[Click here for part one.]
I always return to books about the classical world. This year I read three: Searching for Sappho: the lost songs and world of the first woman poet, by Philip Freeman; The Classical World: the foundations of the West and the enduring legacy of antiquity, by Nigel Spivey; and Dynasty: the rise and fall of the House of Caesar, by Tom Holland. All excellent, highly readable, and recommended.
I must say, I found some fabulous images for the post I wrote on A.S. Byatt’s Peacock & Vine. Have a look!
Pursuits of both an intellectual and an amorous nature are gracefully intertwined in John Kaag’s American Philosophy: A Love Story. And in The Vanishing Velasquez, author Laura Cumming, motivated by the need to escape the pain of a deep personal loss, embarks on an investigation into a fascinating mystery of the art world.
A Thousand Hills To Heaven by Josh Ruxin is a book I’d planned to read out of a sense of duty. But it turned out to be a joy and an inspiration. From the horrors of genocide, Rwanda is emerging as a country ready and eager to enter the modern world. Help from committed individuals like Josh and Alissa Ruxin combined with the resilience and resourcefulness of the native population is creating a wondrous new reality. (Be sure to watch the video embedded in this post – it is heart-lifting.)
Finally, two biographies and one travel book – all three absolutely super.
It’s been a while since I read Andrea Wulf’s revelatory life of Alexander Von Humboldt. I can only say that while reading this book – mesmerized by it – the ‘new world’ of this brilliant scientist became my new world as well. I feel deeply grateful to Andrea Wulf for this gift. (Calling this work a “thrilling new biography,” the write-up in The New York Review of Books pretty much says it all.)
“Erased from history: Too many women writers — like Constance Fenimore Woolson — are left to languish in moldy archives. What will it take to bring them back?”
Thus did Anne Boyd Rioux title an article she wrote for Salon earlier this year. Rioux herself has done yeoman work in restoring a worthy author to her rightful place in the history of American literature.
I began this particular reading adventure with the short stories featured in Miss Grief. Woolson was writing about post-Civil War American, in particular the Great Lakes Region and then the South. It seems to me that she was writing about people and places that had been overlooked by others. And having lived in both regions, she wrote about them knowledgeably and beautifully.
The word “marsh” does not bring up a beautiful picture to the mind, and yet the reality was as beautiful as anything I have ever seen,— an enchanted land, whose memory haunts me as an idea unwritten, a melody unsung, a picture unpainted, haunts the artist, and will not away. On each side and in front, as far as the eye could reach, stretched the low green land which was yet no land, intersected by hundreds of channels, narrow and broad, whose waters were green as their shores. In and out, now running into each other for a moment, now setting off each for himself again, these many channels flowed along with a rippling current; zigzag as they were, they never seemed to loiter, but, as if knowing just where they were going and what they had to do, they found time to take their own pleasant roundabout way, visiting the secluded households of their friends the flags, who, poor souls, must always stay at home. These currents were as clear as crystal, and green as the water-grasses that fringed their miniature shores. The bristling reeds, like companies of free-lances, rode boldly out here and
there into the deeps, trying to conquer more territory for the grasses, but the currents were hard to conquer; they dismounted the free-lances, and flowed over their submerged heads; they beat them down with assaulting ripples; they broke their backs so effectually that the bravest had no spirit left, but trailed along, limp and bedraggled. And, if by chance the lances succeeded in stretching their forces across from one little shore to another, then the unconquered currents forced their way between the closely serried ranks of the enemy, and flowed on as gayly as ever, leaving the grasses sitting hopeless on the bank; for they needed solid ground for their delicate feet, these graceful ladies in green.
From “St. Clair Flats” in Castle Nowhere:Lake Country Sketches, 1875
At first, I thought Anne Boyd Rioux’s introduction to this volume would satisfy my curiosity about Constance Fenimore Woolson. Informative as it was, however, it proved inadequate, for this reader, at least. I decided to read Rioux’s full length biography of this unaccountably neglected writer. It proved fascinating. As with most really good biographies, it opened a window onto a whole period of history; namely, post-Civil War America and the European expatriate scene of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Born in New Hampshire in 1840, Woolson grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, where her family moved after the death of three of her sisters. Her father died in 1869, at which point she began publishing stories and essays in various magazines. She felt called to be a writer but money was also a very present problem.
As her story unfolds, Woolson’s life seems more and more poignant. Despite her obvious literary gifts, she had to struggle for recognition. She was befriended and aided by many, most notably Henry James. In fact, I ‘d heard of her previously through my reading about James. Her relationship with him is a very intriguing subject, one not easily resolved. I believe she was rather overshadowed by him; his attitude toward her authorial endeavors was distinctly ambivalent.
Woolson endured a lifelong struggle with encroaching deafness. She never married, and died under mysterious circumstances at the age of 53.
Reading these two books in tandem provided yet another example of the enriching experience of paired reading. Highly recommended, both for solitary readers and for book groups.
Finally, there is Deep South. There are simply not enough superlatives in the language for me to summon up in praise of Paul Theroux’s marvelous travelogue. He himself did not indulge in such language, describing his experiences with the places and people of South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Arkansas in prose at once artless and powerful.
I just finished rereading Deep South in preparation for presenting it for a book group next month. At that time, I’ll write about it in more detail. Meanwhile I have already spoken of it, albeit briefly, in a post entitled Book list for a Friend, Part Two: Nonfiction.
In that same post, I wrote about some of the gorgeous art books that I’ve recently either acquired or obtained through interlibrary loan. These have been a big part of my nonfiction immersion this year. This trend continues, with these two titles from the library:
And finally, there’s this gift to myself, the Mother of All Art Books!
If you happen to be in the market for a gift for an art lover, this weighty tome is brand new and really quite sensational.
Meanwhile, I shall return, before too long, to Paul Theroux. In my opinion, with Deep South, he has written his masterwork.
At one point in his book The Golden Age of Murder, after naming several of the outstanding male authors of the period, Martin Edwards poses this question:
One of the mysteries of the Golden Age is – why have they been airbrushed out of its history so completely that it is often seen as the exclusive territory of the ‘Queens of Crime’?
In actuality, the aforementioned ‘Queens’ – Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Margery Allingham, with the somewhat later Josephine Tey often thrown into the mix for good measure – not only crowded out a large number of male writers by dint of their sheer brilliance, but also a fair number of other women writers as well. One of those in this latter group was Ethel Lina White.
White’s story “Cheese” was the final selection from Capital Crimes to be considered by the Usual Suspects at last Tuesday’s discussion. The framework for this story is so elegantly – and eloquently – set forth that I’m going to quote it in its entirety:
This story begins with a murder. It ends with a mouse-trap.
The murder can be disposed of in a paragraph. An attractive girl, carefully reared and educated for a future which held only a twisted throat. At the end of seven months, an unsolved mystery and a reward of £ 500.
It is a long way from a murder to a mouse-trap— and one with no finger-posts; but the police knew every inch of the way. In spite of a prestige punctured by the press and public, they had solved the identity of the killer. There remained the problem of tracking this wary and treacherous rodent from his unknown sewer in the underworld into their trap.
They failed repeatedly for lack of the right bait.
And unexpectedly, one spring evening, the bait turned up in the person of a young girl.
The principal dramatis personae in this tight, suspenseful little drama:
Jenny Morgan, freshly arrived from the blooming English countryside, eagerly seeking her fortune – quite literally, as she’s in dire need of funds.
Inspector Angus Duncan, “…a red-haired Scot, handsome in a dour fashion, with the chin of a prize-fighter and keen blue eyes.” (Please excuse all the direct quotes; I do love White’s writing.)
