Do you have a favorite old, weird book?
Recommend it and I’ll probably read it!
But, I’m also looking for books to give the YesterWeird treatment to, like I’m doing with Matthew Lewis’s The Monk.
Old = written before 1930.
Weird = I leave up to you.
My definition of weird includes Fantomas novels, Cavendish’s The Blazing World, Scientific Romances, Dumas and his contemporaries, Gothic and Sensation novels, Apuleius, and P’u Songling… so it’s pretty broad, but limited. I’m not likely to do another Gothic right away. While I do have some Ann Radcliffe on the shelf, I’m not really ready to jump into another foray of English Protestants fetishisiizing southern European Roman Catholics.
Current contenders for getting the YesterWeird treatment are:
Fantomas, the Corpse Who Kills! by Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre. Murder, mayhem, and derangement.
The Flower Beneath The Foot – Being a Record of the Early Life of St. Laura De Nazianzi and the Times in which She Lived by Ronald Firbank. This looks like it might be Game of Thrones as if written by Oscar Wilde in his Importance of Being Earnest style. That sounds like it might be cool, or it might be annoying.
Aphrodite: Ancient Morals by Pierre Louys. A scandalous, historical novel written by a French guy mostly famous for his pornographic poetry. It’s available on Gutenberg.
If you have a favorite, I’d love to hear it.
… and now we return to The Monk, chapter 5 to be exact.
Chapter 5: Raymond finishes telling Lorenzo the sad story of “How I Knocked Up Your Sister”. Lorenzo agrees not to kill him, and both agree that Agnes needs to get out of that convent. Lorenzo then brings up Antonia and her situation.
Part of that story is that Raymond is Antonia’s mom Elvira’s brother-in-law, but he never knew about it because his parents never mentioned it (they thought their son was too good for Elvira) and they lived mostly overseas. Being that his parents are dead, Raymond’s actually happy to learn he has a sister-in-law. So that’s one problem they don’t have to worry about, while they talk to the cardinal and pope about getting Agnes out of her convent. Everyone’s happy. Lorenzo leaves, Raymond gets ready to relax, but when he walks into his relaxing room, he finds Theordore in there sweating and straining.
…and can you guess what the strapping young German lad is doing all alone there in the room?
That’s right, he’s writing poetry.
Four pages of classic verse, or running with the rock opera concept album metaphor, he’s writing a power ballad. I’m pretty sure it’s on Maiden’s Seventh Son of a Seventh Son, the song after “Moonchild”.
Being the full of himself sister-knocker-upper that he is, Raymond swipes the pages, reads, and critiques them. Surprisingly, he’s not a dick about it (well, besides being a total dick about it) and encourages Theodore to keep at it, and, who knows, maybe one day he can be the next Lope De Vega.
We then follow Lorenzo home where he finds a letter from Leonella, Antonia’s servant. She gives him Antonia and Elvira’s address, and Lorenzo heads over there right away.
Elvira is Antonia’s mom and one of the coolest characters in this book. She’s a tragic figure, abandoned by her relations and of delicate health, but strong willed and wise. When Lorenzo meets her, she sees right through his gallant foppish pretenses, and to his credit Lorenzo drops them. He updates her on the situation with Raymond her brother-in-law, and she sees that Lorenzo is in love with her daughter. He leaves telling them that first they need to get Agnes out of the convent, but after that they’ll fix everything for her. Afterward Elvira and Antonia have a mom/daughter talk about getting hopes up and falling in love, and all Elvira’s advice is sad and tragic, because she’s a sad, tragic mom in a Gothic novel.
The next day, Lorenzo goes to the convent to see Agnes.
“No, you can’t see her. She’s sick.”
The next day, Lorenzo goes to the convent to see Agnes.
“No, you can’t see her. She’s sicker than she was yesterday.”
Lorenzo believes none of this, and neither do we because we know Agnes got caught back in chapter 1 and the Mother Superior is a cruel heartless woman. We don’t know what happened to her, but we know it’s not good. Nice tension that.
