Sunday, December 14, 2014

R.I.P. Lee Sandlin

Lee Sandlin, a great writer, a knowledgeable and giving reader, and, in recent years, a friend, has died. I first knew him solely as a writer. I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that his two-part essay "Losing the War," published in the Chicago Reader in 1997, essentially made me a reader of history, even as it made me want the most from history: context, analysis, complex ethical thought and empathy. It's an incredible essay, and if you've not read Lee's work before, it's a great place to start.

Right around this time last year, I praised The Distancers, his memoir of his great-aunts and great-uncles, as one of the best books of the year. As that's a book that's largely about remembering--and that stands as a testament to the power of a writer to help us hold on to something of those who are gone--it seems appropriate to quote it here:
Lee Sandlin's memoir of a number of his ancestors (great-aunts and uncles, mostly) achieves something admirable: it brings ordinary people from generations before ours to life, locates them in their place and time, and, without setting ourselves or our own times up as better, or more advanced, shows us just how different they were, how truly far away from the familiar you get as you walk back through the decades. At the same time, he tells a moving story of ordinary people (if strange, and even in some cases damaged--driven, as Anthony Powell put it, by their own furies) living quiet lives, destined to disappear from memory were it not that they had a descendant who became a writer, one who cares about what we lose when memories fade.
In recent years, Lee and I had become online friends. Oh, we'd met in person once or twice, but our friendship was conducted almost entirely through e-mail and Twitter, always going back and forth about books. Just last week, we traded effusions over Anthony Powell, a shared favorite. I'll greatly miss those conversations, just as I'll miss knowing that I could go to Lee with a question on just about any author and get some sort of opinion. He was a reader through and through, and I was grateful every time I got to talk books with him.

Rest in peace, Lee.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Thanksgiving biibliomancy

In the days before I'm to travel, I usually find myself in a delicate dance with my reading. Weeks in advance, I've already started mentally stockpiling books for the trip, but as the days dwindle, I have to, as it were, prepare for takeoff: I don't want to be midway through a book that I'm enjoying, thus forcing the tough decision of whether to table it midway or carry a book that will be nothing but dead weight two hours into the trip. So I haul down my books of essays and short stories, extract the bookmarks from where they rested after the last trip, and while away a few days.

This time, though, I found myself turning to James Boswell's inexhaustible Life of Johnson, which can be picked up or put down at any point. Almost every page has something of interest, some line of wisdom or wit from either the subject or the author. Which led me to think of the classical tradition of the Sortes Vergilianae: the consultation, at random, of the works of Virgil in hope of finding advice or fortune. Sanctified by Hadrian--who in 808 saw foretellings of his accession to the throne--it has, with Virgil and the whole classical tradition, fallen out of favor these days, as has, one suspects, bibliomancy in general. But as we're on the verge of a holiday, and all the history and tradition it brings in its train, I thought it would be fun to close out November with a bit of perhaps less time-honored bibliomancy.

Let us start, however, with the proper sources. First we'll turn to the only competitor, historically, for Virgil in this regard: the Bible. I don't actually have my King James to hand, so we'll do this old-fashioned trick a new-fashioned way, via the Sanders Family's random Bible verse page. We get Proverbs 3:11-12:
My son, do not despise the Lord's discipline
or be weary of his reproof,
for the Lord reproves him whom he loves,
as a father the son in whom he delights.
Ah, already we're getting a bit of family conflict around the table. Sounds like someone's getting scolded. The verse immediately puts me back in mind of Johnson, who in a passage I read yesterday tells Boswell,
Power, in whatever hands it is placed, will sometimes be improperly exerted; the courts of law must judge, though they will sometimes judge amiss. A father must instruct his children, though he himself may often want instruction.
And now to Virgil, in the wonderful translation by Robert Fagles. We get a verse from Book Six, "The Kingdom of the Dead." That doesn't sound promising, does it?
Attendants run knives under throats and catch
warm blood in bowls.
Good lord. Let us hope not to have that be our Thanksgiving.

From there, we move more into the realm of I've Been Reading Lately favorites. First up, Robert Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy, a book that's surely suited for post-turkey lethargy:
The Persian kings themselves drank no other drink than the water of Choaspes, that runs by Susa, which was carried in bottles after them whithersoever they went.
Now Chaucer, from the Canterbury Tales. We get "The Canon's Yeoman's Prologue":
Why is thy lord so sluttissh, I thee preye?
Oh, my. I suspect the family member who said that had been drinking something a tad stronger than the water of Choaspes during dinner, no?

Speaking of sluttish, here's Byron, from his journals:
It is singular how soon we lose the impression of what ceases to be constantly before us.--A year impairs, a lustre obliterates.--There is little distinct left without an effort of memory,--then indeed the lights are rekindled for a moment--but who can be sure that the Imagination is not the torch-bearer?
That's for those of you unfortunate enough to have lots of cousins: remember to brush up on who's who before you sit down on Thursday!

Sei Shonagon, from her Pillow Book:
148. These weapons were used mainly for ceremonies, processions, and the like.
In other words: whatever you do, do not draw your sword at the table on Thanksgiving! It's only for show!

