Wednesday, July 27, 2016

*reveling in obscure weirdness once again: Alraune, by Hanns Heinz Ewers

Birchgrove Press, 2013
340 pp
originally published 1911
translated by S. Guy Endore

That decadent vibe -- I just love it and this book is filled with it.  Alraune brings together a bit of the grotesque, the perverse, and all manner of weirdness that appeals, but when all is said and done, it's the German style of decadence that resonates.    It is Ewers' second entry in his Frank Braun trilogy, between The Sorcerer's Apprentice and Vampire, neither of which I've read. Alraune is another word for mandrake, the legends of which  go way back in history, but for our purposes, it's the German version told in this book that's relevant:
"The criminal stripped naked as a pair of tongs and hanged at the crossroads, lost, so the story goes, his final seed, the moment his neck was broken. This seed falls to the ground and there germinates. Thence resonates an alraune, either a little man or a little woman."
In the house of King's Councilor Gontram,  there is an alraune manikin made of wood hanging on the wall; according to the same legend, it "served as an amulet against witchcraft and drew money into the house."  Present at the house when the manikin is discovered is Frank Braun, nephew to Jacob ten Brinken, who is Privy Councilor and scientist involved in some pretty bizarre experiments.  Braun decides that his uncle should "create an alraune: one that will be alive, one of flesh and blood." He is fascinated with the idea, and tells his uncle that he is the only one who can "make truth out of the lie," by bringing the legend to life.  Off to the lab goes our somewhat mad scientist with the sperm of a hanged man, with which he inseminates a prostitute and thus is born Alraune, formed "against all laws of nature." Even before she's born, she can be heard screaming in the womb, much like the mandrake is supposed to sound as it's being pulled out of the earth.  After her birth she is adopted by ten Brinken, baptized, and later sent off to school where she begins to realize that no one, absolutely no one, male or female, can resist her.  People are like Alraune's toys -- she plays with them for a while, gets what she wants from them, and then they are discarded. A better analogy is that she is the proverbial flame luring the moth -- and when some poor soul gets too close to her,  he/she finds his/her wings singed or even sometimes flat out destroyed. The story follows Alraune as she grows up, makes her father's fortune, and plays with people, up until one man comes along who seems to be immune to her.

There are so many ways anyone could read this novel so I'm not going to go into the under-the-surface stuff here.  Suffice it to say that Alraune is downright weird, and its sheer weirdness is augmented by the original drawings by Mahlon Blaine.  For example, here's his depiction of death "gliding through the quiet house"

(that's a cigar in the skeleton's mouth), and an illustration of Alraune's "father's" perverse feelings toward her, in a scene where she's dressed up like an "elevator-boy in a tight-fitting scarlet uniform," since it pleases him when she dresses like a boy:

Seriously, there's some very messed up stuff going on in this novel, but by now everyone knows I love really strange books and that I love old books -- Alraune is a bizarre blend of both.  Try at your own risk -- it's really going to appeal to readers who appreciate the old decadent aesthetic, and frankly,  it is just plain odd but I  loved it.  This book crawled underneath my skin and hasn't left.

Oh! PS:  I forgot -- I did watch an adaptation of this novel, English title "Unnatural," with Erich von Stroheim as ten Brinken and Hildegarde Neff in the title role.  It leaves a lot to be desired in terms of the novel as well as the acting, but it was still fun.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

still playing catchup from June with I'm Thinking of Ending Things, by Iain Reid

Scout Press/Simon and Schuster, 2016
210 pp


Before I even start talking about this novel, I have to say up front that while giving a book a one-star review is certainly any reader's prerogative, Iain Reid's I'm Thinking of Ending Things  absolutely does not deserve the nasty, vehement comments that were given to it by some of the Amazon "reviewers"  who afforded it a single star.   Quite frankly, screw that crap.   Far from a logical, rational explanation as to why these people didn't like the book, I was actually taken aback by the level of sheer hateful negativity coming out of these people.  There weren't as many venomous two-star reviews, but even those readers weren't offering any sort of cohesive argument as to why they didn't care for the book.  Shame on you people -- a) go take a basic English 101 course at your local community college and learn how to more logically present a written argument and b) if you're completely flummoxed by the content of this novel, well, seriously ... while you're relearning your writing skills, sign up for a basic course in Jungian psychology.  The author pretty much clues us in as to how to read this book right up front -- it's certainly not his fault that people don't read closely enough to listen.  And if I had any balls, I'd say so on Amazon, but the fact is that I'm completely thin skinned, fairly emotional,  and I just couldn't take the resulting shitstorm. Oh my, my  language is REALLY awful today, apologies,  -- but frankly, I'm just getting downright sick of  how people seem to believe it's their god-given right to unleash their nastiness anywhere they see fit nowadays.

