Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Best of . . . well, not of the year. Or even anything beyond a narrow slice of publishing. But oh, what a great slice!

I drew up a brief list of the books I most enjoyed reading this year for Proustitute's blog that will appear laster this week. I'll tweet and post a link to it when it shows up (though until then, you could do worse than trawling through the other lists he's gathered--I've already found some promising new books that way).

Rather than rehash that list, I'll do something different here. There's no secret that my favorite publisher--other, that is, than the one that pays my salary--is New York Review of Books Classics. They take up more than half a bookcase in my library. Those shelves contain nearly as many unread books--stored away against a rainy day--as favorites, and nothing that's not at least of interest.

But which are my favorites? Which do I return to again and again? Which recommend most often? It's not an easy choice--easier than picking my favorite of our three cats, but not wildly so. Still, five it is, so here they are (with apologies to Alvaro Mutis, Rebecca West, William Dean Howells, Thomas Browne, Richard Hughes, Elizabeth Taylor, Elaine Dundy, Patrick Leigh Fermor, Felix Feneon, Raymond Kennedy, John Williams, Edith Wharton, and so many others who could have made this list).

J. F. Powers/The Stories of J. F. Powers

Powers could easily be on this list for any of the three books NYRB Classics publishes. His novels Morte D'Urban and Wheat That Springeth Green, especially the former, are masterpieces of thoughtful comedy, their satire pointed and effective while not carrying anything like the scorched-earth quality so often found in that form. Powers shows us human frailty, but nonetheless leaves us with belief--belief, if not always or necessarily in the god the priests he writes about purportedly serve, then at least in the value of acts of human kindness and morality.

I selected the short stories rather than the novels for the simple reason that the collection includes my two favorite pieces of Powers's writing: "A Losing Game," which may be the funniest story I've ever read (I have tried many times to read the first pages aloud to friends, and I've never gotten through it without dissolving into laughter), and, even more remarkable, its sequel, "The Presence of Grace," which within a few short pages transforms a priest whom we've seen as a figure of fun into, for one shimmering moment, an agent of grace.

Daphne Du Maurier/Don't Look Now

I first encountered Du Maurier as a child, when Robert Arthur included "The Birds" in one of the many Alfred Hitchcock-branded anthologies of suspense stories for children that he edited. I read and re-read that story, year after year, to the point where even today I know many sentences by heart--which I realized a few years back as I listened to an old radio adaptation and found myself speaking along with it.

I wrote about "The Birds" a few years ago, and what I said about why the story affected me so deeply as a kid remains true:
Death in "The Birds," whether avian or human, is concrete and horrible. It takes something beautiful and right--a living, moving, even graceful creature--and it replaces it with a broken thing, a perversion, an object of horror. It is irreversible, and, as the tension mounts, page by page, it seems increasingly inevitable. To a child, that knowledge is as chilling as anything. I read the story again and again, knowing the bleak ending would never change.
And that's only one story! Du Maurier was a master of the tightly turning suspense story, and this collection is full of them. A few are relatively slight, but they're never less than surprising, and the best of them are genuinely creepy and strange. "The Birds" may be unshakable because of childhood, but the one that I think will stay with me as an adult is "Monte Verità," a novella-length tale of interwar rootlessness, hopeless love, and the slow erasure of the hidden places of the earth. It's a daring story with a mystical tinge, and you turn its last page feeling as if you've been returned from somewhere very far away--possibly against your will.

Robert Burton/The Anatomy of Melancholy

I came to this book through Anthony Powell, who makes his fictional stand-in in A Dance to the Music of Time, a fan (and eventual biographer) of Burton. Powell admires the sheer surfeit of the Anatomy's 1,200-plus pages, its cascade of endless sentences and quotations and interpolations, the sense it gives of an attempt--under the guise of delineating and explicating melancholy--to take in all of the drivers and hidden currents of human life.

