Category Archives: Male Author

{Book} Japanese Tales of Mystery & Imagination

Book cover for Japanese Tales of Mystery & Imagination

Japanese Tales of Mystery & Imagination by Edogawa Rampo

I was turned on to this book by a post over at SciFi & Scary: Five Entry-Level Japanese Horror Stories. I’ve read a small amount of modern Japanese horror and have had Lafcadio Hearn’s Kwaidan on my TRB list for long enough that it’s part of my Classics Club list, but I hadn’t read any Japanese mysteries.

Edogawa Rampo is one of the most well-known classical writers of mystery…at least in Japan. Sadly (for non-Japanese readers), only maybe a third of his works have been published in English. His career spans from the 1920s to about 1960, with an understandable lapse during WWII. Rampo was an admirer of Edgar Allan Poe and Arthur Conan Doyle. He has a reoccurring private detective in the form of Kogoro Akechi (“The Psychological Test” being an Akechi mystery included in this anthology), but also dozens of standalone novels and short stories.

This collection was originally published in 1956 while the author was still alive to assist with translation. It mostly collects stories from the 1920s with the exception of “The Cliff” (1950), which does have a very different style—a man and a woman engage in a dialogue at the edge of a cliff until one of them meets their doom.

I’m going recuse myself here: I don’t know much about 1920s’ English-language mysteries. I’ve read a little Agatha Christie and a tiny bit of Dashiell Hammett and Dorothy L. Sayers, but I haven’t really liked any of them. I think perhaps they’re not macabre enough for me and their plots go on too long. So it’s hard for me to contrast Rampo with *them*. But I have read quite a bit of Poe and Doyle. While they were Rampo’s inspiration to write in the mystery genre, he isn’t imitative of them directly. Instead, Rampo’s stories are more grounded in reality than Poe’s Dupin mysteries (I’m thinking about the unlikelyhood of a rampaging orangutan here), but grimmer than Doyle’s Holmes canon.

There is also an eroticism to many of Rampo’s stories that I found surprising for the era, though that might be due to my lack of experience with this time frame in literature. The collection begins with “The Human Chair” from 1925, a yarn about a man who hides himself in a big easy chair and finds that he very much likes being able to feel women sit on him. Nothing is explicitly described, but I wonder is such a story would come out of America, even pre-Hays code. (If I’m wrong, let me know. I have so many holes in my literature education!) A few other stories have similarly “deviant” characters.

Japanese Tales of Mystery & Imagination consists of nine tales, all quick compelling reads. I found the book via hoopla, so if you need a book for an upcoming spooky challenge or readathon, you might be able to check it out through your local library’s online system. Definitely worth some time!

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The Lady of the Shroud

The Lady Of The Shroud

Never have I ever felt so much like a bait and switch had been perpetrated on me…

Well, maybe it’s partially my fault.

I’d read in advance that this was an “adventure” novel, but I thought maybe this was being said by a stuffy academic that didn’t want to admit that a piece of literature contained supernatural elements. The first 40% of this book played into that notion. The novel’s epigraph is about a ship’s crew seeing a ghostly Lady in a Shroud adrift in a coffin off the coast of the Blue Mountains. Rupert Sent Leger inherits a large sum from his uncle, but is required to spend a year in a castle in those same Blue Mountains (an area in the Balkans). This is a prime Gothic set up, with a Bram Stoker requisite number of solicitors involved. After settling in, Rupert is visited in the night by a Lady in a Shroud. He thinks she might be a vampire and that notion is reinforced by his seeing her in a glass coffin and the psychic premonitions of his Scottish aunt. After a few encounters, Rupert falls deeply in love with the Lady and a dark marriage is performed.

Along side this, Rupert is bent on gaining the trust of the surrounding mountaineers and is willing to spend a good deal arming them against the Turks who are eternally bent on invading. The story turns when we learn that the daughter of the local Voivode has been captured. Spoilers: this is, of course, the Lady of the Shroud. How? It was politically advantageous for her to appear dead. She is rescued by Rupert. Her father is also rescued when the Turk kidnap him and Stoker proves he doesn’t quite know how an aeroplane works. (I mean, can’t you anchor it like a dirigible?) Things are still not that bad in this section. There is some strategy involved and it’s actually Lady Teuta who has to swing down from the aeroplane to retrieve her father. But that’s all over by the 70% mark.

