Thursday, March 29, 2012

Alistair MacLean, Breakheart Pass (1974)

Alistair MacLean, Breakheart Pass, London: Collins, 1974
______________, Breakheart Pass, NY: Doubleday, 1974
______________, Breakheart Pass, London: Fontana, 1975 (my edition, pictured with the fabulous Charles Bronson)

Friday's Forgotten Books: Breakheart Pass

For more FFBs please visit Patti Abbott's blog.

Breakheart Pass was (more favourably) reviewed for Friday's Forgotten Books by J Kingston Pierce back in 2010. The review is available through The Rap Sheet or Pattinase.

Visit Breakheart Pass:
at Goodreads
at IBList
at IMDb (for the movie)

Rating: 5/10

When I was a kid in the mid-to-late 1980s my parents were among the last in the neighbourhood, perhaps even the western hemisphere, to purchase that bulky hunk of metal known as a video cassette recorder. Popularly known at the time as a VCR, it was a piece of medieval technology that could both record and play back movies using a cheap, slim strip of plastic encased in a large rectangular hard plastic casing (known as a cassette). Oddly, at times appropriately, the hard casing was worth more than the flimsy strip that contained the data. This massive cassette slipped inside that box of metal, often getting stuck, which in turn was hooked to your television set--not that sleek and slim apparatus in your living room, bedroom, washroom, etc., but that massive 100-inch frame that held your sixteen-inch monitor and needed at least six people to help cart away to the nearest garbage heap when, with a startling puff of smoke, one of the glass tubes blew up.

(Most of you are probably laughing at my wild fantasy, but this was reality back in those dark ages.)

One evening before supper my mom ushered me out of the house to pick up a movie. My brother didn't want to come and the pressure to find a good film gripped me during that ten-minute walk to our video rental store. (Yes, this was a dark era when to watch a movie at home you had to first leave the house.) I dreaded the chore, knowing that if I picked a bad film my mom, being a film lover, and my brother, being an older brother, would never let me hear the end of it. Days it seemed I searched those shelves of videocassette boxes for something we all would enjoy, until my eye was caught by a photo of Charles Bronson covered in western garb hanging from a train overlooking a ravine. That film was (obviously) Breakheart Pass, a film scripted by the novel's author, Alistair MacLean.

Fans of MacLean consider Breakheart Pass to be among the oddest of his novels, and it flopped on its initial release. A later MacLean work, it focuses as usual primarily on action and plot, but is his first novel set in the American West. It deals with a motley crew of white gun-runners, US Army soldiers and Paiute Indians, rather than his normal array of spies, soldiers and other evildoers. I have little opinion on all this since I haven't read any of MacLean's work prior to this one. Wanting to have a go at popular authors I've been ignoring, MacLean came to mind, and it's my memory of the film that peaked my interest in the novel. Though it's been twenty-plus years, I recall quite a bit about the movie, and I enjoyed it at the time, which is a lot more than I can say about the novel.

Breakheart Pass is a quick adventure, and despite a fairly decent premise, a wide range of colourful characters, plenty of mystery and a train (there's just something about a good story/movie set on a train), it all ends up derailing. Yes, even the train. The problems are many, but really what killed it for me was MacLean's unfair treatment of information and the all-too uninteresting tough-guy hero John Deakin.

Information appears to be revealed at the most convenient of times, except when it is revealed apparently randomly and for little purpose (like that whole Peabody thing; I didn't see it coming but when it arrived I just didn't care). Hero Deakin knows so much more than the reader, and smiles knowingly not only at the bad guys and the token woman who hates/is hot for him, but he seems to also be grinning at us. (Hey reader, he seems to be saying, this is gonna be cool.) Perhaps this mess is the result of an attempt to make us feel as though we too are on that chaotic train, but it's most likely the consequence of rushed writing and laziness. The novel is written so haphazardly and with such unbelievable lines as "She gave him a look as cold as ice," that I doubt MacLean spent too much time in the composition, or perhaps this quick straightforward and unimaginative style was his bid for the contract to write the screenplay, which was eventually offered to him.

