The Buried Giant, by Kazuo Ishiguro (2015) E

Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 9.28.2020
Book from: Personal collection

In post-Arthurian Britain, the wars that once raged between the Saxons and the Britons have finally ceased. Axl and Beatrice, an elderly British couple, set off to visit their son, whom they haven’t seen in years. And, because a strange mist has caused mass amnesia throughout the land, they can scarcely remember anything about him. As they are joined on their journey by a Saxon warrior, his orphan charge, and an illustrious knight, Axl and Beatrice slowly begin to remember the dark and troubled past they all share.

The Buried Giant has the slow-motion horror of a nightmare: the confused repetitiousness of the dialogue; Axl and Beatrice’s frailty and tentativeness; the blurred, clouded landscape; the increasing sense of building towards a terrible revelation or shattering. As is typical of Ishiguro, the prose is carefully flat and affectless: an acres-wide, inch-deep pool of water, any ripples almost imperceptible. To be blunt, the prose is boring—and yet I also kept thinking that this was the most entrancingly, sublimely boring book I’ve ever read. I felt like Beatrice in the scene where she’s swarmed by rat-like, life-stealing pixies and nearly subsides into death. Slow-motion horror.

I was transfixed by these outbreaks of folk horror: the woman stroking a rabbit’s fur with a knife in a rain-dripping ruin, the underground beast described as looking something like “a large skinless animal,” the tunnels full of infant skeletons. As indelible as these images are—like Symbolist paintings—they become indescribably more disturbing because of the way that Ishiguro doesn’t describe them head-on. He robs us of a sense of clarity, control—the narrator’s vision is always glancing away, blurring at the edges.

The gradual revelation of mass slaughter that arises from these grotesque suggestions, and the slow topple towards renewed slaughter, is almost unbearably tragic, tearing. Ishiguro establishes his main characters as tragicomically human: vulnerable, bumbling, striving, absurd, valiant, kind. Then he shows us that they are walking towards a point of no return. There will be no reconciliation, no peace for the land, once the Buried Giant rises. Saxons will fight Britons once more; Axl and Beatrice fear the permanent oblivion of an afterlife with no kindness toward lovers. Companionship and love, hard-earned, will fade into another generation of helpless loss and strife. Did it all matter, that they loved? Of course it does: over the course of the novel, we see how much it matters to them, and to us, that these characters loved. But in the eyes of history, it does not.

An oil painting of a small boat with a shrouded standing figure approaching a wooded island under a dark skyThe Isle of the Dead, 1880 version, Arnold Böcklin

Related reading:
The Remains of the Day, by Kazuo Ishiguro (1989): review by Emera
The Ballad of Sir Dinadan, by Gerald Morris (2003): review by Emera

Picnic at Hanging Rock, by Joan Lindsay (2020) E

Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 7.17.2020
Book from: Library

It was a cloudless summer day in the year 1900. Everyone at Appleyard College for Young Ladies agreed it was just right for a picnic at Hanging Rock. After lunch, a group of three girls climbed into the blaze of the afternoon sun, pressing on through the scrub into the shadows of the secluded volcanic outcropping. Farther, higher, until at last they disappeared. They never returned… Mysterious and subtly erotic, Picnic at Hanging Rock inspired the iconic 1975 film of the same name by Peter Weir. A beguiling landmark of Australian literature, it stands with Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, and Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides as a masterpiece of intrigue.

As expected, this was a delicious summer treat – though it didn’t go down without some misgivings. On the whole, Picnic at Hanging Rock is satirical, dreamy, sensuous, and occasionally quite sinister and chilling—mainly in how Lindsay refers to the dark, inscrutable mass of the Hanging Rock brooding in the metaphysical distance behind or beyond the characters ever after the girls’ disappearance, the source of some kind of alien causality.

The book is also quite, quite gay. I was astonished by how Sapphic the movie is when I saw it back in undergrad, but the book is far more explicit than the movie’s languid, soft-focus erotic glow. The novel opens with five pages of the students and the prettiest teacher fluttering over their Valentine’s Day cards and take turns thinking about how much pleasure they derive from gazing at each other’s curls and bosoms and OH MY. Check it—this is from the perspective of Mademoiselle, the French teacher:

The girl’s voluptuous little breasts, her dimples, full red lips, naughty black eyes, and glossy black ringlets, were a continual source of aesthetic pleasure.

