Bones
5. Wait Till Martin Comes
6. The Ghost with the Bloody Fingers

Friday, October 30, 2015

The Fiction Desk 8: New Ghost Stories II (2014)

Redman, Rob, editor, The Fiction Desk: New Ghost Stories II, 2014

The Fiction Desk: New Ghost Stories II at Goodreads
The Fiction Desk website

Overall Rating: 6/10

I have fallen behind in my reading of The Fiction Desk and other periodicals. Partly it's because I'm behind on all reviews, having been away, busy, and reading more contemporary fiction that I don't frequently review for this site. Partly it's because I haven't been reading periodicals as much lately, or short stories in general. Partly because my two and-a-half year-old is entertainment enough. And my reading lately has evolved toward picture books.

New Ghost Stories II includes eleven original short stories and a reprint of a medieval poem. Overall I did not enjoy it as much as previous issues, nor as much as their first ghost stories anthology, but there are some good tales included. Though many stories have a fantastical element, and those that don't have the suggestion of one, there aren't too many actual ghosts in the book. This of course is not a bad thing, since it offers a nice variety of subjects, from traditional ghosts to none at all, and some nice ambiguity in between.

Incomers by Amanda Mason     7/10
Emma and Jamie spend the New Year weekend at a port-side retreat where they've rented an old house. Soon Emma is troubled by feelings of a presence in the house, and of Jamie's seeming disinterest in her. The point of view is third person but limited to Emma, and we learn of her insecurities toward Jamie's bond with his former partner and of her feelings of inadequacy in relation to what are, essentially, Jamie's hobbies and interests. Meanwhile, through some acquaintances we discover the history of the house they are staying in, and of a certain scorned woman who once lived there.

"Incomers" is among the ambiguous ghost tales of the bunch. The existence of a ghost depends on the reader's interpretations, since there is no direct explanation offered. Personally I like the ambiguity, and my own rational leanings will conclude that the feelings of a ghost are the result of Emma's own heightened anxieties. Her suspicions that Jamie does not love her are founded on emotionally wrought, though likely accurate readings, evoke the sense of a ghost, and the eventual guilt for something clearly not her fault, despite her having secretly hoped for it. Ghost or no ghost this is among my favourites of the group.

Ms. Mason's other contribution to The Fiction Desk was also a ghost story and also quite good: "No Good Deeds" from the first ghost story collection.

The Bear Got Me by Matthew Licht     4/10
A government worker driving to a base in Alaska is chased by a ghost bear. Again closely limited to a single point of view, though here we have only one character and hence nothing external to interpret. The humour is not my thing and I rushed through the story as quickly as Garson rushed from that bear. Again, there is no evidence that the bear was there, ghostly or otherwise, and in the case of this story with its less than reliable narrator, I am left to believe it was a figment of the driver's overwrought imagination.

This is Licht's fourth appearance in The Fiction Desk, following "Dave Tough's Luck" (Various Authors), "Across the Kinderhook" (Crying Just Like Anybody) and "Washout" (New Ghost Stories).

Next to Godliness by Matt Plass     7/10
Strange occurrences in the home of a young couple lead them to suspect that their deceased little girl has returned home. Told through the father's point of view, it is the mother who wants to welcome the ghostly girl home, while the father is reticent. A strong story steeped in tragedy, well written and quite moving. Ghost or no ghost, the story's plot hinges on the possibility of a ghost and in that regard it is a ghost story.

The Table by Tamsin Hopkins     6/10
The death of the family matriarch reunites her husband and their three children. Told through one of the daughters' point of view, we learn that the mother had a vision of two girls seated perpetually at the titular table, a vision shared at one time by the children. A good and unique little read, it is also surprisingly touching, not just in its final moment, but with the notion of all we let go of as we grow up. "The Table" is most certainly a ghost story.

The Armies by Miha Mazzini     5/10 (Translated by Lenart Pogacnik)
A child's escapism from the unhealthy influence of his mother and grandmother's relationship. Not at all a ghost story since the visions are intentional figments of the boy's imagination, a form of escapism within the self. "The Armies" is, however, potentially more unsettling than many a tale of spectres, and can be included in the psychological horror category (if one were inclined to seek a seb-genre). This is Mazzini's second story for The Fiction Desk, following "I'm the One" from TFD4: Crying Just Like Anybody, and "In the Walls" from TFD6: New Ghost Stories.

The Time of Your Life by Lucinda Bromfield     5/10
After the sudden death of his father, a young lawyer inherits his father's position as well as his watch. The wearing of the watch leads to changes in our hero, and gives meaning to memories of his father's visits to a certain mysterious old man. The fantastical element is present, but not spectral, and though not a bad story it is somewhat lacking.

