I declined to finish Montezuma’s Castle and Other Weird Stories because it is, simply, racist and essentializing crap. Even for 1899, when it was publI declined to finish Montezuma’s Castle and Other Weird Stories because it is, simply, racist and essentializing crap. Even for 1899, when it was published. For a set of “weird” or horror tales, the reader does not even get the catharsis of seeing the thieving and/or murderous villains get their just deserts. I believe this is because Cory does not understand that his villains are villains, but believes they are heroes. One potent example will suffice.
In the completely despicable and blessedly short story “The Voodoo Idol”, the protagonist, an American named Jones, languishes from a regrettably non-lethal gunshot wound in a hotel room in Haiti, a group of “natives” having tried to kill him. Jones explains to the American consul, who we understand is assisting Jones to escape Haiti intact, how he came to be in this terrifying position.
He stole some shit that wasn’t his. From people he describes this way:
“[A]s savage and bloodthirsty as any Central African tribe. Most of the inhabitants [of Haiti] are descendants of negroes brought from the Gold Coast many years ago. They have reverted to their original wild state, keeping up many of the ancient customs. Mixing as they have with the Indians of the interior, the present race is even worse than their ancestors. From Toussant l'Overture in 1804, when he first ruled, to Hyppolite Florvil and Salomon, the island has been the scene of continuous insurrection, intrigue, and murder.”
This retrograde group of people, nevertheless had created an idol that captivated Jones when he saw it. And he felt perfectly justified in stealing it simply because he wanted it.
There’s a moment toward the end of the story when Jones awakens to find a “native” assassin peering at him from an open patio door. The man has a knife in his hands and, for a split second I believed perhaps Jones was going to get some sort of comeuppance for his thievery and bitter racism. But instead Jones kills the man and escapes to America the Beautiful. The End.
Part of me wishes to enumerate all that is culturally and historically inaccurate about this story, to pick apart the foul illogic upon which Cory’s racism rests. A more significant part of me does not want to dignify it with reasoned criticism. I am, for once, glad that my taste in musty old writing is obscure. Hopefully this wretched book will continue to fade into obscurity. ...more
I really wanted to love this book. I toured the Old Manse in Concord, MA this past summer and began learning more about Massachusetts' transcendentaliI really wanted to love this book. I toured the Old Manse in Concord, MA this past summer and began learning more about Massachusetts' transcendentalists and friends, finding their philosophies and biographies intriguing. I also was aware of Hawthorne's reputation as a literary "relative" of Edgar Allen Poe. But with the exception of his fantastic and more essay-like entries ("The Old Manse" and "Fire Worship"), few of Hawthorne's tales rise above heavy-handed allegory. The ones that do (famously "Young Goodman Brown" and "Rappaccini's Daughter") still share with the allegories a condescending chauvinism and rigid religiosity that is no less annoying for being unsurprising. In a time period where one might expect to find chauvinism and religiosity, it does not always come across so abrasively as it does in Hawthorne's most obnoxious stories, for my money "The Celestial Rail-road" and "The New Adam and Eve". ...more
This is a very uneven collection put together by an editor who name-drops and thinks far too much of himself. Al Sarrantonio certainly gathered some sThis is a very uneven collection put together by an editor who name-drops and thinks far too much of himself. Al Sarrantonio certainly gathered some solid works by some major authors here: Joyce Carol Oates, William Peter Blatty, Ramsey Campbell, Stephen King, et al. But he asserts the pretense of creating a forward-looking collection for the coming century (this collection was published in 1999). If one is trying to anticipate the future, I think it's generally well-advised to choose young authors who are risking something instead of seasoned professionals who have been at the job successfully for decades. Another mistake Sarrantonio made, according to my taste anyway, was to write short self-important introductions to each story. In an introduction, the reader wants to know about the author and the story she's about to read. The editor should not write here in the first person. The editor is not the star or crux of interest - the author is, the story is. But Sarrantonio cannot resist telling us how or when he met this or that author. His desire to place himself in the literary company of the authors in 999, to appear on their tier, is self-indulgent and offers very little to the reader. This becomes especially clear after reading Sarrantonio's own contribution to the collection, "The Ropy Thing", an unoriginal and poorly imagined fable replete with an insipid little boy protagonist who lacks agency and an Eve/Lolita/Succubus/Temptress little girl villain whose betrayal you see coming from a mile away.