Jenny may be keen, but she’s also cautious. She’s received a letter detailing a job offer as a traveling companion and secretary to an elderly lady, but the instructions she’s been given concerning the initial interview for the position have made her uneasy. A friend connected with the police has advised her to seek their counsel. She goes, describes her situation, and asks for their advice – more specifically, for Angus Duncan’s advice, as he is the detective who has caught the case.
(Oh – and watching all this is a Great Dane, resting placidly by the office fireplace. Jenny longs to go over pet him, but she lacks the nerve to move from her chair. Trust me; this is an important detail.)
Inspector Duncan says he needs to have this letter checked out by an expert. Can he take it for that purpose, and will she please come back the next day?
Jenny says yes.
It turns out that by answering just such a summons, the hapless young victim alluded to in the passage quoted above met her tragic fate. As is also stated in that passage, the identity of the perpetrator is known; his whereabouts are not. What’s needed is bait with which to lure this rat out of hiding. As Angus Duncan stares across his desk at Jenny Morgan, a plan, plain as day, reveals itself to him.
He asks Jenny if she’d be willing to help the police capture the malefactor. True, she’ll need to summon her courage, but she need not be too concerned: She will be surreptitiously watched over and guarded every step of the way. Oh – and she will earn a reward: five hundred pounds!
Once again, Jenny says yes.
What happens next is – well, I won’t give away any more. As Frank would say, White summons a plot device into being that the reader has no trouble buying into and that generates edge-of-the-seat suspense. Finally, added to the mix is the beginning of a romance, always a welcome development in a mystery story.
Ethel Lina White was born in Abergavenny, Wales, in 1887. Upon moving to London, she took a job with the Ministry of Pensions. Eventually she left that employment in order to devote herself to writing full time. During the 1920s and 1930s, she was both prolific and popular. Although not as well known these days, she’s still remembered for two novels which were made into successful motion pictures: The Wheel Spins, filmed in 1938 by Alfred Hitchcock and retitled The Lady Vanishes, and Some Must Watch, which was released in 1946 as The Spiral Staircase and directed by Robert Siodmak. (The Lady Vanishes was remade for theatrical release in 1979 and for television in 2013. The Spiral Staircase was remade for theatrical release in 1975 and for television in 2000.)
In his introduction to “Cheese,” Martin Edwards states:
White’s speciality was ‘woman in jeopardy’ suspense fiction, and her ability to evoke a mood of mounting fear has seldom been matched.
The ‘woman in jeopardy’ trope was, of course, one of the keys to the effectiveness of “Cheese.” White deploys it on a larger canvas and with great success in The Wheel Spins, a novel I recommend with great enthusiasm. (Some Must Watch is high up on my to-read list, but as is the way with such lists, one makes no promises.)
Very little is known of Ethel Lina White’s personal life – witness the sketchiness of the Wikipedia entry. (It’s interesting how is frequently this is the case with women writers of that era who have never married or had children. One thinks of Ngaio Marsh and Josephine Tey, although a new biography of the latter by Jennifer Morag Henderson is said to have unearthed some new information about that famously elusive author.) The lengthiest research I found on White is in the Gale database Biography in Context (available through many library websites), and even there, the piece was almost exclusively focused on her work. Frank and I both tried without success to find a date for the initial appearance of “Cheese.”
To recapitulate: the four stories from Capital Crimes that we read for this discussion were “The Case of Lady Sannox” by Arthur Conan Doyle, “The Hands of Mr Ottermole” by Thomas Burke, “The Silver Mask” by Hugh Walpole, and “Cheese” by Ethel Lina White. I think I’m safe in saying that “Cheese” was the favorite among those present at the meeting. (Suspects and others, please feel to offer additions, corrections, or other comments.)
At the start of the discussion, I handed out the following very subjective list of recommended reading in the classics.
FURTHER READING IN THE CLASSICS INSPIRED BY BRITISH LIBRARY CRIME CLASSICS, MARTIN EDWARDS (BOTH HIS BLOG ‘DO YOU WRITE UNDER YOUR OWN NAME’ AND HIS AWARD WINNING BOOK THE GOLDEN AGE OF MURDER), THE GOLDEN AGE DETECTION GROUP ON FACEBOOK, ETC.
I enjoyed the following by authors appearing in the Capital Crimes collection:
“The Leather Funnel” and “Lot No. 249” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
The Complete Adventures of Judith Lee by Richard Marsh (first few stories)
“The Little Donkeys with the Crimson Saddles” from The Silver Thorn by Hugh Walpole
“The Whistle” from All Souls’ Night by Hugh Walpole
Mist in the Saltings by Henry Wade
Before the Fact by Francis Iles (Anthony Berkeley Cox)
Police at the Funeral by Margery Allingham
The Wheel Spins (The Lady Vanishes) by Ethel Lina White
In addition, I recommend the following:
The Emperor’s Snuff Box by John Dickson Carr
Murder of a Lady by Anthony Wynne
From The Independent December 20, 2014:
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hitBooksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
A Christmas detective tale not seen in shops for more than 70 years has become a festive sleeper hit and resurrected interest in a long-forgotten crime writer.
Mystery in White: A Christmas Crime Story by J Jefferson Farjeon is selling in “astonishing numbers”, according to the Waterstones book chain. It has outsold rival paperbacks Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn, and Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch on the high street, while Amazon temporarily ran out of stock last week due to surging demand.
I kicked off our discussion of Capital Crimes with this article. I then expounded a bit further on the opening chapters of Farjeon’s novel. The situation is this: a train has gotten stuck in a snowstorm, and a party of passengers decides to disembark and attempt to reach the next railway station on foot.
With renewed hope they resumed their difficult way. They twisted round another bend. On either side of them great white trees rose, and the foliage increased. Once they walked into the foliage. Then the lane dipped. This was unwelcome, for it appeared to increase the depth of the snow and to augment the sense that they were enclosed in it. With their retreat cut off, they were advancing into a white prison.
The atmosphere became momentarily stifling. Then, suddenly, the clerk gave a shout.
“What? Where?” cried David.
“Here; the house!” gulped the clerk.
Almost blinded by the whirling snowflakes, he had lowered his head; and when the building loomed abruptly in his path he only just saved himself from colliding with the front door.
To their astonishment, they’ve come upon a gracious dwelling all lit up and decorated for the holidays. It’s as if a special welcome had been prepared for them. Yet this cannot be: their decision to leave the train could not have been anticipated. Even more bizarre, as they look around the house, they can find no other living being. The place is completely empty. For whom then is this festive reception intended?
It’s a great set-up. The story takes off from that point, and unlike the aforementioned unfortunate railway transport, never loses its momentum until the full-of-surprises denouement.
Having come out in 2012, The Notting Hill Mystery by Charles Felix (Charles Warren Adams) was the first reissue in The British Library Crime Classics series. Two years later, however, Mystery in White was the first to make a major impression on the reading public. At this point, there have been some thirty-six titles released or planned for release by the publishing division of the British Library.
Joseph Knobbs, crime fiction buyer for Waterstone Books, observes:
‘Mystery in White has been our bestselling paperback this Christmas  and one of the most pleasant surprises of the year.
“The Crime Classics stand out against the darker crop of contemporary crime fiction and offer something a bit different. A lot of modern stuff skews closer to thriller than mystery. It has been a treat to see mystery writers such as John Bude, Mavis Doriel Hay and J Jefferson Farjeon get their due. I think that’s a credit to the British Library, which has not only done the important work of archiving this material, but now brought it to a wider audience.’
