Book Review: Twice Told Tales

Book Review: Twice Told Tales by Nathaniel Hawthorne

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

Twice Told Tales

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Magazine Review: Science Fiction Stories January 1960

Magazine Review: Science Fiction Stories January 1960 edited by Robert A.W. Lowndes

Science Fiction Stories was a minor SF magazine published as Science Fiction starting in 1940, then under a couple of different titles until 1943 when it and its stablemate Future Fiction were cancelled due to paper costs.  It was revived in 1950 and ran until early 1960, when the distributor abruptly chose not to carry any magazines by publisher Louis Silberkeit.  (Some of the remaining material was published by his next venture, Belmont Books.)  “The Original” on the cover was not part of the magazine’s name, but meant to tie back the 1950s edition to the 1940s version.

Science Fiction Stories January 1960

“The Coffin Ship” by Bill Wesley leads off the issue with a passenger in suspended animation aboard a spaceship waking up alone.  Cy Munson is in way over his head; he knows nothing about science or the ship’s technology, having barely squeaked through college on a football scholarship.  But he was picked for his newspaper’s representative from the circulation department because he was the only person available who could pass the rigorous physical requirements to go on the expedition to Capella.  It’s unclear how far in the future this is supposed to be; the newspaper publisher claims “no one’s done any actual reporting in fifty years” but he’s clearly supposed to be an excitable Perry White type so may be exaggerating.

Cy is unable to figure out the ship’s controls, location or how to awaken any of the crew; he finally decides suicide is better than staying alive alone for an indefinite period.  Happily, his suicide method proves to be the smartest thing he could have done.  He may not be book-smart but Cy has some common sense.

The illustration by Emsh makes it appear that the passengers were frozen topless, and we are only spared female nipples by light streaks on the glass.  This is not mentioned at all in the story.  (Cy is completely able to avoid the ickier impulses recently seen in the movie Passengers.)

“The Plot, The Plot!” is an editorial by Mr. Lowndes, in which he discusses the idea that science fiction won’t be recognized as real literature until it unshackles itself from stories that are entirely driven by plot, as opposed to character exploration and development.

“Day of the Glacier” by R.A. Lafferty is that author’s first published science fiction story.  The newest Ice Age begins on April 1, 1962, and the majority of Earth’s population is caught by surprise as the planet freezes over.  Climatologist Dr. Erdogic Eimer and three planeloads of his colleagues and families aren’t quite as surprised, as they knew this was about to happen, and made arrangements to get to a particular valley that will remain survivable for the duration.

But their calculations were a day off, and they’re also surprised to discover that someone got to the valley before them.  It turns out that the Communists decided to take advantage of April Fool’s to launch their takeover of North America.  They nuked the ICBM launching sides and simultaneously murdered the most anti-Communist Congresspeople so their “Peace Party” puppets can seize control of the Federal government.  But those nuclear explosions caused just enough atmospheric disturbance to start the Ice Age a day early.

Only Soviet climatologist Commander Andreyev had also worked out what was about to happen, and had just enough pull to get a military expedition sent with him to the valley a few days before the disaster he predicted but was not taken seriously about.  Will the future civilization be Red?

The story’s not all that good, but I can see Mr. Lafferty’s trademark humor and tall tale tendencies in it.  There’s a touch of casual sexism, of the “women are not as smart as men but are much more practical” variety.

“Puritan Planet” by Carol Emshwiller concerns a man named Morgan and his cat, whose spaceship has crashlanded on a planet named Brotherhood.  Unfortunately, the one access hatch is now buried in the ground, and Morgan will not be able to get out without outside help.  Worse, the planet was colonized by religious fanatics, who are forbidden to directly kill infidels but need not rescue them either…and they’ve already heard him swear.  Morgan has an ace up his sleeve, if only he can figure it out.

Carol Emshwiller happened to be married to Ed Emshwiller, the artist known as Emsh, and is a noted SF writer in her own right.  That said, this is a slight story and nowhere near her best.

“Once In a Blue Moon” by Norman L. Knight is a reprint from 1942.  This novella is set in the far future, during the second expansion of humanity among the stars.  The first expansion was a rush job, and new diseases and invasive species ran rampant.  The new expansion is much more cautious, and a special expedition has been sent to the planet soon to be known as Kenia to determine if it’s safe to allow colonists to come there.

