There's a completely eerie foreshadowing of concentration camps in th...moreContains two of PB's All Time Greats :
"In the Penal Colony" by Franz Kafka (1914)
There's a completely eerie foreshadowing of concentration camps in this horrible tale, in which the fanatical commandant pedantically explains his unique "execution machine" at great, exhausting length. It's a many-bladed device that contrives to write upon the body of the condemned man the name of the crime he committed. The commandant is distraught that reformers are trying to stop him using it. I should read more Kafka, but then again, maybe I shouldn't.
"The Sound Machine" by Roald Dahl (1949)
In which a guy invents a machine which enables you to hear sounds on frequencies otherwise outside human range and finds out to his and our horror that plants, shrubs, bushes and trees all scream horrendously when they're pulled up, clipped, pruned, chopped and topiaried. The idea gave me the heebyjeebies - imagine that we're surrounded by a vortex of pain and horror which we don't notice at all just because it's on a frequency our ears can't perceive. This story is the ultimate vegan nightmare.(less)
In 2003 The Crimson Petal and the White was published to much acclaim. I read it and awarded it five plump wobbly stars. But other readers had other r...moreIn 2003 The Crimson Petal and the White was published to much acclaim. I read it and awarded it five plump wobbly stars. But other readers had other reactions. In his forward to this slender collection of short stories, Mr Faber says that he gets letters from his readers and he keeps them in a box. So that’s surprising right there – who writes to authors? I would never have the nerve. I mean, what would you say to Shakespeare? Dear Bard, I must say that I thought The Tempest was a wonderful note on which to bring down the curtain, as it were, on your illustrious career. You are my favourite Elizabethan playwright. Have a wonderful retirement. Your friend, P Bryant. Dear Brett Easton Ellis, I have now spoken with my lawyers and if you attempt to contact me again or come within 100 yards of myself and my immediate family (note – mother in law not counted as immediate) you will be in breach of the court order and prompt action will be taken. Yours, P Bryant. Anyway, Mr Faber received letters saying “Why do you make me suffer more?” and “I implore you, please please please” and another said “The Crimson Petal is the most frustrating, maddening masterwork that I have ever trudged through in my life…novels are supposed to have satisfying tight endings…” so basically everyone got to the end, all 835 pages, and found there was no ending, it just stopped.
It was like the old refrain : “if you want any more you can sing it yourself”.
It was really a bit rude. 835 pages and no ending?
People really got into this novel. He quotes a note from a gentlemen in Lancashire :
A few days before Christmas I was half awake and the first thought that came to me was what I could obtain as Christmas presents for Miss Sophie, Sugar, and Mrs Fox. Then suddenly I realised who they really were.
Well, Mr Faber relented, kind of, and wrote this collection of stories about the fates of the characters in his giant novel. It does answer most questions, and I thought it was splendid, but I’m pretty much a Faber fanboy. (less)
- Oh, er… hi Anais! My name’s Pau---- Manny. My name is Manny.
- Hi Manny. How are you tonight?
- Oh I'm fine thank you. Er.... you have a great laptop there.
- Why thank you! It’s a Lenovo Ideapad. Do you think it looks cute?
- You should see the things I can do with it.
- Mm hmmm.
- What would you like to see me do Manny? Would you like to see me … type? Or…correct a manuscript? Do you want me to call my publisher? I can complain about royalty payments if you want – I complain really well. You know - if you have a publisher we could complain together.
- Could you… could you compose some erotica right now?
- Of course I could, Manny! Now, would you like that to be in long luxurious leisurely sentences with metaphors clustered like grapes hanging from a vine turning golden pale in the Tuscany sun? Or would you like it to be urgent, short, sharp, like a James Ellroy sex doll, no word over four letters?
- Please… just do what you feel you’re into, Anais.
- Why thank you Manny, you’re a gentleman. All right. Let's see now... (less)
I wanted to find out if what was considered horrible in mcmlvii (that's what it says on the copyright page in my sturdy Faber paperback) would creep m...moreI wanted to find out if what was considered horrible in mcmlvii (that's what it says on the copyright page in my sturdy Faber paperback) would creep my fleshy parts 55 years later. So I put new batteries in the Creepometer and switched it on and here are the scientifically tested findings.
Skeleton by Ray Bradbury. Creepometer reading : 82. The umpteenth variation of the vampire story but I'm not complaining when the sallow foreign-looking doctor Munigant (that's a clever anagram of vampire) eats all the hypochondriac's bones and leaves him a giant blobby jellyfish for his wife to find. How he does this whilst leaving all vital organs intact is that he's a reverse-chiropractor.
