Saturday, December 31, 2011

Blogging: Comments

I enjoy receiving comments and emails, whether they are thankful, informative, chatty, critical or merely pointing out blunders. It's nice to think there's a community out there getting acquainted through one another's articles & posts. The sharing of knowledge and information, thoughts and ideas, is important, and the internet allows for quick and easy sharing. It's also nice to know you are being not only read, but that your writing is generating some form of thought.

Since I started this blog I've kept comment options open to all. I believe in freedom of speech as well as freedom and encouragement of response or rebuttle. Anyone should be able to respond to my articles regardless of their affiliation; no one should be a member of blogspot or google or any organization or institution. I'll deal with the spam (I've received only two spam posts, promptly deleted); I don't think I'll ever be popular enough for the efforts of spammers to pay off so I don't think my blog will ever be inundated, and what individual spammers wish to waste their time with is up to them.

Recently I received my first hate comment. I appreciated the time the author took to read my article (I assume he read one), and then to comment on it. The great effort he mustered up in order to articulate so effectively and so elaborately his feelings for my blogging. His words will remain with me for hours, even days to come. He wrote in that inimitable, poetic style, the brief yet effective words, "you suck." All in lower case. Such wisdom, such accuracy; he is likely a minimalist, and his brief comment carries between the lines (or I should say characters) such depth. Such passion. There is little mystery behind the note, though. It wasn't a comment on my article but a slur aimed directly at me. I monitor my blog visits and the activity during the days prior to his post points clearly to the author's identity. I'm certain the comment had nothing to do with the Tales from the Darkside post he tagged it to. I won't post my speculation, however, since I don't wish to embarrass him (most definitely a he), nor do I wish to embarrass myself in case I am wrong (a possibility, let's not kid ourselves).

Having read that missive I decided not to let just anyone post on my blog. I can't help it if some people choose to be rude and unintelligent, let alone uninspired in their expression to tell me what is really on their minds. I can however help to lessen, though minutely, rudeness and stupidity from spreading over the world wide web. Blocking anonymous commenting will likely lessen such uncreative and uninspiring responses. There is enough of it on the internet, and enough of it in the world, and I'd rather not be a catalyst in adding more.

But then I changed my mind. Thanks to allowing anonymous commenting I've received some good, productive comments, including two people pointing out errors I've made (one in a Darkside character's name, and the other concerning the death of Mr. Charles W. Runyon, whom I was pleased to learn is quite alive). Thanks to such astute observations, people are helping to improve on my articles by taking the time to correct me. I truly appreciate such devotion.

Besides, the great thing about hosting a blog is that I have the ability to delete whatever comment I wish to. In a year and a half I've deleted three: two spam and the slur that prompted this post. I will never delete a post that points out an error I have made; indeed I welcome these as they are appropriate and necessary for the sake of accuracy. I don't think I'm playing at Big Brother by choosing to eliminate some comments; I am not altering information nor am I doing it for the sake of self-interest, otherwise I'd keep only the praise and correct my errors without acknowledging the worthy correctors. I will, however, make a note when I do delete a comment, and hence leave a ghost of the unwanted, just to remind myself of the kind of society the internet is, and to keep hoping that the winds of change will make the world wide web a better, more respectful place. Some might say I am an idealist, but maybe it's just that I suck.

If the author of that statement wishes to post something of value, even anonymously, please go ahead. If that author is shy, then send me an email. Please feel free to contradict anything I have said, but have a point, make it clear, and I might end up even agreeing with you. Proper spelling is a plus.

Otherwise you'll get deleted.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Briefly: John Fowles, The Collector (1963)

Fowles, John, The Collector, London: Jonathan Cape, 1963. (pictured right)
_____, The Collector, London: Pan Books, 1972. (my edition, pictured below)

The Collector at Goodreads
Rating: 8/10

Despite being a great novel, I was slightly disappointed with John Fowles's The Collector. The novel tells the story of social outcast butterfly collector Frederick Clegg who, after having come into a considerable sum of money, kidnaps young art student Miranda Grey and keeps her captive in his basement. The first part of the book is told through Clegg's point of view, while the second is told through Miranda's, with a brief return to Clegg at the end.

The novel is great in its treatment of character and how it plays with the readers' sympathies. Clegg is an unusual kidnapper as he does nothing to hurt Miranda, but rather fawns over her, tolerates her every mood and does his best to please her, though with the exception of giving her her freedom. Despite being clearly disturbed and doing something terribly wrong, he is not "evil" the way in which we imagine kidnappers to be. During his narrative we grow to like Miranda, who is a spunky and intelligent twenty year-old. I was rooting for her to get the best of Clegg in their little game of outwitting each other, or rather of Miranda trying to outwit Clegg's obsessively careful game of warden. I found the first part fascinating because, though I was rooting for Miranda, it was all told through Clegg's point of view.

Jarring is the point of view shift half-way through, yet it is meant to be jarring (like this sentence). Now we are reading Miranda's journal, and our impression of her soon changes drastically. She is an unbelievably arrogant woman who thinks highly of herself and looks down without hesitation on others, including Clegg. Like Clegg she too is the collector of the title, as she collects and examines and catalogues the people around her. Of course there is no physical collecting on her part, though she has learned to keep herself captive amid her arrogant and narrow world view; there's no pinning of wings and keeping anything under glass, yet her sharp mind and sense of self allows her to pin people metaphorically, and examine them through the glass of her eyes. While I was still rooting for her to escape since Clegg's crime is greater and more accessible, she was no longer the spunky Miranda that we meet through Clegg's point of view.

My disappointment in the novel is fairly basic. I was so involved with Clegg's point of view that the switch to Miranda was not overly welcome. While I did get into Miranda's story, it lumbered on and became a little repetitive. Fowles makes his arguments clear and there was no need to have so many lengthy spiels in her diary, or so many scenes devoted to Miranda's playboy mentor G.P. Once I'd finished the novel, however, I found myself liking it more than when I was reading these sequences, at times wanting them to end quickly. With The Collector Fowles has given us a fascinating read incorporating two characters that are simultaneously likeable and despicable, and a finish which, though a little predictable for our time, is nonetheless quite disturbing.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Best of Tales from the Darkside

It's taken me some time to get to this article. After a few months of watching the four seasons of Tales from the Darkside in their entirety, I compiled a bunch of notes and a short list of what I felt are the strongest of the Darksides. Opinions for any anthology series differ vastly (as witnessed on IMDb posts), and rather than making a list of the ninety episodes from top to bottom (which won't help anyone, no matter how much the general public likes lists), I've grouped together the five or six "best ofs" in three straightforward categories, with a brief reasoning as to why they were included. I've reviewed each of these episodes individually and have included links to those reviews. The categories I've selected are for overall episode, actor and actress, with some honourable mentions and notes on directing and writing. I won't pretend to be an expert in areas such as cinematography and music, so rather than embarrass myself in attempting to filter those, I'm sticking to the basics.

The strongest seasons were without doubt the first and fourth. Not only did they sport many of the true Darkside classics, they consisted of mostly consistently above par episodes, not relying on the many poorly executed comedies that season three was notorious for. I don't know if the show's budget differed from season to season, but production values were fairly consistent throughout the series. There are exceptions, of course, with some episodes clearly more costly than others, whether for their cast or actual staging, while others are rushed-looking, sloppily produced over perhaps three days or so. When working on The Twilight Zone, Rod Serling was given a budget for the entire season, and he meted out the cash depending on the strength of the script, so rather than giving each episode an even sum, the stronger scripts received more money in order to help produce some truly exceptional small films. For Serling and his show this worked out quite well, and I'd be curious to know how the producers and creators of Darkside handled their own budget. (It's in my research notes and if I learn anything I'll add it here).

