Bill Kerwin's Reviews > The Collected Supernatural and Weird Fiction of Emma Frances Dawson: The Itinerant House and Other Stories-One Novelette: 'a Gracious Visitation' and

The Collected Supernatural and Weird Fiction of Emma Frances ... by Emma Frances Dawson
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Jul 10, 2016

did not like it
bookshelves: weird-fiction, ghost-stories, short-stories
Read from January 09 to March 22, 2012

There are two good things I can say about Dawson: 1) Ambrose Bierce--who described her as his "pupil" (his quotes, not mine)--wrote an appreciation of this collection, calling it "a work of supreme genius," and 2) it must take a great deal of misapplied talent to write something this bad.

Born in Bangor, Maine in 1838 as Fanny Emma Dawson, Emma Frances Dawson claimed to have been born in Boston, Massachusetts in 1843. A singer of talent, she also claimed to have been tutored by Adelina Patti's father, a claim that lacks corroborative evidence. In addition, she asserted that her father was an important builder of railroads, yet no proof has been found for this either.

Emma moved West to San Francisco's Russian Hill where she supported herself, and her invalid mother, by teaching school and giving piano lessons. Forced to relocate by the 1906 Earthquake, she lived a reclusive life with her two pet parrots in a Palo Alto bungalow until--rumor has it--she starved to death at the age of 88.

I have to admit that Bierce's praise is the principal reason I completed this book. I kept looking for the "genius" to reveal itself, but--alas!--I never found it. (Could it be that mentor Bierce pitied Emma's hard-scrabble life and let that pity cloud his judgment? Could it be that "Bitter Bierce" was really a big softie after all?)

Although I found no genius here, I did find much that was ingenious. Dawson's ideas for ghost stories are often original. (The "Itinerant House," for example, features a haunting by the spirit of a live woman rather than a dead one, and in "Are the Dead Dead?" a ghost is mistaken for a member of a ghost hunter club.) Also, she possesses a talent for description in the fin de siecle manner and a fine sense of place--perhaps best revealed in the detailed depiction of the underground world of Chinatown in "The Dramatic in My Destiny," one of the most effective stories in this collection. All in all, these stories give me an excellent feel for the world of pre-1906 San Francisco.

Sure, I admit that her descriptions are good, and detailed, but they aren't good enough to be this detailed. She piles irrelevancy upon irrelevancy until the thread of the narrative simply disappears, and when she wishes to produce an emotional effect--particularly one involving romance--the result is often ludicrous and bathetic. She lards everything with pretentious literary and musical allusions, usually uttered sententiously in the most stilted dialogue imaginable. Finally, she seems to use every story as a pretext for printing her long mellifluous but vapid poems which are invariably tangential to the narrative. The result is 90% icing, 10% cake--a percentage I find infuriating.

I'll leave you with a few characteristic samples of E.F.D., beginning with one sample stanza taken from its 30 pages of poetry(approximately 15% of the book):

At last, at last, cease all thy raging clamour,
Nor beat and pant against my window-pane,
I listen now; at last thine eerie hammer
Mine heart hath welded for their mystic strain--
Nay crouch not nigh with clank of heavy chain,
Refrain! Refrain!

Here the female narrator encounters a handsome Russian Orthodox priest, approaching middle age, but still hot:

"His lofty Mithraic head-gear did not mar the remains of romantic blonde beauty. As I looked at him, I wondered what heartbreak he had known or caused."

And I conclude with this passage, in which three guys heavily armed with quotations try to express why a particular house creeps them out:

"When my firm sent me abroad, I went sight-seeing among old palaces, whose Gobelin tapestries framed in their walls were faded to gray phantoms of pictures, but out of some the thrilling eyes followed me till I could not stay in their range. My feeling here is the uneasy one of being watched."

"Ha!" said Volz. "You remind me of Heine, when he wrote from Livorno. He knew no Italian, but the old palaces whispered secrets unheard by day. The moon was interpreter, knew the lapidary style, translated to dialect of his heart."

"Strange effects after the moon," mused Wynne. "That gives new meaning to Kent's threat: 'I'll make a sop o' the moonshine of you!"

