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.

 

Magazine Review: Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, January 1977

Magazine Review: Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, January 1977 edited by Ellery Queen

Having enjoyed a recent issue of this magazine, I decided to root around for an older copy.  This one was published in December 1976, but the cover date was a month ahead.  Frederic Dannay (half of the “Ellery Queen” writing team) was still editor at this point, as he would be until 1981!

Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine January 1977

We open with “Jode’s Last Hunt” by Brian Garfield.  Mr. Garfield is better known as the writer of Death Wish,  which was turned into a hit movie starring Charles Bronson.  This story, his first in EQMM, stars Sheriff Jode, who was a big hero in his Arizona county when he first started.  But that was a couple of decades ago, and between  competent policing and a naturally low crime rate, Jode hasn’t hit the headlines in years.  When a former rodeo and movie star turns eco-terrorist, the near-retirement sheriff sees one last chance at fame.  This one was collected in Great Tales of Mystery and Suspense in 1985.

“The Final Twist” by William Bankier is set at a small advertising firm where the boss is a bad person who managed to offend each of his workers individually and as a group.  His employees decide he needs to die, but they want to make it look like suicide.  How can they best use their skills to this end?  This one was turned into an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents in 1986.

1976 was the year of the Bicentennial, the 200th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.  Thanks to that, there was a huge market for stories set during the American Revolution and 1776 in particular.  Fitting in one last story on the theme for the year is “The Spirit of the ’76” by Lillian de la Torre.  It details a bit of secret history when Benjamin Franklin’s grandson is kidnapped and Dr. Sam: Johnson is tapped to track the lad down, with the help of faithful Boswell, of course.  The story perhaps is too eager to have Mr. Boswell praise the inventive American, especially given the political situation.  This one was collected in The Exploits of Dr. Sam: Johnson, Detector in 1987.

“To Be Continued” by Barbara Callahan is about a young soap opera fan who discovers that she has an unexpected connection with one of the characters.  There’s a surprisingly sympathetic portrayal of a gay man for the time period, but the treatment of mental illness may strike some readers poorly.  I did not find any reprints of this one.

“C as in Crooked” by Lawrence Treat is a police procedural starring Detective Mitch Taylor.  He’s assigned to look into a burglary involving a very rich and important man (which is why a homicide detective is working a burglary case.)  Mitch quickly notices that the person in charge of security for that and several other robbed homes is an ex-police officer.  Personal problems for both Mitch and his boss delay the investigation until the next morning, when it has become a murder case.  Mitch cracks the case, but he may not get the credit.  I did not find any reprints of this one.

“‘Twas the Plight Before Christmas” by Hershel Cozine is a poem parodying the famous A Visit from Saint Nicholas and has Santa Claus being murdered by Ebenezer Scrooge.  Don’t worry, kids, there’s a happy ending.

There are two “Department of First Stories” (authors being professionally published for the first time) entries in this issue.  “After the Storm” by L.G. Kerrigan is a short piece about a murder during a rainstorm.  It’s vivid but slight.  “A Pair of Gloves” by Richard E. Hutton is a chiller about a man trying to buy a Christmas present despite the presence of a downer street person who seems to have a grudge against the store.  The ending is telegraphed.  Neither seems to have been reprinted.

Four brief columns follow, two of book reviews (one blatantly pushing items for sale by the magazine’s publisher), one of movie reviews (The Seven-Per-Cent Solution and Marathon Man are highlighted) and a short interview with Dick Francis, former jockey and famous for his racing-related mysteries.

“With More Homage to Saki” by Isak Romun is a short tale of a wealthy gourmet who will do anything to keep his personal chef working for him, up to and including blackmail.  But the chef has prepared his own delicious dilemma.  Foodies will enjoy this one best, I think.  Another I cannot find a reprint of.

Next up is from “The Department of Second Stories”, where EQMM also bought the author’s second effort.  “The Thumbtack Puzzle” by Robert C. Schweik features Professor of Bibliography Paul Engle.  During a talk the professor is giving, the narrator (his bookstore-owning friend) discovers that a visiting chemist’s work has been tampered with, and perhaps stolen.  There’s only a handful of viable suspects, but which, and can it be determined with only a thumbtack as a clue?  The solution hinges on the peculiarities of German typewriters.  No reprint here, either.

“Raffles and the Shere Khan Pouch” by Barry Perowne has the gentleman thief (and devoted cricket player) and his sidekick Bunny visiting India.  There they run into Rudyard Kipling and Madame Blavatsky while attempting to steal rubies.  This is made more complicated by a British diplomatic pouch having gone missing, making the authorities more alert.  There’s perhaps a bit too much coincidence for the story to be plausible, and the epilogue spells out who Kipling is for particularly obtuse readers, but Raffles is always a delight.  This story was reprinted in Raffles of the M.C.C. in 1979.

“Please Don’t Help the Bear” by Ron Goulart is the sad tale of a Hollywood animator with a fur allergy and a penchant for another man’s wife.  Mr. Goulart is perhaps better known for his science fiction, but mostly for his humor, though this time it’s gallows humor.  The narrator is his “Adman” character who has a habit of meeting murderers and murder victims and never saving one.  This story may or may not be reprinted in Adam and Eve on a Raft: Mystery Stories published in 2001.

