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: 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: Fright

Book Review: Fright edited by Charles M. Collins

The cover makes this book look like a generic product, but that’s a little deceiving.  It’s actually an anthology skewed towards the Gothic end of horror rather than the gory, emphasizing vocabulary-rich authors.  Most of the stories were rarely reprinted before this collection in 1963.

Fright

We open with “The Forest Warden” by E.T.A. Hoffman.  The story begins where romantic tales of the time usually ended–the handsome young man rescues a distressed damsel, they marry and the man is rewarded with a job to support his new family.  But the new forest warden, Andres, finds that his territory is infested with robbers and poachers, and his aim is off, so he is unable to produce the tithe of game he owes his employer.  Also, his wife Giorgina becomes deathly ill after the birth of their first son.  Their small savings are soon exhausted from futile attempts to cure her.

When things look their darkest, a mysterious stranger named Ignaz Denner appears.  As it just so happens, he has an elixir which is just the thing to fix Giorgina right up.  He doesn’t want anything in exchange for this life-restoring tonic, in fact, Ignaz gives them several more nice gifts!  He even proposes arranging for the son’s education, though Andres and Giorgina turn that down.  That said, they appreciate their new best friend.

It’s only after the happy couple’s second son is born and Andres is called away that Ignaz reveals his true nature in a horrific manner.  Things rapidly go downhill from there, except for a seeming resolution about two-thirds of the way through before the abyss opens again.

This book’s translation is based on the 1814 version of the story, with the original ending which was considered too shocking for readers of the time and edited out in later editions.  (On the other hand, this translation apparently cuts out paragraphs of detail about the German judicial system that are not directly relevant to the main plotline.)  The ending is still pretty shocking by today’s standards.

Andres is inconsistent in his characterization; sometimes he’s alert and spots trouble coming, other times he acts very foolishly.  (“I know from personal experience that Ignaz Denner is a murderer who is literally in league with Satan and lies like a rug, but he says he’s reformed, so I will let him live with me.”)  Christianity does not overcome the forces of evil in this story, it just makes them angry.

“Schalken the Painter” by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu takes us to Holland, where the famous artist was once an apprentice.  He fell in love with his master’s beautiful niece, and she returned his interest.  However, a mysterious but wealthy man appears after nightfall one night and convinces the master to arrange the niece’s marriage to him.  (The master pays lip service to the idea that maybe the niece should be allowed to have a say in who she marries, but the gold ingots prove a persuasive argument against that.)

After the groom is seen in full light, it’s evident that this marriage is not a good idea, but a contract is a contract, and it’s not as though the niece has any legal recourse.  Soon after the wedding, the couple vanishes.  Some time later, the niece reappears seeking shelter, but before a ministeer can arrive to protect her, she vanishes again.  Schalken is heartbroken, but there is nothing he can do.  While the bride’s fate remains unknown, Schalken has an experience years later that may give a hint, and he paints a picture of it which the narrator has been explaining.

“Podolo” by L.P. Hartley concerns an ill-fated picnic to an island near Venice.  A man takes his best friend’s wife to this small, mostly barren rock with the aid of a gondolier.  She sees a cat that’s been abandoned on Podolo, and decides to either take it home with her…or kill it so it won’t starve to death.  It is considered bad luck to kill a cat in Venice.  The story has no explanation of what’s actually going on, and the narrator never sees the presumed monster.  Perhaps the gondolier is hiding a worse truth?

In “Glamour” by Seabury Quinn, we are introduced to Lucinda Lafferty.  She doesn’t allow hunting on her land, but she also doesn’t post it, so that a hunter in hot pursuit of game can easily stumble across the border without noticing.  And she doesn’t bother with lawsuits, either.  She curses trespassers, curses them like poison.   The hag-like crone is widely believed to be a witch.

We are also introduced to Lucinda Lafferty, a beautiful, genteel woman of wealth and taste.  She’s a charming Southern belle of the old school, and young Harrigan is quite taken with her.  Why, he’d almost give his soul to be her lover!

