Sunday, November 15, 2015

Binscombe Tales: The Complete Series

Binscombe Tales: The Complete Series
by John Whitbourn

Binscombe is a place where things go bump in the night and often in the daytime too. Here you will find stories to prick the imagination, quicken the pulse, and chill the blood. It is a place where waiting for a bus may take a lot longer than you think, where the rustle in the bushes is likely to be something considerably more secretive and more dangerous than a badger, where inanimate objects may have strong views of their own, and where past, present and future sometimes collide with unpredictable results.
To this inward-looking corner of England's Home Counties comes Mr Oakley, a newcomer in the village but one whose family name appears on some of the oldest gravestones. Mr Oakley believes in the comfort, convenience and security of the modern world and he fancies that the past is safely dead and buried. It is a world view that he will have repeatedly challenged by the mysterious Mr Disvan, who acts as his (and our) guide to the winding byways of the bizarre that thread through Binscombe life. Now that Mr Oakley has returned to his ancestral homeland, he will soon discover that reality is a relative concept, and the world outside Binscombe will never seem quite the same again.

My Reaction:
These tales are an immensely readable mixture of The Twilight Zone and English humor.  They can be read one or two at a time ("savored", as I believe some term it) or gobbled one right after the other (the way I've read them).  Each can stand on its own, but taken together, they work together to tell a larger story about Binscombe, Mr. Oakley, and Mr. Disvan.

I was introduced to Binscombe Tales by Julie at the Forgotten Classics podcast.  In fact, I've already blogged about her reading of the first tale in the book here: "Another Place".  I enjoyed that story so much that I put the book on my To Read list, and though not all of the tales are quite as good as that one (always the case with collections of short stories), it was an entertaining read.

Prepare for a few shudders, but there's nothing very graphically depicted.

There are occasional lapses in editing-- mainly punctuation issues and a few misspellings-- but not enough to be particularly irritating.

One thing to note: I bought the Kindle version of this book-- partly because it was significantly cheaper than the paper version ($9.99 vs $24.99 for paperback), partly because I simply prefer reading on my e-reader.  However, for some reason, the Kindle version is lacking the afterword that is included in the paper versions.  Based on reviews, that afterword is a lengthy essay that sounds like an interesting read.  I'm disappointed that it wasn't included in the ebook (but I guess I'll survive this deprivation, somehow).

"Warning": Because I wrote a little about each story (adding to it every so often as I read through the collection), this entry has turned out to be fairly long.

Specific Tales (with SPOILERS):

"Another Place" 
The book starts off strong with this tale of a man who wakes one day to find himself in... the other Binscombe.

Wonderful!  I could've read a whole novel based on this idea alone.

"Till Death Do Us Part"
One severely hen-pecked husband learns (to his dismay) that the marriage vows might be even more enduring than he expected...

Not quite a favorite of the bunch-- but hey, not bad, either!  My only-- spoilery!!-- specific remark is this:  What?!  They're going to contaminate the lake with a body?!  Gross!  I could never work up an appetite for fish caught in the lake, afterwards, if I were privy to that information...

"Only One Careful Owner"
A young couple think they've scored an excellent deal on their gently used car.  They soon come to realize that there's a slight catch.

A few very creepy moments.  I particularly enjoyed the neighbor who came into the pub to scold the couple for leaving their little girl out in the car to scream and cry. ~shiver~  On thing confuses me, though.  The car is mentioned specifically as a Ford Fiesta, so I looked it up.  Apparently the first year they came out was 1976, but the phantom radio broadcast is from 1968.  I wonder if this was done intentionally or if the author was simply mistaken in thinking that the Ford Fiesta had been around since the 60s.

"Waiting for a Bus"
This eerie story will make you think twice, the next time you're tempted to complain about a long wait for your ride.  ;o)

The bit at the end is great-- but I think what "bothers" me most about this story is how depressing it is.  Also, it provokes some deeper thought-- questions about whether my own life is so uneventful, unremarkable, and closed off from the rest of the world that I would make a good candidate for the bus stop...  "...[T]he active years of my life passed me by and were wasted in nothingness..."  Fairly motivating to get up and do something!

"All Roads Lead to Rome"
Disembodied whispers in the woods.  An archaeologist with closer ties to the ancient past than she might have expected.