“Etiquette for Dying” by Celia Fremlin concerns a woman whose social climber husband has taken ill at a dinner party whose hostess is well above their class.  Is he just rudely drunk or is there something more sinister going on?  This one is reprinted in A Lovely Day to Die and Other Stories (1984).

And finally, we have a story by prolific author Edward D. Hoch, “The Problem of the Christmas Steeple.”  It’s a Dr. Sam Hawthorne story, as the retired physician remembers the winter of 1925.  A parson is found stabbed to death in a steeple, the only suspect being the “gypsy” chief found in the steeple with him.  But due to physical infirmity, that suspect could not have committed the murder.  The treatment of “gypsies” may rankle modern readers, but it’s a story written in the 1970s about the 1920s.  This story was reprinted in Diagnosis: Impossible: The Problems of Dr. Sam Hawthorne (1996).

There are also a couple of limericks by D.R. Bensen, typical of the genre.

This is overall a good issue, with some fine writers.  You can try combing garage sales, but you might have better luck contacting other collectors.

And now, an audio adaptation of “The Problem of the Christmas Steeple”:

https://www.podomatic.com/podcasts/eqmm/episodes/2015-12-01T09_27_41-08_00

 

Book Review: Lobster Johnson: The Satan Factory

Book Review: Lobster Johnson: The Satan Factory by Thomas E. Sniegoski

Disgraced doctor Jonas Chapel, on the run from the mob in Mexico, stumbles across a mysterious skeleton dripping a fluid that turns humans into monsters.  Soon thereafter Chapel’s back in New York, teaming up with the very gang boss who’d ordered the hit on him to take over all the gangs in the city.  Or so mobster Rocco Fazzina thinks, but Dr. Chapel’s ambitions are larger than that.  Only the masked man known as the Lobster and his few agents are aware of the Satan Factory and the threat it poses to all human life!

Lobster Johnson: The Satan Factory

The Lobster is a character first appearing in the Hellboy comic books by Mike Mignola.  He was a vigilante of the 1930s, dead in the present day, and had become known at “Lobster Johnson” through a series of ever less accurate fictionalizations.  For the purposes of this book, the body of the story is a previously unknown manuscript that predates all other fictionalizations, and may have been written by an agent of the Lobster himself.

That agent (under the alias Jacob Hurley) is a former police officer who’d been framed for corruption when he dared speak out against it, and after several years in prison, released to become an unemployable homeless man.  He’s recently been recruited by the Lobster to keep an eye on the city’s underbelly.  As this is the twilight period of history after the start of the Depression but before the end of Prohibition, there is a thriving Hooverville for Jake to get information from.

As a new agent of the Lobster, Jake serves as the viewpoint character to introduce us to the team.  We also get scenes from the viewpoint of the Lobster, but these are all directly connected to his fight against crime and tell almost nothing about his personal life beyond dark allusions to tragic events that motivated him to become the Lobster, and perhaps gave him his “not a normal human” status.

The Lobster is much in the Spider mode, branding fallen foes with his lobster claw emblem, and killing scores of monsters as well as any gangster that crosses his path (that isn’t killed by something else.)

We get a bit more insight into the backgrounds of villains Chapel and Fazzina, and how they got started on their paths to darkness.  By the end, however, there’s almost nothing left of Dr. Chapel’s original personality as the owner of the skeleton starts taking him over to spread its army of monsters.

This book is very much is the pulp tradition with lots of fast moving action and not much time spent on introspection.  Also in the pulp tradition, there’s a glitch–as I hinted at above, “Lobster Johnson” was a name attached to the Lobster only much later than the purported date of the manuscript, and yet the narrative slips and calls him that a couple of times.

Primarily for Mike Mignola fans who didn’t get enough of the Lobster in the comics, but should also go well for fans of pulp heroes in general.

Magazine Review: Conjunctions: 51 The Death Issue

Magazine Review:  Conjunctions: 51 The Death Issue edited by David Shields and Bradford Morrow

Conjunctions is a literary journal published twice a year by Bard College.  Each issue contains essays, short fiction, poetry and less classifiable writing on a given subject, with this issue being about death.  Literary journals tend to have a connotation of pretentiousness, and death is one of the primal subjects, so I approached this 2008 issue with a bit of trepidation.

Conjunctions 51

The issue starts strong with an essay entitled “The Sutra of Maggots and Blowflies” by Sallie Tisdale.  It’s a stomach-churning but very informative look at flies, Buddhism, and the Buddha nature of flies.  The ending piece is “Andalucia” by H.G. Carrillo, the story of a writer mourning his artist lover, who has died of AIDS.

In between, the most memorable pieces are Joyce Carol Oates’ “Dear Husband”, a chilling suicide note; and “St. Francis Preaches to the Birds” by David Ives, a not-quite-working comedic play about the saint’s encounter with vultures.  Several of the pieces caused me to shed a tear.  Sadly, as I cannot make head or tail of the appeal of modern poetry, I feel unable to comment on whether any of the poetry was good.   Two pieces are illustrated with photographs, the only visual art in the issue.

With forty pieces altogether, this is a thick volume that takes some grit to get through.  I understand that the Oates story is in one of her own anthologies, so if noir fiction is your thing, you might want to check that out.   The rest is a mixed bag; see if your library system has a copy of this or other issues so you can see if Conjunctions is something you want to subscribe to.

“I am merely departing”–Lucius Seneca.

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