Robert Davies, from British Library Publishing, adds:
‘For years, publishers have been concentrating on dark, violent, psychological crime novels, but we spotted a gap in the market for readers seeking escapist detective fiction with superb plots and period atmosphere.’
(At this juncture, Louise interjected the view that the stories selected for this discussion were actually quite dark – anything but escapist! She had a point.)
The runaway success of the British Library Crime Classics was instrumental in bringing into being a conference on Golden Age Mysteries called Bodies from the Library. The first of these was held last year; the second, last month. The conference’s site features a list of suggested reading in Golden Age classics that’s enough to bring tears to your eyes. There’s simply not enough time!
Like the dutiful librarian I was for many gratifying years, I set out some display items for the group:
Capital Crimes is a short story collection that was published here last year. (The Crime Classics entries are now being published in the U.S. by Poisoned Pen Press.) The seventeen stories contained therein were selected by Martin Edwards, who has performed the same function for several other anthologies in this series.
(You’ll note that one of the display items above is Martin Edwards’s award-winning book The Golden Age of Murder.) I’d chosen four stories from Capital Crimes for us to consider. The first was “The Case of Lady Sannox” by Arthur Conan Doyle. (Although Martin Edwards does give the year in which this story first appeared – 1893 – that information was not readily available for most of the other stories in this anthology. We all agreed that this was omission we’d like to see remedied, if possible.)
This is not a Sherlock Holmes story; rather, it is a tale of adultery and revenge, with no detective in the cast of characters. I have to say that upon my first reading, I was so shocked by the events therein described that I slammed the book shut, looked up, and uttered an oath, I don’t remember what, exactly.
Upon subsequent readings, I was able to be somewhat more analytical. Were the events of the story credible? Does Conan Doyle play fair with the reader? The group tossed these questions around for a while; ultimately we concluded that the answer to both questions was yes. Conan Doyle’s masterful touch as a storyteller was everywhere apparent.
Frank directed our attention in this and the other stories to the way in which information about the characters is imparted. In a novel, the author has the time to develop in an almost leisurely manner the personalities of those characters. By contrast, in a short story the time and space are limited. There’s no room for extended descriptions; words must be chosen for their economy of meaning. We agreed that Conan Doyle achieved this aim in “Lady Sannox.”
Here’s what we’re told about Douglas Stone, an eminent surgeon who also happens to be the lover of Lady Sannox:
He was born to be great, for he could plan what another man dare not do, and he could do what another man dare not plan. In surgery none could follow him. His nerve, his judgment, his intuition, were things apart. Again and again his knife cut away death, but grazed the very springs of life in doing it, until his assistants were as white as the patient. His energy, his audacity, his full-blooded self-confidence— does not the memory of them still linger to the south of Marylebone Road and the north of Oxford Street?
And his vices were as magnificent as his virtues, and infinitely more picturesque. Large as was his income, and it was the third largest of all professional men in London, it was far beneath the luxury of his living. Deep in his complex nature lay a rich vein of sensualism, at the sport of which he placed all the prizes of his life. The eye, the ear, the touch, the palate, all were his masters. The bouquet of old vintages, the scent of rare exotics, the curves and tints of the daintiest potteries of Europe, it was to these that the quick-running stream of gold was transformed.
Douglas Stone himself would have readily agreed with all this praise: he had an ego the size of West Texas!
The complete story can be accessed at this site.
There exists a film version of “The Case of Lady Sannox.” For today’s viewer, I’m afraid it comes across as rather campy. The acting is over-the-top histrionic; in addition, the actress playing Lady Sannox is woefully miscast. But the strangest thing about this version of the story is the way in which the ending is altered. I suggest reading the story, then watching the film, and drawing your own conclusions concerning what was changed and why.
This story sparked an especially lively discussion. Unfortunately, many of the details have escaped me. But I’m grateful to Marge, Louise, Frank, and Ann for engaging with such enthusiasm.
It is difficult to talk about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle without also talking about his most famous creation. That fact was illustrated by this oft-reproduced 1926 cartoon from Punch Magazine: Nonetheless, I couldn’t resist bringing this along for show and tell: This book is a companion to a special exhibit at the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh. We were for fortunate enough to see this exhibit and tour this remarkable facility when we were on our 2007 Smithsonian Mystery excursion. On that occasion, Dr. Alan Mackaill was our guide and speaker:
It is most certainly to you that I owe Sherlock Holmes … round the centre of deduction and inference and observation which I have heard you inculcate I have tried to build up a man.
Our next story was “The Hands of Mr. Ottermole” (1931) by Thomas Burke. This is a fairly famous piece and is included in quite a few mystery anthologies. It’s the story of a serial killer who roams the streets of London, striking innocent people at random and then seeming to disappear into thin air. The first victim is a gentleman by the name of Mr Whybrow. He’s headed home after a hard day’s work and looking forward to having tea with his wife. You get the sense of a perfectly ordinary man married to a likewise ordinary woman; they’re fond of each other and neither would hurt a fly. But their domestic tranquility, taken for granted up until now, is doomed to be shattered by “A man with a dead heart eating into itself and bringing forth the foul organisms that arise from death and corruption.” He murders them both, husband and wife. Then quick as you like, he’s gone. Or is he?
Burke’s description of this fiend in human form comes with a large dose of irony and black humor:
He wasn’t, this man, a bad man. Indeed, he had many of the social and amiable qualities, and passed as a respectable man, as most successful criminals do. But the thought had come into his moldering mind that he would like to murder somebody, and as he held no fear of God or man, he was going to do it, and would then go home to his tea. I don’t say that flippantly, but as a statement of fact. Strange as it may seem to the humane, murderers must and do sit down to meals after a murder. There is no reason why they shouldn’t, and many reasons why they should. For one thing, they need to keep their physical and mental vitality at full beat for the business of covering their crime. For another, the strain of their effort makes them hungry, and satisfaction at the accomplishment of a desired thing brings a feeling of relaxation toward human pleasures.
The total number of murders stands at eight. Following the last, “…he was to pass into history as the unknown London horror, and return to the decent life that he had always led, remembering little of what he had done and worried not at all by the memory.” This could be a description of Jack the Ripper, or of the perpetrator of the so-called Texas Servant Girl Murders. Burke’s tone here, located somewhere between satire and black humor, is reminiscent of that of Thomas de Quincey in “Murder Considered As One of the Fine Arts.”
It is a sheerly terrifying story. It imparts to the reader a quality of horror and shock usually associated with tales of the supernatural or of pure sensation, while staying in the bounds of the strict detective story.
I more or less concur with this view, which is why I was somewhat surprised at the negative reaction to this story on the part of my fellow Suspects. Marge felt that the narrative would have worked better as a full length novel, in which the character of the victims could be more fully explored and the reader’s sympathy engaged accordingly.
Frank mentioned the effectiveness of a passage told in the second person, a rarely used device in fiction. It harkens back to poor Mr. Whybrow, as his fate draws near:
You are nearly home now. You have turned into your street— Caspar Street— and you are in the center of the chessboard. You can see the front window of your little four-roomed house. The street is dark, and its three lamps give only a smut of light that is more confusing than darkness. It is dark— empty, too. Nobody about; no lights in the front parlors of the houses, for the families are at tea in their kitchens; and only a random glow in a few upper rooms occupied by lodgers. Nobody about but you and your following companion, and you don’t notice him. You see him so often that he is never seen. Even if you turned your head and saw him, you would only say ‘Good evening’ to him, and walk on. A suggestion that he was a possible murderer would not even make you laugh. It would be too silly.