Now Milton, from Paradise Lost. We get Book VI:
Servant of God, well done, well hast thou fought
The better fight, who single has maintain'd
Against revolted multitudes the Cause
Of Truth, in word mightier than they in Arms:
And for the testimony of Truth has borne
Universal reproach, far worse to bear
Than violence.
Uh-oh. I'm not sure I'd recommend Milton as your guide. Thanksgiving, if it is to remain hospitable, is probably not the best place to declare oneself a warrior for truth.

Fortunately, it seems that Montaigne might agree. From his longest work, the Apology for Raymond Sebond:
What does truth preach to us, when she exhorts us to flee worldly philosophy, when she so often inculcates in us that our wisdom is but folly before God; that of all vanities the vainest is man; that the man who is presumptuous of his knowledge does not yet know what knowledge is; and that man, who is nothing, if he thinks he is something, seduces and deceives himself?
In other words: if you're about to call a family member an idiot, you might consider having a piece of pie instead. Everyone will be happier.

With that, we creep a bit closer to our own era, and Melville. Moby-Dick, almost as inexhaustible as the Life of Johnson, delivers:
Yet their doubting those traditions did not make those traditions one whit the less facts, for all that.
The Thanksgiving meal can certainly be improved upon (says this vegetarian), and I'm sure Slate has a host of recommendations. But there is something to be said for the memories evoked by stuffing, and sweet potatoes baked with marshmallows, and Presbyterian green bean casserole. Tradition may not taste as good as innovation, but there's other value there.

From Melville, we go a bit afield, to the book in this batch that is my newest acquaintance: The Element of Lavishness: The Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner and William Maxwell. Maxwell has long been a beloved, admired favorite, but Warner has only recently stolen her way into my heart, via her empathetic biography of T. H. White and these clever, kind, smart letters. Randomness presents us one she wrote to Maxwell on January 11, 1962:
And of course, with the exception of hermits, saints have had to spend a great portion of their lives in the company of pious and religious people, and we all know how disheartening that can be, and even, so to speak, disfiguring.
May your table have around it a family that is light of heart, and quick of wit. Let there be prayers, if that is how you or they are constituted, but let them be followed by jokes.

It wouldn't be right to send you into the holiday without drawing on my two old standbys, Anthony Powell and Donald E. Westlake.Here's Powell, from his notebook:
"They are casting lots for my raiment at this moment," someone remarks.
That sounds unpleasantly like Thanksgiving at the Lear residence.

And to send us home, here, from The Getaway Car, is Westlake:
Except for those who hit it big early, the only writers who stay with writing over the long haul are those who can't find a viable alternative.
Or, if we allow Robert Frost to put it in a Thanksgiving context:
Home is the place where, when you have to go there,
They have to take you in.
Happy Thanksgiving, folks. Thanks for reading along with me for yet another year.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Penelope Fitzgerald's notebooks

This week has found me happily reading Hermione Lee's biography of Penelope Fitzgerald, after the UK edition inexplicably mouldered on my shelves for almost a year. Maybe it's because, at more than four hundred pages, it at first seemed excessive, for the wholly silly reason that surely Fitzgerald, that master of leaving out, ought to have a slim life?

Halfway through, I'm so, so glad for the length--and for Twitter, which has allowed me to share line after line that Lee has dredged up from Fitzgerald's many working notebooks and diaries. In her novels and nonfiction, Fitzgerald was such a good writer of sentences, marrying elegance, concision, and meaning, and her presumably far less polished notebooks turn out to have their share. A quick selection:
The whole art of happiness consists in staying in one place.

Borges likes to keep complications, but reduce them to their most economical form.

I've come to see art as the most important thing but not to regret that I haven't spent my life on it.

One is only middle-aged once.

I am drawn to people who seem to have been born defeated or, even, profoundly lost.

To live in the country with dog cat an apple tree books a listener--not only good but the only good.

Even evil spirits keep in touch with themselves.
I could go on and on. The impression Lee gives is that Fitzgerald didn't maintain a single, long-term notebook, like Anthony Powell, or a system, like F. Scott Fitzgerald. Rather, she seems to have kept a working notebook for each book, and other notebooks throughout the years for other reasons. When teaching, for example, she had notebooks in which she worked and planned. (That's where the Borges quote comes from.) One of Lee's great achievements in the biography is to make clear how much groundwork Fitzgerald was laying in those notebooks for here eventual, late, arrival as a fiction writer. It ends up being tremendously exciting, watching Fitzgerald making notes for teaching that are at the same time notes for herself on how novels work, or sketching a character in her notebook and clearly beginning to develop some of the precision and judgment that would mark her fiction.

The reason this blog exists is that rocketlass suggested I start one so I would stop reading aloud at parties. (Which she was right to do. Good god.) But the true initial spur to whatever writing about books I've done in the past decade was Fitzgerald's posthumous collection of nonfiction, The Afterlife. Looking back, I have no idea why I picked it up: I knew her name, but I'd read nary a word of her novels. Yet I bought the book and was instantly won over by her perceptiveness and sensibility. Within weeks I had read all her novels and written my first book review, which, submitted cold to the Bloomsbury Review, would also be my first published review. I wrote then,
What comes across most clearly is her appreciation of hard work, craft, and dedication.
Yesterday, ten years later, in an interview about my collection of Donald Westlake's nonfiction, I talked about Westlake's dedication to craft, and boiled down the lessons I learned from close engagement with his writing to these:
Be clear. Be concise. Be concrete. And the work will not do itself.
Thus are laid out the continuities between these two favorite writers, the points of connection between two wildly disparate worlds and aesthetics. Taste is no respecter of genre; attentive reading discovers links between separate spheres.

