Tag Archive | books

BWBC 23: This Time It’s Personal

Two stories for you. One annoyed the hell out of me. We’ll start with the non-annoying one.

The Friends” by Silvina Ocampo

Two adolescent boys grow up in close proximity to each other because their moms are friends. The boys are dear friends, except one claims to have made a pact with the devil. The other boy is rightfully scared by this, especially after his friend makes several displays of infernal powers. Inevitably the two fall out, and Satan Child attempts to destroy his friend, but in the end manages only to destroy himself.

Ocampo’s a writer I want to like. From a scan of her Wikipedia page I can see she was phenomenally talented, both a visual artist and a writer. I can dig that. But I have yet to read THE STORY by her that will get me hooked on her style. The one I can say I love and that makes me want to rave about to everyone I know. I hope to rectify this at some time by reading her short story collection that the NYRB published some years back and which sits on a shelf in my apartment here gathering dust. But until then all I can say is that her stories are, well, fine.  

Now to the story I hated…

“Et in Sempiternum Pereant” by Charles Williams

Oh Charles Williams… how I’ve want to like you. Like with the case of Ocampo you have got this pedigree: a member of the Inklings, occult interests, and books about wizards and ghosts and archetypes from Tarot cards moving about a 1930s London. It’s all so great sounding and makes me eager to read your books, then I do and they’re shit: overwritten, self-satisfied, High Anglican shit. What I feel is the feeling of a potential lover betrayed.

This story is a perfect illustration. It’s in a genre I love: British Man goes for a walk. It has weird metaphysical ruminations sparked by walking on time and duration. And it throws in a wonderful image: a skeletal ghost dressed in rags chewing at their own wrists above a pit that leads to hell. But it’s all written to appeal to a stodgy bunch of Oxford scholars who find any sort of emotional content in fiction must be strangled beneath words, words, more words, and words with extra points for Latin words because fuck those lay people without the proper education.

Anyways, this story is about a retired judge walking to a house to do some scholarship, only to find himself on some weird desolate stretch of road before a cottage that holds passages to both heaven and hell.

I will contend that Arthur Machen and Algernon Blackwood wrote a lot of sentimental crap, and that Charles Williams never did, but I’d rather either of those hokey writers than Williams any day of the week.

Next time, more assholes.   

BWBC 22: Behind the Green Door

Crashing into July like an avalanche. Does anyone else feel utterly exhausted?

This project has reached its halfway point. Although I will likely finish the review series a month or two before years end. I’d rather have that break in November and December than take time off in the summertime only to have to worry about starting up again. Newton’s First Law of Motion tells us a body at rest tends to stay at rest. I feel guilt enough as it is getting the weekly Friday updates out on the Wednesday Thursday Friday of the week after.

But such is life and so it goes.

This week we will be looking at HG Wells’ “The Door in the Wall”.

The Door in the Wall” by HG Wells

Manguel starts by comparing this HG Wells story to the typical Algernon Blackwood story with Blackwood coming off as the lesser. This got my blood up because I am a big Blackwood fan, and largely unread in the works of HG Wells. Again there’s that ubiquitousness and the feeling like you don’t need to read Wells because he’s been so saturated into the culture. Similar to Bradbury (and others who have appeared in this series to date) and as with Bradbury you realize that your assumptions about the writer were wrong and upon encountering the source, you discover they’re much bigger than you believed. There’s a certain death of aspect in cultural popularity.

“The Door in the Wall” sort of resembles a fairy story, and digs straight into that nostalgia Englishmen have for their boyhoods. It’s also that style of story I love with a narrator telling a friend’s story and trying to square the friend’s monolog with some recent, and likely tragic, event.

Here we have a guy remembering a school friend of great talents who went on to a great career, but seemed plagued by an event that marked him as fae and tragic. This faeness is highlighted by the school friend’s precociousness and talents that were visible from a young age. Later the friend and narrator meet, and the friend unveils something of the tragedy that haunts him.

