Not the best Guy Boothby novel I've read (I'm a fan of his Dr. Nikola series, but reasonably entertaining. Not sure why the author constructed the plo...moreNot the best Guy Boothby novel I've read (I'm a fan of his Dr. Nikola series, but reasonably entertaining. Not sure why the author constructed the plot as he did, with a big shift in perspective about a quarter of the way into the book, but it wasn't confusing -- just didn't seem to add much to the book. No spoilers here, but I saw the ending coming a mile away. Oh well! (less)
Jeez, how wrong can a plot synopsis be? The one here at Goodreads begins "Psychic investigator Dr. Damar Greefe is strolling home. It's been a tough day, assisting the police."
That's wrong on three counts. The protagonist's name is actually Jack Addison. (Dr. Damar Greefe is, in fact, "Eurasian" evil genius in this juicy tale.) Jack Addison is a journalist, not a psychic investigator -- though arguably he has reported on sensational cases (we've little to go on regarding his career), and, finally, he is not coming home from assisting the police. He's simply walking home -- there's no mention of what he was doing beforehand.
But quibbles with the erroneous plot summary given here aside, this is classic Sax Rohmer, taut and atmospheric, with not one but two mysteries to unfurl, and so many chestnuts in the proverbial narrative fire that the reader is presented with a pulp fiction feast.
Evil genius? Check. Bizarre and seemingly insolvable murder? Check. Mysterious oriental curse? Check. Stout-hearted English hero and stolid policemen? 'Natch. Damsel in distress? You betcha. Oh, and throw in the byzantine legacy of a noble family, an assortment of exotic minor characters, including a Nubian mute, a gypsy woman, several lunk-headed lotharios, and a sterling manservant/former batman (no, not the Bruce Wayne sort... the military servant kind), and it's clear that Christmas has come early for lovers of pulp fiction.
It's not that this tale is without fault, mind you. The hero and the police detective in charge are prone to long stretches of theorizing and ruminating over the Facts of the Case. There is far too little of the tantalizing "green eyes" of title. And the murder methodologies, while ingenious, are almost laughably Rube Goldberg-esque. Still, these are mere cavils, for ultimately there is the great mystery behind the murder mystery that draws the reader along, and that one, my friends, is a hum-dinger.
"Fire-Tongue" has a promising title but alas is but second-rate Rohmer. Here one finds the characteristic Rohmerian menace from the East, this time in...more"Fire-Tongue" has a promising title but alas is but second-rate Rohmer. Here one finds the characteristic Rohmerian menace from the East, this time in the form of a secret society based in India and presided over by an effeminate financier from Iran. There are two stalwart men of action and two damsels in distress, but despite the doubling of the recipe the concoction falls flat.
Rohmer spends too much time stoking the fires of suspense, which merely smoulder in response. In particular, he devotes excess verbiage to the hero's inward perceptions, and I soon wearied of passages describing said hero's heightened powers of intuition and sixth sense.
When the unfolding of the novel finally begins in earnest, it takes up the second man-of-action's thread, then twists back and forth among central characters like an unwieldy snake before reaching an all-too-quick climax followed by an almost non-existent denouement. I couldn't help but feeling that Rohmer himself had tired of the antics of "Fire-Tongue." (less)
An affecting novelette by one of the Victorian world's most remarkable women, who was better known for her travel writing (specifically One Thousand M...moreAn affecting novelette by one of the Victorian world's most remarkable women, who was better known for her travel writing (specifically One Thousand Miles up the Nile). An accomplished travel writer, Amelia Edwards excelled at depicting foreign locales in her fiction. This story, set in Germany, is less a ghost story than a story of attachment and devotion. I'd give too much away to expand on how Edwards develops that theme, but the plot revolves around an impressionable young German girl and a noble prisoner who is also something of a Napoleonic war hero. In late age, the girl (now woman) looks back and recalls a singular period of her life. There's a pleasing if somewhat sentimental twist at the end. (less)
Although I'm a big fan of Victorian "weird" lit and ghost stories, I hadn't read anything (that I recall) by Charlotte Riddell, one of the most popula...moreAlthough I'm a big fan of Victorian "weird" lit and ghost stories, I hadn't read anything (that I recall) by Charlotte Riddell, one of the most popular novelists of her day. The narrator in this tale is a clerk in a law office, and the book is a bit unusual in that he remains firmly in the background until the last third of the story. According to Richard Dalby, who has edited a number of excellent collections of Victorian stories, Charlotte Riddell was known as the 'chronicler of business' and "must surely be the first (of very few) to have an accountant as a hero." In this novel she is true to form in that business dealings are central to the haunting. Oh, and there's a romance and inheritance as well, all in the best Victorian tradition. (less)
This Unworthy Reviewer Begs Your Inestimable and Refined Indulgence
Of all the writers who have fallen from fashion – and their numbers are legion – fe...moreThis Unworthy Reviewer Begs Your Inestimable and Refined Indulgence
Of all the writers who have fallen from fashion – and their numbers are legion – few afford such delight upon acquaintance as Ernest Bramah. Bramah is, admittedly, an acquired taste. Many will no doubt be irritated at his highly ornamental and antiquated language and despair at his insubstantial plots and glacial pace. But they are missing the point, for it is not what Bramah has to say but how he says it that defines his genius.