Best Episodes

"Trick or Treat" (0.0) & "Circus" (3.1). The Pilot and the third season opener are both penned by series creator George Romero, and are quite similar in intent and delivery. Both are well scripted (by Romero), well directed (Bob Balaban for the pilot and Michael Gornick for "Circus") and well acted. For "Trick or Treat" it's Barnard Hughes in the lead with great support from I.M. Hobson and Max Wright, while for "Circus" William Hickey gives a great performance as the mysterious circus operator. The pilot is unfortunately bogged down by some silliness at the end, which is partly due to the low budget special effects, and partly to the seemingly indecisive point in making the witch an adult or a children's monster. However, the exceptional quasi Dickensian script, with Hughes doing a tremendous job at emphasising Gideon Hackles's position (even the name is Dickensian), takes "Trick or Treat"  to a level of delightedness. Moreover, the premise itself is original and the dark, moody atmosphere and the creative sets are a joy to watch. Both episodes carry simple, straightforward messages, yet "Circus" delivers its message somewhat better by simply being a darker, less forgiving piece. There is a dash of humour thrown into this one as well, but there's no confusion with its intentions and "Circus" is doubtless for an adult audience.

"Inside the Closet" (1.7) & "Family Reunion" (4.16). Like the Romero-written episodes above, these two, directed by long-time Romero collaborator Tom Savini, are also similar. Both feature a hidden monster in the family, a protective father and an outsider who helps to reveal that creature to the viewer, though not the public at large. For both it's the make-up and sets that help make the episodes so watchable and memorable, rather than the directing or writing. Savini focuses on his creature creations, using shadows to slowly reveal the make-up as each episode progresses. This is particularly effective with "Family Reunion," the overall weaker of the two, as the boy's physical transformation is superbly done. Both episodes are predictable, yet Savini does well in using the make-up as the reveal rather than the obvious plot twist.

"The Last Car" (2.19). As with many Darksides this one is quite predictable. However, it nonetheless manages to maintain a high level of suspense throughout. The quirkiness of the characters and brief sequencing are original and hypnotic, and the tunnel sequences are fantastic. The concept itself of the tunnel and the notion that these moments of terror will be perpetual make "The Last Car" among the more horrific of episodes.

"The Geezenstacks" (3.5). Everything about this little episode is well done, from an excellent script, cinematography and directing, to the wonderful set design, gorgeous dolls and a fine performance by Craig Wasson in the lead. What tops this piece beyond simple television fare is its high level of musical sophistry. The use of music throughout (which I discuss in my episode review) helps transform "The Geezenstacks" into a remarkable piece of short film. My personal favourite Darkside.

"If the Shoes Fit..." (1.18) & "Going Native" (4.17). These two much-maligned episodes are superb and among the most original half hours to appear on television in the 1980s. Both are satirical, and while "Going Native" plays out in a serious tone, "If the Shoes Fit..." does a little winking at the camera. Serious in theme, both episodes take a chance in presenting their points in unusual and highly original productions. Because of this they are not terribly accessible to the general public, and leave many a little baffled. The fact that reaction to these episodes is often some form of confusion is very telling in how generic and paint-by-numbers television in the 1980s had become.

Other excellent episodes include "Bigalow's Last Smoke" (1.21), "Ursa Minor" (2.10), the genuinely amusing "A New Lease on Life" (2.15), the strange but compelling "The Milkman Cometh" (3.13), the gorgeously noir "Everybody Needs a Little Love" (3.17), the horrific "No Strings" (4.5), and Stephen King's originally scripted "Sorry, Right Number" (4.9).

A note on directing

There were some well directed episodes, such as the two by Savini mentioned above, Bill Travis's work on "The Geezenstacks" and Balaban on "Trick or Treat." Yet some episodes which could easily have been flops  were saved by decisions made behind the camera. Two that come to mind are "Mary, Mary" (4.2) by Katarina Wittich and "Hush" (4.18) by Allen Coulter. Neither are stellar episodes and both risk being tedious, yet their energy and the treatment of their individual stories make them better than they perhaps should have been. "Hush" could have been a lengthy and dull chase sequence, yet the ground floor house is not only well designed by well treated by the camera. We are dragged through the house and shown individual components that come into play, getting us involved in the action as we too are searching for ways of destroying the funny-looking noise eater. "Mary, Mary" on the other hand, being predictable and shmaltzy, is saved by a well used set and good camera play. Of course Margaret Whitton also has much to do with saving this episode.

As for series directors, the most consistently good were Bill Travis ("The Geezenstacks," "The Enormous Radio," "Distant Signals," "The Spirit Photographer"), Tom Savini ("Inside the Closet," "Family Reunion," "Halloween Candy") and John Strysik, who directed six in total: "The Last Car," "A New Lease on Life," "The Milkman Cometh," "Love Hungry" and "Black Widows," along with the weaker "I Can't Help Saying Goodbye."

A note on writing

Obvious excellent entries aside, there were a few truly well written episodes. John Harrison's adaptation of Robert Bloch's short story "Everybody Needs a Little Love" (3.17) is well handled. A nice little noir paranoia which almost made it to my list of best episodes. "The Apprentice" (4.13) had some nice moments and the  differing ideals, time periods and so forth were well translated into the script by Ellen Sandhaus (who also penned the much weaker "The Social Climber" (3.19)). Stephen King's "Sorry, Right Number" (4.9) can easily be used in a script-writing 101 course, the material is so well handled and the little familial moments fit in well. Even the somewhat exaggerated writing in "The False Prophet" (1.24) by Jule Selbo from a story by Larry Fulton works well for the silly fun that it is. I'll also mention "The Swap" (3.20) which has an original script by Richard Benner that is interesting because it is at times playful. Attention to even the smallest of details can add layers to even the most average of stories.

Writing for Darkside was no easy task. Many episodes featured so few characters that monologues were plentiful, people talking on telephones or to themselves. It's difficult keeping these scenes interesting, and writer and actor/monologuer are the two components that must make it work. Which is a great segue to the acting portion of this article.

There were no stand-out series writers. Though he wrote two excellent episodes, George Romero wrote an okay piece with "The Devil's Advocate" (2.7) and a flop with "Baker's Dozen" (3.9) which tries a little too hard and is not terribly well handled by director John Harrison. Robert Block fared better with three good episodes, doing pretty well in adapting his excellent short story "Beetles" (4.1), and having two successful adaptations of his own short stories, James Houghton's adaptation of the fine little fantasy "A Case of the Stubborns" (1.9) and John Harrison's adaptation and direction for "Everybody Needs a Little Love" (3.17).

Best Actor

I've singled our six solid performances, four from the first season, from a variety of episodes. Others deserving mention are William Hickey for "Circus" (3.1), Craig Wasson for "The Geezenstacks" (3.5) and Stephen McHattie as the father in "Family Reunion" (4.16), all three of which I discuss in the best episodes section. Honourable mention goes to Abe Vigoda who was well cast as mob leader Jake Corelli in "A Choice of Dreams" (2.20).

Barnard Hughes in "Trick or Treat" (0.0). I can't get enough of the devilishly grinning Hughes in the series pilot. He is so involved in character Gideon Hackles's perverse notions of financial equality that you almost agree with him just as the poor accountant who finds it fair that Hackles charges him three cents for a cup of coffee at a business meeting. The complexity of the character is that he is not totally wrong in his reasoning, it is only that his reasoning overshadows the basic principles of human compassion, and the shop owner of the small failing agricultural town ends up reasoning his way to owning the region similarly to Henry Potter's attempt to own Bedford Falls in Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life (1946). Unlike Potter, Hackles likes to play little Halloween games with the local boys and girls.

Keenan Wynn in "I'll Give You a Million" (1.2). While the episode falls short at the end, the versatile and energetic Wynn gives a great performance as greedy millionaire Duncan Williams. There is nothing complex about the characters in this one, and Wynn is helped out by a fine performance from co-star George Petrie, but these details aside, without Wynn the episode would likely have been a pure flop.

Fritz Weaver in "Inside the Closet" (1.7). Tom Savini's first Darkside is a good one, and is helped out by the performance of long-time character actor Fritz Weaver. Weaver does a good job by stiffening body and tone while at the same time allowing the nerves to poke through as a college professor and a father defending a little monstrosity locked up in the closet he rents out to students. Unfortunately Weaver re-appeared in Darkside in the terribly failed comedy "Comet Watch" (2.13)

Eddie Bracken in "A Case of the Stubborns" (1.9). A difficult story to adapt, it did have some faults such as sequences that were a little too long and the fact that it tried to carry itself on almost a single joke. A good episode nonetheless, it features a young Brent Spiner (Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation) who does well as Reverend Peabody, and an even younger Christian Slater who does poorly as the boy. Bracken steals the show, however, as stubborn old Titus Tolliver who refuses to believe he has died. Bracken's body language and unique facial features are great for the role, as is his delivery of the character's unnatural stubbornness.

