Thursday, June 28, 2018

John Saul, The Handkerchief (1997)

Saul, John. The Handkerchief. New York: Fawcett Crest, April 1997.

The Handkerchief at ISFdb
The Handkerchief at Goodreads

For Part One of the series: The Doll
For Part Two of the series: The Locket
For Part Three of the series: The Dragon's Flame

Rating:     5/10


The fourth part of John Saul's serially published The Blackstone Chronicles focuses on a handkerchief. If italicized prologues are to be believed, this cursed item is embroidered with a fancy R by an asylum patient who deliriously believes she is living at society's upper social echelons. Drama ensues, which includes the less-than-pleasant nurse using the handkerchief to wipe spaghetti sauce (I'm assuming tomato) from her uniform, and, tossed in for good measure, some old asylum water therapy/torture.

Enter our buddy Oliver Metcalf, editor of Blackstone's local paper, The Chronicle. Arriving at the office he learns from his assistant that local gossip Edna Burnham has been spreading theories related to the recent trend of violent deaths. Burnham connects the three deaths to the mysterious gifts each household received shortly before tragedy struck, and in addition links it all back to the asylum. Editor Metcalf refuses to believe there is any connection, is not aware of any mysterious gifts, and generally scoffs at the woman's ideas. Yet the reader, aware of the all-too-obvious connections, is left to wonder if perhaps town gossip Burnham should depose Metcalf and serve as The Chronicle's, and Blackstone's, top investigative reporter.

Following her aunt's death in Part Two, Rebecca is taken in by librarian Germaine Wagner and her wheelchair bound mother, "Miss Clara." As I discussed in my review of "The Dragon's Flame," Germain is only one of two negative characters in the series (this was before we were introduced to Clara), both being unmarried women. In her previous home Rebecca was likened to Carrie, whereas here she is treated like Cinderella, with Prince Oliver delivering the cursed handkerchief as though it were a glass slipper. Germaine usurps the gift, passing it onto her mother who seems to know something of its history. Germaine takes it back and begins to hallucinate, and the predictable occurs.

Our side plots include Oliver rummaging through old asylum case files, and bankers & contractors & lawyers (Bill McGuire and Ed Becker and a woman, all interchangeable) visiting the asylum to help assure themselves the investment is sound. There Becker comes across a chest of drawers he decides to purchase (a presentiment of things to come?).

Part Four is more of the same. It reads like filler in that nothing new is discovered, only some minor details regarding Oliver's father which we already suspected. Both build-up of the main plot and its drawn out climactic sequence are familiar. Saul tries to escalate suspense by pairing the climax alongside Olliver's realizations about his father, but since the former is predictable and the latter delivers no surprises nor conclusions, the effect is flat and I found myself rushing through it all. I expect the fifth book to be a similar filler-type entry, with part six being the most interesting, at least of the second half of the series.

Finally, amid all this drama, the most intriguing mystery is left unsolved. When Germaine takes the handkerchief from Rebecca, she notices it is "spotless and neatly pressed." (29) Now, how did the asylum staff get all that spaghetti sauce out of the fabric?


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

Friday, June 15, 2018

Casual Shorts: Michael Blumlein, Keeping House (1989)

Blumlein, Michael. "Keeping House." The Brains of Rats. Scream Press, September 1990. 89-100
______. I Shudder at Your Touch. Ed. Michele Slung. New York: ROC, May 1991. 86-96


Rating:     7.5/10



Following her appointment as Associate Professor of Classics at the nearby university, a woman, along with her husband and their baby daughter, move into their new home. Rather than taking on the challenges of the shabby, broken down yet affordable house on the block, they settle on the more costly, yet renovated house beside it. What is quickly set up as a ghost story becomes something entirely difficult, relying on the psychological rather than the paranormal to illustrate an intelligent and hard-working woman's mental decline.

The story toys a little with the conventions of haunted house stories, referencing some of its tropes, like unpleasant scents and mirrors that reflect things that don't appear to be present at all, but instead of being a ghost story, it is far more akin to Charlotte Perkins Gilman's excellent psychological tale of deterioration, "The Yellow Wallpaper" (1892). Like Gilman, "Keeping House" is told through the point of view of a new mother in a new environment who begins to believe that her surroundings are coming alive. Rather than believing someone is living trapped in the wall or its paper, Blumlein's unnamed heroine believes that threatening spirits are trying to infiltrate her home, entering from the adjacent, broken down eyesore of a house she chose not to purchase. To prevent this threat from destroying home and family, she does battle via an obsessive cleaning/cleansing routine.

Though the story can arguably be read ambiguously, there is enough evidence in the text to indicate that the visions and scents stem from the woman's overwrought mind. Possibly following postpartum, as is the case in Gilman, the un-named narrator goes through various extreme mood swings, which eventually culminate in her taking on all aspects of a family provider, and believing there is a threat attempting to pervade the house and harm the order and harmony she is struggling to maintain. She fights back by increasing the need for order and cleanliness to a dangerously obsessive degree.

Our narrator finally snaps as she begins preparations to have sex with her husband. This is the only indication in the story of any form of intimacy between them, hinting that they have not been physical sine conceiving their only child. Like her obsessive cleaning routine, her preparations for sex become ritual-like, and the story hence makes a connection between the couple's intimacy and the invading spirits, at least in the woman's mind. As she fights to prevent threats to invade her home, she is fighting to prevent her husband's invasion of her body. Following this scene we are informed that the husband is grumpy and increasingly absent due to work, though likely he is staying away from his wife in response to her increasing obsessiveness ("You are sick," he tells her), and perhaps also out of basic sexual frustration. The consequence is simply that mother-wife, as in Gilman, becomes increasingly isolated in response to the husband's unsympathetic assessment of her condition.

Thematically the story can be read as a modern woman struggling with the pressures of a career and balancing the traditional mother and wife requirements of home. Husband is absent from much of the story as he is struggling at a new job, or so the narrator presumes, and in a sense re-living the postpartum environment as mother is trapped at home with baby. Whatever we wish to read behind the woman's deterioration, it is the process itself that is the focus of the story. Again as with Gilman, our heroine is at the outset of the story already in her isolated state at home, though Blumlein's narrator does have the freedom of escape as she goes to work. The latter portion of the story, however, takes place during the summer, and as a teacher she drops her summer work option and remains at home to battle the demons behind the walls. The ending lacks the pure creepiness of Gilman's final scene, but does give us quietly depressing final act of cutting oneself off entirely from the world that surrounds.

"Keeping House" has evidently only been published in Blumlein's first short story collection The Brains of Rats (1989), and only reprinted in the Michele Slung-edited sex-focused horror anthology I Shudder at Your Touch (1991). It deserves greater exposure.

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