End of the Rope by Melanie Whipman     6/10
At school our young narrator is buddied up with the strange new girl in class, and the two outcasts soon become friends. Escapism and implications of abuse propel the narrative and the bond between the two girls. The title serves a dual purpose: escaping off the ground as well as from reality. The ending is reminiscent of some the original Twilight Zone stories of escapism. The ghost element depends once again on interpretation, as the narrator's vision at the end is not supported externally, and can hence be a creation of her own over-wrought imagination. Granted she is a trustworthy narrator, but recent knowledge and experience is helping shape her outlook on things.

According to her website, Melanie Whipman's first short story collection, titled Llama Sutra, is to be released later this year by Ink Tears Press, and based on this well written story, it's a collection to look out for.

Hell for Leather by Bernie Deehan     5/10
Technician Terry is called up to install a security system at a bar that is soon to re-open. The same bar that, in its initial incarnation, served as the launching pad for a tragic event in Terry's youth. "Hell for Leather" is a fairly standard ghost story and hence predictable. I don't mind the coincidence of Terry being the one to be called to the bar, but I am suspicious that an establishment that's about to have its grand opening orders a security system at the last minute. You'd think it would be one of the first things the owners would get organized, rather than leaving the place un-secure while the renovations and preparations are being done, especially when we learn the place is already fully stocked with booze.

Twice a Day with Water by Die Booth     5/10
In this one, loner druggie Bren hallucinates the existence of a "spirit" that enters his body whenever he consumes pretty much anything. An interesting idea with a strong ending, I just could not care for the character who is never quite fleshed out, but presented as an agoraphobic user and seeks sympathy from that fact alone. The ghost element is a figment in the mind of Bren, particularly in light of the fact that as she is presented, she would not be able to bake a cake or pour a glass of vodka. This is Booth's third appearance in The Fiction Desk.

Watching Kate & Gustav by Alice Adams     6/10
Trapped in the apartment in which she was murdered, a woman's ghost watches the new tenants and their gloomy cat, and attempts to reach out to them. A good story with an unfortunately flat ending. Something a great deal more tragic could have been achieved with the circumstances at hand, and while the implication of tragedy is there, it comes across as passive as its narrator. Despite this, I genuinely liked the narrator, our ghost, and new tenant Kate, and would have enjoyed reading more of their exploits.

In Yon Green Hill to Dwell by Jane Alexander     7/10
A woman is troubled by her husband's lethargy and the memory of his former lover. Well written with a strong ending, I was strangely not as engaged in this one as in some of the others. Alexander's story received the prize for best ghost story and despite my lack of connection with it, I agree with the decision. The story is not only well written, but its thematic elements are well presented. It was inspired by the Scottish traditional tale in verse, "Tam Lin," which is reprinted after the story.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

John Ball, In the Heat of the Night (1967)

Ball, John, In the Heat of the Night, NY: Harper & Row, 1965
______, In the Heat of the Night, NY: Bantam Books, July 1967
______, In the Heat of the Night, London: Pan Books [X711], 1967 (pictured right)
______, In the Heat of the Night, NY: Bantam Books [020], 5th printing (my edition, pictured below)

In the Heat of the Night at Goodreads
In the Heat of the Night at IBList

Rating: 6/10

For more Friday's Forgotten Books, please visit Patti Abbott's blog.

In the Heat of the Night is best known in that it helped generate a remarkable and memorable film. It's been years since I've seen the film, and having now read the novel I am inspired to re-watch it, but not before writing this review since I want to focus only on the book. Incidentally, the novel received the 1966 Edgar Award for Best First Novel, whereas the film received the Academy Award for Best Movie.

The small South Carolina town of Wells is faced with handling the murder of white Italian musician Maestro Mantoli, who was instrumental (pun intended) in organizing a large-scale music festival in the hopes of generating a tourist economy for the suffering region. The conductor's body is discover by deputy Sam Wood in the middle of the night, and in search of suspicious characters he picks up a well-dressed black man at a train station, who turns out to be Pasadena violent crimes investigator Virgil Tibbs. Tibbs is brought in on the case as a potential fall-guy so that the city council can save face over such a high profile investigation, should anything go wrong. Essentially, blame the unsolved crime on the incompetent black guy. Tibbs, however, proves to be highly intelligent and an excellent investigator.

