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: Danger in the Dark

Book Review: Danger in the Dark by L. Ron Hubbard

Yes, it’s another of those L. Ron Hubbard reprints; thanks, discount bin!

This time, we have three fantasy stories, none of which have anything to do with the cover.  (It’s actually illustrating “Returned from Hell” by Steve Fisher.)

Danger in the Dark

“Danger in the Dark” is set in the Mariana Islands east of the Philippines.  Billy Newman was suckered into buying an island with a copra plantation.  Unfortunately, a series of disasters, including a smallpox plague, have come to Kaisan Isle, something the natives ascribe to the evil spirit Tadamona.  Billy naturally spurns this explanation as the foolish superstition it would normally be.  But this time, Tadamona is real, and it has a bone to pick with the arrogant white man….

While it’s a neat twist on the “superior white dude overcomes native superstition” plotline, it’s still pretty darn ethnocentric–only Billy and the half-white girl Christina are willing to do anything to thwart Tadamona, while the natives have decided to surrender completely to their unseen nemesis.  And the ending restores the “natural” superiority of white people.

“The Room” takes place somewhere in rural America.  Uncle Toby, the local veterinarian, has disappeared.  His nephew Joe has been tagging along on the rounds for years, despite his crippled leg, so starts filling in at doctoring animals.  Eventually, Joe becomes aware that the study he has inherited from Uncle Toby contains objects not of this Earth, and that might have something to do with his uncle’s disappearance.   Nothing is ever really explained, the story ends when Joe and his Aunt Cinthia disappear as well, gone no one knows where, and the house eventually burns down.  I had to look at the dates to see that it was not a poor attempt to imitate one of Ray Bradbury’s pastorals.   Mr. Hubbard’s style is not suited to this sort of story.

“He Didn’t Like Cats” is the tale of Jacob  Findley, an otherwise blameless fellow who doesn’t like felines.  One day a cat crosses his path, and a momentary impulse makes Jacob kick it–into traffic.  The incident quickly becomes an obsession, and it’s not clear whether the cat is taking supernatural vengeance, or if it’s just an overactive conscience, but Jacob will never sleep well again.   There’s some light comedy to stretch out the story as Jacob becomes the focus of a love triangle without ever grasping that fact.   Mr. Hubbard is a bit too heavy-handed with the humor.

There’s a preview of the next volume, “The Crossroads”, a glossary and the usual potted material.

This is easily the weakest example of Mr. Hubbard’s work I have seen in the Galaxy Press reprints; very skippable.

Magazine Review: Pirate Stories November 1934

Magazine Review: Pirate Stories November 1934 

Some of the pulp magazines went for very specialized subjects, so it’s not a surprise to find one dedicated entirely to stories about pirates.  As this was the first issue, there’s an publisher’s note indicating that there will be stories about pirate of the past, present and future (it is after all a Gernsback publication.)  The cover is by Sidney Riesenberg, and is not related to any of the features inside.

Pirate Stories November 1934

“Pirate Guns” by F.V.W. Mason is the lead feature.  Nathan Andrews,  born in the colony of South Carolina, was a faithful member of the British Navy until he was falsely accused and convicted of aiding deserters.   Clapped in irons and being shipped off to Australia, Nathan reinvents himself as “Captain Terror,” and convinces his fellow convicts to join him in piracy if he can get them free.   Their escape attempt is treacherously exposed, but this proves a stroke of luck when they’re isolated in maximum security while everyone else on the ship dies of smallpox.  (This saves Nathan having to kill Naval officers.)

The plague ship wrecked, the remaining escapees are able to take over a slave ship (coincidentally freeing the slaves) which they refit for privateering as the Santee.  Captain Terror disdains the democracy usually practiced by pirates of the period, emulating the rank structure and discipline of the British Navy he was trained by.  This makes the Santee an unusually well-run ship, that only attacks other pirates, but they become blamed for other pirates’ bloody massacres.

Eventually, circumstances change–the American Revolution has started, and Captain Terror is hired as part of the new American Navy as Captain Andrews of the Charleston.  He’s able to get revenge on the faithless “friend” who perjured himself to get Andrews out of the way, and learns his beloved never gave in to the traitor’s advances.  Happy ending for everyone but the Irish doctor, who dies in the final battle.

It’s a rip-roaring story, but goes out of its way to make Captain Terror a “good” pirate.   It skirts around the issue of slavery, not mentioning where the slaves were headed, and the freed people have no lines or personality.  Much is made of corruption in the British Navy poisoning their fine traditions.

“Scourge of the Main” by James Perley Hughes involves another American colonial serving on a British ship, but in an earlier period when England is at war with Spain.  Daniel Tucker is from New England, and serves on a privateer that is hunting Spanish treasure ships.   However, Jolly Roger Hawkins is also after those ships,   And he’s a full-on pirate who doesn’t want to share, especially when “his” woman decides she’d rather sail with Tucker.

The author really stacks the deck, making Tucker tall, blond, blue-eyed and blessed with “Atlantean shoulders” while Hawkins is “ponderous” and has “distorted features.”   I suspect a certain amount of prejudice at play.

“High-Admirals of Piracy” is an illustrated spread about famous historical pirates from Pierre le Grand to Blackbeard.  Sadly uncredited.

“Marauders of the South Seas” by William B. DeNoyer moves into the then-present day, with a diver realizing that his employers were the ones who sunk a ship he’s been hired to salvage–and they have no intention of paying him in money.  “Lucky” Lewis is aided by the fact that one of the criminals has a wife on board who deeply regrets the marriage.  Less suspenseful than it might have been with a couple more twists.

“Jolly Roger’s Log” by Ned Carline, which would become the letter column, has a couple of suspiciously apropos letters with questions Mr. Carline answers.   Again, this is the first issue, so where the letters came from is unclear.

This Adventure House reprint includes the original ads, including advertisements for “the forbidden secrets of sex”, a collected volume of H.G. Wells’ science fiction and the German Iron Horseshoe muscle builder.

Recommended for pirate story fans who don’t mind clear-cut tales of good vs. evil.

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