I have rediscovered my time management skills and organized my executive function disorder to bring you two, count’em, TWO short-story synopsis. First we have that two-fisted purveyor of screw turning, Henry James. After that will follow that treacly plumber of psycho-sexual phantasmorgia, Hans Christian Andersen.
Let’s get to it!
“The Friends of the Friends” by Henry James
This story’s premise was great and hooked me from the start. An editor is going over a deceased writer’s papers and wonders what to do with this strange story she tells. She had two acquaintances who each had true premonitions of a loved one’s death while still both children. Being the society-minded person she is the woman decides wouldn’t it be great if these two people met each other. However every time she or anyone else tries to bring them together some thing happens to keep them apart This becomes a running joke in her social group, and so it goes on for years. Another peculiarity of the pair is that each refuses to be photographed, which is currently all in vogue among high society.
Some years pass, the old joke continues to remain, but by now the woman telling the story has fallen in love with the man and has decided to marry him. Around this time the woman of the fated pair is finally freed from her marriage (she’d been living separate from her abusive husband), and this sparks a crisis in the narrator because she has just hatched a full proof plan to get the two to meet. The narrator fears that these two are so much alike that she’d be tempting fate by having them meet each other. So she lies and has the woman of the pair visit while the man’s away. However, the narrator had compelled the man to get his picture taken, and the picture now sits on her mantle. The woman of the pair spends some time studying the picture and the back on which the man’s address is printed. She then leaves. The next day the narrator feels terrible and goes to confess everything to the woman, but when she arrives she discovers the woman died the night before. More guilt-ridden than ever, the narrator confesses all to the man, her fiancé, and admits that she had played a cruel trick on her friend out of fear at what might happen if the two should meet. The man laughs telling the narrator that the woman appeared to him in the night and stood some time in his chambers watching him. This startles the narrator, who turns detective to piece together the woman’s actions before her death. All she can learn is that the woman spent some time dozing at her club and everyone saw her there. However enough doubt remains in the narrator’s mind that she ends her betrothal to the man. For his part, he feels he has done nothing wrong and that the narrator is being silly. Six years later, the narrator tells us the man dies, probably from suicide, although she believes he had done it to be reunited with the dead woman who had haunted him. The End.
So, yeah. Like I said I fell in love with the seed of this story and the weird mumblecore smallness of it. Sadly, James’s ultra-thick but ultra-pasteurized prose works to suck all the life out of the idea and bury it beneath expositive introspection and I’m not so much a fan of that.
But, that seed of two people in an extended social group having strange experiences so all their mutual friends work to have them meet each other? Lordy, I would love to have a dozen different writers take it up and use it to write a story. Imagining a Victor LaValle version alongside a Kelly Link version alongside a Laird Barron version gives the old skull-nut chills.
Now, on to Hans Christian Andersen
“The Traveling Companion” by Hans Christian Andersen
Parents love Hans Christian Andersen for his Christian imagery and moral instruction. Children like his because the princess has her own private pleasure garden where she can torture the unworthy and feed their eyes to her wizard mentor-pet.
Truth told, I had never read Andersen before, discounting him as simply a moralistic fairy tale writer. And while that’s partially right, it overlooks the heaping fruit-loopy tower of psycho-sexual WTFry he offers.
John is a good protestant boy left alone in the world after the death of his father. But he’s a devote lad full of inherent goodness and has no fear as he sets out into the wide world. Soon he finds himself homeless and forced to shelter in a chapel where he comes upon a pair of Bad Men getting ready to defile the recently deceased body of their debtor. John stops this by giving the Bad Men all his money and then sets off poorer in the morning. Soon he is joined by a jolly traveling companion and the two decide to stick together from now on. As they journey the companion exhibits many strange powers and makes odd bargains with payment.
In time the two reach a city where a king is sad because his daughter is a beautiful witch monster that delights in torture. She will marry whichever man can answer her question “What am I thinking?” three days in a row. Those that fail get impales in her torture garden. Since John had a vision that this woman would be his bride early in the story he falls head over heels in love with her despite all warnings. Figuring John’s dead unless he does something the companion sets about using his magic to spy on the princess. Soon enough we learn she’s in league with an evil wizard who gives her all manner of material comforts. This wizard tells her what to think on the morrow, and the companion hears this and tells John in the morning. Later when John answers the princess’s question correctly everyone starts rejoicing wondering if the end of the curse is at hand.