Racial discrimination is certainly a major focus, as Tibbs, in the few days he spends on the investigation, faces various forms of racism. Some are extreme and stem from plain ignorance, while more complex forms of racism are explored via Sam Wood, a relatively positive character. Unlike the other inhabitants of Wells, with the exception of the northern and progressive Italians, Wood recognizes and quickly admires not only Tibbs's intelligence and training, but also his respectful demeanor. Throughout the investigation, the emotional and at times hard-headed Wood finds that his views on race are being challenged, that he has been conditioned to view certain people, black or Italian, through the society in which he was raised, rather by reason, and finds himself by the end of the novel not only admiring Tibbs, but in love with an Italian woman.

Another focus is an interesting situation with the Wells head of police, Chief Gillespie. It is made clear that Gillespie is incompetent and has been hired because of his inexperience. The town council can in this way control the police force and pressure the chief to do their bidding, since his post is not too secure, and since he does not have the respect of the rest of the force. Plot-wise this allows Tibbs to handle the investigation as he sees fit, since Gillespie's involvement becomes minimal. An intelligent and conscientious officer would have taken on the investigation rather than be impressed by an outsider, black or white.The adverse effect of this element, however, is unfortunate. As intelligently as Tibbs is presented, the fact that the law enforcement of Wells, particularly its chief, is less than average, undermines Tibbs's own efforts. Simply put, Tibbs would be truly extraodinary had he managed to solve a murder that baffled a competent police force.

The novel is written through a problematic point of view. The third person is limited to three characters for the most part, Tibbs, Gillespie and Wood, with minor awkward interference from others. Most of the point of view rests with the white men, however, so that Tibbs, the character we should be following, is relegated to the role of outsider. Since he is the outsider in the town, it is as though the readers should be identifying themselves with the racist locals rather than the progressive Californian. Of course Ball was focusing not only on a standard who-dun-it plot, so that point of view had to be stretched out. Wood's point of view in particular is required in illustrating how ridiculous it is to judge a person by their skin colour, and his coming to terms with his own prejudice is important to the novel and the genre. Moreover, by relegating Tibbs's investigation to second-tier focus, Ball is able to withhold evidence that Tibbs uncovers early on, and springing it at the reader at specific points in the text. On one end this gives the novel an artificial feel, while on another it increases drama and allows the mystery to maintain its weight against the book's important and inherent social commentary.

Though the investigation itself is quite interesting, the resolution is a little anti-climactic. Not because it is predictable (that it certainly isn't), but because it is so unremarkable. I was piecing together a council conspiracy which, admittedly, would have been an obvious suspect.

The love story sub-plot is unbelievable and poorly delivered. Aside from allowing Wood to fall in love with an Italian, it serves little purpose. Moreover, though author Ball does well in presenting non-white characters, he unfortunately fails in delivering positive, or even realistic female characters.

Interestingly, the N-word is used quite liberally in the novel, yet only in full by the less than likable councilmen, including the mayor, Gillespie's boss. Other, more positive characters, have the word on the tips of their tongues, such as deputy Sam Morton, who occasionally mutter the word's first syllable, as Ball, wanting these characters to be likable despite their views on race, prevents them from saying the despised word while still portraying them as locals of a deep-rooted racist community.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Midnight Fright: A Collection of Ghost Stories (1980)

uncredited, Midnight Fright: A Collection of Ghost Stories, Watermill Press, 1980
______, Midnight Fright: A Collection of Ghost Stories, Watermill Press, 1994

Midnight Fright at Goodreads
Midnight Fright at IBSFdb
Midnight Fright at IBList

Rating: 7/10

For more Forgotten Books, please visit Patti Abbott's blog.

This tiny anthology of five supernatural tales, specifically labeled "ghost stories," is essentially made up of tales widely available over the internet as well as across numerous print anthologies. Surprisingly re-printed in 1994, the anthology will likely never be printed again, as the internet has made most tales in this vein and in this period so readily available. The initial packaging of this five-some appears quite generic and nondescript, though I do like the simple cover (pictured), while the 1994 reprint is packaged as a set of tales for young adults, with an amusingly colourful cover by Mia Tavonatti. By packaging such a volume for a younger readership, the implication is that the stories would not frighten adults, and yet many of these tales have serious threads that only adults can appreciate. (Of course I'm generalizing.)

