Deal Me In, Week 17 ~ “The Southwest Chamber”

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Hosted by Jay @ Bibliophilopolis

“The Southwest Chamber” by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman

Card picked: Three of Diamonds
From: Masterpieces of Terror and the Unknown, edited by Marvin Kaye

Thoughts: Aunt Harriet has only been dead a few months. With no other living relatives, her house is inherited by her two nieces, the daughters of her estranged sister. The nieces, Amanda and Sophia, move into the house and take in borders to help pay for the upkeep and taxes. As the story begins, Amanda decides to put the newest border in the southwest chamber, the chamber that had been Aunt Harriet’s. No one has used the room and the very thought of it gives Sophia the heebie-jeebies.

Most of this story involves the strange things that happen in the titular southwest chamber. Items (like an entire wardrobe of clothes) appear and disappear. The pattern on the drapes change. During the night the border stays, she is repeatedly attacked by a nightcap. While not really comedic, the story felt like it could be a Noises Off-style stage play with much door slamming as characters move through the house and the plot; kind of a different take on the “bedroom” farce. Of course, this led me to think about what sort of stage magic effects might be employed to achieve Aunt Harriet’s haunting.

About the Author: Born on Halloween 1852, Mary E. Wilkins Freeman started writing as a teenager to help support her family and remained a prolific until her death in 1930. She was known generally for the domestic realism of her stories, but also had an interest in the supernatural, which lead to some well-regarded ghost stories. Indeed, she and Shirley Jackson would make a great pair of B&B ghosts.

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Review ~ We Have Always Lived in the Castle

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

Castle
#myOwnDamnBook

Merricat Blackwood lives on the family estate with her sister Constance and her Uncle Julian. Not long ago there were seven Blackwoods—until a fatal dose of arsenic found its way into the sugar bowl one terrible night. Acquitted of the murders, Constance has returned home, where Merricat protects her from the curiosity and hostility of the villagers. Their days pass in happy isolation until cousin Charles appears. Only Merricat can see the danger, and she must act swiftly to keep Constance from his grasp. (via Goodreads)

I’ve been meaning to reread We Have Always Lived in the Castle for quite a while now. I first read it in 2003, probably the second Shirley Jackson novel I’d ever read after The Haunting of Hill House. Since then, I’ve read most of her other novels. There is a definite progression in their clarity and focus. Castle is the last she wrote and it is the most distilled in terms of story and tone. I got into a discussion on Reddit and as a fellow redditor put it, “If there’s one author I could go back in time and tack another decade onto her life to see what she’d write it’s Shirley Jackson…”

I realized though, at about the halfway mark, that I had munged the plot of The Sundial (which I read three years later in 2006) into Castle, probably due to both having inter-family murders and imposing houses. The Sundial kind of meanders as a novel, while Castle is clear in its purpose.

Mostly, I wanted to reread Castle to look at it in the context of Gothic literature. There is indeed a “castle” at the heart of the book (Blackwood House), and a young woman, and family secrets, but if we’re to place the story into the Gothic mold, it’s Charles who is the character who comes into the situation from outside. He is a poor substitute for the usual Gothic heroine. He’s not interested in his cousins’ secrets, only their money. If Eleanor in Hill House wants to be in a Gothic novel, Castle is a Gothic novel already in progress and Constance and Merricat are unperturbed by their places within it until Charles (the not-Gothic world) intrudes.

MONTH-LONGREADATHON copyAt the end of Castle, the Blackwoods have been ousted from their Gothic story, but placed into what is maybe the 20th century equivalent: the urban (rural New England?) legend.

Was it weird? Well, there are no cosmic monsters. No frogmen. No gods on earth. Can two sisters, one of them a murderer, living in an old house with their uncle, surviving on their garden and a belief in magic be weird?

Publishing info, my copy: mass market paperback, Popular Library, 1962
Acquired: Sometime before April 2003. My copy has a $1.00 price tag on it, which might be what I payed for it. It also has stamps for Sembach Junior High Resource Center and Vogelweh Library Exchange, both located in Ramstein-Miesenbach, Germany.
Genre: horror

Review ~ Psycho

Psycho by Robert Bloch

Cover via Goodreads

Norman Bates loves his Mother. She has been dead for the past twenty years, or so people think. Norman knows better though. He has lived with Mother ever since leaving the hospital in the old house up on the hill above the Bates motel. One night Norman spies on a beautiful woman that checks into the hotel as she undresses. Norman can’t help but spy on her. Mother is there though. She is there to protect Norman from his filthy thoughts. She is there to protect him with her butcher knife. (via Goodreads)

Norman is 40-something years old. He’s overweight, has bad eyesight, and an interest in the works of Aleister Crowley and P. D. Ouspensky. He’s a bachelor who lives with his mother and owns the Bates Motel. Mary Crane, on the run after stealing $40,000 from her employer, finds Norman to be odd. He fixes sandwiches for her, but becomes loudly angry when she suggests that maybe his mother would be better off in a hospital. To calm down after his meal with Mary, Norman has a few drinks. Unfortunately, Mother has other plans.

