Monday, April 16, 2018

Ghostly Tales, by Wilhelmina Fitzclarence

9781241226855
British Library, 2011
originally published 1896, Hutchinson
370 pp

paperback (read earlier)

I'm very grateful to whomever it is at the British Library that makes decisions on which of these old, rather obscure books to reprint and make available to the reading public; what I paid for this book pales in comparison to the selling price of the original, which you can pick up for a mere $1,750 at L.W. Currey, where, incidentally, the photo below came from.  The British Library covers may be dull and unimaginative, but hey ... I don't know about anyone else, but if I had $1,750 to casually spend, it wouldn't be for a single book.

original 1896 edition, courtesy of L.W. Currey
Looking closely at this picture of the original, note that it gives authorship as the Countess of Munster.  According to her page at Author Information of the Victorian Circulating Library, Wilhelmina FitzClarence, Countess of Munster, was born in 1830 in Scotland.  Her mother, Lady Augusta FitzClarence, was the "illegitimate daughter of William IV," and was "a great favorite of the king."  In 1855 she married the second Earl of Munster (her cousin), and went on to have nine children.  She wrote two novels; this book appeared when she was 66.  Much more about her life is recalled here.   The Countess of Munster's stories were allowed to drift into obscurity; it's only been somewhat recently that her work has been rediscovered and anthologized, and now this book is also available in e-reader format and online.

There are eleven stories to be found here, along with original illustrations. And while overall I'm very happy to have found this book and to have it in my library,  let's just say it doesn't fall into the category of ghost-story favorites. 

Ghostly Tales opens with "A Double," about which the author says the names are "fictitious," but everything else is true.  Here, a woman and her daughter Ella are expecting a visitor who is most eager to speak to Ella about her two-year stay in America.  At the time she is expected to receive their guest, a Mrs. Jacks, Ella is supposed to be in London for an appointment. Promising to come back as soon as possible, off she goes, and gets the surprise of a lifetime.  In the next story, "The Ghost of My Dead Friend," also purported to be true, a friendship of "intense affection" carries over "beyond the grave." Then we start getting into more meaty stuff with three ghost stories in a row beginning with "The Tyburn Ghost," in which summertime visitors to London find lodging in a house near Marble Arch, Hyde Park at No. 5 Dash Street. After a dinner of pickled salmon and Welsh rarebit, Mrs. Dale awakens in terror proclaiming that she's just had an encounter with a "horrid putrid-looking face."  Daughter Minny shrugs it off as a case of  mom being "over-tired and nervous," until it happens again -- to her.   Next up is "The Bruges Ghost," which has a most shivery sort of ending but to tell would be to spoil, and at the end of this series of three ghostly tales is "The Page-Boy's Ghost," which plays out in a house in Granville Crescent.  Any of the latter three would be great in an anthology of haunted house stories, and spooky enough for inclusion in any ghost story collection. 



from "The Bruges Ghost," my photo. 
The next story, "Aunt Jean's Story" is very different from what came before, in the sense that it takes on more of a religious tone rather than providing ghostly chills.  It recounts the adventures of a young girl who grows up unwanted and neglected in Auld-Castle in Scotland, her other siblings having all left home as soon as possible and who "never troubled their parents with their presence, unless obliged." She falls in love, but her parents have other plans for her, resulting in tragedy.  The story itself is okay, a bit of an adventure,  but I'm not too keen on the religious aspects that are clearly spelled out here.  "Only a Cat" I didn't even really see a purpose for.  "The Leather Box" makes for great sensation fiction with a touch of exotic flair and lots of weirdness, but definitely NOT ghostly fare.  Considering that this is the longest story in this collection, I find that a bit odd.  Moving on, "Saved" is also a fun tale, gothic in tone, complete with a strange Russian countess who is stepmother to a young and sickly prince, which is followed by a story in which madness, a lunatic asylum and a strange lodge in the forest all combine to make up "A Mauvais Quart d'Heure," in which a young woman finds herself making the decision of a lifetime, one that leaves her haunted for some time afterwards. Finally we come to the end with "A Mysterious Visitor," and I'm saying nothing.

