This week’s weird fiction discussed over at LibraryThing is something fairly unique.
Review: “The Book”, Margie Irwin, 1930.
This story mixes a lot of things together. Part ghost story, part tale of demonic possession, and definitely a contaminated text story though of a different sort than Mark Samuels’ “A Contaminated Text” or Caitlin R. Kiernan’s “Ex Libris”.
The story opens one November night with protagonist Corbett looking for something to read after stopping his reading of an unsatisfactory detective novel. In the dining-room bookcase are some books, mostly “dull and obscure old theological books” inherited from his late uncle’s library. They are mixed in with cheap novels bought at railway stalls by Corbett’s wife and “respectable nineteenth century works of culture” that Corbett bought in his Oxford days, and children’s books. The uncle’s books have an “air of scorn that belongs to a private and concealed knowledge”.
A fancy takes Corbett (in his “vaporous and fog-ridden” Kensington living room?) that a “dank and poisonous breath” is exhaled by some of the volumes. He grabs a Dickens’ work then goes back for a Walter Pater book. He notices a gap left by the Dickens The Old Curiosity Shop which seems too large. That seems strange. Corbett hurriedly leaves to return to his bedroom. He almost feels like his house is haunted.
But the old pleasures of Dickens aren’t there this time. It seems sentimental, to take pleasure in cruelty and suffering. The humorous is now diabolic. The peculiar thought comes to him that there is “something evil in the austere worship of beauty for its own sake”.
It is no exaggeration to say that Arthur Machen’s 1906 polemic Dr. Stiggins is the book that is the most likely to make devotees of the author force a pained smile and rapidly change the subject. Not even the infamous The Canning Wonder (1925) – with its interminable musings upon a vanishing act and a court case so dull that the reader gasps at its tedium – comes close to it. Dr. Stiggins receives a reaction more akin to that of distaste; like the expression of a person who recalls having been locked in a room with a hectoring stand-up comedian whose act depends upon sharing his prejudices.
In his “About My Books” (in The Secret Ceremonies), Machen said of it:
There are good things in it for those who like controversy, and also many weary pages. It was written in a hurry – 30,000 words in a fortnight – was badly printed on bad paper, was barely noticed by the Press (two reviews, I think), and fell stone dead on publication.
Our story opens with the narrator at the top of a deep and steep railroad cutting, a place of almost eternal shadow.
He sees a signal-man below and calls to him. After gaining his attention and asking if there’s a path down to the railroad bed, the signal-man gestures to one about three hundred yards down the line.
At one end of the cutting is a tunnel. Dickens describes it as “barbarous, depressing, and forbidding” with the air about having an “earthy, deadly smell”. So we’ve left the world above for a different place.
Review: “The Tell-Tale Heart”, Edgar Allan Poe, 1843.
Since this is one of the most read stories in all the English language, I’m going to dispense with a lot of plot synopsis.
You know the story. A crazy man, the story’s narrator, kills an old man because of his “evil eye”, buries the body under some floorboards, and, when the police come to investigate, confesses because he hears the beating of the man’s heart.
The opening sentence,
“TRUE! — nervous — very, very dreadfully nervous I had been, and am; but why will you say that I am mad?”
and the closing sentences,
“Villains!” I shrieked, “dissemble no more! I admit the deed! — tear up the planks! — here, here! — it is the beating of his hideous heart!”
is justly famous.
Stephen Peithman’s annotations and notes are quite useful with this story. Continue reading →
Obscure Poe: “The Philosophy of Composition”, Edgar Allan Poe, 1846.
A questionable choice, perhaps, for this series since you may know at least one phrase in this essay:
. . . the death, then, of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world.
This is nothing less than Edgar Allan Poe explaining how, in a cold, analytical, and logical fashion he wrote his most popular work: “The Raven”.
It’s not just that poem. Poe claims his essay describes the “modus operandi by which some of my own works was put together [sic]”.
The Poe steps of composition for the poem follow.
Pick your length. Poe felt the poems lost their effect after a certain length. He aimed for 100 lines. “The Raven” is a 108 lines long.
Next decide on the impression you want to leave. Poe wanted something “universally appreciable”. For Poe, “Beauty is the sole legitimate province of the poem”. But beauty, for Poe, is not a quality but the “intense and pure elevation of soul”. “Truth” and “Passion” are better addressed in prose. The precision to depict Truth and the “homeliness” needed for depicting Passion are “antagonistic” to creating a sense of beauty. Continue reading →
In my part of the world, the temperature has gone below 0 degrees Fahrenheit.
And that means it’s time to do some polar reading.
This year, I’ll probably read Jules Verne’s The Adventures of Captain Hatteras, and, maybe, Ernest Shackleton’s South.
However, given how far behind I am in reviews, it will be awhile before I talk about them.
In the meantime, you get this from Kathryn Schulz. There’s a lot of famous writers who mentioned the poles in their work: the Brontes, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Mary Shelley, Arthur Conan Doyle, Edgar Allan Poe, Wilkie Collins, and Charles Dickens.
I may dip into another English writer who did ghost stories for Christmas: M. R. James.
And, for the record, I think the best film adaptation is the 1984 with George C. Scott as Scrooge. Yes, I think it’s better (and a more faithful adaptation) than the acclaimed 1951 Scrooge.
Review: A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens, 1843.
If you live in the English speaking world and have spent any time around a tv during the month of December, you know the plot.
Is the story worth reading and not just watching? Very much. It preserves the poignancy of lost time and redemption that is at the heart of Scrooge’s story – even more than a religious message. Dickens addresses the reader directly, and there is more humor than most adaptations show.
This edition has an interesting account of the first time Dickens read the story to a general audience – the beginning of Dickens’ career in performing his work which proved almost as lucrative as the mere writing of it.