And now to hope for an edition of Fitzgerald's notebooks--a book I would turn to again and again over the years. A boy can dream, right?

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

T. H. White on Guinevere

I want to share one last piece of T. H. White's writing from Sylvia Tonwsend Warner's biography of him before I turn to something else. White's thoughts on the other crucial character in the Lancelot story, Guinevere, are less astute, and, frankly, less interesting, than his thoughts on Lancelot. At great risk of oversimplifying, I would say it's not unreasonable to attribute his relative lack of perception to a mix of the simple fact that White wasn't a woman, wasn't drawn to women romantically or sexually, and had a complicated, painful relationship with the most important woman in his life, his mother. Nonetheless, his thoughts about Guinevere are far from without interest:
She must have been a nice person, or Lancelot and Arthur (both nice people) would not have loved her. Or does this not follow? Do nice people love nasty ones? Arthur was not a judge of nice people or he would not have had a child by Morgause. And Guenever hardly seems to have been a favourite of Malory's, whatever Tennyson may have thought about her.

She was insanely jealous of Lancelot: she drove him mad: she was suspected of being a poisoner: she made no bones about being unfaithful to Arthur: she had an ungovernable temper: she did not mind telling lies: she was hysterical, according to Sir Bors: she was beastly to Elaine: she was intensely selfish.
So much taken on faith there! And on the word of men, honor-obsessed men who have agendas of their own! While Lancelot's infidelity, even as he chooses it, is described by White as "wrong and against [his] will," Guinevere's is something she "makes no bones about." This court is beginning to seem a bit unfair (and, in the question of whether nice people love nasty ones, impressively naive).

It does get a bit better for Guinevere, who
had some good characteristics. She chose the best lover she could have done, and she was brave enough to let him be her lover: she always stuck to Arthur, though unfaithful to him, possibly because she really liked him: when finally caught, she faced the music: she had a clear judgment of moral issues, even when defying them, a sort of common sense which finally took her into a convent when she could quite well have stayed with Lancelot now that her husband was dead.
But White instantly backtracks:
Was this a piece of clearsightedness or was it cowardice? One way to put it would be to say that she grasped the best of two men while she profited by it, but afterwards betrayed them both. When there was no more to be got out of the Arthur-Lancelot situation she preferred the convent. The other way to put it would be to say that she finally recognized her ill influence and thought it best to shut herself up.
Not a lot of generosity there. No acknowledgment of the limited choices available to a woman, even a former queen, no sense that her heart might actually have been in conflict, a conflict that, rather than being settled by Arthur's death, was made more violent, even toxic by it.

White goes on in that vein for another couple of diary pages, giving with one hand ("She was brave, beautiful"; "She exercised control, demanded return, felt jealousy"), then taking away with the other ("Could she be a sort of tigress, with all the healthy charms and horrors of the carnivore? Is she to eat Lancelot as Morgause ate Arthur?"). Warner describes White's equivocations well:
Like a man on boggy ground, who leaps from tussock to sinking tussock, he zigzagged from conjecture to conjecture.
What I don't recall at this remove--a decade since I last read The Once and Future King is what Guinevere he ultimately ended up with? I don't remember her being a monster, but is she described convincingly? With any sympathy or understanding? Do we see why the two men would fall for her, and what it costs her to be the cause of their rupture? Don't suppose any of you folks have read the book recently and want to offer an opinion?

Monday, November 10, 2014

T. H. White, notes on Lancelot

Last week, when I drew on Sylvia Townsend Warner's biography of her friend T. H. White, I mentioned that one of its strengths was the extravagance of her quotations from White's letters and diaries. Today, I'll indulge in some extended quotation myself, because a passage from White's diaries that Warner cites offers an excellent window into how White thought about Lancelot, the most interesting character in his one lasting masterpiece, The Once and Future King. So, with apologies in advance for its length, here's White's diary entry for October 4, 1939:
What kind of person was Lancelot? I know about half the kind of person he was, because Malory contented himself with stating the obvious half.

Malory's Lancelot is:

1. Intensely sensitive to moral issues.
2. Ambitious of true--not current--distinction
3. Probably sadistic or he would not have taken such frightful care to be gentle.
4. Superstitious or totemistic or whatever the word is. He connects his martial luck with virginity, like the schoolboy who thinks he will only bowl well in the match tomorrow if he does not abuse himself today.
5. Fastidious, monogamous, serious.
6. Ferociously punitive to his own body. He denies it and slave-drives it.
7. Devoted to "honour," which he regards as keeping promises and "having a word." He tries to be consistent.
8. Curiously tolerant of other people who do not follow his own standards. He was not shocked by the lady who as s naked as a needle.
9. Not without a sense of humour. It was a good joke dressing up as Kay. And he often says amusing things.
10. Fond of being alone.
11. Humble about his athleticism: not false modesty.
12. Self-critical. Aware of some big lack in himself. What was it?
13. Subject to pity, cf. no. 3.
14. Emotional. He is the only person Malory mentions as crying from relief.
15. Highly strung: subject to nervous breakdowns.
16. Yet practical. He ends by dealing with the Guenever situation pretty well. He is a good man to have with you in a tight corner.
17. Homosexual? Can a person be ambi-sexual--bisexual or whatever? His treatment of young boys like Gareth and Cote Male Tale is very tender and his feeling for Arthur profound. Yet I do so want not to have to write a "modern" novel about him. I could only bring myself to mention this trait, if it is a trait, in the most oblique way.
18. Human. He firmly believes that for him it is a choice between God and Guenever, and he takes Guenever. He says: This is wrong and against my will, but I can't help it.
Of particular interest in the passage is White's uncertainty not so much about Lancelot's sexuality, but about the very options available for conceiving it. White, who to all appearances was gay, reveals his naivete (and, to be fair, some of the naivete of the period) in that passage--a naivete that surely wasn't helped by a life that, through a combination of choice and unavoidable aspects of his character, he spent mostly in the company of his beloved dog.