All in all, the actual "ghostly tales" are few, which leads me to wonder exactly why Wilhelmina Fitzclarence settled on the title of her collection, which is misleading at best.  It is a very mixed bag of stories, to be sure.  The joy for me isn't so much the book as a whole, but rather the discovery of yet another obscure Victorian author of strange tales.   Anyone considering this book based on this title may be a bit disappointed, but it has some great moments to be savored.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

The Stone Dragon and Other Tragic Romances, by Robert Murray Gilchrist

"It has ever been my belief that love, nay, life itself, should terminate at the moment of excess bliss."  -- from "The Noble Courtesan," 108

When the gloves made of human skin first made their appearance in the titular story, "The Stone Dragon," I knew I was going to love this book. And I did. A lot.


Robert Murray Gilchrist (1867-1917 -- you can read about his life here) first appeared on my radar after I read Prince Zaleski, by MP Shiel.  I picked up this book after doing a bit of reading in Brian Stableford's most excellent study Glorious Perversity, and discovered that Stableford added The Stone Dragon and Other Tragic Romances into the mix of his  "most intensely lurid products of English Decadence" between 1893 and 1896, along with Studies of Death, by Count Eric Steinbock, the aforementioned Prince Zaleski, Shapes in the Fire (also by Shiel), and  Machen's The Great God Pan and the Inmost Light (119).   [As an aside,  two months ago I  preordered Of Kings and Things: Strange Tales and Decadent Poems by Count Eric Stanislaus Stenbock, supposedly published in July of this year.  That will be a drop-everything book, for sure.]

the original 1894 cover of this book, from ifsdb 
As the article in Derbyshire Life and Countryside I linked to above states, this book was "initially scantly-praised," but "interest in Gilchrist has revived," with The Stone Dragons and Other Tragic Romances becoming a modern favorite.   That article referred to this book as including "ghost stories, Gothic horror and 'weird tales'"; it also, in my opinion, has a nice Beaudelaire sort of feel (from Les Fleurs du Mal), an eeriness that reminds me of Poe, and in some stories, it reminded me of the French contes cruels that I love so much, since Gilchrist doesn't resort to contrived happy or expected endings.  Au contraire -- his stories, for the most part, reflect the quotation with which I started this post -- "...love, nay, life itself, should terminate at the moment of excess bliss."  This sort of theme is played out time and time again, along with another idea that permeates this book, stated most clearly in the story "Althea Swarthmoor."  He lets us know (in case we haven't figured this out by the time we get to that tale) that we are going to be talking about

"...Passion and of Death, and how they oft walk hand in hand together..."

Considering what happens repeatedly throughout this book, it turns out to be one of the most morbid set of tales I've ever encountered, and the moment I finished I seriously wanted to read it all again.  I didn't, but I really wanted to. 

Here's what's in the book (with just the vaguest of hints but absolutely nothing more):
"The Stone Dragon," in which a domineering aunt reaches out from beyond the grave to continue her control over her nephew via a strange passage in her will.  This story is followed by "The Manuscript of Francis Shackerley," an absolutely stunning and disturbing tale of a husband's revenge.  Next up is "Midsummer Madness," another bizarre tale where a bridegroom learns that "it is well to be mad..." and then there's "The Lost Mistress," a beyond-tragic tale of a man who was "grotesque, even to ugliness" and the woman who once loved him. 

the author, 1903,  from Wikipedia

About "Witch In-Grain" I will say nothing;  "The Noble Courtesan" follows the story of two brothers who had the unfortunate pleasure of the company of the strange woman in the green veil.  Check it out, French contes cruels lovers -- one of the brothers here is named Villiers -- a nod, perhaps, to Villiers L'Isle Adam??  "Althea Swarthmoor" has one of the most hypocritical characters ever in this story, told largely via letters; at this point we turn to a creepy tale whose ending should make anyone gasp, "The Return." That one is followed by another frighteningly weird story called "The Basilisk" about a woman who talks of seeing something in her childhood that turned her to stone. The meaning of that rather curious remark will be made clear later in this tale.  Yet another creepy tale is next, "Dame Inowslad," a perfect late-night read. No details here -- this one you must experience.

Rounding out the remainder of the stories here are "Witherton's Journal," an artist's story and that's all I'll give away;  'My Friend," which is different enough to merit a second read -- here, instead of passion between a man and a woman, we find a "friendship" between two men.  The narrator of the tale reveals that "farther and farther" he had "ventured down the heretical abyss," and given the time frame, well ...  It is an excellent story with some surprises in store.  The last story is "The Pageant of Ghosts," yet another one about which to tell is to spoil.