One of the expedition members is Ilrai, a Martian novelist seeking material for his next book.  He is distrusted by expedition leader Counselor Sarrasen, as Martians are naturally telepathic to a high degree, while Sarrasen is a telepathic null, unable to send or receive.  The friction between them is an important subplot.

The expedition members are startled to discover that they are not the first human to reach the new planet.  They’re especially freaked that linguist and railroad hobbyist Mattawomba is a black man.  Evidently the first expansion had segregated spaceships, and their end of the galaxy was settled exclusively by white folks.  Only the long-lived Ilrai, who’s been to Earth, has seen black people before.  (After a couple of pages, Mattawomba’s skin color ceases to be an issue.)

Turns out that Mattawomba is the sole survivor of a colony ship that was headed elsewhere when plague broke out.  His lifeboat landed on the nearest habitable planet, and Mattawomba was able to ingratiate himself to the natives with his knowledge of steam engines.  This raises new problems.  First, the expedition is now quarantined on Kenia until it can be proved Mattawomba isn’t contagious, and second, he’s violated regulations regarding giving advanced technologies to aliens.

The story reaches its main climax when a hunting trip goes horribly wrong, and Commander Sarrasen gets lost in the Kenian wilderness.  He has to rely on crewmates that he has underestimated or actively hated to save him.

This tale being from 1942 explains a lot, and it is quite good for when it was written.   It’s exciting once the main action gets started, has some nice imagery, and has a neat bit at the end where there isn’t a title drop.  Y’see, while there is a blue moon in the story, the title phrase is no longer in the farflung humans’ vocabulary.  So one of them fumbles when that wording would be appropriate.

On the other hand, there’s one of those shoehorned romance subplots that are the bane of pulp adventure stories.

The issue finishes with the letters column.  (Mr. Lowndes was known for being enthusiastic about engaging with readers.)  Several of the letters reference a previous editorial about the declining number of fan letters in recent years.  They suggest that the elimination of fan club spotlight areas was part of that.  Another letter mentioned having sent in a subscription check.  Alas, the writer would only get two more issues.

A minor issue, of most interest to the Lafferty collector.

 

Book Review: A Memory This Size and Other Stories: The Caine Prize for African Writing 2013

Book Review: A Memory This Size and Other Stories: The Caine Prize for African Writing 2013 Introduction by Lizzy Attree

The Caine Prize is awarded to a short story written by an African author (which primarily means one born in Africa–all the authors in this volume are from Sub-Saharan Africa), published in English in the last five years and submitted for consideration.  This volume contains the five stories that were shortlisted for the prize in 2013, plus twelve more written at a workshop sponsored by the Caine Prize.

A Memory This Size

The collection leads off with the 2013 winner, “Miracle” by Tope Folarin.  A group of Nigerian immigrants attend a tent revival in Texas.  A great faith healer is scheduled to appear, but will there be a miracle tonight, and what form will it take?  I found this to be rather a blah story, but I am not one of the judges for the contest and don’t know what criteria they based the decision on.  Nigerians dominate this volume, with four of the five shortlisted stories and several of the workshop ones as well.

Three of the five shortlisted stories have a heavy Africa-America connection, to the point that Chinelo Okparanta’s story is actually titled “America.”  A schoolteacher who wishes to join her lover there uses the Gulf oil spill as a wedge to try to convince the immigration people to give her a green card.   There’s an interesting ending in which the protagonist remembers hearing a folktale similar to ‘Jack the Giant-Killer” except that it stops short of the “ever after” with no explanation of what happens past a certain point.

The title story, “A Memory This Size” by Elnathan John concerns a man mourning for his brother, who died years ago, and yet he cannot let go.

There are common themes in these stories, most of which are “slice of life” tales:  government corruption, marital infidelity and environmental destruction.

There are a couple of stories that move into the “magical realism” camp (that is, fantasy, but not called that so critics can treat it as actual literature.)  The better one is “Howl” by Rotimi Babatunde, about a dog named Jack who may or may not have the extraordinary powers the villagers think, but is certainly not a normal dog.  “Clapping Hands for a Smiling Crocodile” by Stanley Onjezani Kenani, however, has the best title in this volume.  That story is about a fishing village threatened by oil developers, and the sacrifice one man makes to save their way of life.