The second night is a repeat of the first with the princess going to her bad wizard friend and the traveling companion overhearing all. John succeeds in answering the second question, and now things are getting serious. On the third night, the bad wizard tells the princess to think of his head, and this the traveling companion chops off once alone with the bad wizard, giving it to John in a bundle and telling him not to open it until the princess asks her third question. When the time comes and the question is put to John, the head astounds everyone. Since John guessed all three questions correct the princess is his and there’s much rejoicing.
Except for the princess who has to say goodbye to her magic powers and private mountain torture palace. A witch is still a witch after all.
The companion tells John how he might wash the witch out of the Princess by dunking her in a bath with swan feathers in it, and this John does washing the princess who changes into a black swan then a white swan. Now a prince John wants to reward his companion, but the fellow says no, he was but repaying a debt and reveals he’s the dead guy whose corpse John protected at the start of his journey. And so, they all lived happily ever after.
This story was a trip and my experience of it ran opposite to what I felt reading the Henry
Miller James* story. “The Friends of the Friends” had a great premise but meh execution. “The Traveling Companion,” on the other hand, had a meh premise but great execution. Both are worth the time it takes to read them.
If you do, let me know what you think.
Next week… a story by someone the editor refers to as “not a very good poet.” Until then, may all your yesterdays be weird.
* I always get these two confused.
This week’s story is “The Lemmings” by Alex Comfort. Comfort’s most famous as the author of the 1970s era bestseller, The Joy of Sex. Maybe you peeked at it when you were a child? He was also a pacifist and a nudist. And while “The Lemmings” is a solidly okay story. But it does gain something by imagining it being screamed at you by a naked man carrying a sign that reads, “Wake up Sheeple!”
“The Lemmings” by Alex Comfort
Our nameless narrator travels to an island where he meets The Keeper whose job it is to tend the lemming colony on the island. Curiously, outside the title and the fact that the creatures are harvested for their fur, Comfort never refers to them as lemmings in the story. And while these creatures seem to match the Walt Disney fabrication of lemmings they’re also creatures with a sort of society. They form social groups and make laws and take pride in their appearance, and at a sign they march en masse into the sea to die. And that’s exactly what happens.
The narrator and the keeper chat about the creatures. The Keeper has affection for the creatures, but more as a curious dispassionate observer than as someone who will make any large changes to their existence. He crafts the creatures little medals that they award each other on their suicidal swim, and he dresses like a priest because it makes them more relaxed. A few lemmings refuse to take part in the mass suicide and suffer violence as a consequence, but by and large the suicide is approached as a necessary carnival mixed with a patriotic duty. Afterwards the Keeper and the narrator skin the drowned bodies once they start washing up on the island’s shore.
Wake up Sheeple! Etc.
Overall this is a barely off the nose sort of allegory with enough flourishes to make it rise above the straightforward. Like I said it’s solidly okay and doesn’t at all overstay its premise, and it’s jagged enough to have hooks that might even make it stay with you.
An odd aside, this story reminded me a little of Jack Vance. Except Vance would have either made it a footnote to a larger story or put an intergalactic casino nearby where jaded gamblers come to bet on the event and which would serve as the backdrop to some adventure short story.
Next week, another “Definitive Article Adjective Noun” short story.
Here are some recent books reads. Maybe you will find them interesting, or maybe you’d like to recommend something you’ve enjoyed.
Rogue Protocol by Martha Wells (Murderbot #3): I am a fan of the Murderbot series and this one delivered the usual murderbot goodness even if it wasn’t my favorite of the series. One thing was Murderbot didn’t seem to have any new shows to watch and obsess over so that quark in their voice wasn’t present as much as it had been in the first two books. And another confession is that I’m less into the conspiracy thread that links all these stories together and only have vague memories of who people are from the earlier books. All that said, if you like Murderbot, then this is good Murderbot. And if you haven’t read Murderbot then this is a recommendation that you should start. It’s a fine series about a security bot that has gained autonomy and found itself the protector of some humans in a very corporate nightmare interstellar science fiction setting. Each book delivers a good few hours of smart action entertainment.
