Technically, I didn't "read" this, I listened to it, as read by the man himself. The reading of the full text is up on Youtube: (Junkie) and I had somTechnically, I didn't "read" this, I listened to it, as read by the man himself. The reading of the full text is up on Youtube: (Junkie) and I had some repetitive formatting work to do, so...
Interesting for any number of reasons: as a detailed examination of a place and time and social class as recorded by a sharp observer directly involved with that class; as a blunt record of the culture around that class, both social, legal and moral; as an early example of the dry, "disinterested", direct and non-stylized literary voice that was to underlay all of Burroughs later, more experimental writing like a compact skeleton; as an example of how the disposable, exploitational pulp paperbacks could still offer a haven for interesting writing; and as an honest, painful account of a contemplative man's own destructive tendencies without any maudlin bullshit to smear the lens. On the other hand, if you want to be "told a story", with traditional elements like "plot" and "character", this is not for you.
What you might expect here is what you get - a very lucid record of Burrough's life (transposed into the "William Lee" persona) as an educated man and small time criminal living in the 1950s who becomes (repeatedly) addicted to heroin. The procedures, the people (some real characters), the police, the petty crime (cons, rolling drunks) involved in sustaining the habit. The cures, and the lapses, and the political and cultural shifts regarding drugs that occurred during that time. All drawn in stark and honest language, with very little adornment (a late in the book reflection on New Orleans as a city of ruins is an atypical standout). And thus, fascinating as a record and a particular style of writing. The ending is unsatisfying, as this is essentially an honest relation of a life lived and so there is not so much a wrap-up of the "story" (if one could call it that) as there is an ellipsis and a "to be continued". No moral judgment on a scurrilous sinner meted out from on high to be found here. No hand wringing.
Hearing this read by an aged Burroughs is particularly powerful, his acute experience lending authenticity, his accrued time lending weight.
Others who this book is not for: those who are perpetually offended by the portrayal of realities of how people actually lived and thought and spoke in the past. Burroughs is brutally honest in his portrayal of a self-loathing homosexual and so the language of such is also recorded. In fact, what's so striking about the book (outside of the socio-anthropological aspect of its intended focus) is how, with very little sentimentality, it can't help but capture the anxiety and wounded nature of a man denying his most basic self because of cultural and social taboos, and how that denial drives him while remaining ever present. Junk as an inoculation against the pain that arises out of being alive and feeling wrong in your skin.
Okay, as recently, I'm mopping up some titles from "To Read Short Fiction Lists", genre and lit, and as I'm in the W's....
I had 3 pieces from Wilde onOkay, as recently, I'm mopping up some titles from "To Read Short Fiction Lists", genre and lit, and as I'm in the W's....
I had 3 pieces from Wilde on the list - I've previously read a *bit* of him (about 10 stories, mostly thanks to Dedalus Books Decadence series) but, for example, haven't tackled an obvious must-read like The Picture of Dorian Grey.
"Lord Arthur Savile's Crime" is probably the most "Wildean" thing here, and in it one can see Wilde's black humor and some origins of a writer like Saki (in one direction) and P.G. Wodehouse (in another). British upper crust life had advanced to such a point, seemingly, that one could be terribly naughty by writing a deliberately lighthearted piece about cold-blooded attempted murder, poison and anarchist bombs. Shocking! That may sound like I'm being sarcastic but actually I'm not, it's just interesting to me how levels of privilege, culture, comfort and stability (timed historically differently, of course, across varied social and class strata) invariably give rise to an impulse like this, a turning inward, a jaundiced view of the status quo, satirically and cheekily expressed. So here we have a society party of humorous cartoons (lots of witty bon mots tossed around - "The world is a stage but the play is poorly cast.") where a nobleman (Lord Savile, natch) has his palm read and is told he will commit murder in the future. Being a good upstanding chap, and not wanting to ruin his intended nuptials, he sets about trying to figure out who the least important person is that he can murder in his social circle. Hilarity ensues as poison, bombs and drownings prove ineffective until chance steps in. Of course, part of the joke is that Savile never questions (and we should never expect him to question) the accuracy of such a prediction from a dubious source, because then the ultimate joke of basing your actions on dubious sources, and the empty trendiness of the moneyed classes (and possibly their coldness to human suffering) would be undone.
"The Star Child" is Wilde operating in his Fairy Tale Mode. In many ways it is a traditional fairy tale with an obvious moral - a poor family finds an abandoned baby and raises him to be a beautiful boy. But the boy is cruel, arrogant and hateful and despises the poverty around him, torturing small animals and displaying his ingratitude at every opportunity, so magically he is turned ugly and has to go forth in the world to learn humility - which he does, by trying to complete three impossible tasks, aided by animal servitors. The Wildean punch, when it comes, lies not so much in the classically-beautiful-but-cruel main character but instead in the short and oddly ominous last line of the piece, as if Wilde could not completely commit himself to the eternal awe and wonder of happily ever after.
"The Decay Of Lying" is an essay (presented as a dialogue) and, honestly, I'll probably need to give it another read and dissect it at my leisure at a later date because I was mostly in the wrong head-space when I read it. Essentially, it's Wilde's barbed answer to the rise of the Naturalist/Realist movement in literature (Zola, etc.), which eschewed imagination and flights of fancy for close observations of the real world and people. Wilde believes this idea is terrible and sketches out what he believes literature (and almost almost all art) should consist of, how it should proceed and what its goals should be. Sui generis, inventive and imaginative, essentially - "effective lying" is the ultimate creativity.
Having recently codified my own approach to the arts (well, certainly literature) as that of a Generalist/Surveyor, I can't take an us/them, good/bad argument about literature *so* seriously. I find such screeds fascinating - not as an expression of "the truth" but as "one way of looking at things" (from a particular position, in a particular moment in time, given what has come before, what was happening then and what was to come) - even as my mind begins to undermine the argument (and, in case I haven't made my point, I'd have the same reaction to a po-faced essay about the obvious superiority of realism over imagination). These kind of essays/arguments *are* important - it *was* important that someone had them and they *remain* important as records of thought processes, as we try to move forward - except we don't seem to be moving forward very much and those records seem to be ignored, as we seem to JUST KEEP HAVING the same binary us/them, good/bad stupid/reductive arguments over and over again even centuries later (just recently, in my life in fact).
I do believe the human mind is vast and can hold many ideas, some of them contradictory. I do not think there is only one way to "do art" or that the term "art" is pretentious, or that "entertainment" is below contempt for that matter, OR that a perfect blending of "art" and "entertainment" is the Ultimate Goal for THAT matter. I do think that different approaches yield different results and have different successes, achievements, failures and traps. This doesn't seem very hard for me at all and I wonder why people seem so driven into singular conceptions - perhaps it's the varied arrogance and insecurity underlying the desperately clung-to worldviews? So, for example, when I read this essay I find it fascinating: Wilde is witty (duh), charming, intelligent and erudite and his argument makes sense - until I remember that some realist novels have, in my life, packed just as much impact as the imaginative ones. I look at what he's saying and think "hmmm, interesting that the Decadents take *part* of his stance - invention and artificiality - and discard others - by focusing on the dregs and degradation of real life". I think of genre writers who bristle at being labelled escapist and regularly chalk up straight Lit as "boring" - thus placing them in Wilde's camp - yet Wilde would be appalled to find them worrying over research, realistic detail and promoting social causes and the underrepresented.
But I'll have to reread it. There's a good argument to be made that Wilde is deliberately overstating his case so as to have a kind of unspoken criticisms of its excesses built right into the text. Still, lots of fun!...more
So, I had one Tennessee Williams story to mop up from my short-fiction non-genre list, the titular piece here "Hard Candy". I knew that it had some coSo, I had one Tennessee Williams story to mop up from my short-fiction non-genre list, the titular piece here "Hard Candy". I knew that it had some connection to another powerful Williams piece ("The Mysteries of the Joy Rio") I liked, so, since that piece is also here, let me recapitulate my review of that story from another collection:
"The Mysteries of the Joy Rio" has always stuck in my head since I first read it years ago - it's the tale of an elderly gay man and the decrepit pleasure palace (once opera house, then grand cinema, now aging fleabag theater) where he spends his time at furtive fumblings in the dark with strangers following the death of his longtime lover. It impresses on a number of levels - a sad and touching ghost story, a symbolic examination of life and death (the grand hall, awash with possibilities as a youth, turned rotting, empty cavern desperately filled with hollow desires by the end) and also a surprisingly frank (if slightly coded) portrayal of the unspoken rules and practices of anonymous homosexual cruising during the early part of the 19th century. Extremely well-written, as would be expected.
