Deal Me In Lunar Extra ~ “A Journey”

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Hosted by Jay @ Bibliophilopolis

I was very indecisive when picking my Deal Me in Stories, so I added an extra “Lunar” twist.
For each full moon, I’ll be reading a horror story written by a woman. (I’m a day early this month. ;) )

“A Journey” by Edith Wharton

Card picked: A Three

From: The Greater Inclination, available for free at Amazon & Project Gutenberg

Thoughts: The physical titular journey is a train trip from Colorado to New York. Our travelers are a young wife and her very sick husband. They had moved to Colorado for his health, but the change in climate hasn’t helped.

On one hand, the woman is relieved to be leaving place she didn’t care for and returning to her old life and friends. On the other hand, this means that her husband won’t be getting better and will soon die. The illness has been terrible, robbing them both of strength and youth. When her husband dies a day away from their destination, she doesn’t tell anyone for fear that she and her husband’s corpse will be put off the train.

Wharton writes the character of the wife in a very neutral way. She could be very unsympathetic as she contemplates the sacrifices she’s made in vain, but instead I can understand her concerns. She’s been defined by her place in society, first as a woman and then as a wife. Now, there is an uncertainty in her life she could have never predicted. I’m reminded of the character of Eleanor Vance in Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. Eleanor is relieved when her ill and demanding mother dies, but also feels deeply guilty about being relieved.

“The Journey”also felt rather Hitchcockian to me. The woman is keenly aware of being watched  and judged during the entire trip. It only gets worse when she’s keeping an actual secret from them all.

About the Author: I’ll admit it, I’ve tried several times to read The Age of Innocence and have never made it to the halfway point despite adoring the movie and enjoying Ethan Frome. I haven’t read many of Wharton’s short works/ghost stories.

I chose this story via Paula Cappa post about it last year.

Deal Me In, Week 9 ~ “The Tears of Squonk”

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Hosted by Jay @ Bibliophilopolis

“The Tears of Squonk, and What Happened Thereafter” by Glen David Gold

Card picked: Three of Clubs

From: McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales, edited by Michael Chabon

Thoughts:

“The Tears of Squonk” is the sad tale of the Nash Family Circus. Under the utterly honest leadership of Ridley Nash (he inwardly winces when referred to as “Colonel” Nash since he never served in the military), the ragtag circus had traveled the US for 23 years before ending up in Olson, Tennessee in March of 1916. Olson is a quiet railroad town. Gold assures us “it was not at all a place for murder.”

Squonk is Joseph Bales, a European-educated clown and the trainer of Mary the Elephant. Mary and Squonk are the circus’s main draw, though Bales has always warned that Mary hates horses. Horses will send her into a frenzy. And this is exactly what happens when Mary spots Timothy Phelps atop his horse as the circus parades through Olson. Mary attacks and kills Phelps rather gruesomely. The town wants justice and Bales has a suggestion: hang Mary using the railroad yard’s derrick.

Nash knows his circus is pretty much sunk without Mary. In fact, he still owes $6500 on his purchase of Squonk and Mary’s contract. He also knows that this is the only thing he can possibly do to make things right with the town. They hang Mary the Elephant and Bales disappears.

The Nash Circus continues to limp along, but Ridley Nash is a changed man. He’s subtly less honest–he doesn’t even protest when the seal trainer, his newest act, insists that his charges are college educated. Nash heads to California alone to scout out new acts and is approached by an ex-railway detective. Mary and Bales may not have been who they seemed to be. Was Mary an insane elephant? Or was she just the tool of an evil man?

This story is based on a bizarre true event. Mary was an elephant who attacked and killed an inexperienced trainer during a parade through Kingsport, TN in 1916. The circus owner, Charlie Sparks, decided that public execution was the solution and Mary was hung in the Clinchfield Railroad yard. This might only be considered folklore if not for a photograph of the event. (via Wikipedia)

Previously: Carter Beats the Devil was one of my top reads a couple years back and a story by Glen David Gold was definitely a reason this anthology caught my eye. Gold seems to have a talent for setting historical fiction slightly askew to reality, which I really envy.