It’s also immensely “interesting” that the book’s only two male characters effectively end up riding into the sunset together. It may be that Lindsay largely intends the spiritual bachelorhood of young, wealthy Michael Fitzhubert as tragic: he’s positioned in a love quadrangle with the vanished Miranda (his true love, seen once and never recovered); Irma, the one returned girl (who regards Michael as her true love, but is spurned); and his best mate, the rough horseman Albert (who, finally, is in love with Irma). I found this love-quadrangulation silly as a romantic device, mainly because I found it hard to take any of the characters seriously – a point to which I’ll return later. I think what’s interesting about it is its alienating, distancing effect, the way that these four young people are strangely offset from one another, incapable of moving in the same space. This heightens, of course, the book’s central element of feminine-as-mystery. At one point, Michael even wonders to himself what “feminine secrets” were shared among the girls before they disappeared. Estranged from these unattainable, sometimes uncanny nymphs, Michael and Albert (hairy, tattooed, streetwise, occasionally lounging naked in Michael’s presence…) ride off into the optimism of undefined masculine adventures together.

Let’s return to the problem of how Lindsay handles her characters, generally. I think one of the book’s biggest weaknesses is that Lindsay treats the characters so archly that it comes off as self-satisfaction with her own satirical wit. Any dignity or intelligence the characters might have is often diminished by her heavy-handed descriptions. It doesn’t help that Michael, who is crushingly boring except for how he plays off of Albert, gets to occupy the middle third of the book with an immensely slow, inchoately mopey convalescence sequence. No, thanks. Luckily, Lindsay recovers from there with one of the book’s most climactically disturbing scenes, Irma’s final return to Appleyard College.

Continue reading Picnic at Hanging Rock, by Joan Lindsay (2020) E

“The Bear,” by Beulah Amsterdam (2019) E

Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 1.20.2020
Book from: Personal collection

This story appears in the winter 2019 issue of Ploughshares.

In the dim forest cabin, a brown bear stared at me. He sniffed my suitcase. I froze.

The bear looked at me with his deep black eyes. We gazed at each other. No longer afraid of him, I felt a close connection. I watched as he explored the small, rustic room, pawing at the door mat and the bedside rug…

This opening scene is shortly revealed to be a dream, one which conducts the waking narrator to a reminiscence of a past boyfriend, a bearish Communist and fellow college student in 1950’s New York.

I relish, with a kind of voyeuristic hunger, tales of student/bohemian New York life in the 50’s-80’s, and I love the unsettlingly lucid style of this short, regretful story. As those flat yet flowing sentences accumulate, their deadpan tone an imperfect restraint for the off-kilter emotional urgency beneath, it’s impossible to escape a sense of the weight of the narrator’s presence. I could hear her tranced voice in my head, feel unblinking eye contact. I wish I could spend more time with this strange, melancholy, pure narrator, but the story ends painfully soon, after briefly playing out a teasing contrast between different ideas of visions and the miraculous; which brings us back to the dream of the bear.

This story is such an incredible study in tone. I’d love to find more of Amsterdam’s work.

“The Regimental History,” by Andrea Barrett (2019) E

Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 2.15.2020
Read from: Personal collection

This story appears in the 2019 fall edition of Ploughshares.

Dear Maurice, this morning it is raining very hard and the wind is rattling our tent, so we can hardly hear each other. Thanks for the news about Albert’s sister, which cheered him. I’m glad the girl helping Aurie is working out (hello to you, if you are reading this! your handwriting is good but you spelled “tonsillitis” wrong. Also, furlough is not spelled “ferlow.”) Vic has been sick with chills and fever but the doctor claims he’s doing better now – good thing, as we hear rumors that we’ll be moving soon. Ezra, on picket duty last week, says the rebs across the Rappanannock are buzzing about and he thinks we may be marching upriver…

I’ve read a good bit of ruminating about the erasures of history (that is, the writing of history), its inescapably flawed and subjective processes, but nothing has made me feel that fact, that human accumulation of errors and losses and misapprehensions, like this lucent, lovely, mournful novella by Andrea Barrett. I’ve been meaning to read her much-awarded collection of historical fiction, Ship Fever, for years, but still haven’t gotten around to it. This introduction to her work will goad me back to that goal.

