Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives: Striking Writing

August 18, 2017 at 2:35 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction, Short stories)

This post is an addendum to a previous post about this short story collection.

Patricia Highsmith

In “The Heroine” by Patricia Highsmith, Louise is a newly hired nanny in the Christiansen household. The children she is to look after are Nicky and Heloise.

The two children lay on the floor in one corner, amid scattered crayons and picture books.
“Children, this is your new nurse,” their mother said. “Her name is Lucille.”
The little boy stood up and said, “How do you do,” as he solemnly held out a crayon-stained hand.
Lucille took it, and with a slow nod of her head repeated his greeting.
“And Heloise,” Mrs. Christiansen said, leading the second child, who was smaller, toward Louise.
Heloise stared up at the figure in white and said, “How do you do.”
….

“Nightfall,” Louise whispered as she went back into the nursery. “What a beautiful word!”
….
She noticed and loved many things: the way Heloise drank her milk in little gulps at the back of her throat, how the blond down on their backs swirled up to meet the hair on the napes of their necks, and when she bathed them the painful vulnerability of their bodies.

Right from the get-go, this story is suffused with a palpable sense of dread. You want to put it away yet are  compelled to keep reading. (It reminds me of Joyce Carol Oates at her creepiest.)
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Vera Caspary

She neither spoke nor stirred. In her  greens and reds and golds, with the big hoops in her ears, she was like one of those haughty, rebellious duchesses that Goya loved to paint.
….
Every woman at the party envied Phyllis. Gilbert wore his good looks like an advertisement of superior masculinity.
….
Phyllis was being frightfully gay at this time, spending Fred Miller’s money wildly and surrounding herself with good-looking young men. She had  become extremely chic. This Mike thought was an affectation. Like so many bored women, she was seeking compensation for  the dullness of her nights by exhibiting herself in costumes whose extravagance advertised her loneliness.

“Sugar and Spice,” by Vera Caspary
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Elizabeth Sanxay Holding

Long ago, when he had  been a proud and rather pompous little boy, he had heard in Sunday school about  Abraham and Isaac; he could still remember the picture he had seen of a thin and resigned young Isaac lying on the sacrificial stone while his bearded father stood over him with a knife.

“The Stranger in the Car,” by Elizabeth Sanxay Holding

How many young people, one wonders, have been transfixed by this terrifying story? And adults too. I recall, in my college seminar in existentialism, having to confront it head on in Søren Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling.
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Charlotte Armstrong

The door of the enormous bedroom stood wide and her sister’s bed, neatly made, shouted that poor Alice was gone. Mr. Brady sampled the little recurring shock. It was not exactly lessening, but it was changing character. Yes, it was going over from feeling to thinking. She could perceive with her mind the hole in the fabric, the loss of a presence, the absence of a force.
….
Maybe Henny felt guilty  because, during that seemingly normal afternoon,  Henny herself had gone up to the third floor to “lie down” as usual, and had not made even a token resistance to the coming of the angel of death, by being alert to his imminence. Nobody had expected Alice to die–not on Monday.
….
He was a tall man, a bit thick in the middle these days; his hair was graying; his long face had acquired a permanent look of slight anxiety. He was a quiet man, who ran well in light harness, grateful for peace whenever he got it.

“The Splintered Monday,” by Charlotte Armstrong
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Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives: stellar stories

August 16, 2017 at 5:52 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction, Short stories)

    This distinctive collection of short stories, meticulously curated by Sarah Weinman, comes as something of a revelation.

The anthology is subtitled, “Stories from the Trailblazers of Domestic Suspense.” In her introduction, Sarah Weinman declares her attraction to contemporary crime fiction written by women. She names several: Gillian Flynn (of Gone Girl fame), Tana French, Louise Penny, Sophie Hannah, Laura Lippman, Megan Abbott. She avers that in their fiction, these writers and others have in effect taken “a scalpel to contemporary society,” revealing the moral rot lying just beneath the congenial seeming veneer. In particular, they often portray the struggles faced by women trying, in the face of insidious opposition, to lead meaningful lives.