Dick Shawn in "If the Shoes Fit..." (1.18). The unique episode of a trailblazing gubernatorial candidate Bo Gumbs is certainly a rare feat, and without Dick Shawn's willingness and ability to be utterly silly while being completely serious, it could have fallen flat. As Gumbs, Shawn manages to get confused and to question the odd incidents that abound in his hotel, and meanwhile, wanting to please and impress everyone in his over-the-top bid for votes, plays along with the ridiculousness, revealing himself for what he truly is.

Jerry Orbach in "Everybody Needs a Little Love" (3.17). The character actor best known (and often only known) for his many years on Law & Order, the recently belated Jerry Orbach is wonderful in the absurd story of a man who witnesses an old acquaintance fall desperately in love with a mannequin. What's more absurd is that he begins to get a little jealous. Orbach as Roberts is crusty and disillusioned, having lived his years in rough style as a salesman with little to show for it. The story uses the loneliness of middle-aged working-class men who, having worked hard seem to have gained little from life.

Best Actress

It's great that Darkside offered strong roles for women, and I've selected seven to highlight. Other memorable roles include Ronee Blakley as Cassie Pines in "The False Prophet" (1.24), Tanya Fenmore with her great facial work in "The Trouble with Mary Jane" (2.9), and Sharon Madden in the amusing "Love Hungry" (4.11).

Carmen Matthews in "In the Cards" (1.12). This surprisingly above average episode features a great performance by Carmen Matthews in two distinct roles: the friendly and pleasant first-time visitor to the conniving Tarot reader, and the dark and disillusioned veteran false clairvoyant Madame Marlena, recently turned believer. Matthews pleasantness in the early part of the episode is in sharp contrast to the darkly leering Marlena, and I didn't at first recognize her.

Jane Connell in "Grandma's Last Wish" (1.22). This somewhat weak episode features a great role for Jane Connell as the elderly grandmother whose family is trying to get her out of the house. The episode is at times amusing, at times not, yet Connell's presence helps elevate it considerably.

Susan Strasberg in "Effect and Cause" (2.11). A neat idea for this episode is helped greatly by Strasberg as a free-spirited woman living in an old house. Her attitude toward life seems to attract a kind of chaos, and she is forced to live in time out of joint, as consequences are occurring before the initial act. There is some gap in logic with Michael Kube-McDowell's script, but thanks to Strasberg and a somewhat disturbing finish  it turns out to be negligible.

Marie Windsor in "A New Lease on Life" (2.15). Veteran Windsor is Madame Angler, the landlady operating the comfortable yet economical big city St. George Apartments. It's a good episode with a good cast, but Windsor manages nonetheless to steal the show.

Margaret Whitton in "Mary, Mary" (4.2). This is an episode with a generally mixed response. It's a little silly and potentially disastrous, but with sympathetic direction and a wonderful performance by Whitton as the very average and lonely Mary Jones, who is using a mannequin to film her dating videos. Whitton is so good that her averageness becomes quite attractive, helped by her natural charm. Among the single character performances in Darkside, where a single actor or actress must carry the entire show, this one is truly among the best thanks to Whitton.

Eileen Eckhart in "Do Not Open This Box" (4.15). Another veteran actress, Eckhart is marvellous as crusty and unhappy Rose Pennywell. In fact, she is so good as the loathsome character that I found myself sympathising with her. The great, cluttered set and good direction by Jodie Foster help make a good episode, while Eckhart only makes it great.

Kim Greist in "Going Native" (4.17). As the cold, otherworld visitor, Kim Greist is icy yet attractive. And as the narrator of the episode her delivery is excellent. Add to this a great outburst at the end and Greist manages to do well in various levels of acting.

As a final note on acting, only two people from Darkside have received acting nominations, both in 1987 for season two, and both for Young Artists Award. Scooter Stevens received a nomination for his role as the boy in "The Last Car" (2.19), while Tanya Fenmore was recognized for her part as Mary Jane in "The Trouble with Mary Jane" (2.9). Stevens did well while Fenmore was really quite good in an otherwise weak episode.

Coming soon... or eventually... The Worst of Tales from the Darkside.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Jason Brannon, The Winds of Change (2006)

Brannon, Jason, The Winds of Change, Nocturnre Press, 2006.
Reprinted as an ebook, Permuted Press, 2011.

A neat premise and a few promising details are all that that this short novel has to offer. A group of people are trapped inside a hardware store while the people outside are mysteriously transforming into piles of salt. Characters speculate as to what is causing the strange apocalypse, with chemical agents of terrorism or God's judgement being the prime suspects. The main problems with the story are weak writing, poor characterization, inattention to detail, wholly absent atmosphere and wasted plot opportunities. (Pretty much everything other than its premise.)

I love stories of small groups of people trapped in a small space with unusual and deadly activities going on outside. The first work that came to mind when seeing the premise for The Winds of Change is Stephen King's well-written novella "The Mist" (1980, arguably his best work), but of course there are numerous others, such as David A. Riley's short story "Lock-In" (2006, reviewed here), and various films from Romero's zombie trilogy to John Carpenter's excellent films "Assault on Precinct 13" (1976) and "The Thing" (1982). While many of these stories share similar plot points and unavoidable details, such as issues facing food, what makes each story work is essentially their focus on character, a focus completely lacking in The Winds of Change.

We have a dozen people who spend most of their time bantering and hypothesizing between two points. The characters are bland, flat, and they all sound alike. The first thing Brannon should have considered is using a third person narrator. The first person narration does not work, as the character is an everyday faceless figure, a non-character really, who is completely unreliable as a leader (or leader wannabe). I don't care if the main character of such a story is heroic or a hard-case, but he needs to be something, and this guy is irritatingly not a thing. For one thing, he spends so much time wondering what has caused this phenomenon rather than trying to figure out what to do, and thereby leaving the reader to wonder for him or herself. That is called suspense. Bantering between points is called a headache. The narrator of such a story needs to act and not just observe; the readers are the observers, the ones incapable of changing the course of the story. Or of the winds, of you prefer.

The detail lacking is very simply in the location. Place an important aspect of such closed-in stories and the reader needs to be able to see the hardware store so clearly that it almost becomes the thirteenth character. Yet we see nothing, and I can't even tell if this is a massive hardware store you might find just off the highway, or a tiny place just around the corner where you head to when you're out of light bulbs or when you need a screw. (Not that kind.) Three employees makes me think it's a fairly small place, but there's a generator and a skylight and they sell blowtorches... I was expecting someone to fall into a swimming pool or say, "Hey, why don't we all climb into that chopper!" But I digress.

And then there's... I'm gonna stop here. Though those two sudden deaths near the end bothered me. It was though the author thought he couldn't leave so many characters alive, so why don't I casually knock off a couple right here as an aside and see if anyone notices.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Briefly: John Buchan, The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915)

Buchan, John, The Thirty-Nine Steps, Blackwood's Magazine, August & September, 1915.
____, The Thirty-Nine Steps, London: William Blackwood & Sons, October 1915.

The Thiry-Nine Steps at Goodreads.

John Buchan's short novel, written while he was laid up, suffering from something called a duodenal ulcer, is an improbable spy thriller chase story. At times comical with the occasional moment of suspense, the spy thriller genre has advanced to all lengths of complexity that The Thirty-Nine Steps feels incredibly tame and occasionally silly. Thankfully it is short. What saves the novel from being more than a pulpy joke is the solid writing and the charming narrator. My favourite sequence is the opening, where our Scottish hero Richard Hannay (Buchan too was a Scot) is describing his incredible boredom. He sees a homeless man yawning and gives him some change in an act of pure empathy.