More interesting of course is the overall picture of Lancelot the list offers, and the precision with which White's numbered points allows us to picture the knight. This is the essence of the mythic character being drafted into our contemporary, psychological stories: his deepest-rooted characteristics are beginning to be pulled and pressed in ways the let us read back into the past and start to suss out the mind and personality that could generate them. When it comes time to turn that analysis into scene and action, White's depiction of Lancelot is wholly convincing, and our ability to understand and sympathize with his predicament drives the best, most affecting part of the novel.

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Sylvia Townsend Warner on T. H. White

Some recent library browsing--I went there to pick up one book and returned to my office with eight--led me to read Sylvia Townsend Warner's 1965 biography of her friend T. H. White this week. It's an odd book in that way that a certain strain of earlier British biography can be odd: it's deeply rooted in quotation, largely from White's letters and diaries, and it's more interested in giving an overall sense of White than of enabling us to understand a timeline or trajectory.

For a writer like White, who is primarily known for one book (The Once and Future King, which I rank with Watership Down as the most interesting and rewarding of the small subset of books that live on the knife edge between childhood and adult reading), such an approach works well: we see, clearly, how White as a person enchanted and exasperated; how his energy, intellect, and charm drew people in, but his reticence, drinking, and rebarbative tetchiness pushed them away. His was a lonely life, but it's not entirely clear that it was an unhappy one; Warner's great achievement in the biography is to let that ambiguity remain while allowing us to feel we've known the man.

People who follow me on Twitter will have noticed that the book is full of quotable lines, as both Warner and White can reliably turn a phrase. But one bit is far too long to quote there, yet far too good not to share: it's an early passage about a summer in White's undergraduate years when he visited Lapland with a friend, and Warner uses it to give a clinic on how to write in compact but memorable fashion:
Both of them now wanted to visit some uninhabited desert; neither of them could afford to spend a great deal of money getting to it. Studying maps of population densities, they decided on a walking tour in Lapland. They consulted a travel adviser and learned that in midsummer the snows are melted, the climate temperate, the rivers teeming with trout, the moors rich with game-birds feeding on cranberries. They could camp where they pleased and live off the country; some measure of protection against mosquitoes was advisable. It was the travellers' own good idea to add meat concentrates and some chocolate to their 80 lb. weight of equipment. They set out--a handsome high-spirited pair, all laughter, enterprise and romantic friendship. But the climate of Lapland cannot be vouched for, and in 1926 the flush of summer was belated. The snow had not melted, or only melted into freezing slush. The trout were torpid in the icy streams. The game was scanty and evasive, the cranberries not ripe. Only the mosquitoes lived up to their report. Veiled and muffled, hungrier and hungrier, tormented by inflamed insect bites, their faces swollen as though with mumps, their tempers strained, the two young men wandered over the waste in search of food and fuel--for a camp fire was essential, both to keep off the mosquitoes and to save them from dying of cold. The rationed chocolate was almost exhausted and they were barely on speaking terms when White with a long shot brought down a merganser--a species of duck with rudimentary teeth. He threw it across a stream, and while he was searching for a place where he could ford the torrent pictured his companion devouring it raw.
Either Warner polished this one unimportant paragraph multiple times or she was a savant: the rhythm, feel, and sound of it are so effective, even as none of those aspects gets in the way of the primary goal of relating a whole travel adventure in less than a page.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Ten little tales for a late of a Halloween night



{Painting by an unidentified child, spotted in the window of a daycare on Foster Avenue in Chicago.}

As I wind up this widdershins walk around my October library, spooky volumes piled around me where they've been pulled from the shelves for a consultation with a strange story here, a creepy conte there, it seems fitting to make the last shovelful of earth thrown on the corpse of the month a list. So herewith are my current ten favorite creepy stories for Halloween. They're offered with some context and content, in no particular order, and with a bit of extra matter and a few also-rans. Hope you find some here you enjoy.

1 "The Hour after Westerly," by Robert M. Coates (1947)

It's fitting to start with this story, the least overtly creepy of the bunch, yet the one that, via James Hynes's recommendation years ago on his blog, reminded me of the chilly pleasures with which creepy stories had invested my childhood and thus brought them into my adult life. In the story, a man heads home from work, and . . . something happens. Time goes missing. We get a glimpse of what he may have experienced--and there are contours of it that are familiar from our own experience of memory and forgetting, but Coates's deliberate vagueness leaves much of it a mystery. As Ray Bradbury put it in his introduction to Timeless Stories for Today and Tomorrow, which is the best place to find the story,
We are on the outer shell of a mystery, delicately touching at it, afraid to go away without finding the answer, yet afraid, perhaps more so, of the answer itself.
Bradbury is writing specifically about Coates's story, but his description could easily apply to any number of uncanny tales--that looking-between-your-fingers feeling is at the heart of the best ones.

