Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Damned

The Damned, by Algernon Blackwood

An English brother and sister go to stay a while at the home of a widowed friend of the sister's.  While there, they sense that something is terribly wrong about the place-- yet find it difficult to pinpoint the cause of their unease. 

My Reaction:
Well... It's not awful, for this kind of thing, but no, I would not recommend this book to many people.  Only those rare few who like horror stories where nothing really happens... and those who can't get enough theologically-themed psychobabble.  (I suspect that such people are rare.)

Before reading this short novel, I knew nothing of the author and only selected this book because I found it in my first in-depth browse of  (which I do recommend, incidentally).  It was free-- and short-- so why not?  Well, I'll tell you why not:  It's pretty dull and repetitive.  Anyway, I'll go into a few more details of my (mostly) dislike below-- with spoilers.  Otherwise... I'll give another of his books a chance.  One with higher ratings.  If that one fails to impress, he's off my to-read list for the time being. 

Possibly Spoilery Comments:
--  I lost count of the (many, many) times that the narrator (the brother) complains (for lack of a better word) that "nothing happens" at the so-called haunted house.  Argh!  Look, man; we know nothing's happening!  ...And unlike some few readers/reviewers, I find myself on the side of the many who don't think that repeatedly stating that "nothing happening" is part of the indefinable "horror" makes up for the fact that... nothing happens.  I mean, really?  I like old-fashioned tales with more atmosphere and less gore/monsters jumping around corners, but you gotta give me something

--  "The desire for violence came over me.  If only she would say a definite thing in plain King's English!"  Ha!!  We can relate, narrator.  

--  Toward the end of the book:  "There was no climax in the story sense.  Nothing ever really happened."  (Cue the nervous laughter edged with hysteria.)

--  Couldn't help but notice the frequent disparaging use of the word "suburban".  Struck me as odd.  I am not particularly impressed by disdain for the suburbs.  Sorry.

--  "Wellingtonias" (aka giant redwoods or sequoias) and "monkey trees".  Funny plant names I don't recall seeing before.

--  The "coincidence" of this particular spot having been cursed by the awful thoughts of so many different groups of people... Hm.  Mighty big coincidence, there. 

--  Ohmygosh, the anti-religion psychobabble!!  ...When I come right down to it, that's what I disliked most about the story-- and you can't exactly look past it, because that's the gist of the whole thing.  I keep reading that Blackwood was not against the idea of God-- just the evil that man (and man-made religion) does in the name of God.  Particularly the "intolerant" idea of damnation for those who don't believe ABC or XYZ.  ...And I get that.  I mean, obviously some people have done and still do awful things in the name of God-- things that God condemns.  But on the other hand, I can't go along with this New Age-y idea of all religions being equal or true... I just can't.  So.  That was a bit detrimental to my enjoyment of this book.  ;o) 

--  Still, when it wasn't being preachy (ironic!) and long-winded, there were times when it was creepy or suspenseful enough that I didn't want to read it when alone in the house-- or at night, in bed.  The episode that takes place in the middle of the night?  Very creepy-crawly.  (A pity that most of the story was so analytical that the eerieness was blunted, if not completely smothered out of existence.)

--  Mabel's belief that she was hopelessly damned reminded me uncomfortably of the journals of L.M. Montgomery, where she writes about her own (reverend) husband's frequent obsessive conviction that he himself was preordained for damnation.  ~shudder~  So, yes.  When you stop to consider that that part of the book, at least, has some basis in reality... That is truly horrifying.

Monday, September 24, 2012

"The Summer People"

"The Summer People", by Shirley Jackson

If you like Jackson's most famous short story, "The Lottery", there's a good chance you'll like "The Summer People", too.   On the surface, it's just a mundane story about a retired couple who decide to stay in their rural summer cottage one month longer than usual.  Why not squeeze in a few more weeks of enjoyment before returning to New York City?  However, as the people in the nearby village repeatedly tell them, summer people simply don't stay on after Labor Day... And the more you hear it, the more you begin to wonder why...  Subtle undercurrent of dread, anyone?

Specific Notes:

--  I gather that a "backhouse" is the same thing as an "outhouse", but I think this is the first time I've seen that word.

--  Mrs. Allison, considering the local grocer, remarks "it was horrible to think into what old New England Yankee stock had degenerated", and her husband replies that "it's generations of inbreeding" and "the bad land".   Hm.  Well, good to know that City Folk (of the past, at least) didn't think it was just Southerners and/or hillbillies Mountain Folk who had succumbed to inbreeding.  I guess.  ;o)

--  "A garbage man was only necessary for improvident city folk; country people had no garbage."