The Sunken Lands Begin to Rise Again by M. John Harrison: This is a book where the bit that moves the plot has been intentionally left out, so you’re left reading about damaged people on the edge of a mystery that they can’t quite discern or even confirm exists at all. I can understand how anyone might hate that, but in the hands of a stylist like Harrison you get something else that looks closer to our lives as we live them within systems too large for us to comprehend. Nostalgia, conspiracy theories, grand paradigm shifts – it’s all here, while also being about a relationship between a man recovering from a breakdown and a woman mourning the death of her mother.
Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock: This book’s what the old folks call “a trip”. The setting’s England in the late 40s and Steven Huxley has come back home from the war to find his father dead and his brother growing ever more obsessed with the nearby woods. From there it’s a psycho-symbolic Jungian quest story as Steven and his brother uncover the mysteries of Ryhope Woods. The Woods serve as something like a mythic resonator and draw archetypes from those near to it. When I say this is a trip, I mean it. Before long the brothers are in the infinite wood, questing for the center while locked in a struggle that hearkens back millenia to the end of the Ice Age.
Vast by Linda Nagata: Far future hard SF about a band of explorers onboard a spacecraft that’s seeking the origin of a threat to their civilization. It’s also a rather long extended chase scene as the explorer’s spacecraft is being pursued by an enemy spacecraft. While this does have some of the cringe of 1990s SF, it’s also undeniably a book that inspired a lot of books that came after it. It’s hard not to read Alastair Reynolds and not see the debt he owes Nagata’s work. (And he admits this, so that’s no slight on Reynolds.) There’s also a weird Cthulhu mythos vibe here that I find fascinating, and which I might write more about at some point in its own post. I’ll just say that vast is an apt title for this book, and Nagata makes you feel how life might be lived across such vast gulfs of space and time.
Silver by Linda Nagata: I read Vast so I could read Silver, which is a sequel to Edges which was a sequel to Vast, but Silver is also a sequel to Nagata’s novel Memory which had a completely different setting, so we’re in that territory where an author is trying to merge the streams, and it… works. One thing I loved is that all the characters inhabit technologically advanced civilizations, but interact with the technology in different ways, so at first both sides look down on each other before recognizing their similarities. I’ll also say I think Nagata has become more accessible since the 1990s, and this feels less like the Vast setting and more like her Memory setting.
Last week this week’s latest Black Water post, this time by Cynthia Ozick, who if you are anything like me you vaguely remember reading an essay by back in university, or at least being assigned an essay by; whether you read it or not is a matter between you and your conscience.
Depending on a number of variables my chances are 50/50 for having done the assignment, but I’m 100% for having forgotten it all.
Anyhow, here’s the story:
“The Pagan Rabbi” by Cynthia Ozick
Cynthia Ozick’s “The Pagan Rabbi” is on one hand familiar to anyone who’s ever read Machen, Lovecraft, or the like: a narrator meets a person who tells them about another person who was the narrator’s friend, and the second person has a letter from the third person, which they want the first person, the narrator, to read as they hope it explains why everything got as bad as it did, and since this is horror/fantasy the narrator reads the letter hoping to find answers, but instead winds up more alienated from the world.
It’s a style I know and like.
The other part of “The Pagan Rabbi” is heavily steeped in Jewish mysticism and mythology, and that’s where I had to pause and look things up in order to understand the references the characters were making.