As for Deakin he is a man of few words, but his few words are so vacuous and expected that it would have been better had he been mute. He comes across as abrasive and unpleasant, and the film producers lucked out in nabbing the abrasive yet far more charming tough guy Bronson to take on the role (a man who was apparently tough enough to declined the role of the "man with no name" character in Sergio Leone's three popular films). On paper Deakin is too clever both for the plot and the reader, concocting not too exciting methods of escaping the train and dealing with the evildoers, methods he keeps to himself and, well, keeps to everyone but the reader, saying things like "I've got a plan" fittingly at the end of the chapter, allowing the author to jump to another scene at the opening of the next chapter and leaving us in the dark. (Apparently this is what we call "suspense.") And what Deakin comes up with usually consists of blowing something up.

The opening was a little slow but half-way through I was quite into it, soon losing interest and speeding through the rest so quickly that I had to pause and wait for the train to catch up with me before I could go on. Finally I was done, and had to face that final pitiful exchange between Deakin and Marica.

Sadly I'm left to wonder if re-watching the movie would kill that twenty-something year memory of a "good" film.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Casual Shorts 6: Alan Arkin, "Whiskaboom" (1955)

Arkin, Alan, "Whiskaboom," Galaxy Science Fiction, August 1955. pp 40-45

For more forgotten books & stories, please visit Patti Abbot's pattinase.

[Edit: I've replaced the screenshots with clearer images. 24 March 2012]

In the 1950s Galaxy Science Fiction, then edited by H. L. Gold, devoted space in nearly each issue to short, comedic science fiction stories, including prolific authors such as Robert Arthur, and less than prolific writers such as iconic actor Alan Arkin. It was under the editorship of Gold that Galaxy published Arkin's two short comedic science fiction/fantasy stories, "Whiskaboom" (August 1955) and "People Soup" (November 1958).

"Whiskaboom" is about a young scientific inventor trying to harness the fourth dimension, while "People Soup" deals with two children concocting a stew using all sorts of household ingredients. Both are genuinely amusing, well written and quite original, though of the two I prefer "Whiskaboom." The story does not appear to have been reprinted since its first appearance, though "People Soup" was included in Groff Conklin's inventive though unfortunately average anthology Science-Ficton Oddities (1966), and in the Galaxy collection Galaxy: Thiry Years of Innovative Science Fiction (edited by Frederik Pohl, Martin H. Greenberg and Joseph D. Olander, Playboy Press, 1980). Both anthologies were reprinted in two volumes, and "People Soup" was included in Science-Fiction Oddities (the first volume, 1969), and in the paperback Galaxy Volume I, 1981.

Arkin's first published science fiction story works well both as a humourous and inventive science fiction fantasy along the lines of R. A. Lafferty, but also works well as a parody of the outcast madly genius scientific inventor. The story is written as a letter from a Mr. Burroughs to a Mr. Gretch, explaining the events following the day he and his wife, Mrs. Burroughs, took on as a lodger Gretch's twenty-six year-old son Jack. The young man moves in, proving to be both dedicated to his work and rather moody, while the Burroughs's are concerned both about the incessant noise, that incessantly repeating "whiskaboom," and Jack's evidently declining health.

Spoiler: Well, rather than harnessing the fourth dimension as he had planned, Jack has "chopped off" the third, so that everything in the Burroughs home becomes two-dimensionally flat--including Jack. Being good upstanding churchgoers, Mr. and Mrs. Burroughs do their best to help the young man, pinning him to the bed so he won't blow away in the breeze, pouring tea and food into him in hopes of creating some lumps in his thin form, until finally they decide to send him back to his father via US post in one of those long document tubes.

As I mentioned, genuinely amusing and inventive. Though Mr. Arkin has gone on to perform wonders both on stage and on screen, it would be quite a treat to some day have a third inventive story from the multi-talented man.

(And just think of the lesson, of the many dangers of scientific investigation. Makes me glad to be a lowly writer.)

The artwork by Diehl is a little odd, though I'm assuming he (assuming he is a he) is attempting to capture a skewed dimension. Notice Jack's flat tri-fingered hand, reminiscent of The War of the Worlds, at the top of the bed, right of the drawing.


The story is signed at the end W. Burroughs, though certainly not a nod to the author of The Naked Lunch whose only book by then was published under pseudonym William Lee.

Mr. Arkin has also published, along with his recent memoir An Improvised Life, a number of books for children, most famously The Clearing (1986).