Set in 1930s Virginia, this is very much Southern Gothic.  There’s some off-handed period racism.

“Clay” by C. Hall Thompson is a Lovecraft-influenced tale of a New England insane asylum with a new patient.  He keeps claiming that someone named “Oliver” wants him to kill people, using the Mark of Clay.  It’s all explained by the papers in the small chest the patient has with him…except that the chest is empty.  One psychiatrist believes that there’s something more than simple delusion going on, but can he prove it before tragedy strikes?

And speaking of H.P. Lovecraft, his “The Horror of Red Hook” rounds out the book.  A New York cop has had a nervous breakdown and is taking a rest cure in Rhode Island, and the story tells us how he got that way.  Lovecraft’s xenophobia is on full display as the menace of illegal immigrants threatens life as we know it.  (The story is only slightly kinder to legal immigrants.)  While it’s an effective story, I can only boggle as various ethnic groups are slammed, particularly Kurds and specifically the much-maligned Yazidi.   Even the Dutch come into it as one of them is slumming in the afflicted area.  Very problematic.

A quaint volume, long out of print–you can probably find the earlier stories from public domain sources, and Lovecraft is much-anthologized.  But recommended for those who comb garage sales and used book stores.

Book Review: Infinity Five

Book Review: Infinity Five edited by Robert Hoskins

This is the fifth and last (so far as I know) of the Infinity series of science fiction anthologies from Lancer Books.  As mentioned in my review of Infinity Two, they’re heavy on the New Wave style of story, free to have sex scenes and rough language (but not yet skilled at their use) and experimental storytelling styles.  The opening editorial mentions that SF has become a respectable genre for adults, but I’m not sure you could tell from this book.

Infinity Five

SPOILER WARNING: I’m going to be giving away some of the endings.

“The Science Fiction Hall of Fame” by Robert Silverberg starts us off with one of the more experimental pieces, Short fragments from different stories cobbled together around the reminiscences of an avid science fiction fan who has a recurring nightmare about possible futures.  It feels like Mr. Silverberg just grabbed random pages from rejected stories to fill out the length.  At the end, the nightmare becomes reality, and the fear vanishes.

“In Between Then and Now” by Arthur Byron Cover is about two immortal and nigh-omnipotent beings that have been fighting since they can remember.  One of them has a realization that his feelings have changed, but the other isn’t quite ready to accept this.

“Kelly, Frederic Michael: 1928-1987” by William F. Nolan is another “randomish fragments” story.  Mr. Kelly is dying on an alien planet, and his mind slips back and forth.

“Nostalgia Tripping” by Alan Brennert has people listening to oldies radio, except that what precisely the oldies are, and the history that created them, keeps changing.  It turns out that time travel has been invented and harnessed solely to change history to create these new “oldies” because 2003 is just that bleak.  An interesting concept, but perhaps wasted on such a short story.

“She/Her” by Robert Thurston is about telepathic aliens whose planet is undergoing first contact with humans.   Among the new concepts the visitors have brought with them is the significance of gender, as the humans innocently try to fit the aliens into their stereotypes.  This is actually a decent story with a good try at thinking in alien mindsets.

“Trashing” by Barry N. Malzberg goes back to trippy as an assassin attempts to kill a madman who is spreading riots and disorder.  Or is that really what’s happening?

“Hello, Walls and Fences” by Russell Bates is about an artist, or maybe an engineer, who’s asked to do something he finds repugnant by a wealthy man.   Unfortunately, he’s got a wife to feed (this was back when most married women were expected not to have jobs) and his solo work doesn’t sell, so at the end he has to accept the rich man’s job.  We never really find out what the process is or why the artist/engineer doesn’t like it.