The story goes like this…
The Rabbi Isaac Kornfeld has killed himself in an urban park overlooking the bay. His friend, our narrator, goes out to see the tree where Isaac hung himself. He and Isaac grew up together and sought to be Rabbis, but only Isaac succeeded, while the friend opened a used bookstore and became a disappointment to his parents. After seeing the tree the Narrator goes on to pay a visit to Isaac’s wife with the idea of maybe starting to court her. But the widow’s distraught and angry at her husband for not simply killing himself, but for succumbing to idolatry before his death. The narrator’s confused, so the widow presses Isaac’s journal onto the narrator. In the book Isaac records his descent into a pantheistic paganism that saw a free soul in all aspects of the world. In entry after entry, he outlines his proofs explaining the existence of these souls, quoting mythical figures from the Old Testament, and even relaying accounts where he believes he encountered these unbounded souls. He soon looses himself to these visions, spending more time away from home. Finally, in an ecstatic fit, he encounters a dryad in a park near the polluted bay. This leads to his seduction and infidelity as he consorts with the dryad. But he welcomes these transgressions and continues his sport, until the dryad breaks things off, telling him that he has grown too attached to her and thereby his soul has fled his body. When the Rabbi protests, the dryad shows him his own soul wandering the road near the park. The sight of his wandering soul and his abandonment by the dryad sends Isaac tumbling into a despair so deep he hangs himself from the dryad’s tree.
Having read all this the narrator urges the widow to find her husband’s soul where it wanders along the road near the park, but she refuses, and upon seeing how angry the widow is, not at her husband’s suicide but at his idolatry, the narrator forgets about any seduction and goes home to put the whole episode behind him, but not before throwing away all the plants in his house.
Just in case. . .
It’s a good story and the late 1960s Jewish milieu gives the mystic bits familiar touchstones. I mean the story’s plot is literally “young rabbi abandons family to consort with flower child, dooms self”. And the Jewish mystical bits elide seamlessly with ideas from Greek antiquity. The dryad’s a distinct character that might have stepped forth from Ovid or a fairy tale and described in a very tangible way. There’s no doubt that Isaac encountered something numinous and outside the common in that park. And there’s no doubt that the human characters are caught and bound by petty urges and grievances. If you like that mix of the weird piercing the squalidly everyday, The Pagan Rabbi brings a new vantage point to the classic tragic fairy tale of what happens when the mortal seeks to capture the immortal.
Next week, get ready to get wild.
“Autumn Mountain” by Ryunosuke Akutagawa
Ryunosuke Akutagawa lived in the early decades of the 20th century and is considered the father of modern Japanese fiction. To the audience reading this, he might be most notable as the author who wrote the stories that were made into the movie Rashomon. “Autumn Morning” is the story of a painting that may or may not exist. Nothing happens in it except people walk and talk. Now I was once a young man who walked around a lot and spoke a lot of serious nonsense about paintings. Catch me in the right mood or bring up Max Beckmann and you’ll probably get an earful. But I also recognize blather as blather, and art school blather especially when about authenticity, truth, beauty, is a peculiar product all its own.
Anyway, this short story has eight characters in it, and one of them is telling a story to a second one about the painting done by a third which was owned by a fourth one and which a fifth guy who was the first guy’s teacher said was the most amazing painting ever, but after seeing it the first guy’s not so sure the painting he saw is the actual painting, so he tries to buy it, but can’t, then the painting disappears, only to re-emerge years later in the possession of a sixth guy, and this makes the first guy rush out to see it with a seventh guy who’s an art critic and, I think, the fifth guy, and guy one and guy five decide the painting’s not the actual legendary painting, while guys six and seven say it is… and I’m pretty sure I missed a guy in there somewhere, but it doesn’t help that all their names are the Japanese equivalent of Mr. Smith, Mr. White, Mr. Smythe, Mr. Whyte, Mr. Smitt, Mr. Whitt, Mr. Smithwhite, and Mr. Whitesmith. The moral of the whole tale is maybe this legendary painting doesn’t exist and yet by some weird fluke of the imagination what we imagine to be real can be more real than reality.
Manguel seems to have never met a story about a magical scroll painting he didn’t like. It’s a weird thing and I wonder if such stories were the ones that got the broadest reprinting in translation.
“The Sight” by Brian Moore
This one’s interesting because I learned that Brian Moore wrote the novel of a movie I quite like (Black Robe) is based on as well as won a host of awards as well as also being called “my favorite contemporary writer” by Graham Greene, and despite all that I had never heard of Moore before reading this story.
Benedict Chipman is an asshole lawyer in 1970s New York who has recently come home from the hospital after a bit of a medical scare. And while he’s still an asshole, and his doctors have told him their biopsy showed his tumor was benign, the doctors want him to come back at the end of the month for a second test. Chipman’s mostly satisfied, but has some lingering anxiety over this upcoming test, especially as everyone in his life seems to be extremely concerned for him and acting like they know something he doesn’t. This brings him around to discovering that his Irish housemaid claims to have “the sight” and can see when someone’s about to die. She’s let slip to all Chipman’s associates that he doesn’t have long to live, and when Chipman finds out all this the crisis happens.