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Briefly: Ruth Rendell, A Guilty Thing Surprised (1970)

Rendell, Ruth, A Guilty Thing Surprised, London: Hutchinson & Co., March 1970 (pictured top)
___________, A Guilty Thing Surprised, NY: Doubleday, 1970 (below left)
___________, A Guilty Thing Surprised, London: Arrow, 1980 (my edition)

Rating: 6/10

View A Guilty Thing Surprised:
at Goodreads.
at IBList.

My mom used to love these British cozy mysteries, Agatha Christie, Midsomer Murders and all the rest. In fact, she loved pretty much all forms of mystery, and it was through her influence that, as a highly impressionable pre-teen, I went through a mystery phase which included film and novels, though primarily short stories via those "Hitchcock"-edited anthologies. Over the years my mystery reading has become minimal, and having recently read and thoroughly enjoying Alain-Robbe Grillet's The Erasers, his post-modern murder mystery published in 1953, I decided to expand my experience of the more standard examples of the genre in novel form. I decided first off to acquaint myself with the most popular authors, everyone including Rendell, P.D. James, Patricia Highsmith, Jim Thompson and so forth.

I happened to have Ruth Rendell's 1970 Inspector Wexford novel A Guilty Thing Surprised lying nearby, so I picked it up and quickly read through the first chapter. It's the fifth of a series and my first. In fact I hadn't read any Rendell whatsoever, as popular and prolific as she is, and having now completed it I'm thinking the post-modern mystery is more my cup of tea. Not to say the novel is bad, in fact it's pretty good: well written, great dialogue, suspenseful and a super fast read. It is a little uneven though, its pacing shifting from slow character monologues to speedier sparring dialogues and a few moments of discovery tossed into the mix. It isn't as much as a novel of investigation but more a novel of hearsay, as Wexford ignores police procedure to pursue gossip. The novel's saving grace is really the additional thematic dimension that I feel necessary to genre fiction, and Rendell touches here on notions of sibling rivalry and the question of morality in terms of sexual freedom.

Briefly, the plot consists of the murder of the much-liked beautiful socialite Elizabeth Nightingale, a vain woman wealthy by marriage. She was struck repeatedly with a blunt instrument in the forest by her estate. Suspects include her husband Quentin Nightingale, her moody brother and Wordsworth scholar Denys Villers and his wife Georgina, the au pair girl Katje, the young pop-star-aspiring gardener Sean Lovell, his mother Mrs. Lovell, and the faithful Mrs. Cantrip (who really isn't much of a suspect but I was sort of hoping she'd be the unsuspecting murderess).

The somewhat older than middle-aged Chief Inspector Wexford appears fairly liberal, whereas his thirty-something year-old partner Inspector Burden is flat-out conservative, so their opinions on sexual behaviour differ greatly, as does their impressions of the sexual aspects of their current case. Among the suspects in Mrs. Nightingale's murder is her au pair girl, the young, sexually vibrant Dutch girl Katje, who in standard comedic practice even flirts with the married morally adroit Burden. Half-way through the book Wexford appears very human despite being the novel's, and the series's, chief hero. More than human actually, since at point he appears frail, a man with perhaps a few regrets tucked away with his years. The issue at hand is related to the revelation that the attractive seductress Katje has had relations with the much older Quentin, and Katje, rather than seeing Wexford in a sexual light, refers to him as old and tells him he reminds her of an uncle. This revelation and a brief interview with Katje awakens some hidden longings and even regrets. Sure the scene is brief and has nothing to do with the plot nor the investigation, but the added very real character dimension amid the sexual escapades is a great addition to the text. Not the usual thoughts that course through the mind of the standard series detective.

As per Mrs. Cantrip: "For, like the Bible  says, sir, woman is a temptation to man and no two ways about it."

As for the denouement, I certainly won't be revealing anything more than Rendell had me guessing, thinking, and rightfully on the track of sexual delinquency.

Interestingly enough, my edition (not pictured), a 1980 mass market paperback from Arrow, has quite the cover, revealing both the murder weapon and the killer (to be honest that figure can represent two characters). Possibly a trend, so I'll avoid other Arrow publications of the period.


The title is from Wordsworth's 1804 poem (published in 1807) "Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood," also known simply as "Ode to Immortality."

Filmed for Ruth Rendell Mysteries, aired in two parts, 19 & 26 June, 1988. Starring George Bakes as Wexford and Christopher Ravenscroft as Burden.

The novel was on the Long List for the Lost Man Booker Prize, a retro prize to find a winner for 1970, a year in which no Man Booker Prize winner was selected.