When Weinman went in search of those who may have preceded the current wave of women authors of crime fiction, she made a surprising and disconcerting discovery; namely, that there was “an entire generation of female crime writers who have faded from view.” Troubled, Daughters, Twisted Wives is the start of an effort to rectify that situation by bringing these forerunners – “trailblazers” as Weinman rightly calls them –  and their intriguing, sometimes idiosyncratic works back into public view.

There are some  familiar names here: Patricia Highsmith and Shirley Jackson being among the most notable. Vera Caspary’s fame rests mainly on her novel Laura, which was made into one of the great noir films of the 1940s starring Gene Tierney, Clifton Webb, and Dana Andrews. Margaret Millar is known primarily as the wife of the great Ross MacDonald, but she deserves to be recognized in her own right for the fine writer  that she is. The prolific Dorothy B. Hughes, winner of the Mystery Writers of America Grand Master Award in 1978, wrote In a Lonely Place, which also became a distinguished noir film starring Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame.

 

Other names in this collection were barely familiar – to me, anyway – or not previously known at all: Nedra Tyre, Barbara Callahan, Helen Nielsen, Joyce Harrington, Elizabeth Sanxay Holding. It would be difficult for me to name a favorite or favorites in this collection. I thought they were all, in varying degree, very much worth reading. So much so, in fact, that I intend to read them through a second time. (Weinman provides a page or so of valuable material about the author’s life and work before each story.)

Taken together, these stories evoke a vivid picture of a lost mid twentieth century America. You had to wait around to place a long distance call and then calculate the cost of it. Everyone had servants, even families of modest income. Men oscillated between exploiting women and protecting them (and making a show of protecting them). Men were schemers and so were women. Civilization sometimes seemed a perilously thin veneer, poised on the knife edge, always threatening to topple over into chaos. The past is a different country, for sure, but on the other hand, the more things change….

Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives came out in 2013. Two years later, with Sarah Weinman as editor, the Library of America brought out Women Crime Writers: Eight Suspense Novels of the 1940s and 50s. The authors featured in this two volume collection are Vera Caspary, Helen Eustis, Dorothy B. Hughes, and Elizabeth Sanxay Holding (1940s); Margaret Millar, Charlotte Armstrong, Patricia Highsmith, and Dolores Hitchens (1950s).

 

Earlier this month, I had  the pleasure of hearing Sarah Weinman speak at the Sisters in Crime Thirtieth Anniversary Celebration. She spoke about her work as an editor and a critic in the field of crime fiction, where she’s making, as you can see from the above, an outstanding contribution to the field. (With her efforts to bring worthy writers back from undeserved obscurity, I see her as a sort of American counterpart to Martin Edwards.)

In the course of her talk (which alas I had some trouble hearing in its entirety), Sarah Weinman extolled in particular the virtues of the following: Celia Fremlin (in whose Edgar Award winning novel The Hours Before Dawn I’m currently engrossed), Marie Belloc Lowndes, Elizabeth Sanxay Holding, and Dorothy Salisbury Davis. Lowndes wrote The Lodger, a famously chilling thriller made into a silent film in 1927 by a neophyte director named Alfred Hitchcock.   Elizabeth Sanxay Holding, whose story “The Stranger in the Car” I found especially effective, authored a novel called The Blank Wall. After hearing Weinman discuss it, I’m very eager to read it.

As for Dorothy Salisbury Davis, her story “Lost Generation” was one of the shorter ones in the collection, and also one of  the most powerful. Sarah Weinman enthused about the fact that she’d had the opportunity to meet and talk with Ms Davis. At the time of the publication of Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives (2013), Davis was 96 years old. She passed away the following year.

Celia Fremlin

Shirley Jackson

Patricia Highsmith

Dorothy B. Hughes

Margaret Millar

Vera Caspary

Dorothy Salisbury Davis

Sarah Weinman at Sisters in Crime

Sarah Weinman in better focus!