The remaining 30%? Well, I got through 10% and skimmed another 5%. Rupert and Teuta’s secret marriage is out of the bag and no one has a problem with it. Teuta becomes the usual universally beloved (which happens to most women in Stoker’s fiction) and she gives up her pretending-to-be-dead rope-swing ways. The Turks are still lurking about, but are no match for the mountaineers, especially now that Rupert has supplied them with guns, a semaphore system, a war ship, an aeroplane, and Scottish highlanders to keep everyone disciplined. According to the pundits, who I now believe when I didn’t before, the rest of The Lady of the Shroud is more of the same. And I decided that I had better things to do.

The Door in the Wall

The Door in the Wall

During my reading of The King in Yellow, I read H. G. Wells story “The Door in the Wall.” Since the collection was on my Classics Club list and I enjoyed the titular story quite a bit, I decided to finish the book before moving on.

The Chambers story “The Demoiselle d’Ys” is said to have anticipated Wells’ “The Door in the Wall.” In both, our protagonist crosses over into some other time or place. In “The Demoiselle d’Ys,” Philip is time-slipped into the past where he has a curious encounter. In “The Door in the Wall,” Lionel Wallace goes through a green door as a child and enters some sort of utopia. Though he promises to return as an adult, he never does, even though he sees the green door several more times throughout his life.

To a certain extent, I think Wells’ “A Dream of Armageddon,” bears resemblance to the Chambers’ story as well. In this case, a man named Cooper relates the “consecutive” dream he’s had. He has lived a whole other life within a dream world—what he purports to be the far future. At first this other world is Idyllic, but it turns dark when war breaks out. Cooper ends up living out his entire life and dying in the dream, similar to Philip’s snake-bitten fate in his time-slipped past.

Wells spends a lot of time in “A Dream of Armageddon” describing the beauty and terribleness of the war machines. This appreciation and dread of industrial machines is revisited often in these stories. In “The Cone,” a fairly basic revenge tale, I personally don’t know enough about smelteries to know when Wells is being fanciful, but his descriptions are vivid and full of grandeur. So also are the descriptions of deaths in “The Cone” and “The Lord of the Dynamos.” The victims meet their demises due to the evils of man rather than the evils of machines—the machines are only the tools—but their deaths are horrible in ways that only technology can seem to facilitate.

Man’s mind doesn’t fare well either in the industrial world. In “The Door in the Wall,” it’s Wallace’s business ambitions that keep him from going through the door again. The life of the protagonist in “The Diamond Maker” is pretty much ruined by his gem fabrication technology. (The story includes a long description of the actual technology.) The protagonist of “A Moonlight Fable” is also driven a little mad when he isn’t let by his mother to wear his very nice, spiffy suit. The suit is a thing of the modern world, which is being curtailed by the past, and the man just can’t take it.

Unfortunately, some of Wells’ 19th century attitudes are on display as well. When Neptune and a rogue celestial body are hurtling toward Earth in “The Star,” the “savages” believe it’s a good portent while the scientist are sure that humanity is screwed. (Neither are exactly correct.) “The Lord of the Dynamos” gives us Azuma-zi, a black assistant from the “mysterious East,” a savage of the sort that “give(s) souls to rocks and trees—and a machine is a thousand times more alive than a rock or tree.” Azuma-zi ends up sacrificing his abusive supervisor to the power plant’s main dynamo…

Wells does subvert colonial notions in a stronger manner in “The Country of the Blind.” Nunez, a sighted English mountain climber, finds a sequestered city where everyone is blind. Believing the adage “In the land of the blind, the one-eye man is king,” he attempts to conquer them. When that doesn’t go well, he tries to fit in, but eventually leaves when the head of the society demands that his eyes be put out. In a way, this is a tale of colonialism repulsed.

Whatever the subject matter, I do like Wells’ style of writing. While many writers might shoot for dry allegory, Wells is always lively enough that I don’t feel entirely preached at. Definitely a bright spot in the early 20th century writings I’ve been reading lately.

Draft No. 4

Draft No. 4

I added this book to my TBR list a couple months back when Deb @ Readerbuzz was reading it. I’ve been looking for books on writing nonfiction, but most of what I’ve found have been about writing memoirs, which isn’t quite what I’m after. I didn’t realize at the time that I’m slightly familiar with John McPhee. I’d read his A Sense of Where You Are years ago.