Personally speaking, I thought it was a good, not great, book on the nature of self, the nature of identity, and an interesting take on the darkness of human nature. It's definitely dark, and it is precisely that darkness that appeals to me.  However, what killed it for me is that I figured it all out very early on, so I don't quite understand why so many people were left so confused with this novel, because the author basically gives the reader more than enough clues as to what's going on that it should have been pretty easy to put together and to understand.  While it may have something to do with my long tenure as a mystery/crime reader where I'm used to picking up on certain things that tend to stick in my head, what I really think is that the author made things way too easy here. And in fact, that is my biggest complaint about this book. Having an inkling of what was coming sort of made the big wow not as big for me as it may have been at the end.

On the other hand, despite the fact that  I sort of knew how things were going to play out, my guts still churned moving toward the last page. Frankly, I think Mr. Reid is a writer with much potential, and considering that this is his first novel, I think he's done a pretty good job here, and I will look forward to his future work.

Monday, July 11, 2016

*Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, by Patrick Suskind

Vintage International, 2001
originally published as Das Parfum, 1986
translated by John E. Woods
255 pp


"What he coveted was the odor of certain human beings: that is, those rare humans who inspire love."

There are just some books you want to sit down and discuss with a group of people, and Perfume is definitely one of those.  A couple of days after I'd finished it, I went to look at reader reviews and found a number of different takes on it.  For example, on Amazon, one reader referred to it as "one of the best, strangest thriller novels..." , another praised its "dark, gothic, serial killer plot of a genre pageturner," still another says it's a "commentary on perversion, unfettered arrogance, and ironically misplaced idealism."  So I went to goodreads to see what readers there said, and found "one of the greatest horror novels ever written," and "a cross between Silence of the Lambs and a period drama."  Sheesh -- the interpretations seem endless!!

  So then I went to contemporary reviews of this book and even here I got very different impressions.  For example (and with apologies to anyone without an NYRB archives subscription) Robert M. Adams' NYRB review saw it as a story of
"an alleged sniffer of genius, born to squalor in eighteenth-century France, who by sheer concentrated nose-power rises to be the supreme perfumer of his age, and simultaneously an atrocious criminal."
He also said it was "a ridiculously improbably piece of verbose claptrap..." as well as an allegory of the Third Reich.  Peter Ackroyd, writing in the New York Times, says it's a "meditation on the nature of death, desire and decay."

However anyone may understand or interpret this novel, it just screams let's sit down and talk about it.

[just an fyi: there are a couple of spoilers ahead so beware]:

 I'm tempted to throw it onto this year's real-world book group list, but for some reason my friends don't really do deep dark, and this book is deep dark.  I think that one way to make sense of it is to read it as a story (in part) of personal and artistic identity; it can also be read as one man's quest for purpose, meaning, love, and perfection by a person whose life up to a certain point was destined to remain alone in the stink and squalor of the life he was born into. It's only after his first murder that our main character, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille,  begins to understand that  "Never before in his life had he known what happiness was... for until now he had merely existed like an animal."  His purpose begins taking form at this moment, as he realizes that he
"must become a creator of scents. And not just an average one. But rather, the greatest perfumer of all time." (43)
And why? He viewed the scent of his first victim as the  "higher principle, the pattern by which the others must be ordered. It was pure beauty."  He believed that unless he "possessed this scent, his life would have no meaning," so he goes on to try to capture it, hence the series of murders that follows. But there is method to Grenouille's madness. This story isn't about someone who kills just anyone -- as we're told,  "What he coveted was the odor of certain human beings: that is, those rare humans who inspire love."

Ironically, this "higher principle"  is really only understood by one other person, the father (Richis) of Laure, Grenouille's last victim:
"For if one imagined -- and so Richis imagined -- all the victims not as single individuals, but as parts of some higher principle and thought of each one's characteristics as merged in some idealistic fashion into a unifying whole, then the picture assembled out of such mosaic pieces would be the picture of absolute beauty, and the magic that radiated from it would no longer be of human, but of divine origin."  (203)  
 Obviously there's so much more to this novel that I can't really go into here although I wish I could -- the very important connection between being scentless and the resulting perception of being soulless (and in my opinion I can read "self" less here), Grenouille's time in seclusion, the bizarre ending ... there's just too, too much.  But I will say that I absolutely loved this book on many levels and was hooked from page one.  God, this is a great novel!!

Laure Richis (as played by Rachel Hurd-Wood) from the movie 
Sadly, to me anyway, while the film was okay and while I couldn't stop watching,  it sort of missed some of the (if you'll pardon the pun) essence of the novel. There are a number of differences between book and movie, but the book offers so much more in terms of sensory details that to me are highly important -- as just one example from the beginning, why it is that Jean-Baptiste is shunned as an infant by his first caretakers, the wet nurse and then a Catholic priest.  Plus, I really, really hate voice-overs on films, but that's just me.  Read the book, then see the movie in that order, and chances are you won't need the voice-overs.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

this one I really liked -- My Bones and My Flute: A Ghost Story in the Old-Fashioned Manner, by Edgar Mittelholzer

Peepal Tree Press, 2015
originally published 1955
231 pp

paperback (read in June)

I enjoyed this book so very much that even before I'd turned the last page, I bought another work by Edgar Mittelholzer.   Considering I'd never even heard of him before buying this book, I'd say that's a recommendation for reading this writer's work.