2 "The Sadness of Detail," by Jonathan Carroll (1990)

I wrote about this one in 2010, after I encountered it in Poe's Children, an excellent anthology edited by Peter Straub. A tired woman takes a break in a Berlin cafe, only to have a stranger complain about her humming. Then:
I made an “excuse me” face and was about to turn around again when, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a number of photographs he had spread out on the table in front of him. Most of the pictures were of my family and me.

“Where did you get those?”

He reached behind him and, picking one up, handed it to me. Not looking at it, he said, “That is your son in nine years. He’s wearing a patch because he lost that eye in an automobile accident."
What would it take to make you believe you were being told the future? And once you believed, what would you be willing to do to shape it?

3 "Mr. Lupescu," by Anthony Boucher (1947)

This is the purest example of the twentieth-century magazine story in the bunch: short, straightforward, and packing a hell of a twist. It's so brief and potent you could almost memorize it as a party entertainment--and I guarantee you'd entertain if you did so. It's most readily available in the two-volume American Fantastic Tales anthology that Peter Straub edited for the Library of America a few years back (which, let's be clear, should already be on your shelves.)

4 "The Inner Room," by Robert Aickman (1968)

Aickman's stories are so firmly located in the uncanny that reading them almost feels physical at times, as if we're understanding their images and disjunctions at some level beyond that of culture or the mind, something more primitive. This story, which begins with a dollhouse with an unusual floorplan, takes a couple of unexpected, wonderfully chilling turns. You can find it in Aickman's collection The Wine-Dark Sea.

5 "The Specialist's Hat," by Kelly Link (1998)

Creepy old house with a dark history. Family that has recently suffered loss. Twins. A forest. A babysitter. An attic. Familiar elements, all good ingredients for a weird tale, but Link makes of them something wholly new, achieving a voice that somehow feels both mythic and contemporary. The child-like matter-of-factness with which the narrator relates each new, strange, disturbing development is unforgettably chilling. It's available in Link's Stranger Things Happen.

6 "The Rock," by Shirley Jackson (1951)

Any number of Shirley Jackson stories could have made this list, but "The Rock" is my favorite, for it offers a great example of Jackson's greatest virtue as a writer of short stories: a refusal to fully explain, trusting instead to the mood she's generated. This one finds a pair of sisters retreating to an "rather ordinary summer resort" with the unwell husband of one of them. The unwed sister almost instantly takes against the island, with its "dreadful reaching black rock and sharp incredible outlines against the sunset" and its lone guest house, feeling a "great despair and impulsive dislike." Yet she soon finds that the island has attractions, especially for a woman who is beginning to more feel like a third wheel every day, as her brother-in-law recovers. The last two paragraphs made my skin crawl. You can find the story in Jackson's Come Along with Me.

7 "The Whole Town's Sleeping," by Ray Bradbury (1950)

I make no argument that this is anywhere near Bradbury's best story. It's not even really his best creepy story. But I like having it on this list for what it is: a perfect example of how Bradbury took shared nostalgia for Depression-era small towns, for walkable downtowns and porch-sitting and pre-air-conditioning summer sounds floating in the windows, for movie palaces and boarding houses and neighborliness--and, rather than confronting us with the hideous secrets that underlay it (as people like Sherwood Anderson and David Lynch would do), he simply scared us with it as is. In this case, a young woman walks home from the movies, and to do so she has to cross the ravine (a feature of Bradbury's boyhood Waukegan that plays a part in a number of stories):
The ravine was deep, deep and black, black. And the world was gone, the world of safe people in bed. The locked doors, the town, the drugstore, the theater, the lights, everything was gone. Only the ravine existed and lived, black and huge about her.
It's a perfect example of the "makes-you-jump" genre, and it succeeds not because of any particular inventiveness or uncanny quality, but simply because Bradbury commits to stringing it out, lovingly investing its small-town cliches with summery life. You can find it as the lead story in Bradbury Stories, or in the 1961 Alfred Hitchcock anthology Stories for Late at Night, which also includes the next tale on this list.

8 "Lady's Man," by Ruth Chatterton (1961)

This is easily the gentlest story on this list. It's presented as fiction, but its casual lightness of narrative approach makes it feel like memoir, as if we're simply being told a true story of something inexplicable that happened to Ruth Chatterton once, "in the soft perfect stillness of a June night in England, just before World War II." That tone is just right for her tale of a country house weekend at Noel Coward's Goldenhurst in which a ghost makes an appearance. Is it a true, or even a "true" story? Chatterton gives no external sign--but Philip Hoare's biography of Coward does note that Goldenhurst was said to be haunted. Regardless, the story is charming and chilling in equal parts, Coward's "sweet, sardonic grin" and the habitues of his house excellent company for an autumn afternoon. It can be found right after "The Whole Town's Sleeping" in Stories for Late at Night.

