Autodidact: self-taught

Apr
04
2014

Dancing Skeletons Life and Death in West Africa

by V. L. Craven

Dancing Skeletons Life and Death in West Africa

Katherine Dettwyler is an anthropologist who’s been working and conducting research in Mali for decades, focusing on childhood nutrition. Dancing Skeletons: Life and Death in West Africa is a collection of her observations. In it Dettwyler introduces us to the social conventions of the region–including an extended greeting that must be got through for every person you meet that makes the obligatory, ‘Good morning, how are you, hope your weekend went well’ look like a snub.

Dettwyler has been there long enough she’s treated less like a tourist and more like an honoured guest–at times being brought special (if stomach-churning to Western palates) foods and feted at dances–at other times she’s treated like just another person walking around. There’s clearly a mutual respect between the woman and her subjects. At times, they’re more than just subjects.

Other stories are heartrending. Mali is a country with less-than-adequate medical facilities and education on the best practises for proper healthcare. This leads to higher rates of childhood disease and death. Malaria, for example, can even be drug-resistant. Something Dettwyler finds out first-hand, unfortunately.

Overall, the attitude of the people Dettwyler met was one of accepting life as it was–whether it was the child who had what we’d call Down’s Syndrome, or the woman who had such severe mental disabilities she was going to allow her child to die from malnutrition. In the Down’s Syndrome child–no one ostracised the child in anyway–she simply went about her life as happy and carefree as possible–something that wouldn’t happen in the West. In the latter case–social services would take the child from the mother immediately. But in Magnambougou there was an acceptance that some children die from malnutrition and this child would be one of them.

The most challenging chapter was probably the one about female circumcision. It follows on from the acceptance in that, when asked about it, people said it was simply the way it has always been. They usually did it when the girls were six months old so they didn’t remember it and all the girls had it done. The boys were all circumcised, as well, so it only seemed right that the girls were, too. When Dettwyler (an American) said she wasn’t circumcised, the woman she was speaking with was shocked. After all, if everyone you know. And everyone in your entire culture has forever done something, how absolutely bizarre is it to find someone who doesn’t? And then to be asked, well, why don’t you?

It’s a slim volume, but is a fascinating look into a culture quite different from the one Westerners are accustomed to. Though it’s somewhat academic, I’d still recommend it for fans of Mary Roach or people interested in anthropology in general.

Feb
21
2014

Immortal Memories by Michael Hibbard

by V. L. Craven

Immortal Memories by Michael Hibbard

Immortal Memories is a collection of short stories set in the Waking Dream universe, meant to be read after the first book in the series, Devlin, which I reviewed last year . I also had the opportunity to interview the author, Michael Hibbard .

Because the main characters in Devlin can time travel, the stories in Immortal Memories take place in different time periods, and tend to also have their own atmosphere, which is a testament to Hibbard’s agility with language.

A couple stories are set in Devlin, Virginia, though in 1958 and 2012, but the others are in places as diverse as Bavaria, New Orleans and Baltimore. Each story has its own feel and there isn’t a weak one in the bunch but my personal favourites are:

The Black Heart in Madness: [Bavaria, 1886] Taking place in and around Neuschwanstein Castle , and featuring Ludwig II, this one concerns the mysterious Black Heart. The description in this one was excellent. There was a coldness that was appropriate to the location.

The Fairy in Red: [New Orleans, Louisiana, 1919] As cold as the previous story felt, this one felt hot and sticky, which was fitting, as it was set in New Orleans. The style put me in mind of Fitzgerald–very Jazz Age–and was about a writer who’d caught a glimpse of a dancer once and he only wanted to dance with her again. He gets his wish, but it goes a bit differently than he expects.

What Rough Beast: [Richmond, Virginia, 1995] Anne Rice-esque BDSM erotica, where we meet a character who reminded me of Patrick Bateman, who plays host to an entity that allows him to have everything he most desires. An the entity asks very little in return. Just a little sin eating here and there. You don’t want to know how he gets the sin. Or you probably do.

The Charnel House: [Morgantown, Pennsylvania, October, 2010] This one will please Lovecraft fans. You know those horror films where some teens go into an old house and everyone’s shouting at the screen, ‘Don’t go in there, you tits!’ Well, an axe murderer would have been a blessing compared to what they actually come up against.

Immortal Memories by Michael Hibbard

Don’t you just want 14?

Blood Dolls: [Devlin, Virginia, 2012] Little voodoo-type dolls given special powers in order to do their maker’s bidding. The ritual involved here was particularly interesting and it made me want a bunch of little dolls scrambling around on my behalf.

The Place of the Sisters: [Devlin, Virginia, 1958] This reminded me of the ghost stories I used to love to read as a child that would make me frightened to be alone in the house–it gave that sort of delicious thrill of fear.

All of the stories are well-written and expand on what we knew from Devlin. They explain a bit about many characters and subplots that make the reader want to know more about the Waking Dream universe. This was definitely an enjoyable read and primes the reader for the next novel in the series The Unkindness.