You see the friend led a stern and lonesome life from the time he was an infant. Then when he was nearly six years old he was out wandering one day when he saw this door. It was a green door in a white wall colored with all the bright reds and greens of autumn. The friend was greatly tempted to open the door and pass within and for some time he debated which course to take. In the end he passes through the door and finds himself in a wondrous world full of everything his lonesome heart desires: wonder, friendship, delights, and games. The garden’s people treat him as a warm friend, and it’s an experience that haunts him even now. For some reason he is sent away by a dark-clad woman who shows him the book of his life and he the child finds himself back out in the street where the loss drives him to have a breakdown. Later when he reveals his vision to his protectors (aunts, nurses, and distant father) they go to great lengths, including violence, to make him forget the event ever happened.

But the green door continues to haunt him and as time goes by, and as the child grows older into adulthood the green door reappears. Always when he’s on the cusp of some achievement, and always he rejects the happiness it offers as he pursues worldly success. Yet, the memories of the garden beyond the door won’t let him go.

He accepts that it is something magical, especially after he finds the door in different parts of town. And he knows, he knows beyond a shadow of a doubt that what the door offers is in every way superior to the material success he has accrued. The world has lost its color. He knows it’s all the laments of a forty-something man, but the door haunts him. Three times in the past year it has appeared and three times he has passed it by. Now though he knows he is ready to pass through and he has taken to wandering the London streets at night, hoping to discover the door again.

And so it’s no surprise when tragedy occurs and the friend finds the door late one night, opens it, and falls to his death in a construction pit. It’s a tragic ending, but the narrator can’t help but feel his friend’s death had some noble aspect in it. A quest linked to the friend’s unconventional talents that drove him onward to success.

All in all an enjoyable story, and the sort that I find crawls under my skin a bit.

It’s also interesting to compare Wells’ story with Algernon Blackwood (and Arthur Machen). Manguel’s right when he makes the comparison to Blackwood, and right too when he suggests Blackwood could be treacly at times. But the Blackwood Machen style posits a world where it’s possible to pass through magical garden doors with some unpredictable regularity, being awestruck and bewildered if we’re lucky; destroyed if we aren’t. For the Blackwood-Machens the risk is not in losing the way, but in embracing the encounter. Which, I guess, is true of the Wells story too after all.

As always I appreciate your continued support and I hope you are doing well in your corners of the world.  

BWBC 21: A Bit of Meh

Two stories this week, one okay, one meh. 

The okay story is “The Third Bank of the River” by Joao Guimaraes Rosa. The meh story is “Home” by Hilaire Belloc. I didn’t mind reading the former, but the latter annoyed me. If Hilaire Belloc were alive today he’d be one of those tut-tutting  conservatives who write op-eds for the New York Times. A David Brooks or Bret Stephens. 

“The Third Bank of the River” by Joao Guimaraes Rosa 

This story is another in the Something Is Wrong With Dad genre. We’ve seen the type before in Bruno Schultz’s story. It goes like this: for some reason dad’s not right and it’s up to the son to make sense of this while everyone else reacts. In Rosa’s story, dad buys a canoe, renounces the land, and goes to live permanently on the river. The family is thrown into turmoil, and after many harangues to dad, who refuses to relent, the family each make’s some accommodation to their new reality. Years pass. Dad stays on the river. And slowly the family changes with everyone moving away except for our narrating son who stays behind out of loyalty to his father. 

In the end the son sets on the idea that he will take his father’s place on the river. But when the time comes the reality of the task proves too great and the son flees his faith in the world shattered because he’s betrayed his father. 

I wonder if TVTropes has an entry for Strange Dads? This story also dabbles in that other genre I enjoy: Devotion to the Incomprehensible and/or Futile Task. See my read of the Tartar Steppes.   

“Home” by Hillaire Belloc

This isn’t Belloc’s first time in these parts. Awhile back I read The Footpath Way his whole Edwardian paean to English Eco-Fascism. 