"Hard Candy" (presented before "Mysteries" in this collection - and rightly so) gives us the flip side of William's melancholy paean to the pleasure grounds of gay southern youth. Here we follow a rather (physically) ugly little retired man (not the character from "Mysteries") as he purchases some hard candy and makes his way to a secretive destination that no one in his family suspects - the cavernous darkened balconies of the Joy Rio, of course - where he has been known to find the companionship he desires on occasion (with the bag of sweets useful as a bargaining device). It is interesting to realize that this is Williams' setting down a truth that was unlikely to have been recorded in fiction before (certainly in this specific locale and detail) and also how "Mysteries" acts as a more pleasant counterpoint to the sordid intimations found here. Some details (view spoiler)[the age of the "boy" he encounters is never clarified - obviously not a child but whether a younger adolescent or older teenager is not clear (hide spoiler)] and the ending are even open to some discussion ((view spoiler)[the old man's death could have been in the raptures of ecstasy but just as likely assault from an unwilling companion (hide spoiler)]. As I said, sordid but fascinating and Williams does a very nice authorial insertion job of warning the reader that they are about to read a story wherein something unsettling may happen (I've put it in quotes as it's quite well done) and there's the nicely ironic turn of why the event even makes the papers. Good stuff!...more
The mighty reading list (entry - assorted stories to be read - non-genre - Letter "W" ) pointed me here with a handful of Welty stories noted. With onThe mighty reading list (entry - assorted stories to be read - non-genre - Letter "W" ) pointed me here with a handful of Welty stories noted. With one notable exception (see the end of this review) I don't believe I've ever read any Welty before, although I do have a dim memory of hearing a story by her read in audio... "Why I Live At The P.O.", maybe?
This is the kind of fine, human-scale writing that reminds you why Lit writing is important as an approach - in this particular case moments in time captured in prose, a sensibility of a place and era, a subtle ear for local dialect and character, all painstakingly laid down in little cut-gem short fictions.
I'll start with an oddity - a piece that does not actually appear here: "Acrobats In The Park" was possibly Welty's first piece of fiction, published much later in life and, thanks to Google Books, capable of being read online before random chance throws in a "missing page". It depicts a family of traveling acrobats resting in a park, mulling over their familial inter-relationships, an unplanned pregnancy and a failed stunt that night before that broke an arm. It's interesting but a little unsure of itself.
"Keela, The Outcast Indian Maiden" has a nervous young man relating to a tavern owner his tale of, years before, carnival barkering for a geek show featuring a savage outcast Indian Maiden who would eat live chickens and frighten the rubes for a dime - until the day the young man observed the truth of the situation and saw his act liberated from virtual slavery by a stranger. Although unaware of the truth, the young man has finally come to present his apologies and discover what has happened to his charge. Nicely done, this story contains realistic language and attitudes of Mississippi in the 1930s so, those of you who find such things impossible to deal with are forewarned. An oddly touching story with a mildly uplifting end.
"Lily Daw And The Three Ladies" concerns a local young woman, known as a simpleton, who has been taken as kind of the ward of small town. Her caretakers (the titular 3 ladies) have just been informed by mail of their success in getting her placed at the prestigious "Ellisville Institute For The Feeble-Minded of Mississippi", and attempts to tell her the news but instead find that she has told other townsfolk that she is engaged to be married. Can they get her on the train in time? Has Lily sinned with the xylophonist from the traveling tent revival show? This is a delightful little misadventure of a story.
"Petrified Man" is told mostly through gossipy dialogue between a customer at and the owner of a hair salon and concerns a surprise pregnancy, another freak show (this time starring pygmys and the so-called "Petrified Man") and the accidental discovery of a wanted criminal; all occurring during two trips to the salon. Again, lighthearted and charming, with closely observed characters and dialogue.
"Death of a Traveling Salesman" starts off strongly as a salesman, just recently recovered from an illness, finds himself lost and feverish driving some back-roads (really excellent writing here). From there, as he seeks help from a rural couple, it turns into a powerful rumination on life, loneliness, love, humanity and assumptions filled with wondrous little details of humor (a donkey looks in a window - that's all I can say) and stirring imagery (fire is fetched from a neighboring farm, the torch blazing in the nigh-time darkness as it is run back over the hilltop to the farmstead).
"The Wide Net" seems to start as another relationship tale - a new husband fears his pregnant wife has drowned herself (as she'd threatened in a note) because he stayed out all night - but the piece blooms from a closely observed slice of real life as it is cast into fiction and the husband leads a group of townsfolk down to the Pearl River to drag it for the body (with "the wide net", natch). Although all the characters seem like real people (and, yes again, there are some honest racial politics of the time preserved in the language), an impressive dream-like quality accrues to their actions as they gather, move through the October dawn down to the bank of the river and spend the day dragging the depths, eating fish, dodging alligators and sheltering from a heavy thunderstorm. The dreamy, magical quality of the piece, for a moment, even slides into the near-mythic with a quick appearance from the "King Of The Snakes", whom the husband faces down. At first it may seem that the presumably dead wife has become the least important part of the story, as instead we come to realize how integral the river is in the lives of the people, but, by the end, she proves most important of all. A really excellent story and a great piece of Southern writing.
Also in this collection, but previously read by me in The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales, is "Clytie", a fine slice of Southern Gothic featuring another simple-minded young lady and the travails of her previously-respected (but now fallen into disrepute and decadence) "fine family." Good stuff. ...more
The mighty reading list dictates and, having dictated, moves on...
So a nice little lit short fiction comp to cleanse the palate after tons of genre maThe mighty reading list dictates and, having dictated, moves on...
So a nice little lit short fiction comp to cleanse the palate after tons of genre material. This officially would be a 2.5 or even 2.75 if such things could be, but gets the 2 over the 3 because, yeah, I didn't finish it and that was at least partly by choice - granted, I had run out the Inter-library loan clock and now owe something like $11 in fines for keeping it for so long but, even then, I would have toughed it out if I'd felt it was likely to be ultimately rewarding.
Which is not say or even imply this is a bad book or that Williams is a bad writer - not at all. I could imagine that for some her style might even be an eye opening or (if writers) style-changing event.
Cause here's the thing - Williams writes these super-short concentrated pieces - you can't even call them stories because by most standards they're not. It's lit flash (probably called micro-fiction at the time) and looking at lit versions of the form (much as I did when reading Short Shorts) helps me grapple with my various problems and questions about the genre version of the form.
Because Lit has it easier in this case - the freedom to do almost anything, in any way, with any attack, towards any point, means that expectations are slightly different for these pieces than they would be for genre flash. Everything is up for grabs, essentially.
So what you get here is an endless stream of 1,2,3 or even 1/2 page pieces. Disjointed, skeletal narratives that occasionally sketch the bare expectations of story. More often (not surprisingly), character sketches hinged on the smallest of events (which sometimes makes the title of great importance - and sometimes, not at all). Tart vignettes illuminating psyches.
I could certainly see how this could be enjoyable or revelatory for a reader, especially those encountering the "finished with narrative/plot is the enemy" movement for the first time. And I'm not even saying that reader can't be me - there are some great pieces here, which I'll discuss in a moment - this collection arrived like a breath of fresh air after being smothered in genre and heavy narrative fiction for a while (it's a key component of both of my jobs!), reminding me yet again of the wide variety of ways there are to write fiction. Certainly, aspiring flash writers should check out Williams' stuff.
On the other hand, "collection" is the important point. I left this book, half unread, feeling like I'd already had way more of Williams than I wanted (for all I know, there may have been some gems in that second half). Partly (as I said before) this was just a function of circumstance (clock was ticking) but, more so, these pieces strike me as works that would be most effective when read singularly, in magazines or at least at a slow pace - little baubles to be savored (when they work) or discarded (when they don't), shining more in relation to other works around them than heaped up together as here.
And that's kind of the way it is with experiments in form - the best works here weave a delicate web of associations with image and dialogue, evoking some off-kilter mood or oddly conflicted idea. Gnomic cameos crafted of words, they feel like a segment of time illuminated by a flash-bulb of language - meaning and depth hinted at but just fading into the dark as the intended length of the piece encroaches and... that's all you get. So you go back and study what's in the word photo, what was actually said and how.... Unlike a lot of experimental writing Williams work is generally accessible (if frustrating) and reminded me a bit of David Lynch, not in the brooding creepiness sense but in the sense that the work has meaning, the meaning is possibly inscrutable and that inscrutability doesn't really matter.
The worst here (maybe "most unsuccessful") are so vague as to seem random, with no apparent hook enticing one to puzzle them out, coming off instead like some slapdashed-off musing, recording a "shocking" thought or thin concept. Even those failures can sometimes be illuminating in a way, as Williams really does have a distinctly odd and considered language construction sense, a writer's toolbox full of self-cancelling or repetitive phrases, deliberately unbalanced contrasts and flow-disrupting choices so when the magic doesn't gel, you find yourself examining the construction a bit more. But in the end, these weaker pieces feel like experiments in conjuring the *implication* of meaning through language, without there actually being any. Which I guess is somebody's bag, but not mine unless I'm reading DADA.