Friday, March 16, 2012

M. R. James, Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1904)

James, M. R., Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, UK: Edward Arnold, 1904
__________, Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1937, 1960 (my edition, unfortunately not pictured as it is in hard shape & I couldn't find a scanned copy online)

Another one for Friday's Forgotten Books. For more FFBs, please visit Todd Mason's blog.

For an overview of James's early fiction, please visit this article.

Many of the tales in this collection are oft anthologized, selected over the decades by many established editors, such as Groff Conklin, Peter Haining, Mary Danby, Isaac Asimov, Joan Kahn, Bill Pronzini, Stefan Dziemianowicz and of course, over and over, by that great recycler Martin Harry Greenberg, and others.

Canon Alberic's Scrap-Book (The National Review, March 1895) 7/10

"One remark is universally made by those to whom I have shown the picture: 'It was drawn from the life.'"

A Cambridge collector of ancient volumes named Dennistoun visits an old church in St Bertrand de Comminges, a "decayed town" near Toulouse, where he encounters the oddly-behaving verger. The older man, witnessing Dennistoun's interest in the church's minutest details, invites him to his home to look at an ancient scrapbook. The skeptical Englishman obliges the old man, only to discover that this ancient tome is not only an exquisite rarity, but that the horrible depiction of a hairy demon laying siege on Solomon and his men is more than just a drawing.

A story of demonology linked to Christianity, and of an ancient medieval text, elements which were plentiful in the early creepy tale. Religion was often linked to early supernatural of stories, sometimes simply in order to explain the supernatural element. In this case the monster, or "ghost," is a demon, a minion from hell, and an ancient book along with a curse is tossed in for good measure. Early supernatural stories often contained one of the three elements: a religious or pagan curse, a demon-like monster or an ancient text; here James combines them. Many elements indeed, yet there are no actual ghosts in this antiquarian "ghost" tale. It is, nonetheless, an effective story, obvious for our age yet nonetheless engaging.

Lost Hearts (Pall Mall Magazine, December 1895) 7/10

Unlike its predecessor, "Lost Hearts" is a story concerning black magic and a wealthy man's desire to gain immortality. When Stephen Elliott is orphaned shortly before his twelfth birthday, he is taken in by his much older cousin Mr. Abney. Though his reputation is that of a miserly recluse, his servant Mrs. Bunch tells Stephen of the two previous orphans Abney had taken in. Oddly though,both those orphans soon disappeared without trace. Runaways, the good Mrs. Bunch assumes. It's clear to the reader that Abney is involved in some malicious scheme, and that young Stephen is in terrible danger.

There is some fine character delineation, particularly of Mrs. Bunch and the butler Mr. Parkes, though Stephen seems in steady shape for an eleven year-old who just his parents. But I suppose child psychology was not yet advanced by 1895. As with most his tales, there is a truly creepy moment with some real ghosts this time, a moment I don't wish to spoil for anyone. The ending itself is just a little too sudden for the excellent build-up, and I will say it again, "nonetheless engaging."

The Mezzotint (Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, 1904) 7/10

Another of James's most anthologized pieces, this little tale concerns a Mr. Williams who has the responsibility of purchasing works for the Canterbury College museum's "already unsurpassed collection of English topographical drawings and etchings." He receives Mr. Britnell's latest catalogue, who turns his attention to a particular mezzotint, for which he is charging an unusually extravagant price. Having faith in Britnell's knowledge, Williams orders it, only to be utterly disappointed by the amateurish take on a very plain setting: a house and its front lawn. Yet over time the artistry becomes inexplicably evident as the scene begins to change, and a grotesque figure appears on the lawn. Stranger still is the fact that, looked upon at intervals, the figure is clearly getting closer and closer to the house.

One of James's greatest works. The familiar tone and humour at the expense of golf is not as well-placed as it is in "'Oh Whistle, and I Will Come to You, My Lad,'" James manages nonetheless to maintain a high level of suspense amid the creepy premise. This story differs from many of its companions as there is no immediate threat, but instead a ghostly mystery to solve, which is all nicely explained at the end. Moreover, the ghostly apparition is not a climactic or singular moment, but is spread throughout most of the tale.

The Cambridge buyer Dennistoun from "Canon Alberic's Scrap-Book" makes a minor appearance, which adds to the fabrication that these tales are factual, and helps to add some consistency amid the stories.

