Book Review: Penny Dreadfuls: Sensational Tales of Terror

Book Review: Penny Dreadfuls: Sensational Tales of Terror edited by Stefan Dziemianowicz

While the term “penny dreadfuls” proper belongs to a particular type of inexpensive newsprint periodical, as explained in the introduction to this volume, the twenty stories chosen here can all be described as lowbrow sensationalist literature written for those seeking thrills in their fiction.

Penny Dreadfuls: Sensational Tales of Terror

Of these, Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley (1818 edition), The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson, and “The Pit and the Pendulum” by Edgar Allen Poe are so famous that it hardly seems worth discussing them.  Suffice it to say that they are classics, and well worth reading at least once, especially if you’ve only seen the movies.

“The Adventure of the German Student” by Washington Irving is a ghost story set against the backdrop of the French Revolution.  It stops where a lot of current horror tales would end the first chapter.

“The Wehr-Wolf: A Legend of the Limousin” by Richard Thomson does in fact feature a werewolf.  Most of the story space, however, is taken up by comic relief character Antoine Du Pilon, a quack doctor who is full of knowledge…most of which is wrong.  This kind of dulls the tragic twist ending.

“Sawney Beane: The Man-Eater” by Charles Whitehead was based on a folk story that might have been loosely based on a real incident.  It concerns a cannibal clan near Edinburgh during the reign of James VI.  The story is written in the “true crime” style, regardless of its actual veracity.

“Aurelia; or, the Tale of a Ghoul” by E.T.A. Hoffman has a doctor tell his patient that it’s perfectly normal for a pregnant woman to have strange food cravings, and she shouldn’t feel ashamed of that.  In fairness, she hadn’t told him what her cravings were for.

“Wake Not the Dead!; or, The Bride of the Grave” by Johann Ludwig Tieck is about a man whose first beloved wife dies and he gets remarried.  But it turns out he still isn’t over his first love.  A passing sorcerer finds this obsession unhealthy, but mentions that he could in fact bring the first wife back to life.

The husband insists on having this done, despite being repeatedly warned that this is a bad idea which will have catastrophic consequences.  (Honestly, I think the sorcerer only went along with this for the chance to say “I told you so” later.)  Predictably, catastrophic consequences follow.  The ending comes out of left field and is jaw-dropping in its non-sequiturness.

“The Dream-Woman” by Wilkie Collins is about an apparently prophetic dream, and the effect it has on the dreamer.  Is it a warning of the future, or did he shape his life to fulfill the dream?

“A Night in the Grave; or, the Devil’s Receipt” by Anonymous is a comedic tale told in Scots dialect.  Highland piper Steenie tries to pay his rent, only to have his landlord die before giving Steenie the receipt.  The new landlord claims there’s no record of the payment and no sack of silver to be found, so Steenie must pay the rent again.  The piper must find that receipt, even if it means braving the gates of Hell.  I found this one hilarious, but I like Scots dialect stories.

“The Case of Lady Sannox” by Arthur Conan Doyle was a strange read for me as there’s no Sherlock Holmes in it.  A surgeon is called for a life-saving operation, only to learn the true nature of the veiled patient.  This one has some period ethnic and religious prejudice, which is not mitigated by the fact that one of the characters is deliberately playing into it.

“The Diary of a Madman” by Guy de Maupassant is the journal of a respected judge who starts to wonder what it would be like to commit murder.  Chilling.

“George Dobson’s Expedition to Hell” by James Hogg concerns a coachman’s dream (or was it a dream?) of driving his coach into the netherworld.  This story didn’t work for me, a bit too thick in dialogue that is “yes I will” “Oh no, you won’t.”

“The Apparition of Lord Tyrone to Lady Beresford” by Anonymous is a tedious ghost story that turns out to be a propaganda piece for Anglicanism. “Deism is wrong!”

“Lost in a Pyramid; or The Mummy’s Curse” by Louisa May Alcott is one of the tales she penned anonymously  before hitting it big as a children’s author.  Arrogant white explorers get lost in a pyramid, burn a sorceress’ mummy for fuel, and suffer the consequences of looting the corpse.  The plot requires two separate people not to catch on to the symptoms of slow poisoning.

“In Kropfsberg Keep” by Ralph Adams Kram, two ghost-hunters spend the night in a ruined castle, reputed to be haunted.  One of them doesn’t survive.  A real ghost may or may not be involved.

