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: Galaxy of Ghouls

Book Review: Galaxy of Ghouls edited by Judith Merril

October is scary stuff season, so let’s look at a book of creepy tales.  This collection of 16 “science-fantasy” stories is themed around various monsters, from the classic to the out-there.

Galaxy of Ghouls

We open with “Wolves Don’t Cry” by Bruce Elliott, turning the traditional werewolf story upside down when a wolf inexplicably turns into a human being.  It’s an emotionally muted tale, with the primary sensation being loneliness.  The ending story is “”Mop-Up” by Arthur Porges.  The last human on Earth after the War and Plague meets the last monsters.  But none of them imagined there were other threats…some nice imagery in this one.

Notable stories include Manley Wade Wellman’s “O! Ugly Bird”, the first of the John the Balladeer stories, in which John and his silver-stringed guitar go up against a hoodoo man and his flying familiar; “Fish Story” by Leslie Charteris, a non-Saint story about a man who is far more familiar with the sea than you’d think, and “Desertion” by Clifford D. Simak, which inquires into why no explorer returns from Jupiter

The general quality is high, although a couple of stories have become dated and creak a bit.  Judith Merril provides her usual helpful introductions to the tales and their authors.

This book seems never to have been reprinted, so you will need to haunt your local used  bookstore or E-bay.  Well worth a look for fans of science fantasy.

Book Review: The Year’s Greatest Science-Fiction and Fantasy Second Annual Volume

Book Review: The Year’s Greatest Science-Fiction and Fantasy Second Annual Volume edited by Judith Merril

This 1957 volume contains speculative fiction stories from magazines published in roughly the previous year, hand-picked by the editor to represent the best the field had to offer at the time.  (I’ve previously reviewed the fifth annual, which switched the title from “Greatest” to “Best.”)  It contains eighteen stories and articles, beginning with “The Man Who Liked Lions” by John Bernard Daley (an unusual person spends the day at the zoo; he isn’t too impressed with the human visitors) and finishing with “The Anything Box” by Zenna Henderson (a teacher notices that one of her students has an imaginary box of wonders–or is it imaginary?)

The Year's Greatest Science-Fiction and Fantasy Second Annual Volume

“The Anything Box” is the best story in the collection–Ms. Henderson was a first-grade teacher herself, and it shows in her descriptions of the students and their personalities.  And also in the dialogue of Alpha, the teacher kids won’t remember fondly at all, even while she prides herself on the discipline she inflicts.   The use of imagination, and its perils, are well-represented here.

Also of interest: “All About ‘The Thing'” by Randall Garrett,  a summary in rhyme of the classic John W. Campbell story “Who Goes There?”  Ms. Merril mentions in her introduction to the next piece, “Put Them All Together, They Spell Monster” by Ray Russell, how disappointed she was that Hollywood in the Fifties decided to go with sci-fi creature features for their movies, instead of thoughtful SF like “Destination Moon.”  The piece itself is a parody of the plots of monster movies, with a bit of extra spice because it first appeared in Playboy.  (No actual sex or naughty words.)

“Grandma’s Lie Soap” by Robert Abernathy takes a fantastical premise–a soap that prevents the user from telling untruths, and follows it to a logical conclusion, only to present a new dilemma in the last paragraphs, one that perhaps makes the main character’s actions more dangerous than he’d thought.

Theodore Sturgeon’s “The Other Man” should be talked about a bit.  An abused woman asks her ex-boyfriend, now a renowned psychiatrist, to treat her awful husband.  The story has a unique take on the habit abusive people have of suddenly being the most loving, wonderful person you fell in love with before going back to being abusive.   The therapy works, but something of value might have been lost in the process.

Many of the stories have the theme of communication, with others or with oneself.  In the afterword, Judith Merril notes that the previous year’s stories had been marked by cynicism and pessimism, while this crop is somewhat more hopeful.  She also notes that the pressure for conformity in the greater society led to more use of science fiction and fantasy as metaphors for current events and social ills.

I have not even mentioned several famous writers who got their works in; Isaac Asimov, J.G. Ballard (his first published story!), Algis Budrys, Damon Knight, C.M. Kornbluth and Mack Reynolds.  Their stuff is pretty good too.

Be aware that there is period sexism in the stories, (all the authors but Zenna Reynolds were white men) and some ethnic stereotyping.

Overall, a fine collection, worth picking up if you see it–also check your library for this or later volumes.

Book Review: Analog 1.

Book Review: Analog 1 edited by John W. Campbell

Astounding Science Fiction was one of the most influential science fiction magazines from the 1930s to the 1950s.   But long-time editor John W. Campbell had felt for years that the title did not reflect the more mature, “hard” science fiction he preferred to run.  So in 1960, he finally got permission to transition the magazine over a period of months to Analog Science Fact and Fiction.