The amount of coincidence and luck that the story relies on is, by modern standards, not just unbelievable but, sadly, a little irritating. Hiding in the moorlands Hannay happens to meet someone he knows. He happens to stumble upon the hooded owl's lair, happens to find explosives when convenient, happens to walk into a Sir Walter's house in time to see one of the bad guys in disguise, and so on and so forth. Nearly every plot element relies heavily in such unlikely fortunes, that a modern reader will soon grow weary of the tale and wary of its author. Despite these shortcomings, and if you can manage to swallow the coincidences, as a quick, charming read, it manages to be good fun.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

L. A. Pittenger (editor), A Collection of Short-Stories (1913)

Pittenger, L. A., A Collection of Short Stories: Macmillan's Pocket American and English Classics, NY: Macmillan, 12 November 1913. xxi+268. $0.25

For Pittenger's introductory material, please look here.

"The Father" by Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson. (1860, translated by Rasmus B. Anderson) 7/10

Over the course of his life, a local peasant visits the parish priest on behalf of his son, for the boy's birth, confirmation and engagement. The boy brings his father joy and success, yet the priest hopes he will someday bring him "a true blessing." Nobel laureate Bjørnson was a nationalist Norwegian who believed in the notion that the needs of the community must supersede those of the self. This idea is clearly presented in the story, and fulfills editor Pittenger's idea that the nineteenth century modern short story contains some element of morality. "The Father" is steeped with moral code.

The story itself is sketch-like, minimalist in its lack of description and in its use of simple, straightforward language. Unlike the modernist minimalists, Bjørnson is not trying here to impress the reader, but is so conscious of his message that he wishes not to distract from it. The technique makes for an effective and thought-provoking story. At the same time, as opposed to naturalists such as Guy de Maupassant, whose "A Piece of String" is included in the anthology, the lack of a descriptive setting gives the story a surreal quality, as though it were a kind of fable. This can be appropriate, for fables are the epitome of morality tales, only they are far removed from modern notions of realism as they utilize talking animals and inanimate objects.

"The Griffin and the Minor Canon" by Frank Stockton. (St. Nicholas Magazine, October 1885) 8/10

A lonely Griffin, the last of its race, hears that a small town bears a statue of his likeness and decides to leave his home in the distant, wild land to visit the world of humans. The townsfolk are not too keen when they see the creature alight, and hide away in terror. The only man among them brave enough to face such a threat is the humble Minor Canon. The Minor Canon does the town's bidding, setting out to convince the Griffin to leave, yet rather than drive the Griffin away, he leads him to the sculpture. Soon the monster takes a liking to the Minor Canon and follows him about town, much to the dismay of the community, who want only to be rid of the creature for they fear he will eat their children.

A great adult fairy tale and social satire along the lines of Oscar Wilde. The characters are merely archetypes rather than realistic people (yes, even the Griffin) as Stockton is aiming to amuse and criticize rather than to paint a portrait of rural life. Indeed, characterization and town details would merely distract from the point of the narrative, and Stockton does well in focusing on the humour, lumping the townsfolk into almost a single entity, and giving us a sensitive, average and easily likable Minor Canon to sympathize with. Details such as the Minor Canon's trek to the Griffin's home is seemingly shorter than the Griffin's flight to the town do not distract as the story is clearly fantasy, and in a fantastic world the unusual is easily accepted as the norm.

"The Piece of String" by Guy de Maupassant. ("La Ficelle," no translator named. Original publication details unknown, ca. 1884) 8/10

Walking through the village on market day, thrifty peasant Master Hauchecorne picks up a piece of string from the muddy road. When he notices that the harness-maker, Master Malandain, has seen him, he is gripped with a feeling  of shame at having been seen picking up such a trifle. He pretends he has lost something and searches the ground before hurrying off. That evening it is announced that someone lost a wallet containing a considerable sum, and Malandain steps forward to recount Hauchecorne's awkward scene. Despite showing off the string, the entire village believes Hauchecorne is guilty of finding and keeping the wallet, and he does his best to clear his name by telling his tale to anyone who would care to listen.

"The Piece of String" has always been one of my favourite Maupassant stories. Though short and succinct, it is unlike the minimalism of Bjørnson's "The Father." Maupassant takes the time to paint a vivid portrait of the community and its people, a common practice of his. Here the scene is described at the start, allowing him to focus on the events once the setting has been set. His attention to setting and character details, such as Hauchecorne's rheumatism, work well in the story, giving it that flair of naturalism Maupassant was striving to achieve. There are no distractions in "The Piece of String" as there are in some of his other naturalist pieces; the economy here is terrific.

Technical artistry aside, what works well in the simpleness of this story is its focus on community and hypocrisy, bringing to light the story's inherent existential elements. A man's reputation for shrewdness leads to a community's ability to establish his guilt. Of course there is also malicious intentions with Malandain's accusation (in French mal means bad or evil, and his name sounds like mal-en-main, evil-in-hand).

"The Man Who Was" by Rudyard Kipling. (Macmillan’s Magazine, April 1890; Harper’s Weekly, 15 April 1890) 5/10

At the officers' mess hall a cavalry regiment is entertaining a Russian correspondent, Dirkovitch, when a man stumbles in, barely alive. Initially believing that the man is a weapons thief, the officers soon discover that he is English. I've never cared for Kipling's work, aside perhaps from "The Phantom 'Rickshaw"(1885) and "At the End of the Passage" (1890). His obsession with British imperialism bores me, and his plots are too contrived, filled with coincidences and far-fetched occurrences, and his characters are flat. The good guys are just too good, and the bad cannot be more awful. These elements are alive in "The Man Who Was," and though it's not a terrible story, as stories go, it is a solid average.

"The Fall of the House of Usher" by Edgar Allan Poe. (Burton's Gentleman's Magazine, September 1839) 8/10

It's difficult to make a few brief remarks on Poe, particularly on something like "Usher," one of his most influential stories. Luckily there are many fine essays available, and various interpretations in film and fiction (I highly recommend Robert Bloch's short story "The Man Who Collected Poe," 1951). I have always admired Poe, his unique and ageless style, his original ideas and the incredible amount of influence he has had on both short story writing and on genre writing that became so popular in the twentieth century. If you have not read the story I would urge you to do so, and e-texts can easily be located on various sites. (While you're at it, read "The Cask of Amontillado" (1846) and "The Tell-Tale Heart" (1843). Actually, just read 'em all.)

In "The Fall of the House of Usher," the narrator visits his old school friend Roderick Usher who has sent him an urging invitation. The narrator arrives at a gloomy old house in a gloomy region by a sickly tarn, and discovers that his old friend is unwell. It turns out that the man and his sister Madeline are both unwell. They are the last of their generation, and live in a house and an area of long and dark repute, which have seemingly intense effects on their nerves. Unlike Bjørnson and later minimalists, Poe carefully details the stories setting, and though he emphasizes the need for economy in short story writing, his details are quite necessary to generate the story's final impact. The characters here are highly influenced by the house, so much so that the house of Usher is the story's fourth character (excluding the brief appearances of the physician and valet). Poe's purpose here, and in many of his stories, is the effect of the environment on one's nerves. He wasn't interested in fear, and there was very little of the supernatural in his tales, but rather he focused on the nervous potential of body and mind, the incredible delusions that one can suffer when giving in to these nerves, and the inability of the rational mind, often the first-person narrator, to guide the nervous individual towards health and well-being. The nerves are commanding human factors, and the environment, indeed the world, a terrible influence.

"The Gold-Bug" by Edgar Allan Poe. (Dollar Newspaper, 21 & 28 June 1843) 7/10

This is an odd little story by Poe. Not that the story itself is odd, but that for Poe it's unusual. The rational archetypal Poe narrator pays a visit to his friend William Legrand at Sullivan's Island in South Carolina (Poe was stationed nearby, and the community even named one of its streets Gold Bug Drive). Legrand has come across a gold beetle and seems to have grown utterly obsessed with it, forcing his attendant Jupiter to perform some unusual tasks. The narrator humours him, partly for his own curiously, yet as they head off on an expedition Legrand is determined to undertake, there appears to be reason for his odd behaviour, and slowly the reader is, for once, questioning the logical, reasoning narrator.