It's not so much the content of the stories in this book that did it for me, but rather the way in which they are related.  It's hard to convey in words the aesthetic beauty I discovered in the author's writing, since it's sort of a gut thing, but when I'd put the book down it continued to call to me, kind of like a disembodied hand in a floaty sort of darkness waving me back to it each time.  The atmosphere is intense, dark, and eerie to the point where once inside the book I didn't want to leave.  Honestly, it's still haunting me, and it's rare for me to encounter a book that will just not leave my head.  Now here's the caveat -- it's definitely Victorian, meaning that it is not an easy read in terms of prose style.  Another thing: anyone deciding to read this book strictly for its weirdness or hoping for shocking horror may be a bit disappointed.  There are stories that are supernatural in nature, there is a lot of weirdness going on, but for the most part we're looking, as the author tells us in no uncertain terms, for that mingling of "Passion and Death."  Going into it solely with the expectation of a few supernatural thrills is not the reason for picking up this book.  It's well beyond that, and to label it as simply "weird" or "horror" doesn't begin to touch what's in here.

For readers who want more in their reading of the strange, and don't mind having to be patient with the prose, the payoff is immeasurable.

by the way, my copy is the British Library reprint edition (2010), but Valancourt also published The Stone Dragon and Other Tragic Romances as an e-book for those who don't do print any more.



Thursday, March 8, 2018

War With the Newts, by Karel Čapek

0810114682
Northwestern University Press
European Classics, 1999
originally published as Valka s mloky, 1936
translated by M & .R. Weatherall
370 pp

paperback

"... we are all responsible for it."

Anyone who has not yet read this book should run, not walk, to find a copy.  I don't particularly care for apocalyptic fiction but this book is absolutely brilliant.  I'll also argue that although written in the 1930s, it's still highly relevant today in many ways; it's one that can go on the list of "timeless" books, making it a true classic.   It's also the epitome of offbeat, quirky, satirical and sardonic, which puts it squarely in my wheelhouse.  And even as humankind makes its journey toward the end of civilization as we know it, as it continues to sow the seeds of its own destruction,  god help me, I couldn't help but laugh through a huge part of this book.  I'm sitting here giggling with embarrassment  right now thinking how callous that makes me sound, but you really have to read it to understand.

The book chronicles the journey to the "War with the newts" in a sort of documentary style, beginning at the island of Tana Masah "right on the equator, a bit to the west of Sumatra..."  It is there that Captain J. van Toch has sailed, hoping to find a new source of pearl-bearing oysters.  He's told that there is a "strip of coast" where no one will go into the water because of "Sharks, and all the rest," along with "sea devils" which the natives refer to as "Tapa." Eventually he gets one poor guy to get in the water at Devil's Bay, where he comes back not only with oysters but also with reports of "thousands of devils."  These devils are actually salamanders, some "as big as seals."   van Toch gets the idea that if he can "make those lizards tame, and train them, ...they'll bring me the pearl-shells."  He also gets the idea that to fight the shark problem, he'll arm these tapa-boys  with knives.   The captain sees endless possibilities here, and later, back on land, explains to a potential investor that  that if only he had the right kind of ship he could transport these lizards anywhere he liked.  If he could take them and drop them in the ocean here and there...

... and thus it begins.


The author uses a number of different narrative styles to relate the history of the newts and the "steps of civilization"  -- there are personal accounts, scientific (and pseudoscientific) reports, letters, meeting minutes, newspaper cuttings, etc.etc., all in an effort to (as revealed in the introduction) "make his science fiction more lifelike." There are pictures of business cards, handwritten notes, and several changes in typeface that help to achieve that goal.  Čapek

"patterned his narrative on the events of the time, the catchwords, the diplomatic maneuvers, and the advertising slogans, and he made allusions to living people in their work. " (xviii)
It's a great strategy, and it works.  As this sort of documentarized history proceeds, though, it's what's under all of this that really draws our attention -- rampant capitalism on an epic scale.  With the newts, who require very little cost outlay other than food, the world has an unlimited supply of cheap labor:
"They have learned to use machines and numbers... They have omitted from human civilization everything that was without purpose, diverting, fantastic, or ancient; in this way they have left out all that is human, and have taken over only the portion that is practical, technical, and utilitarian."
 The question is at what cost, but I'll leave that for other readers to discover.