Another "not favorite", but still an interesting tale.  I wonder if it was intentionally a commentary on women who can't seem to make a permanent break from abusive relationships... Ellie acknowledges that even though she's afraid of the "Voice", she also finds herself aroused by it, and in the end-- if Mr. Divan is correct-- she willingly goes back to her husband from a previous life.

"The Will to Live"
A tale of a man who's too busy to die.

I don't think I quite "got" the end of this one.  At least, it left me thinking, "And...?"  So it turns out that Terrence is Binscombe's MP-- member of parliament.  I guess it's meant to be a punchline.  While I agree that politicians are frequently awful people, this joke ended the story on a bit of a downbeat, from my perspective.

"Here Is My Resignation"
A brief vignette in which a man decides to have done with the workaday world.

Vaguely creepy.  I didn't grow up with tales of "scary fairies", and they've always seemed less interesting than other sinister creatures.  The description of the eyes peeping through the leaves is eerie, though... I can't quite understand why Mr. Pelling would want to go along with them, even if he was sick of his daily routine.  Then again, he described himself as a nihilist, so... Yeah, not quite on an even keel, I guess.

"A Video Nasty"
Two elderly sisters discover, to their dismay, that they have accidentally recorded something unusual with their VCR...

This one started out strong, but at some point it bogged down slightly.  Fortunately, it gained steam toward the end.  I think part of my problem with this story was that I sometimes found it difficult to sympathize with the obnoxiously Marxist sisters... Also, the bit where the "entity" talks just destroys the creepiness for me.  Still, plenty of good stuff here, aside from those quibbles!

"Binscombe Jihad"
A farm manager doesn't pay have proper respect for the history of the land, with dire consequences.

Mr. Disvan shows a much darker side of his character, here.  I understand people's anger at Mr. Wheldon for destroying ancient trees, tearing up old hedgerows, and-- especially-- killing pet dogs and cats that supposedly have wandered onto the farm.  Then there's the workman's death, but as Wheldon had no way of knowing the man would be killed, it seems unfair to heap all the blame for that on him.  Leaving the workman out of it and counting "just" the trees, hedgerows, pets, layoffs, etc. against him, it seems he's paying a pretty stiff price for his crimes!

After contributing to "The Concrete Fund", Mr. Oakley becomes obsessed with learning what it is, exactly.  (You'll never guess...)

This was an odd spin on the old legend of King Arthur.  It served as a reminder that there's much I don't know about the history of the British Isles.  I've read a few things about Arthur-- and seen a movie or two-- but exactly where he is supposed to have fallen in history?  No clue.  This version of King Arthur is a far, far cry from Disney's The Sword in the Stone!  Mr. Disvan's "prodigal son" speech to Mr. Oakley is shudder-worthy.  "Surely you now see that knowing what you do, there can be no question of your ever leaving."

"Reggie Suntan"
An unwelcome house-guest who refuses to leave plagues Reggie Suntan, so he visits his old hometown (Binscombe, of course) to seek the advice of Mr. Disvan.

The conclusion of this tale was quite amusing-- particularly the bit where Reggie Suntan puts the ghostly signature to practical use!

I believe it was in this story that Reggie and Mr. Oakley both were described as "heathens"-- meaning that they aren't spiritual/"believers".  My question is this: how can a Binscomite not believe in some sort of higher power?  It just strikes me as strange.  They're surrounded by things that defy rational explanation.  It seems like they'd be very likely to give religion some serious consideration, under those circumstances.

As a side note, I always find it intriguing when a person or character is described as "American-looking" (maybe because I was once described thus, myself).  Do Americans have a "look"?  Perhaps it's something like the common phenomenon in which people can't detect their own accent, but I'm skeptical.  I'm afraid it might not be a compliment, in any case... Although in this story, the "American-looking" woman was apparently attractive.  Was she "American-looking" because she wore leather pants?  ...Because, if so, jeans would actually be much more typically American. (g)

"His Holiness Commands"
A belligerent man unwittingly creates a passageway to yet another "version" of Binscombe, and we are treated to a lesson in how a different outcome in a single historical event could create a far-reaching ripple effect.

I had a good laugh over the "that tears it" joke.