Over three parts, Barrett lets us glimpse the lives of a set of Civil War characters who are connected by their desire to write the history of a disgraced Union regiment, in which two beloved brothers served. Izzy returns home disabled and traumatized; Vick disappears, presumed a deserter. Through glimpses of their stories, and of relatives and friends who circle around the voids of the brothers’ lives, we witness not only the physical and emotional depredations of war, but the quieter attrition of simply the passage of time. Men who wanted to tell their war stories die ignominiously in peacetime; newspaper accounts distort facts and then are enshrined as true history by later republication. Letters are lost; transcribed accounts acquire unexplained annotations. Intentions to write, to share, to publish are pushed aside by the demands of daily life, deferred and deferred again. The present continually pulls us away from the past – and yet the past never disappears, it cannot be divided away, only diminished, obscured, distracted from.

All of this, Barrett depicts with graceful, transparent, quietly witty prose. She moves easily among snippets of letters and articles; the practical details of post-war life as, say, a biology teacher or a ceramist; and the characters’ interior lives. Above all, the characters feel so present, so true, and so human. You’d like to be friends with many of them, except that they, too, have slipped away in all the decades between then and now.

Related reading: 
Remarkable Creatures, by Tracy Chevalier (2009): review by Kakaner

The Bridal Wreath & The Wife, by Sigrid Undset (1920, 1921) E

Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 9.22.2019, 11.21.2019
Book from: Library

This is a review of the first two books in the Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy: The Bridal Wreath and The Wife. I read the recent translations from the Norwegian by Tiina Nunnally, after giving up on the original translations by Charles Archer and J. S. Scott, which are self-consciously archaic and expurgated significant passages.

In early 1300s Norway, Kristin Lavransdatter is the eldest daughter of a charismatic, gentle, and adoring father, and a distant, melancholy mother. In The Bridal Wreath, Kristin grows from a quiet child into a quietly fiery – and occasionally cruel – young woman, and thwarts her parents’ plans for her future by flinging herself into a romance with the passionate but disastrously irresponsible nobleman Erlend Nikulausson. In The Wife, Kristin struggles to live with the guilt of the sins that she and Erlend committed in the course of clinging to their relationship, while now striving to lead her new household – where she is initially regarded with derision – with grace and strength. Her fervent embrace of Christianity serves sometimes as a comfort, and sometimes as one of several wedges between her and Erlend. Meanwhile, foolhardy Erlend is drawn further and further into the turbulent politics surrounding the fate of the Norwegian throne at the time, with eventually ruinous consequences for their family’s fortunes.

The way I keep on describing these books (which won the 1928 Nobel Prize) to people is a medieval Scandinavian version of Anna Karenina. They concern themselves with a span of decades in the lives of aristocrats in a severe land, but viewed through incredibly intimate, often stream-of-consciousness renditions of women’s experience in particular. The conflict between personal passion and social responsibility, the torment of guilt, the struggle to understand what it is to live a Christian life, hypocrisy, infidelity, the temptation of cruelty, and the closeness of mortality all weigh heavily on the characters. This all plays out against a medieval setting that is rendered so vividly and naturalistically that it seems as if Undset is reporting directly from that century. (It made a lot more sense to me when I read that Undset’s father was an archaeologist and her mother his secretary/illustrator: she grew up immersed in history.)

How to describe the effect of these books – what is so piercingly compelling about them? The experience of Undset’s cool, fluid, and methodical prose – especially with Nunnally’s exactingly clean translation – is immersive, hypnotic, yet, frankly, at times boring. Even though I love nature writing, for example, I was frequently bored during the first quarter or so of The Bridal Wreath, when Kristin is a child, no obvious narrative stakes have been established, and there are lengthy descriptions of their days amid the fields, mountains, seasonal turns, etc.

But as soon as any emotional stakes have been raised – I can’t think of many authors who can equal the way that Undset writes emotional pain and difficult love. Her distinct coolness is an asset: she has this devastating way of leading you directly into a character’s emotional crisis, and then departing just as the scene barely begins to round off, so that the aftermath must simply be imagined. Or, she mentions devastating revelations about previously beloved characters in a mere one or two sentences, slipping by in the relentless onward march of time. (It “helps” that Undset makes no bones about the closeness of death in medieval times: characters die with great frequency, whether through illness, accident, or violence.)

There are so many moments in the books of purely emotional experience that I feel I’ll never forget – the incredibly cold ending of The Bridal Wreath, or the several heart-rending scenes of devotion between Kristin’s aging parents in The Wife, or Kristin’s pained reflections on how little she understood the depths of her parents’ lives, or their love for her.

Again, I’ll be honest that I questioned several times (out of boredom, overwhelming melancholy, or both) whether I really wanted to finish the series. But Undset’s sort of gentle severity is so uniquely compelling and transportative; again and again, I concluded that I had to see it through, and follow her characters to their ends. I’ll be reading the final volume of the trilogy, The Cross, over the next month or two.

