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 publ...moreI 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. (less)
George MacDonald Fraser wrote the excellent introduction to this edition of the collected Brigadier Gerard stories, in which he observed what a differ...moreGeorge MacDonald Fraser wrote the excellent introduction to this edition of the collected Brigadier Gerard stories, in which he observed what a different sort of character is Gerard from Conan Doyle’s more famous creation, who need not be named. Gerard is French, not English; an interesting choice for a good Victorian imperialist such as Conan Doyle. And Gerard’s stories are set earlier; the conceit is that he is an old man telling tales about his time as a Hussar in Napoleon’s army. Gerard is as arrogant as literary “brother”, but sweeter as well, chivalrous, loyal, romantic, brave and incredibly, comically dense.
Gerard’s obliviousness is one of the primary charms of the character and chief amusements of these collected stories. He constantly mistakes the derision of others for approbation. Anything that does not conform with his own high opinion of himself gets contorted by his perception so that he remains the hero, not just of his own, but of everyone’s story.
[SPOILER ALERT] In one hilarious instance, Gerard is meant to be performing undercover recognizance and ends up participating merrily in a fox hunt with English soldiers. He gets so carried away with the pursuit that he speeds ahead of everyone, even the dogs, and slices the fox in two with his sword. Gerard clearly misunderstands the whole endeavor and imagines he has “won” the hunt. Moreover, when he sees the English soldiers erupt in histrionic shouting, he perceives this as enthusiastic congratulations instead of the enraged decrying it was.
This, incidentally, was probably my very favorite moment in the entire set of stories. As he outpaces the dogs, feeling quite self-congratulatory indeed, he shouts at the fox: “Aha, we have you now then, assassin!” He has so completely given himself to the hunt that he has forgotten his recognizance mission (only for the moment) and single-mindedly focused on his new “foe” whom he is about to dispatch tidily. And that is quite characteristic of Gerard. Comically myopic, absurdly confident of his every move, of his own rightness, and – for all his ridiculousness - actually quite a good soldier and sport. He is dog-like, in the best sense of that comparison. You like Gerard even while you laugh at him. And you can always trust him to be himself.
I am not much for adventure stories, generally preferring a good mystery, but the Brigadier Gerard stories are vividly detailed and very very funny. I am also growing increasingly interested in the Napoleonic era as a predecessor to the “world” conflicts at the beginning of the 20th century, and it is intriguing to read an Englishman’s sympathetic take on a Frenchman during this period. In any event, these stories deserve to be better known than they are. And, for my money and time, I’d much rather spend an afternoon hanging out with Gerard than with that other fellow concocted Conan Doyle. (less)
I really wanted to love this book. I toured the Old Manse in Concord, MA this past summer and began learning more about Massachusetts' transcendentali...moreI 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". (less)
I suppose 3 stars would more accurately reflect my feelings about this book, but so many critics and readers have ladled so much extravagant praise on...moreI suppose 3 stars would more accurately reflect my feelings about this book, but so many critics and readers have ladled so much extravagant praise on Saunders that I instead will give it a contrary 2.
I enjoyed several of the stories, especially "Home" and the titular "Tenth of December". I appreciate some of Saunders' dryly delivered satire. He periodically reminded me of a not-quite-as-funny Vonnegut, down to the futuristic science fiction that's light on science and heavy on satire. Saunders' sense of the absurd appears not so well-developed as Vonnegut's. To me this makes his satire less appealing.
I also appreciated the way Saunders' writing is concertedly informal and frequently mimics written vernacular (e.g., shorthand we all use in writing emails, texts, tweets and so forth) as well as spoken vernacular. The downside of this pervasive use of vernacular is that from story to story, whether Saunders' narrative voice purports to be a teenaged girl or a middle aged man, it sounds like the same voice. This voice - some incarnation of Saunders? - is preoccupied with feelings of powerlessness. In its most appealing, the voice finds something hopeful or redemptive in its situation, or at least finds a way, even accidentally, to exert whatever autonomy of self-determination is left it; in its most annoying, the voice is just a sadsack, stumbling through the world, feeling like a victim of bad luck, failing at every opportunity to take responsibility for the extent to which it has created its own sadsack situation.
I simultaneously enjoyed the non-determinant structure of Saunders' stories and rolled my eyes at it. He frequently drops a narrative, ending a story midstream, and I do like authors who refuse to supply neat endpoints or pretty bows to artificially create narrative closure. However, likely as not, something in his style made these abrupt endings feel concertedly pregnant, as though Saunders is reminding us just how profound he is being by declining to write any further at just this moment in a story. Given that all the reviewers quoted on the jacket of Tenth of December are, in fountains of laudatory spew, assuring the reader how deep and poignant and funny and profound Saunders is, it's obnoxious that he creates moments that underhandedly tell the reader this same thing. (less)
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 s...moreThis 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. (less)
After the fifth story, I felt like I was reading the same story again and again...or at least stories that rehashed the same ideas over and over again...moreAfter the fifth story, I felt like I was reading the same story again and again...or at least stories that rehashed the same ideas over and over again. So even while I liked the basic story template here, I didn't finish the whole book. Perhaps sometime I will. It was repetition that stopped me. I have one additional warning to modern readers - prepare for periodic but persistent racism. Written by a white European woman in the early 20th century, who purported to have extensive experience with "eastern" thought and philosophy (in quotes because she seems to mean India, but there is much much more "east"), these stories hinge on spiritual and philosophical views that would have been fairly unusual to the ears of westerners at the time - so unusual that the word "occult" winds up in the title. Anyway, the alarmingly blatant superiority complex especially typical of white people in this time period (and in so, so many others *sigh*) sneaks into otherwise interesting stories over and over again. The specifically patriarchal and condescending British view of their relationship to India in this period surely heightened this sense, even for a woman who seems to think she was writing sympathetically of Indian culture. Instead this is rather a great illustration of Said's "orientalism" at work. Interesting as sociology, I suppose. (less)
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 of...moreOf 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.(less)