So I would recommend skipping Sarrantonio's writing, both editorial and creative, in this volume. I would also completely skip F. Paul Wilson's "Good Friday", one of the most hackneyed vampire stories I've read in the last 15 years. Most of the other stories have at least points to recommend them. Few are fantastic from beginning to end. Neil Gaiman's "Keepsakes and Treasures: A Love Story" is intriguing, but ends so abruptly it seems like Gaiman ran out of time or interest and just stopped after an arbitrary last sentence. Blatty's "Elsewhere" also starts strong, but he clubs the reader over the head with over-explanation, which completely derails the tension he had carefully built up to that point, much like explaining a joke divorces it from its humor content.
The stories I enjoyed the most are: Kim Newman's "Amerikanski Dead at the Moscow Morgue", a demented, post-apocalyptic, alternate-history-sort-of take on a zombie tale, which has a dead-pan narrator and a bizarre ending I liked quite well; Oates' "The Ruins of Contracouer", which makes up for in spooky atmosphere what it lacks in cogency (but I'd rather be left guessing at the meaning of something than be whacked over the head with it); "The Owl and the Pussycat" by Thomas M. Disch, which is perhaps the most cleverly rendered story of the whole collection; Nancy A. Collins' "Catfish Gal Blues", a humorous and startling monster tale; "Rio Grande Gothic" by David Morrell, an entertaining adventure/horror story with a great setting on its side; Michael Marshall Smith's "The Book of Irrational Numbers", an inside-the-serial-killer's-head story that manages to give you something fresh in a frequently-trodden subgenre of horror lit; and, finally, "Mad Dog Summer" by Joe R. Lansdale, which I think easily has the most heart of any of the collection's stories - it reminded me perhaps a bit too much of To Kill a Mockingbird, but if Lansdale did have any sort of imitation on his mind, he at least executed it well.
Sarrantonio certainly did not chart a new paradigm for short horror fiction in the next millennium with 999, but some of the stories are worth a read. ...more
I subscribe to reader-response theory. Personal experience as a reader has made convincing the premise that a static set of words placed together in aI subscribe to reader-response theory. Personal experience as a reader has made convincing the premise that a static set of words placed together in a certain order can mean different things to different people (or to the same person) at different times. That is, the reader participates in a reading experience at least as much as the author and in a more generative, malleable way. Because I buy reader-response theory and because I read a lot, while reading I often consider my own role in the experience I am having - especially if that experience is mediocre.
Some time ago I began Stephen King's Dark Tower series. I had an ambivalent attitude toward Stephen King that I discussed at length in my Goodreads review of The Gunslinger, the first book in this series. I am now working my way through the fourth book, The Wizard and the Glass, and where The Gunslinger was a compelling breeze to get through, this one feels like work. I have spent no small amount of time trying to figure out why.
I dig the protagonist of the entire saga, Roland of Gilead a/k/a the Gunslinger. Part Clint Eastwood à la High Plains Drifter and part in-the-grips-of-ring-madness Frodo, Roland can seem sympathetic yet unlikable, he is both trustworthy and suspect. He serves a greater quest more than he serves himself and this makes him ultimately volatile, despite his seeming reliability. Having reached this point in the series, I have followed Roland over thousands of miles, through different worlds and times, I have seen him collect a group of friends about himself who know no more about him than I do - his friends feel the same things I, the reader, feel: trust in Roland's ability and fear of his obsessive purpose.
Given all of this, The Wizard and the Glass should offer a huge emotional payoff. To begin with, the first hundred pages or so resolve the cliffhanger ending of the third book, The Waste Lands. Then it moves on to an extended flashback, occupying the majority of the novel, in which Roland finally reveals to his friends the events out of which originated his single-minded goal. Through this flashback, we get to see Roland at fourteen or fifteen, before his life's purpose has become usurped by his quest for the Dark Tower. We meet a Roland who possesses the youthful sense of possibility in his own future - a potentially glad future as opposed to the one with which he ends up, filled with peril, endless searching and the knowledge that he may have to sacrifice his owns friends to achieve his goal.