The Ash-tree (Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, 1904) 7/10

"It will be long, I think, before we arrive at a just estimate of the amount of solid reason--if there was any -- which lay at the root of the universal fear of witches in old times."

The unfortunate Mrs. Mothersole, despite many coming to her defense, is condemned as a witch and hanged in public. The main culprit in accusing her is Deputy-Sheriff Sir Matthew Fell, proprietor of Castringham Hall, who witnessed a creature in white up in his ash-tree. Running out he spotted a white rabbit scurry the ground and head toward Mrs. Mothersole's, and was convinced she is a shape-shifting witch. (He would have been luckier falling down a hole and sitting in on a tea-party.)

The story's a little more plodding as family and generational details need to be filled in, and I suppose James chooses to skip a generation to lengthen the time-span. Other details are clearly rendered for convenience, such as the poor cat who disappears down the ash-tree at the opportune time, so that the guests gathered can be conveniently lead to the story's conclusion. Despite minor bumps and obvious construction, in the end the read it is nonetheless quite effective, particularly since the ending is awfully creepy. The story is somewhat similar to Horacio Quiroga's 1907 short story "The Feather Pillow." It's likely that Quiroga read James's story, though "The Ash-Tree" is far superior. Quiroga's attempt at realism by adding a factual note actually takes away from the story, while James's knack at tale-telling alone heightens the story's fear factor.

Number 13 (Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, 1904) 8/10

Mr. Anderson visits the Danish town of Viborg in his pursuit of research concerning Denmark's church history. He is mildly curious about the local habit of avoiding the number thirteen, and even his hotel does not have a thirteenth room, so that Anderson is residing in Number 14. Yet late one night Anderson is returning to his room, and is convinced he passes by room Number 13, but when he looks for it in the morning the room is not there. Other strange things occur, highlighted by the fact that, looking out his window at the shadows of the hotel occupants against the facing wall, Anderson sees a shadow of someone to his left, exactly where the non-existent room would be.

I found "Number 13" to be particularly creepy, a ghostly situation that would freak me out if I were witnessing it. Like his other stories our protagonist is helped by some friendly locals, here being the landlord and the lawyer from Number 12.

References Ann Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794).

Count Magnus (Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, 1904) 6/10

The narrator tells of a set of manuscripts left behind by a Mr. Wraxall, who seems to have been putting together a book of travels. This particular set of events took place on a visit to Stockholm, where Wraxall became interested in an old church and the mausoleum containing the coffin of one Count Magnus. This incredibly ugly man is believed to have gone on the "black pilgrimage," from which he returned with something or someone. Ghastly things ensued.

Of the stories in this collection, "Count Magnus" was the least affecting. Its back-story is not as interesting and its moment of creepiness not as creepy as those in most of the other stories.

"Oh Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad" (Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, 1904) 9/10

"Who is this who is coming?"

College Professor Parkins is on a golfing holiday in Burnstow, staying at the Globe Inn. A colleague from Cambridge recommended he visit a nearby long-buried site which once housed the medieval Knights Templar. After a decisive victory over his fiery opponent Colonel Wilson, Parkings decides to poke around at the site, where he accidentally stumbles upon an ancient object: a whistle blocked up with dirt and clay. Back in his room he cleans the instrument and gives it a few good blows, not realizing that the act has summoned a spirit from somewhere off...

Among James's most exceptional stories, "Whistle" not only contains a wonderfully frightful ghost, it also boasts a great little character study. Slightly longer than the other early stories, James allows himself the space to focus on some light humour which is amusing and doesn't distract from the story, while giving us greater detail concerning his haunted protagonist. Parkins is not only the requisite Jamesian academic, but he is a staunch and open disbeliever of the supernatural. Among the company he keeps, from his colleagues at Cambridge to the golfing Colonel, Parkins is solitary in his disbelief. The ghost stirs up a frightfully delicious ruckus in Parkins's room (I won't divulge details), and eventually, as is expected, Parking is cured of his skepticism.

The additional characterization adds an extra dimension to the story, and unlike "Count Magnus" the narrative never slows. Parkins is a more interesting man than Wraxall, so even when he's merely playing golf we glide alongside him, swept away by the tight narrative.

The best constructed and tightest story of the group, and my favourite alongside "Number 13."