I also enjoyed “Stuck” by Davina Kawuma, told in a series of emails by a young woman who is tempted to have an affair.  One final email changes everything.

My least favorite story was “Foreign Aid” by Pede Hollist.  This tale of a man who returns to Sierra Leone after many years in America, thinking he will be a big man thanks to his money, was too predictable and made me cringe rather than care.

That said, I am glad I took the chance to read this book and learn what some African writers are doing.  There are thirteen volumes of Caine Prize stories published; check your inter-library loan system for any one of them.

I should also mention that there is some disturbing subject matter, and would best suited for college age and up.

Magazine Review: The Blueroad Reader: Stardust and Fate

Magazine Review: The Blueroad Reader: Stardust and Fate edited by John Gaterud

Yes, this is yet another literary magazine; I picked up a bunch inexpensively at the book fair.  This one seems to take its title from Jack Kerouac’s writing; this first issue was published in 2007.

Blueroad Reader: Stardust and Fate

The index is unusual for this kind of magazine.  Rather than a linear index, or arranged by subject or type of literature, it’s by author.  It also doesn’t distinguish between fiction and non-fiction–while some pieces sound more fictional than others, you will need to make up your own mind.

Insert my usual comments about modern poetry here.  The most interesting ones for me are “Postcards to Mike” by Ed McManis, a set of verses describing a school trip to Europe, the small disasters and odd moments of traveling with students.

A couple of the pieces are very much written in 2006, and feel dated now with their jabs at the Bush administration.  Deserved jabs, but still.  “Letter from Iceland” by Bill Holm and “Letter from London” by Donna R. Casella are both most interesting as time capsules, I think.

Best of the prose pieces from my point of view was “O Mary, Where Art Thou?” by Suzanne Lillian Bunkers.  It’s an examination of the various appearances of Mary, mother of Jesus, with an emphasis on the sites that the author has personally visited.  One of the qualifications for authenticating a visit by Mary, it turns out, is conformity with Catholic doctrine.  If your vision of Mary has her advocating ordination of women, you’re out of luck officially.

Overall, the theme is of road trips and journeys.  Many of the pieces are sad or bittersweet; others are nostalgic.  I do not know if any further volumes were published by Blueroad Press.

As with other literary magazines I’ve reviewed, it seems decent if this kind of literature is your thing.

Book Review: Better than Bullets: The Complete Adventures of Thibault Corday and the Foreign Legion Volume 1

Book Review: Better than Bullets: The Complete Adventures of Thibaut Corday and the Foreign Legion Volume 1 by Theodore Roscoe

The Légion étrangère was created in 1831 as a way to remove disruptive elements from French society, primarily foreigners of all sorts, and put them to good use fighting far away.  Their first and primary posting was in Algeria, but the French Foreign Legion has fought in all of France’s wars, even to the present day.

Better than Bullets

Fiction created a romanticized version of the Legion as a haven for lost men, criminals escaping their pasts and disappointed lovers.  Most influential in this field was Beau Geste by P.C Wren, about a trio of brothers joining the unit.  Naturally, the pulp magazines also loved the Legion, especially during the 1920s and ’30s.  One of the most popular series of stories appeared in Argosy from 1929 to 1939, the tales of a retired Legionnaire named Thibaut Corday.

Corday is an elderly man, though his beard is still a rich cinnamon hue.  He served in the Confederate army during the American Civil War before enlisting in the Legion, and has seen many strange things, which he is willing to tell to people who will listen as he smokes at an Algerian café.  This first volume has six stories.

“Better than Bullets”, the title story, introduces Corday and his buddies, Yankee Bill the Elephant and Christian(ity) Jensen the Dane.  They’re stationed near Casablanca and out of edible food, so Bill suggests they go on an unauthorized forage expedition.   They have to leave their weapons behind, so when the trio is cornered by fanatical Muslim enemies, there’s not a bullet or blade to be had.  Thus they must improvise!  As might be suspected, through all of these stories Corday shows a strong prejudice against people of color and Muslims.  He does admit from time to time that as the French are an invading/occupying Army, the locals do have good reason for their hostility.