Mr. Disvan seems happy to let the future care/guardianship of the rift in time and space sort of work itself out.  I would've thought Mr. Oakley would have understood that it would simply become another sacred duty passed down through the generations of Binscombe, like the small matter of the Concrete Fund.

No, my personal concern would be that the people on the Other Side might eventually get curious/forgetful and come investigating again.  Or conquering, as the case may be.  Of course, that particular alternative reality didn't seem to be especially technologically advanced (which is perhaps rather insulting to certain groups, but we'll let it pass)-- as evidenced by the use of gas lights instead of electric-- so even if they did come bursting through the brick walls, they wouldn't likely be any match for our own weaponry.

After avoiding their tragic deaths, a family thinks they're in the clear, but those of us who have seen any of the Final Destination movies could probably tell them otherwise.

Yep, another pretty good'un.
I think the creepiest part is Mr. Disvan's (and Maccabi's) complete lack of concern that he'll be causing the premature deaths of the few other people he happens to queue with.  I mean, I get that, as far as Maccabi's concerned, his children come before anyone else, but still... A bit cold, you know?

"No Truce With Kings"
Cromwell.  (I hope you know all about him, else you'll risk the disappointment of Mr. Disvan and the other Binscomites.)

Ok, I'll admit it: before reading this story, I didn't know much of anything about Oliver Cromwell.  I'm an American, you see, and my education focused on American history with limited forays into World History (that I can recall)-- and those were more concerned with the Renaissance, the two World Wars, etc.  I'm relatively certain Cromwell was mentioned, but it was only briefly, by comparison.

What I'm trying to explain here is that if I was ever taught about Cromwell, I've forgotten it by now.  As a result, I floundered through parts of this story.  I suppose the idea of a haunted, talking skull is intriguing enough for a weird tale, but some of the jokes and references went whizzing right over my head.

To be honest, the suggestion that Cromwell would "return" at some point in the future came a bit too close on the heels of the story about King Arthur (a.k.a. the Once and Future King).  The future's looking awfully busy for Britain, what with all these "returning" historical and/or mythical figures!

"Let the Train Take the Strain"
Mr. Oakley decides to try driving himself to work in hopes of avoiding the stress of train-commuting, only to discover that travelling on the motorway involves its own set of risks.

This one certainly has its creepy moments-- more so than some of the others (such as the Cromwell tale)-- but it left me with a question or two.

First, there's this insinuation that there are more "lost souls" on the shoulders of major roads than elsewhere-- a higher concentration of them, that is-- due to motor accidents resulting in sudden, violent deaths.  Alright... But by that logic, shouldn't there be even more spirits wandering the halls of hospitals, since many accident victims don't die on the spot (not to mention that accident victims of all sorts-- not just car crashes-- go to the hospital)?  ...Or is the logic that the ghosts stay where the "accident" happened rather than wherever the eventual death occurs?

...Anyway, that one I guess I can grudgingly accept, even though the story seems to inflate the number of people killed on any given stretch of busy roadway.  My bigger question is why these ghosts/spirits are so... "hungry", as one is described.  What kind of ghost is hungry?  That blood residue at the emergency phone... Was that person "just" attacked in a fit of ghostly rage?  Or are the ghosts literally hungry and feeding on the living who are stranded by the road?  I'm sure we're not meant to really know, in any case, but it's driving me crazy... I almost feel like part of the story was missing!

"Rollover Night"
Binscomites are treated to visions of the ancient past-- and the far-flung future.

My favorite part of this one would have to be the end.  (So much for "peace on earth" and "all is well"!)

The idea of a temporary window into the future is interesting, though perhaps essentially unappealing.  If it showed something awful, I'd be depressed to see it, but if the future I glimpsed seemed too wonderful and alluring, I wonder if it might make me dissatisfied with my own lot in life.

The bit with the ancient Egyptians, however, makes little sense to me... Why should they be visible at all, if they were spirits "living out" (for want of a better term) their afterlife in "the Beautiful West"?  Shouldn't the ancient past of Binscombe just be woods and meadows and animals until the first live people arrived there?  That confuses me-- the only possible result of expecting too much logic and sense from these types of stories!

"Yankee Go Home"
An American prodigal returns to the Binscombe fold, bearing news of an extraterrestrial nature.