“The Buried Alive” by John Galt is a premature burial story.  The protagonist suffers an attack that leaves him awake but paralyzed and apparently dead.  His friends and family fail to have an autopsy done, and he is buried alive.  There was apparently a time when this narrow subgenre was hugely popular, to the point that Poe wrote a parody version.

“The Dualitists; or, the Death-Doom of the Doubleborn” by Bram Stoker is about a game of Hack that goes too far.  (In Hack, two similar objects are smashed against each other to see which is superior in strength.)  This story is dead baby comedy, and also includes animal abuse.  You’ll either love this story or be completely repulsed by it.

“The Executioner” by William Godwin is the confession of a hangman who’s become involved in a years-long and highly elaborate revenge scheme.  But is he the revenger or the revengee?

Finishing out the book is The String of Pearls; or, Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street by James Malcolm Rymer (probably.)  This is a true penny dreadful serial, full of twists, murder and unlikely coincidences.  (You may have seen the musical.)

In the 18th Century, a man named Thornhill comes to London to deliver a pearl necklace to pretty maiden Johanna Oakley from her lost love Mark Ingestrie.  But being a gentleman, he doesn’t want to look scruffy for the visit, so decides to get a shave at the shop of Sweeney Todd.  Mr. Todd says Mr. Thornhill left his shop hours ago, but Mr. Thornhill’s dog is sitting right outside, and the man never arrived at his next destination.  Although they can prove nothing, Mr. Thornhill’s friends become suspicious.

Across the square, Mrs. Lovett’s pieshop is doing land office business, selling the most delicious meat pies in town.  How does she manage to sell them so inexpensively and still make a profit?  And why does she run through so many cooks in the underground bakery?

And on another side of the square, parishioners at St. Duncan’s are beginning to notice a peculiar smell in the old church, a smell that is decidedly…unholy.

This is a fun, if not always coherent story told with a lot of verve.  (And, alas, some excess verbiage.)  The narrator has fun with the reader, reminding them that while all the clues seem to lead up to Sweeney Todd murdering his customers, we’ve never seen him murder anyone on-page.  And while the secret of Mrs. Lovett’s pie-shop (not just a hole in the wall eating establishment, but a distribution center delivering all over London) seems obvious enough, the narrator points out he hasn’t actually said it yet.

While the story stops every so often to give the history of this minor character or that (warning: one character’s backstory involves child neglect and abuse), we never do find out how Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett formed their eight year partnership, or why.  One of the peculiarities of the story is that while Mr. Todd knows a woman who will bake his victims into pie, and a crooked mad-house operator who will imprison any of Mr. Todd’s young apprentices who get too nosy, he doesn’t know any fences, and is completely unfamiliar with the normal criminal life of London.

So Sweeney Todd has a houseful of loot he’s taken from victims and not found a way to sell, and has a dickens of a time trying to dispose of the string of pearls at anywhere near their real value.

Johanna comes close to the damsel in distress stereotype, but never quite crosses over into that territory, even while dressing as a boy to infiltrate Mr. Todd’s barbershop.

A couple of characters just get dropped between chapters, and domestic abuse is played for laughs in one scene.

This is not great literature, true, but if you’re in the mood for this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing you will enjoy.

Overall, a good collection of a certain type of story, with a handful of mediocre entries.  The Barnes & Noble edition has a handsome red leather cover and would look good on a bookshelf, or in your hands as you read it late at night by the light of a guttering candlestick.

Now, here’s a look at the “Penny Dreadful” TV series, based on the same source material.

 

Comic Book Review: Essential Defenders Vol. 6

Comic Book Review: Essential Defenders Vol. 6 written (mostly) by J.M. DeMatteis, Pencils by Don Perlin

The Defenders are one of Marvel Comics’ more oddball teams, beginning with a line-up of Doctor Strange, Hulk, Silver Surfer and the Sub-Mariner, four of Marvel’s most powerful characters who did not belong to other teams.  After a couple of pilot stories, the “non-team” first assembled in Marvel Feature #1 in 1971 to battle the alien Scientist Supreme Yandroth, and shortly thereafter got their own continuing series.

Essential Defenders Vol. 6

With four such volatile personalities, it was difficult to justify them staying together very long, and the warrior woman Valkyrie was added to the group to give them “texture” and a reason to cooperate.  Other members soon followed, either long-term or temporarily, and the Defenders got a reputation for being whoever happened to show up when danger struck, with Dr. Strange being the linchpin of the group.