Review ~ The Writing Dead

This book was provided to me by University Press of Mississippi via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

The Writing Dead: Talking Terror with TV’s Top Horror Writers by Thomas Fahy

Cover via Goodreads

The Writing Dead features interviews with the writers of today’s most frightening and fascinating shows. They include some of television’s biggest names—Carlton Cuse (Lost and Bates Motel), Bryan Fuller (Hannibal, Dead Like Me, Wonderfalls, Pushing Daisies), David Greenwalt (Angel and Grimm), Gale Anne Hurd (The Walking Dead, The Terminator series, Aliens, and The Abyss), Jane Espenson (Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Battlestar Galactica), Brian McGreevy (Hemlock Grove), Alexander Woo (True Blood), James Wong (The X-Files, Millennium, American Horror Story, and Final Destination), Frank Spotnitz (The X-Files and Millennium), Richard Hatem (Supernatural, The Dead Zone, and The Mothman Prophecies), Scott Buck (Dexter), Anna Fricke (Being Human), and Jim Dunn (Haven).

The Writing Dead features thought-provoking, never-before-published interviews with these top writers and gives the creators an opportunity to delve more deeply into television horror than anything found online. In addition to revealing behind-the-scene glimpses, these writers discuss favorite characters and story lines and talk about what they find most frightening. They offer insights into the writing process reflecting on the scary works that influenced their careers. And they reveal their own personal fascinations with the genre.  (via Goodreads)

This book of interviews has a great pedigree. If you’ve watched any “horror” television in the last 15 years, you’ve seen these writers at work. Unfortunately, the last 10 years has been hard on some of the periodicals, like Starlog and Fangoria, that often provided fans with this sort of longer form interviews. Thomas Fahy works from a certain set of questions (such as “What do you think are some of the biggest pitfalls in horror writing?” and “What is the best criticism that you’ve received as a writer?”) as well as asking more project- and writer-specific questions.

A few observations:

Many of these writers had very little “genre” experience before working on their horror show. Most rely on really good characters to carry them through. One of the exceptions is Brian Fuller (executive producer/writer of Hannibal and creator of Pushing Daisies and Dead Like Me). Fuller’s interview was  the primary reason I requested this ARC. Fuller gives a lot of props to the horror literature and movie canon that has gone before him, something I was surprised to find lacking in many of the other interviews.

(Personally, I think Fuller is doing some of the best work in horror TV at the moment. I was also sad that his Mockingbird Lane didn’t get a mention.)

One thing that many of these TV projects have in common is that they are based on previously existing sources (examples Hannibal, True Blood, Dexter, Bates Motel). One of the great things Fahy asks each of these writers is how they deal with, as  Carlton Cuse puts it, “the long shadow” of the earlier work. Cuse, for example points out that Bates Motel removes itself from Psycho by setting what is technically a prequel in a modern setting, which is chronologically after the movie and its sequels.

I was amused by how many writers dodged the question of the best criticism they’ve gotten in their careers.

Publishing info, my copy: University Press of Mississippi, ARC, PDF copy. The Kindle version of this document contained wonky formatting. This book will be released on March 3, 2015.
Acquired: NetGalley
Genre: Non-fiction, television & film

Deal Me In, Week 8 ~ “The Man of the Crowd”

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Hosted by Jay @ Bibliophilopolis

“The Man of the Crowd” by Edgar Allan Poe

Card picked: Two of Hearts – Would you believe that? A wild card for the second week in a row. The third in six weeks! I decided again on an Obscure Literary Monster.

From: The Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore’s website

Thoughts:

This little gem begins, as many of Poe’s stories do, with an epigraph, a quote by Jean de La Bruyère: “Ce grand malheur, de ne pouvoir être seul” or, “This great misfortune, of not being able to be alone.”

