It took a bit of time, at least from this particular volume, to recognize the reasons for Wodehouse's pre-eminance as British Humorist. I still did no...moreIt took a bit of time, at least from this particular volume, to recognize the reasons for Wodehouse's pre-eminance as British Humorist. I still did not find that those reasons were able to upturn Adams or Pope, but Wodehouse has a wit and verve which cannot be denied.
What I expected (and eventually got) was a bit of mastery of the art of the ridiculous situation, where the escalation of events and unlikely (but usually, rationally-following) coincidences provides an equal escalation of hilarity.
Wodehouse's wordplay is strong, but it is likely that my estimation of him fell in that it was not as strong as the aforementioned authors. I find that the greatest wit and humor comes with that one must work for; a sense that you have shared something with the author: bridged time and space and come to a coy little understanding. For me, the sense of such a wink and nudge which moves even beyond death connects the fundamental tragedy which underlies humor to the absurd tragedy of life, itself.
Not everyone needs such bizarre little requirements met, however; nor the ego-stoking of matching wits with some great author. Wodehouse presents little idiomatic tales which achieve the greatest challenge of any author: making pointless drivel seem as important in writing as it is in our everyday lives. In a world where books seem to have the ability to make all-powerful, beautiful, serendipidous, charming gods into boring cliches, he is a welcome refreshment.(less)
A writer whose self-absorbed mendacity cannot but shine through even in his completely unadorned and occasionally witty style. One wonders what he mig...moreA writer whose self-absorbed mendacity cannot but shine through even in his completely unadorned and occasionally witty style. One wonders what he might have been without the inescapable self-hatred which ended him.(less)
Beautiful and wonderful. Works of genius by a man who freed himself enough that he could give himself up to that genius instead of trying to make sure...moreBeautiful and wonderful. Works of genius by a man who freed himself enough that he could give himself up to that genius instead of trying to make sure that it came out perfectly. As pleasing as his other works are, none I've read can match the joy, humor, simplicity, and odd truth of these.
Like children's literature should be, these stories never lose their humor or punch. Despite some redundancy with actual myths and some cases of artificially lowering complexity for children and hence growing transparent, eminently enjoyable.(less)
Donoghue combines self-righteous messages with blatantly didactic interior monologues which can only appeal to those already believing everything she...moreDonoghue combines self-righteous messages with blatantly didactic interior monologues which can only appeal to those already believing everything she says. She spurs no thought which was not already there, and in writing a book which never aspired to art, has done what your average writer does: increase the general volume of words in print, and nothing more. A string of random monkey-typed characters would have aided mankind as well.(less)
I wish Harlan Ellison's books were as good as his editorial work. Somehow, his cleverness and mastery of language gets left behind once he starts hash...moreI wish Harlan Ellison's books were as good as his editorial work. Somehow, his cleverness and mastery of language gets left behind once he starts hashing out fiction. I know this is an earlier work of his, but comparing the stories here, even 'I have no mouth but I must scream' to something like his introduction to Gaiman's Sandman shows two very different styles. Unfortunately, the former failed to engage me.(less)
In Asia, aphorism is a high art; there, the greatest of poems may be said in one breath. In the West, our greatest poems come in books numbered twelve...moreIn Asia, aphorism is a high art; there, the greatest of poems may be said in one breath. In the West, our greatest poems come in books numbered twelve, and only the greatest of men can remember the length of them.
However, we still maintain our aphorists, though often consider them as comical wits, would do well to remember the skill of indicating truth is with them. There is the poet, Nietzsche, who is also a philosopher and who summed up the goal of the aphorist well: "It is my ambition to say in ten sentences what everyone else says in a whole book — what everyone else does not say in a whole book." There is the politician, Disraeli, who found that ruling men meant understanding a plural and remarkable simplicity. There is the self-concerned wit Wilde, who told us that genius lies in misunderstanding and is so widely and unknowingly quoted that it is a cliche.
Speak what you will of Twain, but Bierce is America's entreant into the minute art; Twain would admit as much, himself. Indeed, Clemens considered 'The Occurance at Owl Creek Bridge' to be the single greatest short story of all Americans.
The man who copies the Psalms onto a grain of rice has condensed space, but the author who places the depth of a book into a short story has condensed meaning. The utterly deliberate and unfettered Owl Creek is a difinitively superior work, just as the man who strikes the bull's eye with his arrow by chance is never the equal to the one that may do so at his leisure.