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“Flight” by Tessa Hadley – something about this story…

August 11, 2017 at 9:43 pm (books, Short stories)

  Two sisters, Claire and Susan, have been estranged for a number of years. Their lives have evolved very differently. Shuttling between Philadelphia and London, Claire, who is single, is a busy professional woman. Susan, also single since her husband’s desertion, works as a carer for elderly and disabled persons. She has four children, two of whom are grown and living on their own. Ryan, the youngest, still lives at home. So does Amy, who has just had a baby. Also living with all of them is Amy’s boyfriend Ben, the baby’s father.

The arrival of the baby represents a tipping point for Claire. It’s time, she believes, to end the hostilities between  Susan and herself. She decides to show up unannounced at the house in Leeds, which had been the childhood home for both of them. (This house, in fact, is at the heart of the dispute between the sisters.)

When Claire arrives, Susan is not at home, but she is warmly welcomed by Amy and Ben, and later by Ryan when he gets home. As for the baby, Claire finds herself gripped simultaneously by feelings of love and pity:

The sight of his weak flailing baby limbs and the reddened swollen navel tugged painfully at Claire – he startled fearfully once, jerking his whole body with grimace and lost cry as if he were falling through empty space.

Meanwhile, all three have been awaiting Susan’s return from work. They do not know how she will react to Claire’s completely unexpected  presence.

They are soon to find out.

Something about this story affected me deeply. Its cumulative power had me suspended in time. I had no notion how things would play out. I only knew that it mattered to me very, very much.

“Flight” can be read online here, but I recommend getting Hadley’s collection Bad Dreams and Other Stories. As a writer of short fiction, she is, in my view, right up there with Alice Munro.

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…’Venice is a labyrinth whose streets are famously full of water.’ – Trajectory, by Richard Russo

July 14, 2017 at 8:52 pm (Book review, books, Short stories)

  Interestingly, there is no story or novella in this collection that’s actually entitled “Trajectory.” Nevertheless, it’s an apt title.

Of the four works here included, I especially liked “Voice.” It takes place in Venice, always a rich venue  for storytellers. The main character is Nate, a retired English professor who has somewhat reluctantly agreed to accompany his brother on a trip to that fabled city on the occasion of the famous (notorious?) Biennale International Art Exhibition.

As is only to be expected, everything looms larger than life in this hothouse atmosphere, including the long running estrangement of Nate from his wheeler-dealer brother Julian. Nate views this trip as a chance for a possible reconciliation, or at least a thaw in relations. Whether this will happen is anybody’s guess, but not unexpectedly, the journey turns out to have larger implications, not just for Nate but for Julian and other members of the tour as well.

As anyone who has traveled with a tour group can attest, your fellow travelers can go from being strangers to intimates in no time flat. They become major players in your life’s drama with lightning speed and then disappear from view just as quickly. Your new bosom buddy from Akron or Reno will inevitably return to his or her home ground, and you, to yours. There’s a certain poignancy in this, a mixture of sadness and relief.

Regarding the few tours I myself have  been on, there are times when these ephemeral but intense relationships overshadow the trip’s stated purpose. I remember a tour I took to Yorkshire in 2005 when the woman seated next to me at dinner was going on at great length about a brand of  health food she was partial to. It’s not a subject that I would ordinarily find riveting, yet I recall being quite captivated by her speech. This, you should know, was taking place while our group was dining in the stately home of a gracious aristocratic couple, a stunning experience  that I had not known we were slated to have and which I will undoubtedly never have again. (And in my memory, it is inextricably linked to Ezekiel Bread.)

That was a bit of a digression, which I hope you’ll excuse. And definitely don’t let it detract from the sheer brilliance of Russo’s story. Nate is a character whose head I got so thoroughly into that when it came time to take my leave, I felt genuine grief at the need to do so. Can you wish a fictional creation well, with all your heart? Well, of course you can. This is one reason why people are so devoted to the novels of Jane Austen.