So much for form, what of content? Well, as I said, it's mostly vague since plot or narrative is barely the point but there are recurrent themes. Sex, relationships, money, beauty, social station, the wealthy (or at least well-off), children, social gatherings, meals, public spaces, wedding rings and ordering systems. Many of the barely glimpsed characters strike me as painfully self-aware, self-involved, insecure and smart but over-thinking types who inhabit worlds of vague and unformed (but strongly held) concerns - language and dialogue forcing their statements to seem to have more weight (or be more absolute) than they possibly intend. There are a lot of (internally) ugly and shallow people here and the author can sometimes seem brave for courageously sketching them honestly, but at other times there seems nothing valorous about asking us to contemplate such vacuity (at times once can feel that persistent worry about the incipient, growing sociopathology of the leisured classes leaking through - people who care about nothing very much except caring about their interior lives A LOT!). Williams isn't judging - doesn't really even have space to judge - just recording and sketching.
In truth, I liked the experiment with form/style more than the content (at times the content seemed almost aggressively negligible). Occasionally, there's a fun piece ("Eero", which another reviewer complained about, cracked me up with its repeated letters attempting to replicate the effect of two people saying the same thing simultaneously). It occurs to me that hearing Williams read some of these pieces might prove illuminating, if nothing else giving an example of what words she choices to stress.
But, as I said, they all felt like they were piling up after a while.
"Here's Another Ending" had a nice fable-like feeling and "Gods Of The Earth At Home" has some sharp class observation. "All American" and "To Die" are, respectively, excellent examples of that sociopathic observation or ugly shallowness. "Ultimate Object" and "Again" were extremely creepy and "Egg" uses the idea of a killer and victim in an interesting way - but "The Case Of The Cold Murderer" had me intrigued until the non-sequitur ending.
It might make for an interesting and divisive episode of Pseudopod (hearkening back to the post-modernism experimentation of our Christine Brooke-Rose episode) if I were to get the rights to the creepy pieces...
Late to the game on this one - which is fine because I could never keep up with the endless swell of everything old I want to read AND everything newLate to the game on this one - which is fine because I could never keep up with the endless swell of everything old I want to read AND everything new I want to read. I'd read 3 stories by Joe Hill before, in various collections, and was immediately struck by his authorial strengths. Here we have a collection of most of his early short fiction in one package - proving that he is not just a horror author but a non-genre lit author as well.
"Best New Horror" is, simply put, a masterpiece - not just because in some sense the main character is me (harried & slightly burned out horror short fiction editor still dedicated to quality despite the vicissitudes of the field), nor that it does a marvelous job spinning an engaging and plausible story, nor even because of the masterful downshift into tense, suspenseful thriller mode as it ascends to its climax - No, it's because of that psychologically brilliant and totally believable moment of conflicted exultation that it ends on.
"20th Century Ghost" is another home-run knocked out of the park, reminding me of David J. Schow's story "One For The Horrors" in terms of it being a love letter to the soon-to-be-dead theater-going experience. It's the tale of a haunted movie theater, the ghost that resides there and the man who she has haunted most of his life - oh, and movies: the spectral, ineffable, awful (in its original sense) phenomena of cinema and the movie house - the real "ghost" of the 20th Century. It ends on a sad and beautiful note, as well. Hill's impressive story control means that even details that would, in lesser hands, signpost later plot points are integrated so well and misdirected around that you don't see see them until they pay off (FANTASIA - I should have seen it coming!).
Hill explores whimsical territory with "Pop Art", the story of a boy's friendship with an inflatable friend and it's melancholy outcome. It just asks you to accept its conceit and then runs with. Hard to say what exactly it's a metaphor for - creativity and imagination in a philistine culture? sexual or racial identity? physical or mental illness? - but entertaining, regardless.
"You Will Hear The Locusts Sing" is a strange variant of Franz Kafka's "The Metamorphosis" recast for a post-B-Movie ("atomic radiation"), post-Columbine world. In a way, a story that strongly resonates with his father's pulp film/blue collar fiction.
"Abraham's Boys" is about the conflicted, adolescent offspring of Bram Stoker's vampire slaying character and their gradual questioning of whether their abusive father's lifelong narrative of supernatural threat is really true or a religious/fetishistic obsession. Excellent read.
A nuanced study of a young boy with anxiety/OCD issues and his relationship with his father, "Better Than Home" is the first solidly lit piece in the collection (although it also features a scene with a horrifying discovery of a dead body). It's an emotionally honest and compelling read (the aforementioned dead body scene is a high point) but I also felt that the early focus on the father's televised temper tantrums didn't really pay off relative to the time spent on it, story-wise.
"The Black Phone" is a taught and engaging scenario of a boy kidnapped by a predator and imprisoned in a basement - given an extra jolt by a touch of the supernatural evidenced by the titular object.
An extended character study of a cynical, rebellious young adult welded to a suspense narrative, "In The Rundown" positions the guy in a very bad place through no fault of his own. While the ending may leave you hanging, I appreciated that it didn't spell out the obvious danger to the main character.
"The Cape" is a bit of magical realism with a central conceit - a boy's lucky blanket, when worn as a cape, allows him to "fly" (well, float). In truth, I was digging this up until the ending, which seemed both a bit nasty (given the character established) and perfunctory.
"Last Breath" has a fine, near surrealistic conceit at its core (a museum of death rattles and their curator) and is only let down a bit by the ending - but then, its short enough to function more as an entertaining bit of flash and not be judged as an actual story.
...which I cannot say for "Dead Wood", which struck me (as a lot of flash does) as a "cool idea" (here: ghosts of trees) that the author failed to build a story around. The acknowledgments section of the book hides another flash piece, "Scheherazade's Typewriter" about a device that continues to produce fiction after its owner's death, that I liked a little more.
More straight lit fiction appears in "The Widow's Breakfast" where a Depression-era hobo connects with a lonely and kind widow. I liked it.
"Bobby Conroy Comes Back From The Dead" may feature George Romero and Tom Savini but this story is not horror, instead it's a charming tale of a failed comedian and his college crush accidentally reuniting on the set of DAWN OF THE DEAD where they're auditioning as zombie extras. Great, human character detail and again I appreciate that Hill didn't feel the need to state the obvious (the real parentage of the woman's child).
Probably the oddest and most ambitious piece here is "My Father's Mask", in which a boy spends time with his odd parents on a visit to an isolated family cabin and has a number of strange encounters. Surrealistic, disturbing, symbolic and even coldly erotic, it's an ambiguous and haunting piece.
Equally strong, although more direct, is "Voluntary Committal". Hill really seems to have a knack for the "Bradbury approach" - that is to say, he seems to have been mentally recording every sensation and thought he experienced as a child for later use in fiction. The story is a rumination on troubled adolescence, friendships, siblings and a very Stephen King-like examination of the "wild talents" of the "differently gifted" ("Mrs. Todd's Shortcut" comes to mind). This a great weird tale, confidently deployed and absolutely justifying its extended length. A great note to end on. ...more
I didn't read this book, I just read one story and, honestly, I read that one story online (thank you MARXISTS.ORG!) but I like to record my reactionsI didn't read this book, I just read one story and, honestly, I read that one story online (thank you MARXISTS.ORG!) but I like to record my reactions on GOODREADS so...
And, of course it was "A Madman's Diary" - considered the first modern piece of Chinese fiction. Go read it - it's right under that link above and is pretty short. Obviously intended as political allegory, it concerns the written record of a young man who, in the throes of madness, extrapolates the tyranny of old, rural values into a paranoid belief that the world is secretly filled with cannibals (noting, in the text, actual historic moments of real cannibalism in Chinese history), including his own brother. "Save the children..." indeed.
Nicely done - I liked the resonances with Gogol's similarly titled tale and I especially liked the bit where the young man, looking through his history books, begins to realize that written between the lines of all books is the secret message "Eat People"! Will probably do a podcast of this on PSEUDOPOD as part of an Asian Horror retrospective - at which, no doubt, high brows will get all sniffy and presume I am "missing the point of the thing". Ahhhh... fun!
What a fascinating collection! Perhaps not a good choice for an idle reader of Jackson looking for something toIT'S A LONG REVIEW FOLKS, BUT WORTH IT!
What a fascinating collection! Perhaps not a good choice for an idle reader of Jackson looking for something to chew on after "The Lottery" (that choice would be The Lottery: Adventures of the Demon Lover or possibly The Magic of Shirley Jackson - I have not read the latter) but for those who have commenced through the superb The Haunting of Hill House and the wondrous We Have Always Lived in the Castle and are wondering what to read next - here's a solid option. And the interesting thing is that it will give you both what you *want* out of Jackson while also challenging your perceptions of her as a writer... and how you take that challenge will depend on your tastes.