I mention that the stories are "labeled" as ghost stories because, if we are to examine each one of them individually, four of the five are not ghost stories at all. In fact, many nineteenth century and early twentieth century ghost stories are not actually ghost stories, including some popular tales consistently labeled and anthologized as such. The separation of fiction into genres, eventually associating stories with a certain "class" of readership, was a practice popularized in the early twentieth centuries (thereby H.G. Wells and R.L. Stevenson are considered literature, M.R. James is sometimes considered literature, while latter twentieth century authors of the supernatural are most often considered trash--another generalization). In more recent years the practice of classifying stories has increased drastically and the expansion of sub-genres has exploded to the point that contemporary readers have become obsessed with classifying fiction the way entomologists have been classifying insects. From a revisionist point of view, we can examine the stories collected in Midnight Fright in light of genre, and re-classify them in light of of contemporary approaches to genre. I will here examine the stories as ghost stories and in most cases de-classify them as such, and invite others to attempt to properly re-classify them. The benefit in such an exercise is to understand the development of genre in fiction, as well as to examine our changing perceptions of genre. More importantly, the author's own intention is clearer since often specific genres have adverse affect on the fiction itself, and as discussed below, in particular the Dickens's "The Signalman" and Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper" are vastly different if we were to view them as ghost stories rather than as what they actually are.

Of course this review is filled with spoilers. If you haven't already, please read the stories themselves. All are good and most are great, and they are individually a better read than my silly review.

On a side-note I will briefly look at the anthology itself. As a collection the story choices are for the most part good, assuming a young readership who hasn't yet encountered the classics and often anthologized stories by Dickens, Gilman and Maupassant. The layout and printing is unfortunately poorly done, so that the diary entries in "The Horla" are mashed together while space breaks are not always obvious.

The Signalman by Charles Dickens     5/10
First published in Mugby Junction, 1866

This excellent story by this excellent author remains powerful not for its final, climactic and revelatory moment, but for the real tragedy the situation embodies. A lonely signalman is visited by our wandering narrator who is curiously drawn to the man. After an awkward introduction, the two men strike up an acquaintance, and the signalman confides in the gentleman that an apparition that has visited him twice before a tragic event on the track, has once again appeared to him a few days past, indicating that another tragedy is about to strike.

The idea that the apparition is a ghost is inaccurate. If we are to accept that a ghost is the spirit of a deceased person that exists within the plane of the living, the figure seen by the signalman is not a ghost. Instead, the apparition is an astral projection in time; the image of a (living) train engineer in the future appearing to the signalman. There is no projection of place as the image appears exactly where the real engineer will appear at the end of the tale, and simply appears out of time. Built into the narrative is the idea that the signalman has a sensitive connection to the moment of his death, and it is not the engineer who attempts to warn him of his impending death, but he himself who is picking up this message. It is interesting that the story is titled "The Signalman" rather than "The Ghost," or "The Apparition," or pretty much anything else. The story is about the signalman more than it is about anything else, with Dickens's narrator focusing on character. Dickens's idea is that he is a signalman not only in occupation but in his innate ability to pick up this signal from the future.

Dickens's idea of a signal and the sensitive connection to the signalman's death is also shared with the narrator. This man, who we know little of and who appears to act primarily as a narrator-witness to the supernatural event, is drawn to the signalman without reason or motive. This is highlighted when he is unable to give a reason when the signalman requests one. The narrator is observant and rational, and attempts to reason with the signalman, offering up excuses as lame as it is all just coincidence, which neither of the men believe. The rational gentleman is toying a little with the signalman, trying to elevate his status and trying to lead him to believe in a rational explanation, when in reality he is trying to convince himself of reason, to explain being drawn to this spot and to this man from who knows where and across what distance.

Interestingly, a faithful and very good BBC adaptation of the story has a similar interpretation, and segments the different meetings between the two men by focusing on the wanderer as he lies in bed, unable to sleep, and clearly disturbed by not only the signalman's dilemma, but his own involvement in it. It is even hinted that he too received a spirited visit on the last night in his room. This version uses the sound of the bell and train as a conduit between the event and the wanderer: though he does not hear the bell while in the cabin with the signalman, the sounds do play out vividly as he is racing toward the track, fearing the worst, implying that a connection does exist.