In “Home” Belloc indulges in the classic “it was all a dream or was it?” bit of corn. The story goes like this: one day while sketching some trees Belloc meets an eccentric man who tells  him a story of finding paradise in a French manor house, the “home” of the title. This occurred while on a hiking trip and when the man went to bed in paradise, he woke later on a train and has now been trying to find paradise ever since. 

Don’t get me wrong, the story is written well and Belloc can turn a phrase, but he’s a smarmy prick and I find I prefer different smarmy pricks. 

Make of that what you will. 

Next week, HG Wells!   

BWBC 20: Certain Distant Suns

Greetings friends!

This story is great. That’s it. You can go on about your business now. I don’t know if it’s my favorite in the collection*, but it’s certainly a standout.

Joanne Greenberg might be most famous for I Never Promised You a Rose Garden a semi-autobiographical novel about teenage schizophrenia she wrote in the early 1960s under the pen name Hannah Green. I’ve read it. It’s good. I mention it briefly here in this post where I misspell the author’s name. This story is completely different from that novel. It’s also very funny and reads like a Kelly Link story.

“Certain Distant Suns” by Joanne Greenberg 

“Certain Distant Suns” is set in 1970s USA among the Jewish American community around New York City. It’s told from the POV of a nineteen year-old girl and the chaos that results when her Aunt Bessie declares that she no longer believes in God. For the first two-thirds of the story nothing fantastical happens. The family first has to deal with Bessie’s apostasy, then with her increasingly more eccentric decisions. She stops believing in Capitalism, germs, and electricity. And with every decision the family panics and wonders how Bessie can possibly survive. But she does, and she becomes an inspiration to the narrator, who notices how much happier Bessie is now that she’s given up all these things.

But this is a fantasy collection, and we’re in a stretch of stories dealing with faith and belief. A cosmic backlash brews against Aunt Bessie. And when it arrives it’s not just a single thing, but two-pronged. I don’t want to give too much away, because you should read this story. I will say that it involves a magic TV among other things. 

Greenberg’s style is wry and observant, and it’s fun to see her mix the cosmic scale with the intimately personal. I’m not sure when I’ll again have the chance to read her work, but to stumble at random onto a story like this is exactly what I wanted out of this collection. 

* At the end of this project I’ll likely do a Top 20 favorite stories list. And this story will definitely be there.

BWBC 18: Hearn Manuel

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A thousand apologies!

I missed posting last week and I have no excuse. In fact, I’m a bit ahead with the reading, so much so that this week might have two posts. We’ll see how ambitious I get. But today’s post will be on the stories “Of a Promise Kept” by Lafcadio Hearn and “The Wizard Postponed” by Juan Manuel.

They aren’t dazzlers and are on the shorter end of stories, but they’re all right. I’m getting the feel for Manguel’s rhythm and how he’s putting together this mix-tape of an anthology. Some stories are long hefty numbers, while others are short little ditties.

And these two stories are definitely ditties.

“Of a Promise Kept” by Lafcadio Hearn

I’m a big Hearn fan. That might not be cool to admit, and I recognize that much of his fame is wrapped thick in Orientalism and Exoticism, but that doesn’t change the fact that I am a fan. Maybe it’s the journalistic angle he brings to his work. Maybe it’s some melodramatic kindred spirit bull-spit. Whatever reason it is (it’s probably the latter), I am always excited to read his work.

“Of a Promise Kept” is typical Japanese-era Hearn. There are two samurai. They are “foster brothers” and love each other very much. One needs to go far away, but promises his friend that he’ll be back on such-and-such a holiday. The holiday approaches, and the friend preps a big feast. Everyone tells him he’s crazy, because no one can guarantee when the other samurai will arrive, but the friend won’t hear it, and commands the feast be prepared. Of course, the day arrives and the feast is set out and hour after house goes by and the samurai doesn’t show. Despite this, the friend refuses to accept defeat, and stays up well into the night after everyone else goes to sleep. At which point the samurai arrives and sits with his friend, and tells a story about why he was so late. Turns out his family disapproved of his behavior and tried to keep him a prisoner in their house. But the samurai knew a way to travel a thousand miles in one day, using that one weird trick known as suicide. So that’s what he did, and he’s dead now, but he kept his promise.