The concept is fairly easy - this is half a collection of Jackson's short fiction that has previously been uncollected, and half a collection drawn from a box of manuscripts discovered after her death. And that's where the really interesting part comes in - what are these pieces? Juvenilia? In at least once case, certainly. But they also comprise experiments and rough drafts and unpolished texts and almost certainly works intended to be returned to but abandoned. To some, this will make half the book less than worthwhile but such a dismissive attitude will seriously undermine your enjoyment. If you're interested in a great writer's works, or are a writer yourself, you can certainly gain quite a bit by reading these texts - and make no mistake, they are all complete texts (well, one actually is thoroughly undeveloped but still "whole", if you get my meaning) - and gain respect for Jackson's talent and scope.
The most productive way to group these stories for review (and, yes, I'm going to review them all, as is my wont - it will be long) is into two tones - The Light and The Dark - and this itself is generally informative because it's good to be reminded (unless one has read Raising Demons or Life Among the Savages) that Jackson was not a "horror" writer but instead was a lit writer with interests that embraced both sides of the human equation. And she was a working short fiction writer who wrote stories to sell to magazines. So, again, if you think you'd only be interested in Jackson's dark work here, well... this review can serve as a guide and that's your prerogative, but you'll be missing the opportunity to read a top writer in solid control of her craft turning out some funny and powerful work that will broaden your conception of writing. Not all of it is successful of course, but that's why I write these reviews. Among Jackson's strengths was her economy of words and observation skills, her "sharpness" (for lack of a better word) - and the weaker of the abandoned texts are work that hasn't been properly stropped to a fine edge yet, or whose focus is unclear and undeveloped (and occasionally, so cut back as to be a little too spare on story hooks).
So let's start with The Light. Jackson had obvious interests/concerns/themes as a writer that she repeatedly made her focus. Men and women and their relationships, boys and girls and how their minds develop, family dynamics, social status and interpersonal interactions and class - these are themes that turn up again and again. And these are usually subtly explored in a number of ways from differing viewpoints. Sometimes out-and-out comedy, sometime wry neutrality or charming tale-spinning. Quite a number of them were written for, and published in, women's magazines of the time like "Mademoiselle", "Woman's Home Companion" and "Good Housekeeping".
As I said, not everything here is excellent - even with the caveat framing of half being abandoned texts. So let's get those out of the way first. "When Barry Was Seven" is the only throw-away here - essentially a humorous transcript of a discussion about books and reading between Jackson and her husband and their young son - it reads like placeholder notes for Raising Demons. "I Don't Kiss Strangers" seems an early experiment in sharpening Jackson's dialogue skills and centers on a break-up between a college-age couple. In "The Very Hot Sun In Bermuda" a flirty college girl has an extended discussion with the married painter she's having an affair with. I'm guessing the point is the contrast between the passionate devotion of painter (who will likely have his marriage destroyed and lose his children) and the girl's treatment of the whole thing as a romantic lark (likely pursued to gain her an easy painting for her art class that she can pass off as her own work). But that's me guessing. "Deck The Halls" seems to be about class consciousness and a good deed performed on Christmas Eve. Fine but bland, as there's no conflict or real humor, rather Hallmark-card-y. "On The House" is something like a Raymond Carver piece - a blind man and his young wife scam a liquor store cashier out of some money - perhaps it was an experiment in a different approach (although this was a published piece) but it didn't work for me. "Little Old Lady In Great Need" is somewhat similar to the preceding story - set during the war-rationing years it has a very proper, upper class great-grandmother instruct her young daughter on how a real Lady *should* and *shouldn't* behave as she bargains a butcher out of the only piece of meat he has in the shop, his own evening's steak. Okay but nothing to write home about. "Alone In A Den Of Cubs" is a light domestic comedy about being Den-mother to a Cub Scout troop and observations on how young boys' minds work. Again, pretty slight but not unenjoyable. "The Omen" reuses elements from some darker tales (leaving your life to chance and a random encounter with a street advertising campaign) and tells of a woman, faced with a matrimonial problem, who decides to use a randomly acquired list of strange notations to drive her movements and thus let fate answer the question. Light, cute, thin.
On a slightly better (if still somewhat problematic) level are stories like: "Party Of Boys" which is similar to "Cubs" - as it has a suburban mother put in charge of a gaggle of young kids she must wrangle (and thus puts it in the orbit of Life Among the Savages) - but adds a level of subtle but pointed class observation as the mom discovers that the town ne're-do-well shares her son's birthday (and nobody is going to throw that juvenile delinquent a party!). Funny and well done. "The Sister" is a bit like a humorous, barbed, drawing-room sketch by Saki as an adult brother and sister (she marrying below her station, he secretly married below his station) wrangle in the family dynamic. Cute. "Portrait" is one of those pieces that someone else will have to decipher for me as it's another experiment - little scenes interspersed with lines from a poem or song. Possibly of interest for fans of Merricat (from We Have Always Lived in the Castle) with the line "they want me to comb my hair". "Gnarly, The King Of The Jungle" is an odd story about a spoiled young girl who uses her extra-special birthday present as an intermediary to take petty revenge on the put-upon housemaid. More class concerns, certainly, but it's hard to see the point as nothing more than "spoiled little girls can be cruel", unless it's more subtle than I'm giving it credit for and went right over my head. "My Recollections Of S.B. Fairchild" is a domestic comedy written in a dry, droll, understated way - a record of the purchase of a tape-recorder (a big ticket item at the time) that subsequently breaks and how department store bureaucracy sets in motion a domino chain of frustrating correspondence. Funny. "My Uncle In The Garden" is a cute modern fable involving a visit to the country cottage of two doddering, somewhat cantankerous relatives, one of whom has made an unthoughtful, if minor, deal with the Devil (who seems a rather understanding chap, although he never appears in the story proper). If the final payoff of the plot of "Mrs. Melville Makes A Purchase" is familiar as a well-circulated urban legend, the execution is excellent (although, second caveat, perhaps a bit too long) and it contains some very funny writing as a stuffy, fussy, wealthy woman goes shopping among the lesser folk. Some awful members of the literati congregate during the imminent death of a literary giant in the acidic "A Great Voice Stilled" but they're all more concerned with themselves - nice social observation and wry comedy.
There are a number of good solid "Light" stories as well. The first of the previously unknown pieces, "The Smoking Room", is a fun deal-with-the-Devil story in which a smart young college girl outwits Old Nick (yet again) with some legal chicanery. "Summer Afternoon" shows Jackson's mastery of evoking the mindset of children as two little girls tour the neighborhood - the interesting thing about this story is that it just might be a very, very subtle ghost story as well! "Indians Live In Tents" is similar to "Fairchild" above - an epistolary tale, this one charting the cause-and-effect relations between a group of unrelated people leasing and subleasing rooms and furniture from each other - funny and an interesting window into how people got on with the process of living at a certain moment in time. "Dinner For A Gentleman" and "Family Magician" are similar stories, both frothy domestic comedies somewhat like Mary Poppins or Thorne Smith's work but with household magic themes (and presaging popular versions of the same, like I DREAM OF JEANNIE, BEWITCHED and NANNY AND THE PROFESSOR). In the first a young woman gets magical help in preparing a meal for an eligible suitor and in the second a fatherless family has a wonderfully magical maid enter their lives. Charming. The equally funny "Arch Criminal" is a somewhat more savage take on DENNIS THE MENACE, specifically about how mothers can be completely blind to their son's less than wholesome qualities when they've got criminal mischief and false repentance down to an art. One of the nice aspects of a story like "Come To The Fair" is that since Jackson gets dark writing about women on the route to spinsterhood, an unexpected upbeat ending gives you a splendid surprise - and this piece about a lonely, middle-aged teacher being forced into reading fortunes at the community charity fair (and discovering hidden talents in herself and being rewarded for it by fate) is very nice indeed. "My Grandmother And The World Of Cats" is also interesting in this respect - another cute domestic comedy about an old lady's problematic relationship with the long list of felines in her life, it ends on an oddly serious and possibly even dark note with just one turn of phrase. "Maybe It Was The Car" should be read by all women who are both mothers and writers as it sketches out a probably very familiar instinct that takes hold of you when you just need to escape your domestic role and inject a little creative adventure into your life. "The Wishing Dime" is about exactly that item and what two little girls do with it - Jackson has a real talent for capturing small details of family and domestic life and dialogue, which also comes out in "About Two Nice People", where mistiming and unfortunate minor circumstances can bring two people together in something resembling anger but which turns out to be love. "I.O.U." has an attempt by an old women to work out a debt with some small children over a destroyed garden blossom into a whole new commerce system in a small town - one that grows exponentially and brings the community together - very nice! "The Most Wonderful Thing", on the other hand, is both human and profoundly sad, as two women (one middle-aged and one young) share a hospital room together because of birthing problems. This story also has an extremely wonderful small moment near its end involving the room nurse that I greatly appreciated.
Jackson dabbles with the supernatural in "The Very Strange House Next Door" (aka "Strangers In Town") which has a subtly Addams Family-esque household (or perhaps they're related to Bradbury's "Elliots") move into a conservative little New England town. The maid acts strangely (on top of the family even *having* a maid - which is shocking in itself), the family has odd furniture, they're vegetarians and maybe their cat talks as well. Such benign and innocuous strangeness cannot stand and the blue-blooded biddies of the hypocritical gossip committee soon get to work driving wonder out of the town. Charming, but the small-town venom is so stingingly drawn it burns a bit.