As our story opens, we learn that this tale is the work of Milton Woodsley, who in 1954 has written a book about a series of strange occurrences that he was part of in 1933.  He guarantees that he's combed through the facts as noted in his diary of twenty years earlier, and that this book is indeed a "true record" of events "including  nothing that might be attributed to my imagination."  He had originally intended on publishing just his diary notes "as they stood," but he was convinced by the three other principal players to a) "let it be a good thrilling sort of old-fashioned ghost story, with the mystery solved at the end," b) to write it up in "sonorous prose style" with  "as much 'form and shape'" that he could manage, and c) to add into it a "lot of atmosphere and excitement."   And all three of these elements are definitely here, although Milton himself wonders if the actual mystery was truly solved when all is said and done.   That question, he says, must be left up to the reader, and as it turns out, Milton is spot on with his observation.

We then go back in time to 1933, where young Milton is on a steamer heading up Guyana's Berbice River out of New Amsterdam.  He had been invited to accompany Mr. Ralph Nevinson along with his wife Nell and daughter Jessie, to Nevison's company's up-river station at Goed de Vries for two weeks and while there, Milton's job will be to paint "some pictures depicting jungle scenes" that "would adorn the walls of their head office."  After the steamer had gone more than half way, Milton has this sort of flash that his inclusion on this trip was more about something else other than painting; it was then that he realized that "things were not what they appeared to be."  As it turns out, he learns from Jessie that her father had only just returned from Goed de Vries a month earlier and that since he'd been back, he'd been "nervy and jumpy" for reasons unknown to her, but what really captures his attention is that suddenly, out of nowhere, Jessie asks him about the sound of a flute playing on a lower deck:
"Don't you hear that flute? It's the same one I've been hearing for some days now in Queenstown."
Milton can't hear a thing, but then Nevinson admits that he can also hear the flute playing, confiding in Milton that he hears it right beside him.  Milton is puzzled but Nevinson eventually lets him in on what's going on.  Nevinson's hobby was collecting anything related to the early history of the colony, and some two years earlier, he had learned of a manuscript that was
"supposed to bring good fortune to its possessor, provided it was kept shut away in safety from daylight and fire."
However, it comes with the explicit warning that  "it must not be handled at any time."

Berbice River at sunset, courtesy of Guyana Tourism Board
Nevinson never saw the manuscript, but was definitely intrigued, and he tells Milton that just the month before when he'd gone to Goed de Vries, he discovered that its owner had died and left him the manuscript sealed in a canister.  Nevinson, who is "the last person on earth who thinks twice about superstitions," decides to open the canister and on arriving back home, sits down to translate the manuscript.

And now here I have to add a [sidebar]: The name M.R. James appears more than once in this book, and while there are a number of reasons why this is so (which I'll leave for other readers to discover), one is most obvious -- as in many of James' stories, everything begins when someone starts messing around with things best left alone. So you might imagine that I wasn't surprised when Nevinson fails to heed the warning.   The irony of the situation is that he is a huge fan of James' work, even carrying a copy of Ghost Stories of an Antiquary into the jungle with him.  I mean, come on ... you'd think someone who is that big of a fanboy should have known better!  Now back to the book.

It was then that he began to hear the flute, and no matter where he goes, it's always with him.  Soon, the entire family and Milton are infected and find themselves at the mercy of some pretty strange forces. Even worse, they find themselves racing against the clock to fight off whatever evils are attacking them.

Like most of the books I read, My Bones and My Flute can be read strictly for its surface value -- in this case, a creepy, mysterious ghost story where the tension ratchets over the course of the book -- or for people who want to dive deeper, there's certainly plenty lurking beneath: race, the immense power of the jungle landscape, Guyana's troubled slave past, and much, much more. One thing I didn't pay much attention to but discovered while reading the introduction -- which should absolutely be left until the end of the book to avoid any sort of spoilers, so don't be a Nevinson and disregard the warning -- is that you can read this story as a book about writing, since Milton is coming at this tale retrospectively, trying to create a polished product from diary notes, often stopping to refer to the process throughout the novel.

No matter how you choose to read it, My Bones and My Flute is a fine ghost story that had me flipping pages until I'd finished, and as I said earlier, it is so very well done that without hesitating for a second, I immediately picked up another of Mittelholzer's Caribbean novels. My only issues: there are some pretty overwrought, overwritten sections in this book that are almost laughable and the ending sort of left me with a few more questions, but on the whole, it is one that serious readers of older supernatural stories will not want to miss.  Quite frankly, I feel like I hit paydirt when I discovered this  novel, and I can't wait to read his next one, Shadows Move Among Them.  If you're into rare and obscure finds, this should definitely be a part of your library.