Bramah is unique among practitioners of early 20th century belles letters, for in his Kai Lung tales he feigns the circumlocutious and exceedingly mannered style of a Chinese scholar. Kai Lung, an itinerant storyteller, is in fact an oriental Scheherazade. The impoverished but wily Kai Lung falls in among robbers and cut-throats but always manages, by dint of his superlative storytelling skills, to save his skin.
This description doesn’t begin to do justice, however, to the drollery and wit that Bramah displays. Consider, for example, the initial episode as the wandering Kai Lung is suddenly waylaid at gunpoint by a blood-thirsty brigand, one Lin Yi:
"O illustrious person," said Kai Lung very earnestly, "this is evidently an unfortunate mistake. Doubtless you were expecting some exalted Mandarin to come and render you homage, and were preparing to overwhelm him with gratified confusion by escorting him yourself to your well-appointed abode. Indeed, I passed such a one on the road, very richly apparelled, who inquired of me the way to the mansion of the dignified and upright Lin Yi. By this time he is perhaps two or three li towards the east."
"However distinguished a Mandarin he may be, it is fitting that I should first attend to one whose manners and accomplishments betray him to be of the Royal House," replied Lin Yi, with extreme affability. "Precede me, therefore, to my mean and uninviting hovel, while I gain more honour than I can reasonably bear by following closely in your elegant footsteps, and guarding your Imperial person with this inadequate but heavily-loaded weapon."
With such heavily brocaded chinoiserie, Bramah manages to turn Western ideas of the exaggerated courtesy of the Chinese on its head. Here, for example, the subtext is that Kai Lung is using flattery and misdirection to get out of a tight situation but that, indeed, two can play at the same game as the brigand offers to “guard” Kai Lung with his “heavily-loaded weapon.” Edwardian concepts of the oblique and inscrutable nature of the “oriental” prop up this conceit, of course, but Bramah neatly undercuts it by often using Kai Lung as a mouthpiece to poke fun at contemporary matters.
Divining the modern parallels, of course, is half the fun of reading Bramah. At the center of this particular fantasy, the hero undergoes a peculiar “transmutation” when he mistakenly drinks an alchemist’s potion. Without giving away too much of the rather convoluted plot, I’ll just say that anyone who’s ever read the fine print of a life insurance policy will feel a certain wry affinity for the hero of the story.
Bramah’s tales are best enjoyed incrementally, sipped like fine sherry. His work has gained a small but loyal following, and indeed the work of one modern fantasy master, Barry Hughart’s Bridge of Birds, owes a clear debt to Bramah. Having said that, Bramah’s tales are perfect in maintenance of high-flown rhetoric, whereas Hughart’s are of a decidedly more accessible cast.
Little is known about Bramah personally, as he was a recluse, but it’s tempting to imagine him dressed in a Chinese silk robe, scribbling away in some dark-panelled and fusty Edwardian study, surrounded by his books and bric-a-brac, pausing only briefly when his oriental man-servant brings him an afternoon cup of green tea. When the servant departs, he reads aloud in a reedy, quavering voice:
”Do not distress your incomparable mind by searching for honorable names to apply to so inferior a person as myself,” he said agreeably. “The mistake is, nevertheless, very natural; for, however miraculous it may appear, this unseemly individual, who is in reality merely a writer of spoken words, is admitted to be exceedingly like the dignified Mandarin himself…” (less)
Stevenson's earliest published short stories are included in this anthology. His eye for tragi-comic situations is evident. Having just finished a num...moreStevenson's earliest published short stories are included in this anthology. His eye for tragi-comic situations is evident. Having just finished a number of recently published books, it was a treat to step back into the opulence of Victorian language. Unfortunately, I found myself getting a little impatient with his plot devices. "The Suicide Club" seemed to end in a peculiarly short way, for example.