The best story on the "Light" side here is undoubtedly "Journey With A Lady". A nine-year-old boy makes his first train trip by himself and ends up talking to, and unexpectedly helping out, an interesting lady with a secret. Charming, compact, with the usual excellent eye for children's dialogue and thought processes, this story deserves to be better known.
And then there's "The Dark" side of Shirley Jackson's short fiction. It's undeniable that Jackson's problems with depression and melancholia informed her work, as did her fascination with social and familial dynamics. Hypocrisy and resentment also recur again and again. She seems fascinated not just by men and women but why men kill women, and why women kill men and why lovers kill each other and why people kill strangers and why humans hurt each other in cruel ways. And she couldn't stop herself writing about it, sometimes in painfully honest psychological detail and sometimes in odd bemusement.
The weakest of these stories are experiments in other forms. "Devil Of A Tale" is a flash-fiction like parable about a deal between The Devil and a woman that will produce an heir for the Prince of Darkness. Despite her cagey planning, though, the woman's plans are undone by the simple truth that some sons just don't love their mothers. Slight. "Lord Of The Castle" shows Jackson experimenting with the Gothic style (which she obviously liked reading) but all that this story (about a a noblemen burned at the stake, his vengeful son, a previously unknown brother, the castle on the hill and some Satanic rituals) proves is that Gothics do not work when stripped back into Jackson's terse style. An interesting, oddly bloodless failure.
"The Mouse" has a husband's life run by his domineering wife until their new abode proves to have problems with vermin - nothing really changes except his realization of just how cruel his spouse is. Unremarkable but it has some nice dialogue work. "Before Autumn" is one of those Jackson stories that is *so* stripped back that you finish it wondering if you've missed the point (perhaps indicative of why it ended up in a box) - what we initially take as a woman planning an affair with a teenage handyman may actually be her plotting her husband's indirect murder. An interesting idea, imperfectly executed. The most surprisingly uneven story here is "The Missing Girl", something I've been looking forward to reading since I'd heard it was inspired by the real world disappearance of a Bennington, Vermont student in 1946 (see here) which also inspired Jackson's novel Hangsaman, which I haven't read. Reset to a girl's summer camp, "Missing" has an oddly absurd and comic tone on the surface (all the counselors and troops are named after various fairy tale and children's story characters) but underneath is a recurrent dark and bleak Jackson theme - the girl/woman who left so little impression on those around her that she seems to have barely existed at all (see also Eleanor Vance from The Haunting of Hill House). It's not a bad story, just not what I was expecting and a bit underwhelming.
**PLEASE SEE FIRST COMMENT BELOW FOR THE CONTINUATION, INCLUDING ALL THE GOOD, NASTY STUFF!**...more
So here's a fine little just-barely Beat-era novel (and that's "Beat" not "Beatnik") that I polished off - I like the occasional shift to straighter LSo here's a fine little just-barely Beat-era novel (and that's "Beat" not "Beatnik") that I polished off - I like the occasional shift to straighter Lit to cleanse my genre palate and occasionally remind me of what writing about human beings, thinking human thoughts and living lives (as opposed to being locked into genre expectations of forward moving plots, likeable characters, and evoking whatever elements that particular genre calls for) reads and feels like. And, when it's good, it feels like being reminded of some larger scope, some brighter light, some higher sky...
To be avoided by those who require any of the above mentioned "expectations" or those who are unable to place writing in a particular time period, place of origin and generational view (and thus understanding that a mindset is being sketched, an attempt to capture particular thoughts and opinions during the quick change of the 20th Century).
Claude Squires, restless war veteran, quits his job as an orderly at a West Coast mental institution, visits his sister Claudine, visits his father (an up-and-coming local celebrity nicknamed "The Cat", the charismatic owner of an enormous used-car operation - an excellent sequence) and negotiates to drive a bright red '59 Thunderhead to its owner in Oklahoma, stopping along the way to visit an old flame (now desperately trapped in a go-nowhere life in Arizona - another great series of sequences, capturing the 50's and the feelings ofBeat restlessness and aimlessness extremely well), to rescue a hitchhiking illegal immigrant and take him back into America, and to take a strange detour with a group of underground survivalists, part of the "Radiation Generation" who are into the presumed next art movement, Cavism. Then complete the delivery, push on to NYC in yet another delivered car, check out some scattered friends (sad and interesting) and finish up in Boston, visiting his mother... in a mental institution.
The writing is a great example of "Good Beat" - real life prosaic details interlaced with just the right amount of occasional poetic tint (in other words, no huge stretches of indulgent word salad) and scathing observation - telling the truth about the past, the present, and how the future looks from that moment, to this person...
The Beat fascination with cars, driving, travel and movement is here - but again, not indulged in, just explored during long stretches of the delivery (the car is "The Beast" to Claude), musing on man's relationship with this machine central to the imagination and economy of the U.S. The varied people Claude meets are all so well drawn they seem plucked from life:
Claude's Father, "The Cat", a raconteur salesman and symbol of the 1950s success story, leading a pride of young salesmen all of whom he loves like sons.
Pete, the traveling Mexican who may, secretly be a king (or is it just a story he tells himself to make life easier to live? - "Then I buy the land back and we will live in the future like in the past, only better").
Vivien - an old flame, trapped in a dead-end town, writing poetry ("I had no idea that poems could be written from life, by living people, here and now") and desperate to "get out of here" (and away from her pathetic, abusive, alcoholic, ex-military brother telling horrid torture stories over dinner) but likely never to.
The Cavists - a weird clan living in tunnels in the desert, assured by some abyssal messiah of a lost civilization that the future holds nothing but a radioactive wasteland on the surface (nice reflection of the pulp[ magazines influence on the Beat writers, while precursoring the 60s counter-culture)
Fran - another old flame, living a life similar to Vivian's but very happy and content in it - accommodating and frank about life and love.
There's lots of open road and seedy bars and restaurants here, of course, and some quietly funny and honest moments (fear of cops and border patrol, an angry attempt to leave a small town in a big car only to become trapped in amaze of suburban streets), recurrent images of coyotes, and that strange detour with the Cavists.
Really, quite a nice little sketch of the mental state of a certain strata of a generation at a particular point in time. If you only know the Beats through reputation, caricature (beatniks) or a negative reaction to some of their literary excesses, you might want to check out this smooth, liquid book. Just don't expect a "point" so much as a question...
Well, this was an oddity that showed up on my reading list so Inter-Library Loan, here I come and here it comes....
Aggressively experimental, post-modWell, this was an oddity that showed up on my reading list so Inter-Library Loan, here I come and here it comes....
Aggressively experimental, post-modern lit writing in the short fiction form from the mid 70's, with some mild crossover with science fiction. Obviously, not going to be to everyone's tastes. If you inherently hate all post-modern stuff, probably you should just stay away (you'll miss some aggravating pieces, no doubt, but you'll also never read a few really wonderful pieces here - your loss) - if, for example, you need "characters" (as they are understood in a mainstream sense) to be sketched in the traditional forms, stay far away. I have no idea how these stories stack up against other post-modern writing, as I only dabble as a reader myself - for someone like me, this was a pretty nice little read.
Sure, some of the stuff is too cerebral or self-reflexively po-mo for my tastes, but that's only the extremes - I have no problem with po-mo in theory as it's just another way of approaching writing, that's all, no better or worse than others, with the same likelihood of failure and problems that accepted storytelling fiction has. Put another way - I live a life where I try to use the word pretentious as little as possible, because it defines my own limitations as much as it tries to define something I'm applying it to (plus, it's critically lazy).
The tone of the stories, even when dealing with highly emotional issues, is dry, clinical, very J.G. Ballard in a way. In line with that, there's also a focus on certain forms of the sciences - mathematics, evolution, biology, medical. "Stories" in a non-narrative sense: dialogues, stream of consciousness, essays, letters, lectures & conferences.
"Love" reminded me of an OULIPO exercise presented in a dialogue form (a standard form for Wilson, alternating lines of dialogue with nothing else - this approach shows up a few times) - the statement of love examined and deconstructed as if it were a logical equation. Not my kind of thing but if you know any mathematicians with romantic problems...they might get a giggle.
these next few stories were interesting, in that kid of dry way post modern writing can achieve quite well, but also a bit too distant and unengaging.
"Marriage" - at first, it seems like a deathbed scene, then becomes something more surgical in nature.
"Men: The Man Who Ends His Story" - suicide as a scientific process of slow, thorough and methodical disassembling of the body - or is it all just a metaphor?
"Women" - the emotional connections to be dealt with in heart transplants, or something like that (another metaphor).