Feb
14
2014

The Nirvana Plague by Gary Glass

by V. L. Craven

The Nirvana Plague by Gary Glass

It’s 2027 and one of Dr Carl Marley’s most combative schizophrenic patients, Roger Sturgeon, has suddenly become remarkably peaceful. After being committed to a psychiatric hospital his symptoms seem to spread to other patients–no matter their previous psychological history. This is unprecedented and Marley publishes a paper on his findings. The result of which is a no-nonsense Colonel in his office, taking him to Bethesda posthaste where he learns the disease he thought he’d discovered has actually spread far and wide in U.S. troops.

The military wants this problem fixed, pronto, as soldiers overcome by feelings of oneness with the universe aren’t exactly keen to kill the enemy (what is an enemy, anyway?) and fly Marley and a task force to a war zone to meet several troops who’ve taken ill. To say things go badly would be an understatement and the illness begins to spread…somehow.

Marley and the task force are supposed to work out what it is and how it’s spreading, which is difficult enough with a new disease, but it’s hard to know if the government and the CDC are working for or against them with some of the decisions they take.

Meanwhile, Sturgeon’s and Marley’s wives are in the dark about where their husbands are. Once back in the States Marley’s allowed to make the occasional phone call and the women work out the two of them must be in Alaska. They set out on a road trip, but due to federally sanctioned quarantine, they have to take back roads to avoid detection. Then they get into a wreck near the Canadian border…

The Nirvana Plague has everything you could want in a suspense novel. The plot is inventive and fast-paced, the characters well-rounded. I highly recommend it and would absolutely give this book as a gift. Not just to people who enjoy action, but also simply well-written books.

You can get your copy here . Next Monday I’ll be interviewing the author, Gary Glass so be sure to check back then.

[I was given a copy of this to review but was under no obligation to give a positive review.]

Dec
02
2013

Wake the Wicked: Thirteen Twisted Tales

by V. L. Craven

Wake the Wicked: Thirteen Twisted Tales

The holidays are approaching and you have to get something for that friend. You know… that one. The one who seems to like Hellraiser just a little too much, and has read every Stephen King novel at least twice. Your dread is two-fold. First, the prospect of leaving the house sends a chill down your spine and then, once out there, you’ll have to shop for one of the most difficult of friends–the well-read individual of the gothic bent. Sakes alive, but what are you to do?

Fear not, you needn’t leave the comfort of your home (or your office chair, depending where you’re reading this). For Christian Baloga’s Wake the Wicked: Thirteen Twisted Tales  is available online. It comes in several electronic formats (for Kindle, Nook, Apple devices, etc) as well as a very nice paperback.

But also! It’s quite good. Here’s why you should get it for that friend.

As advertised, there are thirteen stories. A couple quite short and a couple quite long. Most are inbetween. Some are supernatural in bent and others are more about the monsters within ourselves. The narrators are sometimes women, sometimes men. Sometimes gay, sometimes straight. Baloga does not tie himself down to one type of story or character. There are often twists, but those twists are unpredictable.

‘Poison Ivy’ is about how two people who belong together should never be parted. ‘Flesh Boots’, on the other hand, is what happens when you want nothing but to be left alone and you get your wish. ‘Psycho Pharm’ gives us an unusual view of the pharmaceutical industry. In ‘Tremble for Me’ social media is used as a tool of humiliation and what happens when that tool is used on the wrong person. ’Birds of Prey’ and ‘Digging Deep’ are both about the intensity of a father’s love for a sick child and what that can do to the father’s sanity.

It’s difficult to choose one stand-out story. If pressed, ‘Ripped to Ribbons’ and ‘Savage Games’ would be my personal favourites, both of which reminded me of Ray Bradbury. ‘Ripped to Ribbons’ is about a woman who should have minded her own business and kept reading her book, but she stuck her nose where it didn’t belong, and … well… She should have kept reading her book.

‘Savage Games’ was the most accurate portrayal of the psychology of a nine or ten year old I’ve ever read. If the Bad Seed had skipped the tap lessons and become engrossed in video games this is who she would have been. Just beautifully rendered.

Wake the Wicked: Thirteen Twisted Tales

You *will* take me to the arcade. You *will* give me quarters.

As a sort of bonus, Corvids make appearances–for good or ill–in a few stories, which made me smile. Crows and ravens will always make me smile.

The only negatives were that thirteen, while a nice number for scary stories, is rather few for a collection– particularly when they’re well-written. I wanted more. There were also a few typos, but I’d say less than ten and I find more than that on the New York Times website in a week, so it’s difficult to be bothered by those in self or indie publishing anymore.

Wake the Wicked is a slim volume, so it’d be a great add-on gift for someone and it’s on sale–the ebook is 3.99 and the paperback is 7.99. Also, aesthetically, it’s fantastic. When it arrived, I had to smell it straightaway. The paper reminded me instantly of the R.L. Stine books I read as a teenager. The paperback has several illustrations by Baloga that the ebook does not have.

