Category Archives: Short Story

Reading Notes, 6/3/21

Finished Reading

The Haunting of Alma Fielding: A True Ghost Story by Kate Summerscale

Heard about this book from What’s Nonfiction’s fabulous blog.

I’ve read quite a few books about magicians and, tangentially, spiritualism due to the vocation of many magicians to debunk (or, alternatively, learn from) mediums. As a skeptic myself, I find mediumship curious. So much of it is a con, but there is also often an aspect of self-delusion. Even magicians who have done mind-reading or séance type acts—professionals who know they are not communing with spirits or guides—have reported the feeling of working beyond what they’re capable of. But they also realize that this is a feeling and not reality.

The Haunting of Alma Fielding begins in 1938 when a normal British housewife begins to be harassed by poltergeist activity. Nandor Fodor, a “ghost hunter” for the International Institute for Psychical Research, investigates. Fodor believes in psychic phenomena, but he wants badly to have scientific proof of it. When we begin this story, he’s in some hot water with the IIPR because he has, disappointingly, proved several mediums to be frauds. He is desperate to find a true case of a haunting, but has also begun to theorized that these poltergeists might be manifestations (still psychic in nature) of trauma. As Alma begins to get attention, from the press and the IIPR, the poltergeist activity shifts to being apports (manifested objects) and mediumship, things that Fodor wants to see of her. There is an interplay between the expectations of Alma and Fodor. Their relationship becomes maybe too co-dependent. And Fodor eventually finds out that Alma isn’t as simple as she seems. This is all against the backdrop of a Britain under increasing pressure as WWII become immanent. Summerscale mentions that there was an increase in news-worthy cases of poltergeist activity during this era, which is a interesting detail.

At times, the book was maybe a little repetitive and there were a few too many a names. I had a tough time remembering who everyone was after putting the book down for a day or two. For me, this is a good addition to my framework of magic and spiritualism. It brought me further into the 20th century than my usual reading.

Mosses from an Old Manse by Nathaniel Hawthorne

This was my May Classics Club Spin book, which I did finish in May. Barely.

I forget sometimes that Hawthorne, Melville, and Poe were contemporaries. What wonderful dinner parties those would be… Anyway. Like Poe, I’m not a fan of Hawthorne’s straight-up allegories. We’ve talked about this before when I touched on “Egotism; or, The Bosom-Serpent” during Deal Me In. To me, the only way a writer should present allegory is if they can do it with a level of actual story. So, a few of the stories in Mosses (“The Celestial Rail-road ” & “The Procession of Life”) were rather torturous for me to get through. But so many others are such wonderful, if cynical, stories. I’m still a Hawthorne neophyte, so I’m still surprised by the very dim view Hawthorne takes of humankind. I’m not used to that from authors. Ironically, while I am not a fan of allegory, I am a fan of speculative fiction genres and the two go hand in hand, especially in the pre-pulp days. “Young Goodman Brown” and “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” and even “Feathertop” and “Egotism; or, The Bosom-Serpent” have gooey horror fiction cores.

Deal Me In

4♠️ – “The Cold Embrace” by Mary E. Braddon
Speaking of early horror fiction… Ever read a story where you say, “Oh, you naive boy. You don’t know what kind of story you’re in”? Yeah, I did that here and enjoyed every second of our main character’s comeuppance.

Currently Reading

Started on my summer reading and then was quickly sidetracked my an impulse read, All the Flavors by Ken Liu, while I was cataloging the books on my Kindle. Next up is The Hypno-Ripper: Or, Jack the Hypnotically Controlled Ripper; Containing Two Victorian Era Tales Dealing with Jack the Ripper and Hypnotism, edited by Donald K Hartman and then back to Journey to the Center of the Earth.


Reading Notes, supplemental (5/27/2021)

Willa Cather Short Story Project

The Willa Cather story for May was “The Conversion of Sum Loo.” This was a deviation from the schedule (a chronological list of Cather’s early works) because this is a bit of a rework of last months story, “A Son of the Celestial.”

Without getting too far into the plot weeds, “A Son of the Celestial” is more of a two-person story focused on how Ponter and Yang change each other and relate to their communities. “The Conversion of Sum Loo” widens the scope, somewhat, while being even moreso about Sum Chin and his wife, Sum Loo. The Ponter character is taken up by Girrard, a young man who is torn between the priesthood and art. The Sums are a fairly successful Chinese immigrant couple, though Sum Loo is much younger than her husband, and more open to the Christian influences in her community. Sum Chin is very concerned about the well-being of his son, possibly his only chance for securing a legacy and making sure that there is a next generation to take care of him and his wife. He does not object to his wife having the baby baptized; the more Gods favoring his child, the better, right? The conclusion of this story was quite the gut-punch.

The two stories were published seven years apart and Cather’s craft has absolutely improved in that time. “A Son of the Celestial” is not much more than a sketch, where “The Conversion of Sum Loo” is a more well-rounded story.