--  "City manners were no good with country people; you could not expect to overrule a country employee as you could a city worker..."

--  Maybe this is a sign of increasing life expectancies, or perhaps it's merely a reflection of my own increasing age and the resultant wish to push the margins of "old" further and further out... but I found it odd that this couple is described as being old (and apparently with fewer and fewer friends still living) when they are only 58 and 60... Yeah, it's probably just me.  I think about my parents' ages... and my own age... and just can't admit to myself that none of us are as young as we were ten or twenty years ago.  *sigh*  But really, 58's not that old, is it?

Sunday, September 23, 2012

"Mr Humphreys and His Inheritance"

"Mr Humphreys and His Inheritance"
from Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, Part 2, by M. R. James

Well, you know that anytime someone in a ghost story gets an inheritance, it's bound to come with something sinister, and this tale doesn't break with tradition.  Overall, a decent story...  There were some ends that I felt were not satisfactorily tied up, but to compensate, there were the requisite Creepy Moments. 

This was the last story in the book.  I heartily recommend it to anyone fond of old ghost stories. 

More Specific Comments (on this story only):

--  Thank you, story, for introducing me to the word "valetudinarian", which was purposely misspelled as "valentudinarian".  (Someone in poor health and generally obsessed with his/her health.)

--  Mr. Cooper is a male Mrs. Malaprop.

--  Something about the middle of this story-- the labyrinth?  the temple?  both?-- reminded me strongly of some other short story (I think) I've read in the past several years, but I can't figure out which one.  I thought it was in a volume of short stories by Daphne du Maurier, but I looked through that and can't find it... so I'm stumped.  All I can recall is a group of people hanging out around a temple/shrine-- possibly in the center of a maze-- and something ancient and evil coming into play.

--  The "hole in the paper" scene!  It had the vibe of some of the creepiest modern horror movies-- particularly Japanese films or remakes thereof.  (The Ring, maybe...)

--  So... what was up with the mysterious moving/changing shrubs/trees in the garden?  That could have used a bit more explanation, I think.  Or at least I would have liked a little more development on that point.  I guess it was just meant to suggest that there was something wrong about the maze-- and that it was slowly working its way toward the house.

--  Are the carvings on the globe more than a mishmash of figures to suggest Generic Evil?  If you're up for it, this article offers an interesting take on the story.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

"Martin's Close"

"Martin's Close"
from Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, Part 2, by M. R. James

I'm still not sure how I feel about the courtroom transcript format, but I guess it made for a change of pace, if nothing else.  However, the inclusion of (very slight) humor in the courtroom scenes serves to weaken the horror of the story overall. 

Though not (in my opinion, at least) one of James' best, this story does supply a few quite creepy moments.  One or two descriptions in particular reminded me a lot of Dark Water... but told in an old-fashioned, much less graphically gruesome way than is typical of modern horror films.

Interesting tidbit:
Such crimes as this you may perhaps reckon to be not uncommon, and, indeed, in these times, I am sorry to say it, there is scarce any fact so barbarous and unnatural but what we may hear almost daily instances of it.  
Another example of "some things never change"?  Or would M. R. James (or his narrator) be shocked by anything in modern-day crime? 

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

"The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral"

"The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral"
from Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, Part 2, by M. R. James

 A bit anticlimactic, overall, but not without its moments. 

Interesting snippet:
The writer goes on to reflect upon the probability that the writings of Mr Shelley, Lord Byron, and M. Voltaire may have been instrumental in bringing about the disaster, and concludes by hoping, somewhat vaguely, that this event may 'operate as an example to the rising generation'...
Some things never change!

Psmith, Journalist

Psmith, Journalist, by P.G. Wodehouse

The adventures of the dapper Psmith continue when he and his confidential secretary and adviser (a.k.a. Mike) "cross the pond" over to the U.S.   While Mike tours the country playing cricket, Psmith promptly finds himself involved in the fascinating world of New York City newspapers.  There are tenement buildings, gangs, pugilists, and cats, as well.

My Reaction:
Psmith himself is fine in this book, but I think I liked it less as a whole than Psmith in the City.  The "social justice" aspect of the tenement story failed to enthrall, for one thing.  Also, I was happy to hear that the drowse-inducing Mike would be absent for most of the book, only to learn with some disappointment that a Mike-style surrogate would be there in his stead.  (Though perhaps a straight-man is required for comic characters like Psmith...) Finally, I was not entirely smitten with the "local color"-- boxers, gangs, and nearly impenetrable accents.