It's impossible not to notice parallels with  history up to the time this book was written -- slavery, exploitation, reform movements, immigration, and at the end, you'll get a shocking jolt as you realize what is behind the actual "war with the newts." Careful readers will notice the ongoing foreshadowing of what's to come, so read this book slowly.   At the same time, because of the parallels to our own time, it's also impossible not to realize that this could could have been published in the last decade or so -- hell, it could have been published last week!

Yes, while a book about a war with newts might seem, as one of my friends calls it, "preposterous," there is definitely a method in the author's madness, as well as a lesson to be heeded.  Do yourself a favor and as I said, run, do not walk, to find a copy.



Saturday, March 3, 2018

Terror Tales of Wales (ed.) Paul Finch

9781906331450
Gray Friar Press, 2014
240 pp

paperback


My introduction to this so-far great series of British regional horror tales edited by Paul Finch was the excellent Terror Tales of the Seaside.  Like that one, Terror Tales of Wales is a collection of stories by modern writers of horror with 13(!) brief interludes in between which bring to the table a number of short bits of Welsh/Celtic history, folklore, myths, and legends.
The back-cover blurb tells us that Wales is 
"the cradle of poetry, song and mythic rural splendour. But also a scene of oppression and tragedy, where angry spirits stalk castle and coal mine alike, death-knells sound amid fogbound peaks, and dragons stir in bottomless pools..."
and indeed, many of the stories found in this collection are tied to the Welsh landscape, either on terra firma, in freshwater lakes, or related to the sea.  And, as  in my favorite horror stories, there are a number of  all too-human anxieties that are laid bare here; when those are combined with the mythological, the supernatural,  and the natural elements, the result is a group of stories that move well beyond the standard fare into something much more elevated and well worth reading.

While there are a number of really good stories here, I did have a few favorites, including Reggie Oliver's "Druid's Rest."  I wasn't too far into it before I realized that it read much like Aickman's "The Trains," and then...  If Aickmanesque is any descriptor, this story of two young women seeking shelter from a storm in a closed hotel definitely falls under that heading.   Thana Niveau's "The Face, was also great, a tale in which a photographer whose "favorite place of all to photograph" is the waterfall called Pistyll Rheaedr.    While going through her photos and tagging friends Owain and Gareth at the falls, she is asked by the photo software "who is this?" noting a spot at the top.  She sees no one at all, but the computer insists that there's someone there. When she looks at it in a different way, it's then she sees what might be a face, but might be only a trick of the eye since "nature's full of weird things." She'll get a chance for an up close and personal view when she accompanies Gareth to photograph him climbing the falls when they freeze over.   "Matilda of the Night" by Stephen Volk is another standout, in which a folklorist named Rees gets wind of an elderly woman in a nursing home who swears the Gwrach-y-Rhibyn, whose appearance portends death, has paid a visit, and sure enough, death followed in its wake.  Rees makes a deal with the woman that if he stays with her until she dies, she'll tell him all she knows, but it's deal that will cost him. 



Pistill Rheaedr, from Wikipedia

The remaining stories are also quite good, although I'm still not sure about "Dialedd" by Bryn Fortey, which came off as a piece of dark humor that didn't seem to fit the whole "Terror Tales" connection (in my opinion):


"Under the Windings of the Sea" by Ray Cluley
"Old as the Hills," by Steve Duffy
"Swallowing a Dirty Seed," by Simon Clark
"Don't Leave Me Down Here," by Steve Lockley
"The Sound of the Sea," by Paul Lewis
"The Flow," by Tim Lebbon
"The Offspring," by Steve Jordan
"The Rising Tide" by Priya Sharma
"Apple of their Eyes," by Gary Fry
"Learning the Language", by John Llewellyn Probert


I have three unread "Terror Tales" books on my shelves and am slowly picking up the rest until I have the complete set.  They're worth whatever I'll pay since not only are these deliciously nightmarish, but they're also a great example of the work of modern horror writers who definitely know how to ply their craft.  The idea of grounding an entire body of work in regional horror is just brilliant.




Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Demons of the Night: Tales of the Fantastic, Madness, and the Supernatural from Nineteenth-Century France (ed.) Joan Kessler

0226432084
University of Chicago Press, 1995
326 pp

paperback

And it's back to France once again with this stunning collection of tales, nine of which are newly translated by the book's editor, Joan Kessler.