I'll admit to not having read nearly all of the Anatomy, but that doesn't keep me from wholeheartedly endorsing it in this list: it's not a book to read all of, but one to keep at your side for occasional investigation, serious or otherwise. For example, after hearing Melvyn Bragg devote an episode of his BBC radio program In Our Time to the book, I looked (with the help of Google Books) for "news" and found a passage that, if we imagine it beaten into submission with the AP Stylebook, could describe our media environment today:
Be content; 'tis but a nine dayes wonder; and as one sorrow drives out another, one passion another, one cloud another, one rumour is expelled by another; every day almost, come new news unto our ears, as how the sun was eclipsed, meteors seen i'th' aire, monsters born, prodigies, how the Turks were overthrown in Persia, an earth-quake in Helvetia, Calabria, Japan, or China, an inundation in Holland, a great plague in Constantinople, a fire at Prage, a dearth in Germany, such a man is made a lord, a bishop, another hanged, deposed, prest to death, for some murder, treason, rape, theft, oppression; all which we do hear at first with a kind of admiration, detestation, consternation; but by and by they are buried in silence: thy father's dead, thy brother rob'd, wife runs mad, neighbour hath kild himselfe; 'tis heavy, gastly, fearful newes at first, in every mans mouth, table talk; but, after a while, who speaks or thinks of it? It will be so with thee and thine offence: it will be forgotten in an instant, be it theft, rape, sodomy, murder, incest, treason, &c. thou art not the first offender, nor shalt thou be the last; 'tis no wonder; every houre such malefactors are called in question: nothing so common,
Even better, however, is to use the book like the ancients used to use Virgil, as I did with my Thanksgiving post. The sortes Burtonae rarely will divulge anything like comprehensible prophecy, but it is almost guaranteed to offer some previously unnoted gem. Let's give it a try:
We watch a sorrowful person, lest he abuse his solitariness, and so should we do a melancholy man; set him about some business, exercise, or recreation, which may divert his thoughts, and still keep him otherwise intent; for his phantasy is so restless, operative and quick, that if it be not in perpetual action, ever employed, it will work upon itself, melancholize, and be carried away instantly, with some fear, jealousy, discontent, suspicion, some vain conceit or other.
May the melancholy man be always accompanied by Burton.

J. L. Carr/A Month in the Country

This slim novel is the most haunting, and maybe the most moving, of all the NYRB Classics I've read. A young man returns from World War I and takes a job restoring a medieval mural in a country church. He sleeps out in the bell tower, surrounded by quiet--Carr makes us feel the comforting warmth of the English summer--as each day he scrapes away just a bit more of the covering to reveal the anonymous painter's hellish vision of the apocalypse.

It's a novel about loss, and, obliquely, about war. About returning a different person to a place become different itself, and thus being rootless. About that feeling of being between--of watching days peel off the calendar pleasurably, but darkened by the endpoint you know is nearing. It's about craft, and work, and solitude, and the power of all three to transport and transform us, about what a job done well can do for the doer. And it's about the risks we court when we open our hearts, especially--as with Carr's protagonist--when we've just come from a situation that demanded we close them.

A Month in the Country is a book I return to reliably every few years. I'm rewarded each time, and I don't see that changing in the decades to come.

(Actually, this book would be worth buying solely for Michael Holroyd's introduction, which includes a bizarre, Carr-related story of a literary prize that bestows meat on its winners.)

Henry David Thoreau/The Journal, 1837-1861

This final book, like Burton's, is more one for dipping into than for reading straight through. It's not been far out of my reach at any time since it was published. Through these journals Thoreau emerges, to my mind, as more interesting, more companionable, less irritating (for, let's be honest, he can be irritating) than anywhere else. He goes about in nature, and we walk alongside, day by month by year.

Whereas Burton is best enjoyed through the index or randomness, Thoreau's journal is perhaps most fun as a regular companion, a way to peer through the years to see what this specific day, long past, was like. As I write this, Christmas approaches--and on that day in 1856 a thirty-nine-year-old Thoreau offers advice from experience
Take long walks in stormy weather, or through deeps snows in the fields and woods, if you would keep your spirits up. Deal with brute nature. Be cold and hungry and weary.
Though I will admit to having no intention of following Thoreau's advice--a seat by the Christmas tree with my family and cups of tea beckon instead--I find it bracing nonetheless. Day after day after day, he's there with you; you'll never regret it if you decide to join him on his daily wanderings.

