Monday, September 29, 2014

The House of the Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne

As part of my R.I.P. activity this autumn season, I signed up for the House of the Seven Gables readalong being hosted by Michelle at Castle Macabre.  I approached the project with fear and trembling because, although I have enjoyed almost everything of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s work that I have ever read, I knew that he is never a quick read.  And with everything that I customarily have going on in the fall, plus having signed on for the reading of four other books during the R.I.P. season – well, I knew this was going to be a challenge all by itself.  It was, but I paced myself and typically read a chapter a day, beginning on the second day of September.  The result?  I’ve finished it!  And I am glad I read it, but it’s by no means my favorite of Hawthorne’s works.
I am probably the last person in this or any other universe to have read The House of the Seven Gables, plus this is undoubtedly a book that many people have been forced to read, either as part of their high school or college studies.  Plus, Wikipedia (link).  So you don’t need me to say much if anything about the plot.
However, just in case you DO, here’s the Cliff Notes version of the Cliff Notes:
The Pyncheon family are the owners and builders of the massive, brooding house known as the House of the Seven Gables.  However, the house sits on land that originally belonged to a man named Matthew Maule, who was swindled out of the land by old Colonel Pyncheon, the stern and possibly evil progenitor of the family.  In a prefatory chapter, Hawthorne relates the events that set everything in motion in the novel.  Pyncheon wanted Maule’s land but Maule wouldn't consider any offer.  This went on for way longer than Pyncheon would have liked, so he finally accused Maule of being a witch and had him executed, which cleared the way for his landgrab.  However, before he died, Maule cursed the family with a curse that God would give them blood to drink, and as the novel develops, this curse is borne out in a variety of ways.
The story then fast forwards to the “present” (Hawthorne’s time, I suppose) and focuses on two Pyncheon descendants, Hepzibah and her brother Clifford, as well as a cousin, Phoebe, who comes to live with them in the house.  Hepzibah and Clifford are typical gloomy Pyncheons, with plenty of skeletons in their closets, but Phoebe is a breath of fresh air and gradually transforms the house, or at least its occupants.  There’s a dark cloud on the horizon, however, in the form of Judge Jaffrey Pyncheon, another cousin who has malevolent designs on the family members and does his best to be nasty to them, all in the guise of being concerned about his cousins.  He gets his in the end, thankfully for the reader’s sense of justice, and the chapter in which Hawthorne dwells on Jaffrey’s end and its aftermath struck me as a real tour de force.

There’s another inhabitant of the house, a lodger named Holgrave, who is typically referred to as "the Daguerreotypist," a reference to his trade.  He, with Phoebe, seems to be a force for good in the house, but the reader soon suspects that there is more to him and his identity than meets the eye.  In case you have not read the book, I certainly am not going to spoil it for you, but I’ll just say that Holgrave is part of a very satisfying climax and denouement of the story.

This is a picture of the house that belonged to Hawthorne’s cousin Susannah Ingersoll, which apparently gave him the idea for the title of the novel.  It does resemble Hawthorne’s descriptions of the old Pyncheon place.

As I mentioned earlier, I am glad I read this book, even though it was rough going for me at times.  Hawthorne makes too many diversions into episodes that don’t have much to do with pushing the story along, and as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, he never uses one word when he can use 10.  Or 20.  Or 100.  And it’s kind of a weird story, after all, although perfectly suited to the season of gradually lengthening nights and strange, spooky things around every corner.  BUT.  After all is said and done, it's unique, and I think it definitely deserves its place in the pantheon of great American literature.

Friday, September 26, 2014

"Junior" by Ray Bradbury

Deal Me In Lite, Week 13: "Junior" by Ray Bradbury

We have reached the halfway mark in my little Deal Me In Lite project, and this week the half-deck of cards dealt the two of spades, which led to a very strange little story by Ray Bradbury.