This volume covers Defenders issues #107-125, and a couple of extras from 1982-83.  We open in the aftermath of a major plotline involving a group of self-proclaimed super-patriots trying to take over America with a group of powerful telepaths.  These telepaths and Kyle “Nighthawk” Richmond combined their mental powers to blow up the bad guys’ base, apparently dying in the process.  As the assembled heroes reel in shock during the aftermath, a stray minion of the super-patriots manages to get the drop on Valkyrie, killing her.

SPOILERS AHOY FROM THIS POINT!

It turns out that due to her convoluted backstory, involving the Asgardian goddess Amora the Enchantress, Valkyrie isn’t quite dead yet.  The heroes split into two groups when Amora offers a deal to restore Valkyrie to full life.  This plotline ends with Valkyrie restored to her true form of Brunnhilda, and no longer with the curse of being unable to fight women.  (She also loses some of her disdain of men in the process.)

Several members of the Defenders are lost in transit back from Asgard, but before that plotline bears fruit, there are solo issues focusing on Eric Simon “Devil-Slayer” Payne and Patsy “Hellcat” Walker.  Then there’s Avengers Annual #11. which features the return of perennial Defenders villain Nebulon.  He and his wife Supernalia clash, pitting the Avengers and Defenders against each other.

This is followed by Marvel Team-Up #119, which features Spider-Man and Isaac “Gargoyle” Christians in a story about aging and the acceptance of same.  Isaac has some insight into these matters as he was already a senior citizen when he made the Faustian bargain that made him a living gargoyle.

The missing Defenders turn out to have been transported to Earth-S, a parallel universe where the main hero group is the Squadron Supreme, a parody of/homage to the Justice League.  On their earth, Kyle Richmond is President of the United States.  Which would be great if he weren’t under the mental control of the alien known as Overmind.  As is most of the Squadron, saving only Hyperion (their version of Superman), who is suffering from lethal radiation poisoning.

And Nighthawk, “our” Kyle Richmond, is helping him out, having been transported to this Earth by the group mind that were once human telepaths.  He brought in the missing Defenders, who now summon the rest of the team for a moon mission to keep the Overmind from conquering the rest of the universe.

Except it turns out that “our” Kyle Richmond is actually “their” Kyle Richmond, given Nighthawk’s memories by the group mind.  But wait, then who’s the President?  It’s actually Null the Living Darkness, which has been puppeteering the Overmind to draw attention away from its protective shell.  The climax is kind of disappointing as it’s the group mind’s show, co-opting everyone else for a battle of wills with the ultimate darkness, only to have Null destroy itself with its own inner light.

So in the aftermath, “our” Kyle Richmond is as really dead as a Marvel superhero gets (not coming back from the dead until 1998!); Earth-S’ Kyle Richmond regains his true memories and reunites with his old teammates (who would go on to the Squadron Supreme miniseries, one of the best superhero stories ever); the group mind inhabits the currently vacant body of the Overmind; and the Defenders return to their own Earth.  (With a slight detour for some of them in a Dr. Seuss-inspired adventure.)

The next few issues weave together the resolution of the Patsy Walker/Daimon “Son of Satan” Hellstrom romance, Hank “Beast” McCoy’s growing irritation with the Defender’s “non-team” ethos… and the return of the Elf with a Gun.  This last had been a subplot during the Steve Gerber run, involving an elf with a gun popping up and seemingly murdering random people.  It was abandoned when Gerber left the book with the apparent death of the elf in an accident.

Mr. DeMatteis wanted to change the direction of the book, so revived the elf (now revealed to be multiple identical beings) as the agent of a time tribunal that was attempting to prevent the destruction of Earth.  Removing random Earthlings had not done the trick, so the tribunal had to convince the four original Defenders that they must never all be in the same room together again.  Unfortunately, the elf took over the narration for a couple of issues, and he was written as a very annoying character.

The resignation of the four founders gave Beast the opportunity to reconfigure the group as the New Defenders (complete with title change as of #125).  He roped in his old X-Men teammates Iceman and Angel, holdovers Valkyrie and Gargoyle, and new member Heather “Moondragon” Douglas.  A powerful telepath who had a revolving door hero/villain history, she had been released into the custody of the Valkyrie to re-learn human values.  (The Overmind simply disappeared between issues; this would become a plot point later.)