A Watcher by the Dead by Ambrose Bierce. Creepometer : 2. After a genial discussion in a pub, a confident young New Yorker agrees to spend the night in a locked room with a corpse. It's one of those daft bets you invent when you're pissed. I bet you a tenner that that beetle doesn't crawl all the way to the top of that window. Okay, you're on. Okay, better than that, I bet you can't spend a night in a locked room with a corpse without going stark staring mad. Of corpse I can. One hundered smackeroonies to the winner! Done! Anyway no mention is made about the complete lack of toilet facilities in the locked room with corpse, so i thought this story was unrealistic.
Raspberry jam by Angus Wilson. Creepometer : 97. A little ten year old lad is spending too much time with two crazy old alcoholic crypto-lesbians. This story runs on great atmosphere of the ten-day-bender sleeping-in-your-clothes variety. Excellent.
Berenice by E A Poe. Creepometer : 71. This high score is entirely because it is very creepy to think any human being would sit down and write this kind of neurotic fever-dream and then think it was cool to get it published and people wouldn't cart you off to a sanatorium. Anyway, this is about post-mortem dentistry so that might not be everyone's cup of tea.
Creepometer: 100! A great 7 page chiller, too good to summarise.
Lot No 249 by Conan ("the Barbarian") Doyle. Creepometer : 0. The original MUMMY tale, I think, where the Oxford undergrad fiddles about with things which should be unfiddleable. just as stupid as all the other MUMMY stories.
The Lovers by John Keir Cross. Creepometer: 45. Yon bonny Scottish electrician is wiring up a house & can't understand why the guy's wife just sits by the fire all day & never says a word. He's a little slow because any horror fan could tell him that yon bonny taxidermist has stuffed her.
The Mark of the Beast by Rudyard Kipling. Creepometer : 25. Just a werewolf story set in India but gets points for the Silver Man who does some unexpected naked running about - silver because he's a leper, and he has no face and mews.
The End of the Party by Graham Greene. Creepometer : 0. Everyone knows that if the story is about the fears of childhood and the children go to a party and play games in the dark, one of them will die of fright. Next.
Heartburn by Hortense Calisher. Creepometer : 10. Nine point of that score is for the author's name which is very creepy. Otherwise another medical tale about a guy who has a growth which moves about inside his body. Sounds more interesting than it is.
Bartleby by Herman Melville. Creepometer : 0. This is a great story of the sickness unto death experienced by the common wageslave. Bartleby is a scrivener and one day he just prefers not to do his job. The unwilling compassion of his boss who takes great pains to try to work around an employee who not only refuses to work but refuses to leave the office is a joy to behold. But as its horror is only metaphysical. this story does not score at all. Once again, the lack of toilets in this story bothered me.
Our feathered Friends by Philip MacDonald. Creepometer : 80. That is if you haven't seen The Birds by Hitchcock because this story is the same as the film only compressed into 15 minutes and with a much more violent ending.
Thrawn janet by Robert Louis Stevenson. Unreadable dialect story. Give me Irvine Welsh instead. Unrated.
Mars is Heaven by Ray Bradbury. Creepometer : 95. From The Martian Chronicles. The astronauts arrive on Mars to find an exact replica of a small Illinois town from around 1920. Yes, creepy. Bradbury was the man, but the editor surely had not come across Theodore Sturgeon, who was also the man.
Oh Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad by M R James. Creepometer ; 11. depends if you appreciate ghosts, which as I disbelieve in the supernatural, leave me fidgety bored. Great title though.
A Rose for Emily by William Faulkner. Creepometer : 95. Great slice of Gothic pie from the master and a little bit of romantic necrophilia to close with.
So farewell forever, then, to metafiction. This is the stuff where it says
I wander the island, inventing it. I make a sun for it, and trees, and caus...moreSo farewell forever, then, to metafiction. This is the stuff where it says
I wander the island, inventing it. I make a sun for it, and trees, and cause water to lap the pebbles of its abandoned shores.
which is how The Magic Poker kicks off in this volume.
Metafiction - yeah, that's right - it's fiction about fiction, celebrating the lying truthfulness and the truthful lies we all need to keep our brains glued together. Apparently. I mean, I don't really know, I just work here.
Now, you know those trailers for movie comedies which are hugely amusing with a couple of great jokes and you sprint to the cinema when it comes out and you sit through the thing only to find that the two jokes you saw in the trailer were the only actual jokes in the whole movie and the rest of it was 87 minutes of rising aggravation and insulted intelligence mollified only by smuggled-in licorish allsorts (I'm not paying your prices, you ripoff front of house manager!) - well Robert Coover's book is like that. I'd read the two good ones which are "A Pedestrian Accident" and "The Babysitter" and both are brilliant. But that's it.