But first, let me tell YOU a little story.  One fine morning, a famous writer named Ray woke up and bounded out of bed as was his wont, and immediately went to his typewriter and sat down.  (Hey, this is my story, I can have him using a typewriter if I want him to.  Anyway, for all I know, that's something he might have still done.)  He sat there and thought, "What shall I write about today?"  He pondered for a moment, only a moment, and then he said, "AHA!  I know!  I think I will see if I can get away with writing a story about an old man who wakes up one morning with an erection!"  And so he did.

The end.

I kid you not.  The "Junior" of this story's title refers to a penis.  It belongs to an 82-year-old man named Albert Beam (the first of MANY double entendres in this story, I am afraid).  Junior makes an appearance one morning and surprises the heck out of Albert.  He thinks it's his knee at first, which tells us Albert doesn't have a terribly good grasp of anatomy.  Such is the wonder and rarity of this appearance that he immediately consults his little black book and calls three of his lady friends to come over and see the Blessed Event.  They do, and... that's about all that happens in this story.  Like I said, a weird little story.

I can't recommend this story unless you just like to see Bradbury doing what he does best, which is playing with language.  But I'll give you a little taste of that, in case you are still sitting on the fence about whether or not to read this story:

He dropped the phone, suddenly fearful that after all the alarums and excursions, this Most Precious Member of the Hot-Dog Midnight Dancing-Under-the-Table Club might dismantle.  He shuddered to think that Cape Canaveral's rockets would fall apart before the admiring crowd could arrive to gape in awe.

Now I am curious, however -- anybody know any other instance of a story where the narrative revolves around an erection (barring the pages of Penthouse and like-minded periodicals, of course)?

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

"Shut a Final Door" by Truman Capote

Deal Me In Lite, R.I.P. Edition, Week 4: “Shut a Final Door” by Truman Capote (Story 4 of 13)

For the fourth story in my R.I.P. Short Story Peril, the spades dealt me a Jack. This means I turn again to The Arbor House Treasury of Horror and the Supernatural for a weird little story by Truman Capote. According to the short introduction in the anthology, this was one of Capote’s earliest stories, written before his first novel Other Voices, Other Rooms. This story also won first place in the O. Henry prize competition of 1948. It is an interesting story, but I'm not so sure it's worthy of its place in a horror anthology.


The protagonist, Walter Ranney, is a vile little man with little to nothing of a moral compass. And that's going easy on him. He's one of those people who drifts from thing to thing, and person to person. He makes friends with a young man only to steal his girlfriend away from him. And then he uses the new girlfriend to advance in his career, and eventually as a stepping stone to a new girlfriend. In fact, he pretty much uses every woman in his life that way, always “trading up,” as they say. Until he ticks off his last girlfriend, an important heiress, and goes plummeting back down to the bottom of the ladder, even losing his job.

The supernatural part of the story, I guess, comes in when Walter begins getting calls from an person who refuses to identify himself or herself (Walter can’t even tell if it's a man or a woman) and simply keeps saying, every time they call, “Oh, you know me, Walter. You’ve known me a long time.” We never get even a hint of who this is (and I have my own suspicions as to what Capote is trying to do with this but I won't tell them to you for fear of spoiling the story) but it's definitely a little on the creepy side.

I don't think this is really supposed to be a scary story, so I was a little disappointed that it got into my R.I.P. mix. It's really more of a psychological study/morality tale kind of thing. However, as a short story it stands very well on its own merits and I'm glad I read it. It's one of those stories that I had to read twice to make sure I was catching even half of what Capote was trying to do with it, but it was definitely worth reading that way.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Wake Up Happy Every Day by Stephen May

Today I am reviewing Wake Up Happy Every Day, a new book by Stephen May to be released this December.  I received a digital advance reading copy of the book via NetGalley for review, and I can thoroughly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys a good comic novel.

This highly entertaining and fast-paced novel is the story of Nicky and Sarah Fisher, a British couple who are in San Francisco celebrating the fiftieth birthday of their billionaire friend Russell Knox.  Things get rolling when Russell suddenly drops dead for no apparent reason in one of the several bathrooms of his palatial mansion.  Nicky quickly gets the idea to impersonate his friend Russell and pass off the dead body in the bathroom as his own.  Sarah readily agrees with Nicky's plan, especially since they will then have access to more money than either of them has ever dreamed of in their entire lives.  This windfall comes in especially handy since their daughter Scarlett has cerebral palsy and requires extra care.  And the story takes off from there.