Analog 1

This volume is a collection of stories from that first year of Analog and as such is a time capsule of the science fiction genre at that moment.  The opening editorial is perhaps a little hubristic, claiming that “mainstream literature” is just a subset of science fiction.  Mr. Campbell touts the fun of science fiction being the way it allows the mind to stretch and struggle with new concepts.  Then we begin the eight feature stories.

“Monument” by Lloyd Biggle, Jr. concerns a planet that is a tropical paradise, inhabited by primitive, peaceful humanoids.   A lone spaceman stumbles on the place, and lives out his life in peace…until near his death, he realizes that inevitably more humans will come, and given the history of tropical paradises on Earth, this will result in disaster for the natives.  He comes up with a plan.   Some time later, galactic civilization indeed comes calling.  All unfolds as O’Brien had foreseen–greedy developers, broken treaties, military men with their hands tied by regulations.  The people of Langri have the Plan, but will it come off in time?

This is the longest piece in the volume, being a full-fledged novella.   The critique of colonialism is pointed enough to sting a bit.   The greedy capitalist who doesn’t really hate the natives, but doesn’t understand that their interests should come ahead of his own, and so does them dirt, is the major villain of the piece.  He’ll be quite willing to employ the locals as maids and laborers in the hotels he’s building, once they’re properly put in their place.   He’s blind to the way he’s being outmaneuvered, and even the sympathetic military men don’t quite grok what the natives are really up to.

“The Plague” by Teddy Keller is set in the then present day.  The obscure Pentagon office of Protection from Germ Warfare had the previous officer retire a few weeks ago, and his replacement is tied up in red tape somewhere.  So when a plague breaks out, Sergeant Major Andrew McCloud and Corporal Bettijean Baker are the spearhead of the effort to stop it, despite the military brass trying to interfere.  A general is running interference, but if they don’t figure out why this illness has such a weird pattern of attack quickly, some new officer will be found to start all over.

The vector of spread is a clever one, and I have seen it in at least one other short story.  Younger readers might not catch on until it is spelled out for them, as customs and technology have changed since 1960.   There’s a whiff of the period’s sexism in regards to how grown women in the military are referred to as “girls.”

“Remember the Alamo!” by T.R. Fehrenbach is a time travel tale.  A scholar has gone back to observe the Battle of the Alamo, infiltrating the small garrison to get the full details.  Mr. Ord doesn’t quite grasp that the differences piling up between the history he knows and the events he is experiencing aren’t just trivialities he can dismiss.  The end result is telegraphed because we see the thoughts of those around Ord, and what they’re not telling him, since he should already know it.

“The Hunch” by Christopher Anvil features scout ship pilot James Connely, who is informed that two scout ships have vanished in a certain sector, despite having the latest equipment.  So his ship is being refitted with even newer equipment.  Equipment he has no chance to test before being launched into that same sector. As it happens, his hunch that one of these devices is actually responsible for the disappearance of the other ships is correct.  But which one of these newfangled gadgets is it?  This story is heavy on the sarcastic humor.

“Barnacle Bull” by Winston P. Sanders is a rarity, in that the protagonists are a Norwegian space crew in the “near future” flying the Hellik Olav in an attempt to find a safe way through the asteroid belt.  They discover why none of the other ships ever reported back.  Space barnacles.  This is one of those stories where the problem is in fact its own solution, looked at a different way.

“Join Our Gang?” by Sterling E Lanier concerns a galactic civilization attempting to convince a newly discovered planet to join them.  Sadly, the aliens are refusing, so it is time to apply pressure.  Turns out that invasive species are an Earth specialty.  Not exactly a happy ending to this one, more of a “that’s just the way it goes.”

“Sleight of Wit” by Gordon R. Dickson stars another scout, Hank Shallo lands on the same planet, in almost the spot as, the first alien scout humanity has ever met.  The alien’s ship is heavily armed, while Hank’s has no conventional weaponry.  But as he warns the alien, Hank is in possession of the universe’s most deadly weapon, one that cannot be detected or stopped.  Or is he bluffing?  Does the alien dare find out for sure?

“Prologue to an Analogue” by Leigh Richmond is the sole non-“hard” SF story in the volume.  We’re back in the present day, as an advertising campaign featuring “witches” proves successful in unexpected ways.  For younger readers, I should mention that many television programs used to be wholly owned by a particular advertiser, so a cleaning product company hosting its own nightly newscast wouldn’t have been considered unusual.   The story is also tied heavily to the politics of 1960, with tensions between the USA, the Soviet Union and Red China important to the way the plot unfolds.  The actual mechanism of the events is never explained.  Psionics?  The will of God?  Actual witches?  Who knows?  A rather frustrating tale, as intended.