Go to:
Laid Waste, by Julia Gfrörer (2016): review by Emera

‘Salem’s Lot, by Stephen King (1975) E

Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 12.7.2019
Book from: Library

‘Salem’s Lot was originally published in 1975. I read the 2005 special edition, which includes the prequel story “Jerusalem’s Lot,” the sequel story “One for the Road,” and deleted scenes.

Jerusalem’s Lot is a small, blue-collar town in Maine, rife with gossip and the petty drama of adultery, alcoholism, greed, and thwarted desires. Widowed young writer Ben Mears returns to the town – briefly his childhood home – to work on a new book triggered by a disturbing childhood memory. As October begins, children begin dying and disappearing, and Ben and a small circle of allies must confront the encroachment of a latter-day Dracula who preys on the residents of ‘Salem’s Lot with increasingly terrifying speed and cruelty.

I pegged ‘Salem’s Lot as my Halloween read this year, but felt sadly lukewarm about the whole thing. The Shining remains the scariest reading experience I can remember, so how could I go wrong with Stephen King + New England vampires?! In short, this is at best highly competent, tends to be hammy rather than spectacular, and lacks compelling characters. (It is impressive considering that King was 23 when he wrote it, though, and I do adore that his ambition was to craft the “Moby Dick of vampire novels.”)

King spends the first third of the book building up the ensemble small-town cast, but the tone is so heavy-handedly, even campily satirical that few of the side characters inspire more than mild amusement or wistfulness. (I admit I was a sucker for the melancholy of the late-in-life almost-romance between boardinghouse-keeper Eva Miller and town drunk Weasel Craig.) The heroic characters, meanwhile, are drawn with a kind of strained virtuousness that comes off as either bland (Ben) or, again, hammy (especially the precociously serious 10-year-old Mark, bleh). The action in the second half is intense and well-paced, but I still felt like I was just following along and waiting to see how things resolved themselves.

A big part of the issue is that I don’t find vampires frightening anymore – though some of the most fun moments of the book are when evil Count Barlow goes off on florid megalomaniacal monologues. (These are more engaging by far than the various ponderous speeches made about the nature of evil, all of which are written in the same voice – for bonus tedium – despite being delivered by different protagonists.) The last chapter is also grimly satisfying, harnessing as it does the hard-bitten mystique of the veteran vampire hunter.

One final point in the book’s favor, as a detailed portrait of small-town darkness: the parallels now to the opiate crisis are chilling.

Predictably, though, I was much more into the Lovecraftian prequel story “Jerusalem’s Lot,” set near the Lot in 1850. Rats in the mansion walls, a profaned church, and an accursed tome If you’re gonna be campy, just give me the Gothic, please.

Worst line in the novel: “He saw that his hands were glowing, as if wreathed in ghost gloves.”

A favorite line from the novel: “Tourists and through-travelers still passed by on Route 12, seeing nothing of the Lot but an Elks billboard and a thirty-five mile-an-hour speed sign. Outside of town they went back up to sixty and perhaps dismissed it with a single thought: Christ, what a dead little place.

Related reading:
Dracula: A Symphony in Moonlight & Nightmares, by Jon J. Muth (1993) – review by Emera
100 Vicious Little Vampire Stories, ed. Robert Weinberg (1995): review by Emera
Vampire Stories by Women: Venus, Outfangthief, So Runs the World… : review by Emera

 


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“The Man in the Woods,” by Shirley Jackson (2014) E

Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 4.18.2019
Read from: The New Yorker

I didn’t realize that Shirley Jackson’s children were still discovering unpublished stories of hers; the New Yorker has published two in recent years, “The Man in the Woods” and “Paranoia.”

“The Man in the Woods” is a delightful choice for a stand-alone publication. Tense, elegant, and cryptic, its dense mythological and folkloric allusions beg for toying and unpicking – even if its determined evasiveness means that it is not sharply compelling as a work of psychological fiction. If it were presented in a collection, it would likely sink into the shadow of any of Jackson’s more spectacularly psychological stories. But even taking it simply as a sort of playful, appreciative remix of a handful of dark folkloric tropes, it stands out as being pretty much perfect on a line-by-line level: economical, vivid, and singing with tension.

The cat had joined him shortly after he entered the forest, emerging from between the trees in a quick, shadowy movement that surprised Christopher at first and then, oddly, comforted him, and the cat had stayed beside him, moving closer to Christopher as the trees pressed insistently closer to them both, trotting along in the casual acceptance of human company that cats exhibit when they are frightened.