To be more convincing as his friend Russell, Nicky undergoes various agonies of gym, diet, and hair replacement to change his appearance.  Meanwhile, an assassin named Catherine begins to doubt her skills -- she just knew she had taken out Russell as she was directed to, but she apparently knocked off his idiot British friend by accident.  Now she is determined not to fail a second time.

Another thread of the story is found in the machinations of Mary, Scarlett's babysitter, who cooks up a plan to bilk the Fishers out of some of their new-found money.  She just happens to be in cahoots with her boyfriend Jesus who comes into the story as the Fishers' limo driver.

Along the way the stories of other characters are woven into the narrative, creating an ever more complex storyline that pushes the reader along to see what is going to happen next and how all of this will end.  Russell's estranged daughter Lorna lives in San Francisco as well, and complicates matters when she tries to pay a visit to her dad (now being played by Nicky).  Nicky's dad Daniel, nearing the end of his life and suffering from a degenerative brain disease, is spending the last years of his life in a retirement home.  He begins to think that he should be seizing the day and living more purposefully, spurred on by the untimely death of his son.  Part of the way he decides to live more is to buy a new sportscar, which leads to some interesting situations.  Daniel is tended by a young woman named Polly who, among other things, spends a fair amount of time thinking about who would be the best sperm donor for the baby she wants to have.

Occasionally the events of the novel and the interactions between the characters border on the improbable and absurd, but the author does a good job of putting everything in context and never letting the story veer off into the ridiculous.  This is a well-written novel that is humorous and entertaining without being tedious.  Highly recommended!

Disclaimer: I received a complementary digital copy of this book from the book's publisher via NetGalley for review purposes.  I did not receive any monetary compensation in return for the review, and I was not required to review the book.  All opinions expressed here are my own.

Friday, September 19, 2014

“A Visit to the Asylum for Aged and Decayed Punsters” by Oliver Wendell Holmes

Deal Me In Lite, Week 12: "A Visit to the Asylum for Aged and Decayed Punsters" by Oliver Wendell Holmes

Almost halfway through the Deal Me In Lite schedule, and this week keeps us in hearts (that shuffling deficiency I clearly have) -- the 5 of hearts, to be exact -- for another selection from The Classic Humor Megapack.  And, oddly enough, another writer like Poe who was known for mostly other things besides humor.  I am, of course, referring to Oliver Wendell Holmes, the Senior (not Junior, who was also famous).


Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. (1809-1894) was a poet, prose writer and a physician who did much to change the course of American medicine.  Along with Semmelweis in Vienna, he was one of the first physicians to postulate that diseases could be transmitted from patient to patient by doctors who didn't wash their hands.  Huh?  Yes, this was once regarded as a ridiculous idea and took much campaigning and work by doctors such as Holmes to eventually convince everyone of the need for basic hygiene in medical settings.  In fact, in those days (the middle of the 19th century) it was not uncommon for medical students to spend all morning in the autopsy room, cutting up cadavers to learn the mysteries of the human body, and then spend all afternoon seeing patients -- with nary a bit of soap or water touching their hands in between.  And then they wondered why their patients got so many infections and died.

Geez, that's kind of depressing.  And this story wasn't, although it went on a little longer than I liked, and it was a pretty short short story, all in all.  I should have expected that, however, with puns and all being the whole premise of the story.  Here's the setup: the author is making a visit to the Asylum where old punsters go to live out their days.  The punsters, who are all men (the author asks, did you ever hear of a female punster?) basically sit around and take every opportunity to make bad puns.  Here's a sample:

On arriving at the south gate of the Asylum grounds, I was about to ring, but my friend held my arm and begged me to rap with my stick, which I did. An old man with a very comical face presently opened the gate and put out his head.