These aren’t all-time classic stories, a couple are very dated, but are pretty good representatives of the magazine’s content.  It’s been reprinted a few times, and some of the other covers are better–check your local library or used book store.

 

 

Magazine Review: Water~Stone Review Volume 15: Dark Matter

Magazine Review: Water~Stone Review Volume 15: Dark Matter edited by Mary François Rockcastle

This literary journal is published by Hamline University in Minnesota.  The title comes from another name of the Philosopher’s Stone, the transformative agent which turned base metals into gold, in the search for true immortality, as literature turns ordinary words into art.  This issue’s theme is “dark matter” the unknown encountered and given a name by humans in an attempt to categorize it.

Water~Stone Review #15

This issue is heavy on the poetry, unfortunately, most of it is modern poetry which (as I have mentioned before) I do not have the tools to fully appreciate–I can’t even tell good modern poetry from bad.   I did like Ruth Stone’s “Train Ride” which at least has a rhyme scheme and comprehensible imagery.  Also of note is “Song for the Generations: December 26, 1862” by Gwen Westerman.  It’s about the mass hanging of Native Americans in Minnesota as a result of a rebellion, and uses a particular line structure to reflect this event.  (For more on this subject, see my review of The Thirty-Ninth Man by Dale Swanson.)  It’s also the poem in this issue that caused the most dissension in the editorial office, as different families learned different stories of the event.

One of the two book reviews covers three books of modern poetry–because of my previously-mentioned problem, it read like gibberish to me.  There’s also an interview with poet Ralph Angel, and that was mildly interesting.

The fiction and “creative non-fiction” sections are very similar, being mostly melancholy stories about relationships with parents or loved ones that stop rather than have endings.  Of the fiction, the most striking was “Missions, 1969” by Anastasia Faunce.  A little girl is used as a servant at her mother’s moon-themed party, and learns yet another lesson about the casual cruelty of adults.

From the non-fiction section, the two most interesting pieces are “Elegy for the Old NIght Sky and Other Bodies” by Katie Hae Leo, about childlessness, being an adoptee, and dark matter; and “Dust to Dust” by Amy Roper, about the author’s job cleaning fossils for a museum.

There are also visual arts, a section of photographs titled “Open. Shut. Open.”  It’s pretty random-feeling, some are in color, a few are interesting.   Lawrence Sutin contributes two “erasure pieces” in which he has taken old books and erased most of the words to create “found” poetry.  It seems like a mutilation of perfectly good books to me.

The concluding piece is another book review, three books that reflect the reviewer’s hobby of collecting other people’s home movies.

Due to my dislike of modern poetry and the generally depressing nature of most of the prose pieces, I did not get much out of this magazine, despite the above-average quality of writing.  If modern poetry is your bag, I think you’ll appreciate this much more than I did.

Anime Review: Tonari no Seki-kun

Anime Review: Tonari no Seki-kun (The Master of Killing Time)

Rumi Yokoi is a high school student who wants to study hard and get good grades.  But she’s constantly distracted by the boy sitting next to her, Toshinari Seki, and not for the reasons you might at first expect.  You see, Seki is easily bored by the droning teachers’ lectures, and shielded by his position in the back corner of the classroom, engages in various hobbies at his desk.

Tonari no Seki-kun

Yokoi tries to avoid looking at Seki’s elaborate games and handicrafts, but constantly finds herself drawn in to watching and narrating the events unfolding next to her.  And when she tries to tell the teachers what’s going on, she winds up in trouble!

This 21-episode anime series (The title roughly translates as “My Neighbor Seki”) is based on a manga by Takuma Morishige.  Each episode is eight minutes, with a short opening and ending song.  As of this writing, it is available subtitled on Crunchyroll.

The series is sweet and adorable, making good use of a limited cast.  Seki never speaks (although we do hear his voice once or twice), so Yokoi’s narration may or may not accurately represent what he’s thinking.  You don’t need to know the rules of any of the games Seki is playing with, because he really doesn’t stick to conventional rules unless he’s simulating real life, as in the post office episode.

Those new to anime might find it helpful to know that in standard Japanese high schools, the students sit in one classroom for most classes, while the teachers go from room to room.  Thus Yokoi and Seki’s relative positions seldom change.  Also, being a proper student, Yokoi is more formal than most American kids, so almost always uses family names rather than given names, except with close friends.

For the most part, the series is safe for middle-schoolers on up–some of Seki’s games have some violence in them (the lunch episode references the gruesome series Attack on Titan) but it’s all imaginary, as are the slightly naughty things envisioned by Sakurako Gotou, a classmate of the main characters who thinks they’re a romantic couple.

Overall, highly recommended, even to people who have never watched anime before.

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