This was one of the weaker tales, in my opinion.  Not bad, but not a favorite.   The ending left me a little cold.  (After all, Binscome's not that close to Sherwood Forest, is it?)  If nothing else, the story introduced me to the whole "Yankee Go Home" thing, which I'd never heard about, before.  (Anti-Americanism, yes; that particular phrase/song/slogan, no.)  ...Not that it's that helpful or pleasant to know... Let's try again: The description of the Mars photos was pleasantly eerie.

"Hello Dolly"
Mr. Oakley tries to chat up an attractive woman, with strange results.

I'm not sure I completely understand this one, but it is plenty creepy.  So... Is Linda really some sort of doll, herself?  (Somehow?)  The description of her appearance and her oddly childlike way of talking certainly seems to support that view (as do the references to "Living Doll").  Maybe contact with the scary secret-room Doll changed her.  As fruitless as it usually is to seek logic, reason, or solid answers in these types of stories, I can't seem to help myself.

"Peace on Earth, Goodwill to Most Men"
Mr. Oakley attends Binscombe's version of the Christmas midnight mass.

It's another instance of the "hungry ghosts".  This time we get a little more explanation, though.  They grow hungry-- "or empty as the centuries go by".

This story might lead one to wonder how common it is that drunks barge into churches to disturb late-night sermons/ceremonies.  You wouldn't think there would be much trouble with that sort of thing-- certainly not enough to "feed" a host of hungry ghosts, every single Christmas.

"Canterbury's Dilemma"
Mr. Oakley excites the interest of an unusual "recruitment officer".

Oakley really is a little slow on the up-take, sometimes, isn't he?   I found this tale amusing and interesting, though I'm a little puzzled as to why the God-fearing folk of Binscombe would be willing to risk interaction with Mr. Fersen.  Of course, the clergy didn't hang around, and maybe it was only unbelievers who attended the party... I can't recall.

On the subject of "unbelievers", I've wondered more than once, through these stories, how someone (Oakley for one, though he's not the only one) can be atheists with all the evidence before their eyes.  This tale brings that question right to the forefront, a couple of times.  I suspect that Mr. Oakley's "disbelief" is not quite so solid and unshakable as he likes to suggest.  The further we go through these stories, the more obvious it is that he struggles to maintain his supposed atheism.

"Every Little Breeze"
A former Binscomite lives with the volume turned up to eleven in an attempt to drown out something... unpleasant.

Creepy!  I guess the younger audience might not have direct experience with audiotape recorders, but for those of us old enough to remember fooling around with tape recorders, it's only too easy to imagine hearing ~~phantom voices~~ coming through in the background.  Even when the mystery sounds could be explained away (bleed-through from the other side of the tape, for instance), it could still elicit a few goosebumps-- particularly when heard in the dead of night...  Ah, the good old days!  Digital music files can't do that.  ;o)

Incidentally, this is the first time I've heard of "Raudive voices".
"We are watching you."  ~shiver~

"But After This, the Judgement"
Did you ever stop to consider what-- or who-- might be responsible for your favorite sport hero's most shining moment?  Maybe it's time you did...

Sports.  Rugby, to be precise.  (Insert ambivalent expression here.)  This wasn't a favorite.  Not bad, but not as original as some of the others.  Also, I've lost track now, but I'm pretty sure this isn't the first-- and maybe not even the second-- of these tales to center around a character who has made a deal with the Devil.  That (perceived, if not actual) repetitiveness coupled with the sports angle pushed it firmly into "not the best in the book" territory.

"It'll All be Over by Christmas"
Many Worlds Theorem, anyone?

I suppose the concept of "the multiverse" is interesting... Or rather, I do find it fascinating (for limited periods of time) to contemplate how the course of history might have been altered by diverse "tweaks".  One little (or not-so-little) change could have set us off on a vastly different trajectory.  Many of us wouldn't even be here.  In our places would be people who do not (maybe could not) exist in our own present day.

Then there's the idea that every possible version of the the world/history is being acted out/lived out simultaneously-- alternate realities/dimensions rolling together through space and time, parallel but unique... Now that I find absurd and completely unappealing.  If every permutation happens somewhere, no matter what we decide and do in our lives, what's the point of living and making decisions?  No thanks; not for me.