Our unnamed narrator is on the mend after being sick for a while (“merely to breathe was enjoyment,” he comments) and is observing the crowd from the window of a London coffee house. Poe treats us to feats of deductive reasoning as the narrator infers the professions and positions of many of the passers-by. Toward dark, though, he is especially intrigued by one old man who seems to defy other description.

…there arose confusedly and paradoxically within my mind, the ideas of vast mental power, of caution, of penuriousness, of avarice, of coolness, of malice, of blood-thirstiness, of triumph, of merriment, of excessive terror, of intense — of supreme despair. I felt singularly aroused, startled, fascinated. “How wild a history,” I said to myself, “is written within that bosom!

Despite his fragile health and changing weather, our narrator decides to follow this man. He’s led all around London, from street to tavern to docks, never stopping anywhere for more than a second or two and always led by the ever-present people of London. In fact, this old man only seems invigorated by the crowd; the bigger, the better. The narrator decides that this strange being is forever restless and unexplainable. He simply exists everywhere there are people. This man has the great misfortune of not being able to be alone.

As Obscure Literary Monsters go, this one is at least disquieting, if not truly monstrous. Still, how often have I clicked from Facebook to Twitter to Reddit to my RSS feed reader and back to Facebook again. The Man may still exist even if the Crowd is different.

Is This Your Card?

Review ~ “The Old Nurse’s Story”

“The Old Nurse’s Story” by Elizabeth Gaskell

Cover via Goodreads
I’m *fairly* sure that I hadn’t read “The Old Nurse’s Story” before, but it seemed very, very familiar. Have I seen an adaptation of it somewhere? Maaaybe? Or is it one of the quintessential gothic short stories and I’ve run into its tropes all over the place? It’s hard to tell.

Gaskell begins the tale with a sort of tangled recitation of heredity. Even rereading it, it’s kind of hard to figure out just who the old nurse means when she talks of the children’s grandmother. I think the only thing I’ve read that had a more tangled family tree, from a reader’s point of view, is Wuthering Heights. Happily, this background is quickly left behind for the meat of the story.

An orphan and her nurse are sent to live in an old manor house with a distant relative of the orphan. The description of the house and the moors are definitely worth the read. Of my reading this year, thus far, only Doyle paints a better picture of desolate countryside. Some issue weighs upon Miss Furnivall, the mistress of Furivall Manor, and indeed it pervades the house as well. There is a mysterious broken organ, portraits that are not hung on the walls, and an entire wing of the house that is shut to everyone. Hester, the old nurse of the title, is okay with these things. She’s even okay with the creepy organ music that is heard during storms. What she’s not okay with is the ghostly little girl who wants to lure her charge outside on cold winter nights.

A trend I’m seeing in my gothic reading: disenfranchised characters. In Castle Otranto, Isabella’s status seems to be downgraded to “ward,” after the death of her fiance because her father isn’t immediately in evidence. Power differential drive plot points. If Miss Rosamond wasn’t an orphan, she and her nurse couldn’t be so easily sent to live at Furivall Manor. We also spend quite some time in Otranto getting information from Bianca, the maid. Here, in “The Old Nurse’s Story,” our narrator is the nurse and she spends her time among the servants, of course. Servants know things. They span generations. They are the least powerful in terms of social standing, but probably the most powerful in terms of narrative. In The Hound of the Baskervilles, Mr. & Mrs. Barrymore, servants at Baskerville Hall, are key to one of the subplots.

Hester outside following Rosamond’s footprints around the closed up wing of Furivall Manor also reminded me of many of the great gothic elements in K.J. Kabza’s “The Soul in the Bell Jar.”

Publishing info, my copy: From Curious, If True: Strange Tales, Kindle ebook version
Acquired: Amazon
Genre: Gothic horror
Previously: As a 19th century writer of gothic and weird fiction, I’ve been meaning to read Gaskell and have acquired a few of her books.

Gothic_Ken Russell

Deal Me In, Week 7 ~ “The Sandman”

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Hosted by Jay @ Bibliophilopolis

“The Sandman” by E. T. A. Hoffmann

Card picked: Two of Diamonds – A WILD card. Yes, seven weeks in and I’ve already drawn two wild cards. I don’t much like the deck I’m drawing from.

