Autodidact: self-taught

Dec
20
2014

What I Found Out About Her

by V. L. Craven

What I Found Out About Her

Peter LaSalle has a talent for description of place. Whether it’s New York, Rio de Janeiro, the tunnels under Paris or Tunis, he brings them to vivid life.

He also captures specific moments in time in people’s lives really well and then puts them into context of their entire existence. It reminds me of films where you find out what happens to the characters after the action of the film occurs. I’ve always liked that, so this set appealed greatly.

LaSalle has chosen to follow the advice to ‘write what you know’ which is about academia, as his characters are either professors, in graduate school, or wish they’d stuck with higher education rather than venturing out of the ivory tower. This may turn off readers who don’t care about such things.

Another running theme is that people die. A lot. This is to be expected, as LaSalle has a gift for capturing entire lives in a short story and (spoiler) everyone dies, but many of his characters die whilst young or unexpectedly. George R.R. Martin had better look out.

There were no weak stories but highlights were ‘In the Southern Cone’, about an American dealing with anti-Semitism in Rio, ‘Oh, Such Playwrights!’, concerning the heyday of three New York playwrights and their waning fortunes, ‘Tunis and Time’, an edge-of-your-seat spy piece, and ‘The Manhattan Lunch: Two Versions’, in which two people have an episode of  Stendhal syndrome (though it wasn’t named as such.)

My favourite quote came from ‘Tunis and Time’. The protagonist is contemplating the ruins of Punic Carthage.

Ancient civilizations even had their massive collective dreams, of conquest and glory, and spreading out from this very hill, there had once been an empire equaled by none, what included not only this North Africa but much of Spain and Gaul, and almost the largest prize beyond that, as Hannibal marched his leathery elephants and his thousands of shivering, sandaled soldiers across the snows of the high Alps, with the City of Rome itself, for a moment, anyway, within his grasp. But maybe here was also the overlooked truth about the dreaming, that everything was gone before it started, and now contemplating what had once been triumphant, the scant rubble of Carthage corporeal, Layton realized that it yielded merely the message of nothing to nothing–or possibly nothing all along, the suspected void, because, when you thought of it, everything was inevitably heading toward nothing before it even started, before it even aspired or had the chance to be something.

Which reminds me of Shelley’s poem ‘Ozymandias’

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

But I Existentially digress.

I would recommend this one for fans of short stories particularly those with a bent towards academia-related stories or writers learning how to capture a believable life in a short space. 4/5

[I received a copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.]

Nov
15
2014

Best European Fiction 2015

by V. L. Craven

2015 Best European Fiction

With thirty stories representing twenty-eight countries (twenty-seven of the thirty were originally in languages other than English) the scope is vast. And not just geographically. Genre-wise, as well.

There is literary fiction, which often took the form of snapshots of people’s lives. The poignant ‘Hospital Room Nr 13.54′ by Olga Martynova stands out here.

There’s magical realism like Adda Djorup’s ‘Birds’, which was lovely in that Iris Murdoch I-think-I’m-missing-something-but-I-love-it-anyway sort of way.

‘The Second-Hand Man’ by Michael O Conhaile covered the humour area fairly well in a story that was very Irish. Read it and you’ll see what I mean. There’s a church and the Devil and God and a man with two tools. And I don’t mean pliers.

If you’re looking for straight up erotic ‘Somavox’ by Christopher Meredith definitely has that one covered, as does ‘Dungeness’ by Edy Poppy, though the former is a mix of science fiction while the latter is literary fiction.

Want to have your heart broken? ‘What the Dying Heart Says’ by John Toomey. There you go.

If modern vampire fiction is your thing there’s a story for that. And other types of science fiction and eastern European dream state stories. There’s even a choose your own adventure.

What’s most impressive is that it all hangs together. There’s a story near the beginning ‘The Demise of Engineer G.’ by Rein Raud about a man who creates incredible meals out of dishes from around the world where a flavour from one dish perfectly sets off something in the following or previous dish. That’s what West Camel has done. It’s the best anthology I’ve read yet.