9 "The Sea Was Wet As Sea Could Be," by Gahan Wilson (1967)

These days, Gahan Wilson, in his eighties, is a cartoonist for, among other places, the New Yorker. But he made his career at Playboy in its midcentury heyday, and his thick-lined, pop-eyed, gape-mouthed monstrosities are as distinct as the creations of any cartoonist working. Until this story, however, I hadn't known he wrote fiction; it's so good that one of my upcoming library tasks is determining whether he wrote more. It paints a picture of early 1960s urban sophisticated success--of Playboy's readership, in other words--and filters it through a disappointed, sour, self-loathing, alcoholic haze that will be familiar to readers of Cheever, O'Hara, or any number of other writers:
We should have been lovers or monks in such a place, but we were only a crowd of bored and boring drunks. You were always drunk when you were with Carl. Good old, mean old Carl was the greatest little drink pourer in the world. He used drinks like other types of sadists used whips. He kept beating you with them until you dropped or sobbed or went mad, and he enjoyed every step of the process.
When their party on an isolated beach draws the attention of two wanderers who are bizarrely but convincingly reminiscent of Lewis Carroll's Walrus and Carpenter, the story takes a turn for the strange--before ending up in sheer horror. It's collected in The Weird, a massive--and almost uniformly excellent--anthology edited by Ann and Jeff Vandermeer.

10 "Desideratus," by Penelope Fitzgerald (2000)

Like Ray Bradbury's "The Whole Town Was Sleeping," Fitzgerald's story doesn't necessarily feature any supernatural elements, yet it is as creepy and uncanny as any other on this list. It tells of a young boy whose one prized possession is a gilt medal, of how he loses it ("Anything you carry about with you in your pocket you are bound to lose sooner or later."), and the eerie experience he has to undergo to get it back. It's as good as any story I know at marrying the material and physical to our latent belief--sometimes hope, sometimes fear--that something more inheres in all that matter. It can be found in Fitzgerald's Means of Escape.



{Painting from an unknown artist, spotted in window of a craft store on Foster Avenue in Chicago.}

A couple of additional tidbits, before I close out the month. First, some honorable mentions, stories that, on another day, might have made this list:

"It's a Good Life," by Jerome Bixby
"The Town Manager," by Thomas Ligotti
"The Great God Pan," by Arthur Machen
"After Dark in the Playing Fields," by M. R. James
"The Little Room," by Madeline Yale Wynn
"The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," by Washington Irving
"In a Dim Room," by Lord Dunsany

"The Mujina," by Lafcadio Hearn

And a special, overarching honorable mention for The Arrow Book of Ghost Stories (1960), which I read over and over as a child, until Joseph Jacobs's "The King o' the Cats," Walter R. Brooks's "Jimmy Takes Vanishing Lessons," and Barbee Oliver Carleton's "The Wonderful Cat of Cobbie Bean" were burned into my brain. If my love of weird tales is anyone's fault, it's that of the anonymous editor of that collection.

I'll leave you with one last story, one of the true classics, told by a master. It's a scene from Peter Bogdanovich's first film, Targets: "The Appointment in Samarra," told by Boris Karloff.



Happy Halloween!

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Some light visitations

For the first of tonight's October bookshelf wanderings I'll beg a modest indulgence. {Looks around furtively.} It's not about ghosts or haunts at all!

But it is from the pen of M. R. James, master of the ghost story, and it does feature the creature I'd most trust to manage a ghost, a cat. So surely it will do? It's from a letter to his friend Jane McBryde, then about nine years old, sent December 23, 1914. The season of ghosts, in England, and surely never more so--if not in the usual, light-hearted way--than at the end of that horrible first year of World War I. Spirits surely clustered thick about the land that Christmas. Despite the times, however, James conjures up some non-supernatural cheer:
My sister has been with me for about three weeks now, and has brought with her a large beautiful black cat who is so nervous that he won't speak to anyone: my own cat has not even seen him yet, but she suspects that something is being kept from her and takes it a little to heart. "Of course it is very likely that I"m not fit to be trusted," she said last night, "only I like to be told so; then I know where I am. If you like to have German spies in the house, it's no business of mine. It might become my duty to speak to the police about it, and it might be very unpleasant for some people if I did: but of course I don't want to make trouble only I do like people to be straightforward and say what they mean," and so on and so on. I said, "What makes you think there are German spies in the house?" "Oh nothing, nothing whatever, only when one sees meals being carried up to one of the bedrooms--and much better meals than ever I see downstairs--and when the maid take particular care that one shouldn't go into that room, and when one sees with one's own eyes a great vulgar black cat climbing the mulberry tree as if the whole place belonged to him: why, then, I think the time has come to put two and two together and speak plainly, but old as I may be, I'm not too old to see through a glass door." There was a great deal more, and at the end of it she burst into tears and laid her head on the fender and said nobody loved her and she had better go and bury herself in the garden or drown herself in the fountain.
Pleasantly silly, no?