Dickens makes it clear that the narrator has a connection but that the connection is not as strong as that of the signalman, and it is possible that the signalman's sensitive nature is extending to the narrator, so he is psychically reaching out toward the narrator or anyone else who might be passing by. Among the many nineteenth century notions that Dickens believed strongly in was mesmerism, and the idea of a kind of attraction between these two men is heightened by this fact, and also by the fact that mesmeric connections also exist in other works, notably The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

Man-Size in Marble by E. Nesbit     6/10
First published in Home Chimes, December 1887

A young, loving couple move into a lovely, strangely inexpensive home in a rural community outside London. They soon learn from their hired help that the house and the nearby church are cursed: On Halloween night of each year the two churchyard marble statues walk the grounds over to their very home, and should they encounter anyone on their journey, that person shall perish. Not a bad story as story's go, but highly predictable. Author Nesbit fills her stories with many standard supernatural tropes, such as including a rational witness to the events (a neighbour, also an outsider, and a doctor disbelieving in all this nonsense), and leaving physical evidence via a marble finger in the hand of the eventual victim.Not deftly handled as the reader wonders how such a frail woman can break off a marble finger that has survived so many generations, and our narrator proves himself to be an imbecile with the idiotic decisions he makes (returning to the churchyard with the doctor when he is convinced the stones have walked and his lover might be in danger).

As far this being a ghost story, it does not work as such. The marble figures come to life, or more accurately, become animated as part of an ancient curse. There is no indication that a ghost is involved, or that the figures themselves are in any way haunted. This is a supernatural story that involves a curse. The titular object in "The Monkey's Paw" is also cursed, and no one would suggest that paw is a ghost, even though it might give a slight curl when in the wisher's hand. Cursed objects are not ghosts, and instead are more akin to stories of witchcraft since some spell is involved, even there is no direct evidence of a witch.

The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman     9/10
First published in New England Magazine, January 1892

There is a reason "The Yellow Wallpaper" is among the most anthologized stories in both non-genre and genre publications: it is a powerful story, well written, that acts well as a suspense story as it does as social commentary. As sub-genre the story can be classified as psychological horror and not at all as a ghost story. In fact, claiming "The Yellow Wallpaper" to be a ghost story removed its social implications and hence the author's obvious point. If the shape behind the wallpaper exists outside of the narrator's mind, then it is that supernatural force that is driving her mad, rather than the incarceration by the rational individuals around her. The implication that society is incarcerating women, segregating them as ill and removing them from their function within society is weakened by the ghost theory. Our narrator does, near the beginning when describing the house they are spending the summer in, refer to it as being haunted, but she does so to indicate the impression she has received from the house's seclusion, and is not being literal. It is she who will, in a sense, haunt that house and haunt the nursery, her room she is essentially trapped in. The mysterious figure behind the wallpaper is undoubtedly stemmed from her overwrought mind, a projection of herself onto, or into, the wallpaper itself. Since she is unable to escape the barred room of the nursery, and her husband unwilling to leave that house even if just for the summer, it is the constraints of her mind that the woman has successfully escaped from. There is nothing in the text that in any way implies a ghost is present, and the powerful final moment, that creepy "creeping" scene, is powerful and horrific because there is no ghost.

The Cigarette Case by Oliver Onions     7/10
First published in The Weekly Tale-Teller, 13 August 1910

This story employs the all-too familiar setting of a narrator telling of a man who in turn is telling a ghost story, this time to the members of their club. The man recounts his experience visiting France with a friend many decades ago, when they encountered some ghosts with whom they visited. "The Cigarette Case" is the only genuine ghost story of the fivesome collected in the anthology. It is fairly standard in concept and approach, yet it is well written and entertaining. Like many ghost stories we are here given a witness who simultaneously corroborates the tale and yet does not: the friend was present at the time and yet is not in this story with the implication that he has since died. We are also given physical evidence of the ghost in the form of the cigarette case of the title.

The Horla by Guy de Maupassant (translator not credited)     8/10
First published in Gil Blas, 26 October 1886; first English translation published in Modern Ghosts, 1890

Maupassant's famous story is a diary narrative of a man losing his mind under the stress of being pursued by an invisible creature from Brazil. Not a ghost story at all, the creature is clearly an invisible Brazilian vampire (a sub-genre all of its own). The idea that the creature is a vampire is mentioned in the text itself, yet as a suggestion and not as fact. The creature is a kind of parasite, invisible and possibly humanoid in form. The invisibility can suggest a ghost and that our narrator's home has suddenly become haunted, yet the being is clearly alive, a living, thinking parasite, and is also mobile, not restricted to the house as standard ideas of haunted houses suggests. The creature closely resembles that of Ambrose Bierce's invisible creature from "The Damned Thing," a being whose colour is not visible to the human eye.

Friday, July 31, 2015

Marie Belloc Lowndes, The Lodger (1911)

Lowndes, Marie Belloc, The Lodger, McClure Magazine, January 1911
______, The Lodger, 1913
______, The Lodger, New York: Dell Books, 19 (my edition, pictured)

The Lodger at Goodreads
The Lodger at IBList

Rating: 8/10

For more of this week's Friday's Forgotten Books, please visit Evan Lewis's blog.

