Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs

The evolution of the rippling bicep…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Lord Greystoke and his young wife Lady Alice are on their way to take up a new colonial appointment in Africa when the crew of the ship they are on mutiny. The mutineers drop their passengers off on a wild coast, far from civilised habitation, but close to the jungle. For a while they survive, long enough for Lady Alice to bear the son she was already carrying. But when disaster strikes, leaving the baby all alone in the world, he is adopted by a tribe of apes and grows up learning their ways, unaware of his own heritage. However, when he discovers the hut his parents built and all their belongings including their books, he realises he is different from the other apes. And then more white people are marooned in the same place by another bunch of mutineers, and he sees the lovely Jane…

Johnny Weissmuller played the role many times…

Basically, this is simply a romping adventure story that is as enjoyable now as when it took the reading public’s imagination by storm back in 1912, when it was first published in the pulp magazine The All-Story. There’s something about the way Burroughs tells stories that makes them great fun despite all the many ways he transgresses modern sensibilities. It’s a sort of innocent charm – I feel sure he’d be amazed and appalled if he thought he’d offended anyone. He so truly believes that white Anglo-Saxons are the pinnacle of evolution and that women will forgive any little character flaws (like cannibalism, for example) so long as a man has rippling biceps and the ability to fight apes single-handed. (Both jolly good attributes in a man, I admit – I wonder if Rafa fights apes…)

Evolution was still a relatively new idea when Burroughs was writing this, and many authors were exploring the subject in different ways. Burroughs’ ideas may seem pretty shocking to us now, but they were fairly mainstream at the time. He shows a kind of pyramid of evolution starting with real apes that we would recognise as such. Then there’s the tribe that adopt Tarzan, who are a kind of link between ape and man, with the beginnings of a verbal language and some basic forms of ritual, such as…

the fierce, mad, intoxicating revel of the Dum-Dum.
….From this primitive function has arisen, unquestionably, all the forms and ceremonials of modern church and state, for through all the countless ages, back beyond the last, uttermost ramparts of a dawning humanity our fierce, hairy forebears danced out the rites of the Dum-Dum to the sound of their earthen drums, beneath the bright light of a tropical moon in the depth of a mighty jungle which stands unchanged today as it stood on that long forgotten night in the dim, unthinkable vistas of the long dead past when our first shaggy ancestor swung from a swaying bough and dropped lightly upon the soft turf of the first meeting place.

Burroughs’ depiction of the ape society is great – he humanises the apes just enough so that we see them as individuals and like or dislike them accordingly, but he ensures that even the “good” ones never stop being wild, brutal beasts. I found them utterly believable as a type of proto-human.

Next on the ladder are the black “savages”, along with Jane’s black maid. Oh dear, this is where you have to keep reminding yourself that it was the times! The maid is the traditional figure of fun – the black mammy who continued to appear in American culture well into the ‘50s, or maybe even later, so poor old Burroughs can’t be condemned too harshly. The savages – well, it’s not so much their savage lifestyle that’s the problem; many writers from Kipling to Conrad via Rider Haggard et al have depicted the indigenous African tribes just as problematically to modern eyes. It’s more the suggestion that they’re actually another link in the evolutionary chain – less intelligent, less resourceful, a lower form of life altogether than the white man.

Book 39 of 90

Tarzan is the zenith of the evolutionary heap. Not only is he a perfect physical specimen of rampant manhood, but he’s so intelligent he actually manages to teach himself to read and write without ever having heard a human speak. But also his prime pedigree as an English aristocrat can’t be hidden for long…

…and so he rose, and taking the locket in his hand, stooped gravely like some courtier of old, and pressed his lips upon it where hers had rested.
….It was a stately and gallant little compliment performed with the grace and dignity of utter unconsciousness of self. It was the hall-mark of his aristocratic birth, the natural outcropping of many generations of fine breeding, an hereditary instinct of graciousness which a lifetime of uncouth and savage training and environment could not eradicate.

Christopher Lambert in the 1984 movie version, Greystoke

It goes without saying that women aren’t quite so evolved, though obviously white women outrank black women. But frankly, girls, when you have Tarzan looking out for you, how evolved do you need to be?

….Jane Porter – her lithe, young form flattened against the trunk of a great tree, her hands tight pressed against her rising and falling bosom, and her eyes wide with mingled horror, fascination, fear, and admiration – watched the primordial ape battle with the primeval man for possession of a woman – for her.
….As the great muscles of the man’s back and shoulders knotted beneath the tension of his efforts, and the huge biceps and forearm held at bay those mighty tusks, the veil of centuries of civilization and culture was swept from the blurred vision of the Baltimore girl.

The racist and sexist aspects are so overblown and unintentional that personally I found them hilarious rather than offensive. And while many aspects of the story are a bit ridiculous if you stop to analyse them too deeply, it’s so full of thrills, excitement, high love and general drama that it swept me along on a tsunami-sized wave of fun. Highly recommended!

* * * * *

(I reckon Rafa should play Tarzan in the next film. I shall of course be auditioning for Jane…)

….He did what no red-blooded man needs lessons in doing. He took his woman in his arms and smothered her upturned, panting lips with kisses.
….For a moment FictionFan Jane Porter lay there with half-closed eyes. For a moment – the first in her young life – she knew the meaning of love.

Ooh, I say!

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics.

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My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier

Obsession and ambiguity…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Orphaned as a child, Philip Ashley has been brought up by his cousin Ambrose and expects one day to be heir to his estate in Cornwall. For Ambrose, although by no means elderly, is a settled bachelor, and both he and Philip enjoy their entirely masculine household and way of life. But while Ambrose is making one of his regular trips to Italy for his health, Philip is stunned to receive a letter from him, saying that Ambrose has fallen in love and married the woman that Philip will come to think of as “my cousin Rachel”. Ambrose’s happiness is to be short-lived though. Soon he will die without ever returning home, of a brain tumour according to the official version, but Ambrose has given Philip a different story in his increasingly worrying letters home. Philip is ready to blame Rachel morally, at least, and perhaps legally for his death. And then Rachel visits Philip in Cornwall and he finds himself falling in love. But is Rachel the fascinating and charming woman he sees, or the cold, manipulative money-grabber, and perhaps worse, of Ambrose’s letters…?

I listened to this as an audiobook, competently but not thrillingly narrated by Jonathan Pryce, and I suspect that may have affected my view of it. The story starts and ends brilliantly, but the mid-section, where Philip falls in love with Rachel, seems to go on for ever with nothing actually happening. I tired utterly of Philip’s first person descriptions of Rachel’s perfections and had to fight an urgent desire to tell him to grow up and get a life. If it weren’t for the fact that it was du Maurier and I felt I should have loved it, I would undoubtedly have given up. I certainly wish I’d read the book instead in this instance – I suspect it would still have bored me if I’d been reading but it’s easier to skim the dull repetitive stuff in the written form.

Where du Maurier does excel is in the ambiguity of the characterisation. The basic question of whether Rachel is good or bad is further muddied by us seeing her only through Philip’s eyes and Ambrose’s letters, and it’s not clear how much either of them can be relied on. Certainly neither is objective about Rachel – they see her through the eyes of lust and love. Also, their long years of living without women in their lives mean that neither of them make good judges, especially Philip, who has grown up without mother, sisters or even a nurse or governess. To him, women are as unfamiliar as Martians. There’s also the fact that Ambrose’s illness seems to have been inherited from his father, so may it have been inherited also by Philip? Ambrose’s father had periods where he was delusional and even violent – has this been passed down? There’s undoubtedly an edge of irrationality in some of Philip’s actions, despite us seeing them through his own eyes.

Rachel is the centre of the book, of course, and du Maurier does a brilliant job of having the reader sway in her favour and against her again and again. She has had an unconventional upbringing by a mother who seems to have been morally lax, so it isn’t surprising that she occasionally steps outside the bounds of what is considered acceptable. The time in which the book is set isn’t specified, but it feels to me like early Victorian in terms of clothes, travelling, lifestyle and attitudes. Is she really a hustler out for what she can get? Or is she a victim of Ambrose’s failure to make adequate provision for her? Is she a woman who uses sexual temptation to manipulate men? Or is she a free-thinker – a woman unwilling to limit herself by the unequal moral codes enforced on her by a patriarchal society, which gives women no rights and no financial liberty? Is she villain or victim?

Daphne du Maurier

I wondered how du Maurier would end it – no, of course I’m not going to tell you! But when it came, I felt the ending was perfect. Any other possible ending I could think of wouldn’t have had the same impact – it wouldn’t have left the story and the characters lingering in my mind as they have done.

So if it wasn’t for that tedious over-stretched mid-section, I’d have loved this. The audiobook comes with an introduction from Roger Michell who directed the recent film of the book (which I haven’t seen), and he comments that Philip and Ambrose were not alone in their obsession with Rachel – that du Maurier too had fallen in love with her. This strikes me as very perceptive – it reads as if du Maurier couldn’t stop talking about her, like a teenage girl in the throes of infatuation. Fun for the teenager, not so much for the adults who have to listen to her ecstasies! She redeemed herself in the end though, so overall I’m glad to have read it and would recommend it (and also recommend you brush up on your skim-reading skills before beginning… 😉 )

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Childhood’s End by Arthur C Clarke

Under the Overlords…

🙂 🙂 🙂

The human race has taken its first tentative steps into space and is dreaming of visiting other planets, when its plans are changed forever by the arrival of alien spaceships. The aliens seem benign, although they quickly put an end to human space travel. They also end war and animal cruelty, and usher in a utopian period where no-one goes hungry and no-one has to work if they don’t want to. Known only as the Overlords, they don’t allow the humans to see them, communicating only by voice. It seems that they allow humans to organise their own affairs, but their influence over the United Nations (gradually becoming a world government) certainly steers things in the direction they want Earth to go. All the good results of their background rule mean that humanity is happy to go along, for the most part.

But some people are aware that, without the struggle for survival and advancement, creativity is being destroyed and science is becoming moribund. So they set up a small colony, with the willing consent of the Overlords, where they hope to allow music, art and science to flourish. Still, however, no-one knows what the Overlords’ ultimate plan is – all they know is that they have promised to reveal themselves to humanity in fifty years…

Book 38 of 90

This is a book I wanted to love, but found didn’t live up to my expectations. Unfortunately most of the things that disappointed me a little will take me close to spoiler territory, so forgive any vagueness caused by my attempt to avoid that. The first and major thing is that I didn’t believe for a moment that humanity would happily submit en masse to a race of aliens who told us what to do, however apparently benign their intentions. We don’t even submit to our democratically elected governments half the time! When I said that the unelected UN was turning into a world government, did you think “oh, that’s a good idea”? No, nor me. There are a few people who are against the alien rule, but they’re shown as fringe fanatics and pretty insignificant. So the fundamental premise of the book left me floundering around looking for my lost credulity before it even really got underway.