This began a period in which the New Defenders were an official team, with rules and such.  But that’s for Volume Seven.

Overall, a decent run with consistent art, and some good character focus stories.  Some of the writing is a bit heavy-handed with the morals; there’s a consistent theme of learning to have hope even in a world full of loss and pain.  The Dr. Seuss inspired story will either be laugh out loud funny or a total miss depending on your tastes.

Recommended to fans of the characters or 1970s Marvel storytelling.

 

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents: Batman, Volume 6

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents: Batman, Volume 6 edited by Julius Schwartz

By 1971, the Batman television show had been off the air long enough that its sales boost to the Batman and Detective Comics series had faded, and with it, the incentive to model the magazines on the show.  Bruce Wayne moved from stately Wayne Manor to a penthouse in downtown Gotham City and started a charitable organization for victims of crime.  Dick “Robin” Grayson went off to college on the other side of the state, and guest-starred infrequently.  And most of Batman’s regular rogues’ gallery took a vacation.

Showcase Presents: Batman Volume 6

This freed up space for a more somber tone, although this run certainly had its own silliness, such as a return engagement by the Ten-Eyed Man, whose optic nerves had been transplanted into his fingers.  And Two-Face made an appearance for the first official time since the 1950s.  But quite a few of the stories had Batman facing off against ordinary murderers and organized crime…as well as what appeared to be ghosts and psychic powers.

This volume covers Batman 229-236 and Detective Comics 408-416.  The first story, “Asylum of the Futurians” pits the Caped Crusader against a group of apparent lunatics who’ve captured a photographer in the mistaken belief he possesses psychic abilities that will make him their leader.  (It’s never clear that the Futurians actually have ESP; it certainly doesn’t help against Batman; but then how do you explain the sudden impulse he had to investigate the neighborhood?)

Several stories are topical to the 1970s.  Thinly veiled versions of consumer advocate Ralph Nader and “participatory journalist” George Plimpton make guest appearances.  Stories featuring youth activism and black radicals have aged poorly; the latter mixes in a police corruption subplot, the end of which supposedly fixes injustice in the legal system of Gotham City.  Batman’s platitudes towards the radicals he’s fighting/helping come off as tone-deaf.

Other stories focus on Batman as the World’s Greatest Detective, revealing at the end the one clue he noticed where the criminal slipped up.  One, taking place at a production of Macbeth, involves the literal pricking of Batman’s thumbs.

The most notable plotline was the first appearances of Ra’s al Ghul and his daughter Talia.  Talia appeared first, helping Batman bring down Dr. Damien Darrk of the League of Assassins, who had fallen out with her father.  Then Ra’s contrived a scenario where both Robin and Talia were kidnapped in order to test Batman’s fitness to marry Talia (who had fallen for Bruce) and eventually take over his shadowy empire.

As created by writer Denny O’Neil and artists Dick Giordano and Neal Adams, Ra’s al Ghul was a mastermind in the Fu Manchu style (particularly the later novels.)  He controlled a vast criminal network, but did not consider himself a criminal, but rather humanity’s eventual savior.  Over his long life, Ra’s had become convinced overpopulation was the root of all the Earth’s problems.  Therefore he was going to do something about that.

Like Fah Lo Suee before her, Talia was conflicted between loyalty to her father and the desire to jump the hero’s bones.  Ra’s respected Bruce’s intelligence and skills enough to allow them to be mated, but only if Batman accepted a place as the Demon’s Head’s heir presumptive.  And no, Batman was not impressed by the “kill most of humanity to save the rest” plan.

After several encounters, Batman decides to take down Ra’s al Ghul once and for all, assembling a small team of specialists to help.  (This was the first appearance of the Matches Malone disguise, as Batman’s attempt to recruit the hitman went awry.)  After much ado, they finally catch up to the mastermind, or rather his corpse.

Except that it turns out Ra’s has access to something called the Lazarus Pit, which allows him renewed life and vigor at the cost of temporary insanity.  (This puts a different cast on an earlier story where Talia had supposedly believed her father dead.)  Eventually, Batman and Ra’s al Ghul must duel in single combat to determine which of them shall triumph in the last story of the volume.