He heads back to Elvira’s hoping to see Antonia, but instead Elvira sits him down for a talk. She tells him that it’s great that he loves Antonia, but his family won’t approve. He’s of noble birth, and her family are commoners. It’ll be a repeat of her own sad, tragic life for her daughter. So for their own good, she’s going to stop the relationship now, before they get too into each other. Lorenzo denies that his family is like that, and Elvira’s skeptical.
“Look at this,” she says.
“My late husband, Raymond’s brother, wrote it. It’s a poem.”
Yes… to save Lorenzo, and the world, from bad poetry, Lorenzo must stop courting Antonia. It’s the only way. Lorenzo’s shaken. He tells her he’s going to get permission from his uncle. He’ll do better than Raymond’s brother, and maybe he’ll just stick with prose vignettes under 1000 words. Those aren’t poems are they? Elvira says that’s a mystery, but until he gets the okay from his uncle he must stay away and visit no more.
Lorenzo goes home and sees a letter from the pope. It’s good news. The pope’s okay with Agnes leaving the convent. Lorenzo takes the letter and goes straight to Mother Superior. She tells him that Agnes died, and no, he can’t see the body. Lorenzo believes none of this, but he’s up against an evil nun, and so there’s no winning. He goes back to tell Raymond, and Raymond believes none of it. He practically goes mad at the idea and believes Agnes is still alive, locked somewhere in the convent. Lorenzo for his part believes Agnes is dead, but the nuns killed her and They need to find out what happened.
Chapter 6 has us back with Ambrosio, the fallen priest with the demon lover and the titular monk of the novel, who appears to be developing into a full on sex addict.
You know how it goes, he tried it once, and found it all right for kicks, but now he’s found out it’s a habit that sticks…
I’ve taught at the same school since 2011. For some these kids I’m the only English teacher they’ve had. One thing that’s fascinating to me this year is how utterly nice and good natured the current 6th graders are. Not that I’m complaining, but it puzzles me and I wonder if this was somehow created or if it’s just luck. Like, not every student is perfect or a great kid, but there’s no horrible bullies, which have been a problem in previous years, or kids prone to violent out-bursts (which is a problem at my other school). Instead the worst thing I have to put up with is some shenanigans where some boys have become competitive over who can be the best class clown. And if class clown shenanigans is the worst I have to deal with, I’ll say thanks and be happy.
And it is just these 6th and 5th grade classes. The classes coming up behind them are already showing some problem behaviors. So that makes me wonder what worked for those two classes and is it something that can be replicated?
Possibility 1: It’s dumb luck, and the chemistry between these students is just how it is and/or they had the good fortune to be matched with good teachers.
Possibility 2: It’s the environment. My school’s neighborhood went through a revitalization project that made the population dip while construction went on. Class sizes shrunk in real time (as opposed to always being small), so students bonded as a group better. Now this renewal project has ended and the neighborhood population has stabilized, but instead of having 3 classes of 22 students, the lower grades have 2 classes of 33 students, which is starting to feel crowded enough for students to get lost.
Possibility 3: A policy change, either regional or local. I’ve seen 3 principals come and go. Each one brought a different character to the school. Maybe a shift in the priorities at the top filtered down and affected the school’s character. Student behavior might reflect this.
But I count myself lucky for now despite the horrors of my second school – my main school’s all right, even if it does make me wonder.
We return now to Matthew Lewis’s The Monk.
The deeper I get into this book, 1) the more I like it, 2) the weirder its fetishisization of Catholicism gets.
In the chapters 3 &4 we leave Ambrosio and Matilda behind and return to Lorenzo and Don Raymond the Marquis de las Cisternas. Lorenzo’s upset because Don Raymond impregnated his sister, Agnes, despite her being a nun, and if Don Raymond doesn’t talk fast, he’s likely to wind-up stabbed in all the worst ways. So Don Raymond tells his story, and it’s not a bad story.