I looked up Draft No. 4 at the local online libraries and found that the Phoenix library had it — except they didn’t have it. I put in a hold, but then realized I was on a wait list for 0 copies. I suspect this happens when an online library had the license for a book, but it expired and the book wasn’t an automatic rebuy (if such a thing exists) due to lack of interest. I’ve also had it happen with a little known book about a 1910s serial killer. So I went to Amazon. The ebook was $10; the paperback was $12.75. I tossed the paperback into my cart and waited until we needed to round out an order. I still have a hangup about buying ebooks for a near premium price. In the meantime I checked out McPhee’s Levels of the Game.

A word about the paperback. It’s white. And it has this texture to it. Arizona is quite dusty. My white book has gotten dusty and resists cleaning because of the texture. I do no recommend reading it while eating Doritos.

Draft No. 4 is a fairly slim book. It’s earned a spot on my desk with my other writing books to be sure, though (like most of my favorite writing books) the practical advice is buried amid career anecdotes.

The first two chapters cover, roughly, the things that were of most interest to me: what’s a worthwhile idea to write long-form nonfiction about and what do you do with it once you have it. Turns out in McPhee’s experience, a good idea for a piece of nonfiction is a thing that the writer can commit time and effort to. What form will it take? Where will it end up? These are variable things. McPhee’s advice seems to be: keep an open mind and go with the flow. To me, that’s fairly comforting.

Of course, there is McPhee’s progression of drafts which is the second thing of particular non-entertainment-only interest to me. The first draft is simply getting things down, the philosophy of you can’t fix what doesn’t exist. In McPhee’s second draft, he tinkers with shape. The third draft is smoothing out the rough spots after giving it a verbal read-through. And the fourth draft? In the fourth draft, he calls into question weak wording and cuts about 10%. This cutting comes from writing for a magazine like Time where space is a premium. Ideas need to be cut, trimmed, distilled in order for there to be the proper number of lines for the piece when published in a print magazine. Even when not under those constraints, McPhee has found that this practice tightens up writing. (I have found this to be the case myself in the past.)

John McPhee is an entertaining writer and an entertaining teacher too. Draft No. 4 has a lot of stories from McPhee’s long career and some writing advice as well. Suitable even for those who aren’t crazy enough to write a book on a topic no one cares about. Yet.

The King in Yellow

The King in Yellow: And Other Stories

Like many people, I hadn’t really heard of The King in Yellow before the first season of True Detective which originally aired back in 2014. I was intrigued enough to add the Robert W. Chambers to my TBR list, but not enough to actually read the collection until six years later… Since The King in Yellow is considered a foundational text of genre literature, I included it on my Classics Club list, but was finally spurred to read it by the lectures of Michael Moir, whose Weird Lit class is available through YouTube.

Funnily enough, Chambers’ stories only have peripheral connection to True Detectives‘ narrative, and the King in Yellow, the play and personality, only have peripheral connection to the stories in this anthology.

The King in Yellow refers to a fictional play referenced in the first four stories of this collection. Reading the play is said to drive individual mad. The King in Yellow was published in 1895. Artifacts of forbidden knowledge were not unknown at this time to readers of M. R. James, Ambrose Bierce, and other authors of weird tales who preceded and inspired Chambers. The brain-break of insight will later become the bread and butter of writers such as H. P. Lovecraft.

As I mentioned, the first four stories of this collection directly mention the the King in Yellow, the Yellow Sign, the Masked Stranger, and the strange other world of Carcosa; all things from the fictional play which we are never given to read. The first story “The Repairer of Reputations” is possibly science fiction. Its setting is New York City in 1920. The United States has been at war with Germany and emerged from the conflict as a world power. Hildred, the narrator of our tale, assures us that he is totally, utterly fine, despite the head injury he recently sustained. His stay in an asylum was instead due to reading “The King in Yellow.” Because of his now keen insights, Hildred becomes a believer in the conspiracy theories of Mr. Wilde (whose death is cause by Wilde’s unhinged pet cat). Considering the unreliability of Hildred, the futuristic setting is probably just a delusion of the narrator. None of the other stories seem to involve the future.