"The Gold-Bug" is more akin to Poe's mysteries, such as "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" (1841), "The Mystery of Marie Rogêt" (1842) and "The Purloined Letter" (1844) , than to his tales of the macabre. The convention is different as well, and it's nice to see that Poe seemed aware of his standard structure, enough to be able to play with it. The rational narrator's suspicions turn out to be mere paranoia, as there is method to Legrand's madness. Throw in some neat (though basic) cryptography and a good puzzle involving a human skull, and we have a good detective and semi-adventure story.

In this day and age there are some unintentionally amusing bits involving Legrand's "negro" attendant Jupiter. It is 1843 USA, so the character, though written sympathetically, maintains the stereotypes prevalent for the era. Poe tries to imbue the character with humour, but unfortunately the humour is a little dated, and we end up chuckling more at the early portrayal rather than at the intended jokes.

"The Birthmark" by Nathaniel Hawthorne. (The Pioneer, March 1843) 7/10

Clever scientist Aylmer is growing increasingly repulsed by his beautiful wife Georgiana's birthmark; the shape of a small, angelic hand on her cheek. He grows so obsessed with this mark that he begins to view it as a blemish against nature's perfectionism, and is determined to rid her of this flaw. Under his influence, his faithful and obedient wife grows to detest her own birthmark, and leaves its fate in the hands of her husband. Even when reading his scientific notes, learning that his lofty and idealistic approaches to science often end in failure in the laboratory, she nonetheless trusts his skill.

This tragedy can only end in one way, and despite the story's predictability, its construction, well-focused narrative is mesmerizing. Hawthorne truly practiced what Poe called the singleness of effect, and all the little details are aimed toward his ideas of nature versus science. As Aylmer is showing Georgiana what he has been able to accomplish in his laboratory, he is a magician working tricks, and even then we can see the imperfections of his accomplishments. He refers to his servant as "though made of clay," as if Aylmer himself is Prometheus, a kind of demi-god with the ability to affect the destiny of humankind. He is also likened to Pygmalion, the King of Cyprus who falls in love with an artificial form of beauty, admiring it so much that it comes to life. "The Birthmark" is an entirely rich text, with a healthy dose of the moral that Pittenger requires of the short story.

"Ethan Brand" by Nathaniel Hawthorne. (Boston Weekly Museum, 5 January 1850) 5/10

Former lime-burmer Ethan Brand returns to his community following a twenty-year search for the Unpardonable Sin. The story of Ethan Brand was originally intended to be the final portion of a novel, which Hawthorne evidently had a difficult time composing. The story as we have it is interesting, but doesn't quite work as a short story. The interesting aspects include the contrast between the great sinner Ethan Brand, and the community members who have essentially withered away over the decades that Brand was on his search. Though Brand is deemed a terrible sinner and devil conjurer, the community members are hypocritical and judgemental imbibers of a black liquid. "Ethan Brand" contains melodrama worthy of a novel, seemingly misplaced here (in fact something of the sort worthy of Thomas Hardy). The exposition and flatness of the characters dull the text, despite the intriguing premise and promising intentions. Not among Hawthorne's best accomplished pieces. Oddly selected by Pittenger, there are plenty well constructed Hawthorne short stories to choose from.

"The Sire de Malétroit's Door" by Robert Louis Stevenson. (Temple Bar, January 1878) 7/10

In September 1429, during the latter chapter of the brutal Hundred Years' War, twenty-two year-old Denis de Beaulieu loses his way back to his inn and inadvertently stumbles through the Sire de Malétroit's door, only to be met expectantly by the mysterious old man. The mystery of the situation soon reveals itself, as the young man is given the choice of either marrying the Sire's niece, or being hanged by the neck. This is an odd tale in that it's not quite adventure and not quite mystery, but hearkening back to the dark period of the fifteenth century, Stevenson has expertly created a short romance that would have worked well as a brief episode in any of the popular medieval texts of the day, epics such as Guillaume de Lorris's The Romance of the Rose (ca. 1275) or Sir Thomas Malory's Le Mort d'Arthur (1485). The story and its protagonist rely on the arms of chivalry and honour, and though the heroine is at first repulsed by our hero, it is through his valour and noble conduct that she grows to care for him.

I admire Stevenson's precision in language, his sentences less ornate than those of his contemporaries, and yet because of their absolute precision and simple-seeming sentences, they can be all the more complex. Even young Denis's noble speeches are toned down, so that while maintaining their sense of medieval honour, his words manage to garner greater impact. His characters are always well delineated, and the setting, while as important as it was for Poe, is presented with less words and yet just as vivid.

This story is somewhat playful. Not as serious as "Markheim," there is both an homage and an underlying humour with respect to its origins. Nothing as magical or alarming occurs as it did with both de Lorris and Malory, yet the notions of honour and chivalry are well maintained, while the characters, simply drawn, are direct descendants of the noble protagonists from the earlier epics. It is a medieval epic related with the rationalism of the Victorian era. The story is an absolute pleasure to (re)read, and I enjoy it more and more with each encounter.

"Markheim" by Robert Louis Stevenson. (Pall Mall Gazette, December 1884) 7/10

Thirty-six year-old down-on-his-luck Markheim finds himself on Christmas day at the pawn shop claiming for once he has nothing to sell but is present in order to make a purchase. Suddenly and explosively, Markheim attacks the shop owner and stabs him to death. Overwhelmed by his heightened nerves, Markheim sets out to find the keys to the store's safe, and encounters a strange figure, the devil he assumes, who offers Markheim some help. Herein a discussion on the nature of evil ensues, with the figure arguing that Markheim is destined to fall, while our hero maintains that at heart he is good, and his crimes are a matter of cicumstance.

Another excellent story by the versatile Stevenson, with elements of his masterpiece Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, published two years later. The story works well as a fantasy, and yet it is more akin to psychological drama, since I read the piece as the mysterious figure being not the devil, but a figment of Markheim's overwrought imagination. Stevenson spends many words detailing the intense bombardment that the man's nerves receive by the constant din around him, the shop's multitudinous clocks, the footsteps outside and the onslaught of pelting rain. Moreover his vision is tricked by the various shadows he sees and imagines all around him. Suddenly the figure appears, when Markheim's nerves have already suffered incredible onslaught, so that the creature is merely an apparition from his guilt-ridden mind. Like Jekyll, Markheim experiences a separation of his personality, and he is himself trying to determine his eventual fate, weighing the balance between his essentially good nature and his clearly deplorable acts.

Like the previous story, "Markheim" is structured primarily around two sets of dialogue. In "The Sire de Malétroit's Door," we have Denis with the Sire followed by Denis with the Sire's niece, and a brief threesome in between. Here we have Markheim and the dealer and Markeim and his conscience (or the devil, if you prefer). In between we have Markeim trying to control his nerves. The three portions of this story are finely written, the excellent dialogue with the dealer, during which we are given numerous glimpses as to Markheim's emotional turmoil, from his comments on the mirror to the transformations in his expression. The middle section is truly a treat, particularly the wonderful description of the many clocks: "Time had some score of small voices in that shop, some stately and slow as was becoming to their great age, others garrulous and hurried. All these told out the seconds in an intricate chorus of tickings."

A great example of the economical modern short story, its singular effect, and useful in Pittenger's ideas of morality within the framework.

Incidentally, the anthology series Screen Directors' Playhouse adapted "Markheim" with the fine actors Ray Milland and Rod Steiger as Markheim and the visitor respectively, directed by Fred Zienneman. The episode aired on 11 April 1956.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Short Story: L. A. Pittenger

(This is part of an ongoing examination on the evolution of the short story. I am reading a number of essays on the modern short story dating back to its origins. I've decided to post some observations and notes as I conduct my study.)

For an analysis of the short stories themselves, please look here.

Pittenger, L. A., A Collection of Short Stories: Macmillan's Pocket American and English Classics, NY: Macmillan, 12 November 1913. xxi+268. $0.25

Note: I read this essay in an electronic format, hence have no page references.

Among the multitude number of anthologies prepared for the purpose of studying the short story in a classroom setting, is the once popular collection edited by Lemuel Arthur Pittenger (27 September 1873 - 15 July 1953), head of the English Department at Ohio Normal School at Kent (later Kent University). In his oft-printed anthology A Collection of Short-Stories: Macmillan's Pocket American and English Classics, reprinted in 2009 by Dodo Press as Short-Stories, Pittenger includes a lengthy introduction on the aspects of the short story, including a history and discussion on how students should go about writing their own stories. I am primarily interested in his view in a historical context.