There is an old French film which makes an excellent adaptation of this work, and which was once featured on the Twilight Zone, if that lends any notion of its quality.(less)
I think what would really make this book complete would be two more chapters. Then it would be wide enough to correct the short leg on my dining-room...moreI think what would really make this book complete would be two more chapters. Then it would be wide enough to correct the short leg on my dining-room table. As of now, the thing can have no possible purpose.(less)
I must say that I greatly enjoyed Balzac's exploration of the idea that in art, it is not enough to simply copy reality. There is a reason that 'art'...moreI must say that I greatly enjoyed Balzac's exploration of the idea that in art, it is not enough to simply copy reality. There is a reason that 'art' shares its root with 'artificial'. When we take the form of life and reproduce it on the page, or in sculpture, it becomes reduced and limited by the medium, losing its vitality and becoming corpselike. When we reduce a breathing, three-dimensional figure to the unmoving, flat plane of the canvas, depth is inevitably lost. So, as artists, we must replace that true vitality with some other energy, with creative energy, producing forms that are stylized, idealized, more beautiful, more grotesque, and more meaningful than can exist in nature. Mimicry of life without purpose and direction is the least form of art, if indeed it can be called art at all--the only style which the that author lends to his work is only the result of his flaws as a craftsman.(less)
Roland Barthes talked about 'writerly' and 'readerly' books. I've struggled for a long time, myself, in trying to come up for terms to talk about the...moreRoland Barthes talked about 'writerly' and 'readerly' books. I've struggled for a long time, myself, in trying to come up for terms to talk about the differences between deliberate works and those which are too bumbling, too one-sided, or too ill-informed to make the reader think.
While The Yellow Wallpaper brings up interesting points, it does not really deal with them. The text has become part of the canon not for the ability of the author, which is on the more stimulating end of middling, but because it works as a representational piece of a historical movement.
As early feminism, this work is an undeniable influence. It points out one of the most apparent symptoms of the double-standard implied by the term 'weaker sex'. However, Gilman tends to suggest more than she asks, thus tending toward propaganda.
It may be easy to say this in retrospect when the question "is isolating women and preventing them from taking action really healthy?" was less obvious back then. However, I have always been reticent to rate a work more highly merely because it comes from a different age. Austen, the Brontes, Christina Rossetti, and Woolf all stand on their own merits, after all.
This symbolism by which this story operates is simplistic and repetitive. The opinions expressed are one-sided, leaving little room for interpretation. This is really the author's crime, as she has not tried to open the debate so much as close it, and in imagining her opinion to mark the final word on the matter, has doomed her work to become less and less relevant.
This is the perfect sort of story to teach those who are beginning literary critique, because it does not suggest questions to the reader, but answers. Instead of fostering thought, the work becomes a puzzle with a solution to be worked out, not unlike a math problem. This is useful for the reader trying to understand how texts can create meaning, but under more rigorous critique, it is not deep or varied enough to support more complex readings.
Unfortunately, this means it is also the sort of story that will be loved by people who would rather be answered than questioned. It may have provided something new and intriguing when it was first written, but as a narrow work based on a simplistic sociological concept, can no longer make that claim.
The story is also marked by early signs of the Gothic movement, and lying on the crux of that and Feminism, is not liable to be forgotten. The symbolism it uses is a combination of classical representations of sickness and metaphors of imprisonment. Sickness, imprisonment, and madness are the quintessential concepts explored by the Gothic writers, but this work is again quite narrow in its view. While the later movement was interested in this in the sense of existential alienation, this story is interested in those things not as a deeper psychological question, but as the allegorical state of woman.
Horror is partially defined by the insanity and utter loneliness lurking in everyone's heart, and is not quite so scary when the person is actually alone and mad. Though it does come from the imposition of another person's will, which is horrific, the husband has no desire to be cruel or to harm the woman, nor is such even hinted subconsciously. Of course, many modern feminists would cling to the notion that independent of a man's desire to aid, he can do only harm, making this work an excellent support to their politicized chauvinism.
I won't question the historical importance or influence of this work, but it is literarily very simple. A single page of paper accurately dating the writing of Shakespeare's Hamlet would also be historically important, but just because it is related to the threads of literary history does not mean it is fine literature.(less)
Back when I was a young fencing coach, I had an epiphany about how skill develops that has come to define the way I approach learning. I'd be working...moreBack when I was a young fencing coach, I had an epiphany about how skill develops that has come to define the way I approach learning. I'd be working with students who might have been fencing for a few weeks or a few months when a new face would walk in. I'd put a sword in his hand and set him up against one of the others and, as often as not, the newcomer would win, despite having no foreknowledge of fencing.
His frustrated opponent would sigh, shake his head, and declare "it's not my fault, he was doing weird stuff". When we first begin to practice any activity, we have no preconception for how it's going to feel, for the rhythm or the most effective techniques--we just do what comes to mind.