The second thing is that the hidden appearance of the aliens is made much of, and when the big reveal finally happened, it made me laugh. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t supposed to! It was clearly intended to be all metaphysical and philosophical and stuff like that, but it just struck me as kinda silly, especially when Clarke attempted to explain the relevance. I understand from my friend Wikipedia that the idea originated in an earlier short story of Clarke’s, but that, although he changed all the meaning for the book, he left in all references to a different meaning from the short story. This probably explains why I found it messy and unconvincing. Plus it was signalled so far in advance that the only surprise was that it didn’t come as a surprise.

The third thing may not be Clarke’s fault – the basic storyline felt as if I’d read and watched it a million times or so before. Still avoiding spoilers as much as possible, it’s the old theme of what will the end result of evolution be, and Wells was asking that question fifty years earlier. Clarke’s answer is different to Wells’ but similar to many others since then. Now maybe Clarke was the first – the book was published in 1953 – in which case I apologise to him. But it meant I wasn’t excited by it – I found it pretty predictable and it therefore felt as if it took an awful long time getting there.

On the upside, it’s well written and the ending is left ambiguous, which makes it thought-provoking. With all of these how-will-humanity-end-up stories, the question has to be if it’s a future we would seek, or seek to avoid. Often authors tell us – the future is either utopian or dystopian; it’s decided for us in advance. Here that question is open, allowing the reader to use her own imagination to, effectively, write the sequel. I feel many sci-fi shows, films and books may have been trying to write that sequel for years, consciously or subconsciously. And, indeed, it’s a theme Clarke returned to himself in the later 2001: A Space Odyssey. It was after reading Childhood’s End that Stanley Kubrick invited Clarke to collaborate with him on the project that would eventually result in the book and film of Space Odyssey, and together they created a much better and more internally coherent story, in my opinion, while retaining that ambiguity which lifts this one above the average, despite my criticisms of it.

Arthur C Clarke

Overall, then, it didn’t wow me as much as I’d hoped, but I’m still glad to have read it, partly because it’s considered a classic in its own right, and partly because I was intrigued to read the book that inspired Kubrick. The fact that Kubrick, who at that time was reading science fiction voraciously looking for inspiration, found the ideas original suggests to me that a major part of my disappointment comes from reading the book too late, after years of reading and watching other people creating variations on the theme.

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Dickens at Christmas! The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain

Lord! Keep my Memory Green!

There has been a distinct lack of festive spirit in the Dickens’ Christmas books so far, and only a couple left to go. So fingers crossed for this week’s…

* * * * *

The Haunted Man and The Ghost’s Bargain
by Charles Dickens

Title Page
by John Tenniel

Everybody said he looked like a haunted man. The extent of my present claim for everybody is, that they were so far right. He did.

This is our protagonist – Mr Redlaw, a chemist and academic, who teaches in a great college. He dwells on sorrows from his past and has allowed these memories to stop him from finding enjoyment and pleasure in life, though he’s a good man, generous to those around him. He is haunted, however, by a mysterious spectre that appears to him when he is alone and brooding…

Ghastly and cold, colourless in its leaden face and hands, but with his features, and his bright eyes, and his grizzled hair, and dressed in the gloomy shadow of his dress, it came into his terrible appearance of existence, motionless, without a sound. As he leaned his arm upon the elbow of his chair, ruminating before the fire, it leaned upon the chair-back, close above him, with its appalling copy of his face looking where his face looked, and bearing the expression his face bore.

Mr Redlaw and the Phantom
by John Leech

On this particular evening, just before Christmas, as Mr Redlaw remembers his youthful hopes and how they were dashed by the betrayal of a friend and the death of his beloved sister, the ghost tempts him…

….“If I could forget my sorrow and wrong, I would,” the Ghost repeated. “If I could forget my sorrow and my wrong, I would!”
….“Evil spirit of myself,” returned the haunted man, in a low, trembling tone, “my life is darkened by that incessant whisper.”
….“It is an echo,” said the Phantom.
….“If it be an echo of my thoughts—as now, indeed, I know it is,” rejoined the haunted man, “why should I, therefore, be tormented? It is not a selfish thought. I suffer it to range beyond myself. All men and women have their sorrows, – most of them their wrongs; ingratitude, and sordid jealousy, and interest, besetting all degrees of life. Who would not forget their sorrows and their wrongs?”

Frontispiece
by John Tenniel

And the Phantom grants his wish. The memories of all events from his past which have painful associations are stripped from his mind. But the ghost goes further…

“The gift that I have given, you shall give again, go where you will. Without recovering yourself the power that you have yielded up, you shall henceforth destroy its like in all whom you approach. Your wisdom has discovered that the memory of sorrow, wrong, and trouble is the lot of all mankind, and that mankind would be the happier, in its other memories, without it. Go! Be its benefactor! Freed from such remembrance, from this hour, carry involuntarily the blessing of such freedom with you.”

* * * * *

Mr Swidger and Milly
by Frank Stone

Well, this is much more like the thing! It starts with Mr Swidger, the old caretaker of the college, and his family hanging holly as they do every year at Christmas-time, and culminates with a grand feast on Christmas Day. It has a strong message most suitable for the Christmas season: that it is our sorrows in life which humanise us and make us able to empathise with the troubles of others. And it has an equally powerful social message – that children abandoned to a life of poverty without love or hope cannot grow up to be anything other than monstrous. The child in this is a fuller version of Ignorance in A Christmas Carol – a thing to be prevented, or feared.


The Tetterbys
by John Leech

We see the Swidgers as they are affected by the ghost’s bargain. As their memories of their shared hardships and sorrows fade, so do the bonds that hold them together, and these warm, loving people become hard and cruel. We see the Tetterbys, a family with many children and little money to feed them but with love a-plenty, turned resentful and bitter as their memories melt away of the things they have endured and overcome together. And we see Mr Redlaw learn that the only people not susceptible to the ghostly curse are those who have never known the softer emotions, for they are cursed already…

“This,” said the Phantom, pointing to the boy, “is the last, completest illustration of a human creature, utterly bereft of such remembrances as you have yielded up. No softening memory of sorrow, wrong, or trouble enters here, because this wretched mortal from his birth has been abandoned to a worse condition than the beasts, and has, within his knowledge, no one contrast, no humanising touch, to make a grain of such a memory spring up in his hardened breast. All within this desolate creature is barren wilderness. All within the man bereft of what you have resigned, is the same barren wilderness. Woe to such a man! Woe, tenfold, to the nation that shall count its monsters such as this, lying here, by hundreds and by thousands!”

Mr Redlaw and the Boy
by John Leech

And, lesson learned, we see the ghost take back his bargain, harmony and love restored, Mr Redlaw wiser, and more than one loving hand reached out to raise the child up from his hopelessness. Exactly what a Christmas story should be!

Then, as Christmas is a time in which, of all times in the year, the memory of every remediable sorrow, wrong, and trouble in the world around us, should be active with us, not less than our own experiences, for all good, he laid his hand upon the boy, and, silently calling Him to witness who laid His hand on children in old time, rebuking, in the majesty of His prophetic knowledge, those who kept them from Him, vowed to protect him, teach him, and reclaim him.

Dinner in the Great Hall
by Clarkson Stanfield

* * * * *

Festive Joy Rating:     🎅 🎅 🎅 🎅

Overall Story Rating:  😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

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Dickens at Christmas! The Battle of Life

How they did dance!

It’s been a roller-coaster ride so far with Dickens’ Christmas books – The Chimes, while good, was thoroughly depressing, and The Cricket on the Hearth, while delightfully uplifting, forgot to mention Christmas! So what’s in store for us, I wonder, in this week’s…

* * * * *

The Battle of Life
by Charles Dickens

Once upon a time, it matters little when, and in stalwart England, it matters little where, a fierce battle was fought. It was fought upon a long summer day when the waving grass was green. Many a wild flower formed by the Almighty Hand to be a perfumed goblet for the dew, felt its enamelled cup filled high with blood that day, and shrinking dropped. Many an insect deriving its delicate colour from harmless leaves and herbs, was stained anew that day by dying men, and marked its frightened way with an unnatural track.

Well, that’s a jolly start! Still, good to get the depressing bit out of the way early!

The Battle
by Richard Doyle

On the site of this ancient battle now stand pretty villages and prosperous farms, and over the centuries the old horrors have mostly been forgotten. Our story concerns two sisters, Grace and Marion, and when we first meet them, they are in their father’s orchard, dancing for the sheer joy of life and the entertainment of the apple-pickers…

They were very glad to please them, but they danced to please themselves (or at least you would have supposed so); and you could no more help admiring, than they could help dancing. How they did dance!

Frontispiece
by Daniel Maclise

This is Marion’s birthday and coincidentally also the birthday of Alfred, who has been the ward of their father but who today comes of age. He is to go off to study for three years, but it is understood by all that on his return, he and Marion will marry. But Grace, to whose care he entrusts Marion, is not to be forgotten…

“…when I come back and reclaim you, dearest, and the bright prospect of our married life lies stretched before us, it shall be one of our chief pleasures to consult how we can make Grace happy; how we can anticipate her wishes; how we can show our gratitude and love to her; how we can return her something of the debt she will have heaped upon us.”

But the course of true love never does run smooth – fortunately for us, since stories would be incredibly boring if it did. When Alfred returns three years later, it is to find the house in uproar and poor Grace having fainted away…

….‘What is it!’ cried Alfred, grasping his hair with his hands, and looking in an agony from face to face, as he bent upon his knee beside the insensible girl. ‘Will no one look at me? Will no one speak to me? Does no one know me? Is there no voice among you all, to tell me what it is!’
….There was a murmur among them. ‘She is gone.’
….‘Gone!’ he echoed.


Gone!
by Richard Doyle

* * * * *

I enjoyed several things about this, but it is a rather strange tale, not at all festive, and the central story left me totally unconvinced. The two sisters are the sort of drooping, too perfect girls in which Dickens specialises, and Alfred is the male equivalent. The mystery is, why has Marion gone? Has she run off with another man? Or is there some deeply moral and self-sacrificing reason behind her strange actions? Go on, guess!

Fortunately, there are several characters who are much more fun. Clemency Newcome, the maid, and her strange courtship by/of her husband-to-be provide most of the humour and the warmth that the central story lacks. The girls’ father, Doctor Jeddler, believes all human life is farce, though the events of the story will make him a wiser man (but less happy, which seems a pity). There are a couple of lawyers, Snitchey and Craggs, who are a good double-act and allow Dickens to make some pointed remarks about one of his favourite subjects, the law. Their wives, while only having small parts to play, add considerably to the entertainment value of the whole thing by their rivalry with each other. And the mysterious man who may or may not have seduced our sweet little Marion away from her loving family has enough moral ambiguity to make him a significantly more attractive hero than the good but insipid Alfred.