“So you prefer Cane to A bell, do you?” he said—and began chuckling and coughing at a great rate. 

My friend winked at me.

“You’re here still, Old Joe, I see,” he said to the old man.

“Yes, yes—and it’s very odd, considering how often I’ve bolted, nights.” He then threw open the double gates for us to ride through. “Now,” said the old man, as he pulled the gates after us, “you’ve had a long journey.”

“Why, how is that, Old Joe?” said my friend.

“Don’t you see?” he answered; “there’s the East hinges on the one side of the gate, and there’s the West hinges on t’other side—haw! haw! haw!”

Um......... OK.  Knee-slapper it is not.  But I enjoyed it overall, and it was a pleasant way to spend 15 minutes or so.  The story is available online here if you care to read it.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

"Rappaccini's Daughter" by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Deal Me In Lite, R.I.P. Edition, Week 3: "Rappaccini's Daughter" by Nathaniel Hawthorne (Story 3 of 13)

For week 3 of the R.I.P. version of Deal Me In Lite, I drew the 10 of spades, which led me to the classic "Rappaccini's Daughter" by Nathaniel Hawthorne.  Although I have no doubt this story is widely available online, I read it out of The Arbor House Treasury of Horror and the Supernatural, an anthology I have owned for many years and which has always served me well at this time of year.


I have read this story before -- I think maybe in high school or college -- but I didn't remember it at all, so I thought it was a worthy choice for my R.I.P. short story list.  Plus, there seemed to be a chance at some synchronicity since I am also reading my way through The House of the Seven Gables as part of the Castle Macabre readalong.  I have never had so much Hawthorne in my diet (ha) and I'll say one thing about him: good old Nathaniel never used one word when he could use ten.  But in spite of all his verbosity, the man can tell a story.  By the way, did you know that the villainess Poison Ivy from the Batman comics is based in part on this story?  It's true (according to Google!).

The story opens as a young student, Giovanni Guasconti, procures lodgings for himself in Padua.  His window overlooks a beautiful garden which he later learns is owned and tended by a certain Dr. Rappaccini.  Not only does Rappaccini own this beautiful garden, he also has a beautiful daughter named Beatrice.  Once Giovanni sees her, it's love at first sight, of course.  However, there's something not quite right about the garden or Beatrice.  The flowers and plants in the garden look strange to Giovanni, and he eventually learns that they are the products of Dr. Rappaccini's unusual experiments, as is Beatrice herself.  Giovanni sees some things in the garden that alarm him (I'm not going to spoil it for anyone who has not read this story), but like the proverbial moth and flame, he cannot stay away from his window and eventually makes his way into the garden and into Beatrice's heart, with tragic consequences.

Although this is one of the classic short stories, it's not particularly scary.  Creepy and suspenseful, maybe, but not scary.  However, it's only the middle of September, so there's still plenty of time to fire up the big guns of horror and the things that go bump in the night.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

"What You Do Not Know You Want" by David Mitchell

Deal Me In Lite, R.I.P. Edition, Week 2: "What You Do Not Know You Want" by David Mitchell (Story 2 of 13)

For Week 2 (and Story 2) of my R.I.P. version of Deal Me In Lite, I selected the 6 of spades which led me to a story from a most interesting anthology, McSweeney's Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories, edited by Michael Chabon.  Three or four of the stories on my R.I.P. short story list come from this anthology, and the initial story I picked, "What You Do Not Know You Want," did not disappoint.


The story revolves around an item from a real-life incident, the death by seppuku (ritual suicide by disembowelment, otherwise known as hara-kiri) of Yukio Mishima, the notable Japanese actor, poet, playwright, and film director (picture at left).  The narrator of the story, whose name we never find out, is a dealer of esoteric and exotic antiques, and he is on the trail of the dagger that Mishima used to kill himself.  He rightly figures that it would be worth a lot of money to the right customer, and he just happens to have one lined up.  However, as the story opens, the narrator is in a hotel in Hawaii, looking for clues about the death of his business partner, who killed himself by jumping off the hotel roof.  The dagger, which he was supposed to be procuring, is also missing.  His search for the dagger and the outcome of that search is the rest of the story.