With its variety of genres (and not a weak contribution in the bunch), Best European Fiction 2015 has something for every taste. I would definitely recommend it for fans of short fiction or people interested in expanding their reading life beyond works written originally in English.

An enthusiastic 5/5.

[I received a free copy of this book to review, but it genuinely was spectacular.]

Feb
21
2014

Immortal Memories by Michael Hibbard

by V. L. Craven

Immortal Memories cover

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.

Blood Doll

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.

Nov
07
2013

Sleepy Hollow and Its Various Incarnations

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

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.

Legend of Sleepy Hollow Disney

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.

'I swear, I'd lose my head if it weren't screwed on... DAMMIT'

‘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 TV Show

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.

 

 

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.

John Quidor 'Tom Walker's Flight'

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.

Jul
12
2013

The Altar of the Dead

by V. L. Craven

Rows of burning candles surrounded by melted candle wax

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.

Dark Forest

‘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 .

Jun
14
2013

A Calendar of Tales

by V. L. Craven

A Calendar of Tales logo

 

A Calendar of Tales began as twelve short fiction pieces based on the Twitter responses to prompts, which Gaiman posted one per hour on February 4, 2013.

The Prompts

January: Why is January so dangerous?
February: What’s the strangest thing that ever happened to you in February?
March: What historical figure does March remind you of?
April: What is your happiest memory of April?
May: What is the weirdest gift that you’ve ever been given in May?
June: Where would you spend a perfect June?
July: What is the most unusual thing you have ever seen in July?
August: If August could speak, what would it say?
September: Tell me something you lost in September that meant a lot to you.
October: What mythical creature would you like to meet in October and why?
November: What would you burn in November if you could?
December: Who would you like to see again in December?

December Prompt by Melody Sale

December prompt illustration by Melody Sale

Gaiman chose his favourites and then wrote short stories using those over a 3 day period. (The man is a writing machine. And possibly insane.)

Then they posted a pdf of the stories online for free and encouraged people to submit illustrations; the best of which were added to a digital book ( Calendar of Tales Ebook .) Don’t worry, you’re not breaking laws by downloading it–they’re being given away.

Gaiman recorded audio versions of the stories and, once those were posted, people were invited to make videos (films or animations), as well. The best of the best of all of these can be seen in the online digital ‘book’, A Calendar of Tales . The Blackberry site (they sponsored COT) has even more images and videos .

March Prompt by Igor Derevenec

March prompt illustration by Igor Derevenec

All of the stories are well-written and inventive–they are  by Gaiman. I was going to give a break down of which ones I liked best and least, but you know what? The entire book takes less than an hour to read and there are no bad stories. Get a cup of your favourite hot beverage, put your feet up and read the entire thing.

(Don’t go to the website until you have a couple hours to spare to look at all of the illustrations and videos, though, because people are mad talented. Seriously.)

Jun
06
2013

Casting the Runes and OWC Mini Hardbacks

by V. L. Craven

I’m currently reading Casting the Runes by M.R. James in preparation for my first steampunk project–making a hollow book to house my mp3 player. Montague Rhodes James (Montague is a fantastic name) was a Victorian ghost story writer. I do love the Oxford World’s Classics mini hardbacks but this is the second one I’ve read that  had spoilers in the introduction. Dear Introduction Writers, I would like some background on the author, please, not your favourite bit in the book. Thank you, Someone Who Has Not, As Yet, Read the Book.

James could certainly write a blinding ghost story. ‘The Mezzotint’ is well-known and  appears in many collections, but I haven’t come across a weak story in the collection. Malevolent spirits and objects that characters should have left well alone are the chief spooks of choice.

As for the project, I’m following the guidelines on this very helpful site and cutting out an extra hole for the earphone jack. I know some people will have a fit about destroying a book, but you can blame OUP because their Oxford World’s Classics Hardcovers are just the right size, 6.6″ x 4.6″/16.8 cm x 11.7 cm. I’m going to make a Victorian-style cover for it with a mad title like ‘Little Victoria and the Ghastly Motorized Velocipede of Darkmoor Manor’. Right now I’m trying to find an illustration to use as a template for the front cover. I’d like a black and white drawing of a little girl in Victorian garb, holding a magnifying glass. My husband’s looked all over and can’t find one… it doesn’t seem like an unreasonable request, though, so I’m going to keep looking.