Not wanting an October post to be entirely ghost-free, however, I'll share another passage I came across today, from the introduction to The Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner, written by her friend William Maxwell, who also served as the volume's editor:
According to some notes that were taken down from Miss Townsend Warner's dictation in 1966, her mother fell into labour at the sound of a knell--a Harrow governor had just died--and she was born with a caul, which the midwife claimed and probably sold to a sailor as a protection against death by drowning. The ghost of her maternal grandmother visited her cradle.
Sadly, the notes didn't mention who actually saw that ghost. But, Maxwell continues:
She herself as a grown woman not only believed in ghosts but (in a letter that has managed to make itself invisible to me) described how she saw them, on two different occasions--the daughter of the house, who had died a year or two before her visit, and an old man who had taken his own life.
It would be just like a letter dealing with ghosts to spirit itself away, wouldn't it?

Monday, October 20, 2014

Kipling rents a haunted house

One of the books I've been enjoying the past few Octobers is a huge collection of Kipling published by Pegasus: Rudyard Kipling's Tales of Horror and Fantasy. It's 750 pages of Kipling's strangest stories, some set in India (where, admittedly, exoticism does a fair amount of the work), some in England, and nearly all worth reading for that distinctive Kipling voice, the assured voice of a person who is on to a good story and knows you're going to stay through the end of it.

In the biographical sketch that closes the book, editor Stephen Jones shares a number of interesting tidbits, including a great line from Kipling about the influenza epidemic that was gripping London in 1892 when he got married:
The undertakers had run out of black horses, and the dead had to be content with brown ones. The living were mostly abed.
The most interesting bit, however, at least for our Octoberish purposes, is Jones's account of the house the Kiplings moved to in the spring of 1896 in Torquay:
Kipling admitted that the family's new home, "seemed almost too good to be true" and despite the building's bright rooms and the fresh sea air, he revealed that he and his wife experienced "the shape of a growing depression which enveloped us both--a gathering blackness of mind and sorrow of the heart, that each put down to the new, soft climate and, without telling the other, fought against for long weeks. It was the Feng-shui--the Spirit of the house itself--that darkened the sunshine and fell upon us every time we entered, checking the very words on our lips."
They moved less than a year later, and in 1909, Kipling transformed the experience into fiction in the short story "The House Surgeon." In that story, Kipling's narrator meets the owner of a house that is suffering under "a little depression," and, skeptical, accepts and invitation to see for himself. It takes but minutes after he drops his suitcases for him to begin to understand:
It was just then that I was aware of a little grey shadow, as it might have been a snowflake seen against the light, floating at an immense distance in the background of my brain. It annoyed me, and I shook my head to get rid of it. Then my brain telegraphed that it was the forerunner of a swift-striding gloom which there was yet time to escape if I would force my thoughts away from it, as a man leaping for life forces his body forward and away from the fall of a wall. But the gloom overtook me before I could take in the meaning of the message. I moved toward the bed, every nerve already aching with the foreknowledge of the pain that was to be dealt it, and sat down, while my amazed and angry soul dropped, gulf by gulf, into that horror of great darkness which is spoken of in the Bible, and which, as auctioneers say, must be experienced to be appreciated.

Despair upon despair, misery upon misery, fear after fear, each causing their distinct and separate woe, packed in upon me for an unrecorded length of time, until at last they blurred together, and I heard a click in my brain like the click in the ear when one descends in a diving bell, and I knew that the pressures were equalised within and without, and that, for the moment, the worst was at an end. But I knew also that at any moment the darkness might come down anew; and while I dwelt on this speculation precisely as a man torments a raging tooth with his tongue, it ebbed away into the little grey shadow on the brain of its first coming, and once more I heard my brain, which knew what would recur, telegraph to every quarter for help, release, or diversion.
Aside from the somewhat clunky levity of the line about the auctioneer, it's a gripping passage, conveying not only the despair of depression but the dread of knowing it is coming on.

In his memoir, Something of Myself for My Friends, Known and Unknown, Kipling quickly passes over the moment when he and his wife discovered their mutual dread of the house, which is disappointing: surely they were, to adapt a favorite line of Hilary Mantel, "rinsed with relief"?

He does, however, tell of a visit to the house thirty years later when they happened to be in the vicinity. The gardener and his wife, who lived in a cottage on the property were, creepily enough, "quite unchanged," and so was the house, which carried
the same brooding Spirit of deep, deep Despondency in the open, lit rooms.
Hauntedness is, of course, one of the things one worries about when buying a new house, even if one doesn't actually believe in ghosts. What, after all, would be worse than to just get settled, all the labor and expense and paperwork behind you, with good riddance to them and their attendant headaches, only to find . . . well, what? Something distinctly . . . off? Something, if not quite sinister, then at least definitely dark. Unwelcoming. Displeased at your arrival. Not sure it wants you to stay.

Fortunately, I can report that after nearly five months in our new home, The Curiosity, it has revealed no spirits, no miasmas, no creeping dreads. (Not, mind you, that that's intended as a challenge. Curiosity, there's certainly no need to bestir yourself on our part.)

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Tidbits of Lovecraft, Poe, and Stephen King



{Photo by rocketlass.}

On this sunless day, lashed by the first true rains of autumn--the ones that test the tenacity of the lingering leaves and remind you, through their insidious chill, that you're nothing but bones, cold bones, under your skin, let's have a post about Lovecraft and Poe.

As anyone who follows me on Twitter knows, I spend a lot of time reading writers' letters. What you may not know is that a lot of that reading begins with searches on Google Books: I'll go to a volume that's set up for previewing and see what I find through a search for a particular term. Often, the choice is topical: lately it's been "autumn," for example, or "night," or "ghosts."