I love Richard Russo’s writing. His straight ahead, unpretentious style is power (rather artfully) disguised as simplicity. To wit:

From “Voice:”

Amazing, Nate thought. Thirty seconds into their first face-to-face conversation in several years and he already wanted to strangle the man.
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….his last waking thoughts are of the prostitutes’ children who sang so beautifully. How did  they feel about being hidden behind those screens? Did it seem a kindness that their voices alone should represent them to the world of others? Why should these privileged others be spared the deformity its victims had no part in causing? Is it better to be known whole or to conceal what makes us unworthy of love?
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Even if Julian has ulterior motives for inviting him [on this trip], does it necessarily mean he’s totally without warm brotherly feelings? People have lots of moving parts, and trying to reduce motives for simplicity’s sake is always dangerous.

As Nate views the art of the sixteenth century painter Tintoretto  at the Scuola San Rocco, he can’t help contrasting it with what he has so far seen on display at the Biennale:

How comforting it must’ve been to know that everybody was proceeding from the same basic assumptions about God and creation and arriving at the same conclusions about the eternal existential questions: Who are we? What is our purpose?…

Renaissance painting and architecture were both designed to make the individual feel inconsequential in the grand scheme of things, which to  them was, well, grand. Was it the loss of this grandeur, and of the faith that was its foundation, that led to the fragmentation of today’s world, to postmodern silliness, art as a sight gag? Possibly, though Nate has little affection for Tintoretto’s muscle-bound figures, their heavy, brutal limbs foreshortened to emphasize their relentless determination to climb up and away from Mother Earth. Even his gray-bearded elders looked ripped and ready for battle, which might be why Nate, feeling paunchy, leave the Scuola San Rocco feeling bullied.

The Miracle of St. Mark Freeing a Slave, by Tintoretto 1548

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Ray, the chief actor in “Intervention,” sells real estate in Maine. His current clients are the Bells, whom he describes as “cultural refugees from Texas.” He guesses that like many others who have vacationed in the Pine Tree State, they have wholeheartedly bought into the state’s motto, “The Way Life Should Be.”

That happened pretty often actually….”If things get really bad,” people said, “we’ll sell everything and move to Maine,” as if it were a foreign country. Liberals came fleeing conservatives, libertarians fleeing government,  traders fleeing Wall Street, film people fleeing L A, everybody felling the nation’s collective culture, as if there were no cable TV or internet access north of Boston, and by means of geography they could escape Snooki and hip-hop and Sarah Palin and bird flu.

He adds, “One rough winter, followed by a black fly-rich June, was usually sufficient to send such folks scurrying back to wherever they came from.”

After the exhausting ordeal of house hunting, Cliff Bell is eager to go out for dinner:

“I want some of those clams you get up here. The ones with the little penises.”

His wife opened her mouth to say something, then closed it again, evidently deciding that just because it was teed up didn’t mean you had to hit it.

I really enjoyed “Intervention.” It showcases Russo’s dry and rather rueful wit, always a pleasure to encounter. The story ends, though, with the kind of sad realization that Russo is especially good at putting into words:

….people cling to folly as if it were their most prized possession, defending it, sometimes with violence, against the possibility of wisdom.

“Voice” and “Intervention” are the second and third stories respectively in this collection. While I liked the other two – “Horseman” and “Milton and Marcus” – I didn’t think that they were quite of the same caliber as “Voice” and “Intervention.”

Richard Russo

In recent weeks, I’ve read a slew of rave reviews of new story collections. Trajectory has certainly whetted my appetite for more of the same.

Additional recommendations gratefully accepted!

And as for Venice’s streets being “famously full of water,” this is probably a reference to the telegram that American humorist Robert Benchley (1889-1945) purportedly sent to Harold Ross, his editor at The New Yorker, when he – Benchley –  arrived in Venice:

Streets full of water. Please advise.

Robert Benchley

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Best Reading in 2016: Nonfiction, part two

December 18, 2016 at 8:36 pm (Best of 2016, Book review, books, Short stories)

[Click here for part one.]

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nspivey

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.
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978110947470  I must say, I found some fabulous images for the post I wrote  on A.S. Byatt’s Peacock & Vine. Have a look!
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Pursuits of both an intellectual and an amorous nature are gracefully intertwined in John Kaag’s American Philosophy: A Love Story.   51ek3onp4tl-_sy344_bo1204203200_    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. vveljpg
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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.)hillstoheaven

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Finally, two biographies and one travel book – all three absolutely super.