The Secret Interview
by Daniel Maclise

Why is it called The Battle of Life? Why all the battlefield and buried corpse references, some of which are quite revolting…?

On this ground where we now sit, where I saw my two girls dance this morning, where the fruit has just been gathered for our eating from these trees, the roots of which are struck in Men, not earth…

No idea! Possibly just so Dickens could make a point about war being a Bad Thing.

Yet not a hundred people in that battle knew for what they fought, or why; not a hundred of the inconsiderate rejoicers in the victory, why they rejoiced. Not half a hundred people were the better for the gain or loss. Not half-a-dozen men agree to this hour on the cause or merits; and nobody, in short, ever knew anything distinct about it, but the mourners of the slain.

But I really couldn’t see the relevance of this to the actual story. Oh well, not to worry – I enjoyed it anyway, and of course it has a happy ending! But I am hoping next week’s might have something to do with Christmas…

The Sisters
by Daniel Maclise

Festive Joy Rating:      🎅 🎅

Overall Story Rating:  😀 😀 😀 😀

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Dickens at Christmas! The Cricket on the Hearth

But where’s Christmas??

After last week’s surprisingly dark and unfestive The Chimes, I didn’t know what to expect from the next of Dickens’ Christmas books. But I was hoping for something a bit more cheerful for this week’s…

* * * * *

The Cricket on the Hearth
by Charles Dickens

The kettle began it! Don’t tell me what Mrs. Peerybingle said. I know better. Mrs. Peerybingle may leave it on record to the end of time that she couldn’t say which of them began it; but I say the kettle did. I ought to know, I hope? The kettle began it, full five minutes by the little waxy-faced Dutch clock in the corner, before the Cricket uttered a chirp.

Title page
by Daniel Maclise

We meet little Mrs. Peerybingle, Dot as she is known affectionately to her husband John, as she waits for said husband to return home from his work as a carrier. Dot is a young thing, very young indeed, and John is well into middle-age, but despite this disparity they seem an idyllically happy couple, especially now they have their own little Baby to make their lives complete. It is a scene of saccharin-sweet domestic bliss…

It was pleasant to see Dot, with her little figure and her baby in her arms: a very doll of a baby: glancing with a coquettish thoughtfulness at the fire, and inclining her delicate little head just enough on one side to let it rest in an odd, half-natural, half-affected, wholly nestling and agreeable manner, on the great rugged figure of the Carrier. It was pleasant to see him, with his tender awkwardness, endeavouring to adapt his rude support to her slight need, and make his burly middle age a leaning-staff not inappropriate to her blooming youth.

Domestic Bliss
by John Leech

The little house is blessed by having a resident Cricket which lives on the hearth and chirps merrily when all is well.

“The first time I heard its cheerful little note, John, was on that night when you brought me home—when you brought me to my new home here; its little mistress. Nearly a year ago. You recollect, John?”

Oh, yes! John remembered. I should think so!

“Its chirp was such a welcome to me! It seemed so full of promise and encouragement. It seemed to say, you would be kind and gentle with me, and would not expect (I had a fear of that, John, then) to find an old head on the shoulders of your foolish little wife.”

Caleb and Blind Bertha
by John Leech

But this contented little household is about to be shaken to its core. A stranger arrives who seems to disturb Dot’s usually cheerful state of mind.

It was a loud cry from the Carrier’s wife: a loud, sharp, sudden cry, that made the room ring like a glass vessel. She had risen from her seat, and stood like one transfixed by terror and surprise. The Stranger had advanced towards the fire to warm himself, and stood within a short stride of her chair. But quite still.

The stranger’s arrival disrupts the happy home and the lives not only of John and Dot but of several of their friends and neighbours. Will the Household Spirit in the form of the Cricket on the Hearth be able to restore harmony and joy to all?

* * * * *

First off, Christmas doesn’t feature at all in this one! Instead the day of celebration we’re heading towards is the first anniversary of the wedding of John and Dot, and the story focuses on marriages between older men and young girls. John loves Dot with all his heart and has done ever since she was a child. (I know, creepy, but it seems to have been relatively normal back in those times – look at Knightley and Emma.) The question that John belatedly is forced to consider is, can little Dot possibly love him in the same way, or has he been unintentionally cruel in persuading her to devote her youth to him? It has never before occurred to him that her heart may have prompted her towards a man nearer her own age. The stranger is the catalyst for this dark night of the soul for poor, kind, honest John, but to take the point further and show another side to it, Dickens includes another couple about to be wed where the age difference is even greater and the bride is being more or less forced into the marriage by her mother because the bridegroom is wealthy.

Boxer
by Edwin Landseer
(Rubbish illustration, Landseer! Boxer is a sweetie-pie,
not a reincarnation of the Hound of the Baskervilles!)

The story takes an age to start. It’s about three pages before that kettle mentioned in the first paragraph finally comes to the boil, and then we have to fight through pages of sugar-sweet descriptions of the happy little home before things take off. But once it gets going, it has all Dickens usual mix of humour and pathos, and some typically quirky and enjoyable Dickensian characters. John is lovely, and Dot grew on me after a shaky start. Mr Tackleton is the villain of the piece – the older man who is about to marry a young girl he knows doesn’t care for him in the least, he’s also the mean and nasty employer of the other two main characters, dear old Caleb the toymaker and his blind daughter Bertha. Plus there’s a lovely dog called Boxer who’s a great character in his own right, adding much fun to the proceedings!

He had business elsewhere; going down all the turnings, looking into all the wells, bolting in and out of all the cottages, dashing into the midst of all the Dame Schools, fluttering all the pigeons, magnifying the tails of all the cats, and trotting into the public-houses like a regular customer. Wherever he went, somebody or other might have been heard to cry, “Halloa! here’s Boxer!”

It’s novella length, with plenty of room for jealousy, self-doubt, sorrow, generosity of spirit, joy and, of course, redemption. I enjoyed it very much and was left feeling pleasantly uplifted. So despite it not mentioning Christmas, I reckon it still counts as appropriately seasonal, being full of goodwill and joy to all men (and women) (and dogs).

Happy ending
by John Leech

Festive Joy Rating:      🎅 🎅 🎅 🎅

Overall Story Rating:  😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

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The Turn of the Screw and Other Stories by Henry James

Mostly about the Other Stories…

😀 😀 😀 😀

This collection is made up of four stories – the novella length title story and three shorter ones. The Turn of the Screw is, of course, a classic of the horror genre, and since I’ve already had my say about it in a Tuesday Terror! post, here’s a brief summary of the others…

Sir Edmund Orme – Our narrator becomes fascinated by a mother and daughter, Mrs Marden and Charlotte, because of what he feels is their peculiarly strong concern for each other. Then, as he finds himself falling in love with Charlotte, the narrator begins to see a strange man, who never speaks, and his appearances seem to coincide with Mrs Marden’s “episodes”. Eventually, she takes him into her confidence and tells him the story of her one-time lover, Sir Edmund Orme.

Despite having a ghost in it, the story really isn’t scary or spooky. It’s strange, however, and a little unsettling, mainly because the narrator comes over as something of a predator who coldly uses Mrs Marden’s fear and Charlotte’s love for her mother to achieve his own ends. It’s superficially entertaining, but left me feeling rather as if I’d been made an accessory to something rather cruel.

Owen Wingrave – the title character is a young man from a military family who is being crammed for the entrance exam to get into Sandhurst, the army’s elite officer training college. However, Owen has different views – he despises war, and believes that politicians who lead their nations into war should be hanged, drawn and quartered. When he drops out of training, his family and friends put pressure on him to think again, and when the girl he loves implies that he is a coward, to prove her wrong he agrees to spend a night in the haunted room of his family castle…

The ghostly factor of this one is well-nigh non-existent, but it’s a good story for all that. It’s a rather poignant look at how military tradition forces young men to seek glory rather than choosing a more peaceful path in life.

The Friends of the Friends – another I’ve written about previously in a Tuesday Terror! post. This tells the story of two people, a man and a woman, who share the distinction of each having seen a ghost. This coincidence makes their mutual friends want to bring them together, but circumstances always seem to prevent them meeting. Eventually it seems they will meet, but it isn’t to be – one of them dies before the meeting takes place. The other one, however, as we know, can see ghosts…

Again unsettling rather than scary, this starts out quite jollily with a lot of jibes about society and so on, but gradually darkens into a story about jealousy taken perhaps to the point of madness.

* * * * *

While for the most part I found the writing good and certainly effective at conjuring up an atmosphere, I several times came across sentences so badly constructed that they required me to go back and read them again to catch the meaning, and sometimes they were still obscure after that. Perhaps sometimes James was doing this for effect, to add to the vagueness and ambiguity. But truthfully, I mostly felt it was simply clumsy, lazy writing that he hadn’t bothered to revise properly before publication, and as a result I’ve entirely lost the desire to read any of his novels.

Aside from that criticism, each of the four stories is well-structured, and the sense of vagueness that surrounds the narrative intention has the effect of leaving them open to interpretation. I found this tended to make them linger in my mind for longer than most spooky stories, as I mulled over what was beneath the surface. And generally speaking, I concluded that what was there was rather unpleasant – hints of child sexual abuse in The Turn of the Screw, a controlling lover in Sir Edmund Orme, family pressure taken to extremes in Owen Wingrave and extreme jealousy in The Friends of the Friends. Horror stories always tend to be based on unpleasant things, of course, but here it somehow left me feeling more uncomfortable than usual and I’m not sure I know why. Perhaps because the horror aspects are mostly low-key and so the underlying story stands out more than usual, or perhaps because James uses ambiguity to force the reader to, in a sense, fill in the blanks, making it feel as if the unpleasantness comes from inside her own mind. Whatever the reason, it meant that though I quite enjoyed them while reading I found they left a slightly nasty aftertaste – especially The Turn of the Screw. I wonder if that was James’ intention? I suspect it may have been.

Henry James

You can probably tell that I feel quite ambivalent about this collection. I rated each of the three shorter stories as four stars and The Turn of the Screw as five, but that’s mostly due to my appreciation of their impact rather than an indication of my enjoyment.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics.

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Dickens at Christmas! The Chimes

The eye of a needle…

Every year in the run up to Christmas, I read, watch or listen to at least one version of A Christmas Carol – the book that exemplifies the spirit of Christmas. This year, thanks to the lovely people at Oxford World’s Classics, I have a gorgeous new edition of all five of Dickens’ Christmas books, so for a change I thought I’d read the other four for a little mini-series of…

* * * * *

The Chimes
by Charles Dickens

Old Toby “Trotty” Veck is in his usual place just outside the church-door one cold and windy winter day at the end of the year, waiting and hoping that someone will hire him to carry a letter or a parcel so that he can earn sixpence or a shilling.