All this makes the friend, the “foster brother”, get pretty angry with his dead friend’s family, so he travels to them and kills them, but he gets away and no one’s angry with him because he only did what was right. The End.

It’s not bad, but there’s better Hearn to be had – or maybe more Hearn. He might be the sort of writer that improves with quantity consumed in a single sitting.

“The Wizard Postponed” by Juan Manuel

Don Juan Manuel was a 15th century Spanish nobleman with a reputation for political maneuvering. He was also a writer and wrote some Aesop style fables in among all his other treatises. “The Wizard Postponed” is one such fable, and it’s not bad.

A certain learned dean travels to Toledo to learn magic from one don Illan. When he tells don Illan his desire, the don tells his maid to prepare dinner while the men go apart into an enclosed room. While they are in the room a messenger arrives for the dean saying his uncle is dead and won’t he come to the funeral. The dean says no and stays with don Illan, agreeing to help the don’s son find a position once the magical education is done. Days later another messenger arrives telling the dean he’s inherited a powerful position from his dead uncle. The dean leaves to take the position and don Illan accompanies him. From that position the dean inherits another and another, and with every success, don Illan asks for some position for his son. But each time the dean refuses the request saying he must appoint some other person instead. This goes on all the way until the dean becomes pope and still refuses to give don Illan’s son a position, at which point the maid arrives to tell the men that dinner is ready.

It turns out everything was an illusion made by don Illan to show how the dean would never repay the don for teaching him magic. The dean’s shown the door and don Illan goes to eat dinner by himself. The End.

It’s entirely possible that Jorge Borges made this story up.

Next: a monkey’s paw and a bottle imp!

Thousand Year Old Vampire: Thoughts and Impressions

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I’ve done a couple of play-throughs now of the game Thousand Year Old Vampire and thought I’d put my impressions down here.

This isn’t quite a review, just thoughts and reactions, and I’m dividing it into two posts, this one with my impressions, and another post with the write-ups of the stories the game created. That one screams of “Let me tell you all about my D&D character” and no one who doesn’t want that needs to experience that.

A tl;dr review would  Thousand Year Old Vampire is good. Is it a game or is it an activity? I don’t know and I don’t care. I liked it and thought it a great way to simultaneously create and enjoy a story.

For folks who don’t know  Thousand Year Old Vampire is a beautiful little game-book by Tim Hutchings of numbered entries that each contain a writing prompt that allows you to live the many centuries long life of a vampire. The way the game works is you create a character with a limited number of traits, connections, and memories. Then you become immortal and you roll dice to discover what happens to you. Events unfold mimicking the passing years and decades, each roll causing you to gain and lose memories until you’re making desperate choices about what to forget and what to remember. Soon the game becomes about whether it’s possible to retain any aspect of your original humanity as you slowly succumb to your vampirism and the toll of years.

It can be sad. It can be enlightening. It can be comical. Whatever it is, it’s certainly emotional.

And it’s random, so the story that emerges is at best messy and at worst incoherent.

You don’t get to choose what happens to you. What might seem like a cool foundation for a grand narrative early-on becomes a dead-end that never gets developed. This was the case in my first play-through, and while the experience was still fun, it didn’t feel coherent like a good book or movie would. What I did feel was like I was creating a living breathing character with a rich history, and certainly someone who could be useful in another situation. For example, Waldemar the Wolf has the makings of at least three different RPG villains depending on what stage of his incarnation you took him: the bandit wolf, the mercenary captain, or the sinister opera fanatic.

One thing I loved about it was that it’s backwards story telling: you tumble forward at random, but can craft a narrative by looking back and seeing the connection points. Do you nudge it and shape it? Yes, probably. Or I should say, it’s fine to give in to the temptation to nudge, because the game invites that just as much as it invites not doing that by churning up a series of unrelated random events.