Meh.  This was not my favorite Wodehouse, by a long shot.  I prefer his stories of the upper crust.  Still, it's not at all bad.  But this is Wodehouse, so you already knew that.  ;o)

(This was another read-aloud with Donald.  I quickly gave up on trying to read the accents as written.  "Translating" to more-or-less ordinary speech on the go was infinitely preferable to muddling awkwardly through that garbled mess.)

Thursday, September 13, 2012

"Casting the Runes"

"Casting the Runes"
from Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, Part 2, by M. R. James

Overall, I liked it much better than "The Tractate Middoth".  There are amazing coincidences again, but we'll just have to look past those, I think.  There are also some rather clunky transitions.  ("It is not necessary to tell in further detail blah blah blah." ... "The next scene that does require to be narrated is such-and-such.")  However, I'm not so great at making seamless transitions, myself, so I'm very forgiving of such shortcomings.  ;o)

I could describe / refer to the creepiest moments, but that would only ruin them for any reader who hasn't read the story.  That leaves me with little more to add...  I can say that the story isn't really a ghost story, by the strictest definition.  As is so often the case with these old tales, I think I can identify some more modern works that have taken inspiration from this one.  Either that, or those elements are universal enough that many writers have simply naturally come up with them on their own.

 --  The scary slide show (magic lantern show) feels very familiar... Reminds me of that tunnel scene in the old Willie Wonka movie-- only many times creepier. 

-- Why would Karswell warn Dunning with Harrington's name?  That just doesn't make sense at all.  The only reason I can come up with is that he meant Dunning to learn some of what happened to Harrington-- enough to fear that something similar may be happening to him, too-- but not enough to figure out that there might be a solution to his troubles.  Still, it just seems like an unnecessary risk on Karswell's part.  I see why James needed Dunning to have this extra clue, but it doesn't make sense from the character's point of view, and I think there were other ways of bringing Harrington's brother into Dunning's acquaintance.  ~shrug~

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

"The Tractate Middoth"

"The Tractate Middoth"
from Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, Part 2, by M. R. James

There are some majorly convenient coincidences in this one.  It's quite a bit weaker than the two first stories, but there's a disturbing image or two to give you something to avoid thinking about.

The "eerily empty library" setting reminded me of the upper stories of "my" old university library, back before they renovated it.  It was so quiet up there, and often there seemed to be no-one there.  Maybe a few people using the computers or tucked quietly into one of the study nooks-- but when you were wandering the maze of tall bookcases in the dim light... ~shiver~  That place was creepy enough even without unsettling memories of ghost stories.

Monday, September 10, 2012

"The Rose Garden"

"The Rose Garden"
from Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, Part 2, by M. R. James

People in ghost stories are (usually) so slow on the up-take!  (Fortunately for us readers, I guess...)

There are a few pleasantly creepy moments, but the ending felt a bit odd.  ...It was ok, but the better parts of the story definitely come before the end. 

Side note:  M. R. James was inordinately fond of Latin, apparently.  I seem to remember it popping up a lot in the first volume of "Antiquary" ghost stories, and there's been Latin in both of the first two tales in this second volume.  Unfortunately, my knowledge of Latin is extremely limited, so unless it's spelled out pretty clearly in context clues, I worry that I'm missing some nuance.  In this story, the unexplained Latin was "quieta non movere".  Ok, I could guess the meaning, but it's nice to be able to search online and know that it means "don't disturb things that are at peace". 

"A School Story"

"A School Story"
from Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, Part 2, by M. R. James

Oooh, creepy.
Somewhat predictable?  No tidy explanation?  Well, yes, but still.  Old-fashioned creepiness abounds.

I found the summaries of the "typical ghost stories told at a school" plenty creepy, too.

Thank you again, Barbara Michaels, for bringing M. R. James to my attention.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Just an Ordinary Day

Just an Ordinary Day, by Shirley Jackson

Publisher's Blurb:
The stories in this edition represent the great diversity of her work, from humor to her shocking explorations of the human psyche. The tales range, chronologically, from the writings of her college days and residence in Greenwich Village in the early 1940s, to the unforgettably chilling stories from the period just before her death. They provide an exciting overview of the evolution of her craft through a progression of forms and styles, and add significantly to the body of her published work.