The Treasure of Abbot Thomas (Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, 1904) 6/10

Mr. Somerton pays a visit to the Abbey Church at Steinfeld to investigate the painted windows that, according to some ancient documents, are key to buried treasure. Shortly thereafter, friend and Rector of Parsbury Mr. Gregory, receives a panicked letter from Somerton's valet William Brown beseeching him to come to Steinfeld. Gregory makes haste, and arrives in the little town to find Somerton and Brown all a-tremble, locked up in their inn lodgings. Once Gregory has performed a favour by replacing some stones, Somerton rewards him by revealing an investigative and frightful tale of treasure hunt.

This story is similar to the earlier, convention-mocking Edgar Allen Poe story "The Gold-Bug," reviewed here. It follows the convention of a rational man receiving a distress call from an anxious-ridden friend, who follows his friend's instructions to meet him on some unusual journey. Both works also featured a cryptogram, and yet from there the similarities end. Like Poe's more standard stories, there is a greater element of the ghastly, which "The Gold-Bug" was absent of.

The ghost and requisite fright appears not in the middle of the tale as with most of James's early work, but near the end, and much of the story is played up to anticipate this ghost, the guardian of the ancient treasure. James has no shame in withholding evidence: "What is was I shall not yet divulge," for of course he is writing this tale for effect. With his casual tone he gets away with such technique, whereas any modern author attempting the same would be shamed and ridiculed to no end.

The fright is a good one but nowhere near James's best, and "The Treasure of Abbot Thomas" ends up a good though not excellent story.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

M. R. James: A Brief Overview of the Early Fiction

Learn more about M. R. James at these fine sites:

Project Gutenberg (etexts)
The Literary Gothic (more etexts)

This article is a work in progress; I'll update it as I read the fiction. I am focusing on James's early "antiquarian" works. Please feel free to argue, amend, or simply contribute. Thank you for reading.

For a review of Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, please go here.

M. R. James: A Brief Overview of the Early Fiction

"There is a scholarly precision in the style, an academic reticence, which gives the various revelations a small whispering horror unequalled elsewhere." -- The Observer

That little blurb is in the inside cover of Penguin Books #91, the 1960 reprint of Montague Rhodes James's first published collection of short stories, Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1904). Refreshing in contrast to the single-word blurbs that scream off the covers of today's paperbacks, but that's not what I want to write about.

Many do indeed consider James as "unequalled" in ghost-story craftsmanship, and there truly is a precision in his writing that adds a level of realism which the masterful Poe, in his Gothic glory, lacked. Yet unlike Poe the precision is not part of a careful, almost obsessive attention to technique; M. R. James was a practiced oral story-teller, and his written stories attempt to capture the oral quality of story-telling. This quality allowed James to digress a little with his descriptions and even on occasion toss out a bit of humour that may feel otherwise out of place, and certainly a breach of Poe's concept of unity of effect. Indeed, many of James's published stories were initially written to be recited to friends, and his early fiction publications, before the first Antiquary, were few and far between.

M. R. James published supernatural stories during a period of transition. In the latter nineteenth century and early twentieth, the supernatural tale was being overshadowed by more logical and scientific apparitions. The Victorians were well-practiced at poking fun at the pale-faced haunters of their predecessors, and superstars including Jane Austen (Northanger Abbey), Charles Dickens ("A Haunted House") and Oscar Wilde ("The Canterville Ghost") ridiculed the notion of risen spirits or simply stripped them of their haunting ways. Others, like Edward Bulwer-Lytton ("The Haunters and the Haunted") rationalized the notion of the supernatural and, while not scoffing at their existence, brought ghosts in line with the Victorian knack for rationalism. It was in the very late nineteenth century, when James was at work on his first collection, that supernatural beings were truly revolutionized, appearing in a more realistic, scientific mode. Prolific author H. G. Wells elevated the supernatural being from mere ghost or demon to a more modern, scientific-oriented creature. In his world men were made invisible via alchemical concoctions, monsters were the result of the horrific practice of vivisection, and demons accessed our physical realm not by crossing the borders of the grave but by crossing thousands of miles via solid mechanical objects or unusual beams of light. The notion of ancient spirits was being challenged by their modern variations.