And now you are at your gate. And now you have found your door key. And now you are in, and hanging up your hat and coat. The Missis has just called a greeting from the kitchen, whose smell is an echo of that greeting (herrings!), and you have answered it, when the door shakes under a sharp knock.
It’s as though you are perched on Whybrow’s shoulder (Frank’s comment), heading along with him into that awful abyss.
At one point near the conclusion, Burke gives some examples of recent history’s most notorious killers. One was Constance Kent, whom we encountered in Kate Summerscale’s masterful true crime narrative The Suspicions of Mr Whicher. Another one was Eugene Aram, whose strange story I came across while researching the town of Knaresborough, which lies a short distance from Harrogate in North Yorkshire.
“The Hands of Mr Ottermole” was filmed in 1958 as an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. It can be viewed on Hulu.com, but the commercials make it hard going. The other option is to purchase it from Amazon streaming for $1.99. (It helps to know that particular episode occurs in Season Two, where it’s number 32.)
As with “The Case of Lady Sannox,” the ending of “Mr Ottermole” has been altered. In both cases, this change violates the intent of the author, and in the exact same way.
In Part Two, I’ll cover “The Silver Mask” by Hugh Walpole and “Cheese” by Ethel Lina White, plus a few other related items of interest.
The People in the Castle is a new collection of short stories by Joan Aiken. In her introduction to this volume, Kelly Link makes some insightful observations about the form. These came about as a result of a literary festival she attended, where she detected, on the part of certain participants, a decided negative attitude toward the short story:
The general feeling was that short stories could be difficult because their subject matter was so often grim; tragic. A novel you had time to settle into— novels wanted you to like them, it was agreed, whereas short stories were like Tuesday’s child, full of woe, and required a certain kind of moral fortitude to properly digest.
Link, herself a distinguished writer of stories, respectfully disagrees:
…. it has always seemed to me that short stories have a kind of wild delight to them even when their subject is grim. They come at you in a rush and spin you about in an unsettling way and then go rushing off again. There is a kind of joy in the speed and compression necessary to make something very large happen in a small space.
I think she’s really on to something in that last sentence. (It puts me in mind of Shakespeare’s telling locution, “a great reckoning in a little room.”) For instance, in Guy de Maupassant’s story “Looking Back,” a world of feeling opens up toward the end of a conversation between an aristocratic woman and the parish priest who has been her dinner guest. This short tale is both specific to its time and place, and universal in the poignant sensation it evokes in the reader.
I came upon this story in an unassuming little paperback anthology I picked up at an airport several years ago. Edited by Milton Crane, 50 Great Short Stories first came out in 1952; it was reissued several times subsequently, the last being in 2005. This terrific collection contains some of my favorites:
Poe’s terrifying and memorable “Masque of the Red Death”
Shirley Jackson’s iconic “The Lottery”
“A Good Man Is Hard To Find” by Flannery O’Connor, one of my favorite authors. Her blend of dark – very dark – humor with the apocalyptic onslaught of fate scares me senseless!
“The Minister’s Black Veil” by Nathaniel Hawthorne. His ability to move and to disturb the reader remains undiminished over the years.
I fear that the airport bookstore is fast becoming a thing of the past. I especially lament the passing of the Hudson Bookstore at BWI (Baltimore-Washington International), a store with a carefully curated stock where I formerly loved to browse. At any rate, it appears that 50 Great Short Stories is still in print and for all I know still turns up now and again in airport outlets. I recommend it.
At the front of the book, Professor Crane asks the question, “What makes a great short story?” In response, he offers the following:
The sudden unforgettable revelation of character; the vision of a world through another’s eyes; the glimpse of truth; the capture of a moment in time….
He goes on to suggest that a short story “…can discover depths of meaning in the casual word or action; it can suggest in a page what could not be stated in a volume.” It’s instructive to reflect on precepts such as these now and again while reading the stories.
An anthology I’m particularly fond of is The Library of America’s two volume set of American Fantastic Tales. Selected by master of the genre Peter Straub, this collection features one gem after another.
From Straub’s Introduction:
For now, let us at least take note that loss, grief, and terror echo throughout the two volumes of American Fantastic Tales. If the fantastic story originates in such emotions, as I believe it does, it is constantly confessing its origins, and with helpless fervor. Gothic literature in general is inherently melancholy, and melancholy is generally its most cheerful aspect….in most of the cases here we are dealing with the gothic sensibility, the many avatars of which are riddled with isolation, loneliness, and dread.
(This eloquent exposition has put me in mind of the plight of Helen Clarvoe in Margaret Millar’s novel Beast in View.)
In point of fact, not only I have I not yet gotten to Volume Two, I have yet to get past the half way point of Volume One (Henry James’s “The Jolly Corner”).
The first story is entitled “Somnambulism: A Fragment,” by Charles Brockden Brown. The tale itself is preceded by an italicized superscription which largely consists of an excerpt from the Vienna Gazette of 14 June 1784. The article relate the events of an actual crime which supposedly took place in Silesia and upon which the fictional story is based. There is some reason to doubt the veracity of this piece:
That Brown himself created this “extract” is possible. Scholars have been unable to locate this story either in the Vienna Gazette or in any of the periodical literature from that time. No one has been able to produce a copy of the article, nor has anyone been able to find for certain that the Gazette was even published in 1784….
[from Charles Brockden Brown and the Literary Magazine: Cultural Journalism in the Early American Republic, by Michael Cody, published in 2004]
From the actual short story:
All men are, at times, influenced by inexplicable sentiments. Ideas haunt them in spite of all their efforts to discard them. Prepossessions are entertained, for which their reason is unable to discover any adequate cause. The strength of a belief, when it is destitute of any rational foundation, seems, of itself, to furnish a new ground for credulity. We first admit a powerful persuasion, and then, from reflecting on the insufficiency of the ground on which it is built, instead of being prompted to dismiss it, we become more forcibly attached to it.
A home truth, eloquently articulated and crucial to the feeling of dread that gradually and inexorably accrues in “Somnambulism.” (I’m reminded of Blaise Pascal‘s aphorism: “The heart has its reasons, of which reason knows nothing.”)
Like his novels Wieland and Edgar Huntly, Charles Brockden Brown’s fragment of fiction called “Somnambulism” is set on the American frontier between civilization and the wilderness. And as is the case with the novels, the fragment’s setting and action reaffirm Brown’s ability to use this frontier as a space for exploring ideas about an American life in transition. Within this setting, Brown utilizes some rather typical Gothic conventions—darkness of night, a young woman in danger, an unknown presence, and the like—to tell the story of a tragic murder and the search for information that hopefully will lead to the author of the crime.
[from “Sleepwalking into the Nineteenth Century: Charles Brockden Brown’s ‘Somnambulism'” by Michael Cody]
Poor Charles Brockden Brown: his life was brief and his literary renown, apparently even briefer. Yet he was arguably the forerunner of Hawthorne, Poe, and other bright literary lights. His story is immediately followed by a veritable roll call of greatest hits of early American literature:
And numerous others.
The above quote (on the subject of the ghost) is from The Supernatural in Modern English Fiction by Dorothy Scarborough. It is cited by Michael Newton in his introduction to The Penguin Book of Ghost Stories.
This recently published anthology of ghost stories is assembled and illustrated by Audrey Niffenegger. In addition to being a writer, Ms Niffenegger is an illustrator and printmaker – a sort of latter day William Blake. In this volume, she has selected fifteen of her favorite tales of the supernatural, plus one that she herself has penned. It’s entitled “Secret Life, with Cats,” and I found it quite effective.