Overall, each game took about 90 minutes or so, and at the end I felt like I had watched a pretty good horror movie either in its own right, or because it suggested other stories. When I played I went back and forth between two word documents: my vampire’s character sheet and the journal of their life while consulting wikipedia to create the concrete details.

Is it sort of like homework?

Kinda.

But so is Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective and I love that game. If you like vampires and story-telling, this game is well-worth checking out. While I did get the book via the kickstarter, there’s a PDF available at DrivethruRPG.

And here’s another link to the second part where I tell you all about my vampires Waldemar and Antonio.

You have been warned!

Thousand Year Old Vampire: A Tale of Two Vampires

Read this post for my overall thoughts on Thousand Year Old Vampire.

Continue reading here to learn all about the much checkered careers of Waldemar the Wolf and Antonio the Alchemist.

When I played I used two word documents. One was a character sheet. The other was a timeline where I recorded the events of their lives. I also had a few wikipedia pages open dealing with whatever epoch and area my vampires found themselves. For most of it I stuck to Italy starting in the Roman era and going forward as far as the game allowed. Waldemar died wretched and inhuman sometime in the 17th century, while Antonio made it all the way into the early half of the 20th century before he died a hero fighting against Mussolini’s Blackshirts. Read on to learn the particulars…

Waldemar the Wolf

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Waldemar started life as a Visigoth slave in the latter days of the Roman Empire. He had a gift for canines and a charming smile. He was also having an affair with his master’s concubine. All that ended when he gets attacked by a vampire (a decadent Roman senator) and changes. His first victim proves to be his lover, only she’s transformed into a vampire, and the two end up at odds with each other. She betrays him to the authorities and Waldemar flees into the Alps where he spends so much time among the wolves that he starts to resemble them. His vampire marks take the form of sharp teeth and a whispering voice. Eventually an avalanche buries his lair and he spends centuries entombed in a cave.

It’s not until the Middle Ages that Waldemar emerges to join the mercenary free companies. Over time he attracts many followers and gains a reputation for ruthless brutality. The whole while he’s pillaging and amassing a vast fortune that he hides in the countryside near Venice. But in time, the other mercenary captains grow jealous of him and denounce him as a satanic monster. This sends him packing for Germany where he returns to more wolfish banditry, preying upon the unwary.

It’s in Germany that he gains a new mark: gnarled claws for hands. And it’s also there that he falls in love with classical music and opera.

At some point in the 16th century he remembers his hidden fortune and returns to Italy. There in a Venetian villa he starts to take a keen interest in the theater. Meanwhile, his hands become more painful, and he hires a shady doctor to inject narcotized blood into his knuckles. He’s also keeping an old crone around to look after him, because she reminds him of his mother.

He tries to write an opera and it fails catastrophically. He takes to brooding in his villa.

It is there one day that he first espies the doctor’s daughter. And so would begin a new obsession, but the doctor realizes what’s happening and kills Waldemar by injecting him with toxic blood.

So long, Waldemar.

Antonio the Alchemist

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I pretty much stuck with the Rome theme and had Antonio be another young man made into a vampire by a decadent Roman senator (the same one that would go on to bite Waldemar a century or two later).

Antonio’s an urban youth, caught between his petty criminal brother, an early Christian street preacher, and a noblewoman lover. The one with the strongest pull over him is the preacher, who will unfortunately become Antonio’s first victim when he’s turned into a vampire. Antonio will take the preacher’s place and establish himself as a messianic figure in the early church. His brother and lover will join him and the three will use the cult to benefit themselves. However, when the Emperor passes some anti-Christian laws, Antonio’s cult collapses leaving only the most fanatical behind. These he preys upon until a betrayal by his brother sees Antonio entombed alive.