The Tale of Don Raymond’s Gap Year AKA How I Ended Up Schtupping Your Sister AKA Don’t Stab Me, Bro
Don Raymond was on his gap year and traveling around Europe in cognito, because in a book with a lot of names I can’t remember, why not have another? While in Germany, his servants and he get lost in a forest during a snowstorm and think they’re going to die, when their guide tells them he knows a wood-cutter nearby that will put them up. The wood-cutter and his sons are happy to have the guests, but the wood-cutter’s wife is having none of it. She doesn’t want these guys in her house, and Don Raymond’s like, “What a bitch”, but the wife just says, “I made your bed, check out the sheets.” When Don Raymond does he discovers them covered in blood and realizes the wood-cutter and his sons are bandits. Their plan’s to kill Don Raymond and all his servants in the middle of the night. But things get complicated when another traveler arrives at the house, and this one turns out to be the local duchess. She wants to get out of the storm, and the wood-cutter realizes they need to get more bandits, which gives Don Raymond time to escape and get help. There are some chases and fights and daring-do. The duchess is saved, Don Raymond’s servants aren’t, and Don Raymond gets an invitation back to the castle. The wood-cutter’s wife tells her story of how she fell in with the bandits and what brutes they were, and she gets exonerated for her crimes, and Don Raymond hires one of her sons (from an earlier marriage) to replace his dead valet. This kid, Theodore, becomes an important supporting character. Showing up at the castle, Don Raymond meets Agnes, because the Duke and Duchess are her guardians, since her parents are dead and her brother away. Of course Agnes and Don Raymond fall in love, but there’s a complication: the Duchess has also fallen in love with Don Raymond and she’s the insanely jealous type.
Time for a cunning plan!
A cunning plan that involves Theodore kidnapping Agnes’s chaperone and keeping her drunk in a closet, while Agnes impersonates the ghost rumored to haunt the castle (The Bleeding Nun) and Don Raymond waits in a carriage by the castle’s back door.
And the plan works perfectly, except the real Bleeding Nun shows up and Don Raymond runs off with her by accident.
Meanwhile, Agnes gets caught and the Duchess realizes what’s what and they ship her off to the convent ahead of schedule. Back to Don Raymond, he realizes he’s in a carriage with a ghost, there’s a panic, and horse death. He survives the accident but now the Bleeding Nun haunts him, and he pretty much assumes he’s a goner. Theodore learns where he is and tells him about a strange doctor in town that seemed to know all about the case. Don Raymond wants to meet that guy, and when the doctor shows up, he turns out to be a be-turbaned fellow of keen wisdom.
The doctor agrees to treat Don Raymond’s ghost problem, and there’s some midnight magic stuff, where the doctor says, “I’m going to take my turban off,don’t look at me.”
And Don Raymond says, “Okay”, but he totally looks and the sight of the unturbaned doctor fills him with horror and dread.
Turns out the doctor is the Wandering Jew (although I like to imagine that he’s Cain), and he does all he can to help people despite the curse upon him. Don Raymond gets better, returns to the castle, where he retrieves the Bleeding Nun’s bones and takes them back to his family for decent burial the sadder and wiser man. Yeah, she turned out to be a relation. In Madrid, he pines away for Agnes, not realizing how close she is until he sees her at church. They start having illicit meetings in the convent gardens. Don Raymond’s all about getting her out of the convent, but has to write the Pope for the okay. Meanwhile, both being young and having lived through such adventures allow their hormones to get the better of them, and lo and behold there you go Lorenzo: that’s how I impregnated your sister!
To which all agree it’s best to get Agnes the hell out of that convent.
One thing I hate in readers is a lack of curiosity. Often times folks devoted to a genre whine loudest about not having anything to read, when actually, if they just moved their heads a little in any direction, they’d find something great. Kindles have done away with that, although I’m not sure they’ve done much to improve reader curiosity. If anything Kindles have managed to speed everyone’s descent into a bottomless pit of their own choosing, only now that descent’s fueled by Amazon’s algorithm.
An illustrative anecdote: a month or so back I gave away some books to a friend. One of them I thought was awful and told my friend as much. A week or so later he told me he’d read the book, agreed it was awful, and “the next seven books in the series were just as bad”.