The narrator has nicknames for everyone: his business partner is "Vulture," his fiance (whom he is planning to marry for her money primarily) is "Nightingale," and the proprietor of the hotel where Vulture died is "Werewolf."  Another character, a young Chinese girl who is supposed to be the proprietor's niece, is named Wei, and this appears to be her real name.  I think there might be some significance there, but I would have to read the story another time or two to see if I am right.  The narrator has quite a few run-ins with Wei, as it turns out, and we feel an undercurrent of danger in their interactions with each other, but we never quite understand exactly what it is -- until it's too late.

The entire story has a kind of hard-boiled, noir-ish feel to it as the narrator hunts down the dagger in some very seedy and dangerous locales.  Add to this the nightly screaming of someone a few rooms down from the narrator's room, and you have the ingredients for a highly atmospheric and unsettling story.  By the way, the title of the story (which was the reason I chose it) comes from the phrase on the narrator's business cards.  By the end of the story, this phrase has been given new significance with a shocking twist that puts a special spin on it.

I did not know it when I chose this story, but the author just also happens to have written Cloud Atlas and The Bone Clocks, the latter of which appeared on this year's Man Booker Prize longlist (but not the shortlist, as was announced a couple of days ago).  I found this story riveting and suitably creepy, a perfect story for my R.I.P. reading, and it makes me eager to read more of Mr. Mitchell's stuff.  Have you read any of his works?

"Titbottom's Spectacles" by George William Curtis

Deal Me In Lite, Week 11: "Titbottom's Spectacles" by George William Curtis

This week the three of hearts sends me back to the pages of The Classic Humor Megapack.

To be honest, this story made my list purely because of the title.  I mean, let's face it -- doesn't that title make you want to read this story?  It sounds like a scream from the title alone.

Yeah, well...

Unfortunately this is another of the stories in this anthology that makes me wonder why exactly anyone would think it belongs in a humor anthology.  It just ain't funny.  It was an interesting story, with an interesting premise.  But not funny.

This brief story is actually a chapter from a larger work, Prue and I, but it stands alone reasonably well.  Titbottom is a colleague of the narrator's, an older man who frequently dines and spends a pleasant evening with the narrator and his wife Prue.  One evening he tells them the story of a pair of miraculous spectacles he inherited from his grandfather.  These spectacles allow the wearer to see anyone as they truly are, metaphorically.  For example, when Titbottom puts them on to look at his grandfather, who is a much-loved and highly respected elder in the community, he does not see his grandfather.  Instead, he sees a tall, majestic palm tree towering over a beautiful, rich landscape, giving life and shelter to everything around it.  As you might imagine, these spectacles also can show the negative side of people as well, and Titbottom's life has been somewhat complicated by his occasional use of the spectacles and his knowledge of what is behind the masks people wear sometimes.  It's a classic theme of peering behind the veil, and as such, it's a relatively interesting story.  I feel that there are probably other authors (and better-known authors) who have treated this theme with greater success -- however, I don't know of any off the top of my head.  Anyone care to leave some info in the comments?

Monday, September 8, 2014

Fat Chance by Nick Spalding

Today I'm reviewing Fat Chance, a soon-to-be-published novel by Nick Spalding.  I received a digital advance reading edition of this book the other day, via NetGalley (see disclaimer at the end of the review).

The story follows Greg and Zoe Milton, a young British couple who volunteer to enter a Biggest Loser-type competition called "Fat Chance."  It's being hosted by their local radio station, and features six couples all competing to win a 50,000 pound prize.  Greg and Zoe, like so many, have put on quite a bit of weight during their married lives, and they see this as an opportunity to slim down AND win some money.  What makes this book so very entertaining (and highly readable), is the fact that the chapters are written as Greg and Zoe's diary entries that they are required to write as part of the competition.  This results in a much funnier narrative than might have otherwise resulted from a third-person approach, as we get the events unfolding in both Greg and Zoe's unique voices.