Just an Ordinary Day is a testament to how large a talent Shirley Jackson had and to the depth, breadth, and complexity of her writing. Though this remarkable literary life was cut short, Jackson clearly established a unique voice that has won a permanent place in the canon of outstanding American literature, and remains a powerful influence on generations of readers and writers.

My Opinion:
Most of the reviews I looked at before starting this collection indicated that the short stories are extremely uneven in quality.  I have to agree, though it's only to be expected.  (Remember, many of these were never published in Jackson's lifetime, and very likely she herself considered them lacking.)  Some of the stories were quite good; others were merely passable; some were downright dull.  Though I think there were a few exceptions, most of my favorites were her published "creepy" tales.  (See below for specifics.)

Before reading this book, I'd been on the look-out for Jackson's memoirs of her young family's life (Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons).  However, after having read the stories/essays in this collection that seem to have been based on/inspired by her family, I'm much less enthusiastic.  Maybe the full, polished memoirs are better than these previously unpublished snippets, but if not, count me out.  In general, I found the children in all these stories to be just plain annoying.  Horrid, disrespectful little brats, in other words.  (No holding back, now!) 


Well.  So, was it worth the read?  Yes, but only for the sake of relatively few of the stories.  Still, there were enough good ones to interest me in locating copies of Jackson's previously collected (and apparently stronger) short stories.  Autumn's coming, and it's the perfect time to read some creepy short stories.

(And by "Specifics" I mean quick notes I jotted down after reading each story...)

"I Don't Kiss Strangers"
Weird.  Don't really get it... Would she act that way if he were dying?

"Summer Afternoon"
Odd.  Spooky, but doesn't really go anywhere.

"Indians Live in Tents"
Odd.  Seemed like some dystopian future with very limited housing... but in the end, I guess it's meant as comedy.

"The Very Hot Sun in Bermuda"
A charming tale of a b***h of a college student and the art professor who finds her so captivating that he cheats on his wife (with whom he has kids).  Lovely.

Unsettling... Twilight Zone-ish.  Feels like a hallucination... or a nightmare.  (How surprising, given the title!)  Ending is weird, though.  Not much of an ending at all, really.

"Dinner for a Gentleman"
The name "Dimity Baxter" is oddly familiar...  A kitchen fairytale.   Somewhat "meh".

"Party of Boys"
Laurie (the narrator's son) is obnoxious.

"Jack the Ripper"
Creepy.  The title gives is away somewhat, though.

"The Honeymoon of Mrs. Smith"
People in Jackson's stories say "look" or "listen" more than people today really do.  A sign of the times in which she lived?  Weirdly anticlimactic story.

"The Sister"
Odd.  Supposed to be funny, maybe... (But obviously it wasn't that successful with me.)

If this is based on her real family... I'm sorry, but I can't stand her son, Laurie.  What a rotten kid!  This makes me glad I don't have kids, honestly, though I'd hope that my own kids wouldn't much resemble the children in these stories...  Blugh.

"Mrs. Anderson"
Weird.  Interesting idea, but weird.

"Come to the Fair"
Pleasant fairytale of happy endings.

Totally bizarre.

"Gnarly the King of the Jungle"
Weird... Another spoiled kid.

"The Good Wife"

"Devil of a Tale"
Bizarre and fablelike... and not in a good way.

"The Mouse"
Is it true that mice will avoid a trap that's already caught a mouse?  I guess it makes sense that they could smell the death... I just never thought about it before.  The story is bizarre.  Did Jackson have something against childless women?  Like we're all unnatural creatures with no maternal instinct whatsoever?  (Ok, so maybe this woman doesn't represent all childless women...)

"My Grandmother and the World of Cats"
Odd and-- well, pointless.

"Maybe It Was the Car"
(No comment, I guess.  (g))

"Lovers Meeting"
Don't really get it...  The point, I mean.

"My Recollections of S.B. Fairchild"
This just makes me really irritated on the narrator's behalf.  And there's no real resolution!!!  ARGH!
"Deck the Halls"
Feels incomplete.  I was sure the girls were running some sort of scam on the whole neighborhood-- or rather that their mother was using them to run a scam.  Who sends her kids out begging for gifts?  If nothing else, wouldn't she go in their place to spare them the experience?  (And if they needed clothes, there are charities that provide free clothing to the truly needy.)  I found a place online where a few people were commenting on this story, and some of them seemed to think that the couple should have given away the teddy bear.  Personally, I don't think so; actually, I think it was very poor behavior for the girl to make a scene about it in the first place.  (I know-- I'm cold and heartless.  Oh well!)  Oh, and five dollars wasn't nothing back when this story was written.  (This story makes me so mad at the mother for sending her kids out begging!)