A few days ago I was asked by someone about the similarity between the "scare elements" of French tales like these and those I'd find in an American collection from the same time period.  Well, for one thing, I'm not overly familiar with American stories of the same period, but for another thing, I have to admit being thrown off by this question, so I borrowed from Terry Hale in his introduction to  The Dedalus Book of French Horror: The 19th-Century, trying to explain that it depends on who you read and when they wrote as to what you're going to find in their work:
"Born in the aftermath of the French Revolution, the Romantic writers of the 1820s and 30s brought to the genre narrative sophistication and their own set of macabre fears and anxieties concerning such matters as the death penalty, anatomical research, the cholera epidemic, infanticide, and man's inhumanity to man; the rise of spiritualism in the mid-century presented a fresh collection of moral problematics; finally, the end of the century, especially under the pioneering work in the discipline later to become known as psychology, witnessed a renewed fascination in diabolicism and morbid sexuality." (35)
I also noted that Hale  suggested that it was "the psychological insight of Poe" that stood as the "original impetus" for "contes cruels" while, as he stated, the "contes fantastiques" of the sort that are in this collection, were inspired by E.T.A. Hoffman, "the literary lion" who "introduced a range of themes, ideas and narrative techniques" that helped to "renew" these sorts of tales, which would "remain in vogue" over seven decades. (31) 

There are many other factors that go into the making of these tales, much too lengthy to list and to explain in a nutshell;  I hope  my short answer was  understandable.  What I didn't say is that I don't really approach any of these stories to be hit with the "scare element" -- that's not at all why I read them.  If the frisson of terror climbs up my spine now and then, hooray, but I look at my reading of the works of these authors as a way of discovering how they each engaged with past and contemporary anxieties as well as themselves.

Ms. Kessler says of these authors in her introduction that
"Their works repeatedly probe the subject of the unconscious, often through the metaphor of the divided self or the landscape of dream and madness.  As they gravitate toward those areas of experience inaccessible to rational understanding, they actually lead us to a more complete notion of our own minds, with their web of tangled, contradictory motivations and impulses."

Briefly and with no more than short annotations from me here, there are thirteen fantastic tales in Demons of the Night, appropriately led by Charles Nodier's "Smarra, or Demons of the Night" (1821).  I had read a Dedalus book some time back called Smarra and Trilby, two tales written by this author and neglected to post because of time; his Infernaliana is waiting to be read on my Kindle.   "Smarra" takes the reader immediately into the realm of dreams, but wait -- there are dreams within dreams, with the only real anchors to be found in this multi-layered story at the beginning and end, and even then there is a big question that needs asking.   In this case it isn't necessary, but it would be very helpful to be familiar with The Golden Ass by Apuleius; I had to give it a read before I could finish my first go round with this story.   Next up comes Balzac's "The Red Inn" which is absolutely great.  The overall meaning of the tale will become clear as you read it, but the getting there involves one man whose thoughts about committing a particularly heinous crime become a reality -- but when the deed is done, he can't remember doing it.  Obviously there's more, but you won't hear it from me. Balzac is followed by "The Venus of Ille" by Prosper Mérimée,  which starts out with a sort of MR James vibe before it gets positively dark and deliciously creepy, with an ending I swear I'll never forget.   This story is followed by two absolutely delightful tales by Théophile Gautier, "The Dead in Love" (aka "Clarimonde) and "Arria Marcella."  In the first, which I can only describe as a story of a man with a divided self, a priest finds himself mesmerized by a beautiful woman at the exact moment he is to take holy orders; in the second, a trip to a museum to view artifacts of Pompeii leads one man to the woman of his dreams.   "The Dead in Love" will hold you spellbound until the last word -- it's also one that requires a lot of thought in the long run for more under-the-surface readers.