One of the major problems with metafiction - this goes for the immensely better Donald Barthelme too - is that the whole tone of it is smirky, like someone telling you a story they think is really really funny whilst keeping a straight face, but you can't see where the humour is. Also metawriters are in love with fairy tales and myths and are forever running uninteresting riffs on them like a jazz saxophonist taking some standard like My Favourite Things out for yet another ten minute noodle. We can live long and happy lives without it. Back to reality!(less)
As when you're listening to some old piece of music you never thought much of, it could be a long ago seemingly throwaway pop dance number like This O...moreAs when you're listening to some old piece of music you never thought much of, it could be a long ago seemingly throwaway pop dance number like This Old Heart of Mine by the Isley Brothers, or some slyer more college-degreed album track like (let's say) Life During Wartime by Talking Heads, and you suddenly jump up and think but - but really, this is a masterpiece! - it's not just another painting-by-numbers from Motown, it's not just another sneery too-clever construction you skip while you're trying to find Once in a Lifetime, Juno Diaz' tales from the front line of squalour and immigration aren't just another vicarious thrillseeking tour of Poverty-and-Ignorance Hell, not just another wound-baring stigmata-showing howl from yet more people from yet another abyss you wish you didn't know about. They're that too, just like This Old Heart of Mine is a great dance number, but there's this thing called an authentic voice, or whatever the term is. Now this is a thing you can't buy with money. It's where no one but this particular author would know how to describe this person or that circumstance, this pain or that crime, the unique inside the generic. A twist of brain and language, and eyes and heart and blood wrapped round it too. Junot Diaz is the author, Drown is the book.
The best story is the last and longest, but only because of what went before. Gloomily overhanging the earlier tales of kids trying to grow up in the Dominican Republic like a cloud full of bad rain is the father who left for America, who never came back, and who stopped sending money, and who never sent for his family to join him. What a shit! We get used to the banal outrage of not knowing what this useless fool did when he got there, what was his big fat excuse, how could he abandon his wife and kids, etc etc so that there's a real frisson when we discover that the last 47 pages will answer all these questions, and in a great reversal of perspective, you find yourself looking out of this bad man's face, sleeping in his cockroach rooms and working his 16 hour shifts and against your whole will, you understand. Great stuff, and not one wasted word. (less)
Short stories are the three minute singles of the literary world and anyone who has been pasted to the wall by the furious power of 19th Nervous Break...moreShort stories are the three minute singles of the literary world and anyone who has been pasted to the wall by the furious power of 19th Nervous Breakdown or the limpid beauty of Waterloo Sunset and yet hasn't managed to keep awake during an entire Stones or Kinks album will know what I mean. A great short story has a pungency and a pure serendipity. Alas, though, for every Paint It Black there are a couple of Angies (ouch) and for every Lola there's a few Plasticmen (ecch).
So it is with every short story collection, even ones like this which announce that every story in it has tore down somebody's life and rebuilt it from the basement up. There are some of my favourites here like Borges' The Aleph (oh who could not love that one) and Molly Giles' Pie Dance and Lars Gustafsson's Greatness Strikes Where it Pleases (what a title) and there are a whole lot where you have to think that you don't get them, I mean, they're okay and all, but not THAT great.
Having grown up with science fiction, which is essentially a short story genre no matter what the bookshops heaving with three-volume series may imply, I remained a low-level short story addict, but it's a lonely obsession since while you can chat about novels with your pals, short stories fly under most readers' radar. So it's little use me complaining about something like Angela Carter's Reflections - what kind of shit is that? You got to be kidding me! or Mary Caponegro's The Star Cafe - what kind of shit is that? Now I KNOW you're kidding me! Us short story readers learn to shrug, spit in the dust, move our haversack of expectations to our other shoulder, and walk on.(less)
TC can write about kids really well, and as we know, he is suspected of having more than a hand i...moreContains two of PB's All Time Greats :
TC can write about kids really well, and as we know, he is suspected of having more than a hand in the writing of "To Kill a Mockingbird" which is all about kids. In "Miriam" we have an original character, a violent ghost girl. I have a list of people right here who I'd love to get Miriam to visit.
"Children on their Birthdays" (1948)
He gives away the punchline in the first sentence, then in the lyrical delirium of the prose which follows he makes you forget all about the fact that you already know the end, so deeply do you fall into the trance, then he knocks you flat on your back when it happens, and tears burst from your ducts. (less)