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Andrea Wulf

516qbir3sul-_sx333_bo124203200_ 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.)
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“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.

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Henry James and Constance Fenimore Woolson

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.
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Finally, there is Deep South. jacket-artwork-deepsouthThere 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:

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And finally, there’s this gift to myself, the Mother of All Art Books!

wolfimpressionism

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.
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Meanwhile, I shall return, before too long, to Paul Theroux. In my opinion, with Deep South, he has written his masterwork.

 

 

 

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Part Three of the Capital Crimes discussion: “Cheese” by Ethel Lina White

July 18, 2016 at 1:09 pm (Book clubs, books, Mystery fiction, Short stories)

[Click here for Part One of this post, and here for Part Two.]
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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.

Cheese.

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.
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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.)

WhiteEthelLina

This is the sole image I was able to find of Ethel Lina White 1876 – 1944

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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

 

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Usual Suspects discuss stories from Capital Crimes – Part One

July 15, 2016 at 1:30 am (Book clubs, books, Mystery fiction, Short stories)

 

But first, a bit of background: 9-FarjeonBook

From The Independent December 20, 2014:

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers 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 [2014] 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.)

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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!

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Like the dutiful librarian I was for many gratifying years, I set out some display items for the group:

IMG_1975-X2IMG_1968-X2*************************************

51cyk9jgbjl-_sx342_bo12042000_1 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. Silent-Nights-cover-900x12929781464203756_FC-900x1308

9781464205736_FC-900x1390 9781464205750_FC-900x1296  (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:4e35f6a58b76f36e5aa3c53cc1cb73ac  Nonetheless, I couldn’t resist bringing this along for show and tell: IMG_1976-X2 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: DSCN0472-X2

The book’s back cover features an 1892 letter from Conan Doyle to his mentor Dr. Joseph Bell: IMG_1978-X2 In it, Conan Doyle states the following:

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.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle 1859 - 1930

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle 1859 – 1930

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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.”

In an article on “The Hands of Mr. Ottermole,” the venerated critic Anthony Boucher explains why he and others have such a high opinion of this work:

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.

Thomas Burke 1886 - 1945

Thomas Burke  1886 – 1945

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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.

 

 

 

 

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May is National (International?) Short Story Month

May 8, 2016 at 9:18 pm (Book review, books, Short stories)

shortstorymonth320x320 May is Short Story Month

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The People in the Castle is a new collection of short stories by Joan Aiken. 9781618731128_big  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. isbn.aspx 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.

9781598530476   9781598530483

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:

“The Adventure of the German Student” by Washington Irving
“Berenice” by Edgar Allan Poe
“Young Goodman Brown” by Nathaniel Hawthorne

And numerous others.

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“He is the really permanent citizen of the earth, for mortals, at best, are but transients.”

November 1, 2015 at 3:51 pm (Art, books, Short stories)

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.

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static1.squarespace.comThis 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.

Endpapers for the book Ghostly

Endpapers, drawn by Audrey Niffienegger for the collection entitled Ghostly [click to enlarge]

You may recall Ms Niffenegger as the author of The Time Traveler’s Wife – which I really have got to read some time; so many people love that book. She also wrote Her Fearful Symmetry, a highly engaging and imaginative novel.

Audrey Niffenegger

Audrey Niffenegger

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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.  Penguin Ghost  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.

Catherine Crowe 1803 - 1876

Catherine Crowe  1803-1876

Dorothy Scarborough

Dorothy Scarborough 1878-1935

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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!

Original cover for Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural

Original cover for Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural

Current cover. The painting is The Nightmare by Henry Fuseli (1781)

Current cover. The painting is The Nightmare b’y Henry Fuseli (1781)

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.

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Ambrose Bierce

April 4, 2015 at 9:27 pm (History, Music, opera, Short stories, True crime)

truecrimea

Ambrose Bierce

Ambrose Bierce

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.” Owlcreek

First: some excerpts from the aforementioned dictionary:

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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:

Crimenewsfromcal

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.

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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.

 

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