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Anthony Perkins as a clean-cut, dishy 28 year-old Norman Bates.

If you know the movie, you know there are a few differences between the above and the more popular version of the story. The skeleton of the story is the same, but I have to say, the screenplay is a much tighter, more effective way of telling the story.

This is a reread for me and this time I was looking at whether Robert Bloch’s Psycho had the marks of Gothic fiction. It has some of the elements of Gothic: the house (which is less prominent in the book), the family secrets, the insane relative kept away from the public, but it really only sidles up to Gothic. It instead takes a bit of a detour into  the post-modern pursuit of psychology. Still, maybe that’s what Gothic is in the 20th century…

Publishing info, my copy: Tor, mass market paperback, 1989
Acquired: Probably at a Waldenbooks in the 90s.
Genre: horror

gothic september

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Gothic September ~ “The Fall of the House of Usher”

gothic septemberGothic September is hosted by Michelle at Castle Macabre. Visit for all the details!

“The Fall of the House of Usher” is firmly Gothic. It starts with the House, crumbling into the tarn and clearly doomed by the zig-zagging fault that extends from roof to foundation. Roderick Usher even believes that the house has sentience. The “House” of Usher also refers to the family line, which Gothic novels are often very preoccupied with. Secret lineages are the order of the day, but in the case of the Ushers, it looks like their line will end with Roderick and his twin sister, Madeline.

The narrator is an old friend of Usher’s, called upon to journey to the family’s manse to provide cheer to the ailing Roderick. In comparison to the narrators of “Ligeia” and “The Cask of Amontillado,” this one is quite sane and offers commentary about his own mental state as well as Usher’s.

Usually, it’s the women who get the detailed description, but this time it’s Roderick Usher who gets the full Poe treatment:

…an eye large, liquid, and luminous beyond comparison; lips somewhat thin and very pallid, but of a surpassingly beautiful curve; a nose of a delicate Hebrew model, but with a breadth of nostril unusual in similar formations; a finely moulded chin, speaking, in its want of prominence, of a want of moral energy…

In fact, Madeline is strangely absent. She too is ill, given to fits of catalepsy, but our narrator doesn’t seem too concerned about providing her with cheer. He thinks he sees her pass through Roderick’s room, but he doesn’t follow her. She does die and Roderick decides to inter her in a copper-lined room of the house to avoid possibility of premature burial (although being left in a copper-lined donjon doesn’t seem to be much better). Days pass and both Roderick and our narrator start feeling a little jumpy. One night, during a strange electrical storm, we see Madeline again and the House of Usher finally falls…

ripnineperilshortThis story also counts for RIP X!

Gothic September ~ “The Cask of Amontillado”

gothic septemberGothic September is hosted by Michelle at Castle Macabre. Visit for all the details!

I only meant to queue up the story on my Kindle to read later, but the voice of Montresor caught me and pulled me in. This is a quick little story. Fortunato has insulted Montresor many times in the past, but Montresor has finally had it. We don’t learn what the straw was that broke the camel’s back, but Montresor feels justified in taking his revenge. This isn’t going to be some bland duel either. Fortunato is going to die, he’s going to know who his killer is, and Montresor is going get away with it. Montresor is a determined man and a smart man. He plays to Fortunato’s vanity to lead him to his doom.

What makes this story stand out for me is that Poe makes the reader complicit in Montresor’s scheme. At the beginning of his narration, Montresor addresses the reader: “You, who know so well the nature of my soul…” And we are led to laugh a bit, especially on a second reading, when Montresor toasts to Fortunato’s long life and later makes a Mason’s pun. What Montresor is doing is probably completely unreasonable—what insult could have possibly been made?—but we’re going along with it.

Random bell ring (no pun intended): The huge golden foot on Montresor’s coat of arms reminded me of the statue in The Castle of Otranto.

I also find it funny that the “The Cask of Amontillado” was published in Godey’s Lady’s Book, a pre-Civil War fashion magazine.

ripnineperilshortThis story also counts for RIP X!