Amid the new, modern and logical take on the haunted, James remained old fashioned. He dealt with small town spirits and the simple academic men who stumbled upon them during their research. There was nothing modern or revolutionary with the topics he dealt with, yet James succeeded in frightening his readers, as well as readers of this century, arguably better than any of his contemporary rationalists. Moreover, his blend of ghost story welcomed a long list of followers, and even today his name is often cited by authors as among the finest in the art of the ghost narrative.

The Jamesian style of scary story is quite specific, oral as well as antiquarian. As the title of his first collection, Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, suggests, James was a highly respected and active antiquarian. All of his early stories deal with the discovery or research of some medieval object, whether a manuscript, musical instrument or work of art. The ghosts in his stories are not always the standard prototypes of pale humanoid spectres, the dead revisiting the world of the living, wandering partially visible through rooms, howling and banging on doors. Instead they appear as demons ("Canon Alberic's Scrap-Book") or images cast on objects ("The Mezzotint"). Moreover the creature is not always haunting, but as in "The Mezzotint" is revealing the secret of a long-lost mystery, or in "Number 13" is just biding its existence only to have its form witnessed accidentally against a facing wall. The creatures were for the most part harmless and seemed to exist without consciousness, just hovered or appeared in its place. We can even argue that though James is considered among the greatest ghost story authors, he did not always write ghost stories. We can furthermore debate that Ghost Stories of an Antiquary didn't feature many ghost stories, and could have been titled Demons, Ghosts and Creature Stories of an Antiquary. No one, however, can successfully debate that the narrator of these stories wasn't an antiquarian, so that part of the title lives on without dispute.

Jamesian short story elements are straightforward. His protagonist is often "known" to the narrator, who is certainly James himself, a colleague or cousin who had related his haunting experiences to James at some time or another. This technique was not unique to James nor revolutionary at the turn of the century, but highly common during the nineteenth century and later. I've discussed this technique in other articles, and will mention it only briefly here. The narrator himself has not taken part in the supernatural events he is relating, yet someone he knows did, and hence the story gains the credibility of having actually happened, while simultaneously allowing the author/narrator the ability to distance himself from the events, should anyone want direct proof or accuse him of lunacy. The narrator can claim reality without having to be responsible for the strange events themselves. (Look at the multi-narrated Wuthering Heights, with its objective narrator re-telling a subjective narrator's version of the drama, while finally it's a little boy and his flock of sheep can "see" the ghosts on the Moors; who else to be believed but an innocent boy and his sheep?)

James's stories are often set in old English mansions, houses, inns or churches in little English towns. Some stories are set in academic settings, such as Cambridge, where James himself worked as provost at King's College (and later Eton). Some stories were set outside the United Kingdom, such as in France ("Canon Alberic's Scrap-Book"), Denmark ("Number 13") or Sweden ("Count Magnus"), where fictitious colleagues or acquaintances had experienced ghostly apparitions on their field research. These also often transpired in old mansions, houses, inns and churches or mausoleums.

For the most part the stories follow a basic premise: the antiquarian narrator tells of someone, a colleague or acquaintance or even of the experiences left behind in an old manuscript ("Count Magnus"), who had encountered a kind of ghost or demon through researching or handling some antiquarian object. Makes sense for an antiquarian to have come across such tales, so there was no need for James to change his approach. Most stories contain a truly creepy scene or moment, usually about half-way or three quarters of the way through the tale. The scare factor is never maintained throughout the tale, simply limited to the one scene or series of scenes, with the sole exception of "The Mezzotint" as we watch the ghost's progress. Supportive characters are simple folk, usually helpful to the protagonist, who often had at hand an ally or co-witness, whether a landlord, lawyer or valet, or someone else fairly trustworthy.

Protagonists are also straightforward people, uncomplicated by unusual backgrounds. They are usually academics, professors or researchers, often skeptical of the supernatural. An interesting deviation is the excellent "'Oh Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad,'" which pays closer to attention to its protagonist, Cambridge Professor Parkins, who transforms from being an avid skeptic, to become a true believer the supernatural forces. Moreover, the supportive player Colonel Wilson begins as a kind of irritable comedic buffoon, and who ends up being Parkins's heroic saviour.