Toby “Trotty” Veck
by John Leech

Of material wealth, Trotty has little – just enough to keep body and soul together, though not very securely. He has a daughter, Meg, whom he loves with all his warm heart. And the church bells are like old friends too…

For, being but a simple man, he invested them with a strange and solemn character. They were so mysterious, often heard and never seen; so high up, so far off, so full of such a deep strong melody, that he regarded them with a species of awe; and sometimes when he looked up at the dark arched windows in the tower, he half expected to be beckoned to by something which was not a Bell, and yet was what he had heard so often sounding in the Chimes.

But, even so, the hard life of the poor people of London makes Trotty wonder sometimes…

…whether we have any business on the face of the earth, or not. Sometimes I think we must have—a little; and sometimes I think we must be intruding. I get so puzzled sometimes that I am not even able to make up my mind whether there is any good at all in us, or whether we are born bad.


The original frontispiece
by Daniel Maclise

On this day Meg arrives unexpectedly, bringing a rare hot meal for her father – a delicious dish of tripe! She also brings news. Her lover, Richard, has proposed that they should marry on New Year’s Day and they have come to get her father’s blessing. While Trotty is still digesting this news and his tripe, a local bigwig stops to hire him to carry a letter. This man lectures Meg and Richard on how reprehensible it is of them to marry and bring more poor children into the world who will inevitably turn out bad. Then the recipient of the letter, another well-fed rich man, upbraids Trotty for going into the New Year owing a little money, which he had spent on the luxury of food. By now Trotty is convinced the poor are born bad and don’t deserve to live.

But, that night, as he sits pondering over this thought, the church bells seem to be calling angrily to him, and he goes to the darkened church, where he finds the door open…

Illustration by
Clarkson Stanfield

… and climbs up to the top of the steeple.

He saw the tower, whither his charmed footsteps had brought him, swarming with dwarf phantoms, spirits, elfin creatures of the Bells . . . He saw them, of all aspects and all shapes. He saw them ugly, handsome, crippled, exquisitely formed. He saw them young, he saw them old, he saw them kind, he saw them cruel, he saw them merry, he saw them grim; he saw them dance, and heard them sing; he saw them tear their hair, and heard them howl.


Illustration by
Arthur Rackham

* * * * *

Well! This is Dickens in full social justice warrior mode, showing the dire poverty in which so many people lived contrasted with the smug and hypocritical rich, who lecture when a sixpence would work better, who wallow in their own well-fed self-satisfaction as they blame the poor for cluttering up their otherwise charming and tidy world. It has little of the humour of A Christmas Carol – it is dark to the point where it had me sobbing, with starvation and death, men jailed for the crime of trying to stay alive, women driven to prostitution, infanticide and suicide. And while there is a form of redemption at the end, it feels a fairly hollow one to me – the Chimes, by showing Toby how awful life without faith can be, restore his belief that the poor are not doomed from birth to be bad. There are lots of Biblical references and warnings to spouting “Christian” hypocrites who think that lectures on morality are enough to win them a place in heaven. But the underlying message seems confused – both that the rich should do more to alleviate poverty, but that the poor should fall back on faith when there’s no food to be had. I couldn’t help feeling it must have been a long time since Dickens went hungry. There’s also some foreshadowing of his message in the later A Tale of Two Cities – that if the rich don’t deal with the poor…

…afore the day comes when even his Bible changes in his altered mind, and the words seem to him to read, as they have sometimes read in my own eyes—in jail: “Whither thou goest, I can Not go; where thou lodgest, I do Not lodge; thy people are Not my people; Nor thy God my God!”

…then the poor may rise up and deal with the rich.

A happy ending
by John Leech

Powerful stuff! I can see why it’s not as well loved as A Christmas Carol – it feels rushed and a little untidy, the message is not so clear and, despite the happy-ish ending, I certainly didn’t come away from it feeling as uplifted as I do when Tiny Tim asks God to bless us, everyone. In fact, I felt angry, depressed and as if I wanted to go and beat a few rich hypocrites over the head with a yule log – and I don’t mean the cake. So I think Dickens pretty much succeeded in his aim…

Festive Joy Rating:      🎅 🎅

Overall Story Rating:  😀 😀 😀 😀

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The Classics Club Spin #19

In the lap of the gods…

classics club logo 2

The Classics Club is holding its 19th Spin, and my 6th. The idea is to list 20 of the books on your Classics Club list before next Tuesday, 27th November. On that day, the Classics Club will post the winning number. The challenge is to read and review whatever book falls under that number on your Spin List, by 31st January, 2019. This seems like a super generous amount of time, so the Club is recommending we set ourselves the challenge to read one of the chunkier books on our lists, and as we all know some of those pesky classics can be very chunky indeed!

All very well and I’m always up for a challenge! But… I’ve already scheduled my annual Dickens monster, Little Dorrit this year, for the festive season and also committed to reading all five of his Christmas books! So I’ve put some biggies on my list but I’ve also snuck some shorter ones in there in the hopes that fate will be kind to me *laughs hollowly*. It’s all in the lap of the gods…

* * * * *

1) The American by Henry James

2) Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

3) Cloud Howe by Lewis Grassic Gibbon

4) The Hollow Man by John Dickson Carr

5) Earth Abides by George R Stewart

6) Tender is the Night by F Scott Fitzgerald

7) Sons and Lovers by DH Lawrence

8) The Bull Calves by Naomi Mitchison

9) I, The Jury by Mickey Spillane

10) The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester

11) Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin

12) The African Queen by CS Forester

13) Whisky Galore by Compton Mackenzie

14) The Tiger in the Smoke by Margery Allingham

15) Starship Troopers by Robert A Heinlein

16) In the Heat of the Night by John Ball

17) The Go-Between by LP Hartley

18) The Game of Kings by Dorothy Dunnett

19) Anatomy of a Murder by Robert Traver

20) The Drowned World by JG Ballard

* * * * * * *

I’d be delighted to read most of these. Remember, Classics Club Gods, short! Short! In the Heat of the Night. The African Queen. I, The Jury. But if you must go long, then Mansfield Park would be nice, or The Bull Calves, or The Game of Kings…

Which one would you like to see win?

Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit by PG Wodehouse

Brouhaha at Brinkley…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When Jeeves returns to the old homestead after a short holiday, imagine his horror on discovering that in his absence Bertie has taken the opportunity to grow a moustache! Not everyone shares his distaste for the facial hair, though. Florence Craye, for one, thinks it’s simply marvellous. In fact, so enthusiastic is she that her fiancé, the beefy Stilton Cheesewright, develops a strong desire to break Bertie’s spine in four, or perhaps, five places. Only the thought that he has drawn Bertie in the Drones Club darts tournament and stands to win a hefty sum should Bertie triumph stays Stilton’s wrath. Bertie thinks it might be expedient however to retreat to Brinkley Court, Aunt Dahlia’s place, till the heat dies down, little knowing that he will soon find the place teeming with Florences, Stiltons, lovelorn playwrights, Liverpudlian newspaper magnates and Lord Sidcup, once known to all and sundry as the would-be dictator Roderick Spode. Will Jeeves overcome the coolness that has arisen over the matter of the moustache and rally round the young master in his hour of need? Or will Bertie find himself at last facing the long walk down the aisle into the dreaded state of matrimony…?

Wodehouse is on top form in this one, and I enjoyed meeting up with Florence Craye again – always one of my favourite Wooster girlfriends. She’s less drippy than Madeleine Bassett, less haughty than Honoria Glossop and less troublesome than Stiffy Byng. Were it not for the fact that she writes highbrow literary novels, I feel she would be a good match for our Bertie, but the poor man really prefers to curl up with The Mystery of the Pink Crayfish or suchlike.

I like B. Wooster the way he is. Lay off him, I say. Don’t try to change him, or you may lose the flavour. Even when we were merely affianced, I recalled, this woman had dashed the mystery thriller from my hand, instructing me to read instead a perfectly frightful thing by a bird called Tolstoy. At the thought of what horrors might ensue after the clergyman had done his stuff and she had a legal right to bring my grey hairs in sorrow to the grave, the imagination boggled.

Stilton’s jealousy gets a proper workout since, not only does he fear that Florence still has feelings for her ex-fiancé Bertie, but Percy Gorringe, a playwright who is converting Florence’s novel for the stage, seems to be mooning around after her rather a lot too.

PG Wodehouse

Meantime, Aunt Dahlia is trying to offload her magazine Milady’s Boudoir to a Liverpudlian newspaper magnate, Mr Trotter, so he and his social-climbing wife are in residence too as she hopes the wonders of Anatole’s cooking will soften him up and get her a good price. But when Uncle Tom invites Spode to Brinkley specifically to check out the pearl necklace he recently purchased for her, Aunt Dahlia is aghast. She has pawned the necklace to keep the magazine afloat till she sells it, and the pearls she is wearing are a paste imitation. Only Jeeves can save the day!

“…the core of the cultured imitation can be discerned, as a rule merely by holding the cultured pearl up before a strong light. This is what I did in the matter of Mrs Travers’ necklace. I had no need of the endoscope.”
“The what?”
“Endoscope, sir. An instrument which enables one to peer into the cultured pearl’s interior and discern the core.”
I was conscious of a passing pang for the oyster world, feeling – and I think correctly – that life for these unfortunate bivalves must be one damn thing after another…

Jonathan Cecil

I listened to the audiobook narrated by Jonathan Cecil who does his usual marvellous job of creating distinct and appropriate voices for each character – in this one he had extra fun with the Liverpudlian accents. His Bertie is perfect, and I love his Aunt Dahlia – one hears the baying hounds and distant view-halloo of the Quorn and Pytchley Hunts ringing in her tones each time she speaks.

Great fun – there’s nothing quite like spending a few hours in the company of these old friends to bring the sunshine into the gloomiest autumn day.

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No Name by William Wilkie Collins

Money, money, money…

😦 😦

When Magdalen and Norah Vanstone are left orphaned by the sudden and unexpected deaths of their parents, they are further shocked to discover that their parents had not been married when the girls were born. Not only does this make the sisters illegitimate – a shameful thing in itself – but due to a quirk of the law it also prevents them from inheriting their father’s wealth. The money goes to their father’s estranged brother, Michael Vanstone, who resolutely refuses to help them. Norah accepts this but the fiery Magdalen cannot. She decides she will regain their lost inheritance, whatever the cost…

It’s many years since I read Collins’ two most famous books, The Moonstone and The Woman in White, neither of which became a favourite. I thought perhaps the passing of time would have made me able to appreciate him more, especially since so many people hold him in such high regard. I’m afraid I found this book tedious, filled with unlikeable characters about whom I cared not a jot.