Overall, the stories are well-written, inventive and entertaining. I definitely recommend this one and look forward to anything Baloga has coming out in future. I hope to have an interview with him in the next few weeks, so look out for that.

 

 

[I was given a copy of this book for review purposes but was under no obligation to give it a positive review.]

 

Nov
09
2013

Dead Men Do Tell Tales

by V. L. Craven

Dead Men Do Tell Tales

Recently, an online acquaintance suggested we begin exchanging books through the post. The first book she wanted to send was Dead Men Do Tell Tales: The Strange and Fascinating Cases of a Forensic Anthropologist by William R. Maples, PhD and William Browning. ‘And it has pictures too!’ she said. I promptly gave her my address (I’m typing this post two months later, so she wasn’t a homicidal maniac) and shortly thereafter the book arrived on my doorstep. (For those of you playing along at home, I sent her Execution by Geoffrey Abbott.)

Forensic anthropology (what Temperance Brennan does on Bones) has always been something of a passing interest of mine, but this was my first in-depth reading about the subject. The science hasn’t been around all that long and Maples has been a part of a good portion of it. Particularly interesting were chapters on cremation, the truly twisted Meeks-Jenning case, his involvement with identifying the Romanovs and his thoughts upon meeting Ted Bundy, but the book was full of wonderful information. Like this:

The instruments of murder are manifold as the unlimited human imagination. Apart from the obvious–shotguns, rifles, pistols, knives, hatches and axes–I have seen meat cleavers, machetes, ice picks, bayonets, hammers, wrenches, screwdrivers, crowbars, prybars, two-by-fours, tree limbs, jack handles (which are not ‘tire irons’; nobody carries tire irons anymore), building blocks, crutches, artificial legs, brass bedposts, pipes, bricks, belts, neckties, pantyhose, ropes, bootlaces, towels and chains–all these things and more, used by human beings to dispatch fellow human beings into eternity. I have never seen a butler use a candelabrum! Such recherché elegance is apparently confided to England. I did see a pair of sneakers used to kill a woman, and they left distinctive tread marks where the murderer stepped on her throat and crushed the life from her. I have not seen an icicle used to stab someone, though it is said to be the perfect weapon, because it melts afterward. But I do know of a case in which a man was bludgeoned to death with a frozen ham.

Maples also talks about the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, which, at the time of writing, only had fourteen members, and they got together once a year. It sounded rather like a hair-raising hoot. One member would share slides of his most…eye-opening cases and the group would discuss historical problems like whether or not Van Gogh’s color imagery and style was a result of digitalis poisoning or what was the final body count of the legendary feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys.

During the annual meetings, prospective applicants had to undergo rigorous examinations including identifying bones. This involved members transporting skulls to and from the gatherings.

This requires some explanation, particularly at airports. I always make a point of telling the airline ticket agent just how many skulls I have with me in my luggage–not to shock her, but to make sure, in case the plane crashes, investigators will know why there were more skulls than passengers aboard. This is mere professional courtesy to my colleagues, who will have to pick through my remains in the event of an accident.

I can’t help picturing one of the members being late for a plane and not having time to explain what’s in his bag–the plane crashing and the forensics people being completely baffled with the extra bits and bobs everywhere. An extra Asian male tibia hither and an extra African female fibula yon will really mess up an incident report.

But I digress, I’ve taken loads of other notes, all of which will eventually appear over in the left sidebar under Sciences.

Dead Men Do Tell Tales was published in the mid 90s and I would love to know how the field has changed in the last twenty years. The beginning was a little slow and some of the case studies could drag a bit but overall it was an excellent introduction to forensic anthropology by someone who was there. The first-person account of identifying Tsar Nicholas II and his family is worth it if you find a used copy somewhere.

Nov
07
2013

Sleepy Hollow and Its Various Incarnations

by V. L. Craven
Sleepy Hollow and Its Various Incarnations

Ichabod Crane, Respectfully Dedicated to Washington Irving by William J Wilgus (1819-53)

There’s a new show based on Washington Irving’s ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’. I was going to give it a miss, but then I found out they shoot it where I live and it’s always fun to play spot-the-location. My introduction was a cartoon, which I’ll get to, but I wanted to compare some of the adaptions (cartoon, film and TV series) and realised I hadn’t read the story. So that came first. It’s available from Gutenberg  for free.

Irving’s writing is incredibly atmospheric and he captures nature beautifully. The characters are two-dimensional, though, and not likeable–particularly the protagonist and his crush, Katrina van Tassel. Typical of a short story, there isn’t a great deal going on–the descriptions and atmosphere are the selling points. Oh, and prepare yourself for the casual racism. This was written in the early 1800s. It’s pretty minimal compared to other things I’ve read written during that time, but it’s still there. Be warned.