I couldn't help but reflect, though, that this sort of entertainment was the equivalent of our weekly TV shows. The Victorian readers waited for each installment (sans plot summary) much the way a modern viewer waits to see who's going to be the sole "Survivor"!(less)
A bit of a disappointment for ACD fans, I fear. Several of his favorite plot devices -- most featured in his Sherlock Holmes' tales -- are again trott...moreA bit of a disappointment for ACD fans, I fear. Several of his favorite plot devices -- most featured in his Sherlock Holmes' tales -- are again trotted out here. There are long-lost and sinister relatives, a man who brings back both a menagerie and an exotic wife from South America, impoverished heirs, ne'er-do-well look-alive brothers, a locked room with a sinister mystery, stolen diamonds cleverly concealed, and seemingly impossible vanishings. The key to the mysteries usually lies in some crucial piece of withheld evidence or some unrevealed connection.
All eight tales were written for The Strand magazine in the late 1800's, and all conform very much to the love for the melodramatic of that readership. Indeed, to me the high-points were just such moments of frisson -- when the locked room is opened, for example, or when the protagonist is trapped in a cage with a man-eating leopard. My main disappointment was that ACD seemed to be reworking similar devices even within these eight tales. Clumping them together in one volume merely emphasized their similarities. There were not one but two long-lost ne'er-do-well brothers, for example; two "impossible" mysteries involving trains, and two ill-intentioned uncles. It might have held together better as a collection if there had been a central character -- a Sherlock Holmes or Professor Challenger -- to maintain the reader's focus, but, alas, none of the protagonists is very commanding.
The audiobook version I listened to was read by William Sutherland, whose voice seemed identical to me to the better-known Leo McKern of Rumpole of the Bailey fame. The McKern-like voice might have been responsible for my hoping for a bit more wit and sizzle and less of the "tales of the fireside" straightforward and somewhat ponderous delivery. (less)
One can never get enough of these late Victorian potboilers. Evil (foreign) geniuses! Damsels in distress! Loyal stout-hearted Englishmen! Dark secret...moreOne can never get enough of these late Victorian potboilers. Evil (foreign) geniuses! Damsels in distress! Loyal stout-hearted Englishmen! Dark secrets!
I've read a half dozen or so weird tales from this era that basically spring from the late 19th century appetite for all things Egyptian. Considered the height of exotica at the time, this was the age of Bram Stoker's The Jewel of the Seven Stars, Theophile Gautier's The Romance of a Mummy, Arthur Conan Doyle's "Lot 249," E.F. Benson's Image in the Sand, and Richard Marsh's The Beetle (all of which, at some point or another, I've happily devoured).
It was the age of the great Egyptologists such as Howard Carter and Gaston Maspero, following in the wake of Napoleon. Few settings seemed to fire the imagination as much as a tale set in Cairo, Luxor, or Karnak, unless, of course, it was a setting in some equally exotic Oriental locale such as China or Tibet. Then, too, it was an age obsessed with mesmerism, hypnotism, spiritualism, and a host of other -isms that now might seem quaint to us but were taken quite seriously but even eminent persons at the time.
Finally, there was the Victorian/Edwardian fascination with evil geniuses. Professor Moriarty, Fu Manchu, Count Fosco, Dracula, Dr. Nikola - these and a host of others lurked in the shadows, using their magnetism to bend others to their will and their considerable mental gifts for evil purposes.
It's no surprise, then, that a number of the potboilers of this age mined all three themes with considerable success. Just a few years before the publication of this tale, for example, was Richard Marsh's The Beetle, which at the time was even more popular than Stoker's Dracula. (The Beetle, alas, never really survived in the modern age, whereas Dracula, of course, has had a long run. However, many of the themes from The Beetle were picked up and used in "The Mummy" and other horror films.) Always there is an indignant or maligned spirit whose tomb has been violated. Often there is a curse. And, of course, any sensational tale worth its salt has a vulnerable woman who is threatened by the evil genius. Usually she is manipulated in some particularly sinister way.
Pharos the Egyptian contains all of these elements, but it takes a particularly grim turn. Still, it can't help from sounding a rather out-of-place note of hopefulness at the end, one that perhaps was demanded by the audiences of the time but which now seems almost ludicrous. Up to that point, though, it's a fairly ripping tale for those who enjoy the somewhat predictable conventions of late Victorian story telling. Parts of the tale reminded me deliciously of Poe's "Masque of the Red Death," and I wondered if Boothby had read it (most likely he had).
One other note I might add is that the 1899 edition I've got is rather lovely, if not in particularly good repair. I can't recall where I picked it up, but it has a lovely ornate gilded cover, all the original illustrations, and pages which were obviously cut by hand. It's badly foxed and the binding is quite brittle, but reading it provided a feeling of antiquity that meshed well with the tale. (less)
Having just written a review of Cold Hand in Mine, a book I read some years back, I realized I had this volume and, oddly enough, had never read it. A...moreHaving just written a review of Cold Hand in Mine, a book I read some years back, I realized I had this volume and, oddly enough, had never read it. And so, with the first substantial winter's snow piling up outdoors, I draw my down comforter around me and began.