An interesting story, though.  The concept of an intersection ("overlap phenomena") between alternate worlds is great sci-fi fodder.  There could be an epic series of novels based on that.  (There probably already is-- and in our own world, too, not one of those other ones...)

"I Could a Tale Unfold"
Mr. Oakley learns that even inanimate objects have lives of their own, after a fashion.

I like the idea of "haunted objects" for creepy stories.  This particular haunted object, though... An accountant's desk in the service of local government?  Seems it would've been more likely to put Mr. Oakley into a state of drowsy stupor than to make him combative and devil-may-care.

Neither was I impressed by the talking of the desk.  But maybe that's just me.  I think that any time a creepy, non-human entity in a story/novel/movie physically speaks, it must be done very carefully, or it just feels ridiculous.  Of course, in this tale, we weren't supposed to be scared of the desk... I kind of wish we had been, though.  The desk's much put-upon attitude didn't win my sympathy.  (I'm a horrible person, clearly.)

"Oh, I Do Like to be Beside the Seaside (Within Reason)"
Prepare to think differently about "Kodak moments".

Most of us have probably thought, at some point or another, "If only I could freeze time and just live in this moment forever!" ...Well, this story might make us reconsider that wish.

The idea that one could become trapped inside a photograph is interesting. (Though it's not the first time I'm read something along those lines, it's usually been paintings rather than photos.)  There's just a dash of Groundhog Day, too (particularly with the self-replenishing food and booze and the fact that people can't die).  It puts a whole new spin on the phrase "capture your likeness"!  An engrossing tale.

"The More it Changes"
We are treated to a historical vignette in which we learn how Binscombe got its name.

Very interesting, and an excellent way to finish the collection, tying the very origins of Binscombe (well, at least how it got its name and part of its early population) back to our own Mr. Oakley.  I love it that Mr. Oakley's distant ancestor was the leader of the group of Saxon invaders that settled Binscombe.  And (of course) there's Mr. Disvan (though unnamed) at the end!  He was an old man even then!  Who/what is Mr. Disvan?  An alien?  An immortal?  I guess we'll never know...

- - - - - - -

A great set of stories.  I only wish there were more of them.  (I suppose the author doesn't intend to write more, either, since he apparently writes about story ideas he never got around to, in that afterword I haven't been able to read.)  I can definitely see myself revisiting these, at some point, and I'll recommend them to others.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

The Provincial Lady in America

The Provincial Lady in America
by E.M. Delafield

In this installment of the "Provincial Lady" series, the titular Lady visits America for a whirlwind tour and a number of speaking engagements.  On her itinerary are New York, Chicago, Cleveland, Boston, Washington, and (in Canada) Toronto.  The highs and lows of travel abroad are treated with her usual humorous touch-- and we American readers are obviously interested to learn what she thought of our national forbears.

My Reaction:
This was a shared read-- always great for comedic works like this one.

The general consensus (in the handful of reviews I've glanced over) seems to be that, while still pleasingly amusing and witty, this is not quite as amusing as the earlier Provincial Lady books.  I think I agree.

As for why this book is weaker, it's probably a number of small things in combination.  Certain aspects are repetitive, for one.  For another, the constant state of rush made me almost tired to read!  (I probably need a nap, though, and that may have something to do with it.)  The revolving door of characters didn't help, though that is an undeniable aspect of any whirlwind tour.  (Ironically, when the P.L. was reunited with a familiar face-- Mademoiselle-- I was mildly irritated, because I'm not always adept at translating her French, even though context clues make up for any uncertainty.)  Then there's the possibility that the author was running out of ideas and that the concept of the P.L. was getting slightly stale.

Quibbles aside, it was a thoroughly enjoyable read.  Her casual observations of America and Americans were interesting-- her remarks on American hospitality and vitality.  Though she didn't visit the South in her travels, there were at least a few encounters with Southern characters.  Mostly all they did was insist that she must see the South and point out that people told them they hadn't lost their Southern accent even after so many years of living in the North.  (...So basically we're reduced to our accent! (g) Well, that's ok.  At least it wasn't insulting.)

In the end, I was as ready for her to get back home as she was, I think!  Whew!  Even arm chair travels are enough to exhaust me, these days...