Sunday, October 08, 2006

Lovecraft and other scares

My worries about October's demands on my time have so far been borne out: between the last days of my marathon training and the first days of baseball playoffs, my writing has suffered. I'm such a creature of habit that, were I to continue writing this blog for the next forty years, October would probably always be a light month for those reasons.

My reading continues, though, if for no other reason than that my commute continues. And today I have for you a bit from Luc Sante's excellent article on H. P. Lovecraft in the October 19th New York Review of Books. Luc Sante is one of my favorite writers; Lovecraft, on the other hand, I find fascinating but can read only in very small doses. Sante has come to the rescue, though, and his article is a splendid example of the joys of letting another, better reader tell me about a writer I don't know well. That article alone is worth the price of the issue.

I’ll excerpt one passage for you. Relying on the Library of America edition of Lovecraft's stories and Michel Houellebecq's recent biography, Sante tells of Lovecraft's fears:
It is clear from all available evidence that sexuality, procreation, and the human body itself were among the things that scared him the most.

He was also frightened of invertebrates, marine life in general, temperatures below freezing, fat people, people of other races, race-mixing, slums, percussion instruments, caves, cellars, old age, great expanses of time, monumental architecture, non-Euclidean geometry, deserts, oceans, rats, dogs, the New England countryside, New York City, fungi and molds, viscous substances, medical experiments, dreams, brittle textures, gelatinous textures, the color gray, plant life of diverse sorts, memory lapses, old books, heredity, mists, gases, whistling, whispering—the things that did not frighten him would probably make a shorter list.

If you’re looking for something scary to read, since it’s that time of year, New York Review of Books Classics has a couple of good collections, one of which, The Colour out of Space, takes its title from a very good Lovecraft story. They also publish Edward Gorey's anthology of his favorite ghost stories, The Haunted Looking Glass. No Lovecraft in there, but it does close with a very scary M. R. James story.

Oxford's collection of M. R. James's ghost stories, Casting the Runes, is also very good, full of stories of cursed artifacts and dangerous scholarship (and the hardcover is great because it's so teeny, with a trim size of only about four by five, a true pocket book).

If you're more interested in repression than the horrors of antiquity, The Ghost Stories of Henry James will do; it's surprisingly creepy and effective. Edith Wharton's ghost stories are a bit staid--more so, even, than James's, but at least a few are extremely gripping.

John Collier's Fancies and Goodnights, which includes several stories that formed the basis for episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents relies for its chills less on the supernatural than on the all-too-natural: plain old human cruelty and evil. It's also published by the NYRB.

If you're just looking for variety and value, it's hard to do better than One Hundred Ghastly Little Ghost Stories, from Sterling Publishing. Not every story is a winner, but at approximately $.13 per story, it's hard to go wrong. And if you sit up all night reading those, you're in luck: Sterling also has volumes of Wicked Little Witch stories and Hair-Raising Little Horror stories.

Oh, and I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Tartarus Press, a small publisher from the UK specializing in reprints of books by old masters of horror and the macabre. Stacey reads their journal, Wormwood, and while I have yet to buy any of their apparently beautifully produced volumes, now that October has returned I'm trolling their list once again. When we were last in London, we were told by a friend of a friend that there's a particular little bookshop that stocks a lot of Tartarus books. We didn't find it--and until we do, I'm going to assume that it's one of those stores that you might easily enter . . . but never be able to leave.

So what--other than Bush--is keeping you up at night?

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Characters reading books, part 2

Part one is here.

The Hard Case Crime novel I read Sunday was Pete Hamill’s The Guns of Heaven (1983), featured its share of books, too. The main character, journalist Sam Briscoe, who half-accidentally gets himself tangled up in a gun-running operation for the IRA, has a daughter who’s wrapped up in Dostoevsky, and he knocks out a musclebound stooge who’s reading a history of the IRA to study up on the enemy. No book plays anywhere near such a central role as The History of the Conquest of Peru does in Plunder of the Sun, but they're still an important part of the background of the novel.