This is nifty stuff, with some crackerjack writing and excellent art.  On the other hand, Talia’s personality is entirely defined in this storyline by her relationships with men, and she wavers back and forth between them as the plot demands.

Overall, this is a good run of Batman, and well worth requesting for the library, or even buying if you are a big Batman fan.  (Batgirl has a couple of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameos.)

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.

 

Audio Review: The Adventures of Luke Skywalker

Audio Review: The Adventures of Luke Skywalker

Most Star Wars fans are aware that director George Lucas based much of the look and feel of the first movie on classic Hollywood films and especially the thrilling chapter serials.  But have you ever considered what A New Hope would sound like if it were a big-budget film made in Hollywood’s Golden Age?

The Adventures of Luke Skywalker

Someone certainly did, and put together a version that might have appeared on old time radio as part of Lux Radio Theater.  LRT was a weekly broadcast hosted by famed movie director Cecil B. DeMille that adapted recent movies for the radio, often with the actual stars of the movie reprising their roles.  You should be able to find episodes downloadable or streaming at various sites on the internet.

For this performance, there is a star-studded cast (provided by voice impersonators):  Mickey Rooney as Luke, Humphrey Bogart as Han Solo, Katherine Hepburn as Princess Leia, Bela Lugosi as Darth Vader, and so on.  (Rin Tin Tin as Chewbacca!)  It was recorded live; there’s some obvious microphone feedback towards the beginning and some of the cues are a teensy off.  Much of the story is carried by the narrator, who fills in what we’re supposed to be seeing.  (Saves on special effects!)

The story follows the familiar film, plus or minus a scene or two.  The dialogue has been altered at a few points to allow in-jokes for the “actors.’  (Bela doing the Dracula “bleh!” for example.)   Some of the impersonations are better than others; in fairness, some voices are easier to imitate.  As a purist when it comes to historical fiction, I was jarred by a couple of words being used that hadn’t been coined by the 1940s, even in science fiction.

It’s a lot of fun, and recommended to both Star Wars and old time radio fans.  On the down side, this recording had a limited number of copies made, and is now out of print, so may be difficult to track down.

Book Review: Siege 13

Book Review: Siege 13 by Tamas Dobozy

During World War Two, Hungary was one of the Axis powers, with its own fascists led by the Arrow Cross Party.  At first this seemed like a good idea, as Hungary gained back territories it had lost after the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  But late in the war, it became obvious that they were on the losing side.  The Hungarian government tried to broker a separate armistice with the Soviet Union, only to have their country occupied by the Germans.  As a result, they were forced to fight to the bitter end.

Siege 13

In late December of 1944 through February of 1945, the Soviet Army encircled the city of Budapest and besieged the troops and civilians within.  It is that siege that gives us the title of this book, which contains thirteen short stories all of which tie into that event in some way, even if the characters are living in the Hungarian diaspora community in Toronto.

“The Atlas of B. Görbe” is about a struggling writer in New York City who turns to an older author of children’s books for assistance in finding his way.

“The Animals of the Budapest Zoo, 1944-1945” is set within the siege itself as the zookeepers come to realize they might not be able to keep themselves alive, let alone their charges, and the extreme steps one of the keepers takes.

“Sailor’s Mouth” takes place in Romania, where a man has come to adopt a child of Hungarian heritage.  He may have become misled by his carnal urges.  One of the themes in this story is “The Museum of Failed Escapes” that Judit, the woman the man is seeing, tells him about.

“The Restoration of the Villa Where Tíbor Kálmán Once Lived” concerns a deserter who joins the Communist occupation after the war.  He takes over the home of a man who used to provide people with false papers to escape the Axis, and betrays their names to the Soviets one by one.  But he gets the distinct feeling the villa  is rejecting him…this one won an O. Henry award.

“The Beautician” is about a college student preparing his thesis paper.  He finds a possible topic in the dark past of the manager of the club for Hungarian exiles in Toronto.  But is that something he really wants to make known?

“Days of Orphans and Strangers” follows up on the Kálmán family mentioned in “Restoration.”  One of them has been talking in his sleep, but not in the language you’d expect.

“Rosewood Queens” concerns the narrator’s relationship with her father’s lover, a collector of chess pieces (but never full sets.)

“The Encirclement” is about a lecturer on the topic of the Budapest siege, who finds himself with a persistent blind heckler who presents a different version of events.  The details are too close to be fake, but that’s not the way the lecturer remembers it.  I thought this story was the best in the book.