There he waits out the centuries, until a priest unseals his tomb and returns him to life. Antonio bends the priest to his will and takes up once more feeding upon a Christian congregation. He might have gone on this way, if not for the arrival of a powerful wizard known simply as the Woman From Across the Sea. She takes Antonio with her on a mystic quest where their fates become bound. In the end, she claims a favor from him.

The experience somewhat unhinges Antonio’s mind and he heavily rewrites his journal to hide his more atrocious crimes. Yet, guilt plagues him and he becomes obsessed with the question of salvation. This makes him take actual religious vows.

In the Church, he gains a reputation as an alchemist and scholar, but he no longer remembers his brother, his lover, or even how he became a vampire.

At this point the Woman From Across the Sea returns claiming her favor: a vial of Antonio’s blood. She uses it to create an elixir that satisfies his blood cravings.

Meanwhile, Antonio’s skills as an alchemist have earned him many patrons and he has no problem taking money trying to transform lead into gold. This makes him wealthy and disliked. But his enemies are no match for his quick-wits.

Alchemy gives way to astrology which gives way to astronomy. Antonio becomes obsessed with the stars and starts experimenting with telescopes. He wants to see the sun again. This leads him to study solar eclipses. Despite it being the 16th century, he starts constructing a device with which he might view the sun’s corona during an eclipse. This gets him in trouble with the church and denounced as a heretic. But it doesn’t stop him from making the attempt. This ends in failure, and leaves him almost blind. But his reputation as an expert on optics remains. His next attempt succeeds, and he manages to capture an image of the sun’s corona.

And for a generation Antonio’s the darling of the scientific world. It’s only later when a new generation unearths his alchemical poetry that his reputation falters, and he gets viewed out as a quack.

This sends Antonio into seclusion, where the Woman From Across the Sea finds him again. They speak of many thing, the nature of transformation being the most prominent. Something in Antonio once more stirs.

It’s around here that Antonio takes up poetry, using it to veil his esoteric ideas.

By now it’s the 19th century, and Antonio’s poetry has come into favor with a new generation. He once more has disciples and devotees. But he’s a little bit more wary, knowing how fickle fashion can be. He establishes a school for metaphysical research, and it’s there that the Woman From Across the Sea finds him one last time. Together they manage to conceive a child.

Before long, it’s the 1920s, and Antonio’s Metaphysical Institute is viewed as subversive by the Fascist government. The Blackshirts arrive in the dead of night ready to do their worst, but Antonio is there ready for them. He fights them singlehandedly allowing his disciples enough time to escape. He dies, burned to death by the Fascists, but future generations remember him as a hero.

The End.

Each story was a wild ride, full of unpredictable twists and turns. Waldemar met three other vampires early in his life, but never interacted with them again. Antonio had a weird relationship with the immortal Woman From Across the Sea. That came about quite nicely, and whenever the story prompted me for an immortal character I had her appear again.

Here’s the link again to my other post on my impressions of the overall game. 

 

 

BW BC 13: And Now the Strangeness Starts

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Hello, welcome back, I’m glad you could make it.

Three more stories this week: one a flash-length excerpt from a longer story, the other two your standard slightly shorter than average short stories. Isak Dinesen/Karen Blixen gives us our flash length story, an excerpt from ”Peter and Rosa”. After that is a bit of decadent literature from Junichiro Tanizaki called “Tattoo”, and a humorous story from Flann O’Brien called “John Duffy’s Brother”.

From “Peter and Rosa” by Isak Dinesen

Did you know that when Isak Dinesen sent the manuscript for her collector “Winter’s Tales” to her publisher it was right at the start of World War 2, and she had no way of knowing if it was received or published until after the war when former soldiers wrote to tell her how much they loved her book? While that story is wild on multiple accounts, I like to imagine what kind of guys these soldiers were who read Dinesen during the war.

An old friend of mine described Dinesen as a writer who readers always feel like they alone have discovered, and I think there’s something to that. When one of her stories clicks, that feeling of some truth being revealed to you and you alone is overwhelming. You might have to read a few of her stories for that to happen, but when it does… mmm, chef’s kiss.

