Book Review: Twice Told Tales

Book Review: Twice Told Tales by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864) is one of the great American writers; his The Scarlet Letter is studied in many schools across this land.  But it took him quite a while to reach that status.  After crushingly disappointing sales for his first novel, Fanshawe, Hawthorne spent a dozen years in poverty, scraping by selling short pieces.  In 1837, his friend Horatio Bridge put up the money to have a collection of those short pieces (titled “Twice Told Tales” because they’d all been printed before) printed in a book, first anonymously, then with his name attached once good reviews came in.  A second edition with more stories (39 in all) was published in December 1841, and is the one usually reprinted.

Twice Told Tales

As the introduction by Professor Gemme explains, Edgar Allan Poe’s review of the later edition became famous in its own right–Poe objected to several of the pieces not actually being “tales” (what we’d call “short stories”) but essays  or sketches.  And in the process of explaining that, he set down his own theory of what a proper short story was.  This was influential in American literary circles.  Poe did praise those “tales” that met his criteria, hailing Hawthorne as one of the few worthwhile authors America had produced to that date.  After that, another review seems superfluous but I will proceed.

The book opens with “The Gray Champion”, a tale of a mysterious old man who appears in 1689 to halt the massacre of malcontents in Massachusetts by the tyrannical Governor Andros.   An unnamed ancient in Puritan garb, the old man is said to return whenever New England faces an existential crisis.   This is only the first of many ghost-like figures in these tales, a haunted New England that influenced many American writers including H.P. Lovecraft.  The first piece in the 1841 addition, “Legends of the Province House” is a collection of ghost stories involving the former colonial governor’s residence in Boston.  There’s a character named Bela Tiffany, which Hawthorne admits is highly unlikely.

There are some classics in this collection, including “The Minister’s Black Veil” about a small-town minister who abruptly and for no reason he will explain conceals his face behind a cloth mask he never removes, and how that affects people’s perceptions of him.  “The Great Carbuncle” concerns the search for a giant gemstone; the motives of the people looking for the jewel affect their fates, and how they react to the carbuncle’s true nature.

“David Swan” is a lesser-known piece about a young man who falls asleep by the road and is visited by Wealth, True Love and Death, awakening unaware of his brushes with fate.  “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment”, the last story in the 1837 section, involves the title character inviting some senior citizens to imbibe water from the Fountain of Youth.  The story looks at the follies of both youth and age.

“Peter Goldthwaite’s Treasure” is about a man that has failed at every attempt at getting ahead in life staking everything on finding a fabled treasure of his similarly-named ancestor, even to the point of destroying the family house that is his last possession.  The story makes a point of contrasting Peter, whose get rich quick schemes all rely on luck he doesn’t have, with his ex-partner John Brown who never goes for a risky prospect,  but has excellent luck.

The last story in the book is “The Threefold Destiny”, which is deliberately evocative of fairy tales.  A young man becomes convinced that three astounding events will occur to him, with special prophetic signs.  He goes out in search of these, but his worldwide quest has none of these results.  The man returns to his home village to rest before starting anew, and of course discovers his true destiny.

Mr. Hawthorne was big on allegory and symbolism, and sometimes this gets heavy-handed.  Sometimes he also goes out of the way to make sure you get the point he’s trying to make, as in “The Ambitious Guest” where the moral is “you don’t know when you’re going to die, and trying to avoid fate can doom you worse than accepting it, so all human ambition is folly.”

The essays, while certainly not as compelling as the tales, are mostly good, and of interest for what they tell us about life in Hawthorne’s time.  “A Rill from the Town Pump” for example examines life without central plumbing from the perspective of the main water source of the village.  “The Sister Years” on the other hand is clearly a piece written for a local newspaper for New Year’s of a particular year, and has a number of in-jokes that are lost to all but scholars of that time period.  (On the gripping hand, it’s not often that we see the new and old years depicted as women.)