from La Plume et Le Rouleau

Continuing on we find Alexandre Dumas with his "The Slap of Charlotte Corday," which I'd already read in One Thousand and One GhostsThis piece reiterates the absolutely riveting story of Solange so don't miss it.   Next up is my favorite piece of writing in the entire book, de Nerval's rather poignant "Aurélia, or Dream and Life"This story, which was written during several stints in different asylums, has been studied left, right, and upside down, and because of the depth and the richness of what's in this story, a number of different interpretations have emerged.  I'll just give a little teaser from the Introduction, in which the editor notes that "The narrator-protagonist's plunge into madness is depicted as a journey into the self..." and here, I'll add that it's a story that touches on the connection between his own madness and his mythologized dream life, without saying anything else.  Sadly, shortly after he'd written this story, de Nerval committed suicide.   Following de Nerval is Jules Verne's "Master Zacharius" that reminded me in a big way of the work of Hoffman.  It follows the story of a master clockmaker whose clocks begin to slow down and stop working; he will, before all is said and done,  become engaged in a struggle for very his soul.  I can't remember where I read it, but someone writing about this story referred to it as an examination of the "power-hungry" side of science, and that's about right. Considering much of Verne's other work, well, no surprise there. 



Coming into the home stretch, we start with two stories from an author whose work I love, Villiers de l'Isle Adam, "The Sign," which takes us into the zone of uncanny coincidence, and "Véra," a story of a "love-obsessed" husband continuing on with his life after the death of his wife.   This one is very well done, pushing the envelope between reality and illusion to the very last word.  Supernatural? You be the judge.    Two tales of madness follow from another favorite author, Guy de Maupassant: his most well-known story, "The Horla," and his "Who Knows?"  I'm not going to discuss either of these but I will say that for me the joy in reading this author's work is that I find myself thinking "it could be this" or "it could be that," and realizing that my head is potentially getting as messed up as de Maupassant's protagonists who strive for rational explanations of strange phenomena.  By the time I'd finished these two stories, I felt so off-kilter that I had to seriously put this book down.   Personally, I think this man was a genius writer whose work ought to be read by everyone with an interest in the darker side of the human psyche.  Last, but by no means least, we have Marcel Schwob with his strange tale "The Veiled Man," which takes place entirely in a small train compartment.  I'll just say that it is quite possible that beneath the story he gives us there is an entirely different version.

Overall, this has proved to be another favorite book, one that I can absolutely without any hesitation recommend to all.  I get that French literature of the 19th century isn't everybody's thing, and also, if you're looking for something solely to scare the bejeezus out of you, this just may not be it.  These stories are things of beauty, not something you read simply in the hope of getting a few chills up your spine, although it happens quite a bit here.   Beyond great, really; I live to find collections like this one. 




Thursday, February 8, 2018

The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, by Jan Potocki

9780140445800
Penguin, 1996
originally published 1814
translated by Ian Maclean
631 pp

paperback

Believe it or not, the moment I turned the last page I wanted to read this book again.  Given its 600-plus pages, that says a lot, and I ended up not rereading it, but I very easily could have.    I loved this book and I loved the people in it, but I spent most of the time in awe of the author's imagination.

I will say right up front that this book will not be for everyone. It can be  incredibly challenging because of the way it is written as a set of stories within stories within stories, which are often stopped and picked up again later rather than just finished at once, which in a couple of cases may require some backtracking. Reader expectations also play a role here.  For example, I was reading Amazon reviews and came across one from a very disappointed reader who said that he was upset because he'd started this book with the expectation of a "fantasy work" but instead ended up with literary fiction.  No comment on that one, but my point is that it's best to just go into it without any preconceived notions, because really, there's so much going on between these covers and so many different literary styles used here that to give it any sort of label would just flat out be folly. As the back cover blurb says, it's "entertainment on an epic scale," and really, that's how I'd approach it.  In short, relax and go with the flow and you will be rewarded.

The novel begins with the discovery of a set of several handwritten notebooks, all written in Spanish. The French army officer who is in Saragossa at the time of its capitulation in 1809 found them, and held on to them. Later, after leaving Saragossa, he is taken prisoner by the Spanish, and stripped of all possessions.  He begs to be able to keep these notebooks, and is given permission by the captain to do so once the captain realizes that this manuscript "contained the history of his ancestors."  The prisoner did much of his time at the captain's home, where the captain translated the work into French, while the prisoner took down every word.  The manuscript, as it turns out, is the story of young Alphonse van Worden, an officer in the Walloon Guards who has been ordered to Madrid.   In trying to find the shortest route, he ends up in the Sierra Morena between Andalusia and La Mancha. It is an area known for brigands, gypsies, smugglers and other bad types, but Alphonse has no fear, and takes no heed.  As he makes his way through the area, he comes across the deserted inn known as the Venta Quemada, and it's here that this tale really begins.  Eventually he will find himself in the company of several others, where they all share their stories.  It is Alphonse's journey through the Sierra Morena and these shared experiences that make up this novel; to say more would just be wrong.