"Metier: Why I Don't Write Like Franz Kafka" - presented as dialogue of an interview with a famous, somewhat pompous intellectual who interrogates his interviewer even while answering questions. In truth, I had trouble following the "argument" (involving James Joyce, Franz Kafka, Sigmund Freud and Michelangelo's statue of Moses) which eventually culminates in the titular statement of this collection.
"History: A Story Has Only A Few Good Years" - a very weird piece involving a man flash frozen in a glacial accident moments after masturbating, a woman who discovers his body and masturbates with the residue of his semen, and her child who grows bio-luminescent fungus on his body on purpose. Almost kinda made it for me... but not quite.
"Anthropology: What is Lost In Rotation" is more satisfying, even while being elliptical and strange, a jagged line traced between Paris and distant "savage lands", history and anthropology, Claude Lévi-Strauss and Jorge Luis Borges, family and class. A tribal mystery, a mythological/symbolic mystery, a biological mystery, a murder mystery, a seduction and some class/race friction. Interesting.
"Interim" - told in a rolling, stream of consciousness, near confessional history, this is a powerful, surreal (in the true sense of the word) and mythic story, as a man sets about reforesting Scotland after the accidental death of his child (I found the writing on this part, an event that starts the story, very well done), intending to return it to its primeval condition.
"Conveyance: The Story I Would Not Want Bill Wilson To Read" - another very interesting yet also emotionally powerful story, part memoir, part writing exercise as the narrator's mentor/lover? was her writing teacher who criticized her work, and how she's applied those lessons. Another moment with the random, accidental death of children is here, and again, powerfully done. I like some of the observations on writing, approaches to fiction writing and exercises presented here (the title is related to an exercise discussed herein, to "write a story you wouldn't want X to read" - X being whoever, mother, father, lover - so as to access more honest parts of yourself.
"Motherhood" and "Fatherhood" are two science-fictionally framed tales, near future essays about a breakthrough in science (Rupert Sheldrake's theory of morphogenetic fields) that allow amazing, troubling advances in medicine and culture. "Motherhood", rather presciently, deals with ways of retarding aging that are remarkably similar to current stem-cell research, while "Fatherhood" posits a process wherein missing penises (due to deformed birth, war or accident) can be replaced by transplant from the father, who then uses the new technology to grow an exact replacement. While the stories are told in a clinical, optimistic way, the obvious psychological and emotional problems with these scenarios (in which parents are basically scientifically capable of impressing their own persona onto their children, or gain something at their children's expense) are alluded to obliquely, perhaps almost in a dry, comic manner (that was my reading). Two very solid stories.
"Motherhood" and "Fatherhood", with their Cronenbergian body morphing, set the stage for "America: Three Audiences", which is one of the two truly excellent and amazing reads to be found here. Told as a lecture (with Q&A), a seminar and, finally, as a transcript of a ROMPER ROOM-like TV show, this gives us a world where evolution has kicked into the world increasing manifestations of two new mutations on the theme of neoteny (look it up). The Neonate children grow quickly, are bright and observant, only live until about age 13 and are hyper-sexual almost from birth - like living, experimental evolutionary petri dishes, to be tended by their alternates, Neuters, who are intellectually focused but must spend their time tending their wayward siblings. It's like the philosophical underpinnings of David Cronenberg's SHIVERS crossed with his creations from THE BROOD!
As I said, the approach taken to the material really makes it work, as the neutrality obviously masks distress and conflict such a situation would cause in mainstream culture (this is especially well-played in the lecture portion, an amazing controlled dance of fascinating ideas, humorous and awkward questions and queasy, unstated implications - the Romper Room sequence also achieves this, ending on a portentous last line). That line, in fact, makes it clear that this story can also be read as a metaphor for American mainstream culture and the situation it faced with the counter culture (hence the title). Really well done.
For those who find post-modernism tiring, you may enjoy "Desire" - a beautiful and poetic narrative about reaching and surpassing the generally unperceived evolutionary drive towards replacing mere biological "eating" with the consumption of light, and how mankind achieves it, and how it changes us.
So, a lot of uninvolving, if clever, stuff and a few that really hit it out of the park.
This came up from my random generating section of my reading list - I like reading straight lit fiction occasionally to cleanse my pallet and remind mThis came up from my random generating section of my reading list - I like reading straight lit fiction occasionally to cleanse my pallet and remind myself that human level concerns and simple stories are just as important as genre trappings (perhaps more so, and harder to pull off, but that's an argument for another day).
Unfortunately, this didn't click with me. I was ready for some spare, human scale stories in rural/pastoral settings - and I certainly got that. But...
I hate to say this because I have absolutely no right to call anybody on this but I felt the translations were clumsy or uninspired or something. I do not speak Chinese and have no previous reading history with Hong Xiao, so for all I know there are faithful and accurate renditions of her style. But honestly, the prose, though spare in plot or action or character (all things I anticipated), just didn't really flow on the page for me. "The Death of Wang Asao", that opens the book, is a sad, grim and hopeless view of the lots of peasant workers - slaves essentially. It's effective but not *powerful*, outside of the despair for human suffering that it can't help but evoke. Some of the stories had interesting, familial character dynamics ("The Family Outsider") or cultural class sketches ("Spring In A Small Town") or character/psychological studies related to changing political events ("North China", "Flight From Danger").
The most impressive (and seemingly most widely translated) story here was "Hands" which seems to be a segment of the author's memories of her youthful, vague friendship (while being taught at at a girl's boarding school) with a young peasant girl (her family makes a meager living from dyes and so her hands are almost permanently dyed black, marking her as an outcast) and the class differences between them - but even here the translation seems clunky (the intent, I assume, was to carry over the differences in speaking styles between the two classes, so the peasant girl and her father speak in English-languages stand-ins for same, with dropped word endings and naive statements and "haw-haw" laughter). I found the part where the peasant girl borrows Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle" to read and identifies with the poverty-stricken girl in the novel (who dies) - and is so caught up in the character's story that she cannot accept that the author would allow the girl to die - to be moving. "Hands" was a good read.
But not much else clicked here for me, outside of moments.
Interesting book - the Holocaust sequences are harrowing, Peter Kurten puts in an appearance and the only book I know to feature a flying uterus. CronInteresting book - the Holocaust sequences are harrowing, Peter Kurten puts in an appearance and the only book I know to feature a flying uterus. Cronenberg could make an interesting movie of this. ...more
This is a fine collection of what Howe here, in the 80s, dubs "Short Short Fiction" and which was called "Microfiction" in the 90s and which we now caThis is a fine collection of what Howe here, in the 80s, dubs "Short Short Fiction" and which was called "Microfiction" in the 90s and which we now call "Flash Fiction". I feel it's a useful collection for editors, like me, who are trying to get a handle on what constitutes valid standards for successful flash fiction (through offering the attempts of literary greats) - modified for genre in my case - and also for modern writers of flash who may also wonder just what they can and can;t consider to be in their box of tricks. Howe's introduction serves as a fine examination of these very questions (barring genre considerations) and I've excerpted the salient sections into the quotes.
And the stories - oh, the stories. I have to read a lot of short genre fiction both in my professional role, as well as by choice, and sometimes I get burned out on horror fiction and it is always a joy to return to short lit fiction and remind myself of just how wide open the field can be, how expressive, how wide ranging, how inventive.
Given the great names here and the brief nature of the stories (some of which would be ruined in the synopsis) it wouldn't really make sense to do a full, story by story review. So I'm just going to note some of my personal favorites.
I.L. Peretz's "If Not Higher" has a rabbi who absents himself during penitential prayers and the eventual discovery of his engaging in mysterious, and then not so mysterious, actions. A very nice tale of the true meaning of the religious impulse.
"Eveline" by James Joyce is about a woman, trapped in her life of caring for her abusive, drunken father, makes plans for escape... but she can only escape so far. Excellent story with a powerful ending.
Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa tells a simple story of a downtrodden working man and the prize he wins at work that he hopes to present to his family in "Joy And The Law". As it turns out, fate and social custom have other plans...
"The Use Of Force" by William Carlos Williams is a story I read way back in college and have been looking for ever since as I couldn't remember the name or the author. A doctor makes a house call and finds himself in a pitched battle with a little girl who will just NOT open up and say ahhh!
A sensitive, well-off woman is haunted by the image of her maid's unexpected newborn wrapped in bloody newspapers in "Swaddling Clothes" by Yukio Mishima. This image eventually drives her to an atypical action, a walk in the park at night, which leads to a confrontation and an ambiguous but powerful ending.
Doris Lessing's "Homage For Isaac Babel" is a charming story about attempting to inform young people's worldviews through great literature.
"The Dead Man" by Jorge Luis Borges has the author playing with form, as always, retelling us a fable-like story of the rise and fall of a criminal figure, all to explain a strange incident at a bar.
A familiar old cliche - the white man captured by savages who plans to use his superior astronomical knowledge to save his life - is overturned in Augusto Monterroso's sharp little tale of "The Eclipse".