Then, we are taught all the basic rules, and these rules can be constraining. I could beat every one of those regular students because I knew how to deal with circle parries, ripostes, and balestras. There was nothing about the direction of attack or the changes in distance that was going to surprise me. Learning the rules changes how you think about the game, and it makes you predictable.
I've seen the same pattern in writers: often, their first few works are vivid and unusual, difficult to pin down. Writing is still a challenge to them, an unfamiliar thing which they must figure out as they go along, and creativity is the result of trying to overcome difficulty.
After a while, they begin to settle in to a mode. They have figured out what works for them, they have the methods and shortcuts down. But without hardship to drive them, this can lead to predictable, repetitive work.
This is the second volume in Del Ray's collection of the Conan stories, and it is the only collection of all Howard's original manuscripts for those stories, untainted by later editors. As I mentioned in my review, the earlier stories from the first volume are wilder, and show more variability, depicting Conan at many points in his life, dealing with a number of different situations.
This volume is more homogenous: they are about an older Conan embroiled in political machinations, which was enjoyable for a student of history, as anyone who has read Tacitus or Sallust cannot fail to recognize Howard's stylistic inspiration.
That isn't to say that the stories do not also contain the patented bloody action which Conan is known for, but for the first time I began to feel that Conan didn't need action. His stories are always about human desires, about interaction and struggle, and open conflict is only one way to resolve such conflicts. Howard shows he is willing and capable of exploring other aspects of his world, and that, unlike other authors who wrote about the character, Howard never forgets that Conan is not merely some emotionless killer, but a man with "gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth".
But the style and tone of these stories becomes predictable. We do not get the subversive women or eccentric secondary characters, instead there are mostly cliches and placeholders, dull copies of figures we've seen in earlier stories. It seems like Howard has settled into a groove here, which isn't beneficial for pulp or weird fiction.
But there is one thing in this collection that is new for Howard: length. Many authors have tried to transition from short works to novels, and it's rarely a pretty thing to watch. For later master of Sword & Sorcery Fritz Leiber, the additional length meant a loss of pace and depth. Whereas before, a hundred pages would hold a half dozen stories, each with its own tone and setting, now it was all the continuation of a single tone.
But Howard shows that he is able to make the transition without losing his fast pace or his myriad views of the world. Though the novel-length Hour of the Dragon takes many themes and ideas from previous stories, the way they are woven together with action, intrigue, and a larger, overarching plot is skillful. There is no filler there--indeed, there are a number of scenes that could have run on longer, with more detail, without hurting the book's pace.
The larger plot is reliant on that genre standby: the fetch quest for the magical mcguffin--but Howard's treatment of it is not as simplistic or convenient as most genre books. Conan doesn't port the thing around in his pocket and pull it out to get himself out of jams, the same magic both opens and closes the action of the plot, and the item itself has its own history, distinct from the events of the plot. Beyond that, any careful reader familiar with the Mythos connection between Lovecraft and Howard will see numerous clues about how magic in Conan's world has a more insidious, cosmic source.
What was disappointing in the story was the fact that, despite depicting an ancient, pre-deluge world, the combat was all described in terms of high chivalric cavalry charges, longbows, and heavy armor. It would have been more interesting to see a take on Greek or Roman warfare instead of a rehash of Doyle's White Company.
So it seems that after his early experiments, stories that were sometimes erratic but rarely repetitious, Howard has settled into a more predictable style, that plateau we all hit after we have learned and internalized a set of rules. But then, why learn them in the first place? The secret is that once we have mastered those rules, once they are second nature, we can begin again to experiment, and to become unpredictable.
Though many think of a 'black belt' as the sign of a master, in truth it is the sign that a student has learned all of those basic things which must be gotten out of the way before the real learning can start. Once those basic elements no longer occupy us, we are free to really explore.
So, here's my hope: that in the third volume, Howard will be able to combine the creativity of his early works with the reliability of this middle stretch so that his final stories will will live up to their reputation as the strongest of the Conan tales.(less)
December 26th, 1913, Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce disappeared into the Mexican desert, never to be seen again, and so it was that, in appropriately mysteri...moreDecember 26th, 1913, Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce disappeared into the Mexican desert, never to be seen again, and so it was that, in appropriately mysterious manner, one of the premiere American horror authors passed on into the undying realm of night. Bierce was the preeminent innovator of supernatural stories between the death of Poe and the rise of Lovecraft, and to be quite honest, I prefer his approach to either of theirs.