“The Dance of the Seven Veils” has Yankee Bill get into an altercation with a handsome rake over a dancing girl.  The real trouble starts the next morning when our heroes discover the rake is their new commanding officer, who’s taking them on a seemingly doomed mission into the Sahara Desert.   The fortress they’ve been assigned to crack seems impenetrable…until a ghostly dancer appears in the desert night.  Pretty obvious twist, but evocative imagery.

“An Eye for an Eye” tells the tale of feuding cousins Hyacinth LaDu and “La Carotte” who are students at the military school of St. Cyr.  They are already furious with each other when a lovely young woman comes along and provides an excuse for a duel.  Hyacinth puts Carrot’s eye out deliberately.  Years later, the two men meet again in the Foreign Legion.  One of the twists is slightly hidden by the tradition of joining the Legion under an assumed name.  A chilling tale of revenge.

“The Death Watch” changes things up with a horrific tale set at sea as the few Legionnaires aboard a troop transport have to deal with a mutiny by native soldiers.  Massive coincidence plays a part in the outcome.

“The Bearded Slayer” is a tale of a quite young Corday, who was inordinately proud of his fearsome beard.  Unfortunately, this same beard made him the primary suspect in a series of murders in a remote Legion outpost.   The tension ratchets with each killing, and the mounting evidence against our hero.

“The Mutineer”, which closes out the volume, features both the secret origin and final fate of Yankee Bill the Elephant.  He loudly declares his love for the beautiful daughter of the commander, in public no less.  While pursued by military police for his insolence, Bill and Corday must also deal with a native uprising.   The streak of sexism that was a minor point in other stories comes to the fore here, as it uses the old “if a woman says ‘no’, and ‘go away’ and ‘I hate you’, that means you should totally keep pestering her until you can prove your manliness and she falls in love with you” plotline I know many readers despise.  Exciting story though.

There’s a nice introduction to the series, and two biographical sketches of Theodore Roscoe, one printed in Argosy at the time, and a more recent one.

While this is sterling pulp writing, full of excitement and twists, some readers may find the period sexism and racism too much for their tastes.  On the other hand, if you loved other French Foreign Legion stories, this is a good selection.

Book Review: Splatterlands

Book Review: Splatterlands edited by Anthony Rivera and Sharon Lawson

Disclaimer:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.

Splatterlands

According to Wikipedia, “splatterpunk” was a movement in horror writing between roughly 1985 and 1995,  distinguished by its graphic and often gory descriptions of violence and attempts to create “hyperintensive” horror with no limits.  Supernatural elements are neither necessary or forbidden.  It seems to have been subsumed by newer trends in horror fiction, but never entirely died out.

Splatterlands is an anthology of thirteen short stories that try to recapture the feel of the splatterpunk movement.   As such, it is filled with sex, violence, sexual violence, crude language and a fascination with body fluids.  I’m going to come right out and issue a Trigger Warning for rape, torture, abuse and suicide.

For example, the first story, “Heirloom” by Michael Laimo, is about a woman who inherits a phallic symbol.  The main action of the story involves an explicitly described act of semi-consensual sexual violence.  If that immediately triggers your “do not want” instinct, then this volume is not for you.

Some stories that stood out include “Violence for Fun and Profit” by Gregory L. Norris, about the origin of a hired assassin/serial killer that’s frighteningly topical; “Housesitting” by Ray Garton (the only reprint), a relatively  understated tale of a housesitter who snoops and finds out things she’d rather not about her neighbors; “The Defiled” by Christine Morgan, about a band of Viking raiders who meet a karmic fate; and “The Devil Rides Shotgun” by Eric del Carlo, in which a police officer makes a demonic pact to track down a serial killer.

One story that really didn’t work for me was “Empty” by A.A. Garrison.  It’s about a woman in a post-apocalyptic world seeking medical assistance for her husband.  It turns out to be metafictional humor, (and I did like the protest sign that said “Too Many Adverbs”), but really came across as trying too hard.

Recommended for horror fans with strong stomachs, especially those who were fans of the original splatterpunk movement.  Probably not suitable for anyone else, despite the high quality of some of the stories.

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