On a thematic level there isn't much to discuss. James was not interested in setting up moral themes or guidelines, and the characters who encountered the supernatural forces did so by accident rather than as a form of punishment. His characters were not amoral and not being chased down due to any kind of sin; moreover, the protagonists generally got away from the pursuing forces, or were merely vehicles to help explain why such a ghost existed, as in "Number 13" which, despite being among the creepiest of the antiquarian tales, featured a protagonist investigating a ghostly presence without ever being threatened by it. The same Colonel Wilson mentioned above lets Parkins know that the ghost encountered in his hotel room was never a threat, simply an apparition, and is firmly convinced that the spirit was not acting maliciously but instinctively, and that even if it did want to harm Parkins or anyone else, could not due its formless spirit nature. Though these ghouls are quite frightful and unnerving, from the hairy demon in "Canon Alberic's Scrap-Book" to the dancing shadow in "Number 13," they are indeed never threatening and no one ever really gets hurt.

So what are these ghosts that are so spooky, feared and yet never a threat? Like the antiquarian objects that James and his protagonists admire, the ghosts are historical relics with stories of their own. They are not avenging spirits from the grave though they do at times play a part in an ancient curse. They have no malignant purpose, and are awakened, usually temporarily, by the curious mind of an academic Englishman. Their purpose is at times to enlighten the curious about a past incident, such as the ghostly image on the mezzotint in "The Mezzotint," or the shadows in "Number 13." In "The Treasure of Abbot Thomas" the ghost is a protector of relics, and it's even hinted at that the spirit has stayed behind simply to see what would happen once the complex series of clues surrounding the buried treasure has been organized.

Neither characters nor spirits are aiming to do anything wrong, and in James it is the meeting between the (often medieval) past and the curious Englishman that results in an effective yet harmless scare. It is interesting that one of the most genuinely scary authors rarely managed to hurt a soul, and that fact is simply an additional claim to James's genius. In this vein, as author of these tales, James himself was an antiquarian ghost, a vessel linking the history of these objects to the reader of these stories. Sure he frightened us, but never would he hurt a soul.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Alain Robbe-Grillet, The Erasers (1953)

Robbe-Grillet, Alain, Les Gommes, Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit, 1953
Translated by Richard Howard as The Erasers, New York: Grove Press, 1964

The Erasers at Goodreads
Rating: 8/10

Another brief review for Friday's Forgotten Books. For additional reviews please visit Patti Abbott's pattinase.

"Sometimes you go through hell and high water to find a murderer, and the crime hasn't even been committed."

Perhaps the most notable member of the group of experimental authors practicing the tenets of the Nouveau Roman (New Novel), Alain Robbe-Grillet's first novel is a fascinating, fun and frustrating murder mystery. It deals with a detective by the name of Wallas who is sent to an unnamed town to investigate the murder of Economics Professor Daniel Dupont. The murder is believed to be linked to a series of eight other murders occurring across the country over the past eight days, each at precisely 7:30 P.M. What's different about this particular murder is that there is no body, and moreover, unknown to Wallas but revealed early to the reader, is that Dupont is in fact not dead.

There are many wonderful aspects to this novel. The setting itself is incredibly well designed, and the nameless town becomes a familiar geography. Characters are colourful, at times comical and often pathetic, like the detective Wallas who is cursed with poor phrenological features which he suspects are linked to his constant failings, while he roams the streets almost at a loss as to how to investigate. The premise that his career is to be judged on the merits of whether or not he can solve a murder that never happened is masterful tragic irony. His fate is perfectly summed up by the fact that he regularly pauses in his investigations to search for a pencil eraser that he remembers well but that may not even exist. Erasers are plentiful throughout the novel, from the pencil erasers to more subtle suggestions, such as pervasive forgetfulness, changing or replacing facts and even actual events, along with the conspiracies that these nine murders were part of a series of hits conducted by hit-men, or "erasers."

The novel contains a number of recurring elements, from notions of duality to the idea that everything and everyone is mirrored. Wallas has an uncanny resemblance to the main suspect in this case, and is constantly being mistaken for that other, shadowy individual. People and objects have their twins and their alternates, as do events which are constantly repeating themselves. It is almost as though  the novel is only one link from a never-ending cycle. The bar that opens and closes the novel is described as an aquarium, so that all its inhabitants are fish living in a glass bowl, swimming around in eternal circles.

What is frustrating about The Erasers is the need for patience, particularly during the earlier pages. This is not a novel that can be read in bits and spurts; I became wholly immersed when I blocked out the world and sat reading for several hours without interruption. I don't always have the time (or the discipline) for such intensive reading, but with Robbe-Grillet I found it to be a rewarding necessity.

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