There are many collections of ghost stories and supernatural tales. There are two that I especially recommend. First, the aforementioned Penguin Book of Ghost Stories. Published in 2010 and edited by Michael Newton, it contains a wondrous variety of stories from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. “The Old Nurse’s Story” by Elizabeth Gaskell; “The Cold Embrace” by Mary Elizabeth Braddon (author of the mesmerizing Lady Audley’s Secret); “No.1 Branch Line:The Signal-man” by Charles Dickens; “Green Tea” by Sheridan Le Fanu; “The Moonlit Road” by Ambrose Bierce – these and more are here included. And there is much added value in this small volume: Newton has constructed a chronology of the ghost story; in addition, there is an extensive list of titles suggested for further reading.
I’m indebted to Michael Newton for introducing me to Catherine Crowe and Dorothy Scarborough, both authors and literary critics of distinction. Crowe’s Night-Side of Nature (1848) and The Supernatural in Modern English Fiction (1917) by Scarborough are each available in full text on the Internet Archive. The latter title was submitted by Dorothy Scarborough as her doctoral thesis at Columbia. She went on to teach creative writing at that university; Carson McCullers was among her students.
I am rather amazed, and somewhat vexed, that I’ve not previously been aware of the existence of these two highly accomplished women.
If you’re going to buy just one book of this type, I highly recommend Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural. Edited by Phyllis Cerf Wagner and Herbert Wise, this hefty compendium first came out in 1944 and has remained in print (courtesy of Modern Library) ever since. “Fifty-two stories of heart-stopping suspense” chortles the Amazon.com write-up, and that is most definitely true. The usual suspects are present and accounted for: Poe’s “The Black Cat” (also the lead story in Audrey Niffenegger’s collection); “The Boarded Window” by Ambrose Bierce; “Sredni Vashtar” by Saki; and a particular favorite of mine, “Rappaccini’s Daughter” by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Many others are present for your reading pleasure – though you may be seriously unnerved by certain among them!
As the Washington Post’s Michael Dirda here avers, “These Great Tales of Terror Live Up To their Promise.”
And by the way, Mr. Dirda has given us a wonderful gift for this Halloween season in an article replete with excellent ghostly reading suggestions.
I knew of Ambrose Bierce from his famous – and famously irreverent – Devil’s Dictionary, and his equally famous and frequently anthologized short story, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.”
First: some excerpts from the aforementioned dictionary:
Featured in the True Crime anthology were excerpts from Bierce’s varied journalistic output. All appear under the rubric “Crime News from California.” This first entry effectively conveys Bierce’s satiric flair. For something written – and published – in 1869, it seems to me rather daring, not to mention in some respects ahead of its time:
In the course of looking into Beirce’s background, I discovered a story – a very brief tale – entitled “The Difficulty of Crossing a Field.” This is the whole of it:
One morning in July, 1854, a planter named Williamson, living six miles from Selma, Alabama, was sitting with his wife and a child on the veranda of his dwelling. Immediately in front of the house was a lawn, perhaps fifty yards in extent between the house and public road, or, as it was called, the “pike.” Beyond this road lay a close-cropped pasture of some ten acres, level and without a tree, rock, or any natural or artificial object on its surface. At the time there was not even a domestic animal in the field. In another field, beyond the pasture, a dozen slaves were at work under an overseer.
Throwing away the stump of a cigar, the planter rose, saying: “I forgot to tell Andrew about those horses.” Andrew was the overseer.
Williamson strolled leisurely down the gravel walk, plucking a flower as he went, passed across the road and into the pasture, pausing a moment as he closed the gate leading into it, to greet a passing neighbor, Armour Wren, who lived on an adjoining plantation. Mr. Wren was in an open carriage with his son James, a lad of thirteen. When he had driven some two hundred yards from the point of meeting, Mr. Wren said to his son: “I forgot to tell Mr. Williamson about those horses.”
Mr. Wren had sold to Mr. Williamson some horses, which were to have been sent for that day, but for some reason not now remembered it would be inconvenient to deliver them until the morrow. The coachman was directed to drive back, and as the vehicle turned Williamson was seen by all three, walking leisurely across the pasture. At that moment one of the coach horses stumbled and came near falling. It had no more than fairly recovered itself when James Wren cried: “Why, father, what has become of Mr. Williamson?”
It is not the purpose of this narrative to answer that question.
Mr. Wren’s strange account of the matter, given under oath in the course of legal proceedings relating to the Williamson estate, here follows:
“My son’s exclamation caused me to look toward the spot where I had seen the deceased [sic] an instant before, but he was not there, nor was he anywhere visible. I cannot say that at the moment I was greatly startled, or realized the gravity of the occurrence, though I thought it singular. My son, however, was greatly astonished and kept repeating his question in different forms until we arrived at the gate. My black boy Sam was similarly affected, even in a greater degree, but I reckon more by my son’s manner than by anything he had himself observed. [This sentence in the testimony was stricken out.] As we got out of the carriage at the gate of the field, and while Sam was hanging [sic] the team to the fence, Mrs. Williamson, with her child in her arms and followed by several servants, came running down the walk in great excitement, crying: ‘He is gone, he is gone! O God! what an awful thing!’ and many other such exclamations, which I do not distinctly recollect. I got from them the impression that they related to something more–than the mere disappearance of her husband, even if that had occurred before her eyes. Her manner was wild, but not more so, I think, than was natural under the circumstances. I have no reason to think she had at that time lost her mind. I have never since seen nor heard of Mr. Williamson.”
This testimony, as might have been expected, was corroborated in almost every particular by the only other eye-witness (if that is a proper term)–the lad James. Mrs. Williamson had lost her reason and the servants were, of course, not competent to testify. The boy James Wren had declared at first that he SAW the disappearance, but there is nothing of this in his testimony given in court. None of the field hands working in the field to which Williamson was going had seen him at all, and the most rigorous search of the entire plantation and adjoining country failed to supply a clew. The most monstrous and grotesque fictions, originating with the blacks, were current in that part of the State for many years, and probably are to this day; but what has been here related is all that is certainly known of the matter. The courts decided that Williamson was dead, and his estate was distributed according to law.
As can be seen, the date Bierce assigns to this strange event is 1854. The story appeared originally in 1888 and was included in a collection called Can Such Things Be, published in 1893. Now it seems that in the mid twentieth century, a similar legend was recounted concerning a certain David Lang. The year of these alleged events is given as 1880:
David Lang was said to be a farmer who lived near Gallatin, Tennessee. On September 23, 1880 he supposedly vanished into thin air while walking through a field near his home. His wife, children, and two men who were passing by in a buggy all witnessed his disappearance.
Frank Edwards included the following description of Lang’s disappearance in his book Stranger Than Science (1959):
David Lang had not taken more than half a dozen steps when he disappeared in full view of all those present. Mrs. Lang screamed. The children, too startled to realize what had happened, stood mutely. Instinctively, they all ran toward the spot where Lang had last been seen a few seconds before. Judge Peck and his companion, the Judge’s brother-in-law, scrambled out of their buggy and raced across the field. The five of them arrived on the spot of Lang’s disappearance almost simultaneously. There was not a tree, not a bush, not a hole to mar the surface. And not a single clue to indicate what had happened to David Lang.The grownups searched the field around and around, and found nothing. Mrs. Lang became hysterical and had to be led screaming into the house. Meanwhile, neighbors had been altered by the frantic ringing of a huge bell that stood in the side yard, and they spread the alarm. By nightfall scores of people were on the scene, many of them with lanterns. They searched every foot of the field in which Lang had last been seen a few hours before. They stamped their feet on the dry hard sod in hope of detecting some hole into which he might have fallen — but they found none.David Lang was gone. He had vanished in full view of his wife, his two children, and the two men in the buggy. One second he was there, walking across the sunlit field, the next instant he was gone.