The literary myth surrounding Marie Belloc Lowndes's most famous work is that it stemmed from a dinner party conversation. Someone reported that they knew of a former cook and butler who temporarily housed the Whitechapel Murderer, today better known as Jack the Ripper. First published in 1911, just under a quarter of a century after the infamous crimes, Lowndes's novel reflects an interest in that particular scenario and hence does not focus primarily on its titular character. Instead, it focuses on the aging and struggling couple and their strained relationship more than it does on the crimes and the killer. This is to the novel's benefit, as the tense relationship does more to enhance the murders than would any amount of blood.

Moreover, the work acts as an interesting position on the actual crimes: it was written early enough to have avoided the modern Ripper canon, so that there are more murders attributed to the moniker. It also appeared at a time when censorship prohibited any kind of accurate description of the Ripper's brutal slayings. No dismembered corpses and displaced organs; just a little bit of blood.

It is no wonder that, though I read the novel as a teenager in the anthology of Jack the Ripper stories, Red Jack (Martin H. Greenberg, Charles G. Waugh & Frank D. McSherry, jr., eds, NY: DAW Books, 1988), I had absolutely no recollection of it. At that age I was seeking the thrills of suspense, violence and surprise endings, and probably wasn't even aware of the incredible tension generated by the protagonists: landlords Robert and Ellen Bunting. The Buntings are retired butler and cook, and in their retirement age are suffering from poverty, from years of repressed emotion, and from memories of past glory. The presence of this mysterious and eccentric lodger, Mr. Sleuth, who might be responsible for the recent spate of killings attributed to a serial killer known as the Avenger, acts as a kind of personification of the troubles between man and wife.

Lowndes's prose is gaslit: dark and hazy, tight and claustrophobic. Immediately the gloom is established, the room cozy yet in a "grimy" London neighbourhood, where the focus on our heroes is in light of their poverty. Effective too is the contrast between husband and wife: Mr. Bunting is "leaning back in a deep leather arm-chair," while Mrs. Bunting is "sitting up in an uncomfortable straight-backed chair." This contrast is important as it accurately delineates the characters, and might as well be describing how they are settled within their own skins. Whereas Mr. Bunting is mostly relaxed and easy-going, Mrs. Bunting is a ball of anxiety. It is she who first suspects that their Lodger might be the Avenger, and she clutches at this secret though it makes her incredibly tight and wound up, bordering on a nervous breakdown. Mr. Bunting only suspects their lodger fairly late in the narrative, and while he too becomes unbearably nervous, it is clear that his wife has the strongest sensibility and is better able to cope with the anxieties, though unfortunately she releases steam by snapping at her devoted ans sensitive husband.

Mrs. Bunting can come across as unlikeable in her extreme treatment of her easygoing husband, yet there is the understanding that this side of her is a result of the stresses of poverty, heightened by the suspicion she is housing a serial murderer. Most interesting in her characterization is an instinctive, irrational need in the early part of the text to defend her lodger. While part of this is denial that Mr. Sleuth is a killer, there is a side of her that feels compelled to protect the man. Having been servant and servient throughout her career, she harbours a sense of responsibility to the man whose basic household needs she is catering to. All this despite the guilt--and in this she is guilty--of allowing the Avenger to commit more murders. In protecting his identity she is an accomplice to the deaths that occur during his stay at her home. An unlikeable character who is accomplice to murder makes for a unique protagonist, and this heightens the novel both in interest and in complexity, a work well in advance and subtlety than Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho (though in fairness the two are mostly incomparable).

Other characters are less dimensional. Mr. Bunting has some level of complexity, though this is primarily in light of his relationship with Ellen Bunting, for otherwise he has a fairly fixed personality to comply with his role in the novel. His niece and her lover, local policeman Joe Chandler, exist primarily to break the tensions of the story, to offer some light amid the gloom, and with their blossoming romance, some sense of a possible positive future. In addition, Chandler is required in order to share information with both the Buntings and the reader, to hypothesize and to increase certain elements of tension, such as the lodger's abhorrence of visitors to the house. The lodger himself, Mr. Sleuth, is a mysterious, anxious eccentric who is fairly stock, though it is his stockness within these qualities that makes him suit his role.

A novel for which much can be written and through several angles, and one I will certainly revisit.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Robert Louis Stevenson, The Suicide Club (1882)

Stevenson, Robert Louis, The Suicide Club, London: Chatto & Windus, 1882

The Suicide Club at Goodreads
The Suicide Club at IBList

Rating: 7/10

For more Friday's Forgotten Books, please visit Patti Abbott's blog.