[This is a post from a now-defunct blog. Original post date: August 17, 2007. The book turned out well for a first effort, though we couldn’t find the right sort of image, so it sits on a shelf with the other, intact, mini hardbacks.]

Apr
26
2013

Neil Gaiman Comic Adaptations: 3 Reviews

by V. L. Craven

This week, reviews of comic adaptations of a Neil Gaiman novel and two of his short stories.

Neverwhere Comic cover

The comic adaptation of Neverwhere written by Mike Carey (who also did the incredible Lucifer) and illustratied by Glenn Fabry was overseen by Gaiman and was excellent.

Due to being a decent human being, an English everyman schlub is pulled into a parallel dimension that exists below London. The story is of him trying to help a young woman learn who killed her family and to get back to his life in London Above. It’s a bit Wizard of Oz in that way, except it takes a great deal more than clicking his heels together to return home. The story (and illustrations) are incredibly imaginative and entertaining.

It’s difficult to speak to how much was left out, because it’s been a decade since I read the novel and watched the TV miniseries, but all the big points were there and the illustrations more closely captured what was in my head than television could do. It’s nine issues and I highly recommend it.

Only the End of the World Again by Neil Gaiman cover

Only the End of the World Again  was a short story written for Oni Press that was eventually collected in Smoke and Mirrors . Written by Gaiman, it was adapted to comic by P. Craig Russell and illustrated by Troy Nixey and coloured by Matthew Hollingsworth for the collection. It’s a new take on the Elder Gods of Lovecraft and casts a very unlikely hero–in the form of a werewolf–to try to avert world-ending disaster…again. Some of the art was nightmare fuel , which was appropriate for the story. Still … shudder.

Murder Mysteries by Neil Gaiman comic cover

 ‘Murder Mysteries’ began as a short story written for horror anthology  Midnight Graffiti and was collected in Gaiman’s  Smoke and Mirrors  in the late 80s. In 2002, Gaiman and P. Craig Russell adapted it into a graphic novel. Set before the creation of the universe, it’s about the first murder and explains why Lucifer the angel chose such a drastic career change. The illustrations are incredible and definitely helped, in terms of picturing how angels created everything and what the universe would look like prior to that.

Feb
22
2013

Poe in Fiction (part the second)

by V. L. Craven

In my first post about Edgar Allan Poe in Fiction I covered a comic and graphic novel . Today, the topic is two short stories by masters in the genre.

In ‘The Exiles’  from Ray Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man , the year is 2120  and Poe lives on Mars with Ambrose Bierce, Shakespeare, Dickens, Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood, Bram Stoker and all of their creations. Back on Earth, their works had been condemned as flights of fancy and were not to be tolerated. They were systematically destroyed by the rationalist governments of the world. Some copies were kept as mementos of a less enlightened time and it was the life in those books that kept the authors alive.

Now, men were coming to Mars–no doubt to destroy the planet just as they’d destroyed Earth–and Poe is having none of it. He rouses the others to invent the most terrifying creations to frighten the humans off. They’ve taken everything else, they shan’t have the final place they call home.

The descriptions are fantastic (in both senses of the word) and atmosphere is expertly rendered. The idea of gifted writers being able to create terrors out of thin air to do their bidding is a wonderful image and having multiple characters from famous authors participate (the witches from Macbeth, yes!) was brilliant. 10/10

A quote I particularly enjoyed: ‘Twenty nights I was stabbed, butchered, a screaming bat pinned to a surgical mat, a thing rotting underground in a black box; bad, wicked dreams. Our whole crew dreamed of witch-things and were-things, vampires and phantoms, things they couldn’t know anything about. Why? Because books on such ghastly subjects were destroyed a century ago. By law. Forbidden for anyone for own the grisly volumes.’ More quotes here .