Nathaniel Hawthorne, while very much a Christian, was not a big fan of religious fanaticism; while his Puritan ancestors took the brunt of this in his stories, he also was critical of Shakers and even Quakers on that point.  The most humorous take of this is in “Endicott and the Red Cross” where the Puritan title character’s patriotic rant on the importance of “religious freedom” is interrupted by a “wanton gospeler” who reminds Endicott that he was not so keen on that freedom when he condemned the gospeler for heresy a few hours ago.

A more tragic treatment is in “The Gentle Boy” with prejudice against Quakers leading to murder and ostracism.  There’s even a preacher saying that Christian mercy does not apply to the despised sect, even to their children who are no doubt permanently corrupted.  (Remind you of anything?)

There’s some period sexism and racism in these stories and essays.  The latter really comes up in “Mr. Higginbotham’s Catastrophe”, about a gossipy traveling salesman who hears a report that Mr. Higginbotham has been murdered, with use of the N-word in conversation.  (And an equivalence of black people and the Irish as the lowest of the low.)

Overall, there’s more good material here than mediocre, and more excellence than clangers.  Some of the most famous stories have been reprinted in other anthologies, or if you want to read the entire thing, there are many inexpensive reprint editions, and it is also available from Project Gutenberg.

Here’s the trailer for the 1963 Twice Told Tales movie, which is not at all faithfully adapted, but does star Vincent Price in a triple role.

 

Book Review: The Island of Dr. Moreau

Book Review: The Island of Dr. Moreau by H.G. Wells

Edward Prendick, a young man of independent means, decides to take a natural history sea voyage (ala Charles Darwin) aboard the Lady Vain.  Somewhere in the Pacific, that ship crashed into a derelict and was lost.  Prendick and two other men managed to escape in a dinghy, but after a disastrous attempt at cannibalism, he was the only survivor.  Prendick was found by the tramp ship Ipecacuanha, which happens to be carrying a passenger named Montgomery, who nurses Prendick back to health.

Bela Lugosi as "The Sayer of the Law" in "The Island of Lost Souls", a movie based on this story.
Bela Lugosi as “The Sayer of the Law” in “The Island of Lost Souls”, a movie based on this story.

Montgomery, as it happens, is a former medical student who had to leave London in a hurry a decade ago (for reasons never fully explained.)   He and his odd-looking manservant have engaged the ship to deliver a supply of animals to a certain island, including a full-grown puma.  At the island, the animals are delivered to also odd-looking but differently so boatmen, and Prendick is not invited ashore with Montgomery.  On the other hand, the ill-tempered, alcoholic captain of the Ipecacuanha won’t let him stay on board either.

Thus Prendick is dumped back in the dinghy.  After some parley, Prendick is reluctantly allowed to land on the island by its master, the highly antisocial Doctor Moreau.  Prendick recognizes the name as someone who also had to leave England in a hurry under a cloud of suspicion.   After some initial misunderstandings, Prendick learns the secret of the island…which I am fairly certain you already know.

This 1896 novel by H.G. Wells was the second of his book-length (but just barely) speculative fiction works.   It still stands up as literature thanks to the multiple levels it works on.   It’s a chiller about a man stranded on an island of beast people who are rapidly going feral, a warning against cruel/unnecessary animal experimentation (Prendick is not opposed to vivisection per se, but becomes even more disgusted with Moreau once he realizes the doctor has no actual goal beyond turning an animal into a human being to prove he can), and an allegory about the animalistic behavior lurking beneath the thin veneer of human civilization.

Prendick, like the Time Traveler, is a bit of a stumblebum.  He has a smattering of scientific education which allows him to follow along when Moreau and Montgomery give explanations, but not enough knowledge in any given field to be useful in survival.  He also burns down Moreau’s lab entirely by accident, and is repeatedly bad at making rafts.  Prendick only eventually escapes when he stumbles across the Ipecacuanha‘s lifeboat, with the captain’s corpse inside (which is never explained either.)  On the other hand, Prendick turns out to be an excellent shot with his very limited ammunition.