“The Society of Friends” features a long-standing love triangle among three Hungarian emigres.  It reminded me a bit of the movie Grumpy Old Men.  It shares a character with “Beautician.”

“The Miracles of Saint Marx” concerns a secret police officer’s search for a dissident who spreads tales of miraculous events.  It becomes personal when one of those stories is about her.  Also very good.

“The Selected Mug Shots of Famous Hungarian Assassins” is about a boy who handcrafts trading cards featuring what he says are Hungarian assassins.  It seems to be all his imagination, until the narrator finds a book on the same topic years later…  This story includes slurs against people with mental disabilities as a plot point, getting the boys in deep trouble.

“The Ghosts of Budapest and Toronto” is another tale of the Kálmán family.  Ghosts are seen in two cities as separated members of the family miss each other.

“The Homemade Doomsday Machine” finishes the volume with a genius child who seeks the destruction of society and the Nazi atomic scientist who shares that interest.  Has perhaps the happiest ending in the book.  Has a character that seems too eager to diagnose the child as autistic, especially as she has no psychological or medical training.

Most of the stories are bittersweet, with a few downer endings.  I found the writing competent but not compelling on average.

There are frequent mentions of rape, and suicide comes up a time or two. While the travails of the Jewish and Romani people in Hungary are mentioned, the emphasis is on ethnic Hungarians.  There’s some period sexism and a number of the female characters express dislike of the patriarchal Hungarian family culture.  Due to the heavy themes, I’d recommend this for college age and up.

Overall, I am glad I got the chance to read this.  Books on the Hungarian experience are uncommon, and I discovered much I did not know.  Recommended for other people wanting to broaden their experience.

 

Comic Strip Review: Gunnerkrigg Court, Volume 3: Reason

Comic Strip Review: Gunnerkrigg Court, Volume 3: Reason by Thomas Siddell

After Antimony “Annie” Carver’s mother Surma dies, her father Anthony drops her off at her parent’s alma mater, a strange boarding school called Gunnerkrigg Court.  The court is an enormous place, looking rather like an industrial city, but large portions of it seem to be abandoned…by humans, at least.  There are robots advanced beyond anything in the outside world, bizarre events are commonplace, there’s a creepy forest just across a long bridge students are forbidden to cross, and Annie notices that she’s picked up a second shadow.

Gunnerkrigg Court, Volume 3: Reason

This noted fantasy webcomic has been running since 2005, beginning here (happily, the art style drastically improves over time.)  It’s got an intricate plot with many details planned well in advance.  (For example, in an early strip Antimony tells us it will be two years before she sees her father again.)  The Court’s architecture is somewhat based on the city of Birmingham in England.

At the beginning of this volume, Annie is in training to possibly become the Court’s Medium, an ambassador between the school and the magical Gillitie Wood.  The other two candidates, Andrew Smith (with the ability to bring order out of chaos) and George Parley (whose father expected a boy, and has the gift of teleportation) argue a lot but turn out to be attracted to each other.  This interrupts two simulations.

Then it’s time for a camping trip to a park that is actually inside the boundaries of Gunnerkrigg Court.  Campers start to disappear, and Annie and her best friend Kat (Katherine Donlan, daughter of two of the teachers who were friends with Annie’s parents) must solve the mystery.

After that, Kat, who is beloved by the Court’s robots due to her technical skills and repair abilities grants the king of said robots access to the portrait of Jeanne, the ghost that haunts the ravine between the Court and the Wood.  In return, he reveals the existence of a robot that has memories of Jeanne, and the very early days of the Court.  Those memories reveal a dark secret of the past.

In the next chapter, Annie visits the Wood and learns more about Ysengrim, the wolf with tree armor that is the current Medium for their side of the river.  Coyote, the trickster spirit that is in charge of the Wood, gives Annie a gift for reasons not fully revealed.

Then the subplot of Jack, who’s been acting increasingly erratic since he was exposed to the mass hallucination projected by a girl named Zimmy, comes to the fore.  He coerces Annie into accompanying him to a power station that might have something to do with why he can’t sleep.

This is followed by a spotlight chapter for Kat, who hasn’t been able to process her emotional reaction to learning what the Court did to Jeanne.  She’s finally able to recover her equilibrium with the help of an abandoned baby bird, and Paz, a classmate who can talk to animals.

