Let’s do this.
Anthony Hope’s 1894 novel The Prisoner of Zenda is one of those books that sparked a genre. That this genre, the Ruritanian romance, no longer exists is beside the point. Once you’ve read the original you’ll realize how much it saturates our collective imaginations. Its DNA can be seen to this day almost everywhere: romance fiction, travel writing, science fiction, even fantasy.
At its most basic, The Prisoner of Zenda is a swash-buckling romance. Slightly disrespectable upper class Englishman, Rudolf Rassendyll, is bored and kicking around for something to do. He decides to head to the continent, but after taking a detour to visit the central European country of Ruritania he quite quickly gets caught up in that country’s politics since he bears an uncanny resemblance to Ruritania’s soon to be crowned king. (The resemblance is explained by one of the hero’s ancestors having had an affair with a visiting Ruritanian dignitary ages ago.) The king’s younger brother, Black Michael, wants the crown for himself and attempts to do away with the king on the eve of his coronation. He might have succeeded too, but by chance Rudolf Rassendyll is on hand to fill in for the king and be crowned in his stead. From there the stage is set for intrigue, escapes, and romance as the Princess Flavia finds herself falling for the king who to her eyes has become a new man overnight. Will she discover that the man she loves is not what he seems? Will Black Michael succeed and claim the throne? Will Rudolf have the real king slain so he can remain king permanently?
It’s a good read. Hope can tell a story and keep it moving, but with just enough crunch to stay interesting. Doubling abounds, not just as impersonators but also as opposites. Rudfolf Rassendyll is the double for King Rudolf V, Princess Flavia is doubled by Black Michael’s mistress, Antoinette de Mauban. The villains Black Michael and Rupert von Hentzau have a relationship that mirrors that of the King and Rassendyll, even down to their love triangles.
Going into this I thought Ruritanian meant any sort of story in a made-up country and got caught up in that line of questioning. Why can we imagine fictitious countries but not fictitious US states? Were Latveria and Wakanda Ruritanian? Where’s the line between making up a country for fun and making one up out of ignorance? Etc. After reading The Prisoner of Zenda I felt that it’s not simply the fictional backdrop that makes something Ruritanian, but the outsider from a more “advanced” civilization who by stroke of luck is the ultimate insider in this less advanced civilization. This adventure tourism angle is as much a part of the genre as the made up countries. It allows our civilized hero to shed some of civilization’s restraints and engage in a way of life that they could not get away with back home. (Maybe that’s me being an American that lives abroad reading a bit more into the genre than what’s there. I don’t know.)
But it’s impossible now after the read not to see Ruritanian shades everywhere: portal fantasies where school children go to magic lands and become prince and princesses. Sword and Planet fantasies where Confederate Army veterans go to Mars, woo princesses, and become chieftains. Space Operas with vaguely Austro-Hungarian societies gallivanting about in starships. Even James Bond being James Bond. It’s all Ruritanian now, or at least a cousin to it like Rudolf Rassendyll’s relationship to the throne.
Next month, PLAGUE!
Next weekend, Black Water book club resumes!
Three short, grisly stories from Black Water this week and I’m starting to feel like this anthology is the mix-tape Alberto Manguel made to impress Jorge Borges.
The first story, “An Injustice Revealed” by Anonymous, comes from 6th century China and I feel that Manguel really missed an opportunity to talk about P’u Songling here. For anyone that doesn’t know, P’u Songling was an 18th century collector of strange tales from China and those stories, like this one, have a tone that’s simultaneously desolate churchyard and cosmopolitan city (with a good bit of the bawdy and scatological thrown in). The weirdness comes across in how commonplace the supernatural seems. “An Injustice Revealed” is typical of the style and shifts from the previous stories in the anthology by the fact that the ghost here is treated like any other welcome visitor.