"The Laugher" by Heinrich Böll is a compact character study of a man who laughs as his source of his income and how this affects his demeanor.
There's beautiful writing by Paula Fox in "News From The World", a tight little story that revolves around a married woman's infatuation with an older man contrasted against life in a remote village.
"Going To Jerusalem" features a town beset by a mysterious illness and a stranger who tells a story in a crowded waiting room - interesting stuff from Maria Luise Kaschnitz.
Luisa Valenzuela gives us a blackly comic fable about how trying to beat them by joining them doesn't always work in "The Censors".
Finally, the really amazing find for me was Octavio Paz's wonderfully sinister "The Blue Bouquet", a very creepy story about the dangers of going for a walk late at night.
This was, all told, a great collection and might make a nice way to introduce a young person or non-lit-reader to the art of the short story.
Having rescued Webber's short story "Shot In The Eye" (of which Poe was a fan) from obscurity in Charles Wilkins Webber's Tales Of The Southern BorderHaving rescued Webber's short story "Shot In The Eye" (of which Poe was a fan) from obscurity in Charles Wilkins Webber's Tales Of The Southern Border and including it in The Gothic Terror Megapack, I did a little digging and found this intriguingly titled obscurity by the same author from 1853. Originally, I slated it for a potential WEIRD CULTS MEGAPACK (still being planned) but having now processed it, I find it more likely to find purchase elsewhere (a FEMME FATALE MEGAPACK, perhaps?). Lightning did not strike twice, as it were.....
So, lots of oddity here, not all of it completely understandable to me. Let's lay the basic plot of the novel out: It essentially follows the travails of Etherial Softdown, a woman interested in healing the ills of other women through non-medical (read metaphysical) means (while lecturing and authoring articles on women's rights), and her involvement with a smart but passionate author named Stewart Manton who lives in NYC. Eventually, Manton falls under the influence of Softdown (operating under the name of Marie Orne) and is conflicted by this influence, meanwhile enjoying the society of Softdown's daughter Elna and her close friend Moione. When Elna reaches 17 years of age, Manton realizes he feels strongly for her, but by that time has also realized that Softdown is a gold-digger, using sympathy (she suffers fits and spasms and bleeds copiously from the mouth during them), subterfuge and possibly mesmerism to influence him, enervate him and live off his money. After freeing himself from Softdown's influence, Manton intends to marry Elna but begins to perceive that her character is similar to her mother's. Despondent, he becomes suicidal....
This is a strange and not fully successful book. One gets the feeling that Webber did not have much experience composing novels at this point in his career. The story proceeds in fits and starts, spending large amounts of time on tangents and characters who are not important to the main plot thrust. The point of the narrative is muddled somewhat by this, and by the passing of time, but it seems to be intended to serve as a warning about various strains of belief (religious, political, metaphysical) gaining popularity at the time - at least somewhat reflecting, among others, the "New Light" movement of Presbyterianism (see here) but also encompassing Women's Rights, Abolitionism, Free Love, Vegetarianism, Mesmerism and all forms of medical and intellectual Quackery. The satire of these beliefs is often clumsy and blunt, when not obscured by details now lost to history (bran-bread, copper healing, the water-cure), and some characters have absurd names (Eusedora Polypheme, Regina Straightback, Humility Barebones Stout, a Jewish doctor named E. Willamot Weasel) which, while likely intended as satire of known individuals or "types" active at the time, serve to undermine the dramatic thrust of the conflict by introducing an absurdly humorous tone on occasion.
The book starts, after a framing narrative (these are documents found in the titular cabinet, left to a Frank Carter, with instructions that it be opened only 6 months after Yieger's death - he never actually appears in the book) with a long introductory essay concerning theories of mesmeric imposition on the nervous/Odic fluids (the vital force of the body), how it is used to influence others, and reports of how many of history's agitators (Mohammed, Joe Smith, the Shakers and the leaders of the French Revolution) were supercharged with Odic fluid which they discharged to their followers - basically occultic/metaphysical/spiritualist claptrap of the time meant to explain charismatic individuals. The book ends with purported documents from a vast and powerful conspiracy dedicated to overthrowing the United States through various means (more on this at the end), indicating that Etherial and quacks like her are agents (often unawares) of this Conspiracy.
The plot, when it actually gets moving, can be engaging at times, but Webber often finds ways to dead-end his momentum. Thus, near the start, a doctor tries to defuse a race riot at Graham House (Barclay Street, New York City - notorious as a boarding house for Bohemians and Reformer types) then tends to a woman (Softdown) having seizures and coughing up blood, who he rescues. This exciting segment then trails into the full personal history of the quack "Spiritual Professor" Boanerges Phosper (who lives at Graham House and is a confidant of Softdown) who then barely re-appears in the text following these events. We very easily perceive that Etherial (now Marie) and her compatriot Jeanette Shrewell are out to control powerful men for their own gain (in an awkward elucidation of the Women's Rights movements goals that drags in flighty, scatterbrained parody arguments for prison reform, marriage equality, etc.) - although they disagree on tactics - and when Marie puts Manton in her sites (having already used up the finances of the doctor who rescued her), she manipulates her daughter Elan and daughter's friend Moione to get what she wants - but this potentially engaging subterfuge is again dead-ended by a long-winded, impenetrably symbolic and meandering "mystical Native American" fable Manton previously composed that somehow reflects how he feels about the two girls. Eventually, even Marie (Softdown) - with whom we have spent much time, becomes a secondary part of the plot as we follow Manton's matrimonial woes with Elna, planned suicide, and (view spoiler)[ripely melodramataic rescue by Moione (hide spoiler)]. And, even when on-plot, the writing is often of the worst 18th Century excess - florid and overripe for no good reason.
There are some nice touches. Webber's thoroughly corrupt quacks and charlatans often work to undermine each other's plans out of sheer malignancy and Marie's eventual fate ((view spoiler)[she plans to seduce and influence a journalist but ends up hooked to a Mr. Narcissus, a gutter journalist and pornographer, "her equal in baseness and cunning" (hide spoiler)]) is kind of funny. Webber's understanding of the psychology of manipulation (while crude and biased for the time), is not without interest - although the story also falls heavily on the idea that Marie/Softdown's base origins are at the root of her character flaws, and these are passed on to her daughter. But honestly, the pacing and plotting of this thing is so all-over the place that one understands why it is forgotten - an edited version might help.
The final section of the book, after the narrative breaks off, is interesting as an example of conspiratorial theories of the time. Purporting to be Yieger's notes on a the "Regulus Conclave", a conspiracy of influential men who use their power, money and secret police connections to control events and also "help along" (often unwittingly on their part) people like Etherial to help them destabilize the United States. In particular this section (laying out Regulus' modus operandi) is interesting for its 20th Century political resonance:
“We hold such and such opinions upon one point only; and that one point is, mutual interest, and under that; 1st, that we can govern this nation; 2d, that to govern it, we must, subvert its institutions; and, 3d, subvert them we will! It is our interest; this is our only bond. Capital must have expansion. This hybrid republicanism saps the power of our great agent by its obstinate competition. We must demoralize the republic. We must make public virtue a by-word and a mockery, and private infamy to be honor. Beginning with the people, through our agents, we shall corrupt the State.
“We must pamper superstition, and pension energetic fanaticism—as on ’Change we degrade commercial honor, and make success the idol. We may fairly and reasonably calculate, that within a succeeding generation, even our theoretical schemes of republican subversion may be accomplished, and upon its ruins be erected that noble Oligarchy of caste and wealth for which we all conspire, as affording the only true protection to capital.
“Beside these general views, we may in a thousand other ways apply our combined capital to immediate advantage. We may buy up, through our agents, claims upon litigated estates, upon confiscated bonds, mortgages upon embarrassed property, land-claims, Government contracts, that have fallen into weak hands, and all those floating operations, constantly within hail, in which ready-money is eagerly grasped as the equivalent for enormous prospective gains.
“In addition, through our monopoly of the manufacturing interest, by a rigorous and impartial system of discipline, we shall soon be able to fill the masses of operators and producers with such distrust of each other, and fear of us, as to disintegrate their radical combinations, and bring them to our feet. Governing on ’Change, we rule in politics; governing in politics, we are the despots in trade; ruling in trade, we subjugate production; production conquered, we domineer over labor. This is the common-sense view of our interests—of the interests of capital, which we represent. In the promotion of this object, we appoint and pension our secret agents, who are everywhere on the lookout for our interests. We arrange correspondence, in cipher, throughout the civilized world; we pension our editors and our reporters; we bribe our legislators, and, last of all, we establish and pay our secret police, local, and travelling, whose business it is, not alone to report to us the conduct of agents already employed, but to find and report to us others, who may be useful in such capacity.
“We punish treachery by death!”