I enjoyed the second story most of all. Many of the stories in this collection involve artists, but “The Mask” contains one of my personal favorite sub-genres of horror, though I’m not sure if I have a succinct name for it. It’s the type of horror in which the creation of art is the byproduct of something horrorible. Something like Roger Corman’s A Bucket of Blood in which a struggling artist stumbles upon a method of creating great sculptures…by covering the subject in plaster. Or the (possible) use of human intestines for violin strings in “The Ensouled Violin” by Helena Petrovna Blavatsky. In “The Mask,” weird science innovated by reading the “The King in Yellow,” of course, inspires a sculptor to use a liquid-nitrogen-like substance to preserve living things. The effects are not permanent which leads to a strangely not unhappy ending for such a tale.

“In the Court of the Dragon” and “The Yellow Sign” have more connection to the forbidden manuscript and are more straight forward horror stories, but are maybe less interesting for it. In both, the narrators are harried by uncanny physical supernatural forces after reading “The King in Yellow.” Unfortunately, much of what these narrators experience is beyond description.

The lecture on these four stories mentioned two Ambrose Bierce tales that served as some direct inspiration to Chambers. In “Haïta the Shepherd,” Bierce names the god of shepherds Hastur. Hastur becomes a mentioned character in the forbidden play. Bierce’s story is pretty much a fable. Haïta is visited by a beautiful maiden, who leaves him when he tries to question or possess her. The maiden is, of course, named Happiness.

Carcosa plays a bigger part in Chamber’s works and is fairly close in nature to Ambrose Bierce vision in “An Inhabitant of Carcosa.” Carcosa is a limbo of sorts, or maybe the world as a spirit experiences it. The last line of Bierce’s story implies that the preceding was told by a spirit through a medium. Carcosa isn’t the comfortable Summerland that most spiritualist of the time touted.

Actually, the allusions to The King in Yellow don’t end after “The Yellow Sign.” Hastur is mentioned in “The Demoiselle d’Ys” and Chamber’s story actually bears a resemblance to “An Inhabitant of Carcosa” as the narrator travels through a strange dream-like landscape. The Wikipedia entry states that “The Demoiselle d’Ys” anticipates H. G. Wells’ “The Door in the Wall.” While I can see some similarities, it really very different. (I’ll be reading the entire The Door in the Wall collection in the near future and provide more thoughts on it then.)

I don’t believe “The Prophets’ Paradise” mentions “The King in Yellow,” but it’s not the most comprehensible work for a Chambers neophyte to read. It is a few pages of prose/poem fragments. “The Street of the Four Winds” was much more engaging and creepy; the best of these stories to read on a stormy Halloween night.

After this, according to Wikipedia, the stories shift to a more romantic philosophy. There are many bohemian artists, living in Paris. I skimmed my way through most of “The Street of the First Shell,” but then really lost interest in the anthology. Chambers is not an elegant or straight-forward writer. I think it’s in the ambiguities and gaps that his weird stories are interesting to most readers. Like many of that genre, I have a hard time investing in horrors that are too terrible to be named.

My Classics Club list

{Books} The Westmark Trilogy

Westmark (Westmark, #1)

Theo, by occupation, was a devil. That is, he worked as apprentice and general servant to Anton, the printer. … Accidentally, he had learned to read, which in some opinion spoiled him for anything sensible.

So begins Lloyd Alexander’s Westmark trilogy (Westmark, The Kestrel, and The Beggar Queen).

Alexander is more popularly known for the the Chronicles of Prydain series, of which The Black Cauldron is part. Prydain is based on Welsh mythology and has a good helping of oracular pigs, rhyming beast-men, dark lords, and young chosen heroes.

Westmark, while not precisely somewhere in Europe, is set in a non-fantastical world, circa 1800. The crux of the plot involves the gradual abolition of a monarchy and the civil and international struggles of a budding republic. What more can you want in a YA series?

Theo, our main character, is not of secret noble birth or any thing spectacular like that and struggles with the actions he’s taken to become a “hero.” Mickle, our female character, is actually a really great character. She’s smart, competent, and self-sufficient. She and Theo become a couple and just… stay that way. There’s no love triangle, or “how can I be worthy of you,” or any other nonsense. They’re just two young people that would like to live their lives, but there’s this pesky revolution mucking things up.