Ye Ning-Fei, a government inspector, has come to the province to uncover the local Governor’s corruption. Ye’s friend, Wang Li, was the previous inspector to the province and died while investigating the same Governor. One night as Ye sits going over the books Wang appears and asks Ye to do him a favor. Basically, a bureaucratic snafu has caused his soul to get separated from his corpse and now he can’t pay the spirit-money necessary to cross from one spirit-province to the other. Would Ye be so good as to burn some spirit money for him so he can pay the tolls? Ye agrees, but wants to hear more about the afterlife. Wang tells him about his trial in the Court of Hell and the mistake that saw his soul locked up there. This mistake points to the Governor’s corruption and from it Ye gets the name of a person wronged by the Governor. But it doesn’t matter much because the Governor dies and goes to Hell, which Wang knew all about because he heard the details of the case while trapped down there.
It’s a good story, but reads more like a treatment than an actual story. Again, if you want to read more stuff like it I recommend you track down a P’u Songling collection. It’s like a collection of News of the Weird that’s a thousand years old.
“A Little Place Off the Edgeware Road” by Graham Greene continues this mix of the supernatural and the commonplace. In a throw back to an earlier story we get treated to another dilapidated movie house and the sad clientele drawn to such places. Only Craven, the story’s main character, is no Pablo Gonzales hoping to find love. Instead, Craven is your typical young male depressive out wandering in the rain beneath the burden of their own intrusive thoughts. To take his mind off his particular fixation, which involves graves and the fact that “under the ground the world was littered with masses of dead flesh ready to rise again”, Craven decides to stop by a rundown theater and watch a movie. Midway through a man sits down beside him, and as murder gets done on screen this man starts whispering to Craven how different actual murder is from the one depicted. At a few points this man even takes Craven’s hand and occasionally coughs on him. All told Craven’s utterly repulsed by the guy. When the movie ends the man leaves as the house lights come up but he doesn’t get away before Craven sees he’s covered in blood. Being a law-abiding sort Craven calls the cops, saying he’s found a wanted murderer. But the cops say it’s not the murderer that’s missing, but the victim’s corpse. At that moment Craven catches sight of himself reflected in the phone booth’s window and his face is covered in blood as if it had been sprayed with a fine mist. With this revelation he promptly has a nervous breakdown. The End.
The MR James piece is from “A School Story” and it’s a snippet of a conversation between two horror story connoisseurs one-upping each other with scary stories. Coming where it does, I can’t help but see it as a critique on Manguel’s project as a whole, warning us that the wondrous can become dull when we indulge in it too often.
Next week, a Signalman and a Tall Woman.
Two short ones this week: LP Hartley’s “A Visit from Down Under” and Saki’s “Laura”. They’re good, but also both very much the kind of story you see in anthologies of the Classic British Ghost Story sort.
Hartley is probably most famous as the guy who said a thing, which in this case is the quote “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” See? You have heard of him before! “A Visit From Down Under” starts on a rainy London bus with a strange man all bundled up and sitting on the upper deck in the rain. He’s very peculiar. In particular he is cold to the touch. The ticket collector wants nothing to do with him and only reluctantly goes to tell him when they have reached his stop. Only when he goes to tell the man, the ticket collector discovers that the man has disappeared. FLASHBACK to five hours earlier and a Mr. Rumbold has arrived at his hotel (which is on the street where the strange passenger wanted to stop) after being away so long in Australia. He sets about drinking and making himself comfortable, exchanging some bantering talk with one of the hotel servants about murder. Then he dozes off while listening to a children’s show on the radio. The show takes on ominous overtones becoming increasingly more creepy the longer it goes on, until finally it triggers a panic attack in Rumbold who flees to his room. Later the strange passenger from the opening scene arrives and soon enough Mr. Rumbold is murdered with no trace left but for an icicle melting on the mantle piece.
All told this story exists entirely on the surface with inference made to Rumbold’s crimes. but nothing explicit is revealed. While the end is pretty basic with some wronged ghost coming back to have revenge on the person responsible for their death, the execution is quite good. The bit with the children’s radio show is great, genuinely creepy, as Rumbold can’t keep himself from getting caught up and eventually menaced by its whimsy. Kids’ shows are creepy! Track this story down and read it for that scene alone.