Sleepy Hollow and Its Various Incarnations

This was the only scene I remembered.

As mentioned, my introduction to the story was the Disney cartoon , made in 1949. Which, upon, re-viewing, was rather disappointing. My young mind had glossed over the romance, greed, and singing and paid sole attention to the spookier aspects like the headless horseman and chase through the woods. The singing, however, does happen in the story. In fact, the cartoon is holds very close to the source material. They leave out the racism, thankfully, and they cut down on the general spookiness, but overall it’s quite accurate.

What was odd was that I could have sworn there was a bit where Brom Bones and his friends had pulled the prank where they chased Crane, pretending to be the Horseman. Because I was expecting it in the Burton adaptation. I have a very clear memory of this happening. The way the brain works, wow.

Sleepy Hollow and Its Various Incarnations

‘I swear, I’d lose my head if it weren’t screwed on… DAMMIT’

Many years later (as in decades) Tim Burton remade the tale with a bunch of spectacular actors, including Christopher Walken as the Headless Horseman. This will probably always be the definitive version for me because it’s Burton, whose aesthetic pleases me greatly, and because of the aforementioned cast. He changed…nearly everything. Except he made two very minor characters mentioned in passing in the story into important characters in the film.

Burton’s version is visually dark–it’s Burton, what do you want?–though the story happens in Autumn in New England when everything would have been reds and golds and oranges. Ichabod was, indeed, a wimp, so that remained the same, but Katrina became a witch (something that would carry over into the TV series), rather than the vacuous flirt from the story and cartoon and there was blood and a real horseman. Something that’s left up in the air in the story and cartoon.

Sleepy Hollow and Its Various Incarnations

Eventually spring will come to Sleepy Hollow…that won’t be spooky…

So then Fox announced they were making a television show called  Sleepy Hollow  and I was sceptical. How could they take a short story and make it into a series? But after reading this review  I decided to give it a shot and I’m glad I did.

The first two episodes were the set up and people getting to grips with their roles in the battle with the four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The third episode felt like the first ‘real’ episode, if that makes sense. The one where they work out who a baddie is and take it down, Buffy-style. The entire show is very Buffy-like–dramatic and supernatural and occasionally laugh out loud funny. They’ve already renewed it for a second series, which I’m very glad to hear, particularly since our landlord’s daughter is now working on the show.

And I get to pretend I live in a city like Sunnydale, but I’m not one of the stupid people who gets killed on a regular basis. Seriously, that place must have had a ridiculously high death rate.

 

 

Sep
27
2013

The Waking Dream 1: Devlin by Michael Hibbard

by V. L. Craven

The Waking Dream 1: Devlin by Michael Hibbard

There is a town in the foothills of Virginia that, if you’re a certain sort of person–a special sort of person–you may feel yourself drawn to. You won’t know why, but once you arrive you’ll feel at home. Don’t worry, it happens to everyone there. Well, most everyone. Some people are born there. But most people find their way. And once they arrive they issue a sigh of relief to finally be home.

That place is Devlin. In Devlin everyone is a little odd. A little weird. But in a good way. All the best people are weird, right?

Take Auber Weir, for example. He’s one of the lucky ones who’s known of his Weirdness (a Dreamer) his entire life. He runs the local alchemy shop, among other things. Auber is going to be called upon to lead the town of Devlin in an ultimate battle against nefarious forces whose only wish is to cause chaos and ruin.

Luckily, Auber has several very good (and very powerful) friends on his side. Including a voodoo queen and a mysterious man named Xy with a very unusual ability. There are people on his side he hasn’t met yet, either, but who are working to stop the destruction coming.

The Waking Dream 1: Devlin by Michael Hibbard

Welcome home

There’s a bit of Poe and quite a bit of Lovecraft about the thing. A compelling plot, multiple inventive characters and situations and some rather gross moments (in a good way) made this one a winner. I’d definitely recommend it to fans of dark fantasy.

Devlin itself put me in mind of a grown up version of Hogsmeade. Just because you didn’t get your letter from Hogwarts doesn’t mean you can’t be Awakened to your particular ability–that can happen at any time in your life. So take heart!

The events of the book take place in the autumn and there’s magic and the lifting of the veil in a very big way so it’s the perfect book for this time of year.

Overall it was a very enjoyable, quick read. There were a few typos and missing words, especially towards the end (I read the Kindle version, I don’t know if this is true of the print version) and the epilogue felt a bit tacked on, but that could resolve itself with the next book in the series, which I will definitely read. The next book that will be coming out will be a collection of short stories that expand on some of the character’s lives in this novel.

For more information about the universe the series takes place in, check out the interview I did with the author last June, which includes links to Hibbard’s sites.

[Full disclosure: I was given a copy of the book for free but I was under no obligation to give a positive review.]