Interested in reading along? Short Fiction of Willa Cather, Phase II

Finished Reading

The Call of Stories: Teaching and the Moral Imagination

The Call of Stories: Teaching and the Moral Imagination by Robert Coles

During my second semester as an English major (being my fifth semester as a college student), I took a course called “Stories and the Human Experience.” At the time I worried that it was kind of a useless class because it didn’t fulfill any specific English requirement and I would easily end up having enough non-English department elective credits without it considering the amount of now superfluous math and science I had already taken. (The war between STEM and the humanities has always been strong in me.) But it ended up being a great course. The two sections were taught by different instructors with slightly different syllabi. We’d join up every couple of weeks to jam on what we’d all been reading. (It occurs to me now that my advisor might have been really working to fill the class since it was the first time is was offered and they needed two sections.) I remember that we read King Lear, Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres (a novel I found slightly traumatic), and selections from Robert Coles’ The Call of Stories. (There were other things on the syllabus, but I don’t remember them. It’s been a while.)

I decided a few years ago that I wanted to revisit Coles and the concepts he presented. On the surface, Coles argues a point that does come up time and again in the STEM vs. humanities debate: stories teach empathy. They present characters who model behaviors both good and bad. They potentially offer insight into characters similar and different from ourselves. Coles presents what the scientific world would call anecdotal evidence. The most compelling portion of the books is reading stories of his students (mostly medical students, but also a few in fields like law and business) who have read a novel or short story and strongly identified with characters and plot situations. These stories have made them think about the morality of their behavior in new ways.

What left me a little cold was the actual talk of morality. Some of the points of view struck me as pretentious and privileged. This might be my own prejudice, but I can’t shake the feeling that Coles and his students (all Harvardians) find people less fortunate than themselves to be, well, unfortunates. Or maybe it’s because all these people are discussing problems that maybe wouldn’t be problems if they were worrying about making the rent. The irony of reading a book about stories and empathy, but not being super empathetic to the people presented in the narrative, is not lost on me.

Also, I wonder what it says about me that the characters that have “lived with me” the most are Schmendrick, Molly Grue, Henry Palace, and a man called Ishmael.


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.

Deal Me In, Week 9 ~ “Paladin of the Lost Hour”

DealMeIn

Hosted by Jay @ Bibliophilopolis
What’s Deal Me In?

“Paladin of the Lost Hour” by Harlan Ellison

Card picked: A
Found in: Angry Candy, but also online at Ellison Webderland

And then the pillager’s fist came loose, and he was clutching for an instant a gorgeous pocket watch.

What used to be called a turnip watch.

The dial face was cloisonné, exquisite beyond the telling.

The case was of silver, so bright it seemed blue.

The hands, cast as arrows of time, were gold. They formed a shallow V at precisely eleven o’clock. This was happening at 3:45 in the afternoon, with rain and wind.

The timepiece made no sound, no sound at all.

The Story
This is my favorite short story.

When I decided on Angry Candy for Deal Me In, I debated whether to include “Paladin of the Lost Hour” because I’ve read it so many times in the past, but I couldn’t leave it out either. I read it (or rather listened to it) the day after Leap Day.

The story is about Gaspar, an old man who is the keeper of a watch that mystically holds the last hour of existence. It is also the story of a young veteran, Billie, who is not living, but simply marking time after returning from war. Their lives intersect and each are given friendship and grace. “Paladin of the Lost Hour” never fails to make me cry, though always enough time passes between my readings that I don’t quite remember what touches me and I’m therefore always taken by surprise too.

Some of Harlan Ellison’s stories are…oblique. Maybe they are satire anchored in a certain place and time (a problem I generally have with satire and allegory), or maybe they require a certain state of Ellison-ness to make as much sense as they should. “Paladin of the Lost Hour” isn’t one of those stories. Ellison won a Hugo for the novelette and a Writer’s Guild Award for the script adaptation that was an episode of 1985 Twilight Zone revival.

Pick a Card, Any Card

Endless Time playing cards are an apt fit for “Paladin of the Lost Hour,” clean and  cleverly designed. You can find out more about them at Kardify.

Deal Me In, Week 7 ~ “The Daunt Diana”

DealMeIn

Hosted by Jay @ Bibliophilopolis
What’s Deal Me In?

“The Daunt Diana” by Edith Wharton

Card picked: 3
Found at: Tales of Men and Ghosts

“WHAT’S become of the Daunt Diana? You mean to say you never heard the sequel?”

Ringham Finney threw himself back into his chair with the smile of the collector who has a good thing to show. He knew he had a good listener, at any rate.

I decided at the beginning of the year to add one of my Classics Club books to my Deal Me In list. Two birds with one stone! So, I’ll be reading through Edith Wharton’s Tales of Men and Ghosts throughout the year.

The Story
I wondered somewhat about the title of the story: “The Daunt Diana.” What is meant by daunt? It turns out that Daunt is a collector of art, and the Daunt Diana is a statue of the goddess Diana owned by Daunt. Strangely, the actual artist who carved the Diana is never named.