I harp a little on the romance aspect because I find its lack of complication to be refreshing. By no means are these books romances: they are adventures! There are harrowing rescues, treacherous bad guys, plots and counter-plots. Enemies become allies and the good guys aren’t always right. The characters relationships are complex without being over-dramatic. And, while the first book Westmark won the 1982 National Book Award for Children’s Books, I can see how its lower key has possibly hurt its longevity.

Still, the writing sparkles and Alexander has a good eye for when to add some ridiculousness. They’ve been the perfect books to read a chapter of every morning for the last three months.

Side note: I collected all three of these books over the years in the above hardback editions. All three are discarded library books. From three different libraries. Westmark was purchased first, probably in Lincoln, NE; it had previously been part of the Springfield (NE) Public Library system. I’m pretty sure I came across The Beggar Queen next, at the Tempe (AZ) Public Library book sale. Later, I ordered The Kestrel through Paperback Swap. The sender removed any locational information, but it still has the shelving label on its spine.

{Books} Two Short Reviews

The Haunting of Tram Car 015

Cover: The Haunting of Tram Car 015 by P. Djèlí Clark

The Haunting of Tram Car 015 by P. Djèlí Clark was the July pick for the Occult Detective Book Club (a group on Facebook and Goodreads, if you’re into such literature). It is set in the same universe of “A Dead Djinn in Cairo” which I read and enjoyed back in January of this year. “Djinn” is available online, so I reread that before diving into Tram Car 015.

As I mentioned with “Djinn,” the world building is very deftly done. I’ve generally had a problem with steampunk because usually it’s not just retro science-fiction, but 19th-ish century sci-fi mixed with Gothic/supernatural elements. It’s just too much. Clark, though, blends “advanced” technologies and the supernatural seamlessly. The supernatural is, in fact, why this version of 1912 Egypt has the technologies it does.

I felt like the characters in Tram Car 015 were a little less compelling. Agents Hamed and Onsi are fine, but Fatma (from “Djinn”) is such a great character that they suffer in comparison. Both stories are good though; they’re set in the same world, but not directly connected. I’d definitely read more if Clark wanted to spend more time in this setting.

Levels of the Game

Cover: Levels of the Game

I found Levels of the Game by John McPhee while looking for McPhee’s Draft No. 4 (recommended by Deb @ Readerbuzz). The latter was listed in my local library’s online system, but really the license had expired and I’m on a wish-waiting list for it if the library decides to renew the license, but! Instead I noticed another book in McPhee’s catelog with a tennis court on the cover. Nonfiction about tennis? Yes, please. (Tennis is my summer sport. But there are no sports this year. Sadly, this doesn’t mean there’s no summer this year…)

Additionally, the structure of this book is rather curious, and since I’m thinking about writing a nonfiction book, I wanted to see how McPhee would pull it off. Levels of the Game is fairly short, less than 150 pages. In it, McPhee profiles two tennis players, Arthur Ashe and Clark Graebner, as they play a match at Forest Hills in 1968—the first US Championship tournament of the open era (meaning both amateurs and professionals could compete). As is mentioned in the book’s summary, McPhee begins with the first toss of the ball. Interspersed with the action of the match are biographical digressions comparing and contrasting the players.

Ashe and Graebner met in the semi finals of the tournament. Why write about a semi final? The two players were both American and Davis Cup teammates. But they were also very different. Ashe was a quick, finesse player; Graebner was more reliant on power and consistency. Ashe was a black, raised by a disciplinarian single father who held down multiple jobs to support his family. Graebner, white, was the son of a doctor and wanted for nothing in his life. Politically, one was of course more liberal and one more conservative. McPhee contends this influenced their styles of play as well.

I’m not sure if the conceit of the book, the stories told during the match, entirely works. The match itself didn’t seem that interesting and I was unaware while reading that this was the first US Open and that Ashe would be the only amateur player to ever win it. I did appreciate how McPhee moved smoothly between past and present and didn’t burden himself further by telling things in absolute chronological order.

I also didn’t realize until after I checked this book out that I read McPhee’s A Sense of Where You Are, a profile of basketball player Bill Bradley, back in 2011. I enjoyed that too. If anything, now I want to read Draft No. 4 more.