Gothic September ~ “Ligeia” by Edgar Allan Poe

gothic septemberGothic September is hosted by Michelle at Castle Macabre. Visit for all the details!

The first short story for the Gothic September Poe Read-a-long is “Ligeia.”

Man doth not yield him to the angels, nor unto death utterly, save only through the weakness of his feeble will.

“Ligeia” begins with this quote from Joseph Glanvill, a 17th century natural philosopher and atheist and also a proponent of the supernatural and witchcraft. Sometimes, epigraphs are only tentatively connected to the text, but this quote is repeated three times within the story!

Right off the bat, we learn that there is some mystery to Lady Ligeia.  Our narrator doesn’t quite remember how he came to know her and realizes that he never even knew her last name! She is attractive, but her classical beauty is queered by her very large eyes and her unfathomable expressions.  Not only is Lady Ligeia a looker, but she’s smart too! She surpasses our narrator’s knowledge in the metaphysical investigations of which they are both interested. Alas, as women tend to do in Poe stories, Ligeia dies. On her deathbed, she quotes Mr. Glanvill.

At this point, our narrator needs a change of scenery. He leaves the old city on the Rhine where he and Ligeia lived and purchases an abbey in some remote part of England. He remarries too. Rowena is the photo negative of Ligeia–blonde and blue-eyed where Ligeia was dark. I also kind of get the feeling that our narrator married her more for her title than any other attributes. Poe indulges in an intricate description of the bridal chamber, including the granite sarcophagi in each corner of the octagonal room and the phantasmagorical wall hangings. Right about here is where one could write a whole separate Gothic novel about poor Rowena living, *ahem* briefly, in the shadow of Ligeia.

I’ve been thinking recently about first person narrators and how bland they can be, how normal, and how we as readers have come to see them as merely the clear glass through which we see the story. A first person narrator should never be a clear glass; we should probably be aware of the narrator’s prejudices and state of mind. There are no such worries when you’re reading Poe. Our narrator is noticeably obsessed and haunted, and I wonder a little about what part he might have played in the story’s ending.

ripnineperilshortThis story also counts for RIP X!

Review ~ The Turn of the Screw

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

Cover via Goodreads

A very young woman’s first job: governess for two weirdly beautiful, strangely distant, oddly silent children, Miles and Flora, at a forlorn estate…An estate haunted by a beckoning evil.

Half-seen figures who glare from dark towers and dusty windows- silent, foul phantoms who, day by day, night by night, come closer, ever closer. With growing horror, the helpless governess realizes the fiendish creatures want the children, seeking to corrupt their bodies, possess their minds, own their souls…

But worse-much worse- the governess discovers that Miles and Flora have no terror of the lurking evil.

For they want the walking dead as badly as the dead want them. (via Goodreads)

“It’s beyond everything. Nothing at all that I know touches it.”

That’s a gutsy way to introduce your horror story, Mr. James…

The Turn of the Screw seems to be one of the end-alls of ambiguity. The governess, our narrator, is perhaps unreliable. She’s young, inexperienced, and finds herself isolated in an incredibly unfamiliar situation. Mrs. Grose, the housekeeper, tells her about the lurid goings-on of her predecessor and one of her young charges is expelled with little explanation. Is it surprising that her imagination primed on Gothic literature (she mentions The Mysteries of Udolpho by name) might run away with her? Or…does it?

James hits many of the gothic tropes. Our disenfranchised governess is properly stuck in her job and feels pressure to do well. Bly, the house, is seen as something of a barrier; one that keeps the governess in her place, but also as something that the children seek to be free of. Mrs. Grose is  the inverse of the helpful servant. She knows half-tales and often she seems to be the densest material on the planet. Once again, the  main action of the story is set in the past, though only removed by a few decades.

One of the things I find most uncomfortable about The Turn of the Screw is a detail I would have missed if I hadn’t gone back to reread the prologue. The story comes to an abrupt conclusion, but Douglas–the storyteller in the prologue–claims to have known the governess, that she was his sister’s governess. Which, not to spoil the end of the story, means that the governess was not held responsible for any wrong-doing. Douglas also claims to have enjoyed walks with the governess while at home from school himself. Which brings to mind, to me anyway, the walks that Miles and Flora took with miscreants Quint and Jessel. That’s the ambiguous bit that I’m going to chew on for a while.

Publishing info, my copy: Public Domain, Kindle edition
Acquired: Amazon.com
Genre: Gothic horror

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