As always, I came away with the impression that Collins was trying to ‘do a Dickens’ and was failing pretty dramatically. He suggests the book is going to address a social injustice, as Dickens does so well, but in reality his treatment of the stigma of illegitimacy is superficial. He attempts to create characters with that kind of caricaturing Dickens does so well, but they come off like pale imitations. We have the swindler, Captain Wragge, who helps Magdalen with her revenge scheme. He’s given little quirks like recording all his swindles as carefully as if they were legitimate business deals, or having certain mannerisms in the way he talks. But he doesn’t have either the humour of Dickens’ minor characters nor the truly sinister feeling of Dickens’ villains. His wife is a simple-minded giantess, whom he treats despicably. In a Dickens story, she would either be tragic or comic. Here, she’s merely a plot vehicle – pitiable but irritating when she’s on the page, and forgotten when she’s not required.

Millais frontispiece to 1864 Sampson Low edition

Admittedly Magdalen is a more rounded character than some of Dickens’ many insipid young girls. Unfortunately, she’s such an unpleasant little money-grubber I found it impossible to get up any liking or concern for her. Yes, it must be sad not to be rich if you thought you would be, but frankly she’s hardly poor either in comparison to the true poverty of so many at that time. Norah is considerably more likeable – she decides to earn her living and gets on with it. She and Miss Garth, the girls’ old governess, were the only two characters I cared about at all, and unfortunately Collins dumps them a third of the way through and from then on we only hear little snippets about how they’re getting on, while we spend far too much time with whining Magdalen, the Wragges and the Vanstone household. The problem for me was that the villains were no more despicable than the ostensible heroine of the novel.

William Wilkie Collins
Portrait by Rudolph Lehmann

But OK, so he’s no Dickens, and his characters’ sole obsession is with acquiring and hoarding money. I could probably still have squeezed some enjoyment out of that if only it hadn’t been so unnecessarily long! I hear you, Collins’ fans – no, it’s not as long as some of Dickens’ books, but Dickens would have had a cast of thousands, each described to unique perfection, with a dozen sub-plots all being juggled masterfully. Here we have one dull plot – “Give me back my money!” – and a handful of unattractive characters, and it’s dragged out for over 700 tortuous pages! Do we all know how it will end? I think we have a fair idea! It’s a Victorian novel after all and there are conventions. So the journey matters since the end is barely in doubt. And this journey is like being on a train for twenty hours with the blinds drawn, and nothing good to read…

Oh dear! I was going to try to make this sound more balanced but sometimes reviews take on their own momentum. There is an interesting introduction in my Oxford World’s Classic edition, by Virginia Blain, Associate Professor in English at Macquarie University in Sydney. Unsurprisingly, she’s considerably more enthusiastic about the book than I, and I enjoyed reading (and disagreeing with) her opinion!

I’m sure fans of Collins’ style will enjoy the book. But for those of us who prefer the flamboyance and genius of a Dickens, then I fear this will taste as thin and unappetising as a plate of Scrooge’s gruel…

Book 36 of 90

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics.

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Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

A rose by any other name…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When John Durbeyfield is told by a local antiquarian that he is the last of the ancient family of D’Urberville, sadly decayed, Durbeyfield immediately puts on airs, much to the amusement of his fellow villagers. For John is balanced precariously on the line that divides subsistence from poverty and his all too frequent drunkenness ensures he will soon fall. But it is his daughter Tess who makes the mistake that will finally edge the family into destitution, so, from a sense of guilt, she reluctantly agrees to her mother’s suggestion that she should visit the D’Urbervilles, a rich family in a neighbouring town, and claim kinship. There she will meet the son of the family, Alec D’Urberville, and make another mistake that will affect the rest of her life…

On original publication, the book was subtitled A Pure Woman, signalling Hardy’s defence of his heroine against a society that judged the morality of a woman by her chastity. Did Tess succumb willingly to the seductive Alec, or was she raped? The question is left unanswered in the book, perhaps because society wouldn’t have differentiated – an unmarried girl who was no longer virginal had lost her worth, however it happened. Had Tess been less pure of nature, she may have been able to conceal her transgression and create a second chance for herself with the besotted Angel Clare, and we see her struggle with the temptation to do this. This reader willed her to do it, her mother advised her to do it, but Tess, pure to the point of idiocy, believed in a world of fairness, where men and women would be judged by the same standards – if she could forgive, surely she could be forgiven? Poor Tess!

….He conducted her about the lawns, and flower-beds, and conservatories; and thence to the fruit-garden and greenhouses, where he asked her if she liked strawberries.
….“Yes,” said Tess, “when they come.”
….“They are already here.” D’Urberville began gathering specimens of the fruit for her, handing them back to her as he stooped; and, presently, selecting a specially fine product of the “British Queen” variety, he stood up and held it by the stem to her mouth.
….“No – no!” she said quickly, putting her fingers between his hand and her lips. “I would rather take it in my own hand.”
….“Nonsense!” he insisted; and in a slight distress she parted her lips and took it in.

Written in 1891, the sexual theme of the book and the moral questions it poses seem daring for the time, and result in a rather odd combination of a feminist demand for women to be judged equally to their male counterparts, with a heroine described in such sexualised terms that it’s hard to see her as anything other than the embodiment of sex itself. Hardy condemns men for seeing women purely as sexual beings, while seeming to do the same himself. Tess’s lips, eyes, arms, figure, skin are all lusciously described, again and again, so that we are never allowed to think for one moment that any of the men she encounters are attracted to her mind. And yet Hardy shows he is aware of the effect on women of being viewed in this way when he has Tess wrap herself in bulky clothes to disguise her figure and cover her face with a shawl so that men will leave her alone.

Tess’s class plays as much of a role in her story as her gender. Hardy uses the device of her distant distinguished ancestry to show the deep hypocrisy at the heart of the British class system. First, we learn Alec is not really a D’Urberville – his family have bought the name and family crest to disguise their sordid background in trade. Then later, Angel feels that Tess’s claim to the D’Urberville name will somehow make acceptable what he sees, even in his passion, as an unsuitable alliance with a girl way beneath him on the social scale. Tess alone cares nothing for her ancestry – she is who she is and hopes to be loved for that alone. Poor Tess!

Nastassja Kinski as Tess in Roman Polanski’s 1979 film.

Hardy also shows the changes that are taking place in the agrarian society with increased mechanisation leading to fewer jobs and replacing the rural idyll (did it ever really exist?) with more brutal, distinctly unnatural methods of farming. Hardy’s depiction of rural life is wonderful in both its beauty and its brutality, in the wholesomeness of a life in tune with natural rhythms and the increasing soullessness of farming maximised for profit. First we see Tess as one of a group of happy milkmaids, forming deep natural connections with the cows they milk day by day, the cows giving more milk to the touch of the maid they prefer, and the maids singing the songs they know will lull the cows into placidity and greater yields. This is contrasted with a brilliant depiction of Tess – a child of nature if ever there was one – in a later job, battling with the giant threshing machine, racing to feed its insatiable maw, and being shaken to the point of illness by its vibrations as it belches its smoke over the field, giving true meaning to the phrase hell on earth.

….“Did you say the stars were worlds, Tess?”
….“Yes.”
….“All like ours?”
….“I don’t know, but I think so. They sometimes seem to be like the apples on our stubbard-tree. Most of them splendid and sound – a few blighted.”
….“Which do we live on – a splendid one or a blighted one?”
….“A blighted one.”

Although the book focuses almost exclusively on Tess, in many ways she’s a passive heroine, with that passivity forced on her by a society which gives women of her class only two options in life – motherhood or physical labouring – each attended by the constant fear of poverty and homelessness. For Tess, her beauty and the little bit of education she has gained at the new National School (run by the church for children of the poor) seem to give her a third option – to attract a man of a higher class and economic status. But that would depend on her finding a man who could see past her class, past her beauty, past her error, to the purity of her natural essence. Poor Tess.

Book 35 of 90

A wonderful book that asks many questions that are still relevant in today’s world. I enjoyed it even more on this long overdue re-read and am now fired up to re-read more of his books as soon as I can.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics. It includes an excellent introduction by Penny Boumelha, Deputy Vice-Chancellor at the Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, which of course casts considerably more insight on the themes of the novel than I’ve touched on here.

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The Gothic Tales of H. P. Lovecraft edited by Xavier Aldana Reyes

Fear, frogs and fungoids…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

“Shrieking, slithering, torrential shadows of red viscous madness chasing one another through endless, ensanguined corridors of purple fulgurous sky…”

I have an ongoing love/hate relationship with Lovecraft. When he manages to restrain his worst excesses, he’s the equal of any horror writer I’ve read and far superior to most, but when he gets into full “weird” mode, he seems to lose control and goes wandering off through chapters as long and tortuous as the ancient tunnels and buildings he describes. So the idea of some of his shorter, more Gothic tales collected in one volume appealed to me greatly. I’m happy to say I loved this collection – every story got either a four or five star rating individually, a rare occurrence that has happened to me only once before, as far as I remember.

There are thirteen tales in the collection, ranging in length from eight pages to forty or so. They are simply presented, without illustrations or notes. However there is a short but informative introduction by Dr Xavier Aldana Reyes, Senior Lecturer in English Literature and Film at Manchester Metropolitan University and a member of the Manchester Centre for Gothic Studies. Reyes discusses how Lovecraft’s reputation as a major influence in weird fiction has led to his more traditionally Gothic work being somewhat overlooked. But Reyes points out that even in his weird fiction, Lovecraft often used Gothic concerns. Having read the stories, I’d say the reverse is also true – that his Gothic tales often include elements of his major weird works, particularly in the settings, the hint of unknown fears from something more cosmic than ghostly, and the idea of the degeneration of humanity, which recurs frequently not only in Lovecraft’s work but in that of many of his near contemporaries.

HP Lovecraft

Reyes also mentions Lovecraft’s well-known racist views. The stories collected here have been selected to avoid the worst of these. I’m not sure whether that’s the right decision – to get a real flavour of the man, unfortunately one has to be made aware of his views, since they underlie so many of his recurring themes. However, there’s no doubt in my mind that the less overtly racist stories are considerably more fun to read.

I cannot even hint what it was like, for it was a compound of all that is unclean, uncanny, unwelcome, abnormal, and detestable. It was the ghoulish shade of decay, antiquity, and desolation; the putrid, dripping eidolon of unwholesome revelation; the awful baring of that which the merciful earth should always hide.

But enough of the analysis! It’s all about the stories, of course! Here’s a flavour of a few of the ones I enjoyed most…

The Music of Erich Zann – I used this for a Tuesday Terror! post. Great stuff!

The Music of Erich Zann

The Alchemist – a young man is brought up in the castle of his ancestors by an old servitor. On his 21st birthday he is given papers revealing the family curse – each head of the family will die around the age of 32. Naturally, this thought obsesses the young man, so he sets out to find the reason for the curse and to reverse it if he can. Lots of Gothic in this one – the ancient castle with ruined wings, decayed aristocratic family, bats, cobwebs, darkness, curses and so on. And a nicely shocking moment when… nah! I’m not telling! And only ten pages… well done, HP!