The two stories that immediately popped into my head when reading this: Angela Carter’s “The Erl-King” (a previous, brief appreciation here) with its likewise claustrophobic trees and its building towards the inevitability of kingly sacrifice; and Hansel and Gretel. In fact, with regard to Hansel, I was sure at first that this was going to be “just” a witch-story, and that the two otherworldly women whom Christopher meets in the stone cottage in the woods would be joined by a third – Hecate. So it was a strange little thrill when the third in the house turned out rather to be a Mr. Oakes: a green-man, and a sacrificial priest-king straight out of Frazer’s The Golden Bough.

Fans of Elizabeth Marie Pope’s Tam Lin retelling, The Perilous Gard, will be well familiar with the reading of “Christopher” as “Christ-bearer” specifically in the context of pagan sacrifice. Her Christopher, like Jackson’s, is a youth who offers up to pagan captors the temptation of a double sacrifice – an intermingling of two different sacred powers – through the symbolic weight of his name.

Though Jackson’s protagonist Christopher offers this tantalizing symbolism (“‘Christopher,’ [Mr. Oakes] said softly, as though estimating the name”), he’s otherwise strangely devoid of anything resembling narrative or, let’s call it, a symbolic system. He carries the modernish signifier of having been at “college,” and allows that that loosely qualifies him to be deemed a “scholar” by Mr. Oakes. But he doesn’t know why he left college and started wandering, and he doesn’t know what to name a cat other than “kitty.” So far as personality is concerned, he is careful, courteous, and expresses glints of humor and curiosity, including a faint appetite for the younger woman, Phyllis. But it’s all diffused through a screen of something like mild dissociation, or at least ennui. He seems like a refugee from the modern world, stripped of meaning and motivation.

His encounter with the household in the wood seems destined to force him into meaning, just as his unnamed cat attains the witchy title of “Grimalkin” by displacing the household’s original cat. In the end, Christopher follows along with a sort of tranced acquiescence.

But even assuming that his challenge of Mr. Oakes will be successful, it’s unclear whether this new (ancient) system of meaning will be any more compelling than whatever he left behind in his old life. Phyllis, Circe, and Oakes seem listless and weary. (Only Circe, appropriately, shows a trace of defiance: “Circe I was born and Circe I will have for my name till I die.”) Oakes, despite his name, doesn’t seem any more fond of the woods than Christopher is; he plants roses as a challenge to their oppressiveness. Civilization, it seems, erects various defenses against the void, but over time they all grow, as Hamlet put it, flat, weary, stale, and unprofitable. They become oppressions of their own.

Final note: they were totally eating the previous challengers –

“…Phyllis, sent to fetch a special utensil from an alcove in the corner of the kitchen, came back to report that it had been mislaid “since the last time” and could not be found…”

“…Aunt Cissy disappeared into the kitchen alcove again and came back carrying the trussed carcass of what seemed to Christopher to be a wild pig.”

Related reading:
We Have Always Lived in the Castle, by Shirley Jackson (1962): review by Emera
Angela Carter’s “The Courtship of Mr. Lyon”
A very happy October to all
“Where is Rowan Morrison?”

The Moonlit Road & others by Ambrose Bierce (1909-12) E

Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 3.27.2019
Book from: Personal collection, but Bierce’s work is in the public domain & can be found online for free; see ambrosebierce.org, for example.

The Moonlit Road and Other Ghost & Horror Stories is a collection of twelve of Ambrose Bierce’s stories (selected from 1909 and 1912 collections of his work), published by Dover.

Contents, with my favorites starred: The Eyes of the Panther*, The Moonlit Road, The Boarded Window, The Man and the Snake*, The Secret of Macarger’s Gulch, The Middle Toe of the Right Foot*, A Psychological Shipwreck*, A Holy Terror*, John Bartine’s Watch, Beyond the Wall, A Watcher by the Dead, Moxon’s Master

Sampler o’ themes: Ambiguity of state (dead/alive, woman/animal, natural/supernatural, real/imagined), close intimacy with the dead, fear overcoming men’s rational defenses, the grief and shame of men who have failed to protect the women who loved them

These stories are very smart, very darkly witty, and often wonderfully atmospheric, but for my taste far too reliant on twist endings that can variously come off as silly, obvious, excessively neat, etc. In the worse stories, there’s a tangible sense of self-satisfaction with his own wit – like Bierce is constantly waggling his eyebrows at you while you try to focus on reading.