And these events are truly funny.  The couple begins by writing about the events that convince them it's time to do something about their weight.  For Zoe, it's an episode in a dressing room with a size 16 dress that she is convinced she can fit onto her size 18 body.  She gets irreversibly stuck in the dress, of course, and somehow also manages to get wrapped up in the dressing room curtain, all while other customers waiting for the dressing room look on in amusement and horror (unbeknownst to Zoe, of course).  Greg's moment of decision comes when he and Zoe attend a costume party and he manages to wedge himself into one of those plastic patio chairs (if you are a large person, you know EXACTLY what I am talking about and, like me, have probably done it).  This does not end well for Greg, of course, with him eventually on the ground, the party tent in shambles around him, and with the remnants of the chair firmly attached to his butt as he tries to get up.

The instrument of Greg's torture.

Things go downhill from there, of course, with Zoe trying various Internet diets and Greg spending lots of money on "As-Seen-On-TV" exercise machines that don't do much of anything except empty his wallet.  Soon, however, the Miltons' hard and consistent diet and exercise begin to pay off, and the reader is rooting for them as it appears they might actually win the competition.  I won't spoil the book for you by saying too much, but suffice it to say that the book ends on a positive, satisfying note.

Along the way, the author does something very interesting.  As Spalding puts Zoe and Greg through their weight-loss torments, they (and the reader) discover the correct way to lose weight.  (Spoiler alert: it involves eating healthy and exercising.  I know: shocker, right?)  This is not done in any kind of preachy or didactic way, but it definitely comes across in the story, and I thought that was a very entertaining way to work in such information.

In short, this was a fantastic, funny book that I enjoyed reading very much.  Zoe's experiments with diets (including a cabbage soup diet that has severe consequences in the gastrointestinal department) and Greg's search for the perfect exercise equipment (which culminates in running on a treadmill while naked, and involves a very surprised postman as a result) are just some of the hilarious situations in this book.  While it's not the kind of book that made me laugh out loud, I did find myself grinning on many occasions at the ridiculousness of some of the episodes in the story.

The author, Nick Spalding, is British, and the story is set in Great Britain, so this book does have a lot of British terms and idioms that may be confusing or even maybe slightly off-putting to some readers.  However, most of them are pretty self-explanatory, and for those that aren't, there's always Google!  Readers should also be advised that this is an adult book, with lots of adult language and situations.  Still, I would recommend this book highly, and I'm definitely going to be looking to read more of Mr. Spalding's stuff.

Disclaimer: I received a complementary digital copy of this book from the book's publisher via NetGalley for review purposes.  I did not receive any monetary compensation in return for the review, and I was not required to review the book.  All opinions expressed here are my own.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

"The Trick" by Ramsey Campbell

Deal Me In Lite, R.I.P. Edition: "The Trick" by Ramsey Campbell (Story 1 of 13)

As part of my participation in R.I.P. (Readers Imbibing Peril) this year, I am doing the "Peril of the Short Story" to add to my Deal Me In Lite activity.  (Click that link for a list of the stories I will be reading.)   I'm using a special deck of cards to pick the 13 stories of the Peril, the Bicycle Tragic Royalty set.  Here's what the suit of spades looks like:

The pips on the number cards have a little decoration, but the face cards are the real highlight of this deck.  They are creepy!  And according to the packaging, they glow in black light.  I don't have a black light, so I haven't tested that out yet.

The backs of the cards also have a suitably creepy design, for Bicycle cards:

So, on to the story!  This week my assignment was to read one story, and I chose the eight of spades which led me to "The Trick" by Ramsey Campbell, from the anthology October Dreams.  If you do not have this anthology, it is well worth the money.  It's filled with all kinds of modern Halloween stories and essays plus authors' reminiscences of "My Favorite Halloween Memory."  It's a unique and excellent anthology.