The Moon-Bog – the narrator’s friend returns to his ancestral home in Ireland. At first all is well… until he decides to drain the bog for peat. This is also heavily Gothic but has touches of his trademark weird – the frogs especially are a delightfully Lovecraftian touch, but I shall say no more about them… It’s excellently written with some wonderfully atmospheric descriptions of the bog before and during the draining.

The Moon-Bog
by bealinn via deviantart.com

The Shunned House – an empty house, a nameless horror, and no Lovecraft collection would be complete without phosphorescent fungoids! This is straight horror, well-paced, and full of great imagery even though it’s written in plainer, more restrained language than usual.

The Strange High House in the Mist – this, I felt, was more clearly heading into weird territory though still with Gothic aspects.

In the morning mist comes up from the sea by the cliffs beyond Kingsport. White and feathery it comes from the deep to its brothers the clouds, full of dreams of dank pastures and caves of leviathan. And later, in still summer rains on the steep roofs of poets, the clouds scatter bits of those dreams, that men shall not live without rumour of old, strange secrets, and wonders that planets tell planets alone in the night.

It tells of a house in Kingsport, a fictional town in Massachusetts, and one of Lovecraft’s regular settings. It’s set high on an inaccessible cliff where the sea mists meet the clouds, providing a conduit through which pass things unknown to puny humanity. Until one man decides to ascend the cliff…

The Strange High House in the Mist
by tikirussy via deviantart.com

The book itself is gorgeous. The cover illustrations on back and front are embossed in what looks like silver, but seems to have different tones in it so that it takes on different colours in some lights. The print is clear and the paper is high quality, with a lovely thickness and weight to it. Given the Gothic theme, it would be perfect as a gift not just for existing Lovecraft fans but for anyone who enjoys Poe or MR James and hasn’t yet sampled the delights of weird fiction – a good introduction that clearly shows the crossovers between the genres. Of course, if you’re anything like me, you might prefer to keep the gift for yourself…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, The British Library.

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Imagined Corners by Willa Muir

Repression, religion and sex…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Calderwick is a small town on the east coast of Scotland – a town that looks in on itself, that has “turned its back on the sea”. When Hector Shand marries, he brings his young bride Elizabeth to live in the town he left in disgrace some years earlier, after he had ruined another young girl’s reputation. Hector is the half-brother of the mill owner, John Shand, one of the leading men in the town, and they have a sister, another Elizabeth (known as Lizzie or Elise), who also left the town many years earlier in disgrace, running off with a man to whom she wasn’t married. Now Elise, newly widowed from yet another man, is returning to Calderwick too. Muir sets out to look at Calderwick society – Scottish society – both from the perspective of those who consider it home and from those who are looking at it with the fresh eyes of incomers.

This book is full of doubles, used as complements and contrasts to each other, as a method of showing both sides of the themes Muir raises. I’ve become aware through reading various scholarly introductions and reviews of Scottish classics that the double, or duality, is a particular feature of Scottish writing – Jekyll and Hyde, the good and bad brothers in The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, the separated twin sisters in Marriage, and many others examples in books I haven’t yet read. Scholars suggest this may have arisen as a result of the Union, which has left Scots with a legacy of divided nationality – Scottish and/or British. Another theory is that it arises out of the tensions in Scottish society as it began to emerge from the stranglehold of Calvinism. Both of these theories could be applied to this book, I feel.

The themes Muir deals with include a kind of feminism, cultural rather than political; parochialism; the worth or otherwise of higher education; and, of course, religion – all Scottish fiction worth its salt addresses the effect of Knox and his hellfire on the Scottish psyche. I felt Muir was trying to do too much in this relatively short novel and as a result failed to get far beneath the superficial in most of her themes. From my perspective, it doesn’t reach the profundity of insight for which I feel it’s aiming.

However, it’s an interesting and enjoyable read, with some good, though somewhat exaggerated characterisation, and an excellent picture of the kind of society prevalent in the smaller towns of Scotland in the early 20th century. Calderwick is apparently a fictionalised version of Montrose, where Muir grew up. Published in 1935, it’s set in 1912, though the attitudes of many of the characters felt to me much more in tune with the ‘30s than the pre-WW1 era. In fact, if it weren’t for the references to the style of women’s clothing, I’d have read it thinking it was about a post-war society. There are no references to what’s going on in the wider world that might have rooted it in time – there’s a curious feeling of isolation, as if Calderwick is unaffected by the world outside.

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The two Elizabeths are both struggling with the status of women in society. Elise, the elder, escaped to Europe, a place Muir seems to suggest allows greater freedom, although even there she eventually succumbs to the conventional by marrying. Young Elizabeth, newly married, is an idealist with that kind of ecstatic fervour that seems to be prevalent in modernist feminist writing – so tiring. Quickly discovering that her husband isn’t quite the man she thought, she decides to be a Noble Wife – a support and guide to her husband-child, all-forgiving, a kind of Earth Mother. It’s all rather nauseating. Muir uses it to discuss how women were expected to maintain moral (sexual) standards higher than those of the men, to provide a kind of moral structure on which they could lean, and to help them control their rampant sexuality. There’s much daring talk of sex and Elizabeth’s enjoyment of the physical side of love, in defiance of the repression forced on women by Church and society. In a world where sex is seen as sinful (for women), Muir suggests, then women who discover they enjoy it immediately have to question their own moral righteousness. Oh, how I recognise the Scottishness of that! Knox’s trumpet still blasts…

The other main family is the Murrays. William is the minister of the Free Church, a particularly Calvinist version of Presbyterianism. His brother Ned is suffering from some kind of mental breakdown due to something that happened while he was at university. As Ned spirals ever downwards, William wrestles with his faith. Why would God allow this? Is it a punishment? William knows that God is a god of anger as well as a god of love, but in Scottish Presbyterianism the anger part generally takes precedence. As Ned descends into madness, and William wrings his hands helplessly and looks unavailingly to his God for help, their sister, Sarah, rolls up her sleeves and gets on with the job of trying to hold all their lives together. It’s not made explicit, but Muir clearly implies that, in a crisis, forget God and man – it’ll all end up on the shoulders of the womenfolk.

Willa Muir

Although it’s very well observed, I found that Muir’s resolutions to the various storylines feel overly contrived to make her points. While I certainly recognise the patriarchal society and the repressive religion that has blighted Scotland for centuries (are we out of it now? Hmm, perhaps), I felt that, as with much feminist literature, she has treated her men unfairly, making each either weak or immoral. There’s a kind of implied suggestion (or perhaps I’m inferring it unfairly) that the only way to get away from the repression is to flee Scotland (and maybe men too) – I’d have preferred at least one of them to decide to fight from within, as so many strong Scottish women have done in real life, working alongside the many good Scottish men to change the culture immeasurably for the better. Muir’s own views may have been coloured by the fact that she spent much of her life in the shadow cast by her more famous husband, the poet Edwin Muir, and spent many years working as a translator to fund his creative endeavours. We’re all the products of our own experiences, in the end.

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Marriage by Susan Ferrier

The Scottish Jane Austen…?

😀 😀 😀 🙂

When Lady Juliana is ordered by her father to marry a Duke she doesn’t love for money and social advantage, the girl refuses. Spoilt and with her head full of romantic ideas, instead she elopes with her young lover, Henry Douglas – a handsome but penurious Scotsman. Henry has relied on his guardian to keep him in style, but the guardian is furious about his marriage and cuts him off. Soon, the shallow and vain Juliana realises that living on love is not nearly as much fun as living in luxury. As their funds dwindle to nothing, they are forced to beg shelter from Henry’s father, a rather insignificant and uncouth laird in the Highlands. Their marriage continues to worsen, but Juliana bears twin daughters, one healthy, one sickly. When Juliana gets a chance to return to London, she promptly takes it, taking the healthy daughter, Adelaide, with her and leaving the other, Mary, in the hands of her sister-in-law. The story carries us through Juliana’s marriage and on to the lives of her two daughters, showing how their different upbringings determine their personalities.

Apparently when this book was originally published in 1818, it was hugely popular, outselling even Jane Austen. Now, on its recent re-publication, Ferrier is being touted as “the Scottish Jane Austen”. I fear not. While Austen’s books sparkle with wit and intelligence, this one, though often humorous, has nothing like the lightness of touch nor the true insight into society of Austen’s work. It’s grossly overlong and has large stretches of pure sentimentality that would make even Dickens cringe.

Part of the problem is that, in conjunction with so many Scottish authors following the Union, Ferrier was probably writing with an English audience in mind, and I assume that’s why she felt it necessary to drag all her characters down to London for the largest section of the book. While the Scottish sections are fun and give a believable if deliberately caricatured picture of Highland life and Edinburgh society, once she reaches London there is no sense of place and the society she describes feels considerably less authentic, more as if it’s based on books Ferrier has read than on a lifestyle she has lived and observed.

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The other major flaw is one common to many writers of that era – the drooping perfection of her main female character, the good sister Mary. Often, these drearily angelic women are surrounded by quirky or dastardly characters who liven the story up, and there are some of these in this book, too. But for my taste we spend far too much time with the saintly Mary and hear far too much about her religious scruples – about her religion in general, in fact. Regular readers of my reviews will know by now that Scotland has an unhealthy relationship with religion due to the misogynistic old killjoy Knox and his buddy Calvin. And, goodness! Mary has been well trained by her pious foster-mother to see anything the least bit fun as the temptation of the Devil.

Adelaide, on the other hand, never comes to life as a character at all. There primarily to provide a contrast to Mary, her purpose is to show what happens to girls brought up by shallow mothers to consider wealth and status all-important. I felt she could either have been made hissably unlikeable (like Lady Catherine de Bourgh) or perhaps have caused the reader to pity her (like Mrs Collins) or even allowed us to laugh at her (like Mrs Bennet). But in fact I never felt I had got to know her at all, and therefore felt nothing for her.

Fortunately, the book has some redeeming qualities that make it reasonably enjoyable despite its weaknesses. Juliana’s reaction to the rough, unsophisticated life of Henry’s Highland family gives room for a lot of humour in the first section, as does Ferrier’s description of the Highland landscape as a bare, harsh, barren place of rain and mud. More realistic than the prettified, shortbread box version of the Highlands that was beginning to be created by those of a Romantic inclination at that time. As Mary travels south years later to visit her mother and sister, she stops off in Edinburgh, and Ferrier creates some excellently caricatured characters there, almost in the vein of Dickens.

Susan Ferrier

The best bit for me, though, is the character of Mary’s English cousin, Lady Emily. Sarcastic and independent, Emily relentlessly mocks the aristocratic society of which she’s a part and supports droopy Mary through all her trials. One can tell Emily’s opinion of Mary’s constant moralising and rejection of fun is rather similar to my own – i.e., one suspects she often wants to slap Mary with a wet fish. But for some reason, despite this, Emily grows to love Mary and indeed, (to my horror), even occasionally wonders if she should emulate her. If there is any resemblance to Austen, it’s in the character of Emily, and it was she, not Mary, who kept me turning pages.