The three novelettes that make up Robert Louis Stevenson's The Suicide Club are interlinked tales that form a part of his New Arabian Nights project. Along with the second cycle of stories in the first volume of New Arabian Nights, these stories were originally published in London Magazine between June and October of 1878. New Arabian Nights collected tales modeled after the Thousand and One Nights, only here it is the narrator (Stevenson) transcribing tales recounted to him by an "Arabian author." The stories are certainly inspired by the format of the original Arabian Nights, which collects a large number of stories and fragments, some interrelated while others standalone (though this depends on which version is at hand since most translations feature selections from the tales rather than the complete works). Though there are allusions to the past, Stevenson's stories are distinctly wrapped up in Victorian conventions and are an important chapter in the development of the Victorian mystery, and by extension the development of the mystery genre. These works are also important forerunners in the evolution of the modern short story.

The Suicide Club is a triptych of individual narratives focusing on separate characters, while interlinking a single main plot. The concept is excellent, though Stevenson's aim is adventure rather than mystery or moral conundrum, both of which are serious potential avenues. To the modern reader this is unfortunate, since the strengths of each of these stories is the heightened suspense and mystery. Despite the emphasis on adventure, the three tales are nonetheless enjoyable and certainly well written.

Story of the Young Man with the Cream Tarts
First published in London Magazine, 1878

Seeking adventure, Prince Florizel of Bohemia and his friend Colonel Geraldine, enter an oyster bar in disguise. Boredom is soon alleviated with the appearance of a young man offering patrons cream tarts. Some accept the pastries while others decline, and in the cases where the pastries are not accepted, the young man must himself eat the tart. Curious, the two friends seek the young man's acquaintance and take an immediate liking to him. Through this encounter they learn of a Suicide Club, an organization that caters to men wishing to put an end to their lives.

The strongest part of the story is its middle. The opening is certainly original but the logic is at times lacking, whereas the end is plunged into adventure and hinges on some plot conveniences. The middle, however, is well paced and builds itself nicely in revealing the method in which the victim is selected. It also contains the most interesting character of any of the stories, a certain Mr. Malthus.

Story of the Physician and the Saratoga Trunk
First published in London Magazine, 1878

While the previous story's best portion is its second third, the second story's strength is in its third. With somewhat comical tone we are introduced to Silas Q. Scuddamore, a moody American from Bangor, Maine, whose uncertain emotions deliver him into a conniving plot. Silas Scuddamore manages to get wrapped up in having to dispose of a corpse, and due to his sensitive nature, this makes for a strong sequence with a Saratoga trunk.

Interestingly, the title is not entirely accurate in the sense that the story is not about the physician and is clearly not his story. The trunk, however, and more accurately its contents, does play a large role. It should instead be titled "Story of the American and the Saratoga Trunk." Or "Story of the American Tourist and The Bohemian Corpse."

The Adventures of the Hansom Cab
First published in London Magazine, 1878

The final story's best portion is its beginning. In fact, the opening to "The Adventures of the Hansom Cab" is one of the better introductions to any story I have come across for some time. A man is picked up by a cab and brought over to a house where a party is being held. It appears the host has sent several cabs throughout London to find single gentlemen and deliver them to the house. Our curious and brave protagonist attends the party, and hiding behind some curtains (a classic trope), he watches as the host slowly sends guests away on the pretext that their invitation was a misunderstanding. The gentleman's involvement with the remainder of the plot begs the reader to wonder at the need for such a hyperbolic ruse, but the first portion of the story is so strong that we can forgive the rest when it begins to falter.

Since each story has a stronger third, it might be interesting to re-visit this work and create a version that begins with the Hansom Cab, continues with the Cream Tarts, and finished with the Saratoga Trunk. Of course there would be no resolution to the main plot, but even Stevenson rushed his own resolution via an odd decision. The final conflict, a dual between our Bohemian prince and the president of the Suicide Club, is presented away from the action, with two minor characters waiting to know who comes up victorious. Potentially tense, the scene lacks suspense as it is brief, not to mention that it is obvious which party will come out victorious, and which will fall at the blade of the sword.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The 4400: Terrible Swift Sword

Terrible Swift Sword (episode 3.11)
Directed by Scott Peters
Written by Ira Steven Behr, Bruce Miller & Craig Sweeny
Guest starring Brennan Elliott, Summer Glau, Jeffrey Combs, Sean Marquette
First aired 20 August 2006
Rating 7/10