Last night found me with Lovecraft's letters, and even though they're only readable in snippet form on Google Books, the returns were satisfying. "Weird," for example, brought me this pithy statement of purpose:
The weird artist should invent his own fantastic violations of natural law.
"Strange" turned up this:
The way I think of strange phenomena and outside intrusions is as a dreamer helplessly and passively watching a panorama flit past him.
"Nightmare," meanwhile, brought a letter in which Lovecraft describes in great detail a particularly horrible nightmare from childhood, one so intense that it led me to dig deeper and turn up more of the letter, which was written to Harry Otto Fischer in February of 1937:
But it is in dreams that I have known the real clutch of stark, hideous, maddening, paralysing fear. My infant nightmares were classics, & in them there is not an abyss of agonising cosmic horror that I have not explored. I don't have such dreams now — but the memory of them will never leave me. It is undoubtedly from them that the darkest & most gruesome side of my fictional imagination is derived. At the ages of 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, & 8 I have been whirled through formless abysses of infinite night and adumbrated horrors as black & as seethingly sinister as any of our friend Fafhrd's « splatter-stencil » triumphs. That's why I appreciate such triumphs so keenly. I have seen these things ! Many a time I have awaked in shrieks of panic, & have fought desperately to keep from sinking back into sleep & its unutterable horrors. At the age of six my dreams became peopled with a race of lean, faceless, rubbery, winged things to which I applied the home-made name of night-gaunts. Night after night they would appear in exactly the same form — & the terror they brought was beyond any verbal description. Long decades later I embodied them in one of my Fungi from Yuggoth pseudo-sonnets, which you may have read. Well — after I was 8 all these things abated, perhaps because of the scientific habit of mind which I was acquiring (or trying to acquire). I ceased to believe in religion or any other form of the supernatural, & the new logic gradually reached my subconscious imagination. Still, occasional nightmares brought recurrent touches of the ancient fear — & as late as 1919 I had some that I could use in fiction without much change. The Statement of Randolph Carter is a literal dream transcript. Now, in the sere & yellow leaf (I shall be 47 in August), I seem to be rather deserted by stark horror. I have nightmares only 2 or 3 times a year, & of these none even approaches those of my youth in soul-shattering, phobic monstrousness. It is fully a decade & more since I have known fear in its most stupefying & hideous form. And yet, so strong is the impress of the past, I shall never cease to be fascinated by fear as a subject for aesthetic treatment. Along with the element of cosmic mystery & outsideness, it will always interest me more than anything else. It is, in a way, amusing that one of my chief interests should be an emotion whose poignant extremes I have never known in waking life!
To some degree, that letter helps me understand Lovecraft's preference for the inchoate and indescribable--the horror beyond human comprehension--because what are dream terrors if not embodiments of horror that cannot be described without surrendering their potency?

Earlier in that letter, Lovecraft also offers an account of how he turned his childhood fear of the dark into a fascination:
In infancy I was afraid of the dark, which I peopled with all sorts of things; but my grandfather cured me of that by daring me to walk through certain dark parts of the house when I was 3 or 4 years old. After that, dark places held a certain fascination for me.
I will admit to a certain skepticism about the grandfather's approach, which seems needlessly cruel. It does, however, seem to have worked--to the extent, that is, that you consider Lovecraft to have been mentally healthy. Ahem.

With Lovecraft on my mind, I turned to Michael Schmidt's gargantuan The Novel: A Biography, a book that I've taken such pleasure dipping into and arguing in the month I've owned it that I already know I'll be pulling it down from the shelves regularly for years to come. Schmidt treats Lovecraft briefly, largely as an entree to a slightly longer consideration of Stephen King ("His bibliography is vast, but the novels are generally substantial and serious in intent.") and in conjunction with Poe, and in a short space he offers some useful analysis:
Poe can still frighten a reader, especially late at night. It has to do, as Nabokov understood, with language, with the spaces that vowels carve out of the darkness and the way night loosens the hold of the literal world so that things move and happen in unanticipated ways. Shadows detach from their forms and develop a will. Poe and Lovecraft have much in common. Like Poe's, Lovecraft's favored medium is the tale, not the novel. Poe worked by a faultless instinct, Lovecraft sometimes willfully and by design. He is more interested in places than people, places with inherences; there is a general haunting about his worlds, which start as literal and then degrade. Gothic horror inheres, an aspect of reality, "cosmic" to use his word, rather than of invention.
When he points out Lovecraft's attachment to place over person, it instantly seems obvious, yet I've never before seen it put quite so succinctly.

It's worth briefly setting that--and Lovecraft's interest in the cosmic nature of horror in general--against Schmidt's analysis of Stephen King's approach:
Central to fiction is a simple paradigm, what King calls in an interview "an intrusion of the extraordinary into ordinary life and how we deal with it." What interests him is not the mechanics of the intrusion--ghouls, rabid dogs, ghosts--but what the characters do in response.
Exactly--and watching those responses, and realizing how strong is King's faith that somewhere along the line someone will respond with the combination of grit and inherent goodness that is required to beat back the dark, accounts for a big part of King's appeal. There's no writer I know of, other than perhaps Dorothy Dunnett, who writes so convincingly about simple human determination, a quality that we all can use as autumn draws in.