And The Guns of Heaven is a crime novel whose background is its most important asset. It’s a Pete Hamill book, so it’s crammed with jazz, drinks, sports, and everything New York, new and old. As with his Why Sinatra Matters (2003) (which until someone writes the definitive critical biography we need will stand as the best explanation of Sinatra as man and cultural totem), the book reminds us that Hamill has spent a lifetime steeping himself in New York, and now, through his stand-in, Briscoe, we get to drink deep. We learn all about the nooks and crannies of the city, all about the basement telegraph room of the Plaza Hotel, the Irish dive bars of Queens, and that sax player Paul Desmond was a wonderful four a.m. conversationalist.

Anyone who loves a city has to learn to turn a dislike of change into a love of loss, and Hamill funnels all that sense of loss into The Guns of Heaven, from lost illusions to lost friends to lost watering holes. On a beautiful morning in Harlem, Briscoe thinks of the past:
I saw a heavyset black man washing the windows of his grocery store, and kids starting a crap game, and three beautiful young girls walking in a sassy way past the shuttered doors of the old Apollo Theater. I had probably sat with their mothers in that theater, when Basie was on stage with the greatest of all bands, or while Little Willie John did one final gig before going to prison, or Dinah Washington sang “Unforgettable” while the balconies throbbed and roared. Redd Fox played there, too, before television tamed him, and the great musicians and the rock ’n‘ rollers, too. Dexter Gordon told me once that the musicians all stayed in the hotel behind the theater on One Hundred and Twenty-sixth Street and fought for windowed rooms because they overlooked the dressing rooms where the chorus girls changed. When I was a kid reporter, it was still possible to go up to the Apollo on a Friday night and eat dinner at Frank’s and maybe stroll down to Minton’s for bebop or over to Sugar Ray’s for some talk and a sight of the greatest of all champions. The last time Sugar Ray was in New York I told him I’d meet him uptown; Frank’s was closed, and so was the Apollo, and there were no beboppers at Minton’s and Sugar Ray’s had fallen to the taxmen. He met me on the corner of One Hundred and Twenty-fifth and Lenox. I looked at Ray, and he looked at me and said: “Where the fuck’d everybody go?”

A good crime novel is suffused with the knowledge that at best we’re fighting a holding action, preserving some little bit of the good while all else collapses around us. Loss is inevitable, weariness and cynicism the cost of the battle. Hamill, who gives the impression of having been born old and watched the city catch up to him, understands that as well as anyone, and The Guns of Heaven is a reminder that a good crime novel also is built around the knowledge that not only should one keep fighting, but that there's really no other option

Characters reading books, part 1

Something that’s always struck me as strange is how rarely authors of novels spend any time telling us about what their characters are reading. Assuming that authors read a lot themselves, and therefore know how important books are to people, how what you’re reading can color you whole day, it surprises me that characters aren’t more often thinking or talking about what they’re reading. It’s also an easy way—though with a danger of becoming too obvious—to give some signals about a character’s inner life or about larger themes the author wants to develop.

I bring this up because the two most recent Hard Case Crime novels I’ve read both featured characters reading book. David Dodge’s Plunder of the Sun (1949) follows an adventurer, Al Colby, who reminds me a bit of John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee. He’s willing to work in the shadowier corners of the law, and he perpetually balances a definite tendency towards knight-errancy with a desire to get his share of whatever loot is legitimately on offer. In Plunder of the Sun, when a job couriering an unidentified parcel quickly gets him embroiled in a dangerous search for lost Incan treasure in Peru, Colby turns to William H. Prescott’s 1847 History of the Conquest of Peru to learn just what it is he’s fighting for. Prescott’s book, which, though of course quite dated, is still in print and regarded as a good introduction, and it plays a big part in Plunder of the Sun. From it, Colby learns not only of the treasure itself, but of the origins of Peru’s racial strife and exploitative class system; that knowledge ultimately leads him to stick his neck out on behalf of a couple of members of that exploited class.

Plunder of the Sun is exactly what I look for in a crime book: it pretty much skips the preamble and jumps right into the story, features vividly drawn locations and characters, and has good amounts of action and surprise. I mentioned that Colby reminds me of Travis McGee; he also reminds me a little of Ross McDonald’s Lew Archer. As with Archer, we don’t ever learn all that much about Colby or his background—the author gives us just enough to know, unquestioningly, that we want this man on our side.

I’ll write about the second Hard Case Crime novel tomorrow.