Eventually the grass around where Lang had disappeared turned yellow in a fifteen-foot diameter circle, suggesting that some form of energy had mysteriously transported him away.
Seven months later his children were said to have heard their father’s voice faintly calling out for help as they played near the spot of his disappearance, but eventually the sound of his voice faded away. They never heard his voice again.
This tale is recounted on the site The Museum of Hoaxes. Further information and speculation is therein contained.
At any rate, the question remains: Whose is the original disappearance? Williamson the planter of Alabama or David Lang the farmer from Tennessee? Is either story true?
In the late 1990s, a chamber opera was composed that was based on the story “The Difficulty of Crossing a Field.” It has been performed several times since then, to considerable acclaim.
To add to the general strangeness of this subject, the composer’s name is David Lang.
In 1913, after an extended period of travel, Ambrose Bierce, then age 71, announced his intention to go to Mexico. At the time, that country was embroiled in revolutionary turmoil. His stated aim was to join the army of Pancho Villa in Ciudad Juarez as an observer. At the time of Bierce’s last known communication, he was in Chihuahua. After that, he was never heard from again.
In other words, he disappeared.
So says Harold Schechter, editor of True Crime: An American Anthology. Schechter informs us of this startling fact concerning Hawthorne’s reading preference in the course of his introduction to the essay “Jesse Strang.” Strang, it seems, murdered one John Whipple, husband of his lover Elsie Whipple. Jesse was besotted with Elsie, and she made use of that fact to goad him into eliminating her inconvenient and unwanted spouse. It’s a scenario redolent of associations with Ruth Snyder and Judd Gray, though it predates that sensational case by many decades.
Nathaniel Hawthorne himself is represented in the Schechter anthology by a brief excerpt from his notebooks in which he describes a display of wax figures representing a variety of notorious murderers and their victims.
Nathaniel Hawthorne, true crime buff! As my grandmother (of blessed memory) would’ve said, “Who knew?”
In his fiction, Hawthorne returns time and again to the theme of sin, its corrosive and irreversible affect on the human spirit, and the often vain hope of redemption. This preoccupation is usually said to have its roots in his ancestry – actually in one ancestor in particular. John Hathorne was one of the examining magistrates in the Salem witch trails of 1692. Unlike other judges who also took part, Hathorne was not known ever to express remorse over the role he played in those notorious proceedings.
I love the stories of Nathaniel Hawthorne, in part because they capture the mixture of unease and longing that dwelt in the hearts of the early settlers. Among my favorites are “Young Goodman Brown,” “The Birthmark,” and “The Gray Champion.” I especially love “Rappaccini’s Daughter” for its strange inversion of good and evil, and “The Minister’s Black Veil’ for its aura of impenetrable mystery. Nothing is explained; the reader is left to wonder and speculate.
As a youth, Hawthorne was an introvert. He almost never went out into society. Having graduated from Bowdoin College in 1825, he declined to take up a profession. Instead, he returned to his mother’s house in Salem to live in solitude and to write. His mother, being of a similar temperament, left him to it.
After he had passed some years in this manner, Hawthorne became restless. On a visit to the Peabody family, ostensibly to see Elizabeth Peabody, he encountered her sister Sophia. They fell in love, and she and Hawthorne were married in 1842.
The full story of this late blooming love is an appealing one, especially as told in Miriam Levine’s lambent prose:
On a visit to the Peabody family in Salem, [Hawthorne] met Sophia Peabody. They had much in common. Both felt shadowy, unnreal, cut off from affection and vital life. Sophia, who, like Hawthorne, was born in Salem, had lived as a recluse since she was nine. sensitive, prone to excruciating headaches, she was dosed with drugs and encouraged in her invalidism as if it would be her lifes’ work. She told Hawthorne that she had lived in a seclusion as deep as his own.
Their marriage brought the Hawthornes into vivid immediate contact with the physical world. They felt alive, newly created by love. The world was real. They could feel it. They called themselves the new Adam and Eve. Everything they wrote during their stay at the Old Manse – in letters and diaries – conveys the pleasure of well-matched lovers who luckily, and against all odds, find sex delightful from the beginning. Sophia rejoiced that she was completely his. Her headaches stopped.
from A Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England
It has been my privilege and pleasure to visit Concord, Massachusetts on several occasions. Each time I go, I am moved by the rich literary and historical sites and associations encountered there. Visiting the Old Manse, where the Hawthornes spent the first three years of their married life, is a special experience.
I always seek out the window pane which bears the inscriptions made by Hawthorne and Sophia. (They used Sophia’s diamond ring as their writing tool.):
Man’s accidents are God’s purposes.
Sophia A. Hawthorne, 1843.
This is his study.
The smallest twig
leans clear against the sky.
Composed by my wife,
and written with her dia-
Inscribed by my
husband at sunset,
April 3, 1843
On the gold light. S. A. H.
How one longs to touch the words! But they are protected by an additional pane of glass (or at least, they were when I was last there.)
Should you find yourself in this lovely town one day, I highly recommend Jane Langton’s delightful mystery, God in Concord. . (Thanks to the Mysterious Press, novels in Langton’s series featuring Homer and Mary Kelly are now available on Kindle.)
When it was announced that Alice Munro had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, AAUW Readers expressed a desire to discuss some of her short stories. (As for me, I had my own, slightly hysterical reaction to this much deserved recognition of one of my favorite writers.)
As I had previously led such a discussion – twice, in fact – I suggested that we talk about some of the stories in the 2009 collection Too Much Happiness. I said some rather than all, because despite their relative brevity, these tales have more density, ambiguity, and just plain strangeness than many a full length novel. You can spend a fair amount of time discussing just one of them. And so it proved.
Of the stories in this collection, reviewer Troy Jollimore said this:
The power of random events lies at the heart of “Too Much Happiness.” Nearly every story here hinges on some calamity, some unanticipated and mostly arbitrary event. Such things appear, before they happen, neither probable nor possible, though afterward they may well come to seem inevitable.
Nowhere is this truer than in the opening story, “Dimensions.” Doree, an unworldly and gentle soul, marries Lloyd, a hospital orderly whose surface geniality masks a ruthless need for domination. He and Doree have three children in quick succession; all during this time, Lloyd increases his oppression of Doree, bending her to his will and all but extinguishing whatever spirit she still possesses. Finally, out of the relentless workings of this pressure cooker existence, the explosion comes.
The climactic event of this first story is so awful that some readers declared themselves too put off to continue. Or if they did continue, it was under duress and with heightened anxiety. But even those whose reactions were strongly negative admitted the power of the writing. Here is how Munro describes Doree’s life in the aftermath:
For almost two years she had not taken any notice of the things that generally made people happy, such as nice weather or flowers or the smell of a bakery.
From a previous reading, I had written in the margin that this was as succinct a description of human misery as any I’d ever encountered.
In the first part of “Dimensions,” Lloyd emerges as the kind of person most of us meet with at some point, either in real life or in fiction. Here’s my description of a similar character in another context:
Bart Hansen is a veritable case study of the narcissistic personality. His numerous woes are everyone’s fault but his own. His list of grievances is epic and endless, no one understands him, he is sorely put upon, etc. And as for that dreadful crime….who are they talking about anyway in that courtroom? Surely not him: he could never do such a thing!