In this flashback we get to witness the origins of the series plot line and we also recognize in young Roland the seed that circumstances would twist into the man he becomes. I usually adore this kind of back story, particularly when it involves characters and stories with which one has had the time to become well-acquainted and in which one has grown invested. So what's my problem? Why have I had to force myself to finish this thing?
I distribute the blame equally among myself and Mr. King. As to my own role in a mediocre reading experience - I think I did not take into account the arc of a saga, as opposed to a discrete novel. Sequels and sequels of sequels are different animals from the singular novel-length story. When you spread a story out over this many pages, you no longer get the same set-up, build-up, denouement, and resolution in each book that you may expect from a stand-alone novel. These books, as long as they are, should be considered as chapters or episodes.
King took his time with the flashback at the heart of The Wizard and the Glass - he introduces his readers to an entirely new set of characters, a new geography, a new telos. He was right to, but I have grown impatient with it. I want gnarled and world-weary Roland back. I want his crew of motley friends back; his former-heroin-addict, multiple-personality-having-amputee, died-twice-time-travelling friends, of different ages, genders and colors. I am tired of the teenaged-boy story.
But most of all (and here's where I criticize the author), I am tired of teenaged-Roland's love interest, Susan Delgado. I think this disappoints me most because, by and large, I do not take issue with Stephen King's characterizations of women. He writes them in all shapes, sizes and temperaments, as protagonists, villains, heroes, and victims. They are no more or less stereotypical than his male characters - that is, their personalities usually revolve around a core of distinctness that only periodically veers into stereotyping. Moreover, he characterizes Susan as a competent, smart and daring young woman. So what's my beef?
Something about Susan's age has stymied King's ability to avoid veering toward, and eventually dwelling in, the most cloying stereotype of teenaged girls. I grant that, at some point or another, all teenaged girls giggle -- but a girl in the pickle in which Susan finds herself, a girl who has lost what she's lost, who faces the danger she faces and possesses the fortitude she does -- I just do not buy that at surreptitious midnight meetings in graveyards, this girl would be uncontrollably moved to giggles. This seems a small thing, but it represents a more general direction in which her character moves as the novel progresses. As she falls in love with Roland, she steadily cedes more and more responsibility to him. Roland falls too, and we see the consequences of his forgetting himself - he cedes some control to Susan as well - but she's the one who asks him to take care of her.
There are arguments of which I have already thought pertaining to how very young things truly do tend to fall in love - completely and unyieldingly - and how the gender mores of the pseudo-western world King has crafted requires Susan's reliance on Roland-as-savior. Perhaps I am simply not a part of the textual community for whom King writes (although I don't actually believe that for a second). Nevertheless, I see something more annoying and less plot-related in King's steady dismantling of Susan's gumption.
I hesitate to get personal on Stephen King, but I will anyway. Despite the fantasies of middle-aged men, who seem to view very young women as blank canvases upon which their egos can inscribe themselves, most teenaged girls lead very complex interior lives. And King established Susan as just such a complex character, so it is exceedingly disappointing when she slowly becomes one of these blank canvases upon which King (via Roland) can project his idea of feminine youth itself, instead of his idea of one specific young woman.
Girlhood, as King idealizes it, giggles and so of course this girl would do so, at the drop of a hat, no matter what's going on in the story or with her character. As a former teenaged girl, I can attest that they also smirk and guffaw and seethe quietly and, while I'm at it, they do not all have enticingly long, blond hair and a thing for horses. Additionally, I will throw in a quote for pure substantiation's sake. Susan has blurted out some unexpected information that she has every reason to know and to remember she knows. When questioned about it by Roland and his friends, she responds without sarcasm: "I don't know what I'm talking about. Brainless as Pinch and Jilly, I am..." (Signet 2003 paperback, page 453) Even though King has taken other pains to make sure we think of Susan as intelligent, she is not supposed to think herself so...or at least she is not supposed to show herself so and certainly not in the company of boys her age. Is that what I am to take from Susan's inane ejaculation?