The back-cover blurb reveals that these tales consist partly of "characters transformed through disguise, magic and illusion," and that idea, more than any other, plays out over and over again throughout this book.  One such story made me laugh out loud, but there are spots of humor everywhere. Also found here are stories that date back to the days of Cleopatra, stories filled with arcane and esoteric lore, lots of erotic moments, political intrigue based on historical fact; there are demons, ghosts, and the Holy Inquisition; there isn't a dull moment anywhere.  It truly is "entertainment on an epic scale."  At the same time, I can see a sort of method in this author's madness in the way he tells this story, which I won't discuss here because it would involve spoilers.

It's hard to describe this book in a succinct, general one-size-fits-all kind of way since it is different things to different people.  For example,  as some have said, it can be "an encyclopedia of the dark side of the European Enlightenment," a gothic tale, an "absurd, through-the-looking glass version of Spain under the Inquisition," as one scholar noted (do NOT go to that link until after finishing the book), a kabbalistic text (don't go there either), or a play on Tales From the Thousand and One Nights.  It's very easy to see all of those ideas combined in this book, especially in hindsight, but there are places in my notebook where I've marked instances of all of these and more while reading.

I loved it -- others may not share my experience, but it's one of those rare books that left me with a sense of loss after finishing it, knowing I'd come to the end.  Each and every second with this book was just pure reading bliss.







Monday, January 29, 2018

The Invention of Morel, by Adolfo Bioy Casares -- a genius novel if ever there was one.

9781590170571
NYRB Classics, 2003
originally published 1940, as La invención de Morel
translated by Suzanne Jill Levine
103 pp

paperback (read earlier this month)

"The habits of our lives make us presume that things will happen in a certain foreseeable way, that there will be a vague coherence in the world."  -- 65


At 103 pages, one would think this book would be a very easy read, but that just isn't the case. It demands a second read (which I did) and probably a third (which I didn't do); its brevity belies the great  depth that the author has brought to this story.

There's not much I can say here without giving away the twist in this book, so this post will be a short one.  Casares has combined a number of different elements here that together don't really allow for The Invention of Morel to be pigeonholed into a single genre -- there are elements of suspense, sci-fi,  metaphysics, philosophy and even romance, so to try to give it a label is foolhardy at best. It is also dark, weird and great all rolled together.

A fugitive escaping from Venezuela with "a life so unbearable" has made his way to an island somewhere in the Pacific. It is a place where Chinese pirates will not go, nor will it ever be visited by "the white ship of the Rockefeller Institute" because it is "known to be the focal point of a mysterious disease."  A group of people had landed there in 1924 and then left it, after having built a museum, a chapel, and a swimming pool. The narrator is completely alone, isolated from the rest of humanity.  But then, everything changes, as he discovers that there are other people on this island.  He takes to watching them as they interact, taking a "certain fascination" in doing so since it had been a very long time since he'd seen anyone at all; he is also worried that they might discover him and deliver him to the authorities.  After a time, the fugitive begins to take the most notice of one of their number, a woman, Faustine, who "watches the sunset every afternoon."  Watching her changes his attitude from one of "nothing to hope for" to its opposite; he decides to make contact with her, risking his freedom in doing so.  It is, as he says, a move that could easily send him back to his past, but he's willing to do it because, as he says, "anything would be preferable to the utter purgatory" he lives in now.  Everything takes off from the point at which he actually works up the courage to speak to her but finds himself ignored, as if he doesn't exist.


original illustration, from the novel -- Faustine

To go any further plotwise would involve key spoilers, and if I say any more there wouldn't be a point in anyone reading this book so we'll stop here. Casares poses a multitude of metaphysical questions in this very short work, which, with apologies I also won't disclose for fear of ruining things;  he also makes some interesting social and political observations vis a vis the narrator's interest in Malthusian theory.  Let's just say that it is one of the best and certainly one of the most surreal stories I've ever read, and to say that it was unputdownable would be an understatement.  ARRGGHHH!  It's SO frustrating not to be able to talk about this book because it's THAT good and I want to spill my guts because it is THAT good.  But my hands are tied and my lips are sealed.

oh well. Just read it and you'll see exactly what I mean.