Sep
13
2013

Ghost Story by Peter Straub

by V. L. Craven

Ghost Story by Peter Straub

The Chowder Society–a group of older men who tell one another ghost stories–is having a bit of a problem that may or may not be supernatural in nature. Or they could all be going mad. Either way, a year after the mysterious death of one of their members, another dies, also mysteriously. In other parts of their small, New England town, animals are being killed in inexplicable ways–completely drained of blood. Some say it’s aliens. Others say it’s a ne’er-do-well in town.

The Society invites the nephew of the first of their number to die–a writer–to perhaps help sort out what’s going on. He tries to do so, but in the process he uncovers a secret the close-knit group thought they’d buried decades ago.

Ghost Story by Peter Straub

Straub’s descriptions are incredible and the story is multi-layered, the characters are well-rounded and believable. Ghost Story is the sort of novel that can be considered horror in the strictest sense, but I would recommend it to anyone. It’s the sort of book you want to read by candlelight with a mug of hot cocoa by your side.

It’s an excellent story for fans of American Horror Story looking for something to tide them over until the new series begins next month, as it’s spooky as hell and takes place over several generations. There’s something else going on in this one that is also very AHS, but I don’t want to spoil anything.

It’s also excellent for people in parts of the world where it’s currently ridiculously hot, as it takes place during a very snowy winter in New England. I was reading a chapter that took place during a snow storm and had to take the dog out and was genuinely surprised by the oven-like blast of hot air that hit me in the face upon opening the door.

The book was originally published in 1979 and a film adaptation was released in 1981. I shall be reviewing the film version next Thursday. See you then.

Aug
23
2013

Sarah Faire and the House at the End of the World

by V. L. Craven

Sarah Faire and the House at the End of the World

It’s Halloween night and Sarah Faire’s best friend, Thomas, is being held at the house at the end of the world. He’s being held there by a well-dressed man who was handing out candy at the Halloween party in the park. Sarah can tell that this man has sinister intentions, but she has to help her friend. So she goes to the house at the end of the world, though it is very scary, to save him. For that is what friends do.

But her friend isn’t the only thing in the House at the End of the World. And the Other Things are at their most powerful on All Hallow’s Eve. Can Sarah and her friend escape the House at the End of the World?

Sarah Faire and the House at the End of the World

Alex Giannini’s story is nicely complimented by Abigail Larson’s appropriately Gothic illustrations; spiky and elegant, they remind me of the Beetlejuice cartoon I loved growing up. Indeed, this would have been a favourite book if I had had it as a child. Spooky, but not too scary to be read to children.

It would have been nice to have a bit more information on how or why Thomas was taken by the well-dressed man, but perhaps those questions will be answered in future books. Sarah Faire and the House at the End of the World is a perfect Halloween story for the little ones and will, hopefully, set them on the right direction towards more spooky stories.

[I was given an advance copy of this book to review but was under no obligation to give it a good review.]

Bonus! Earlier this week (after I’d written my review) Dahlia Jane at Upon a Midnight Dreary wrote about meeting Abigail Larson at ScareLA . She also reviews the book. Check it out.

Extra Bonus! I’ll be interviewing Alex Giannini in the next couple of weeks so keep an eye out for that.

 

UPDATE: If you’d like to get a copy of the book, you can contact Alex directly here  (a.giannini(at)sbcglobal(dot) net). Each copy is $15 US.

Aug
09
2013

The Devil and Tom Walker

by V. L. Craven

The Devil and Tom Walker

Tom Walker is married to an absolute nightmare of a woman (he’s no saint himself). They’re both stingy as hell, sharing nothing with one another, and have the sort of physically and verbally violent rows that frighten the fauna out of the nearby flora.

One evening, Tom is walking in the local wooded morass, when he comes upon an unusual person. At first he thinks the person is a Negro, but then he realises it looks like someone who works in ashes and soot all the time.

Upon asking the person’s name, he is told:

“Oh, I go by various names. I am the wild huntsman in some countries; the black miner in others. In this neighborhood I am known by the name of the black woodsman. I am he to whom the red men consecrated this spot, and in honor of whom they now and then roasted a white man, by way of sweet-smelling sacrifice. Since the red men have been exterminated by you white savages, I amuse myself by presiding at the persecutions of Quakers and Anabaptists; I am the great patron and prompter of slave-dealers and the grand-master of the Salem witches.”

“The upshot of all which is, that, if I mistake not,” said Tom, sturdily, “you are he commonly called Old Scratch.”

“The same, at your service!” replied the black man, with a half-civil nod.

The narrator stops to say that if Tom seems to be taking meeting the Devil a bit better than you’d expect, it’s because, after living with his wife, the Devil isn’t all that frightening. Burn!

An offer is made for the whereabouts of a local treasure, in exchange for the usual in these situations as well as something that isn’t specified. Tom needs to think on it and returns home where he actually shares this information with his harridan of a wife. She’s all for it (what has she got to lose, right?) but he’s unsure, so she marches off to cut her own deal.