Previous episode: The Gospel According to Collier
Next episode: Fifty-Fifty

"Terrible Swift Sword" continues to escalate the notion that Jordan Collier is Christ. In addition to his leadership role and the apostelic presence of such figures as Shawn Farrell, Kevin Burkhoff, Richard Tyler, Tess Doerner, Kyle Barldwin and so forth, each with his/her own specific individual role amid the collective pursuits of the 4400, is a nicely framed shot of our Jesus figure (see above). The ripples in the water form a distinct halo, and the moon/planet looming overhead separates him from the Earth, while in the surrounding skies we notice a heavenly glow. Finally, behind Collier are three plaques, one of them in the shape of a pyramid; three plaques and a pyramid point directly to the concept of a trinity. And I haven't even mentioned that Collier looks like a conventional Jesus figure. It is appropriate that someone who once donned expensive suits and ties, and who later wandered the country in the habits of a hobo, has now merged the two and settled into the style of a clean-cut bearded dude dressed in the comfy yet nonetheless stylish jumpsuit that is not defined by any particular class. In fact, he's dressed like a senior citizen, but one who can afford the better brands.

The episode's title is from Julia Ward Howe's 1861 "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," which links the American Civil War with the final biblical apocalypse. This title is an appropriate capsule for the episode, which deals with a global civil war that is the biblical apocalypse. The plot is launched on the premise that the NTAC night shift took a collective nap while the captured members of the Nova group walk out of their maximum security cells. The initial assumption is that the Nova group is being reassembled, but the viewer is given (and expects) that instead the release is part of Collier's great plan.

The re-introduction of impersonator Boyd Gelder is a welcome addition to the story-line, and there is a well rendered scene with a twist as we are witness to an unusual flirtatious moment between JC and the beautiful Devon (played by the beautiful Jody Thompson) transform into something entirely different.

It's this Devon/Gelder scene that plunges us into yet another interesting character switcheroo, yet one an a psychological level. Once a vehement anti-Collier forerunner, Richard Tyler's loyalties are slipping from recent confidant Shawn and toward Collier himself and his greater purpose. Conversely, Shawn was once Collier's right hand and has always looked up to and admired him. The recent alliance between Shawn and Richard against Richard's own daughter Isabelle was the better portion of an otherwise often irritating plot-line. This duo took shape conveniently during Collier's absence, and now the two men, both presented throughout the series as upholders of basic moral good, are on opposite ground, at either end of the ambiguously moral Collier spectrum. This character parade is among the better conceived and played out portions of the series.

With the growing tensions of the 4400 situation, the previously interesting Diane/April/Ben triangle is diminished due to its small scale nature. To quote the great American prophet Rick Blaine: "it doesn't take much to see that the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world." In light of the escalating threats of Armageddon, April and her heartache become almost irritating. The story-line is conveniently halted, which I approve of since it needed to be ended prior to the season finale, and because it needed to be done quickly so it doesn't usurp more time from the more interesting developments.

Another plot point that comes to an end is that of Kyle Baldwin. Now out of prison for killing Collier he is again set aside, this time with the purpose to extend Collier's regime. I've always liked Kyle, and I sympathize with the notion of losing him a third time (as in a sidebar Tom is struggling with the thought of losing him again: first through a coma, then through prison, and now through recruitment). There is an efficient and important moment of forgiveness between JC and Kyle that essentially shuts the door on the latter character and if we do meet him in season four it will likely be incidental.

(Kyle has helped to prove how my counting of 4400 members is pointless. For one thing, he was always number 4401 as he was the intended target for the spot that Shawn took. Though Shawn was taken in his place and enhanced with healing powers, Kyle nonetheless managed to become enhanced as well, and has hence always been a member of the 4400. In addition to Kyle, we will soon realize the vastness of 4400 expansion.)

Another recently returned character proves her necessity as a plot progression device. The not always interesting Alana Mareva appears to have returned so that Tom can have someone to privately vent his frustrations with (so the audience can eavesdrop) and receive emotional support, and to cook penne arabiata (so she claims). Yet really she is here to help plot progression. We are presented with the fascinating mystery of how did the NTAC night staff fall into communal platonic sleep while the former Nova members walked out of their cells. Instead of having our officers investigate and figure it out, we have former 4400 Centre instructor pop up with how she had a student who was able to alter oxygen levels in the blood. Must've been him. Mystery solved let's move on toward the finale.

The episode has among the strongest finishes we've yet scene, and plot aside, there is a strong element of unity among the more interesting 4400 members, which is strengthened by Shawn's own return to the Collier school of thought. Also good set-up for the fourth season.

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