 

‘Poe Posthumous’ the first story in Joyce Carol Oates’ Wild Nights: Stories about the last days of Poe, Dickinson, Twain, James and Hemingway,  envisioned the final days Poe spent after escaping Baltimore to be a Lighthouse keeper and experience true solitude. I was expecting an attempt at filling in the blanks surrounding Poe’s actual death, which was quite mysterious , and, though it didn’t include the facts of the man’s death, Oates made his fictional death into something of which Lovecraft would have been proud. There were traces of Poe’s stories–the beloved pet that … doesn’t end well… madness, a journal, a startling revelation. 9/10

A quote:  I am perfectly at ease with  aloneness  . As Pascal observed in the 139th Pensee: …all the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact, that they cannot stay quietly in their own chamber.
This Diary shall record whether such a ‘truth’ is universal, or applies merely to the weak.

More quotes can be found under ‘ W ‘ for Wild Nights.

If you’re looking for something less horror and more historical fiction regarding Poe’s death, I highly recommend Matthew Pearl’s The Poe Shadow .

Jan
31
2013

Poe Forevermore!

by V. L. Craven

Poe and His Magazine

When I first learned of  Poe Forevermore magazine  I immediately thought, ‘I MUST HAVE THAT,’ accompanied by grabby hands.

Before getting on to the comments, I’d like to talk about the physical magazine. It’s beautiful. The covers are glossy with a nice weight and the pages are high-quality. (It also smells nice. Whilst reading I kept huffing the gutter…Which sounds so wrong, but my paper-smelling friends will know what I mean.)

On to the contents. The majority are stories that Poe himself would have likely chosen for a magazine of his own. (The full title is Poe Forevermore: Tales of Mystery & Imagination for good reason.) And they certainly live up to his legacy.

Of the short stories–Sherlock Holmes figures in two of them. Meeting Augustin Dupin in one (‘The Comfort of the Seine’ by Stephen Volk) and interacting with Oscar Wilde in the other (‘The Case of the Green Carnation’ by David Gerrold,which was the stand-out piece for me).

‘Conflagration Site’ by Stefan Grabinski, (translated by Miroslaw Lipinski for the first time) is an excellent haunted-house-with-a-twist story. It’s always nice to be introduced to a new author.

‘The Man From the Fires’ by Larry Blamire has a very Ray-Bradbury feel that was creepy and atmospheric.

There were two complete works of Poe’s: ‘Alone, ‘ (which is my favourite poem so thumbs up on that one) and ‘Berenice’, which had been annotated with factoids. The most interesting of which was the correct pronunciation of the titular character’s name–it’s four syllables and rhymes with ‘very spicy’.

Two of the non-fiction pieces were written by actresses who’ve played Berenice on stage. Those were eye-opening (and made me never want to be on stage in a coffin for an extended period of time.) Tony Tsendeas also wrote about playing Egaeus in the same play. Props to Mr Tsendeas for doing a 45 minute long monologue in that role. I’ve played characters with loads of lines, but nothing approaching that. Respect, my friend.

Rounding out the issue is an interview with the writer of the new Hitchcock film, Stephen Rebello. Rebello talks about his incredible journey through befriending Hitchcock, to writing his biography, to working on the screenplay, to being on set during filming. The sheer unlikelihood of a person being able to be involved in all of those things to the degree that he was is impressive.

Inside the back cover there’s a bit of Hitchcock talking about finding out about Poe and how it influenced his own work. It was a lovely way to wrap up the first issue.

TL;DR: The magazine is fantastic and I’m looking forward to more. As soon as I have gainful employment I’m getting a subscription, as subscribers get extra goodies that single-issue-at-a-time people do not. And if $10 seems too pricey for a periodical, you should know it’s the sort you’ll keep and re-read. It’s definitely worth it.

Jan
25
2013

Poe & Pearl, The Beginning of an Obsession

by V. L. Craven

It's a raven reading a book! When I was twelve, we had to memorise a poem for English class and the teacher said if someone chose ‘The Raven’ they’d automatically get 100 percent. I was on it. It was a few months after I’d realised wearing all black meant never having to think about clothes reciting the entire poem–the class growing more incredulous with every stanza–solidified my status as creepy weirdo (now it’d be ‘goth’, I’m sure).