This is a pretty introspective and psychological story about an unlikable egomaniac’s personality crumbling under a strain of doubt and anxiety. The whole thing probably takes place over the span of 48 hours, and the speculative element is barely present, but it’s a solid diamond of craft and characterization, and I’m glad to have read it.
“Clorinda” by Andres Pieyre de Mandiargues
This one’s a short vignette that reads like Charles Bukowski ghost writing a WB Yeats Celtic fairy tale. A drunkard encounters a miniature fairy knight and promptly subdues them and peels off their armor (like peeling a shrimp) and reveals that the knight is in fact a beautiful tiny woman. Our drunkard proceeds to restrain and disrobe the woman and readies himself to do more, at which point his beastliness gets the better of him and he runs off into the woods to rut and crawl in the dirt. When he recomposes himself once more and returns to where the fairy woman is bound, he finds only the torn string and a drop of blood and has to assume a bird ate her. . . and so that’s why daddy drinks.
This isn’t a story I would seek out and I don’t know if I’d be much excited to read more by the author, but if you like to be miserable or get your kicks watching the squalid mingle with the fantastic you might find this worth tracking down.
Next week… an author you probably read an essay by in university and haven’t read since!
The next Black Water Book Club should be up this weekend. It’ll feature at least one story, maybe even two. I got caught up in some other reading this past week. Speaking of which, it used to be something of a regular feature on my blog to do a monthly post about the books I was reading. All that stopped back in March when the Fire Nation attacked… I mean, COVID-19 happened… I mean…
The truth is I started reading an SFF book* that everyone seemed to love, and which I too enjoyed at first, but then slowly I fell out of enjoyment with until I stopped reading it entirely, but I never quite admitted that I was giving up on it, so it would sit there on my Kindle taunting me with its “53% complete” every time I searched around for something else to read. And so it has been for weeks. The book sits there like an unusually small boulder of large-size. Since then I’ve been shamefacedly reading books with my head low and feeling all out of sorts with current genre.
As is often the case I feel it is less the book’s fault than the fact that the hype around it elevated my expectations. It’s a fine book, good in fact, but the way people talked about it made me expect more than what it was.
And I’ll say that I usually have no problem dropping books. A book gets a hundred pages (or 10% on my Kindle), and if I’m not hooked by then I have no problem moving on. But, this one remains interesting enough that I want to finish it, only not now but some day. Until then it’ll remain an unusually small boulder of large-size impeding my path.
Now on to one or two sentence reviews for all the books I’ve read since March:
Golden Witchbreed by Mary Gentle: What if Ursula LeGuin’s Left-Hand of Darkness was about Klingons? An envoy from Earth travels to a post-technological world populated by a humanoid species of conservative warriors (Science Fiction)
Top Ten Games You Can Play In Your Head By Yourself – edited by Sam Gorski and D.F. Lovett: A guide to daydreaming, full of in-depth scenarios, and which might possibly make you lose your mind… or save it! (How-To)
Out of Body by Jeffrey Ford: A librarian learns to astral project and gets involved in supernatural hi-jinx involving monsters and monster-slayers. (Urban Fantasy)
The Hearts of Horses by Molly Gloss: A young teen leaves home to take a job “breaking” horse, but does so in a way that impresses most everyone she encounters. This one got me in the feels. (Historical/Western)
2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson: A tour across the solar system and the human habitats there in the early decades of the 24th century. Pretty thin plots and character, but lots of BIG IDEAS and marvels. (Science Fiction)
War of the Maps by Paul McAuley: A western set on a Dyson megastructure built around a brown dwarf star, in other words this has all the weird world-building of Gene Wolfe with less of the Catholicism. (Science Fiction)
In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado: Memoir of an abusive lesbian relationship written in fragments across multiple genre styles like an Oulipo exercise. (Memoir)
The Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe by Alex White: Rollicking space opera that manages to mash together Nascar racing and space-wizards while sitting between the feel-good works of Becky Chambers’s and the brutal violence of Kameron Hurley’s.