This doesn’t go so well.  The Devil kills her (leaving a couple of her organs in her apron up a tree for Tom to find) but only after she managed to rip some of his hair out. Hell hath no fury, indeed.

After this point, Tom wishes to pursue a friendship of sorts with good old Satan, feeling he has done him a great kindness, and tries to find him, who plays hard to get like someone reading The Rules . He waits until Tom will agree to anything to be his BFF, only then showing himself. A deal is struck and Tom lives his life to the fullest, gleefully using the treasure the Devil gave him to make more money (one of the terms of the contract was that Walker had to become a usurer; he happily obliged.)

As he grows older, Tom begins thinking that, perhaps, selling his everlasting soul to the Devil wasn’t the best idea. So he becomes a religious zealot. Praying louder and more obviously than the most devoted, life-long Christians.

Tom was as rigid in religious as in money matters; he was a stern supervisor and censurer of his neighbors, and seemed to think every sin entered up to their account became a credit on his own side of the page. He even talked of the expediency of reviving the persecution of Quakers and Anabaptists.

This is very interesting, because when Tom first met the Devil in the woods, he’d remarked about an overtly pious individual in town:

“Deacon Peabody be damned,” said the stranger, “as I flatter myself he will be, if he does not look more to his own sins and less to those of his neighbors…”

When the Devil says, ‘Mind your own damn business or I’m going to get you,’ perhaps it’s time to mind your own damn business.

The Devil and Tom Walker

John Quidor ‘Tom Walker’s Flight’

Washington Irving’s ‘The Devil and Tom Walker’ is a straightforward retelling of the Faust legend. This one is more in line with what I expected (as compared to Doctor Faustus ), in that the devil strolls into the protagonist’s life, makes no effort to dissuade him from the bargain and the protagonist doesn’t care one jot for his everlasting soul until his death approaches. The protagonist isn’t likable at any rate, actually. The Devil is the only character who isn’t reprehensible in this story. You know exactly what you’re getting with that guy.

As you’d expect from the person who gave us ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’, Irving is a master of creating atmosphere–the descriptions of the swamp were particularly well done. There was some humour, including schadenfreude, my personal favourite.

I don’t know about Irving’s feelings about Jewish people, but he really had it in for money-lending, which, at the time, was primarily associated with Jews so between that and the constant referring to the Devil as the ‘black man’ my brow was furrowed frequently whilst reading this.

Still, it’s definitely worth the read for fans of the Faust legend or just of creepy stories.

Amazon doesn’t seem to have a free version for Kindle, but you can get it from Gutenberg in this collection, which can be read on e-book readers.

Aug
02
2013

God is a Deaf-Mute

by V. L. Craven

I’ve finished The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers and wooboy, was that an excellent book. It’s one of the best books I’ve read–definitely in the top twenty. Even if you’re not a Southern Fiction fan (and I’ve been a hard convert) I recommend it for sheer breadth of humanity and atmosphere. Just amazing.

God is a Deaf Mute

As mentioned in a previous post, I have an affinity for mutes and McCullers had some interesting points to make about them. Singer is one of the main characters in the novel and he’s mute, though he knows sign language quite well. Several self-absorbed people befriend him, each because they think he understands them in a way hearing and speaking people can’t. Each person projects onto Singer what they want him to be and there’s nothing stopping them doing so. The only introspective character sees this happening and compares Singer to God, which I thought was apt, as theists make their god into whatever they require. Usually god has the same prejudices and political affiliations as the believer, interestingly.

The mute, by the way, doesn’t know what those people are on about; they rabbit away about their plans and beliefs so fast he can’t keep up. He nods out of politeness and they interpret this as approval for their solipsistic ramblings. He doesn’t mind them being around because he’s desperately lonely; not because he understands them or even likes them. And because he’s so quiet, which makes him mysterious, his apostles revere him. They each come to look towards him as the only person who truly understands–they run to him when they’re scared or hurt, but he can do nothing except listen. Other people are too busy with their own thoughts–they want to talk as well–to listen to the self-absorbed. Perhaps that’s why so many people talk to their god–everyone else is too busy to really listen. And who cares if there’s no response, you can always interpret everything that happens to you as an act of a supernatural force, right?

The character of Singer and his apostles made me think about the way silence is interpreted. One interpretation no one made in the book was that Singer was a snob. This is interesting to me, as that’s the way my silence has been interpreted most frequently, or perhaps that’s simply the interpretation I hear most often. Whatever other thoughts people have usually don’t make it to my ears. I’m not a snob–I don’t dislike you, I simply don’t speak if I have nothing to say. If you read yesterday’s post you know that’s all to the good.

An interpretation I get occasionally is that I’m intelligent. This is prior to any conversation, or not enough conversation for another person to be able to ascertain my level of intelligence, anyway. I attribute this in part to my not smiling very frequently (common SPD trait–facial expression not matching mood) and having a naturally serious expression. Serious people are intelligent. Happy people are … you can finish that one.  Two sayings come to mind on this point. The first is Mark Twain: “It is better to be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.” In other words–people won’t think you’re stupid unless you go around flapping your gums. If you’re going to go around yammering away then you’d better be clever and don’t be a blowhard about it because people hate that, too. (It’s so much less fraught to maintain silence.)