Overall, I enjoyed parts of the book a lot but felt that I had to trudge through too much moralistic sentimentality along the way. I’m not a great enthusiast for the women-writing-about-women-for-women type of book in general, and think this would probably work better for people who do enjoy that. It’s certainly good enough that it doesn’t deserve to have been “forgotten”, but to compare it to Austen does it a disservice by setting up expectations it doesn’t meet. As entertainment, this one has much to recommend it in parts, but neither the quality of the writing nor the depth of insight it provides take it into the true literary fiction category.

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The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M Cain

Sex and death…

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

Frank Chambers is a bum who drifts from place to place, making a living out of gambling and petty cons. One day he finds himself at a garage outside Los Angeles without funds or a ride. He cons a meal out of the owner, a Greek by the name of Nick Papadikis. Nick’s looking for help around the place, so offers Frank a job. Frank’s about to refuse when he catches sight of Nick’s wife, Cora, a luscious brunette who oozes sensuality…

Then I saw her. She had been out back, in the kitchen, but she came in to gather up my dishes. Except for the shape, she really wasn’t any raving beauty, but she had a sulky look to her, and her lips stuck out in a way that made me want to mash them in for her.

Now Frank has a reason to stick around, and it’s not long before the lip-mashing commences. And soon Frank and Cora feel that two’s company.

My initial reaction to this novella was a feeling of disgust. Frank’s objectification and sexualised descriptions of Cora made me faintly nauseous, and their joint racism about Greeks and “Mex” and anyone else who might not be whiter than white didn’t help much. But then as I got to know Cora better I discovered she was just as revolting as Frank, so I acquitted Cain of misogyny and racism, and convicted him of misanthropy instead. And, oddly, once I reached that point, I found the book much easier to get along with.

….She started for the lunchroom again, but I stopped her. “Let’s – leave it locked.”
….“Nobody can get in if it’s locked. I got some cooking to do. I’ll wash up this plate.”
….I took her in my arms and mashed my mouth up against hers.
….“Bite me! Bite me!”
….I bit her. I sunk my teeth into her lips so deep I could feel the blood spurt into my mouth. It was running down her neck when I carried her upstairs.

There’s no doubt it’s compellingly written in the true noir style. Reading it is a little like being held up on the motorway because there’s been a crash just ahead – you know you shouldn’t stare but you can’t help yourself. As a study of two amoral, self-obsessed monsters drawn to each other through lust, it’s brilliantly done. But, like Damien Hirst’s dead cow, can it really be considered art? I’ve mentioned more than once that I tend to judge literature on the basis of Flaubert’s famous quote:

Human language is like a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, when all the time we long to move the stars to pity.

I could see the bears frantically dancing but the stars had all gone out. Maybe that’s why they call it noir. I’d call it a glamorisation of sado-masochism, except that it’s way too sordid to be glamorous. When our lovely heroes aren’t indulging in some vicious sex that seems to involve lots of bruising and blood – but it’s OK ‘cos Cora likes being hurt – then Frank’s beating people senseless…

….When he was half out the door I cut the juice in the sign, and it blazed down in his eyes. He wheeled, and I let him have it. He went down and I was on him. I twisted the gun out of his hand, threw it in the lunchroom, and socked him again. Then I dragged him inside and kicked the door shut. She was standing there. She had been at the door, listening, all the time.
….“Get the gun.”
….She picked it up and stood there. I pulled him to his feet, threw him over one of the tables, and bent him back. Then I beat him up. When he passed out, I got a glass of water and poured it on him. Soon as he came to, I beat him up again. When his face looked like raw beef, and he was blubbering like a kid in the last quarter of a football game, I quit.

And yet, oddly, despite their vicious callousness, they are two of the most incompetent murderers I’ve come across. Of course, that’s partly the point – it’s when the police and lawyers become involved that the story reaches its real moral dilemma – under pressure, will their love/lust for one another be enough to hold them together? When you know the bad, bad things your lover has done, can you ever trust him/her? Can you be sure that when he/she says he/she loves you that he/she really does and wasn’t just using you? And once the excitement of murder is over, how do you feel about the dullness of everyday life – does the passion last when you no longer have to sneak around and hide, when there’s nothing left to plot? This second half of the book is far more interesting than the sex-saturated first half – to me, at any rate.

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I don’t know how to rate it really. It’s undoubtedly superbly done so I admire it for that. I’m not the greatest fan of pure noir so haven’t read extensively in the genre, but the little I have read has usually given me one good guy to root for amid the gritty darkness, and a femme fatale who may behave badly but is morally ambiguous. This one gives two people with no redeeming features whatsoever, so that I could only hope things would end badly for them. Again, that’s the point, so it succeeds in its aim. I found it well written, psychologically convincing, and it creates a truly noir world in which everything is soiled and corrupt and no gleam of light beckons. But it left me feeling I needed to scrub my mind out with a Brillo pad. I’ve settled on four stars – compelling rather than enjoyable, but I can understand why it’s considered a classic.

This is my Classics Club Spin #18 book.

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Mildred Pierce by James M Cain

Then…

😦 😦

When Bert Pierce loses everything in the Great Crash, he turns to another woman to soothe his bruised ego. This is understandable, since the woman he has married, the eponymous Mildred, is not someone you’d really look to for sympathy or support, though on the upside she bakes good pie. So when Bert leaves/is thrown out, Mildred decides to make pies for a living and astonishingly this enables her to become incredibly rich despite the Depression. Mind you, when I’m depressed, pie always helps, it’s true. However, this amazing success isn’t enough for her snobbish daughter who spends all the money while sneering at her mother’s method of earning it. As Veda grows up, their relationship becomes increasingly fraught…

Nope, couldn’t get on with this one at all. I stuck it out to the bitter end, and boy, was it bitter. But I spent most of it wishing that a plague or asteroid would hit, wiping them all from the face of the earth. The only thing that makes Mildred remotely likeable is the fact that Veda is so horrible. Having a mother as dull and tedious as Mildred couldn’t have been any fun though, especially since she veered from pathetic weakness to beating her child viciously. The best I could say about either of them is that they deserved each other. I, however, felt that I didn’t deserve either of them.

The fact that I found neither of them psychologically convincing was a major part of the problem, as was my extreme doubt over the unbelievable success of Mildred’s business ventures. Was it really so easy for a rather stupid, completely inexperienced woman to get thousands of dollars of credit during the Depression even if she did bake good pies? If so, I wonder why so many people suffered. They should just have gone to the bank and got a suitcase full of dosh and set up a small business. Apparently the whole depressed world was just longing to go out and spend money on pie and other such essentials of life. I don’t know what Steinbeck was whining on about in The Grapes of Wrath – the Joads could have just borrowed some money and set up their own orange juice business.

(Hopefully the movie will be better…)

But, in truth, neither of these was the real issue. I’d have accepted Mildred’s and Veda’s dodgy and unexplained rivalry and their easy-to-acquire wealth without much thought, had it not been for my struggles with the actual writing. When you find yourself searching your Kindle to find out how often an author uses the word ‘then’, then you know he’s lost you. Books don’t often make me resort to Trumpesque Twitter storms, but this one did – I had to relieve my feelings somehow or I’d have thrown the Kindle at the wall, and then have had to sell enough pie to buy a new one. The question of how many ‘thens’ there are will remain forever unanswered – the Kindle could merely tell me it was ‘over 500’. Now at least I know the maximum the Kindle will count up to.

…Mrs Gessler went to work. She pinned Mildred’s dress up, so it was a sort of sash around her hips, with a foot of white slip showing. Then she put on the galoshes, over the gold shoes. Then she put on the evening coat, and pulled the trench coat over it. Then she found a kerchief, and bound it tightly around Mildred’s head. Mildred, suddenly transformed into something that looked like Topsy, sweetly said goodbye to them all. Then she went to the kitchen door, reached out into the wet, and pulled open the car door. Then she hopped in. Then she started the motor. Then she started the wiper. Then she tucked the robe around her. Then, waving gaily to the three anxious faces at the door, she started the car, and went backing down to the street.

If I’d handed something like that in to my primary school teacher, I’d have been rapped over the knuckles with a ruler (yes, they really did things like that back in the dark ages) and sent away to rewrite it. What a pity Cain’s editor didn’t do the same! I’d even have lent him/her my ruler.

And the endless, tedious descriptions of how the business worked, down to the last tiny details, meant that I spent most of my time bored rigid. As I’m sure you probably are too by this lengthy whingefest of a review, so I shall cease. Needless to say, not one of my favourite books, and I truthfully don’t understand why it’s considered a classic. I’d have thought quality writing would have been an essential criterion for a book to acquire that status. But apparently not.

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The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham

Must remember to weed the garden…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When Bill Masen wakes up in hospital, he’s surprised that none of the nurses have been along to get him up and ready for the day. It’s to be a big day – the bandages that have covered his damaged eyes for a week are due to be removed and Bill will find out if he can see. He missed the big meteor shower last night – amazing green streaks shooting across the sky in a wonderful light-show – but most everybody else in the world had watched them. Bill is about to discover he’s one of the lucky few…

Gosh, I had forgotten just how brilliant this book is! I’m sure everyone has an idea of the basic story even if they’ve never read it or seen a film adaptation, because it’s one of those books that has become a cultural reference point for so much later literature and film. When Bill removes his bandages, he discovers that the vast majority of people have been blinded by the lights in the sky. Only a small number of people like himself who, for various reasons, didn’t see them have retained their sight. It’s a tale of survival in a world turned suddenly dystopian. And with the breakdown of society, the strange walking plants known as triffids have been set free to prey on a suddenly vulnerable humanity.

The 1962 movie…

First published in 1951 and set in a future not far distant from that date, it’s one of the finest examples of the science fiction books that grew out of Cold War paranoia. The world’s first nuclear bombs had been dropped just six years earlier, and the arms race between the US and the USSR was well underway, with each building up stocks of weapons which it was believed could destroy the world. Nuclear bombs were only part of that; Wyndham looks at another aspect, perhaps even more frightening – biological warfare, as scientists turned their brains and technology towards discovering new and horrific ways of destroying their nations’ enemies. Man hadn’t yet made it into space, but that achievement was on the near horizon, again as part of the race for superpower status between the two dominant military mights. And, in a seemingly more peaceful and benevolent manner, man was mucking about with nature in ways that were unprecedented – developing new plants, fertilisers and pesticides without much consideration of possible unintended consequences. All concerns that still exist, though we’ve perhaps become too blasé about them now, but that were fresh and terrifying as Wyndham was writing.