Many early discussions on the young art form, the modern short story, explain why shorter fiction prior to the appearance of Hawthorne and Poe are not considered "short stories." While the stories may be short and are certainly stories, their approach is not as succinct and focused, lacking in economy and often running the length of a novella, their construction and freedom resembling that of a novel. While the novel (or modern novel) was also a young art form, the eighteenth century had already produced enough novels for the western world to be familiar with the form, and for writers to take the form through various levels of experimentation. While writers of the nineteenth century were busy perfecting the novel, the short story was only then developing, and luckily for the more talented practitioners, there were enough publications paying handsomely for these tales.

In his introduction, Pittenger likens the development of the nineteenth century modern short story not to earlier works of shorter fiction, but to the recent developments in the essay as well as the sketches that were popular at the time. As an example of the essay he uses Voltaire's desire in getting his political points across trumping his ambition in story-telling, and hence he gave grater attention and care to the technical aspects of writing. This is an absolutely valid point, and along with the growth of socio-political concerns in nineteenth century Europe, in which many writers took notice and embedded in their art (think Oliver Twist as a prime example), the art of writing developed into something more academic, less flighty and comical. As ideas became important focuses, care-free episodic structures were quickly being replaced by tightly-knit plot-lines. (Simultaneously, while the age of reason brought advances to prose, the more subjective form of poetry suffered under its influences.) The development of modern psychology also added an important element, as characters were becoming less generic. Overall, the definition of the modern short story can be boiled down to Edgar Allan Poe's observations on unity and singleness of effect, which he set down to eight rules of short-story writing.

In his essay, Pittenger claims that the short story has become a "most flexible and moral literary form." Issues of moral examinations can certainly be seen throughout the history of the short story, modern or contemporary with all the various phases and genres in between, particularly when dealing with the mainstream. Of course, with the constant shift in ideals and in the greater variety of literary expression and forms of experimentation, short stories can often be about the practice of writing rather than the story's own content, whether plot or theme. If we are to document the shifts in short story writing (or any form of art), the moral aspect is one that has developed a more ambiguous paradigm and receives less emphasis than it did a century ago. I am not completely agreeing with Pittenger on his emphasis of the moral in the nineteenth century short story, since many stories are focused more on their plot or form, and moral is almost incidental. For instance, one of Poe's stories selected for Pittenger's anthology, "The Gold-Bug" (1843), is essentially a deductive mystery and semi-adventure with hints of comedy. Of course we can read a moral or two into the narrative, but Poe was not interested in developing any kind or overseeing moral element across the narrative. Poe was an early innovator, less interested in ideas of morality. Perhaps Pittenger was led to the notion of the prevalence of a moral since he linked the short story so closely to the evolution of the essay.

Pittenger goes on to discuss the founding fathers of the modern short story, and there is no great insight here, and little to dispute. He claims that the much-beloved Washington Irving was "robbed" of the honour of being credited with creating this new form due to his habit of meandering and constructing his stories "in a leisurely manner." It is odd that Pittenger uses the word "robbed" since Irving was evidently not interested in generating the economy required for the new form, and it was his own habit of leisure and meandering writing that prevented him from achieving the honour. He was not robbed but simply failed to bring into being the modern short story as Nathaniel Hawthorne and Poe, along with European contemporaries Guy de Maupassant and Robert Louis Stevenson had.

"[T]he short-story must be original and varied in its themes, cleverly constructed, and lighted through and through with the glow of vivid imaginings." What an oddly subjective comment. Who is to determine what variety in theme can be, particularly since many critics have narrowed the thematic possibles down to a few, decisive statements? For example, all stories are about either man versus nature, man versus technology, or man versus self. Moreover, before even deciding whether the theme/themes of a story is/are varied, one must decide what the specific themes to any given story are. Whose to say that "The Gold-Bug" is about man vs. anything, and how varied and original that particular moral or them might be? Finally, who can claim that stories should contain original themes; are we never again to write a masterful story about one common, overdone idea? Perhaps I am acting merely as a revisionist. Since Pittenger, the short story has touched upon so many forms that approaches themselves have gained wider breadth and the potentials were not yet known. I don't think this is the case, however, since by 1913 (the published date of Pittenger's essay) the world was exposed to a number of different styles of short story writing, from Nikolai Gogol to Zsigmond Móricz.

"The aim of the short-story is always to present a cross-section of life in such a vivid manner that the importance of the incident becomes universal." I do agree with this point, and believe it is as true for the nineteenth century story as it is for the contemporary mainstream and experimental story. The short story is removed from the memoir and personal anecdote, and hence should be made accessible (no matter how experimental) to a wider audience. Many experiences are of course generally shared, no matter how individual or personal they seem, and a single, specific story should at least attempt to bridge these experiences across persons, generations, locations and so forth, and to stir the emotions and thoughts of as many as possible.

The rest of Pittenger's essay deals with the construction of the short story, is highly elementary, and is geared toward the high school student and the student's need to practice the form. According to Pittenger, Boys and girls should invariably be taught to see stories in the life about them."

So boys and girls, keep your eyes open, check your morals and universalize your experiences, so long as your morals are original and varied. (Maybe I'm old-fashioned but mine are quite generic.)

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Shock Totem #2: Curious Tales of the Macabre and Twisted, 2010

Shock Totem 2: Curious Tales of the Macabre and Twisted, edited by K. Allen Wood, Shock Totem Publications, 2010. 82 pages

For my review of Shock Totem 1, please visit here.
Shock Totem's website can be accessed here.

Issue two of Shock Totem appeared a year following the impressive first issue. At eighty-two pages the book is slim, attractive and promising. I often prefer shorter periodicals as the lengthier issues seem to be stuffed with filler material, and with a total of fifty-seven pages of fiction, I opened the glossy cover waiting for a wallop of prose. Yet pages can be deceiving, and this slim publication contains nearly as many words as a hundred pager, but its small print and narrow margins conserves paper, and the nine stories, one article, introduction and end-notes, along with some review pages and an interview (with James Newman) are economical at $5.99 from the publisher's website.

Now, the first thing I'm naturally itching to do is compare issue two with the first, solid launch. Both are attractive, sporting great, easy on the eye cover art (by Hicham Haddaji), nice glassy binding and good quality paper. Internal improvements include better font which makes for easier reading, though the interior artwork is a little unclear and hence I pretty much ignored it. Content-wise the stories here are not as consistently strong as they were in issue one, though the concepts are more interesting. Darker-themed and modern ideas work well with the good mixture of dark fiction, brushes with postmodernism and much welcomed moments of absurdity and surrealism. The problem is that while there are a couple of really strong stories ("The Rat Burner," "Sweepers," "The Rainbow Serpent"), there are also a couple of obviously weaker ones which makes me think it was for the best that the editors waited a year to release issue two. Many of the stories don't quite work because their good ideas are not fully developed ("Pretty Little Ghouls," "Leave Me the Way I Was Found"), and the abundance of flash fiction is an unfortunate let-down.

At the same time it's great that the editors weren't daunted by tweaking the journal's overall content, and are offering us something different, as though we were reading independent anthologies rather than two volumes of the same periodical. Shock Totem deserves an audience and I recommend the purchase.

"The Rat Burner" by Ricardo Bare. 7/10
A young man sharing a run-down room with a prostitute earns a living as a "guide," taking people into the rat-infested alleys toward a black door that promises... something. Yet the guide knows that those willing to pass through the doors are set for a horrible journey. A good story, well written, with a nicely delineated rodent-filled neighbourhood. The characters, though not closely developed, work quite well, and I did sympathize with the leads. There is the occasional melodrama that is slightly distracting, particularly since most of the prose is straightforward. No explanation of what's lurking behind the black door is needed, so when it came I was a little disappointed. Minor comments on an otherwise strong opening story.