Curiously, the title story was my least favorite in the book. I didn't read the eight longish stories (averaging 30-40 pages each) in sequence but as the mood took me. The last four tales I found the most intriguing, especially "Never Visit Venice," which had some lines I found almost startling in their revelatory clarity, providing somewhat uncomfortable insights into an alienated life. To say that I identified with the unhappy character in that story is perhaps a bit too strong, but I could certainly could identify with this, for example:
"Like most introverts, he [Henry Fern], was very dependent on small, minute-to-minute comforts, no matter whence they came. Fern's gaze upon life was very decisively inward. He read much. He reflected much. One of his purest pleasures was an entire day in bed; all by himself, in excellent health. He lived in a quite pleasant suburban flat, with a view over a park. Unfortunately, the park, for the most part, was more beautiful when Fern was not there; because when he was there, it tended to fill with raucous loiterers and tiny piercing radios.... He had much difficulty, not perhaps in making friends, but in keep up an interest in them.... Much worse was that it [his temperament] made him see through the work he had to do: see that, like so much that is called work, it was little more than protective colouration; but see also that the blank disclosure of this fact would destroy not merely the work itself and his own income, but the hopes of those who were committed to at least a half-belief in its importance..."
There's very little room to wiggle away from under this sort of stark, almost surgical analysis. All the main characters in this book are essentially loners, coming to grips with their inability to interact meaningfully with others. But there's nothing adolescent or even particularly tragic about their state; it's more a growing realization of, "Yes, this is how I am... this is what life is.." that builds as the story unfolds.
One of the tales in the book is a sort of vampire story; another involves something akin to a ghost; several others involve encounters with unnatural or psychopathic creatures. It's not these things that give these "strange" tales their essential strangeness, however. It's the odd reactions of the central characters to these situations that produces the most unsettling effect.
In the manner of the Sherlock Holmes stories, these tales concern a clever detective and are told by his sidekick. The difference, however, is that al...moreIn the manner of the Sherlock Holmes stories, these tales concern a clever detective and are told by his sidekick. The difference, however, is that all the tales have a supernatural element. Rather than ultimately unmasking some supernatural hoax (such as the Hound of the Baskervilles), at times Carnacki wrestles with malign spirits. At other times, he does indeed unmask a hoax. In his pursuit of the truth, he employs a variety of ingenious devices of his own invention.
Carnacki himself is not a terribly well drawn character (unlike Sherlock Holmes). The tales are always told over dinner, with Carnacki holding forth to a circle of friends. (It's all veddy Edwardian). The chief appeal of the stories is the aura of mystery and the often sensational or bizarre turn of events. In one tale, Carnacki spends the night inside a pentacle beset on all sides by some unearthly horror; in another blood seems to drip from the ceiling (until Carnacki exposes it as a ruse).
One of the aspects I found most appealing was the depiction of Carnacki's various devices. These stories were written around 1910, and they are imbued with that belief that science knew no bounds, and that the future would bring amazing things. Scientists were akin to wizards; the general public looked upon them as almost a race of supermen. Carnacki is in this mold, and although he doesn't really come across as a three-dimensional character, he's an interesting "type," just as Professor Challenger (Arthur Conan Doyle) was an interesting "type" and John Silence (Algernon Blackwood) was an interesting "type." (less)
Eugène Valmont, a conceited, pompous, vain French detective, acts as comic mouthpiece in these satirical tales, which poke fun at both detective stori...moreEugène Valmont, a conceited, pompous, vain French detective, acts as comic mouthpiece in these satirical tales, which poke fun at both detective stories and English society. You need a little background in the popular fiction of the time to get some of the humor. Barr often is spoofing some of the more sensational fiction of the Victorian age here, but he has also created a memorable character, hailed by some critics as "the first, most important humorous detective in English literature. This collection of stories is something of a romp, though I found there was a sort of stylistic repetitiveness in Valmont's wordy first-person accounts that precluded rating the stories more highly.(less)
I should read the rest of the short stories in this volume, for I enjoyed the single one I read as an e-text, "Captain Dick and Captain Jacka." Quille...moreI should read the rest of the short stories in this volume, for I enjoyed the single one I read as an e-text, "Captain Dick and Captain Jacka." Quiller Couch or "Q" is neglected nowadays, but he wrote some fine seafaring tales, ghost stories, fantasies, military adventures (especially of the Napoleonic wars) and translations of French fairy tales, as well as being a well-known poet. Really, now that I think about it, I don't know why I haven't read more of him -- he's just my type! (less)