From: Weird Tales by E.T.A. Hoffmann, translated by T.J. Bealby, available from Project Gutenberg

Thoughts:

This is the second story I’ve read from the Obscure Literary Monsters list. The story might be “obscure” in that I’m not sure it’s widely read, but some of the details have a curious legacy. The Sandman in his most benevolent form sprinkles sand into children’s eyes to bring sleep and dreams. I understand that this is a myth to explain the grit in the corner of your eyes that you wake up with, but I’ve always thought the concept sounded terrible. A guy sneaking around and sprinkling *sand* in someone’s eyes? Nothing about this says sleep and good dreams to me. E.T.A. Hoffmann seems to agree.

Our protagonist is Nathanael, a student at an Italian university. We learn in a letter from him to Lothar, the brother of his fiance, that he is being troubled by something that he believes he left behind in childhood: the Sandman. When he was a kid, he explains, his nurse scared the bejeezus out of him with tales of a Sandman that threw sand in the eyes of children who refused to go to sleep and then would pluck their eyes out to feed to his own children. That’s a tale that will put a kid to sleep…never again. Young Nathanael convinces himself that a particularly loathsome man, Coppelius, who occasionally visits his father late at night, is actually the Sandman. Nathanael sneaks out of his room one night in hopes of proving his theory, but he’s quickly found out and further scared by Coppelius. In fact, Nathanael is convinced that Coppelius removes Nathanael’s hands and feet to examine them, before his father rescues him. His childhood trauma culminates a few months later with an accident–a late-night explosion which kills Nathanael’s father. Nathanael is certain Coppelius, or rather the Sandman, had something to do with it What has troubled older Nathanael is the arrival at the university of a weather glass salesman who looks *just* like feral old Coppelius.

The letter ends up being read by his fiance, Clara. On one hand, Clara is level-headed about it all. Her theory is that Nathanael has blown his childhood fears way out of proportion. His nurse told him a cruel story, Coppelius didn’t care for children and delighted in scaring him, and his father died while doing some sort of chemical experiment. The monster that is dogging Nathanael is all in his head; we create our monsters.  On the other hand, Clara is sort of annoyingly optimistic.”[T]he intuitive prescience of a dark power working within us to our own ruin cannot exist also in minds which are cheerful” is sort of her final statement on the subject.

Nathanael seems to mostly agree. In a second letter, he admits that he’s been a bit foolish. The weather glass salesman doesn’t look *that* much like Coppelius. One of his teachers, Spalanzani, knows the guy and vouches for him. All in all, Nathanael is happy to be coming home for holidays. He relates one more thing to Lothar. Speaking of Spalanzani, Nathanael peeked through a crack in the door to catch a glimpse of Spalanzani’s daughter. She’s beautiful, but sort of vacant…

Despite the tone of the letter, Nathanael isn’t over the whole Sandman/Coppelius thing. He drones on about everyone being the playthings of some evil ultimate power. He even pens a poem in which he and Clara happily woo but when they come to the marriage altar, Coppelius shows up and plucks out Clara’s eyes. Needless to say, this poem is not endearing to Clara.  She’s not unhappy when he goes back to the university.

When Nathanael returns, he finds that the building where he used to live has been burnt down. Some of his fellow students rescued his belongings and he’s been moved to an apartment next to where Spalanzani and his daughter, Olimpia, live. In fact, often Nathanael has a direct view into the room where Olimpia sits for hours on end not really moving or doing anything. The weather glass salesman finally pays Nathanael a visit and to get rid of the guy, Nathanael buys a mini telescope from him. Now with an even better way of spying on Olimpia, Nathanael becomes utterly besotted. It’s as though, she never had life in her eyes until he looked into her eyes. Olimpia is given a coming out party, but Nathanael is her only suitor. She can dance, but is stiff in her movements. She can sing songs, but doesn’t talk much beyond saying “Ack!” But she listens to Nathanael with utmost attention. She’s the perfect woman! Alas, Nathanael is doomed. He walks in on an argument between Spalanzani and the weather glass man (who actually *is* Coppelius) about who made Olimpia’s clockwork and who made her eyes. Coppelius makes off with Olimpia’s body, leaving her eyes behind. That’s not the end of Nathanael’s story, but I don’t want to spoil it all.