"Volz went on: "Heine wrote: 'The stones here speak to me, and I know their mute language. Also, they seem deeply to feel what I think. So a broken column of the old Roman times, an old tower of Lombardy, a weather-beaten Gothic piece of a pillar understands me well. But I am a ruin myself, wandering among ruins."

"Perhaps, like Poe's hero," said I, "I have imbibed shadows of fallen columns at Balbec, and Tadmore, and Persepoolis, until my very soul has become a ruin"

"But I too," said Wynne, "feel the unrest of Tannhauser: Alas! what seek I here, or anywhere,/ Whose way of life is like the crumbled stair/ That winds and winds about a ruined tower,/ And leads no wither."

"I am oppressed," Volz owned, "as if someone in my presence was suffering deeply."

I think I know what Volz means. I feel oppressed too.

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Comments (showing 1-15 of 15) (15 new)

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message 1: by Jon (new)

Jon I'm convinced! Just read a couple of unforgettable stories about the Civil War by Bierce today. Not the first good writer to overpraise in a blurb.

message 2: by Bill (last edited May 05, 2012 10:33PM) (new) - rated it 1 star

Bill  Kerwin "Chickamauga" does more in fewer words to communicate the horrors of war than anything I've read, and "One of the Missing" haunts me as well. What Civil War stories did you read?

message 3: by Jon (new)

Jon Well, you've added two to my to-read pile. I read "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" and "The Affair at Coulter's Notch." I'll confess I saw both surprise endings coming, mostly because I've read so many less skillful imitators who have cropped up over the last 120 years. But that doesn't take away from his originality, his daring, or the skill with which he got to those endings.

message 4: by B0nnie (new) - added it

B0nnie Bill Kerwin you meanie ;-) you've single-handedly brought this book to the bottom of the rating pile!

message 5: by Jon (new)

Jon I've now read the two stories you recommended. "Haunting" is certainly the right word. I had no idea that the author of "The Devil's Dictionary" wrote things like these. Extraordinary.

message 6: by Jean (last edited Jul 13, 2015 03:01PM) (new)

Jean You've done it again Bill - made me laugh out loud :D
Thank you; I shall avoid Fanny, Emma, Frances, whatever, Dawson.

Bill  Kerwin Jean wrote: "You've done it again Bill - made me laugh out loud :D
Thank you; I shall avoid Fanny, Emma, Frances, whatever, Dawson."

Thanks. You laughter is sufficient reason for me to have read this book. And believe me, I was looking for justification!

message 8: by M.R. Doyle (new)

M.R. Doyle I hate you all.

message 9: by Asta (new)

Asta I could not help but visualize a scene with Miss Piggy and Kermit the Frog while reading that overwrought piece of poetry - at least it made me laugh! I will avoid this book most enthusiastically. Thank you for the warning, and the entertainment. :-)

message 10: by Nate (new)

Nate Is it terrible I'd like to read this for the early San Francisco milieu alone? That dialogue though was atrocious.

Bill  Kerwin Nate wrote: "Is it terrible I'd like to read this for the early San Francisco milieu alone? That dialogue though was atrocious."

It is pretty bad--and, as the quoted passage shows, not that easy to read either. I'm sure you can find better S.F. descriptions elsewhere. But if you are determined to read the descriptions, do yourself a favor and skip the rest!

message 12: by Evan (new)

Evan Dawson appears to be better than 99.9 percent of those listed as "Goodreads Author."

Bill  Kerwin Evan wrote: "Dawson appears to be better than 99.9 percent of those listed as "Goodreads Author.""

Since I aspire one day to be such an author, I hesitate to agree with you.

But, like I said, it takes talent to write this bad. Or at least bad in this particular way. Nowadays, bad writers reach their badness by far less arduous paths.

message 14: by Evan (last edited Jul 10, 2016 12:10PM) (new)

Evan I obviously logically cannot class those who aspire with those who already are.

I agree, those who have reached these Marianas trenches of lowness have done so on golf carts. If that's a mixed metaphor, then I blame the Dawson gene (spiritually, at any rate).

Tadiana ✩Night Owl☽ "three guys heavily armed with quotations" made me snort. :)

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