If Hartley’s story was all exteriority without much in the way of introspection, Saki’s “Laura” goes even further. Here the scenes are nearly all dialogue with people saying things that push the story along. We have Laura, a dying woman, Amanda, her friend, and Egbert, Amanda’s husband. Laura jokes about how after her death she’ll return as an otter or some creature, and to be frank she’d looking forward to it, especially if she can be an otter that kills all of Egbert’s chickens. When this comes to pass, Amanda tries to save the otter, but Egbert hunts it down. This results in Amanda having an episode, so Egbert takes her to Egypt to recover, where he is plagued again by another of Laura’s incarnations, and now Amanda is seriously ill. The End.
It’s light all the way through, maybe too much so, as I doubt I’ll remember it a month from now. Yet… well, I have to admire a story that’s all polished surface and light as cotton candy. The skill and craftsmanship on display in such a story are appealing no matter how light they seem. And it’s PG Wodehouse and Oscar Wilde territory, except with higher polish. So don’t be surprised if someday I own one of his story collections.
Next week… Anonymous and Graham Greene!
I beg your forgiveness for this interruption, but this is the first of twelve pitch advertisements for my Patreon that I’ll post throughout the year. I am using Patreon to support my writing (and lifestyle, which involves a lot of pajamas, tea, and books.) And what will you get in return for your support?
Quite simply, you will get nothing.
You get nothing
Let me explain: While in the past I’ve offered patrons an exclusive monthly column about old weird books called Yesterweird, those posts are now here. As of this moment there will be no difference between supporting me and not supporting me. Oh yes, you’ll have my gratitude and thanks and emanations of good feelings in your direction, but materially? Materially, you will have nothing.
No rough drafts, no serial novels, no sneak peaks, no discords, no podcasts, no sub stack coupons, no forums, no vlogs, no postcards, etc.*
At least for now.
Are you sure you know how patreon works?
Right now, your support will go towards a blog anyone can read for free. Yes, it will also go towards works in progress, but there’s no guarantee anyone will ever see those. Would you like to hear about a novel that might never be published or have me promise a self-pubbed RPG that never materializes? Or would you like me not to tell you about those things, then possibly surprise you with them at some point in the future? I don’t want to make any promises I can’t keep. What I can guarantee is a blog post about an old book, once a month, and various other assorted book club like activities.
The Tiers of Nothing
- 1USD – Welcome Aboard! You get nothing and over the course of the year you buy me two coffee-shop beverages.
- 3USD – A Place of Repose: You get nothing and over the course of the year you buy me a dinner and a few beers.
- 5USD – In the Thick of It: You get nothing and over the course of the year you pay one of my bills. Why are you doing this?
- 10USD – A Fine Mess: You get nothing and over the course of the year you buy me a round-trip high-speed train ticket from Busan to Seoul. We can’t go on living like this. If we ever meet I am going to talk to you about lowering your pledge.
- All other pledge amounts: You get nothing and I leave it up to your imagination to fill in the details by multiplying your pledge amount by twelve and then thinking of something you buy with that amount.
And I know this all sounds very flippant, but I am not going to make promises I can’t keep.
* One thing you will get if you support me is a long PDF that’s a setting document for a current project I’m working on. You can expect more stuff like that to materialize.
So you will get something, but you should expect nothing.
Welcome to portrait country.
Not physical portraits as in the Dorian Gray sense (although one does show up in our second story “Enoch Soames”), but the prose sort. First in the short ghost story “Importance” by Manuel Mujica Lainez, about a Mrs. Hermosilla Del Fresno, a self-important woman whose soul after her death lingers on for eternity among her possessions, and second in Max Beerbohm’s longer story about time travel, deals with the devil, and “Enoch Soames”, its titular self-important writer of dubious quality.
I’ve little to say about “Importance”. It’s a good story, concisely told and with a barb to it. Mrs. Hermosilla Del Fresno is a very important widow, nearly the most important widow in her city. The one blemish in her pedigree is that she comes from a less than spectacular family. All of whom she cut out of her life as she rose in society. Then, as these things happen, she woke up one morning only to find herself dead. At first she assumed it was only a matter of time before the angels appeared to take her on to her celestial reward, but as time goes by, and her dreaded relations reappear, she realizes that no angels are coming for her, and this is to be her eternity, her soul trapped in her bedroom, ever aware of how her family degrades her memory.