"Lord of the Castle"
Meh...  Not her finest work, to say the least.

"What a Thought"
One of the stronger of the unpublished works.   I think almost everyone has occasionally had one of those awful random thoughts.  Never anywhere near this insistently, of course-- so don't pack us off to the looney bin, please-- but just the passing, uninvited idea of something horrible that presents itself almost out of the blue...  Horrifying to imagine one that comes and just won't go away.  Sudden madness?  Demonic possession?

"When Barry Was Seven"
A family memory maybe, but not a real story.  Feels like a Peanuts or Family Circle cartoon come to life... or a mash-up of the two.  If her nonfictional books are like this, I'm less interested than I was before...

"Before Autumn"

"The Story We Used to Tell"
Creepy.  Another story about a haunted painting!

"My Uncle in the Garden"
Odd.  No plot, really.  Were the uncles supposed to be... "touched"?  They certainly didn't feel quite normal.

"On the House"
Another weird story that just makes me mad.

"Little Old Lady in Great Need"
Meh.  More characters that make me angry.

"When Things Get Dark"
Don't really get it.  Seems unfinished... Lacking.  (Like many of these stories do.)

"Whistler's Grandmother"
Meh.  Unfinished feeling again.

"Family Magician"
I liked this a lot.  Reminds me of Marry Poppins and other lightly magical children's stories.

"The Wishing Dime"
Too predictable and sickly sweet.

"About Two Nice People"
Ok, but predictable.  Felt like it was supposed to be funnier than it actually was.

"Mrs. Melville Makes a Purchase"
Annoying, frustrating characters and situations... and no real conclusion.  Very unsatisfying.

"Journey with a Lady"
Ok, I guess... It felt odd that we were supposed to sympathize with a thief and a kid who thought a thief was cool.  I half expected her to turn out to be a murderer... push him off the train on the way to the dining car, or something... (g)

"The Most Wonderful Thing"
Meh.  (Not so wonderful, apparently.)

"The Friends"
Very unlikeable, catty people.  If you like "Desperate Housewives", try this!  ;o)

"Alone in a Den of Cubs"
Boooring.  I wonder how much truth/real-life inspiration is in these "family" stories? 

"The Order of Charlotte's Going"
One of the be st in the book, imho.  Awful, of course-- and somewhat predictable-- but interesting.

"One Ordinary Day, With Peanuts"
Odd tale.  Not the ending I expected.  Which is the whole point.  Thought-provoking twist ending.

"The Missing Girl"
What...?  Not sure why even the mother gave up.  Seems unlikely.  Just because she had other kids?  Insufficient explanation.

"The Omen"
Ok.  But nothing amazing.  But fine.  (g)

"A Great Voice Stilled"
Weird and boring.  More awful people that you don't really even love to hate... Awful people that you just don't want to waste your time hating.

"All She Said Was Yes"
Predictable that of course they would disregard Vicky's warning... but still a little creepy.  I expected more of a bang of an ending, though.

They're planning on staying in that house...? Creepy.  They'll never be able to use that road in the rain, I guess...

Fine, but a bit boring by the end.  Could've been shortened.  Again, Jackson's depictions of children make me want to avoid children-- but maybe real kids aren't this sickening?  At least, I don't remember being that bratty and generally infuriating...

"The Possibility of Evil"
Dark, nasty little story.  But in a good way...? ;o)

If you read all my brief reactions to individual stories, one right after another, in one big gulp... it looks like I must have hated 95% of the book.  Not really so.  I'm just more likely to express dissatisfaction right after reading an individual story (possibly with only a small aspect of it), even though looking back at the book, even the ones I thought weren't strong weren't necessarily awful.  

Anyway, here's a list of the stories I remember liking most / finding the most thought-provoking (and would be the most likely to want to re-read):

"Come to the Fair"  (but be warned that it's a non-creepy romance)
"Deck the Halls"  (even though it infuriates me)
"What a Thought"
"The Story We Used to Tell"
"Family Magician"
"The Friends"  (despite the awful people in the story)
"The Order of Charlotte's Going"
"One Ordinary Day, With Peanuts"
"All She Said Was Yes"  (...I guess.)
"The Possibility of Evil"