Happy holidays, folks. Here's to another year of great reading (and perhaps even more reliable blogging? I can hope . . . )

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.

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.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

A cop in search of a partner

In her Dublin Murder squad series, Tana French has featured a new protagonist in each book, taken, cleverly, from the many minor characters in earlier books. This time around, for The Secret Place, she's chosen Stephen Moran, whom we met back in Faithful Place when he was a beat cop. He's since worked his way up to Cold Cases--in part because of the scratch of the protagonist of that earlier novel, a well-placed cop who was grateful for his help. This book opens with Moran seeing his chance at latching onto the murder squad, as a case drops into his lap.

As with all of French's novels, the prose and sensibility in this book are distinctive: you always know when you're reading a Tana French novel. While the plots can sometimes let you down--and this, in its relatively limited complexity, isn't one of her best--her broader interests in contemporary Irish society, and, in particular, in the deleterious effects of the rapidly receding boom, rendered in richly detailed prose, make her books something I look forward to every time. Hell, they'd almost be worth it for the Irish slang alone. I'd happily read about things being "banjaxed" in many more novels.

What brings me here tonight, however, isn't the book itself--who hasn't covered this novel already? It's a single passage of reflective wistfulness early on:
Your dream partner grows in the back of your mind, secret, like your dream girl. Mine grew up with violin lessons, floor-to-high-ceiling books, red setters, a confidence he took for granted and a dry sense of humor no one but me would get.
It's not the perfect fit, but it does sound as if in some ways he may be pining for our old friend Saul Panzer. Here's Archie Goodwin's description of Saul's apartment, from "Fourth of July":
Saul Panzer, below average in size but miles above it in savvy, lived alone on the top floor--living room, bedroom, kitchenette, and bath--of a remodeled house on Thirty-eighth Street between Lexington and Third. The living room was big, lighted with two floor lamps and two table lamps, even at seven o'clock of a July evening, because the blinds were drawn. One wall had windows, another was solid with books, and the other two had pictures and shelves that were cluttered with everything from chunks of minerals to walrus tusks. In the far corner was a grand piano.
What other detective is more casually, unostentatiously cultured as Saul Panzer? Alas, Saul's neither Irish nor contemporary--nor, let's be clear, likely to be amenable to working with an organization like the Dublin Police Department. It would pay poorly, work inefficiently, and tolerate incompetence and corruption on a scale no operative whose favored employer is Nero Wolfe would ever tolerate. The dream partner remains but a dream. 'Tis a fallen world we live in, after all.

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Byron, the Shelleys, and the rough wake of cruel genius

How many times can we read again of Byron, the Shelleys, Lake Geneva, and the Year without a Summer? Surely the topic has been exhausted by now?

Perhaps. Perhaps there's nothing truly new to be discovered from that stormy sojourn. But that doesn't keep me from hungrily devouring yet another account, if it's well told--which Andrew McConnell Stott's The Poet and the Vampyre certainly is. Stott improves on the usual tale of hothouse creativity by simultaneously broadening his lens--telling of the months leading up to and following the Lake Geneva stay--and focusing it on characters usually seen as peripheral, John Polidori and Claire Clairmont. We've always known that Byron and Shelley are, in their distinct ways, largely monsters, but close attention to Polidori and Clairmont renders the poets' darkness and insensitivity utterly comprehensible. Neither Polidori nor Clairmont is anywhere near wholly sympathetic as a character--indeed, while Clairmont has a certain magnetism, it takes an act of serious historicization, of remembering the limitations he faced in society, for us not to find Polidori almost entirely unlikeable, short-tempered and full of ill-founded self-regard. Yet Clairmont and Polidori are both, importantly, familiar: we all know that feeling of wanting, more than anything else in the world, to have a secure place in the orbit of someone more popular, charming, and talented than we are--and of having that person capriciously tack from friendship to dismissal. In Stott's hands, the desire that fuels both Polidori and Clairmont becomes palpable, its off-hand rejection cruel beyond belief.