It’s a good solid shot of smugness followed by impotent rage towards God and man.
What’s not to like?
I hadn’t heard of Lainez until now and it appears his books were never much translated into English. The two that were, Bomarzo about an immortal Renaissance duke and The Wandering Unicorn a tale about the fairy Melusine set against the back drop of the Crusades, sound right up my alley and will likely warrant some tracking down or interlibrary loan next time I’m in the USA.
Now back to the Black Water and “Enoch Soames”…
I don’t know if Max Beerbohm is much remembered these days. He’s certainly someone that shows up a lot in any book about early 20th century English Literature, but more as a scenester than an actual writer. The sort who draws funny pictures of literati and has those pictures and his bon mots published in the smart set papers. Beerbohm’s funny, and perceptive, but a bit arch and smugly long winded in that British high society sort of way. If he were alive today, he’d very likely have a very popular podcast or even late night talk show.
“Enoch Soames” starts as a cutting satire of a certain type of wannabe writer. Soames is the arrogant dabbler who lurks at the margins of the literary scene whose overwhelming sense of self-importance is so distant from his actual ability and output to make him a farcical character. He apes the decadent style while also dismissing it and everything else that crosses his field of vision while working intently on some niche work he proclaims to be nothing shor of groundbreaking. When it’s published it has the title “Fungoids” and no more than three people buy it.
Beerbohm recounts meeting Soames on multiple occasions and finds him morbidly fascinating. As things progress, Soames worries more and more about his legacy and whether people will realize his genius after his death. He’s nearing a fever pitch when the devil steps in (or speaks up since he’s sitting next to Soames and Beerbohm in a crowded café) and offers to transport Soames exactly one hundred years into the future in exchange for his soul. Soames makes the deal and from that point on things go very badly for Enoch Soames.
First he’s not remembered as a significant writer at all. Second, he’s not even real but an imaginary character most famous as the subject of Max Beerbohm’s short story “Enoch Soames”. This leaves him crushed and deflated, so that when he returns to his own present day he’s unable to resist when the devil comes calling for him. The devil here is the theatrical sort dressed in pure Mephistopheles. Beerbohm describes him as looking like the sort of criminal that lingers around train stations in the hopes of stealing some high-class lady’s jewelry case.
As a rather Soamesian sort myself, the story did make me cringe. Beerbohm’s best remembered as a caricaturist after all. The portrait is perfect and Soames has a vividness despite his being described as “dim”. Trust me, if you have ever at all been near any sort of scene then you have met guys like Enoch Soames with their unwarranted high opinions of themselves. That Beerbohm paints his picture and then erases it in the same story is a clever act.
Next week. . . more writers I’ve only heard about but never read!
And so here we are, another year of book tracking. My goal for this year is to read at least one book a month written in the past ten years, something which I failed to do this January. Here are some things I read that you might like to track down.
Goldfinger by Ian Fleming: I am not a big James Bond fan and find the character’s continued existence to be puzzling. I can never get around how they keep changing actors without there being an explanation. At least with Doctor Who there’s an explanation behind their regenerations! Still, I find myself fascinated with the Bond novels and the power fantasy they portray. We think about the movies with all their gear and supermodels, but the books are much more about indulging in the ear marks of the jet-setting lifestyle and are full to the brim with lavish descriptions of food and local customs where Bond is never simply a tourist spectator. Bond’s also really good at card games your grandmother plays. Like a whole subplot might revolve around a high stakes Rummikub tournament. Anyways, Goldfinger has Bond attempting to foil the plot of the villainous Auric Goldfinger who plans on robbing Fort Knox. Pussy Galore shows up as does Odd Job and a lot of anti-semitism, misogyny, and anti-Asian racism.