Lifelode by Jo Walton: Slice-of-life fantasy novel about polyamorous relationships on a farm in a world where the laws of reality change depending on which direction you travel. (Fantasy)
Lady Into Fox by David Garnett: One of those English stories that gets called allegorical because it was written at a time when society could not deal with either closeted gay men or unconventional women, and the tragedies that ensued when society forced the two together. (British Fantasy)
Two stories this week, by the assholes Leon Bloy and Vladimir Nabokov.
Both stories are about the futility of escape, and that no matter how far you travel some places will never let you go and you’ll forever be trapped within their borders. Both stories, while quite enjoyable, have a sketchy quality that suggests better stories than they actually deliver. This isn’t that much of a problem, and the Bloy story in particular made me interested in reading more by him.
“The Captives of Longjumeau” by Leon Bloy
Our narrator who we assume is Bloy recounts reading the news and learning that his friends, the Fourmis, cherished residents in the city of Longjumeau and by all accounts a truly loving couple, have died by suicide.
From very early on some sinister notes start to seep and hint that not everything was quite so wonderful for the Fourmis. First, they live in a house with a garden like “an abandoned cemetery”. Second, they never once left Longjumeau upon arriving there as newlyweds. As the narrator was friendly with the couple, he received a letter from Monsieur Fourmis some days before their deaths in which the Monsieur reveals the truth of their time in Longjumeau and his hopes that he and his wife may at last have found the means to escape it. The truth being that no matter how much they tried to leave the city, even for a daytrip, the world conspired to keep them trapped in the town. Tickets would be misplaced; strange slumbers would strike them while they waited for their trains – one time they even managed to board the train only to have them discover too late that they entered one of the cars to be left in the station. The fact that they can’t escape has led to their isolation and much bad feeling between the Fourmis and their families and acquaintances.
Bloy doesn’t posit any intelligence behind this entrapment nor does he suggest conspiracy among the town’s other inhabitants, but it’s not hard to imagine one at work in the margins: a pact made by the city’s inhabitants to keep the Fourmis in town for some ritualistic reason. Or what if the town requires them in some psychogeographical way? It’s hard not read this story and think of ways to use the same kernel in something myself.
“A Visit to the Museum” by Vladimir Nabokov
Nabokov’s story on first read is a bit of a shaggy-dog story, but after a day’s reflection I don’t know whether it’s sinister, an indictment of nostalgia, or still just a shaggy-dog story.
We start with Nabokov talking about this friend of his, a fellow Russian émigré, whose relative’s portrait hangs in a museum. Nabokov doesn’t believe the friend and by his own account thinks the friend’s a bore obsessed with his lost station. But one day the rain forces Nabokov to take refuge in the museum and he goes to seek out the portrait. To his shock it is there, so Nabokov decides right then and there to buy the painting, which the museum’s director doesn’t remember the museum owning, and from there things go south. The director claims some paperwork is required, and Nabokov not wanting to be alone with a group of soccer hooligans who are also in the museum sticks with the director. This then leads him deeper into the museum, which by turns takes on a dreamlike quality of ever shifting vistas and sights, galleries full of locomotives, musical instruments and the like, until finally Nabokov can’t bear it any longer and says they can deal with the paperwork tomorrow, at which point he realizes he’s alone and lost in the depths of the museum. A panicked flight through the dark halls ensues until finally Nabokov throws open a door and walks out into the real world once more. Except it’s not the real world he started the story from, but the world he fled: the Soviet Union. He realizes then that he is likely to be arrested and proceeds to strip naked in order to shed the “integument of exile”. The story then stops with a brief “… and I won’t tell you how I finally managed to get home” paragraph by way of coda, yet the fear remains. Overall, it’s a ride and one that I think is broader than Nabokov’s own hatred of the USSR, but of the way we sometimes remain prisoners places no matter how much we or they might change. That frisson at end hits such a weird note that I have to salute it.
Next week, Ryunosuke Akutagawa.
Who’s he? Stop by next time to find out. Until then, may your path not be your adversary.
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.
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.
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!