Further research with the help of Andrew and Parley reveals some of Jeanne’s story from her point of view, and convinces Parley to be honest about her feelings.

Finally, Annie’s second year at Gunnerkrigg Court comes to a painful close when she and Renard (a fox spirit living in a stuffed toy) quarrel and reveal some very painful secrets to each other.  This leads to her choosing to spend the summer in the Wood rather than with friends.

At the end are some art pages and bonus strips about “City Face”, the pigeon Kat rescued.

The mood swings wildly between chapters, some being very comedic while others go deep into dark territory.  While we get several important revelations in this volume, the jigsaw nature of the overall plot means that many items don’t pay off until future volumes–I do recommend starting from the beginning.

As is often the case with webcomics collections, the material is all available on the internet for free, but if you like it, please consider buying the print version to make the creator more financially stable.

Book Review: Classic American Short Stories

Book Review: Classic American Short Stories compiled by Michael Kelahan

This book is more or less exactly what it says in the title, a compilation of short(ish) stories written by American authors, most of which are acknowledged as classics by American Lit professors.  The stories are arranged by author in roughly chronological order from the early Nineteenth Century to the 1920s to stay safely in the public domain.

Classic American Short Stories

The fifty-one stories included begin with Washington Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle”, a tall tale about a henpecked husband who drinks ghostly beer and sleeps for twenty years, right through the American Revolution.  The book ends with “Winter Dreams” by F. Scott Fitzgerald.  A young man from Minnesota finds great success in the laundry business, but heartache when the woman he loves cannot settle for just him.  In between are ones that are very familiar to me, like “The Telltale Heart” by Edgar Allen Poe (a murderer confesses his crime in an effort to prove his sanity) and stories that were new to me, like “The Revolt of ‘Mother'” by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman (a New England woman, tired of an unkept promise, takes matters into her own hands.)

There’s a wide variety of genres represented, from “realistic” slice of life stories through mystery and fantasy to outright horror.  The chronological order highlights the changing social attitudes depicted in the stories, particularly the two Edith Wharton stories about divorce.  Women are reasonably well-represented, and there are a couple of writers of color as well.

Of course, just because a story is “classic” does not mean it will appeal to everyone.  I found Henry James’ novella “The Aspern Papers” (literary buff infiltrates the household of a famous poet’s ex-lover in an effort to gain any memorabilia she might have of him) tedious and predictable.  I am not alone in this, but many other readers have found it fascinating.

Content issues:  Many of these stories have elements of period racism, sexism and classism; sometimes it’s dealt with within the story itself, but other times it pops up as a nasty surprise.  “Paul’s Case” by Willa Cather, about a boy who wants the finer things in life without the tedium of putting in decades of hard labor to get them, deals with suicide.

This is a Barnes & Noble collector’s edition, and is quite handsome and sturdy, with a leather binding, gilt-edged pages and a silk bookmark for a reasonable price.  However, the fact that it has a “compiler” rather than an editor is telling.  There are scattered typos; I do not know if they were caused by errors in transcription, or if the sources were not scrutinized carefully enough.  The author bios at the end are not quite in alphabetical order, and miss out Washington Irving altogether.

Overall, most of these stories are worth reading at least once, and many are worth rereading over the years.  Highly recommended to people who don’t already have their favorites from this collection in a physical book, or are curious about the stories they haven’t read yet.  It’d also make a nice gift for your bookworm friend or relative.

Book Review: Behind a Mask: The Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott

Book Review: Behind a Mask: The Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott edited by Madaleine Stern

Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888) is best remembered for her Little Women series of books for girls, but had quite a few other works to her name.  And some that were written under a pen name.  The latter included several short works published in sensational periodicals of the time, considered too spicy to be attached to her reputation as a schoolteacher.  The Alcott family suffered from poverty, and sales of “blood and thunder” stories were a nice way to earn emergency cash.

Behind a Mask: The Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott

According to Ms. Stern, many of these works were lost for years because of the psuedonym and the ephemeral nature of the periodicals they appeared in.  She first became aware of them in the 1940s, but due to wartime conditions was unable to pursue the matter to a conclusion, and it was only in the 1970s that enough clues could be found to allow this collection of four representative stories.