Now this lack of curiosity might not be the biggest problem in genre. But I’d hazard a guess that it could be the keystone problem all the other problems trickle out from. Again the solution is simple: move your head a little in any direction. You will find something better.
A while back I read this post by E. Catherine Tobler called “The Women We Don’t See”. It starts with an anecdote from a friend of hers who realized he hadn’t read a book by a woman in two years. And he was okay with that. A more recent while back, the writer K. T. Bradford challenged readers to quit reading white men for a year. I didn’t opt on the challenge, but I wasn’t incensed by the suggestion. If anything, both posts can simply be read as reminders to maybe think two minutes longer before picking up your next book to read. Even looking at the suggested books outlined in Bradford’s post, she’s only listing twelve books. One a month. You can’t read one book a month by a non-Anglo and/or non-dude writer. Seriously?
There are two big reasons authors get forgotten (beyond the fact that they might suck). The first is the author wrote only the one genre book, and that one was usually early in their career. Fred Chappell’s Dagon and Frederick Turner’s Double Shadow both fit this description (although Chappell has returned to genre at times).
The other reason books get forgotten is because they either exist outside a genre or within a genre that in part hopes to reject them. Despite the history and tradition of women and non-Anglo authors writing SFF, it’s certainly not part of the institutional memory yet. Not when an author can be asked to recommend books to readers and come up with nothing better than the equivalent of Led Zeppelin. This is also why I’m probably only hearing about Doris Piserchia this year. It’s probably also why Joanna Russ gets read like she’s an inoculation against feminism. And why a comment Margaret Atwood made years ago still gets trotted out against her.
All of which is to say show a little curiosity. Take the extra minute and change up your reading diet a bit.
Yeah, I hate that analogy too. It suggests I’m writing all this to extol the salubrious effects of reading certain books, like Naomi Mitchison’s Memoirs of a Spacewoman is a bit of broccoli on your plate, and you should read it because vitamins, instead of the real reason, which is it’s a great science-fiction book with a moral dilemma at its heart that’s instantly recognizable to anyone who knows what the prime directive is.
And in case you need a place to start, here’s a link to SF Mistressworks. Go crazy.
My review of Lisa Shapter’s novella A Day in Deep Freeze is up over at My Bookish Ways. The book reads like a horror-themed slow-burn Philip K. Dick in the mode of Time Out of Joint with a narrator slowly crumbling beneath his paranoia and inability to confront hard choices about who he is. It’s one of those books where if the hero succeeds and gets what they want, it’s the worst possible solution they could achieve.
Anyway, I blather.
Check out the review. Check out the book.
The Monk is a Gothic novel from 1796 written by a 20-year old Matthew Lewis rife with murder, magic, sex, and decadent Catholicism, because if you’re an 18th century English Protestant nothing says sexy decadence sexier than a Spanish Catholic. Set in Madrid the novel depicts the corruption of the monk Ambrosio and his ultimate pact with the devil, as well as tells a gory picaresque as two sets of lovers try to escape the various forces arrayed against them.
If there’s anything The Monk reminds me of it’s a 1970s era heavy metal concept album. But more on that in a bit. For now here’s Michael Gothard from Ken Russell’s The Devil:
In Chapter 1, all Madrid’s come out to see Ambrosio speak because he’s a great holy man and handsome too. The church is packed and people have climbed up onto the statues to get a better view. A young woman and her chaperone arrive late and have a hard time finding seats, but the chaperone’s able to play upon a couple of cavaliers’ sense of gallantry and convince them to give up theirs. At first they’re disappointed, because old lady, but then they espy the young woman’s delicate foot peeking out from beneath her skirt, and nearly slip into raptures. Finally, the young woman unveils and one of the cavaliers instantly falls in love. He gets her name (Antonia) and gives her his (Lorenzo), and there’s talk of another character (the Marquis de las Cisternas) and I’m pretty sure already I’m not going to keep everyone straight in this book.