And the second is from a badge I have: ‘I smile because I have no idea what’s going on.’ Perpetually beaming people don’t come across as bright. Happy, perhaps, but not bright.
Personally, between happy and smart I’d choose smart. I also choose the truth over a comfortable lie. Those things  go together, really. (And happy and smart don’t have to be mutually exclusive. I’m perfectly content most of the time.)

Anyway, after hearing that I thought my faeces  didn’t stink one time too many, I stopped worrying about how other people viewed my silence (if silence is viewable, that is) and accepted that I have no control over how people see me. If I went around beaming and starting conversations left, right and centre then… well, that got me fired from my last job.

I prefer the quiet anyway.

[Repost from a previous blog. Original post date: August 13, 2007]

Jul
26
2013

The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus

by V. L. Craven

The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus

I’ve long been interested in the Faust legend, which, apparently, began with Saint Theophilus , but I didn’t know a great deal about the origins or even the actual first stories. So, I’m starting at the beginning.

The stories/novels I have read that are related to the Faust legend according to this list on Wikipedia are T he Monk by Matthew Lewis, which has quite the Faustian bargain, Johannes Cabal the Necromancer by Jonathan Howard, and ‘Young Goodman Brown’ by Nathaniel Hawthorne. I do not see the Faustian connection there, at all. If you get the connection, please leave a comment.

The earliest English version of the legend I could find was The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe, which was first published in 1604. So that’s this week’s review.

The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus

Faustus is a very learned scholar–so learned he’s bored and wants more. He wants everything. In pursuit of this, he decides to study Magic and eventually summons a devil, Mephistophilis. Once summoned, Faustus attempts to bind the devil to him, But Mephisto says he serves Lucifer and the good doctor says he’ll sign his soul away to have his very own devil to do his bidding, as well as, you know, everything else. Sort of a genie in a lamp with endless wishes.

Mephisto goes to get permission/deliver the message. Upon Lucifer’s blessing, Mephisto returns and Faustus has made up a contract saying he wants twenty four years of whatever his heart, mind, and body desires and then Satan can have his soul. The deal is signed in blood and Faustus begins the rest of his life. But he doesn’t do much of anything with it. He pulls the sorts of things the couple in Beetlejuice do to the Deetses.

Throughout the play his good angel/bad angel tell him to repent before he goes any further/he’s already beyond redemption (depending upon which angel is speaking). This is a scenario that will be replayed multiple times.

This is a cautionary play about what happens when you turn your back on God, so it goes as you’d expect.

The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus

Faust by Rembrandt

I was surprised by how much Mephisto and Lucifer both seemed to try to convince Faustus to turn back towards salvation, but he was bent on his own damnation. They had much more depth than what you’d see today, where evil is pure evil. But when they first meet, Mephisto talks about how everywhere that isn’t Heaven is Hell. And at one point, Lucifer shows Faustus personifications of the Seven Deadly Sins and those beings were not enjoying themselves the way you’d think. Faustus was blind to this, however.

The relationship between Faustus and Mephisto reminded me a great deal of the relationship between Light and Ryuk in  Death Note . I checked and the manga is mentioned on the Wikipedia page about works based on Faust above. Yet another excellent reason to read the books.

About the good and evil angels…

The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus

Similar to this.

I laughed when they first appeared–you simply don’t expect something you saw in cartoons to happen in an olde timey play–but it makes sense that they’d have been around since Plato  since everyone wrestles with their conscience. I couldn’t help picturing someone in wings and a halo and someone else in plastic horns and a pointy tail, though.

Now that I have a firm knowledge of the legend I’m ready for other works based on it.

Jul
19
2013

Freelancing and Notes from the Past

by V. L. Craven

As my regular readers know, Friday is book review day, but I’m currently wrestling with the side effects of some new medication–mainly the fact that my eyes want to be closed all the time–and launching a comic with my husband. Which is semi-autobiographical and very fun. Writing a comic is far more difficult than I would have ever thought.

Speaking of writing, I’m also starting to freelance. So if you have writing that needs doing and would like to give me filthy lucre for doing so, please see my author site for info or email me at my freelance email .

Freelancing and Notes from the Past

See how classy? Because I am classy & will write classy things for you. Or not. Your call.

For the above reasons, this week’s book review is notes from a previous blog that is no longer easy to find on the internet. The notes are still relevant, as books worth reading are still books worth reading. The original post date was September 27, 2006.

Here we go:

Freelancing and Notes from the Past I’ve finished The Art of Murder , which held my interest, but felt a bit forced at the end. I’m a notorious end-niggler (it’s not as dirty as it sounds) so it’s probably just me. If you enjoyed Never Let Me Go I highly recommend this, which I’ve recently discovered is called speculative fiction. Making History by Stephen Fry is another (excellent) example of this type. If you have read any of these three you should try the others.