So I guess the crux of my annoyance is this: Roland of Gilead is a compelling character, so why is his first love something out of a bad romance novel? Strong-willed, but ultimately pliant. Baby-wanting at 15. Independent enough to seem challenging but, in the end, a clinging vine. Beautiful in the least interesting and over-represented way imaginable (sorry, tall slender blonds with boobs). Smart, but not too smart and never smarter than Roland. *long disappointed sigh*
But! And there is a but - The Wizard and the Glass has some outstanding villains in it, especially Eldred Jonas. And one of my favorite characters, the onetime ne'er-do-well, turned gunslinger Eddie, gets a satisfying moment of glory toward the book's beginning. I have yet to see what the end has in store, but I had to go ahead and write this entry because unless Susan dies, and soon, I have no idea how long it will take me to get there....more
In order to really dissect my reaction to The Gunslinger, or really to any Stephen King book, I find it useful to distinguish a writer from a storytelIn order to really dissect my reaction to The Gunslinger, or really to any Stephen King book, I find it useful to distinguish a writer from a storyteller. The former can be the latter and the latter the former, but these two aspects of authorship often appear separately in that much maligned category of book, popular fiction. Certainly, a multitude of simply unimaginative formula authors populate the booklists of popular fiction. And every once in a while a writer, a true wordsmith, appears in their ranks - someone who, in 100 years, will be considered lit-ruh-chuh or is considered so already. Toni Morrison has been a bestseller (thanks Oprah) and she, without doubt, is a literary writer of the utmost skill. I think more often, however, the authors of popular fiction, when not hacks, could be most accurately described as storytellers. Fiddling with language or challenging the reader's expectations for fiction do not comprise the project of a storyteller. They use their medium competently, but not particularly daringly, and mostly focus on weaving a fine tale. Unlike Morrison, these authors tend not to teach writing at universities. These are the authors who, in oral cultures, would have been bards, would have drawn crowds of listeners, and would have told the stories whence grow myths. Stephen King is such an author.
It took me a long time to realize Stephen King was no hack. His popularity and prolificness (as well as some of his readership) relegated him, in my mind, to the legion of formula genre authors who manage to sell book after book of the same story because your average reader craves formula and only likes what they already know. But Stephen King does not write formulas. As with any author of a great number of books, I imagine his quality can be uneven, but I have read some of his best and they are great. Stephen King won't change the way you think about the written word. He won't challenge your preconceptions about writing and what a novel is or should do. But he will tell you a story that you just sink right into, usually that frightens you, and that keeps you glued to the pages at every available opportunity. I read The Gunslinger in two days and these were fulltime-job work days, and I can't wait to start Book II.
So I extend my apologies into the cosmos and promise to remember that popularity does not make a novel or an author bad. Sometimes an author is popular, not because he's simplistic and your average reader is a dunce, but because his books are that good, that thrilling, that fun to read and accessible. And there's nothing bad about that. ...more
Of the fourteen stories featured in this book, my favorite is "The Birds" by Daphne DuMaurier. It is the story upon which Hitchcock based his film ofOf the fourteen stories featured in this book, my favorite is "The Birds" by Daphne DuMaurier. It is the story upon which Hitchcock based his film of the same name and, while I love Hitchcock and like that film, DuMaurier's short story is tauter, stranger and scarier than the film. All the stories in this collection deserve inclusion in an anthology, but among the others that stood out for me are: H.G. Wells' "The Inexperienced Ghost" in which a dead man requires a pep talk from the living; Charlotte Armstrong's "The Enemy" which dissects the important but slim margin between intent and act; and C.B. Gilford's "Terrified" in which catastrophe does not bring out the best in human nature. As in Hitchcock's own body of work, his selections here display various mixtures of humor and psychological terror where the "bad guys" range from strangers to neighbors to one's self. Apparently, Hitchcock edited a great number of suspense and horror anthologies in the 50s. I have no idea of the general quality of these collections, as I have ready only this one, or to what extent they were a publishing house gimmick to boost sales. Whether a gimmick or not, these 14 of Hitchcock's "favorites in suspense" at least are worth the read....more