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.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Just popping in for a look, or, Daytime ghosts

One of many fun digressions in Roger Clarke's A Natural History of Ghosts comes when he reminds us that while in our age, midnight is the proper ghostly hour,
traditionally, ghosts are summoned by the extreme transitional stages of the clock. You are as likely to see a ghost before lunch as you are after going to bed. In later years, this tradition died out, since it seemed ghosts were inalienably connected to the night. Indeed, the whole nature of the ghostly at this period [the early eighteenth century] was linked to the vapours exhaled by the earth when the world turned dark.
Clarke goes on to share stories of several daytime ghosts from that period, including one of a soldier recorded in John Aubrey's ever-bountiful Miscellanies.

Any ghosts in earshot should definitely not take this as a challenge . . . but it is hard to picture ghosts being nearly so terrifying under bright skies. As A. Roger Ekirch writes in At Day's Close: A History of Night in Times Past, there's a reason night scares us, beyond its actual dangers:
Night dramatically transformed the communal landscape, investing innocuous landmarks with sinister portent. In a Yorkshire valley, for example, the decayed ruins of a small chapel were a "perfect paradise for boys" by day, but "not to be approached for the world by night, being haunted by a variety of strange ghosts."
Darkness invites imagination to fill it, and those we conjure as its denizens are more frightening, by far, than any spirits we could imagine encountering under full sun.

a So, tradition aside, midnight it is. Ekirch tells of laborers afraid to leave for work too long before the arrival of dawn, with its powers to chase demons:
According to the Newcastle antiquary Henry Bourne, . . "Hence it is, that in country places, where the way of life requires more early labour, they always go chearfully to work at that time; whereas if they are called abroad sooner, they are apt to imagine everything they see or hear, to be a wandring ghost."
Late eighteenth-century folklorist Francis Grose, meanwhile, writes Ekirch,
estimated that the typical churchyard contained nearly as many ghosts at night as the village had parishioners. "To pass them at night was an achievement not to be attempted by any one in the parish, the sextons excepted."
Elsewhere in his book, Ekirch notes that some communities were plagued by recurrent visits from the same ghost, including "Wiltshire's Wilton's Dog." Frustratingly, Ekirch doesn't elaborate, but the introduction of a ghostly animal does enable me to bring this post full circle, back to daytime ghosts--and the story of the only possible ghost I remember seeing. When I was a young boy, aged probably three or four, we had an black, white, and orange cat named Angel, who lived with us for probably a year, then wandered away. Much later--in my memory, it's at least three years--I was playing in our front yard one day when I looked up and saw Angel walking up the end of the driveway. I watched as she walked halfway up the drive and sat down. More confused than pleased to see her, I looked away briefly, and when I looked back, she was gone.

Oh, fine--there probably is a reasonable explanation for it. Be rational, if you must, about the lifespans and habits of wandering cats. But it's October, and the memory is powerful and clear all these decades later, so tonight I'll amuse myself by thinking that Angel, like the ghost of the dying soldier chronicled by Aubrey, who visits his mistress merely to "come to her bedside, draw the curtain, look upon her and go away," simply wanted one last spectral look at her old home.

Monday, October 06, 2014

"Things were, alas! worse than I had feared," or, With M. R. James as our guide, we enter October country



{Photo by rocketlass.}

Roger Clarke's A Natural History of Ghosts: 500 Years of Hunting for Proof (2012) isn't quite the book its title would suggest: though the book opens with some accounts (suitably hair-raising) of ghost-hunting, Clarke quickly dives into the past, nimbly running through accounts of famous historical ghosts and hauntings, some quite familiar, others a bit faded by time. That's not a fault, mind you: it's almost exactly what I want in a book about purportedly true hauntings: stories of poltergeists that seem almost certainly to have been the work of mischievous children or ill-treated servants; nine-days' wonders that find that the last few of those nine days require a ghost's activities to be amped up a bit; and wonderfully credulous contemporary accounts, breathlessly related.