Bart Hansen is a character in “The Execution,” one of four novellas in Evil Eye by Joyce Carol Oates.
One of the readers commented that the power of “Dimensions” lies in the meaning of the title: that the characters, Doree in particular, live in an always changing dimension as events unfold. And those events do unfold with a kind of terrible inevitability, until at the very end there is an unanticipated moment of genuine consolation.
The story we considered next was “Wenlock Edge.” Where “Dimensions” was shocking and tragic (and for some, bewildering), this one is just plain weird. As with many Munro stories, “Wenlock Edge” opens in a studied and understated way, with the introduction of a character who goes on to play a supporting rather than a leading role in subsequent events:
My mother had a bachelor cousin who used to visit us on the farm once a summer. He brought along his mother, Aunt Nell Botts. His own name was Ernie Botts.
In demeanor, Ernie seems to have been a sufficiently pleasant person; physically, however, he was at best unprepossessing. Because he tended to be somewhat heavy in the hip region, the narrator referred to him, when he was out of earshot, as Earnest Bottom. She adds: “I had a mean tongue.”
This narrator, whose name is never divulged, is destined to be on the receiving end of a life lesson that is equal parts unanticipated and bizarre. It requires that she accede to an outrageous demand.
The title “Wenlock Edge” refers to the poem “On Wenlock Edge” by A.E. Housman. This poem is part of a cycle of sixty-three poems published in 1896 and called A Shropshire Lad. In a key scene in the story, the narrator is asked by an elderly man to read to him from this collection. The circumstances in which this occurs are singular, to say the least.
Here is the poem “On Wenlock Edge:”
On Wenlock Edge the wood’s in trouble
His forest fleece the Wrekin heaves;
The gale, it plies the saplings double,
And thick on Severn snow the leaves.
‘Twould blow like this through holt and hanger
When Uricon the city stood:
‘Tis the old wind in the old anger,
But then it threshed another wood.
Then, ’twas before my time, the Roman
At yonder heaving hill would stare:
The blood that warms an English yeoman,
The thoughts that hurt him, they were there.
There, like the wind through woods in riot,
Through him the gale of life blew high;
The tree of man was never quiet:
Then ’twas the Roman, now ’tis I.
The gale, it plies the saplings double,
It blows so hard, ’twill soon be gone:
To-day the Roman and his trouble
Are ashes under Uricon.
At first sight, this poem is somewhat confounding – at least, with its esoteric and archaic vocabulary, it confounded me. An excellent explication can be found on a site called Hokku.
“On Wenlock Edge” and other Housman poems were set to music by Ralph Vaughan Williams. In this video, tenor Ian Bostridge sings them and also tells something of their background:
We were in Shropshire in 2011. It’s easily one of the most mysterious and beautiful places I have ever been to. Wenlock Edge is defined as “a limestone escarpment near Much Wenlock, Shropshire.” We saw it from a distance. Here it is, photographed from the air:
While there, it was my great good fortune to obtain this gorgeously illustrated edition of A Shropshire Lad:
The next story we looked at was “Deep-Holes.” A husband and wife are on a picnic excursion with their three young children. What appears on the surface to be an ordinary family outing turns out to be anything but. The eldest child, Kent, tumbles down a hole and is severely injured. Sally and Alex are informed of the accident by their younger son Peter. Sally meanwhile is attempting to nurse baby Savanna.
There follows the inevitable panic. By Herculean effort, Alex manage to rescue Kent, who has broken both legs. One of the breaks was sufficiently severe that he’s left with a slight limp. Other than that, he recovers and seems to be fine. Yet this outing proves fateful, in more ways than one. The family goes on as before, but there’s been a subtle change, especially as regards relations between Kent and his father.
In fact, this discussion made me realize that “Deep-Holes” is a story about the father-son relationship. I mentioned reading somewhere once that every son must eventually face a moment of reckoning with his father. This moment can be especially fraught if the father is difficult and demanding, or has achieved a distinguished position in the world and expects his son to do the same. The irony in this story lies in the fact that Sally is the one who ultimately bears the brunt of Kent’s accumulated resentments.
This story elicited some personal (and to a certain extent, painful) recollections from members of our group . One involved a brother, a favored sibling in the family, who joined a cult and cut himself off from that same family. Another was of an elder brother whose troubled relationship with their father never achieved a satisfactory resolution.
As we were trying to parse the differences between an American and a Canadian sensibility, one among us revealed that she’d lived in Calgary, Alberta, for a time. When you dwell in the Canadian provinces, she assured us, you definitely know that you’re outside the U.S. The place just had a different feel. This was even more true of the small towns in the region. (Actually, her observations reminded me of how I felt when I left the Baltimore/Washington area to go live in a small town in southern Wisconsin. I’d lived in South Korea for a year prior to that move, and I felt more of an alien in Wisconsin, perhaps because I didn’t expect to feel so thoroughly out of place there.)
The penultimate choice for discussion was “Child’s Play,” a story that begins with unprovoked hatred and culminates in an act of terrible malevolence. When I first wrote about Too Much Happiness, I said that “Child’s Play” put me in mind of “The Tell Tale Heart.” by Edgar Allan Poe. Both stories illustrate “the generative effect of a baseless loathing,” but there the similarity stops.
“Child’s Play” contains a sentence that demonstrates the way in which Munro’s stories sometimes go quietly along and then wallop you:
I suppose I hated her as some people hate snakes or caterpillars or mice or slugs. For no decent reason. Not for any certain harm she could do but for the way she could disturb your innards and make you sick of your life.
With Poe’s narrator, it is, of course, the old man’s eye:
He had the eye of a vulture –a pale blue eye, with a film over it. Whenever it fell upon me, my blood ran cold; and so by degrees –very gradually –I made up my mind to take the life of the old man, and thus rid myself of the eye forever.
Poe’s narrator is a lone actor, whereas in “Child’s Play,” Marlene and Charlene act in concert. Before they act, though, they’ve spun a web to enclose one another in their own unique world, one in which irrational feelings and beliefs make perfect sense. This phenomenon has a name: folie à deux, also called shared psychotic disorder. That may seem an extreme diagnosis in the case of these two ordinary-seeming girls – that is, until they do what they do.
That “Child’s Play” is told by Marlene in the first person makes it all the more provocative. She circles the horror at the center of the story, unwilling to confront it until the very end. Back and forth she goes, from her childhood to her life as adult, leaping lightly over the truth at the center of things until Charlene’s plea renders continued denial all but impossible. Charlene is desperate for absolution. But what about Marlene? What does she truly feel about their shared past? We can never know. Munro lets you into her heart and mind just so far, and then no further.
So intense was our discussion of these four stories that we barely had time to discuss “Too Much Happiness.” The title story in this collection is substantially longer than the preceding ones and differs from them in significant ways. It recounts the life of Sophia Kovalevsky, the first great female Russian mathematician. (The feminine form of the last name is Kovalevskaya. Her first name is sometimes spelled Sofia, and she was also known as Sonya. One must be mentally nimble when dealing with Russian names.)
Sophia’s life, both in its personal and professional aspects, was a constant struggle. She could not travel outside her native land without the consent of either parents or husband. Therefore she acquired a husband for that specific purpose, so that she could pursue her studies at some of Europe’s great institutions of learning. Not long after, the husband dies; so does Sophia’s sister. When she goes to visit her widowed brother-in-law and her adolescent nephew, she is shabbily treated. Urey, the nephew, is especially mean-spirited, disparaging Sophia’s study of mathematics as unnecessary and a waste of time. He himself declares that he aspires to be employed on buses to call out the names of stations – a much more useful occupation, he smugly informs his aunt, than that of mathematician.