“Free at Last” by Ron Goulart moves towards the silly.  A man with a Wide Open Marriage in 1992 is cheating on it by having a secret affair with his invalid aunt’s nurse.  Wide Open, of course, means no secrets.  As part of this, he’s also concealing that his aunt is already dead.  However, the man from the U.S. Department of Transition, which provides free funerals for all American citizens, is getting suspicious.  This one has a lot of extrapolating Seventies California goofiness into the future.  It’s maybe the best story in the issue.

“Changing of the Gods” by Terry Carr, on the other hand, takes a bitter approach to extrapolation.  It is a future where all the mainstream religions have collapsed, to be replaced with the Ancient and Apostolic Church of Christ, Pragmatist.  Yet they still have Fifties style ad agencies.  Sam Luckman is a creative type for one of those agencies, which has been chosen by the Pragmatists to create an ad campaign for “family control” to battle the hideous overpopulation of the world.  Luckman’s personal life is in the toilet, and his disgust with youth-oriented culture and the betrayal of his closest relatives boils over into the advertisements he creates.

Warnings for on-screen incest, pedophilia, castration, body horror.  Also casual homophobia: “homosexual rapists” are said to haunt restrooms.  This is all meant to shock, but just comes off as trying too hard.   One begins to understand why Mr. Carr normally was restricted to editing.

“Interpose” by George Zebrowski has Jesus snatched from the Cross by cruel time travelers.  Jesus is also an alien, not that it does him any good as apparently all his powers were withdrawn for the Crucifixion.

“Greyworld” by Dean R, Koontz is a full novella.  An amnesiac man who is probably named Joel wakes up in a suspended animation pod in a deserted laboratory.  After some wandering around, he runs into a faceless man and passes out.  When Joel awakens, he’s still amnesiac, but is now in a New England country house with his hot wife and distrustful uncle-in-law.  Several more layers of reality ensue.  It’s similar in many ways to Keith Laumer’s Night of Delusions, which I reviewed earlier, but has a more stable (if highly implausible) ending.

“Isaac Under Pressure” by Scott Edelstein wraps up the volume with a quick joke story about unusual genie containers.

Overall, this collection has not aged well, and is only worth seeking out if you collect one of the authors whose story hasn’t been reprinted elsewhere.

 

 

Book Review: The Wall

Book Review: The Wall by Mary Roberts Rinehart

Marcia Lloyd is an upper-crust socialite who is not as wealthy as she used to be.  Not by any means broke, but when she comes to her summer home, Sunset, in New England, she can only afford to employ a handful of servants for a house that needs a dozen or so.  Still, Marcia is looking forward to a break from Depression-Era New York City–until she discovers that her brother Arthur’s ex-wife Juliette Ransom is in town.  The conniving Juliette insists on staying at Sunset, being rather vague about her reasons for being on the island.

The Wall

Juliette is known for her expensive tastes and fondness for playing with men’s affections, so it’s perhaps not too surprising when she goes out riding one day and never comes back.   Some time later, her corpse turns up, and it’s pretty obviously it was murder.  But who did it?  Was it Marcia, our narrator?  Arthur, who can no longer afford the ruinous alimony payments?  The mysterious painter Allen Pell, who knows Juliette from somewhere but won’t say more?  Any of the dozen or so men of “the summer people” Juliette partied with in the past. or perhaps a local?  Or a complete stranger?

Mary Roberts Rinehart (1876-1958) was a prolific author perhaps best remembered for her mysteries; she was at one point known as “the American Agatha Christie.”  This book is an example of the “Had I But Known” school of mystery writing, where a character (usually female) has incomplete information, or fails to grasp the significance of the information she has, and makes blunders that cause the  mystery to be harder for the investigators to solve.

Marcia often mentions bits from further along in the story–“I did not know then who Juliette had seen in the town” and fails to get clues to the sheriff in a timely manner because she doesn’t realize they are clues.  In the early part of the novel, she also doesn’t reveal what she knows about the activities of her brother Arthur as she’s trying to protect him, muddying the waters.  But Marcia is scarcely the only one at fault, Arthur and several other male characters also make mistakes that tangle up the investigation to avoid scandal or pursue their own agendas.  Plus the murderer is of course not telling the police anything.