Clarke also finds space to discuss antiquarian and ghost story master M. R. James, a subject of which we never tire at I've Been Reading Lately. James's telling of ghost stories on Christmas Eve at Kings College is familiar to any fan, but it's nonetheless a pleasure to find a firsthand description of the atmosphere, like this one from Oliffe Richmond:
We sat and waited in the candlelight, perhaps someone played a few bars at the piano, and desisted, for good reason. . . . Monty emerged from the bedroom, manuscript in hand at last, and blew out all the candles but one. He then began to read, with more confidence than anyone else could have mustered, his well-nigh illegible script in the dim light.
Was James's delay in entering a tactic for building suspense, or was he writing to and past deadline? I don't remember it coming up in Michael Cox's biography of James, but a New Statesman article from last winter suggests it was the latter. Properly donnish, even when at play.

Clarke follows that scene with an account from James himself of a seemingly supernatural experience in his own childhood that was triggered by reading a story by Sheridan Le Fanu, who would become the most obvious influence on James's own stories:
The words were quite enough to set my own fancy on a bleak track. inevitably I looked and with apprehension, to the Plantation Gate. As was but right it was shut, and nobody was on the path that led to it or from it . . . there was in it a square hole giving access to the fastening; and through that hole I could see--and it struck me like a blow on the diaphragm--something white or partly white. Now this I could not bear, and with an access of something like courage--only it was more like desperation, like determining that I must know the worst--I did steal down and, quite uselessly, of course, taking cover behind bushes as I went, I made progress until I was within range of the gate and hole. things were, alas! worse than I had feared. Through that hole a face was looking my way. It was not monstrous, not pale, fleshless, spectral. Malevolent I thought and think it was; at any rate the eyes were large and open and fixed. it was pink and, I thought, hot, and just above the eyes the border of a white linen drapery hung down from the brows. . . . Do not press me with questions at to how I bore myself when it became necessary to see my family again.
Like all good ghost stories, it leaves you wanting to know more. How did he tear himself away? Did the thing see him as he saw it?

The leaves are turning. Night is drawing in. Time for ghosts.

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

The Getaway Car rolls on!

October, as usual, will bring ghosts and the like to this space. But first there's a bit of unfinished September business: on Monday, the Mysterious Bookshop was kind enough to host me for a New York launch party for The Getaway Car.



I was joined by Otto Penzler, who told about how Westlake and Brian Garfield built the shelves in his first store, with Westlake telling him he could best help by going to get coffee and staying far away from the wood; Larry Block, who emphasized just how funny Westlake was, and shared the Parker opening line he offered that Westlake rejected ("When the shit hit the fan, Parker dove in front of it."); and of course Abby Westlake, who read a galley page from the Dortmunder novel Get Real, chosen essentially at random, and, no surprise, got the audience laughing.



The crowd, as you can see from the blurry photo up above, was big, and enthusiastic. As with the party the previous weekend in Chicago, an added bonus at this one was getting to meet a number of longtime Twitter-and-e-mail friends for the first time--which leads me to yet again offer one of my favorite pieces of advice: meet your online friends, folks. I've yet to be disappointed when I do.



Meanwhile, the reviews continue to come in, and they continue to be gratifyingly positive. In the Weekly Standard, Susan Vass writes that
The Getaway Car inspires us to sit down with a bottle of Amsterdam Liquor Store Bourbon—“Our Own Brand”—to toast a genius and to count our blessings that we have one more chance to savor Westlake’s words.
Tomorrow's Washington Post, brings an appreciative review from longtime Westlake fan (and I've Been Reading Lately favorite) Michael Dirda, who says The Getaway Car is a good title because it
suggests something of the rush and exhilaration with which most readers will turn these pages.
Thanks to everyone who came out to the two parties, or who's helped spread the word about the book in any way--I'm certainly grateful, and I know Abby is, too. Oh, and if you're looking for a triple-signed copy, the Mysterious Bookshop has them. Might I recommend one for each stocking in your family?

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

"My comrades and I felt that we had been under the spell of some wizard," or, Paul Collins brings Poe to life

A life of Poe should be short. Not so much because Poe's own life was short, but because it was so rackety, so filled with loss, failure, destitution, and disgrace that it's a hard life to spend much time with. It's difficult enough to know that Poe's talent was deformed by the pressures of his life; to be reminded of it at length is painful.

That alone would make Paul Collins's new brief life of Poe, Edgar Allan Poe: The Fever Called Living, worth seeking out. When you add Collins's eye for anecdote and ability as an archive sleuth, you've got a real treat. Collins proves to be a judicious analyst of Poe's life and talent, offering thoughtful readings of his successes and failures in both, including his mystifying (to modern eyes) wedding to his thirteen-year-old cousin.