"Sole Survivor" by Kurt Newton. 5/10
Editor & publisher K. Allen Wood promises that Newton's stories in the first two issues will be the only back-to-back issues that will feature a story by the same author. Too early for a such a promise, as though he has done something wrong to allow an author to return. Personally I don't mind, so long as the story itself is worthy of inclusion. Wood selected well by going with "Thirty-Two Scenes from a Dead Hooker's Mouth" in Shock Totem #1, a far better story. "Sole Survivor" is a piece of flash, amusing I suppose (for those who like flash), about the eventual evolution of "reality television."

"Sweepers" by Leslianne Wilder. 7/10
Leslianne Wilder's first published story is flash-like in that it's short, yet it's thankfully long enough to avoid the trappings of flash, such as flat characters and a scenario that relies to heavily on a punchy ending. "Sweepers" is told through the point of view of a man trapped with others at the top of a metropolitan skyscraper while the world below is engulfed in a sort of biblical flood. The narrative progresses as the water continues to rise. A good story, though a little a little over-written near the end for my tastes. Nonetheless the writing is effective and the apocalyptic scene is well rendered; a nice change from those trendy apocalyptic zombies. Water is far creepier than the walking dead, especially since you can't thwart it with a shovel or a shot to the head.

"The Rainbow Serpent" by Vincent Pendergrast. 7/10
Gavin's girlfriend has recently left him and he's having a hard time coping. On his way single-mindedly to Wollongong with a gun in his jacket, the bus ride seems lengthy and a little unusual, the passengers overly friendly and the driver playing on a harmonica. The scenario is interspersed with brief segments of the Rainbow Serpent, an ancient creature learning to survive in a world overcrowded by humans. A strangely compelling read, I really enjoyed its oddities. The surreal quality grows, mixed well with Gavin's very real, unjustified anger toward his former girlfriend. Rather than a Lovecraftian form of ancient horror, the creature in "The Rainbow Serpent" is a reflection of our darker selves.

"Pretty Little Ghouls" by Cate Gardner. 5/10
Another flash story, serious in tone. A young woman is waiting to be executed. She is a danger to every living thing, since her touch brings instant death. Great idea and well written, but there just wasn't enough here for me to either fear or sympathize with our mutant.

"Messages from Valerie Polichar" by Grá Linnaea and Sarah Dunn. 6/10
A hot topic of fairly casual discussion has been the eventual fate of personal information on the internet once the current generation passes on. Who will monitor the billions of bits of info of an entire online society once that population has died off? In this piece an obsessive and superfluous woman gets so overcome with anxiety relating to this idea that her existence is focused around it. It's a tricky story since its lethargic tone and atmosphere works appropriately well, but threatens to disappoint since the protagonist is so unsympathetic. Needlessly self-absorbed, I didn't care for her silly anxieties, yet at the same time this obsessiveness with the irrelevant is a sad modern reality. Our "hero" is not wondering philosophically about fate or the value of one's existence, but instead develops a paranoid belief that some deep-seeded message can be found in the online ghosts of the dead. I sympathised for her husband, though he does lack a backbone.

Incidentally, in the end-notes the authors mention that Valerie Polichar is a real person, the editor of The Grasslimb Journal (San Diego), and they liken the story to Charlie Kaufman's blend of reality fantasy.

"Return from Dust" by Nick D. Bronson. 4/10
A soldier is killed in battle and awakens as a monstrous, unfeeling cyborg. My problem with this story was essentially that it was written in the first person. The tone throughout is cold and, well, cyborg-like, which makes sense, but the detached reading of the battle at the opening left me detached from the narrative. Moreover, a machine that recalls with detail its previous human emotion and is nonetheless so removed from that self that it can recall these details without any form of grieving, sense of loss, detachment, or any other natural connection. I couldn't even figure out its instinct to kill. Is that due to its detachment? But if so detached, why focus on the previous life with so much respectful attention to detail. Why even narrate the story if the cyborg's aim is to blindly march forward with destructive intent?

"Leave Me the Way I was Found" by Christian A. Dumais. 6/10
According to the author's story notes at the end of the issue, this one is a work of euphiction: "when you take a song, use the song title or a song lyric as the title of your story, and then create a fictional "cover" in less than a thousand words." I suppose euphiction is sub-genre of the short story sub-genre known as flash fiction. I'm glad the title is explained, though I'm not familiar with the song and the title does not highlight any aspect of the story for me. The story is about a two-minute, sixteen second video someone uploaded to YouTube, a video which quickly spread across the internet and causes all sorts of horrific mental disruptions in the brain. The idea is certainly not a new one (see John Carpenter's In the Mouth of Madness with a series of books, and his Cigarette Burns about a snuff film), however I do like the implied notion that a computer "virus" can re-write human brain patters, or programs if you will. Who says viruses can't spread across species? Pretty neat fiction, though it would be interesting to see the idea developed into an actual story.

"Upon My Return" by David Jack Bell. 4/10
Primarily made up of dialogue, a carnival manager is telling a police detective the unusual events surrounding the Miracle Worker act. The Miracle Worker is one Jesse Abrams (you know, like Jesus & Abraham) who has the ability to perform unusual illusions, such as, you know, turning water into wine. (I wonder why no one thought of throwing him a fish.) The weakest story in the collection, I found the dialogue to be unnatural, especially since an uneducated older carny speaks with grammatical fluidity and accuracy (excluding a few was/were slips) and in a seemingly unaffected tone. The irony here is obvious and when we learn of the horrible, frightening thing our fella Jesse Abrams has done to bring in the police, it is essentially underwhelming and I am left to think that these small town investigators have so little to do that they'd follow up on such unimpressive events.

And finally for the nonfiction, briefly. I appreciate the introduction and authors' end-notes (nicely titled "Howling through the Keyhole"), which to me are like a direct, though one-sided conversation between writer and reader. I appreciate story notes both as a writer and a reader as they can shed light or add some additional dimension to the work, sort of like those extras popular on DVDs. I merely skimmed the reviews, some of which appeared rushed, a little too informal for my taste, and sometimes more about the reviewer than the subject, though the overview on the series Fear Itself was informative; I caught three episodes and do, in my interest in genre anthologies, plan to view and review.

Finally there is a personal essay by Mercedes M. Yardley, whose short story "Murder for Beginners" appeared in Shock Totem #1. The essay, titled "Abominations: Hide the Sickness," deals with Yardley's own experiences working in a sexual deviancy ward. I'm a little wary of essays in periodicals as they tend to disappoint, but I found this one utterly compelling, though I would have preferred more organization and a slower, more informative pace. This is simply because I had so many questions, and honestly would have opted to read a lengthier version of the essay over the reviews. Hopefully Ms. Yardley has something along those lines in the works.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Bookshops: The Wee Books Inn, Edmonton

[Please see here for my review of Nick Hornby's Slam (2007).]

Shortly after finishing Nick Hornby's Slam, I found myself in Edmonton, and is my nature, I spent my free time seeking out second-hand bookshops. I've visited shops all around the world, and recently even found a Hitchcock paperback (a first printing no less) in a tiny and messy little shop in Istanbul.

The Wee Books Inn has four locations in Edmonton, and I wandered out of the wind into the shop at 10310, 82nd (Whyte) Avenue. The store was large and clean, fairly empty though it was a weekday mid-afternoon. Taking a few minutes to walk around and get the layout of the shop, I soon headed upstairs to browse through the literature section, the vintage children's book shelves (which had numerous copies of The Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew and diverse hardcover collections), and the horror paperback racks where I picked up three anthologies. At the cash I pulled out my copy of Slam and asked the tall and gangly employee if he'd be interested in a trade. He looked at the back of the book (where the original cover price is located) and let me have a $2.50 book in its place. I was pleased, wanting to get rid of Slam and thinking he'd give me about a dollar. Granted my copy of Hornsby's middling work was in excellent condition, and the anthology I received was considerably older. He'll probably sell my book for at least $5.00, for which I'm glad since I like to support these shops.

Next time in Edmonton I'll be sure to bring a few more books.