Sadly, the excerpt Manguel includes here from “Peter and Rosa” is not enough to generate that feeling. If anything it gives only the barest hint with its short tale of a ship captain, his ship, and his wife’s jealousy that has all the qualities one recognizes from fairy tales.

All I can say is find yourself a Dinesen collection. She’s well worth the read.

“Tattoo” by Junichiro Tanizaki

I have to imagine that when Edgar Allan Poe’s work was translated into Japanese, they arrived alongside Oscar Wilde’s and Charles Baudelaire’s, making like this stew of decadent weirdness that the edgelordier sections of early 20th century Japanese writers must have loved. This story is direct from that main vein about one Seikichi, a sadistic tattoo artist, being gifted with a teenage girl to decorate as he pleases in the days before she is to start her training as an elite courtesan.

The ick-factor is strong here.

Seikichi starts the session by showing the girl his collection of erotic torture etchings. This terrify-titillates her, leading to an all-night tattoo session that leaves both exhausted. In the morning the artist knows he has reached his peak, but is more alarmed at the change in the girl. She has been transformed from the shy girl into a cruel woman. And as the sun rises, its light appears to set fire to the new tattoo.

And what is the tattoo of? A spider.

That’s it. The end. No moral. No comeuppance. No attack by the suddenly living spider, just a whole heap of decadence with a few extremely vivid images. Which is in no way a bad thing, but maybe not everyone’s cup of tea.

“John Duffy’s Brother” by Flann O’Brien

This is a story about a man who wakes up one day and thinks he is a train. He goes to work and does his job, and says things like he’s a train, then he goes home to lunch and realizes that he is in fact not a train. He’s then mortified by his morning’s behavior, but no one there ever mentions it. In fact they hardly noticed. Beyond a newfound particular-ness with sticking to a timetable, the man hadn’t really changed all that much. But still, those hours when John Duffy’s brother thought himself train would go on to haunt him for the rest of his life.

Initially, this story didn’t make much of an impression, but now a few days later I see it’s quite funny. Like what if Gregor Samsa did wake up one morning as a giant cockroach but nobody cared or noticed? That would be funny.

Next week… more transformations! Or, at least one transformation because it looks like a long story.

Until then, stay safe!

BW BC 12: Days of Future Present

And we’re back with three short stories this week. The first one was my favorite of the bunch.

“Split Second” Daphne Du Maurier

Mrs. Ellis is a fussy widow. She likes everything to be in its proper place and stresses a lot about her adolescent daughter who’s away at school. While taking a post-lunch stroll, a delivery van narrowly misses Mrs. Ellis, and things turn strange after that. As she attempts to make sense of the new world she finds herself in, we, the readers, get a deep dive into a story of paranoia and fear.

Is Mrs. Ellis insane? Has she been an unreliable narrator this whole time?

Why are all the details she gives to prove her identity partially right but partially wrong?

Du Maurier adds layer upon layer of details, and this is very much one of those claustrophobic stories where you wonder whether you could prove your own identity if everyone around you denied you were who you said you were. Not my favorite style of story to be sure, but Du Maurier makes it real and the slow progression from detail to detail makes the escalating tension masterfully done. It’s good, but maybe not for everyone. Du Maurier’s worth tracking down, but she’s a writer that you can’t rush and she’ll take as long as she needs to tell her story.

“August 25, 1983” Jorge Borges

A young man named Jorge Borges visits an old man named Jorge Borges, but they are both the same man and each claims to be dreaming the other. How does this work? Who knows! It’s a Jorge Borges story with a lot of talk of doubles, mirrors, suicide, and who can tell what is real and what is truth and yadda yadda. The whole thing has a masturbatory air. There’s better Borges to read.