I wasn’t expecting a 1816 tale called “The Sandman” to so heavily involve an automaton. (Due to the name. The subject matter–life from unlife–was definitely having a resurgence.) Other sinister versions of the Sandman have been done, but I have to wonder if there isn’t more than a little of this story in the movie Blade Runner.

About the Author: E.T.A. Hoffmann’s best known work, at least in its ballet form, is The Nutcracker and the Mouse King. “The Sandman” gets a much more light-hearted dance adaptation too with Coppelia, the story of an inventor with a life-like dancing doll, the young man who falls in love with it, and Swanhilde, the girl he was supposed to marry who saves him from himself by pretending to be the doll. Presumably things work out better for all involved in this version.

Swanhilde (performed by Leanne Benjamin). I have to think that abrupt, wooden movement do not make for easy ballet.

Review ~ The Two Sams

The Two Sams by Glen Hirshberg

Cover via Goodreads

In the title story of this unique collection a husband struggles with the grief and confusion of losing two children, and forms an odd bond with the infant spectrals that visit him in the night. “Dancing Men” depicts one of the creepiest rites of passage in recent memory, when a boy visits his deranged grandfather in the New Mexico desert. In “Mr. Dark’s Carnival,” a college professor confronts his own dark places in the form of a mysterious haunted house steeped in the folklore of grisly badlands justice. “Struwwelpeter” introduces us to a brilliant, treacherous adolescent whose violent tendencies and reckless mischief reach a sinister pinnacle as Halloween descends on a rundown, Pacific Northwest fishing village. Tormented by his guilty conscience, a young man plumbs the depths of atonement as he and his favorite cousin commune with the almighty Hawaiian surf in “Shipwreck Beach.” With The Two Sams author Glen Hirshberg uses his remarkable gift for capturing mood and atmosphere to suggest the possibility that the most troubling ghosts of all are not the ones that hover above us and walk through walls, but those that linger in our memories and haunt our souls. (via Goodreads)

I reread The Two Sams back in December. I get into a horror mood in the winter; it never fails. At the time, I think there was a reason behind the pick, but I don’t remember it now. Maybe I just needed something that I knew would be good.

I was reminded again of how well Hirshberg handles a sense of place in all of these stories. Even the two that I don’t like as much, “Shipwreck Beach” and “Dancing Men,” I can’t deny that I am there in those stories. “The Two Sams” still stood up as being creepy and poignant. And I had forgotten how much of a set up there is to “Mr. Dark’s Carnival” and its Twilight Zone ending. These are all solid, solid stories.

But I actually do have a ghost of a memory about why I decided to read The Two Sams and it had to do with the story “Struwwelpeter.” The original Der Struwwelpeter is a children’s book by Heinrich Hoffmann. In the book, “Shockheaded Peter” is a boy who won’t comb his hair or cut his nails and is therefore shunned. All the children in the book misbehave and suffer for it. Some in rather gruesome ways. Yes, it’s *that* kind of children’s book. The Peter of Hirshberg’s “Struwwelpeter” is a bad kid too. In a way the story is a companion to his novel The Snowman’s Children. Set in the late 70s, The Snowman’s Children relies on the biggest child-related issue of that time: abductions. In “Struwwelpeter,” we have school violence, the bugaboo of the 2000s. In retrospect, the one problem I have with this story is that I’m not sure I buy Peter as a truly disturbed kid, even though the story works in the moment.

Publishing info, my copy: Carroll & Graf, 2003, trade paperback
Acquired: PaperbackSwap
Genre: Horror
Previously: Reread, discovered Glen Hirshberg though a mixed anthology.