"The Trick" is a weird, creepy, and somewhat confusing story.  The story opens as a young girl named Debbie, and her best friend Sandra, are getting ready for Halloween.  Debbie lives across the street from an old woman that she believes to be a witch.  Witch or not, the old woman is disliked by pretty much everyone in the neighborhood -- she's mean to both people and animals, and lives in a dilapidated house with an unkempt, wild yard.  However, no one will say anything to her or against her, because they are all secretly afraid of her.

On the morning of Halloween, Debbie and Sandra decide to visit an old abandoned railway tunnel near their house.  The witch sees them and essentially loses it, telling them to stay away from there.  They get the impression that she's hiding something there, but they don't know what.  That evening, as they make their rounds of the neighborhood trick-or-treating, they go to the witch's house and she gives them each a piece of homemade candy.  There's clearly some kind of magic associated with the candy, but it's never clear exactly what the candy does.  At first it seems as if it may be some kind of drug, because Debbie goes on a weird and spooky expedition to the tunnel with Sandra in the middle of the night, looking for Sandra's dog which has run off.  There they meet the witch plus some other unsettlingly creepy friends of hers.  Debbie wakes up and it appears to have been a dream.  But further events transpire (as in all good scary stories) to suggest that maybe the events of the dream were more real than the characters first imagined.

I liked this story well enough.  But as in my thoughts on The Haunting of Hill House, I really don't care for stories where the author is SO obtuse that the reader gets confused and wonders what is really going on.  This story was a little like that.  However, it was a fine start for my R.I.P. short story project.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

I read this novel as part of the R.I.P. (Readers Imbibing Peril) event, and also as part of the Estella Society readalong taking place all during September.

The only Shirley Jackson I have read before, to my knowledge, is the famous story "The Lottery."  A classic, to be sure.  The Haunting of Hill House is supposed to be a classic as well, but it left me a little cold.  And not in the good, scary story way.

Here's the setup, in case you are unfamiliar with this book: Dr. John Montague is an anthropologist who has taken an extreme interest in supernatural dealings, especially haunted houses.  Hill House comes to his attention as a suitably haunted house for him to study and eventually write a masterful treatise about.  But he needs assistants to help him explore and understand the house.  He chooses two assistants, Eleanor Vance and Theodora, by their demonstrated links to the paranormal.  (As a child, Eleanor lived in a house that experienced a rain of stones for days, and Theodora has demonstrated remarkable ESP in experiments conducted in Dr. Montague's lab.)  The third assistant, Luke Sanderson, is a nephew to the owner of Hill House, and thus an heir.  His presence is the only condition upon which Dr. Montague will be allowed to make his observations of the supposedly haunted house.

Thus the stage is set for what seems to be a typical ghost-hunting story.  And the first part of the book is essentially that.  It's creepy, and a little suspenseful, and I enjoyed that part of the book very much.  Hill House is indeed haunted, and a really creepy and weird place to boot, but it's not haunted in the way that I expected.   This story turns out to be more about psychological terror, and the effect the house has on Eleanor in particular, and it was that part of the story that I had trouble relating to.  It just wasn't that scary, and I was even a little confused by the storyline from time to time.  Many of the supernatural events in the book are only hinted at obliquely.  For example, in one scene Eleanor thinks she is holding Theodora's hand in the dark, to keep from being scared.  Suddenly she realizes that it might not be Theodora's hand, and she doesn't really know whose it is, since no one else is supposed to be in the room with them.  And.......... that's all we get of that.  Creepy, yes.  Scary, no -- because there's just not that much there.

I sort of kept waiting for things to happen like that all through the book.  Scary, creepy things do happen eventually, and some of them are kind of surprising.  Overall, however, I thought the story as a whole was unsatisfying.  Too much is left unsaid, or ambiguous, and that's not the kind of scary story I want.

This book just was not my cup of tea.  It's not a long book, so it can be read pretty quickly -- I finished it in just a couple of days.  There are many people (including masters such as Stephen King) who regard this as one of the best horror novels ever written, and I don't have any reason to doubt their judgment.  The book is short enough that I would be willing to reread it someday and give it a second chance.  But for now, my verdict is.... eh.