“How Wang-Fo Was Saved” by Marguerite Yourcenar

Marguerite Yourcenar was the first woman to be admitted into the French Academy. Her novel about Hadrian was a big deal when it came out, as it was an exploration of post-war Europe through characters from Antiquity. As a fan of Graves’s I, Claudius I hope to track it down some day. “How Wang-Fo Was Saved” is her rendition of a classical Chinese tale. Or at least so Manguel says. I have my doubts. My take is that Yourcenar used Orientalism to write fantasy that bordered on the Conte cruel.

Wang-Fo is an itinerant painter and little more than a beggar. Ling is his apprentice and deeply devoted to his master. But before they met Ling was a privileged aristocrat with a beautiful wife and a vast fortune. His life changed abruptly the moment he met Wang-Fo in a tea house and the old man described the world in a way that opened Ling’s eyes to wonder.

However, not everyone is pleased with Wang Fo. In particular the Emperor is more than a little pissed at him. You see all through the emperor’s youth he was kept in seclusion with nothing but Wang Fo’s paintings for company. The Emperor became so enamored with these paintings that when he eventually left seclusion everything in the actual world proved to be a disappointment. Now he hates Wang-Fo. So when Wang-Fo shows up in the city the Emperor promptly has him and Ling arrested.

The Emperor’s arranged a whole sort of punishment for Wang Fo that involves blinding the old man once he finishes an uncompleted painting from his youth. Ling protests and gets killed for his troubles.

Without any other choice, Wang Fo starts on his work, but here a strange thing happens. He paints an ocean and a boat appears on that ocean. In fact the room is now full of water. Inside the boat is Ling and he has come to rescue Wang Fo and take him away into his painting, which he proceeds to do. The End. It’s not a bad story, but Orientalist af.

Next week… more unless there’s less.

February/March Books 2020

A strange thing has occurred: I am having a hard time reading. I keep starting books then setting them aside, and I’m not sure what the cause of the trouble is. Here’s two months worth of what I’ve finished.

Ashenden by W. Somerset Maugham: I’m a big fan of boring and absurd spy novels and this book delivers both. Ashenden’s a thinly veiled Maugham stand-in and these stories all take place between the start of World War I and the Russian Revolution except the war’s far away and it’s more about intriguing in Swiss hotels than carrying out missions behind enemy lines. Maugham has a great skill in using prose to paint a portrait. One sour note is that these stories take place very deep in the Colonial project and so you get the bigotry that goes along with it.

Chaucer’s Knight: The Portrait of a Medieval Mercenary by Terry Jones: I am not up on my Chaucer scholarship, but Terry Jones is. Here he takes to task scholars who see Chaucer’s knight as an exemplar of chivalry, instead of the cut throat mercenary he is. Using The Canterbury Tales, Jones goes into the details of each and every reference, trying to get at how Chaucer’s contemporaries would have reacted to them. Instead of an exemplar of chivalry, Chaucer’s knight is revealed to be a blood-thirsty mercenary typical of the era. Part of what I loved about this book was how bite-sized it was. I could read a few pages one day then put it down for a few days while I read something else.

Foundation by Isaac Asimov: A seminal text, in fact dare I say… foundational? Eh? Eh? So I’d never read this before and was surprised by how much I enjoyed this. Granted, I was amused by how the Foundation’s great project revolves mostly around setting up bogus religions and pyramid schemes. Every chapter is sort of the same too: two characters in a room first they react to plot event, then they plot more events. You simply keep cycling from character and events. And the tech is pure fantasy. Still… this was a big greasy meal and I regret nothing.

The Sign of the Labyrs by Margaret St. Clair: This is going to sound like a back-handed compliment, but I don’t mean it that way: the faster I read this book, the better it was. The story takes place in the future after some unspecified apocalyptic event in an underground maze-like mega-structure. There’s a plague and traps and monsters, and a whole lot of Wiccan style paganism on display. This reminded me of Fritz Leiber’s Gather Darkness, another post-apocalyptic SF novel that embraces the whole witchcraft versus church idea. This one is a heady ride.

How are you all holding up? What have you enjoyed reading lately?

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