In classic fashion, I picked up a book fresh out of the Baker and Taylor box (rather than one of the, you know, thousand or so I have at home I haven’t read). It’s Al Franken’s The Truth (with Jokes) which is exactly what I thought it would be: amusing, infuriating and depressing. I usually don’t read current event/political books because politics annoy/bore me–it’s amazing how something can be simultaneously boring as hell and annoying as shit, no?–but I do enjoy Mr Franken’s dry wit. I figured something amusing would keep me reading.

Freelancing and Notes from the Past And I’ve hit a wall. Every reader goes through it. Nothing compels you. It’s frustrating, I must say. Bizarrely, I’m just not in the mood for Victorian fiction so I’ve set aside The Meaning of Night because I’m tired of feeling guilty for not reading it. I’m no longer going to feel guilty, because it’s just not the right time for me. We’re in different places, you know? We should take some time off and maybe try again later… It really isn’t you, you’re like The Alienist , which I loved, you have all sorts of things I like about Victorian fiction, your pages even feel nice. For whatever reason, it simply isn’t happening for me right now. I’m truly sorry. Don’t give up on me.

End of post.

Clearly, I recovered from my reading slump, thank goodness, or this blog would have never been created. Next week, I promise a new book review if I have to sell my soul to the devil to make it happen.

I also dedicate all the work I’ve done today to Trader Joe’s Dark Chocolate Covered Espresso Beans. I’ve accomplished quite a bit today and it’s about 35% love of writing and 65% these babies .

Jul
12
2013

The Altar of the Dead

by V. L. Craven

The Altar of the Dead

In Henry James’  ‘The Altar of the Dead’ , a man, George Stransom, is horrified by the idea of how brief our time is and how quickly we are forgotten and so he builds an altar of candles for the people he has known who have died in an effort to keep their memories alive for a bit longer.  There are candles for all of his late acquaintances except for one, who did him a terrible injustice. After some arrangements this altar is installed in a church and the man visits regularly. A woman begins sitting at the altar, also visiting her dead. Eventually, bound by grief, they begin a sort of friendship, until a revelation occurs that seemingly makes their companionship untenable.

The entire story is a sort of literary memento mori , which I enjoy (see the Vanitas gallery to the left), and the writing is itself like multiple candles in the night–both luminous and dark. It’s the sort of story that can be read multiple times without losing its capacity to impress.

The idea of a person not truly being gone until they are forgotten is also covered in Kevin Brockmeier’s quite good The Brief History of the Dead , which is based on the belief of some African tribes that there are three types of people, the living, the recently departed (whom the living still remember) and the dead whose names are only known.

Kindle edition available here (free) . Also available on Gutenberg .

Jun
28
2013

Young Goodman Brown

by V. L. Craven

Young Goodman Brown

Young Goodman Brown has been married for three months and would like nothing more than to stay home with his darling wife, Faith. But Young Goodman Brown has a meeting that he cannot miss. It’s in the woods, where nothing good happens and no one good goes, and he doesn’t want to go, but his travelling companion says all Young Goodman Brown’s ancestors have gone before him. So Young Goodman Brown walks and walks into the deepening gloom. And, as he does, frightening sounds come from the trees and he’s passed by multiple upstanding citizens of the village. Who are walking into the woods, where nothing good happens and no one good goes.

And then Young Goodman Brown arrives at a clearing where the entire village has gathered in some sort of unholy ceremony. The final two people to be initiated are Young Goodman Brown and his new wife, Faith. After raising a prayer, the scene vanishes and he’s back home, unsure of what has actually happened or if it was a dream. Whatever happened that evening forever altered his view of his wife and fellow townsfolk, turning him into a bitter, suspicious old man.

Young Goodman Brown

‘Young Goodman Brown’ was written by Nathaniel Hawthorne in 1835 and set in 17th century Salem.

Beautiful imagery coupled with sinister atmosphere bring to life the hesitation of a young man from a long line of religious men, who is on a dark errand to a place he doesn’t wish to go. The reader can feel Brown’s growing confusion and unease.

Some of the dialogue could be a bit dense, with the thees and thous, but overall the story moves along quickly enough. It’s obvious that what’s happening is a gathering of witches, without stating it explicitly, which is something I enjoy. For example, there are several references to people flying with the aid of sticks. The companion of the protagonist is even carrying a staff that resembles a snake, which allows someone to fly off at great speed. And in the clearing it’s obvious that what was happening was a Witches Sabbath, which was my favourite scene.

Young Goodman Brown

More useful information, including explanation of imagery and Hawthorne’s connection to the Salem witch trials on the Wikipedia page .
The story is available for Kindle for free from Amazon in Mosses from an Old Manse .
It’s also available in a variety of formats at Gutenberg.org .

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