The book is very much a period piece; not just because of the vanishing way of life Marcia and the “summer people” represent, but the little cultural references.  For example, “Bank Night at the movies” is mentioned offhand.  In 1938, Ms. Rinehart’s readers would have instantly understood; nowadays most readers will need to consult Wikipedia.

One amusing bit is that the house is wired with bells to summon servants, and these keep going off at random intervals when no one’s there, despite the electrician claiming all the wires are functioning correctly.  Marcia tells us right up front that the bells have nothing to do with the mystery, and they are still unexplained at the end, even after the title of the book is finally explained.  (This part may or may not be based on something that happened at Mary Roberts Rinehart’s real-life Maine summer house.)

There’s also a romantic subplot, as Marcia develops a thing for Allen Pell, and vice-versa, despite the very real possibility that he’s a multiple murderer.

Content issues:  There’s a fair amount of classism, some period sexism, a couple of ethnic slurs and discussion of suicide.  Marcia and most of the other characters smoke heavily and drink alcohol (overuse of alcohol leading to tragedy is a plot point.)

While not Ms. Rinehart’s best known work, this is a fun read if you are willing to put up with the characters acting rather stupidly and some twists that seem to come out of nowhere.   Recommended for fans of old-fashioned mystery novels.

Book Review: 100 Wicked Little Witch Stories

Book Review: 100 Wicked Little Witch Stories edited by Stefan Dziemianowicz, Robert Weinberg & Martin H. Greenberg

This was my Halloween season read this year, an anthology commissioned for the Barnes & Noble stores in 1995.  There are indeed one hundred stories in this hefty tome, averaging about six pages.  They are not all about wicked witches, however–some witches are good, some are just mischievous and others are hard to pin down on a moral spectrum.

100 Wicked Little Witch Stories

The volume opens with “Gramma Grunt” by Donald L. Burleson, about a man returning to the streets of his youth and regretting joining in the taunting of an old woman; and ends with “Wall of Darkness” by Basil Wells, about a piece of architecture that should be left strictly alone.  The oldest story (1933) is “The Mandrakes” by Clark Ashton Smith, one of his Averoigne stories, in which a murdered woman gets revenge through the title plants (though her murderer really should have known better.)  Most of the stories, however, are exclusive to this book.

As might be expected, most of these short tales depend heavily on a twist ending, but a few play it straight with an ending foreshadowed throughout.  Sometimes good people win the day, other times evil triumphs, at least for now.  There are many variations in kinds of witches as well, the most bizarre of which is “Fish Witch” by Lois H. Gresh, with a witchlike species of marine life; it’s got a garbled ending.

Some standouts include:

  • “The Only Way to Fly” by Nancy Holder:  An aging witch who’s lost most of her magic through disuse is on a plane to her retirement home.  Does she have one last spark in her?
  • “There’ll be Witches” by Joe Meno:  Danny is haunted by witches that make him wet the bed.  Too bad the grownups never see them!
  • “Beware of That for Which You Wish” by Linda J. Dunn:  A woman who wants a son consults a wiser woman; the wheel turns.
  • “The Devil’s Men” by Brian Stableford and “The Caress of Ash and Cinder” by Cindie Geddes, a nicely matched pair of stories about witch hunts seen from the victim’s point of view, yet with mirrored perspectives.
  • “The Mudang” by Will Murray:  A skull collector discovers a two for one bargain in Korea.

There’s a few duds as well, but they’re short and over quickly.

Scattered among the stories are a few with scenes of rape, abuse, suicide and other triggery subjects.  There’s also a few iffy ethnic portrayals and those of you who are witches may not like some of the more negative portrayals.

You can probably find this for a modest price from Barnes & Noble; I see it’s been reprinted several times.  Or try the library if you just want to read the bits by your favored authors.

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