At the same time, the reason we come back to Byron again and again is that charm, that heedless, headlong selfishness, that insistence that the world is there for him to play with. And the book is full of that, too: anecdotes, scenes, and quotations that further cement Byron as a larger-than-life figure, a man of whom it seems reasonable of a woman who meets him in Rome to say to her daughter, "Don't look at him, he is dangerous to look at."

Today, however, I'll turn away from Byron and focus instead on Polidori and medicine, the field to which he ill-fatedly committed himself young. First, I'll share this jaw-dropping anecdote from Polidori's time at the University of Edinburgh:
The neglect of practical studies was responsible for some of the worst abuses at the university, specifically in the case of anatomy. Edinburgh's professorship in this key area had been occupied for a total of 126 years by three men, all of whom had been named Alexander Munro: father, son and grandson. This was not unusual in a nepotistic age when, of the ten professors hired in the two decades prior to John's arrival, eight were the sons of professors already in residence. By sheer good fortune, the first two Alexander Munros had been men of parts, but by the time John was there, the post had devolved to Alexander Munro III, who treated it as a tiresome inheritance. Appearing in class with his clothes in runkled disarray, Munro mumbled through the notes his grandfather had written almost three-quarters of a century before without even bothering to omit such obvious anachronisms as the phrase "when I was a student in Leyden in 1714"--a passage that took on such a mythic status that its annual utterance became something of a fete, the students showering the professor with peas when they heard it while Munro sputtered on.
Extra credit to Stott for using "runkled," which I was pleased to have to look up.

After such stellar instruction, Polidori graduated from the University of Edinburgh at twenty . . . only to discover that he couldn't practice medicine in London until he passed the boards, which no one under twenty-six was even allowed to sit. Thus, when Byron was looking for a physician to accompany him on his European exile, Polidori jumped at the chance, income and idol-worship creating a compelling combination.

After Byron fired Polidori, largely because of his irritability, profligacy, and jumped-up pretensions (which Byron alternately encouraged and scoffed at), Polidori attempted to latch on with a number of nobles as a personal physician, without much luck. In Pisa, he briefly succeeded in building a practice, but either his Edinburgh training or his faulty stars showed through:
None of [his patients] lasted long. Lord Guilford died first, falling to chronic alcoholism and such tumorous guts that John had to remove his intestines and embalm the body before it could be sent back to Britain for burial. In February 1817, Francis Horner succumbed to a heart condition, followed shortly afterwards by Thomas Hope's young son, who died of scarlet fever.
Byron was no more understanding than usual, writing to his friend Scrope Davies that Polidori was
on his way to England with the present Lord Guilford--having actually disembowelled the last at Pisa and spiced and pickled him for his rancid ancestors.
"Rancid ancestors"--it's phrases like that which bring me back, again and again, to Byron's letters. In another letter, Byron suggested to John Cam Hobhouse that Polidori might suit Lady Westmorland, whose service he hoped to enter. Her eye for young men was on Byron's mind as he offered a vulgar assessment:
He suggested to Hobhouse that John might be on the verge of securing his fortune, the key to which lay in his handling of "Lady W's Clitoris, which is supposed to be of the longest", and ability to talk her into a quick marriage, "if only to fill up the gap which he has already made in the population."
I'm now about 100 pages from the end. Byron, untouched by anything as always, is resident in Venice, drunkenly swimming its canals. Clairmont, meanwhile, is in despair, having borne Byron's child and surrendered it to him; Polidori has returned to London, tail between his legs, and is trying to figure out his career from there. Will they recover some equilibrium, or will they be more like the suicides strewn in the Shelleys' wake? Even knowing the outcome, I find I want to race through Stott's telling to learn more. If you're half the sucker for this story that I am, you should grab this book and do the same.