Montgomery is the most nuanced character, a man who lets his weaknesses (primarily alcohol) guide his actions, but with frequent decent impulses.  We learn that it is in fact, he, not Moreau, who came up with the Law that the Beast People follow, in an attempt to help them not regress to the animals they once were.   He also shows small kindnesses throughout the book until his death.

Moreau, conversely, is very much the mad scientist.  He starts with the knowledge that body grafts are possible on a small scale, and decides that turning an animal into a human being would be a really cool achievement.  There’s no scientific method involved, he doesn’t bother with anesthesia, and he loses all interest in his creations once they fail to live up to his expectations.   Like Victor Frankenstein, he’s so busy sculpting his new humans that he fails to step back and look at the aesthetics of his creations until he’s already done.  Unlike most real scientists, he fails to apply any ethical standard to himself or his work,  although he does feel that he is religious and that the pain he inflicts is meaningless in light of his higher nature.

The Beast People are victims of Moreau, animals carved into humanoid shapes (and sometimes blended for fun, like the hyena-swine), given limited speech and intelligence, yet just human enough to realize that they are not fully human and never will be.   Yes, they are dangerous, and a couple of them may actually be evil by human standards.  But they never asked to be made or abandoned; for them death is a kind of mercy.

It is nigh impossible to re-create the experience the original readers might have had, not having seen anything like this story before.  I note, however, that the trope of deformed, degenerate sub-human tribes of natives tucked away in the depths of Africa or the Pacific was common in adventure literature of the time, and the first readers might have believed they were getting such a tale from the early chapters.

The framing of the story is old-fashioned; there’s an introduction by a nephew of Prendick’s, explaining that this manuscript was found among his uncle’s effects, and while the shipwreck part is true, and Prendick was found a year later in a lifeboat that might have been the freighter’s, nothing else can be verified.  The only island in the area of pick-up shows no sign of the events of the story, and Prendick claimed traumatic amnesia regarding the missing year during his lifetime.  (Prendick explains in the story proper that he did this to avoid being locked in a loony bin.)

This is a good read for both horror and science fiction fans who can handle the old-fashioned vocabulary and slow start.  The vivisection theme makes it more suitable for junior high on up, and parents of younger readers may want to discuss proper scientific ethics with their wards.  One of the classics.

“Not to go on all fours, that is The Law.  Are we not Men?”

Book Review: Letter & Spirit, Volume 8: Promise and Fulfillment

Book Review: Letter & Spirit, Volume 8: Promise and Fulfillment edited by Scott W. Hahn

Disclaimer:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would write a review of it.  I am a Christian, but not a Catholic, so this may affect my reactions to this volume.

Letter & Spirit, Volume 8

This is not actually a book, but a scholarly journal put out by the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology.  While I do not agree with the Catholic church on some of their dogma, they do have an impressive history of Biblical scholarship.  This volume’s focus is on the connection between the Old Testament and New Testament, and how the latter fulfills the former.

I am sadly lacking a knowledge of Greek or Hebrew, which means that I am at a loss to fully appreciate some of the more esoteric papers, which focus on the precise meaning of individual words in the scriptural texts.  All of these are extensively cited and footnoted, however, so the scholar can follow up with the sources.

The paper I found of most value was “The Tradition of Christian Allegory Yesterday and Today” by Leroy A. Huizenga.  It’s a good introduction to the subject of using allegory to interpret Scripture, and just what is meant by the terms used in the field, including “allegory” itself.   I would recommend this paper to any interested layman.

Also of interest was “Historical Criticism as Secular Allegorism: The Case of Spinoza” by Jeffrey L. Morrow.  It argues that Spinoza’s approach to Biblical interpretation, which among other things seeks to know what was added to the manuscript when and by whom, reflects the political and religious struggles in his time.    Thus it has its own subjective lens, and is not as objective as some of its adherents would claim.

The primary audience for this journal would be Biblical scholars; aside from the one paper mentioned above, I really cannot recommend it to anyone else.  This is not to say that it is poorly written, merely that it’s esoteric.

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