While one can probably make the obvious connections to our current situation (“We must pamper superstition, and pension energetic fanaticism—as on ’Change we degrade commercial honor, and make success the idol.") and the approach of our Corporate masters ("We must demoralize the republic. We must make public virtue a by-word and a mockery, and private infamy to be honor."), Leftists should not be too enthused by this bit of prescience, as Regulus also achieves its goals through supporting Women's Rights, funding "working girl makes good" narratives and the destruction of Christianity. Still....
The short version - I read this entire book over one weekend. I was snowed in during a blizzard in Linden, NJ and was suffering under a terrible feverThe short version - I read this entire book over one weekend. I was snowed in during a blizzard in Linden, NJ and was suffering under a terrible fever, so I spent the majority of my time sleeping, wandering around in a delirium (usually at 4 am) or soaking in a cold tub. After reading each chapter, I would listen to the recordings of WSB reading that chapter, if they existed (thanks to that wonderful box set of recordings). I thoroughly enjoyed the experience and the only complaint I had was that I had carefully and instinctively pieced together the atomized narrative strewn throughout the first book, only to have it spelled out in plain text at the beginning of the second. But I guess some people needed that roadmap - I was just annoyed because I'd already drawn it with mental crayons. No, not a book for everyone, and very challenging, but if you've ever wondered why Burroughs gets lumped into science fiction, these cut-up books are part of the reason. Inspiring and visionary stuff....more
Probably the best of the Ballard "elemental apocalypse" quartet (or it ties with The Drowned World at least). Once again, it's Ballard taking apart JoProbably the best of the Ballard "elemental apocalypse" quartet (or it ties with The Drowned World at least). Once again, it's Ballard taking apart Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness and reassembling it as a post-modern tale of apocalypse and humanity's failings - a journey up river through an African jungle slowly being encroached on, and transformed into, crystal. Time itself is the cause - like a dissolved material reaching maximum load in a solution, it begins to precipitate out into spacetime, slowing the world in stasis and accretion. Ballard's dry, surgical/psychological take on characters is here (too distanced for some, seemingly), as well as some visionary, surrealistic sights strongly conveyed. Worth your time....more
I don't know how I became aware of this slim book but it's sat on my to-read shelf for years, awaiting the time when I felt like exploring it.
Most cerI don't know how I became aware of this slim book but it's sat on my to-read shelf for years, awaiting the time when I felt like exploring it.
Most certainly the basic synopsis drew me in - "man retreats to department store after unnamed catastrophe and hopes to survive there" - here we have, from 1934, a plot that precedes both John Collier's brilliant short story "Evening Primrose" (1940) and George Romero's monumentally significant film DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978) - and all three of which, while they spin in different directions, can't help but make a commentary on consumer society and man's place in it. It's a little trope I like to call "at play in the fields of commerce" and one look at our current society will show that no one listened to Cozzens or Collier or Romero...
This is a very simple book, in a way, although written in a style of its time that may seem unnecessarily cluttered to those who demand action through-lines in their plots. It is as already said - on the first page, a man forces his way into the basement of a multi-floor department store and, after reconnoitering, sets up house there. Something has happened in the outside world but we'll never know what (the first line gives only the briefest hint at some kind of immediate detonation or massive shock) and that's not really that important. Around our Mr. Lecky sits everything he has always needed and, more importantly, everything he has always wanted - whether he needs it or not - and now he only need figure out how to use important items he's never used before (how do you load a gun?), how to preserve his holdings and, eventually, defend them.
Everything in the book happens on a small scale and (understandably so) we see it from Mr. Lecky's sole vantage point, privy as we are to his confusion, hope and fears. Since the novel occurs on such a small scale, it would be ruinous to say more about how the book progresses but remind yourself that it's a rumination on man, mankind and the philosophical underpinnings of individuality and society - and how some actions cannot be taken back. There will be quotes posted, in time, but if you're looking for something a little different, you could do much worse than this interesting, contemplative short work....more
Quite a nice little novel, part of Ballard's "elemental apocalypse" quartet. Not as good as The Crystal World, on par with The Drought aka THE BURNINGQuite a nice little novel, part of Ballard's "elemental apocalypse" quartet. Not as good as The Crystal World, on par with The Drought aka THE BURNING WORLD (although very different in focus), better than The Wind from Nowhere (which was probably a better title than THE BLOWING WORLD).
Much like all the others save WIND, this is in some ways Ballard reworking THE HEART OF DARKNESS by Conrad. In an oddly prescient, if coincidental, mirroring of global warming, the angle of the Earth's orbit has changed and so we've been bombarded by increased radiation for many decades before the novel starts. Melting icecaps, the flooding of Europe, increased heat and humidity, equatorial jungle expansion, and a strange, atavistic resurgence of mutated lizards now plague a slowly dying mankind.
There's lots of beautiful imagery here, especially the treasure hunting/looting by diving suits amongst ruined European cities (great bit with a drowned planetarium). All throughout, the narrator find himself plagued by dreams and visions of a prehistoric jungle world, pulled by an ancient call from the depths of his brain. The usual clashes between warring bands of humans, cultured pirates and scientists, fill out the plot. The ending may seem anticlimactic, but then, really, there's no other way to end this book. A very enjoyable read, especially if you like Ballard's "dry, clinical" tone, here finding purchase amongst so much damp and humidity. ...more
So, I was reading through my list of Zamyatin stories and thought, "well, here's a chance to get the one novel out of the way".
Famous for being the fiSo, I was reading through my list of Zamyatin stories and thought, "well, here's a chance to get the one novel out of the way".
Famous for being the first "dystopian" novel, mentally this brings to mind images of Fritz Lang's METROPOLIS (*although I especially appreciated the Bruce Sterling's introduction suggestion to envision the characters in Soviet Constructivist Art-era costumes* - worked a treat!). The idea is pretty easy to grasp - a "projecto ad absurdum" of Communist worker agit-prop into the far future (1000 years, in fact) - a future in which the One-State rules all, and all "ciphers" live by mathematical and logically precise conceptions - mere cogs in a single unit of "We" (but if there is a "We", who can "They" be?) serving the glorious one state in synchronized harmony, even if pesky human failings still rise up and get in the way every once in a while.
It's Zamyatin's satire of Soviet Russia's inhuman, anti-freedom practices, narrated to you as a memoir written by the chief architect of the Integral, the new worker-built spaceship that will soon launch and integrate the infinite equation of the universe with the yoke of reason ("Taming a wild zig-zag along a tangent towards the asymptote into a straight line" - it's like Darkseid's anti-life equation, for all you Kirby NEW GOD fans) - its belly full of writings to propagandize new, unruly worlds. But our "hero", D-503, is having problems, you see....
This was an interesting read - I'm not a big sci-fi fan but I can dig the historical stuff that's not written "in the genre". I;m sure oceans have been written about it already, not the least of all its effect on George Orwell. It's interesting because WE is a bit more fantastical than 1984, more given to flights of fantasy in its conception of a regimented future than the more serious, "realistic" Orwell text. Life in WE is ruled by geometry and equations - and D-503 is haunted by nightmares of the root of negative one, which is impossible....
Some minor points I found interesting: I liked the structure of the early satire, where D-503 presents his everyday, realistic life of future horrors and wonders in a blase narrative form. Since I'm a fan of the Futurist art movement, I liked the echoes of Futurism you can see here (although this was more about precise mathematics and science/logic, where Futurism was about brute energy and powerful force lines). It's interesting to see (in our modern world of dumbed-down, dualistic thinking) that Zamyatin's stinging satire not only strikes his obvious target, but seeks to critique the opposite number as well (organized religion's stupidities are slyly exposed, and one realizes that the inhuman regimentation of human workers, literally trained to work like machines following the process instigated by F.W. Taylor, was not only supported by the Russians but found a huge fan in the uber-Capitalist Henry Ford - the more things change...). The citizens of the One-State live in a panopticon, only allowed privacy on their pre-approved sex-hour (free love is another bonus of the future - you can sleep with anyone you'd like and no one is allowed to turn you down, or you turn anyone else down, of course). There's mathematical music (I couldn't help thinking of Basic Channel minimalist Techno), propaganda poetry and A Table of The Hours, a schedule that organizes all time efficiently (there's a wonderful bit where D-503 waxes rhapsodic over the "ancient literary legacy" of train schedules: "who is not made breathless when racing and tumbling through the pages of the schedule?"). In fact, the past seems to hold a subtle fascination for these perfectly balanced citizens of the future. And D-503 is still worried about his ugly, monkey hands....
The story moves through our main character's "unreasonable" fascination with I-330, a strange female who seems to flaunt her dislike of the status quo, occasionally smoking cigarettes or drinking alcohol. This drives a wedge between D and his frequent female companion 0-90. But D's investigation of I leads to further discoveries, including what really exists outside the Great Wall that separates the One State from the blasted wasteland (this sequence was particularly strong), the State's new operation which will insure happiness by surgically excising the imagination, and the existence of a rapidly forming underground movement committed to an outmoded and unlikely concept called "freedom". It may meander a bit at the 3/4 mark but the ending is very strong, as D-503 finally understands true happiness and why "reason should win."