Naples ’44 by Norman Lewis: Nothing shatters your national heroic narrative about an event like books written during that event. Lewis served in British Field Intelligence during World War II and his book on the occupation of Naples gives a sobering account of life during wartime. Did you know the US mafia managed to get in good with Allied Command and profit from a flourishing black market? Did you know US soldiers had orders to kill all German soldiers taken prisoner in the war (even being told to beat their heads in with their rifle butts if necessary to save ammunition)? Did you know food was scarce in Italy after the war, but candy was plentiful? The details are often heart-breaking and anger-making, but they’re just as often blackly comic and absurd. Whether displaying one face or the other, Naples ’44 will shatter any sort of rosy view you might have held about the US’s actions during World War II.
Hospital Station by James White: This is the first book in White’s Sector General series about an intergalactic hospital and the problems doctors face treating alien patients there. It’s a collection of short stories that tend to follow a certain pattern: mysterious alien shows up at the hospital, alien wreaks havoc or does very strange things, doctors try to figure out why the alien is doing what it does, finally the heroic Doctor Conway follows his instincts and discovers the right way to treat the alien. There’s clever stuff here: empathic spider aliens (who work in the children’s ward naturally…), a shapeshifter having a nervous breakdown and wanting to return to the primordial ooze womb of its species, and a surgeon made from pure energy that wants to develop a brontosaurus’s telepathic abilities. White was a self-professed pacifist and these stories make a nice counter to the militarism in a lot of the SF of his peers. That said, and for all the wonderful imagination White exhibits in depicting weird alien physiology, he can’t imagine a human doctor with a non-Anglo name or a woman he doesn’t then go on to describe as “curvy”.
In an English cottage two old women sit and drink tea. Outside, the modernizing world makes its noisome rumbles and smoke. Inside, the women eat small sandwiches, sip tea, and gossip about the lives they’ve led. One, the sick one, begins to tell a story. It is not a love story but it is a story about love and devotion and a deserted house where something called a “token” lives. If you go to the house and stand outside the door the token will listen and let you take on someone else’s troubles for your own. The woman went there for love, so she might take on all the pain destined to come to her man. It didn’t matter that she could never be with that man. She was his and that was all that mattered. Now, the cancer on her leg grows, and the story ends when the nurse arrives and complains about old ladies and their gossip.
That’s the outline of Rudyard Kipling’s “The Wish House”. A story I like more as an idea than in its written form. It’s all told in a very roundabout way, and by the time the actual Wish House appears it’s easy to have gotten distracted by the why’s why and who’s who in the story. But retelling the story above, the idea becomes visible again and I’m once more interested in the “token”.
Other sites will go into the Christian symbolism Kipling employs in the story. The sick woman’s name is Grace. GRACE! Get it? But all that’s pretty scant sauce on an idea I wish had more exploration.
Now on to a story about a suburban father who fears for his son and what he’ll learn about life down at “The Playground.” This is a Ray Bradbury story, so it’s ripe with what now reads as corny Twilight Zone weirdness, but that’s only because Ray Bradbury was as good as he was and made his legacy ubiquitous.
This is an anti-nostalgia story with an adult remembering their childhood as an era of brutality and powerlessness. The father views the playground in question as a demonic place where children are introduced to the world’s cruelties and it’s now his responsibility to protect his child from those same cruelties. That the playground has the supernatural power to spare the son by sacrificing the father (Get it!?!) pushes this into the fantastic.
“The Playground” has some great descriptive passages in it as Bradbury renders hop-scotch outlines, slides, and swing-sets through a lens that would do Hieronymus Bosch proud. Also when set right after the Kipling story the whole notion of taking on another’s troubles as one’s own becomes much more sinister. Kipling’s a believer in his story, while Bradbury is an agnostic at best. Sure, the playground has a manager and the light is on all the time in their office, but no one’s ever in there and the manager’s never been seen.
I feel like I should read more Ray Bradbury. At the same time I feel like I’ve already read too much Ray Bradbury. Yet, I haven’t really read all that much Ray Bradbury. It’s just that decades of entertainment have absorbed so much Ray Bradbury that we’ve all read Ray Bradbury without having read Ray Bradbury at all.
Next week some more spooky shit!