Finney tells our listener about Humphrey Neave, a man with tastes more expensive than his means. Neave is deeply envious of the kind of art collection that Daunt owns, one effortlessly obtained by a very rich man. As fate would have it, both Daunt’s and Neave’s fortunes change and Neave, haunted by the Diana, buys the entire collection. One would presume that Neave would now be a very happy man. Not so! There had been no hunting for his art, no wooing, and Neave is left unfulfilled. So, Neave sells off the collection piece-meal. And then goes about buying each piece back. But can he regain the sculpture which again haunts him, the crown jewel of the collection? Can he woo Diana back?

Finney has a very particular voice which makes this story quite enjoyable, even as I rolled my eyes and muttered, “Rich people…”

The Author
Edith Wharton was the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Literature. Which means of course I want to read some of her ghost stories.

Pick a Card, Any Card

This week, cards inspired by Italian art: the Sistine deck created by Julio Ribera. Found at Kardify and on Kickstarter.

Deal Me In, Week 3 ~ “Eidolons”

DealMeIn

Hosted by Jay @ Bibliophilopolis
What’s Deal Me In?

“Eidolons” by Harlan Ellison

Card picked: 10
Found in: Angry Candy

You’ve got time. You have always had time, but fear slowed you, and you were overcome. But this is the hour that stretches…and you’ve got a chance. After all, it’s only your conscience come to kill you. Stop shivering and put up your dukes.

The Story
Vizinczey, a man wanted on two continents, tells of Mr. Brown, a collector of tin soldiers. Or rather a collector of soldiers from throughout time which he turns into tin soldiers. Mr. Brown knows many secrets from Promontorium Sacrum, or the area beyond the edge of the map. Mr. Brown is killed by his “creations,” but he tasks Vizinczey with helping mankind. Vizinczey does so by imparting thirteen, well, “they are not quite epigraphs, nor are they riddles.”

These vignettes are about time, and inspiration, and creativity. Maybe. With Harlan Ellison, it’s hard to tell sometimes.

The Author
Harlan Ellison was a prolific, award winning, and occasionally problematic short story and screenwriter. He’s probably best known for the Star Trek episode “The City on the Edge of Forever,” though even that is subject to controversy…

Deal Me In, Week 2 ~ “Light And Space”

DealMeIn

Hosted by Jay @ Bibliophilopolis
What’s Deal Me In?

“Light and Space” by Ned Beauman

Card picked: J
Found at: The Guardian

Shortly after midnight on Christmas morning, a night watchman discovered me standing by Feretory with a fire axe held over my head. I am, or was, a senior member of MoMA’s curatorial staff, with a special interest in the Light and Space movement of the 1960s, and so naturally I’ve been called upon to give an account of why I should wish to destroy such an important work. My only reply is that in fact I wanted nothing less than to destroy it. Even after all that’s happened, I still recognise Feretory as a masterpiece. Destroying it would have been no more than an unavoidable consequence of what I really hoped to achieve with the axe that night.

The Story
This is one a several “Christmas” ghost stories that The Guardian ran in 2013. I bookmarked them probably in 2018, so I haven’t been sitting on them for *that* long. But it’s always fun to see where seasonal stories end up when you’re picking randomly.

Conroy Glasser is a 1960s “light and space” movement artist who worked in blocks of resin. His masterpiece, Feretory, is an impossibly seamless pillar of translucent plastic. What makes this sculpture even more mysterious is that the formula for the resin was proprietary, cooked up by Glasser and “a sympathetic polymer salesman from Hudson Plastic.” And also that Glasser’s wife disappeared around the time the sculpture was poured. And that Glasser committed suicide a few months later. And that in 1989 a curator of his works ended up in an mental institution after one of his assistants turned up dead. And that a collector of Glasser’s works from the same period as Feretory also committed suicide. The curator we meet in the quote above was also planning a new showing of Glassers, until he begins to suspect there are dark truths behind Glasser’s works.

In the real world there is no way that there wouldn’t be a thousand podcasts and YouTube videos about the (obvious) curse of Conroy Glasser and his art…

Conroy Glasser is fictitious, but the  Light and Space art moment is a real thing, involving minimal and abstract works that focused on the interplay of light, objects, and color. (That’s probably wildly inaccurate. I know very little about art.) Do an image Google search on Light and Space. You won’t be disappointed.

Also, a feretory is:

1. A receptacle to hold the relics of saints; a reliquary.
2. An area of a church in which reliquaries are kept.

The Author
Ned Beauman is a new author to me. He’s a British novelist, journalist, and critic. I enjoyed this story and I am tantalized by his novel The Teleportation Accident, “a hilarious sci-fi noir about sex, Satan, and teleportation devices.”

Pick a Card, Any Card

I’m not entirely sure if Light and Space can be accurately produced in two dimensions, but the back of these horizon playing cards might come close.

Horizon Playing Cards at Kardify
And at Kickstarter