The books I purchased were:

Parry, Michel, The Devil's Children, NY: Berkley Medallion, September 1976 (1974). ($2.50)
Paget, Clarence, The 27th Pan Book of Horror Stories, London: Pan Books, 1986. ($2.50)
Sutton, David and Stephen Jones, Dark Voices 4: The Pan Book of Horror, London: Pan Books, 1992. ($3.50)

My only complaint about The Wee Books Inn is their practice of stamping the inside front covers of their books with their locations. I understand the need to advertise but I much prefer picking up bookmarks rather than seeing books unnecessarily damaged. In Boston last year I visited one of Annie's Bookshops and was appalled that a number of the paperbacks, everything being sold for a dollar, had their back covers lopped off at one corner. I asked the vendor why he cut these chunks out of the corners, and he said so that he could keep track of which ones he was selling for cheap. Now, a vendor should be experienced enough with books to simply glance at one and know whether it should go for a buck or half the cover price. I was upset, even felt a little sick since there were a number of out-of-print books I would have loved to pick up for a dollar. I detest damaged books and did not purchase any. Running a business where you need to be constantly reminded of the value of your stock by devaluating them is ridiculous, and I will not be visiting this shop again.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Aside: On Hiatus... No Longer

Two months, three continents, five countries and over a dozen cities.

It's great to be back home :)

Briefly: Thomas Perry, The Butcher's Boy (1982)

Perry, Thomas, The Butcher's Boy, New York, Scribner, 1982 (first edition, cover below)
__________, The Butcher's Boy, reprinted with an introduction by Michael Connelly, New York, Random House, 2003. 313 pages (my edition, cover right)
The Butcher's Boy at Goodreads
Rating: 6/10 (almost a 7 though)

Thomas Perry's first novel received the prestigious Edgar Award for Best First Novel by the Mystery Writers of America. The novel tells the overlapping narratives of a hit-man known as "The Butcher's Boy" who gets caught amid tensions of the organized crime assortment, and an intelligent and hard-working Justice Department crime analyst on her first field assignment. The Butcher's Boy is a good read, both tense and interesting. The tension is generated by a smart, nameless hit-man trying to outrun the criminals determined to find and kill him. The interesting bits come from the fact that the various judicial parties of the United States are improperly organized, work poorly together amid professional diplomacies and lack of straightforward communication, and essentially foil an investigation that our young analyst, Elizabeth Waring, works so hard to piece together. The two separate narratives work well side by side with only a few plodding moments in an otherwise well-paced thriller. I bought the plot except for one all-too convenient encounter near the end.

The problems with the novel are more social than technical. For one thing, having been written in the archaic heyday of those dark ages known as the 1980s (yes kids, the 80s are not a myth that your parents have made up just to freak you out; they really did happen). Characters spend far too much time looking for telephones, waiting to be transferred and placing messages that even a semi-Luddite such as I is now considering getting a cell phone. There is even a scene when Waring asks where the police keep their computers, as though the entire precinct shares two. (And each one probably requires an entire room and a team of technicians to operate.) Earlier novels get away with their own ancient forms of technology, but reading something fairly modern, written shortly before the computer craze, feels somehow odd. Of course I don't blame Perry or the novel for this, but rather I blame the world that we have created.

The early 1980s also suffered from self-conscious depictions of female leads. Partially left over from feminist attitudes of the 1970s, the 80s also tried to bring women into the lead in thrillers, especially with the popularity of Ellen Ripley. Horror movies, action movies and mystery books all came aboard with their female heroes, which is great, only there was a bit of awkwardness at the beginning, particularly with male authors who were self-consciously trying to create the tough and smart woman trapped in a man's world scenario. Sure Agent Waring is smart, as she is tough and (surprise!) attractive, but she does make a number of big-time mistakes and is upstaged by the even smarter, tougher (though perhaps not as attractive) butcher's boy. This is evidenced by the brief "meeting" the two have at the end, a scene which I quite enjoyed. In the earlier scenes of Waring on the field, we glimpse her thoughts as she analyses her interactions with other operatives, all male. She is a double outsider, as a woman and as an FBI agent. It doesn't help that she has so little professional authority. An interesting piece of western social history.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Briefly: Nick Hornby, Slam (2007)

Hornby, Nick, Slam, London: Putnam Books, 2007. 309 pp (hardcover, below)
_________, Slam, London & New York: Penguin Books, 2008. 342 pp (my edition, paperback, right)

Look for other reviews, quite all over the place, of Slam at Goodreads.

Fans of Nick Hornby will recommend any other book of his as a launching pad to get to know the author. Indeed, High Fidelity and About a Boy seem the most popular. I ended up starting with Slam simply because I had a copy lying around that a neighbour had tossed away, and I was only half-way through when I learned that Slam is a Young Adult novel. Perhaps that says a good amount about me, needing to be told the genre of this book, or any mainstream book, but whatever the analysis I was a bit sorry to have made that discovery, since it prejudiced my reading a little. I have not jumped onto the YA bandwagon, and don't plan to write any YA material myself, and yet I am glad that there is an emphasis on YA fiction since it promotes literacy and gets people to unplug themselves from social media and be handed some form of food for thought. Personally I'm an adult reader of adult fiction, I enjoy the classics, Eastern European fiction and things on the darker side. I read horror, short stories of all genres and lesser known literature (or "general fiction") which I like to write about, and here I am, with my two university degrees, adult writing and adult reading, caught in public reading a YA novel! For shame!

(Of course I'm being sarcastic. I still remember that poor guy in a university creative writing course who, without an ounce of self-consciousness, went on an informed spiel about the progression of Stephen King's writing,. Rather than listening and, god forbid, learning something, most others in the group were busy being noticeably annoyed that the impostor's name was even mentioned. They were even more annoyed when I started asking serious questions, prolonging the lecture. Really, how dare someone interfere with the course that they are paying for in order to help provide education? I'm surprised either of us managed to graduate and make a reasonable transition to the greater part of society. )

Okay, so I sort of enjoyed Slam. Whether classified Young Adult or Geriatric, the book was somewhat enjoyable but altogether frustrating. I laughed at times and was surprised at times. Laughing and being surprised are part of a positive experience. I was also annoyed at times, even frustrated. I'm no expert on adolescent or teen psychology and won't pretend to know the latest theories on how Hornby or anyone can affect the young mind by creating such an irresponsible, self-centred teenager... Wait. Isn't the point of being a teenager to be self-centred and irresponsible? Sigh... Hornby gets away with it.

What frustrated me the most was the lack of purpose and direction. No, the book is not a warning against teen parenthood or skateboarding. (If you haven't read the novel, it's told through the point of view of a sixteen year-old skater named Sam who knocks up his gorgeous girlfriend. Yes, she's gorgeous, of course she is, as Hornby--I mean Sam (no I don't) keeps reminding us.) The lack of direction, more so than purpose, deposited a sediment of doubt for the novel's overall effect, and that doubt was proven true when, after reading each milestone Sam and Alicia must experience, I am left thinking that the scene is exactly as I'd expected it to be. Though is was consistently funny.

Sam is telling us of two years of his life, from meeting the sexy Alicia to impregnating her and becoming a father, with lots of rambling, repetition and fine humour. The humour is really the only thing that makes the book worth reading. Perhaps a young adult would enjoy it on different levels, everything the constant dropping of pop culture references to the self-deprecating humour. I must say that Hornby is sensitive to Alicia's plight, in many ways more so than to Sam's, which is great for any young male reader to grasp the point of view of the one most affected by the pregnancy.

Minor spoiler. There's something Hornby does in Slam that I truly enjoyed. At about page 100, when I was starting to wonder if the story was actually going anywhere and looking over at my shelf for something I would much rather read, Sam, while talking to his Tony Hawk poster, gets "whizzed" into the future. He awakens when his son, evidently named Roof, is a few weeks old, and must go through the day without really knowing what's going on. I liked the touch and really don't care (in fact, prefer) that no explanation is given. A great, original touch, I felt. Now, the purpose eludes me, except that at the end we get another future "whizzing" and hence a brief epilogue of Sam's post-novel life. An annoying aspect of the "whizzing" is that Sam keeps mentioning it, to the point that every time he said "...that time when I got whizzed into the future," I was ready to give the book a slam of my own.

The title refers to Slamming on your skateboard, taking a nasty fall, and how Sam slams in life by knocking up the gorgeous beautiful sexy Alicia.

Overall it is not a book I would recommend.

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