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: Slow Dancing Through Time

Book Review: Slow Dancing Through Time by Gardner Dozois in collaboration with Jack Dann, Michael Swanwick, Susan Casper and/or Jack C Haldeman II.

The art of collaboration is an interesting one; two authors (rarely three) blending their skills to create a story neither could produce individually.  Ideally, the reader should be able to see the fingerprints of the collaborators, but not the seams between them.  Gardner Dozois wrote a number of fine collaborations in the 1970s and 80s, before taking on a full-time job as editor for Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine.

Slow Dancing through Time

This volume reprints fourteen of those stories, along with essays by the collaborators on the collaboration process, and afterwords for each story written by Mr. Dozois.  (It also has a list of his other collaborations if you want to hunt them down.)  The stories cover science fiction, fantasy and horror, with a couple of them on the edge between genres.

The first story is “Touring” (with Jack Dann & Michael Swanwick), in which Buddy Holly gets a chance to perform with Elvis Presley and Janis Joplin.  It’s a Twilight Zone type story, although the language is saltier than Rod Serling would ever have been allowed to air.  The book ends with “Down Among the Dead Men” (with Jack Dann), a chilling tale of a vampire trapped in a Nazi concentration camp.  It was quite controversial at the time, and still packs a punch, despite where the horror genre went during the Nineties.

Standouts include  “A Change in the Weather” (with Jack Dann), a bit of fluff about dinosaurs that hinges on the last line (and provided the endpaper illustration), “Time Bride” (with Jack Dann) about the use of time travel to emotionally abuse a girl (and with a downer ending as the cycle continues), and “The Clowns” (with Susan Casper & Jack Dann), another chiller featuring a little boy who sees clowns that no one else can.

Some of these stories may be hard to find elsewhere, such as “Snow Job” (wth Michael Swanwick.)   This tale of a con artist and a time-traveling cocaine addict first appeared in High Times, which can be difficult to find back issues of.

Overall, the quality of the stories is good, but budding writers may find the essays on collaboration more useful to them.  Recommended to speculative fiction fans.

Book Review: That Ain’t Right

Book Review: That Ain’t Right edited by Jeremy Zimmerman & Dawn Vogel

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

That Ain't Right

Howard Phillips “H.P.” Lovecraft (1890-1937) was a minor writer of horror fiction in the early 20th Century.  But thanks to a gift for purple prose, a strong philosophical unity in his stories’ viewpoints and (most importantly) a willingness to share his ideas, he’s been immensely influential in the development of the horror field.  He’s best known for the Cthulhu Mythos, a series of stories involving cosmic “gods” that are implacably hostile to humanity as we know it, not out of malice as such, but because humans are irrelevant to the universe at large.

A number of his stories were set in the Miskatonic Valley region of Massachusetts, a fictional backwater including such shadowed locations as Innsmouth, Dunwich and Arkham.  That last one will be familiar to Batman fans.

Which brings us to the book at hand, an anthology of first-person narratives set in the Miskatonic Valley.  They range in time period from about the 1890s to the far future, and one is set in an alternate history.  As is traditional in Lovecraft-inspired fiction, several of the narrators cannot be telling their stories to any living person, although none of them are quite to the level of that one Lovecraft protagonist who was still writing in his journal even as the monster was actually entering the room.  An especially nice touch is that the fictional narrators have their own author bios at the end of the stories.

Some standouts in the anthology include:

  • “Arkquarium” by Folly Blaine:  A high school student working part-time at the Arkham Aquarium tries to impress the girl he likes by sneaking into the locked laboratory section.  Turns out there’s a reason no one is supposed to go in there.  The protagonist shows some gumption, but isn’t unrealistically competent beyond the average teenager he is.
  • “The Reservoir” by Brian Hamilton:  A direct sequel to Lovecraft’s classic “The Colour Out of Space” which has a microbiologist investigating particles in the water of the title lake.  He finds an old well still calling–or is it a hallucination of the deep?
  • “The Pull of the Sea” by Sean Frost:  A ghost learns that not even death can protect you from the worse horrors that come from the ocean.  The story carefully sets up rules, then the creatures that break the rules come along.
  • “The Laughing Book” by Cliff Winnig:  A college student studies the title book in the restricted stacks of Miskatonic University.  This story is more influenced by Lovecraft’s “Lord Dunsany” period of dark fantasy than his straight-up horror.

The quality of writing is generally good, absent a couple of typos, and the annoying use of phonetic dialect in “Dr. Circe and the Shadow Over Swedish Innsmouth” by Erik Scott de Bie.  Horror tends to be subjective as to whether it works for you or not; I found most of the stories nicely creepy, with a couple going a bit too much for the gore for my tastes.

Recommended for fans of the Cthulhu Mythos, and the more literate horror fan in general.

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