Aside from the grade (I got a 99 because I didn’t knock on the side of the podium when the titular bird did), I loved the atmosphere of the poem and carried around the book it was in [see the cover to the right] everywhere for at least a year like some sort of literary safety blanket. I may have been some sort of macabre freak who read too much, but Poe was on my side! My favourites were the gloomier stories (Usher, Red Death, and Silence: A Fable were my favourites). If it didn’t look like someone was going to go mad, die of some unnamed disease or just die horribly some other way I quickly lost interest.

I did reports on short stories in class the following two years (‘The Black Cat’ and ‘The Masque of the Red Death’) and freaked my classmates right out. It was brilliant. The second year we had to do something creative based on the story, so I made up an advert where you could buy tickets to the masque. I was a fun teenager.

The Poe Shadow Flash forward many years, and other macabre authors, and I came across Matthew Pearl’s The Poe Shadow , which hypothesizes about the events of Poe’s final days. [Incidentally, I picked it up because I’d loved Pearl’s The Dante Club . You should read it. It’s very good.] While writing this post, I came upon a page on Pearl’s website with bonus content for his novels. Now I want to re-read the book, and I may do once I’ve finished the two Poe bios I’m reading.

Reading Pearl’s book reminded me of the man who’d started me on my journey into the dark corners of literature and I picked up (read: got from Amazon  for free) all five volumes of Poe’s fiction. I’ve now read all of them and my favourite quotes are  here . I’m still adding some, but that’s a good portion.

Though I still prefer his horror stories, I can now appreciate his descriptions of nature in ‘The Landscape Garden’ and Arnheim, as well as find the humour in ‘Never Bet the Devil Your Head’ and ‘The Angel of the Odd’ amongst others.

Some of his short pieces were baffling, however, and I found  this Wikipedia page with information on most of his short fiction to be very useful.

Once through the man’s work, I wanted more and began looking for novels and stories that featured Poe as a character. I’ll begin reviewing those next week.

Nov
09
2012

Summer, Fireworks and My Corpse

by V. L. Craven

Following on from Otsuichi’s GOTH, I picked up a copy of Summer, Fireworks and My Corpse , which is two novellas (the other is Black Fairy Tale ) and a short story ‘Yuko’ .

Summer, Fireworks and My Corpse is about two children (brother and sister) who accidentally (or not?) kill a young girl and spend the story trying to hide her body from the people searching for her. The story is told from the p.o.v. of the girl’s corpse. The boy has a crush on a nineteen-years-old girl, Midori, whom his sister admires. They finally decide to throw the body down a shaft at the top of a shrine and have no choice but to do so during the annual summer firework display. Using a pulley, they manage to get the body to the top and when they follow, they find Midori waiting. She’d worked out what happened and helped get rid of the body, something at which she had a great deal of practise, as she’d been killing boys that looked like the boy. At the end of the story, she holds the boy and hopes she can stop.

Signature Otsuichi–simply written, but interesting, plot-wise

Black Fairy Tale : We start with a story about a a raven who befriends a girl with no eyes. (Ravens can learn to speak just like parrots.) He wants her to be able to see, so he plucks eyes from people and brings them to the girl. When she puts them in her sockets, she can see the things the people could see. She keeps the eyes in a jar beneath her bed. That is a short story, which proceeds between the story of a young woman who has an eye transplant and begins seeing what the original owner of the eye sees. Visions that become increasingly disturbing and hint at a gruesome crime and kidnapping. She travels to his village in order to help the victims and gets more than she bargained for. The perpetrator turns out to be the man who wrote the story about the raven, who discovered at a young age that if he maimed something in a way that would normally be fatal, that thing (human or animal) would continue living in a new, mutilated state. He has several…creatures in his house by the time the police find them. .

The pacing was very well-done but this one is NOT for the squeamish.