After Ambrosio’s speech the throng dethrongs and the cavaliers and the ladies split up. Lorenzo stays behind and has a bad acid trip vision of angels and demons fighting for Antonia’s soul. They pretty much tell him “SHE’S GONNA DIE!!!!!”, but he’s not really picking up the cues. Another guy arrives Don Christoval arrives and he’s appy to see Lorenzo since he now has someone to peek at the nuns with. They go hide and watch a stranger eave a letter beneath the foot of a statue. The nuns show up. One of them is Lorenzo’s sister (Agnes), and she’s the one that takes the secret letter, which makes Lorenzo all incensed because virtue and his sister and all that. He hunts down the shadowy letter leaver and there’s going to be a swor fight, but who is it revealed to be, none other than Raymond de las Cisternas, and he has a story to tell…
Which he will tell in a later chapter.
The rest of the chapter has Antonia and her aunt walking home where they meet a gypsy and decide to get their fortunes told. The aunt’s fortune is “You’re old. So old. And ugly.” While Antonia’s fortune is “YOU’RE GONNA DIE!!!!!” and “WATCH OUT FOR DUDES!!!!! ESPECIALLY THE NICE GUYS!!!!” Then the gypsy hightails it out of there, and the ladies go inside.
Chapter 2, Ambrosio sits in his cell doing the 18th century Spanish Catholic monk version of looking at porn, by which I mean staring at his private picture of the Virgin Mary and thinking sentences like, “I am constrained to enter some lovely female, lovely… as you… Madonna…!”
Shit. He ellipsised before his exclamation point.
Well, there’s a knock at the door ending all that and who should be there but the young, handsome, beautiful, but mysterious monk Rosario. He’s stopped by to decorate Ambrosio’s cell with some new flowers, because that’s the type of guy Rosario is. Rosario is completely smitten with Ambrosio, but fears his feelings aren’t returned – but Ambrosio replies that he has feelings for Rosario and before things get much further the bell rings and they have to go to class, which in this case is Vespers. Vespers over, Ambrosio listens to the nuns give their confessions.
Unfortunately, Agnes drops her letter that she received back in Chapter 1, and Ambrosio picks it up and reads it. Turns out she’s pregnant. Ambrosio being the stuck-up prig he is ignores all her pleas for mercy and decides to tell her Mother Superior, who’s straight out of the Confessions of Maria Monk. Agnes get dragged away to be tortured.
Ambrosio, shaken by the ordeal of being a judgmental prick, goes for a walk in the garden, where he finds Rosario sitting alone in a grotto. They read some verses together, and Rosario goes on about his BIG secret. Ambrosio can’t stand it and commands that Rosario spill it, at which point Rosario tells Ambrosio that he’s really a she named Matilda. He does not take this well.
Rosario-Matilda threatens suicide if Ambrosio refuses to let her stay in the monastery, because all she wants to do is be near him, and it’ll be like they’re just friends and stuff. She’s all set to kill herself with a dagger to Ambrosio’s horror, but a pang of mercy and a glimpse of her boob, her left one, and “oh! that was such a breast!” The boob’s magnificence is then described for a half dozen more sentences.
Well, what’s a guy to do after seeing a boob, but give in and do whatever it commands. Ambrosio convinces himself it’d be okay if Ambrosio stays. He’ll even pluck her a rose to prove himself. Only when he does so he’s bitten by a snake, and poisoned, because subtlety is for suckers. For days he lies near death with Rosario-Matilda tending to him, by playing her harp and reading to him from chivalrous romances.
Miraculously, Ambrosio recovers and decides, “Matilda’s trouble and has to go.”
To which Matilda says, “Well, I’ll be dead in three days, because I sucked the poison out of your hand and it’s in me now. Also, I modeled for that picture of the Virgin Mary you keep under your bed, also, also, its better that I die because I totally want to have sex with you.”
To all of which Ambrosio has no idea what to say except, “Huh? Wha?” and then he touches her boob, the left one, and it’s all over for him.
“He remembered nothing but the pleasure and opportunity.”