If you've read it, and liked it, and maybe understood it better than I did, please talk about it in the comments!

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

"The Angel of the Odd" by Edgar Allan Poe

Deal Me In Lite, Week 10: "The Angel of the Odd" by Edgar Allan Poe

This week my half-deck of cards dealt up the Ace of Hearts, and a selection from The Classic Humor Megapack -- a story by that famous knee-slapping funnyman, Edgar Allan Poe:

Um, wait, what?

That was exactly what my response was when I ran across this short story by Poe in a humor anthology, of all things.  Now, I have already mentioned that some of the "humorous" stories in this anthology are not really all that humorous, so I was kind of expecting this one to be much the same.  A mistake, perhaps, on the part of the anthology editor.

Nope.  "The Angel of the Odd" is a genuinely humorous story from the pen of the man better known for still-terrifying stories such as "The Tell-Tale Heart," "The Cask of Amontillado," and "The Masque of the Red Death" (just to mention three of my favorites!!).  Perhaps some of you have run across this story.  It's widely available, as are all of Poe's works, on the Internet (here's a link if you would like to read it).

The story opens with the narrator settling into a comfortable chair in front of the fire after a sumptuous dinner and some alcoholic refreshments.  He decides to while away the time by perusing the newspaper, and comes across a frankly fantastic news article:

“The avenues to death are numerous and strange. A London paper mentions the decease of a person from a singular cause. He was playing at ‘puff the dart,’ which is played with a long needle inserted in some worsted, and blown at a target through a tin tube. He placed the needle at the wrong end of the tube, and drawing his breath strongly to puff the dart forward with force, drew the needle into his throat. It entered the lungs, and in a few days killed him.”

The narrator becomes enraged at this odd story, and declares that these types of odd incidents are becoming more and more numerous, and are probably falsehoods at that.  From henceforth he determines to believe no story that has any element of oddity or unusual occurrence to it.

He is immediately visited by a most unusual entity:

His body was a wine-pipe or a rum puncheon, or something of that character, and had a truly Falstaffian air. In its nether extremity were inserted two kegs, which seemed to answer all the purposes of legs. For arms there dangled from the upper portion of the carcass two tolerably long bottles with the necks outward for hands. All the head that I saw the monster possessed of was one of those Hessian canteens which resemble a large snuff-box with a hole in the middle of the lid. This canteen (with a funnel on its top like a cavalier cap slouched over the eyes) was set on edge upon the puncheon, with the hole toward myself; and through this hole, which seemed puckered up like the mouth of a very precise old maid, the creature was emitting certain rumbling and grumbling noises which he evidently intended for intelligible talk.

“I zay,” said he, “you mos pe dronk as de pig, vor zit dare and not zee me zit ere; and I zay, doo, you mos pe pigger vool as de goose, vor to dispelief vat iz print in de print. ’Tiz de troof—dat it iz—ebery vord ob it.”

This is the Angel of the Odd, and he proceeds to take the narrator through a series of events all designed to demonstrate to him that odd things can happen to anyone at any time.  These events include: being late to an important meeting because the mantel clock had stopped due to a carelessly-thrown raisin stem "accidentally" stopping the clock's minute hand; falling off a ladder while escaping from his burning house due to a pig who suddenly decides to scratch his back on the ladder, dislodging the narrator from it; and other improbably odd circumstances, most of which turn out to be pretty funny because they are so ridiculous.  And it's here that Poe's normal style, which plays such an important role in his horror stories, actually adds to the ridiculousness of the account.

I really enjoyed this story, but I did have one little problem with it, evidenced by the Angel's speech I included in the excerpt above.  The Angel is clearly supposed to have some sort of German dialect, and while Poe does an admirable job of capturing such a dialect in writing, it is pretty hard going for the reader, as most dialect is.  Still, I got used to it, especially as I began to try to hear it in my head, and this is a very small quibble for what is an interesting little story.