‘Yuko’ : A young woman begins working in a large house, which she enjoys but wonders about the mistress of the house, as she’s never around and the master insists she stay out of their room. Eventually her curiosity gets the better of her and she goes into the bedroom, which is lined with dolls with blank faces either laughing or crying. The lady of the house, Yuko, is also a doll. The master insists she’s unwell. When she’s ‘well’, she speaks to him in a harsh whisper. Upon talking to a previous servant, the girl discovers his first wife died two years previously (she’s buried in the back garden) and Yuko is his second wife. In order to help him accept that she’s a doll, the girl sets her on fire. The master sees this as his wife being on fire and tries to damp the flames. He winds up in a mental hospital, where he blames the girl’s difficult family life for her psychosis in believing his wife was a doll.

I thought this one would be predictable, but Otsuichi managed to slip in a surprise. Nice one.

May
11
2012

Smothered by A.J. Morlan

by V. L. Craven

I’ve been reading Smothered Dolls by A.J. Morlan, which was sent to me by a book-friend who knows my tastes better than me, apparently. I’ve never thought of myself as a horror fan, but these stories kept my interest. The first story is the most autobiographical and the afterword where Morlan explains the inspiration for the story is gasp-worthy.

Calling Morlan’s work ‘horror’ doesn’t do her justice–it’s too small a box. Yes, some of her stories are cringe-inducing–I couldn’t finish one about snakes in carousel horses–but others are speculative fiction. Two of my favourite stories are of that type. One is about what would happen if a person could bring dead animals (or people) back from the dead and if that was the only chance that person had to die. Meaning that they couldn’t be killed after their resurrection.

Another story I quite enjoyed was about civic duty. If you’re name gets chosen for you to participate in a justice system then it’s an honour and you’d better do your bit, right?

The only critique I have are the afterwords after each story explaining how the story is connected to the author’s life. Sometimes it’s interesting to know how an author’s writing is affected by their life. Other times it ruins the mystery. Morlan went a little overkill with her afterwords, but if a reader is more interested in what an author does with the truth than the actual truth he or she can skip the afterwords easily enough.

Of course, how you’re going to get a copy of this book is anyone’s guess, as I read the ARC and the specs on the back list it as being $44. On Amazon it says there were only 500 signed copies.

Anyway, here are the stories (most of which have appeared in other places) and my rating:

“Smothered Dolls” or “The Girl Who Could Never Be Good”: 4/5. Yikes.

“The Second Most Beautiful Woman in the World”: 4/. Georgia O’Keeffe inspired story about one of those contests where a person wins a vehicle if they keep their hands on it the longest. I wouldn’t consider it horror, but something about it is haunting. The descriptions of O’Keeffe’s paintings are wonderful.

“No Heaven Will Not Ever Heaven Be”: 3.5/5. Enormous painted cats look out for their creator.

“The German Lady”: 4/5. Very nice fair-tale for grown-ups. More interesting than scary.

“Civic Duties”: 5/5. Excellent speculative fiction.

“Powder”: 4/5. The second most disturbing story in the collection, just after the first story.

“In a Fine and Verdant Place”: 5/5. Based on a real-life serial killer, this one is one of the best.

“Dora’s Trunk”: 3.5/5. Interesting take on the Pandora myth.

“Yet Another Poisoned Apple for the Fairy Princess”: 4/5. Shiver-inducing modern fairy tale for adults. This one made me chuckle, actually, but I’m a little twisted.

“The Gemutlichkeit Escape”: 5/5. I never thought I’d read anything that’d make Hitler interesting, but here it is.

“The On’ner”: 4.5/5. Finest speculative fiction. Very thought-provoking.

“Tattoo”: 4/5. This one made me cringe a bit, but the concept behind it was quite interesting to me. It’s about a victim of a gang rape who takes back her body using tattoos.

“Need”: 4/5. Written in the earliest days of the internet, this is one of those stories where a person writes awful things that then come true. Even though it’s a fairly well-trod theme this story was well done.

“And The Horses Hiss at Midnight”: 3.5/5. Jeebus, I couldn’t finish this one. I have a thing about snakes and genitals. I got through most of it and what I read was written well enough.

“Milan, March 1972″: 4/5. About an artist who becomes obsessed with a particular photograph of a model who killed herself in his apartment. The descriptions of his artwork make this one a great read. Any author that can describe food, music or paintings evocatively gets my respect.

[This review is from an earlier blog. The original post date was 27 November, 2007]

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