Urey reminds me of Kent in “Deep-Holes.” In fact, Munro’s fiction features a veritable gallery of repugnant and nasty offspring. She’s the least sentimental writer on the subject of children that I’ve ever encountered (with the possible exception of Joyce Carol Oates). They turn on their well-meaning parents and/or relations for no apparent reason. Or if they don’t turn on them, at the very least they abandon them, as Kent does.
In an acknowledgement at the end of the book, Alice Munro says that she discovered Sophia Kovalevsky while researching another topic in the encyclopedia. Many of us who love to do research have had similar experiences.
Sophia is in love with Maksim, a man who resents her intellectual accomplishments and aspirations and in my view is in no way worthy of her. But of course such considerations carry very little weight where matter of of the heart are concerned. Sophia seems to me a conflicted woman, wanting to excel in her field but also willing, even eager, to submit to a man’s domination. Sometimes, in both life and art, our preferences do not line up as neatly as we would wish them to.
Someone in our group said that “Too Much Happiness” was her least favorite story. One problem all of us encountered when reading it is that the cast of characters was large and sometimes hard to keep track of. In addition, there was a great deal of time shifting, a narrative device to which Munro is quite partial. Usual she makes use of it very effectively, but perhaps because of the length of this particular story, it can cause some confusion regarding the sequence of events. Nevertheless, I really liked it, mainly because of its recreation of the world of late nineteenth century academia and because, like Munro, I was deeply gratified to be introduced to this extraordinary woman, whose existence I’d not been previously aware of.
In general, some members of our group liked Alice Munro’s fiction more than others. One person said that these stories simply did not work for her because she could not like or identify with any of the characters, nor did she find them sympathetic or likeable.. Yet this same individual made valuable contributions to the discussion. I know I complain about the demands of book groups, but sessions like this remind me of how exhilarating and edifying the experience can be.
There are some excellent critiques and posts on the subject of Alice Munro’s works. In particular I’d like to recommend Reading the Short Story, a blog by Charles May, Professor Emeritus of English at California State University, Long Beach.
For those wanting to read more of Alice Munro’s stories, I recommend Carried Away: Selected Stories, published in 2006. The selecting was done by Munro herself, as representative of what she considered to be her best work to date. The book contains a very illuminating introduction by Margaret Atwood.
It has to be said these stories are not for everyone. Some readers find them too bleak and too perverse in their view of human nature. But I find them both mesmerizing and brilliant.
While I was preparing for this discussion, I let Carried Away fall open to where I’d stuck a post-it flag a couple of years ago. This is what I found:
My mother prayed on her knees at midday, at night, and first thing in the morning. Every day opened up to her to have God’s will done in it. Every night she totted up what she’d done and said and thought, to see how it squared with Him. That kind of life is dreary, people think, but they’re missing the point. For one thing, such a life can never be boring. And nothing can happen to you that you can’t make use of. Even if you’re wracked by troubles, and sick and poor and ugly, you’ve got your soul to carry through life like a treasure on a platter. Going upstairs to pray after the noon meal, my mother would be full of energy and expectation, seriously smiling.
From “The Progress of Love”
Yes, yes, YES!!
One keeps hearing that she is greatest short story master currently at work. Really, she’s one of the best writers, period – in any form or medium.
Click here for the official announcement.
For the first time in history, the Nobel prize in literature has been awarded to a Canadian. Alice Munro, one of the world’s most respected and admired writers, was named this morning as the winner of the prize in an especially notable year: one in which she has announced her retirement.
How proud they must be, and with every reason.
If you are a newcomer to the works of this author, the collection Carried Away, published by Everyman’s Library in 2006, is a good place to start. Munro selected her favorites from her own body of work, to be included in this volume. Be sure not to miss the two collections that have come out since that year: Too Much Happiness and Dear Life.
I had already read some of these stories in the New Yorker, but I was glad to encounter them again. Each story in Dear Life is a gem; each carries with it the freight of human longing and confusion. They invariably reinforce the belief that our fellow human beings are alternately, kind, cruel, arbitrary, hypocritical, and just plain strange. Mostly they are unpredictable, and in some cases, unknowable.
In “Night,” insomnia engenders dangerous thoughts on the part of a young girl – or the thoughts cause the insomnia, it’s hard to tell. The danger seems real enough, until the narrator’s father, a plainspoken man, defuses the situation with the most anodyne of comments: “‘People have those kinds of thoughts sometimes.'” That’s all it took: “…on that breaking morning he gave me just what I needed to hear and what I was even to forget about soon enough.” And most importantly: “From then on I could sleep.”
In “Amundsen,” a young woman named Vivien Hyde travels to a sanitorium, where children ill with tuberculosis are treated. She’s been hired as a teacher for the resident patients. This is during World War Two, a period which obviously resonates for Ms. Munro, as she sets many of her stories during that time. The ‘San,’ as it’s called, is in remote countryside. It is deep winter, and Vivien, a city girl from Toronto, is stunned by what she sees:
Brittle-looking birch trees with black marks on their white bark, and some kind of small untidy evergreens rolled up like sleepy bears. The frozen lake not level but mounded along the shore, as if the waves had turned to ice in the act of falling….
But the birch bark not white after all as you got closer. Grayish yellow, grayish blue, gray.
So still, so immense an enchantment.
Once Vivien gets to the San, though, the enchantment is pretty well broken. And then she meets the man in charge of the place. He is Dr. Fox. In their first conversation, he gets her good and flustered: “He was evidently the sort of person who posed questions that were traps for you to fall into.” She’s right about him, but that’s not his worst fault. Not by a long shot, as Vivien is soon to find out.
Alice Munro writes in a style that is almost completely devoid of adornment. As these are short stories, not full length novels, she has but a limited space in which to create a world. Precision is therefore vital. As with poetry, the choice of words is crucial. I love the way the young woman in “Night”sums up the weather in her part of the world: “Our climate had no dallying, no mercies.”
One feels a maximum impact in a small space.
Munro’s stories sometimes begin as though she’d already begun telling them before you, the reader, wandered onto the scene.
At that time we were living beside a gravel pit. (“Gravel”)
Some people get everything wrong. (“Haven”)
This is a slow train anyway, and it has slowed some more for the curve. (“Train”)
That fall there had been some discussion of death. (“Dolly”)
I always feel as though I’m being signaled to insert myself into the action as swiftly as possible. No problem: I’m there.
In “Leaving Maverley,” a man’s wife dies after a long hospitalization. He had known this was coming, and yet “…the emptiness in place of her was astounding.”
She had existed and now she did not. Not at all, as if not ever. And people hurried around, as if this outrageous fact could be overcome by making sensible arrangements. He, too, obeyed the customs, signing where he was told to sign, arranging – as they said – for the remains.
What an excellent word – “remains.” Like something left to dry out in sooty layers in a cupboard.
The juxtaposition of the quotidian and the profound put me in mind of Emily Dickinson’s poem:
After great pain a formal feeling comes–
The nerves sit ceremonious like tombs;
The stiff Heart questions–was it He that bore?
And yesterday–or centuries before?
The feet, mechanical, go round
A wooden way
Of ground, or air, or ought,
A quartz contentment, like a stone.
This is the hour of lead
Remembered if outlived,
As freezing persons recollect the snow–
First chill, then stupor, then the letting go.
There is no way to cope with the vagaries of fate, except to hang on for dear life.