But, just as we go to Poe for his gothic wonders, for his excesses and intensities, rather than for his overarching narratives, what's most fun in Collins are the many rich anecdotes, often built on accounts from Poe's friends and acquaintances, that bring Poe to life on the page. Here, for example, is a moment from his youth:
His foster father, apparently surprised by a fifteen-year-old's capacity to turn moody, quickly blamed Edgar's friends. "He does nothing & seems quite miserable, sulky & ill-tempered to all the Family," Allan wrote that autumn. "How we have acted to produce this is beyond my conception. . . . I fear his associates have led him to adopt a line of thinking & acting very contrary to what he possessed when in England."
Edgar Allan Poe, typical moody teen.

A few years later finds Poe at the University of Virginia, which also didn't quite suit him:
The end of the school year, though, was not a happy one. Poe crossed paths with William Wertenbaker, a fellow student who also served as the campus librarian--a sympathetic ear on a campus where the young poet had never entirely fit in. He found "Gaffy" so ready to abandon campus that he'd smashed up his dorm-room furniture to save on buying firewood for his final nights there. 
"It was a cold night in December," Wertenbaker said, "and his fire having gone pretty nearly out by the aid of some tallow candles, and the fragments of a small table which he broke up for the purpose, he soon rekindled it, and by its comfortable blaze I spent a very pleasant hour with him."
Institutional life never would sit well with Poe; West Point, too, was a bust. When he was drummed out, however, the superintendent thought well enough of him to allow him to take up a collection from his fellow students. Instead of that, however, Poe sold them advance rights to a copy of a book of poems he had in contemplation: "Of the class of 232, 131 cadets paid $1.25 each to raise the money for it." But what they thought they were getting--a book of the mocking verses he'd become known for at the academy--turned out instead to be a collection of fervidly Romantic serious poems. And it was poorly produced:
It arrived poorly printed on coarse paper with the widest of margins--"a miserable production mechanically," Poe's roommate wrote later, "bound in green boards and printed on inferior paper, evidently gotten up on the cheapest scale." Finding one brings a small fortune today, but a very different valuation survives in what one classmate scribbled on his copy.

"This book," he wrote, "is a damned cheat."
Collins is also good at conveying Poe's self-destructive perversity. His account of Poe's performance at the season premiere of the Boston Lyceum in October 1845 is jaw-dropping:
Poe found himself unable to versify; by the time he reached the stage in Boston's Odeon Theatre, he'd stayed sober, but still had no poem ready.

The crowd's patience was exhausted even before Poe opened his mouth, as a previous speaker had droned on for over two hours already. When Poe departed from the advertised poem to give an impromptu twenty-minute speech on American poetry, it drove out many patrons. Among those who stayed were Emily Dickinson's future preceptor Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who recalled how Poe then "abruptly began the recitation of his rather perplexing poem, [and] the audience looked thoroughly mystified." Well they might, for Poe had resorted to a poem that was decidedly not new at all: it was his obscure 1829 farrago ""Al Aaraaf." While Higginson was won over by it ("walking back to Cambridge my comrades and I felt that we had been under the spell of some wizard"), the few left by the end were only mollified by a recitation of "The Raven." Boston newspapers did not fondly recall Poe afterwards, and the feeling was mutual.
As October nears, you couldn't do better to prepare for proper Poe season than picking up The Fever Called Living.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The perils of soldiering

As I put together Monday's post about World War I, I was reminded of a footnote in Andrew McConnell Stott's excellent new book on Byron, the Shelleys, John Polidori, and Claire Clairmont, The Poet and the Vampyre. Though it's hard to dispute that the experience of the soldier in World War I was likely the worst in human history, the footnote from Stott is a reminder that the lot of the soldier has always been fairly awful:
A similar fate befell Frederick Cavendish Ponsonby, the brother of Byron's former lover, Caroline Lamb. Wounded in both arms and lanced in the back, he fell off his horse and spent most of the battle [of Waterloo] lying helpless on the field where he was robbed, used as cover by a rifleman, trampled under the hoofs of Prussian cavalry, and robbed again. Despite lying out all night and suffering seven major wounds, he lived for another twenty-two years.
Jesus. I'd like to think that he at least was able to shape his experience into the kind of story that would get him stood drinks for the rest of his life.