“Behind a Mask ~or~ A Woman’s Power” leads off as the well-off Coventry family engages nineteen year old Scotswoman Jean Muir as a governess.  It seems that for various reasons, the sixteen year old youngest daughter Bella has had her education neglected, and she needs her basics down before her social debut.  Jean turns out to be a multi-talented young woman and quickly wins the hearts of most of the family.  However, when she retires to her new bedroom, Jean removes her makeup, wig and false teeth to reveal that she’s actually thirty–and a very skilled actor.

Jean Muir uses her wiles to entice the family’s two brothers, turning them against each other.  But in fact her ambitions are even higher.  And in the end, despite some setbacks, Jean succeeds in her primary goal!  This makes the story one of the relatively rare “bad guy wins” pieces of fiction.  On the other hand, it’s hard to be unsympathetic to Jean; she’s been dealt a bad hand by life, and in a pre-feminist society, her options are limited.  And to be honest, the ultimate outcome only leaves the Coventry family sadder but wiser.

One bit that may confuse younger readers–the elder brother buys the younger brother a “commission.”  At the time, the British Army allowed rich people to simply buy a lieutenant’s rank.  This worked out about as well as you’d think.

“Pauline’s Passion and Punishment” brings us to Cuba.  Pauline is a woman scorned; the handsome but financially embarrassed Gilbert wooed her, then went on what he described as a short trip–to marry another woman!  She comes up with a scheme to get revenge, and the handsome and wealthy Manuel is willing to marry her to help her get it.  They catch up with Gilbert and his new bride Barbara at a resort hotel.  Gilbert married “Babie” for money, only to find out it was tied up in a trust.  Pauline happens to be an old schoolmate of Babie’s, so she and Manuel have a social “in” to hang out with Gilbert and his wife.

Quite honestly, Pauline dodged a bullet when  Gilbert dumped her; he’s a gambling addict, heavy drinker and bad-tempered (warning for domestic abuse.)   Pauline could have just left it at showing how much better a couple she and Manuel were, living well as the best revenge.  But she just can’t resist twisting the knife, and that leads to tragedy.

There’s a bit of ethnic stereotyping of the “Latins are hot-blooded” type.  This story is illustrated with woodcuts from the original publication.

“The Mysterious Key ~and~ What It Opened” brings us back to Britain.  Lord Trevlyn and his wife are about to have their first child when a messenger arrives.  We do not find out immediately what message was brought, but at the end of the night, Lord Trevlyn is dead of a heart attack, Lady Trevlyn is prostate with shock (and her health never entirely recovers) and Lillian is born.

The story skips ahead to Lillian’s early adolescence, when a mysterious but very polite boy named Paul turns up and becomes a servant for the Trevlyn family.  He and Lillian get on quite well, but it’s clear that he has secrets, and then vanishes one night.

Several years later, Paul turns up again with the name Paolo Talbot.  He has made his fortune in Italy, and has returned to Britain with his cousin Helene.  Helene is blind (at one point mistaken for mentally handicapped by an uneducated person, who uses what was at the time the polite term, but “idiot” is no longer acceptable.)  Lillian thinks Paul is honor-bound to marry Helene, but the truth is far more convoluted.

This story is the weakest of the set, and could have used some punching up.

“The Abbot’s Ghost ~or~ Maurice Treherne’s Temptation” is a Christmas story.  The noble Treherne family has several guests staying over Christmastide.  Love triangles abound as a result.  Maurice has been confined to a wheelchair due to an accident, and it is deemed unlikely that he will ever walk again.  He was also disinherited by his late uncle for initially unspecified reasons, and is dependent on the charity of his cousin Jasper, who inherited the title and money.

Christmas is a time for ghost stories, and the Treherne house happens to have a resident spook, an abbot who was turned out of his home by a distant ancestor of the Trehernes.  It is said that an appearance by the abbot’s ghost foretells the death of a male member of the family.  Sure enough, the ghost appears (or is it a hoax?)  Who will die, and who will get married?

There’s an ethnic slur hurled by one of the characters, who is portrayed as unsympathetic at the time.

Three out of four stories involve possible cousin marriage; I wonder if that was really such a big thing back in the 1860s in Britain, or if Ms. Alcott just had a thing for that storytelling gimmick.

The writing is clear and direct, with a few obscure words and outdated pop culture references.  While apparently pretty daring for their time, there’s little in here that will shock modern readers.

Recommended for more mature Alcott fans, and those who enjoy romantic thrillers.

 

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