While those authors tended toward dour, indulgent, overwrought prose, Bierce preferred a lighter touch, built upon precise, carefully-constructed prose and driven by a deeply morbid wit, somewhere between Nietzsche and Alexander Pope. What may be most interesting about his tales is that, despite their simplicity, they often require quite a bit of thought from the reader: when you reach the end, you know something terrible unnatural has occurred, but piecing together precisely what happened requires a moment of reflection, where the discrete details of the story come together to imply something much more grandly dark than the apparently simple story would seem to contain.
To me, the sheer mirthlessness of Poe and Lovecraft denies their stories a certain depth--they are not capturing the whole human experience, but concentrating obsessively on one particular part, as befits the natures of such odd, affected men--men who we imagine to be just as off-putting as the strange, damaged characters in their stories. Bierce's abberation if of a different sort, that of a deep cynic who turns to laugh at the world, at its every aspect, life and death, joy and horror. In missing this from their stories, other horror authors reject a large part of the palette with which horror and madness can be depicted.
Chambers dabbled effectively in this laughing tief, as well, but with more uneven results, as his horror career slowly transformed into a series of bland drawing-room romances. Dunsany, also, has a sense of wit, and of the humor of desperation, but none has so devotedly focused the breadth and depth of their talent on the subject as Bierce.
Some of the stories in this, the last of two such collections Bierce published, are similar, but there are also those inexplicable and masterful standouts which differ in their approach and the effect they achieve from any other horror author. In the end, there is no mistaking Bierce's handiwork, it is in every line: in every careful comma and semicolon, every aphoristic turn, touch of frontier Americana, vivid picture of awful war, and wryly bitter observation.(less)
"There are my 'Poe' pieces and my 'Dunsany pieces' – but alas – where are any Lovecraft pieces?"
-H.P. Lovecraft, 1929
What really makes Lovecraft interesting is the degree to which he was a student of the Horror genre. As his influential essay Supernatural Horror in Literature shows, Lovecraft was a voracious reader who went far afield in his search for interesting Horror authors. If Lovecraft hadn't been such an odd recluse, and instead pursued an academic career, we might not have had to wait a century for scholar S.T. Joshi to drag the genre into the sphere of literary criticism.
Due to his vast knowledge, Lovecraft was able to pick through influences and styles when he wrote his stories, but instead of synthesizing all of those disparate inspirations into a new vision of his own, Lovecraft was more likely to work in bits and pieces, creating recognizable, sometimes formulaic story types in which we can easily trace the ideas he drew from Dunsany, Blackwood, Hodgson, Chambers, or Bierce.
Beyond that, his style was not always engaging, relying as he did on rather purple prose and extended explanations of his characters' innermost thoughts, instead of letting the actions and subtle cues speak for themselves. As such, his stories tended to lack the power and poetry of the great Horror authors who influenced him, but Lovecraft was such a prolific author, and so invested in his genre on a conceptual level that he did create a number of classics.
He also had a considerable influence on other writers through the vast correspondence which he kept up throughout his whole life with lasting, notable authors such as R.E. Howard, Fritz Leiber, Derleth, Clarke Ashton Smith, and numerous others, not only introducing them to the many ideas and authors Lovecraft had collected, but opening himself up to the thoughts and experiences of all those young, up-and-coming authors.
Then there is the lasting effect of the 'Mythos' (sometimes called the 'Cthulhu Mythos'), that interconnected set of ideas and approaches that became a sort of 'shared world' for other authors to explore--whit are still being explored in an unabated string of short-story collections published every year despite the fact that all the stories in them tend to be terrible. But the Mythos was not quite Lovecraft's original invention, it was instead an attempt to take the worlds of the previous great Horror authors and combine them into one grand setting.
Probably the most unique aspect of Lovecraft's work was his combination of the chilling, aloof alienness of Dunsany's elves with the otherworldly, interdimensional terrors explored by Hodgson to produce that characteristic 'Cosmic Horror' which, while not invented by Lovecraft, was brought to a higher lustre in his works.
Though the Lovecraft stories that I find most interesting are not his 'Poe pieces', his straight Horror works--which should not be surprising, since I'm not especially fond of Poe--but his Dunsany-inspired Fantasies, such as The Silver Key and several other entries in his Dream Cycle, which tend to be rather less formulaic recreations of the styles and forms of earlier authors, than explorations of the mind, and of possibility. Beyond that, Lovecraft's very deliberate, thoughtful style seems to work better in a world of waking dreams than one of world-hopping adventure and monster attacks.
However, in the end, I would suggest that the most lasting effect of Lovecraft's work was born in his intense dislike of seafood, which gave his monsters and beasties their shapes, and proved a much more effective choice than Hodgson's odd distaste for pig. Indeed, Lovecraft's disgust must surely rank among the most influential gustatory preferences in the history of literature.(less)