1962 again… and yeah, the woman in the book really doesn’t dress like that to fight monsters…

The joy of this book is that the science horrors are more than balanced by an exceptionally strong human story, with excellent characterisation. On leaving the hospital where he woke up, Bill soon meets a young woman, Josella, also sighted. The book tells their story, and through them of the various ways in which humanity attempts to survive. Wyndham looks at questions of morality and society – should the sighted people try to save the blind, hopeless though that task will be given the huge disparity in numbers? Or should they try to save themselves and create a new world for their children? Should they form small communities or gather together to forge whole new societies? How should they go about preserving the knowledge of the past? What knowledge deserves to be preserved? What form of government should be recreated? Are marriage and monogamy appropriate in a severely depleted population or does childbirth take precedence over all else? What role does religion play in this new world? Now that the flesh-eating triffids vastly outnumber the sighted human population, will man remain in his position at the top of the food chain, or has his time passed?

The 2009 TV miniseries version…

Josella has as strong a survival instinct as any of the men and an equal ability to adapt to new ways of living. She’s witty and amusing and occasionally a little wicked. She’s a true partner for Bill, rather than a pathetic encumbrance that he has to protect. She is, without exception, the best female character I can think of in science fiction of this era and indeed for decades to come. She feels utterly modern, as if she were written today. And Wyndham makes it clear this is no accident – he uses one of his characters to discuss the relative positions in society of men and women and how women’s perceived weakness has arisen out of convention – a convention that women have used to their advantage as much as men have to theirs. And he suggests strongly that if women want to be equal, they can be – they just have to decide that they will be and stop playing the feminine weakness card. A bit of tough love, perhaps, and the teensiest bit patronising, but… not bad at all for a man in the 1950s!

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For those of you who automatically dismiss science fiction as not your kind of thing, I promise you this book – any of Wyndham’s books, in fact – will make you change your mind. The writing and characterisation is first-class, and the science is in there because we live in a world where science is important, and where it can be a force for either great good or annihilation of the species. Questions we should all be aware of and thinking about, and all packaged up in a fantastic story – it’s as much literary fiction as any other book that seeks to examine the “human condition” and, frankly, better than most. Great book!

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The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan

Hide and Seek…

😀 😀 😀 😀

It’s May 1914 and war is looming over Europe. Richard Hannay has returned from South Africa and is finding England dull. He’ll give it another couple of days, he decides, and if nothing exciting happens, he’ll return to one of the outposts of Empire. But then a man he doesn’t know turns up at his door seeking help. Scudder tells him that he’s discovered a conspiracy, one that, if it succeeds, will shake the world. It’s four weeks until he can reveal what he knows to the authorities, though, and he begs Hannay’s help to keep him hidden till then. When Scudder is then killed, Hannay finds himself possessed of a secret and Scudder’s coded notebook, running from the conspirators who want to kill him and the police who want to arrest him for Scudder’s murder. And so the chase is on…

Buchan described the book as a “shocker” and that’s basically what it is – what we’d now call an action thriller. Published in 1915, its first audience knew that whatever Hannay did, he didn’t succeed in preventing war, so that couldn’t be the point of the conspiracy or of the attempt to defeat it. Not unnaturally, the Germans don’t come out of it well, and unfortunately neither do the Jews (no Jews actually appear in it, but they’re still referred to in what I wish were outmoded anti-Semitic terms) nor the Southern Europeans – thankfully, it’s been a while since I heard the word “Dago” being used. This is always a problem with books of this era and sometimes I find it easier to overlook than others, I think based on whether the author simply uses the words or whether it feels as if he really means to be derogatory. I found Buchan borderline – it bothered me, but not so much I couldn’t look past it and enjoy the story.

The story itself is mostly a simple chase round the moorland in the south-west of Scotland, a place Buchan knew well in real life. This centre section between Scudder’s murder and the dramatic dénouement forms the bulk of the book, and is divided into chapters each of which forms a little story on its own. (In the introduction, there’s an extract from a letter from an early reader, a soldier in the trenches in France, thanking Buchan for this format since it allowed him to read and assimilate a chapter any time he got a moment of calm. “The story is greatly appreciated in the midst of mud and rain and shells, and all that could make trench life depressing.”) Each mini-story involves someone Hannay meets during his travels – a road-mender, an innkeeper who would like to be an author, an aspiring political candidate, etc. Most of these are educated men, so that the bulk of the book is in standard English, but in the occasional working-class encounter Buchan gives us some excellent Scottish dialect.

Hitchcock’s version. Woman? What woman?? There is no woman!

The framing story of the conspiracy I found frankly incomprehensible for the most part, especially at the beginning when Scudder is clearly referring to all kinds of people and events that were probably familiar to a contemporary audience but mostly weren’t to me. It does become clearer at the end, although it also all becomes rather silly. However, I’m not a soldier in the trenches of WW1 nor even a worried mother waiting at home, so the thrilling aspects of trying to put a spanner in the works of the nasty Hun don’t resonate with me as they would have done at the time. In truth, I was finding it a bit tedious in the middle – there’s an awful lot of coincidence and near-miraculous luck, and it’s one of those ones where the hero just always happens to have the knowledge he needs: how to break codes, for example, or how to use explosives. But when it reaches its climax and I finally found out what the conspiracy was all about, I found myself nicely caught up in it (once I had switched off my over-heating credibility-monitor).

John Buchan

I’m a bit ashamed to say that I actually found the introduction in my Oxford World’s Classic edition more interesting than the book! Christopher Harvie, Professor of British and Irish Studies at the University of Tübingen in West Germany, gives the usual mix of abbreviated biography and literary context, and does so in clear and accessible English without any academic jargonese. What a fascinating life Buchan had! I had no idea! As well as writing a zillion books, he held all kinds of posts in his life, from Lord High Commissioner of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, to Member of Parliament, to Governor of Canada. Along the way, he also travelled extensively through South Africa, worked in intelligence and rose to be the Director of Intelligence in the Ministry of Information in 1918. (I know any Scottish readers, especially my siblings BigSister and ForeignFilmFan, are currently shaking their heads in disgust at my ignorance, but there it is. Neither of them can play Three Blind Mice on the xylophone – we each have our different areas of expertise in this life.)

Overall, then, a good read if not a great one. And, as I suspected, it turns out I hadn’t read it before – I just knew it from the various adaptations, none of which have stuck very closely to the plot of the book. I’m now keen to re-watch the ancient Hitchcock version to see how it compares – memory tells me I enjoyed it considerably more…

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NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics.

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The Mystery of the Yellow Room by Gaston Leroux

Brilliantly baffling…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Mademoiselle Mathilde Stangerson is attacked in her yellow bedroom by a murderer wielding a mutton-bone. When her father and the other people in the house break down the door, Mlle S is on the floor and her murderer is nowhere to be found. There are three exceedingly strange things about this – one: how did the murderer get out of a room in which the only door and window were securely locked; and two: why does everyone keep calling him a murderer when Mlle S is still alive…; and three: a mutton-bone???

OK, to my great disappointment I discovered a mutton-bone is actually the name given to a club-like weapon much used by villains of the day, so that solves number three. Number 2 – the murderer with the living victim – becomes progressively more hysterical as the book goes on and Mlle S stubbornly refuses to die. I couldn’t help wondering what she felt every time a newspaper or one of the characters talked about her murder.

The real meat of the thing, though, is not on the mutton-bone, but in the question of how the murderer got out of the room. Enter our hero, Joseph Rouletabille, (a nickname meaning “Roll Your Marble”, given to him, presumably, on account of his large round red head), a young journalist who at the age of eighteen has already acquired a reputation as an inspired amateur detective. He is introduced to us by our narrator, Jean Sainclair, a young lawyer and friend who acts as Rouletabille’s sidekick.

Off they go to the Château du Glandier, where they will meet Mathilde and her father, her fiance, her loyal and devoted servant, and various assorted estate workers and villagers, all with or without alibis and motives, and all behaving suspiciously in one way or another. Even Frédéric Larsan, famed investigator of the Sûreté, will find himself hard put to it to come up with a solution to this baffling mystery, and when he does, it will be entirely different from Rouletabille’s solution. Who will prove to be right? And how will he (the one who’s right) prove he’s right? And will they catch the murderer before the murder victim is finally murdered???

Rouletabille
By Josep Simont i Guillén – Published on October 19, 1907 on the front page of the French newspaper L’Illustration where the story was first serialised

This is a fabulous little romp that is more and more fun as it goes along. First published in French in 1907, I can’t find anything to tell me who the translator was. At first, I felt the language was quite stilted and thought it could do with a modern update. But as the book’s general mildly melodramatic tone began to come through, I realised the style of the translation is actually perfect for it. It makes it feel terribly French and very old-fashioned – both things which add considerably to its charm.

The plotting is great, enhanced by a couple of detailed floor plans allowing the reader to try to get to the solution before Rouletabille. (I failed miserably!) The initial mystery of the locked room is only one of the “impossible crime” features – there is another halfway through which is not only baffling but quite spooky, and there are other sections where Leroux creates a beautifully tense atmosphere. But overall the book leans more towards entertainment with lots of humour, especially in the rivalry between Rouletabille and Larsan. I love that the title of the first chapter is In Which We Begin Not to Understand – sets the light-hearted tone superbly before the book even begins. The villagers are about as welcoming as the ones in The Wicker Man, complete with a surly publican and a witchy old crone with an exceptionally scary cat called Bête du Bon Dieu, so some lovely almost Gothic touches sprinkled into the story.

Rouletabille’s ability to see through the fog of confusion to the truth that eludes all others is well-nigh miraculous, enhanced by Sainclair’s supreme admiration for his young friend. Rouletabille is the master of the enigmatic utterance, throwing suspects into terror while keeping Sainclair (and me) totally befuddled. But when all is revealed, we see that we have indeed had all the clues all along – well, all the important ones anyway – and it’s only our inferior brain-power that has left us trailing in Rouletabille’s brilliant wake…

Hercule Poirot wasn’t baffled, of course, when he read this book. He talks about it in The Clocks, saying…

“And here is The Mystery of the Yellow Room. That – that really is a classic! I approve of it from start to finish. Such a logical approach!… All through there is truth, concealed with a careful and cunning use of words… Definitely a masterpiece…”

… and Poirot (and Ms Christie) knew a thing or two about crime fiction. Poirot is not Rouletabille’s only admirer among the fictional detective classes – John Dickson Carr’s Gideon Fell refers to the book as “the best detective tale ever written”. I must say the physical book from the Collins Crime Club series is gorgeous too, with a great cover, including quotes from Poirot and Fell where normally there would be puffs from fellow writers. Made me laugh with delight before I even opened it.

Gaston Leroux

I’m so glad to have had the chance to read this one, since I’ve seen it referred to often in my recent travels through vintage crime. And I’m even more glad to be able to say that I feel it fully deserves its reputation, both for the skill in the plotting and for the entertainment value in the storytelling. An essential read for vintage crime fans!

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Collins Crime Club.

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