Monday, September 15, 2014

The outbreak of World War I

One of my distractions while running lately has been the World War I episodes of Dan Carlin's Hardcore History podcast. Two-and-a-half episodes in, Carlin has barely reached the Battle of the Marne, but that's a good thing: the months leading up to and just after the outbreak of the war are the most complicated and important, and he's giving them their due, doing a good job of showing how reasonably sane people--products of their time, but not evil or ill-meaning--boxed themselves in so thoroughly that war became unavoidable, and almost instantly assumed a scope and deadliness until then unimaginable. The casualty figures from the first few months of the war are still breathtaking; to think that any nation could absorb deaths in that quantity and continue to fight is almost unfathomable today. (In fact, I take it as one of the few unquestionable signs of legitimate human progress that the nations of the West are, a century later, much less willing to countenance widespread bloodshed in war. For all the indefatigable bellicosity of our hawks, life is not quite so recklessly thrown away now as it was then.)

The greatest strength of Carlin's podcast is its conversational quality. Though it's hard to imagine the whole three-plus hours of each episode isn't fairly closely scripted, the effect is not of something read, like an audiobook, or even a delivery of prepared notes, like a lecture, but of someone telling you something. It's thus perfect for a long drive or a long run, engaging moment to moment, yet not so intense as to be thrown wholly off course when you have to look up to leap out of the way of a snarling chipugpug, or brake to avoid one of those hideous three-wheeled motorcycles.

The other great strength of the podcast is that Carlin loads it up with direct quotation. We hear firsthand accounts from soldiers, diplomats, generals, journalists, and more, and they help immensely in bringing immediacy and uncertainty to events that we can't avoid seeing at least to some extent as distant and predetermined. The most striking, for me, in the first episode was a story filed for Scribner's by America's greatest reporter of WWI, Richard Harding Davis. Davis was on the scene as the Germans marched into neutral Belgium, and he filed a long, richly descriptive report:
At eleven o'clock, down the Boulevard Waterloo came the advance-guard of the German army. It consisted of three men, a captain and two privates on bicycles. Behind them, so close upon each other that to cross from one sidewalk to the other was not possible, came the Uhlans, infantry, and the guns. For two hours I watched them and then, bored with the monotony of it, returned to the hotel. After an hour, from beneath my window, I still could hear them; another hour and another went by. They still were passing. Boredom gave way to wonder. The thing fascinated you against your will, dragged you back to the sidewalk and held you there open-eyed. No longer was it regiments of men marching, but something uncanny, inhuman; a force of nature like a landslide, a tidal wave, or lava sweeping down a mountain. It was not of this earth, but mysterious, ghostlike.
What fascinates me in that passage is that Davis compares the German army to natural forces. We're so used to explaining the horrors of World War I through the lens of runaway technology--an ability to kill that vastly outstripped our ability to understand, let alone harness or defend against it--that to hear the vast extent of the German army (bigger, in tiny Belgium alone, than Napoleon's Grande Armee as it entered Russia) called uncanny . . . yet compared not to a machine, but to natural forces. But then he turns. By the end of the third day, he's shifted metaphors. Overnight, the Germans were like "the tumult of a river when it races between the cliffs of a canyon," but by the fourth day, they have become
a machine, endless, tireless, with the delicate organization of a watch and the brute power of a steamroller.
They are "a cataract of molten lead," their "perfect unison" the "blows from giant pile-drivers." Then,
When at night for an instant the machine halted, the silence awoke you, as at sea you wake when the screw stops.
It is no longer any sort of natural force--for there is a sense in which we can accept power and destruction in that form, even if we cannot understand it. This, it has become clear, is some other order of thing entirely.

But in his closing, Davis finds a way to bring the two metaphors together. This "monstrous engine,"
is, perhaps, the most efficient organization of modern times; and its purpose only is death. Those who cast it loose upon Europe are military-mad. . . . And like Frankenstein's monster, this monster, to which they gave life, may turn on them and rend them.
And that does seem like the perfect metaphor for what World War I unleashed: a harnessing of technology, with little thought to its ends, looses a force that can no longer be controlled, and that wreaks havoc wherever it roams. A century later, we're still sorting through the ashes it left behind.