The best have a deeper sense of elemental weirdness, a real conviction of darkness and not just a desire to titillate and dazzle. In this collection, “The Eyes of the Panther” and “The Man and the Snake” by far maximize this quality of weird darkness, “The Man and the Snake” especially so. While “The Eyes of the Panther” can be fitted into the context of “animal bride” fairy tales (as well as the fact that mountain lion screams sound unnervingly like those of a human woman), “The Man and the Snake” is wonderfully its own thing. It’s deeply idiosyncratic, darkly funny (“A snake in the bedroom of a modern city dwelling of the better sort is, happily, not so common a phenomenon as to make explanation altogether unnecessary”), and simultaneously so vivid and so ambiguous that it’s borderline surreal:

“The snake’s malignant head was still thrust forth from the inner coil as before, the neck level. It had not moved, but its eyes were now electric sparks, radiating an infinity of luminous needles.”

“A Psychological Shipwreck” is also quite compellingly weird; call it a psychic romantic tragedy. In most of these stories I was annoyed/bored by the extent to which Bierce’s female characters serve as blank slates upon which men write their tragic obsessions; the stories, like “Shipwreck,” where the women seem to emanate some supernatural force of their own are commensurately more interesting to me. Hence also my enjoyment of the darkly vital “The Eyes of the Panther.”

Among the more traditional stories, I appreciated “The Middle Toe of the Right Foot” first of all for its hilarious and intriguing title, secondly for introducing me to the folkloric anecdote of Jim Bowie having fought and won a barefoot knife fight in a dark room, and ultimately simply as a grimly satisfying tale of revenge wrought by the occupants of a haunted house. The quick shifts of time and perspective that Bierce often uses felt particularly witty here, almost caper-esque, and there’s also just some delightful haunted-house descriptions.

Finally, “A Holy Terror,” while close to annoyingly twisty, has some fantastically flavorful writing about an abandoned western mining town, which was a much-appreciated complement to my recent reading of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. I’ll conclude with my favorite paragraph – peak Bierce:

It is necessary to explain that one of the adjuncts to Hurdy-Gurdy—one to which that metropolis became afterward itself an adjunct—was a cemetery. In the first week of the camp’s existence this had been thoughtfully laid out by a committee of citizens. The day after had been signalized by a debate between two members of the committee, with reference to a more eligible site, and on the third day the necropolis was inaugurated by a double funeral. As the camp had waned the cemetery had waxed; and long before the ultimate inhabitant, victorious alike over the insidious malaria and the forthright revolver, had turned the tail of his pack-ass upon Injun Creek the outlying settlement had become a populous if not popular suburb. And now, when the town was fallen into the sere and yellow leaf of an unlovely senility, the graveyard—though somewhat marred by time and circumstance, and not altogether exempt from innovations in grammar and experiments in orthography, to say nothing of the devastating coyote—answered the humble needs of its denizens with reasonable completeness. It comprised a generous two acres of ground, which with commendable thrift but needless care had been selected for its mineral unworth, contained two or three skeleton trees (one of which had a stout lateral branch from which a weather-wasted rope still significantly dangled), half a hundred gravelly mounds, a score of rude headboards displaying the literary peculiarities above mentioned and a struggling colony of prickly pears. Altogether, God’s Location, as with characteristic reverence it had been called, could justly boast of an indubitably superior quality of desolation. It was in the most thickly settled part of this interesting demesne that Mr. Jefferson Doman staked off his claim. If in the prosecution of his design he should deem it expedient to remove any of the dead they would have the right to be suitably reinterred.

Related reading:
The Haunted Dolls’ House and Other Ghost Stories, by M. R. James (1919, 1925): review by Emera
Best Ghost Stories of J. S. LeFanu (1861-1923): review by Emera
LeFanu II: Haunted houses, gouty judges, over-familiars
Seven Gothic Tales, by Isak Dinesen (1935): review by Emera

Tempests & Slaughter, by Tamora Pierce (2018) E

Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 12.24.2018
Book from: Personal collection

Kakaner & I still make the occasional foray back into YA fantasy; last year we achieved the particular landmark of her first introduction to the worlds of Tamora Pierce, author of much-beloved if not critically acclaimed YA fantasy. Pierce’s numerous four-book series, populated with tough heroines and colorful magic, were a staple in both my and my brother’s childhoods. Even at the time I knew this wasn’t great writing, but oh, was it great reading.

Tempests & Slaughter is a prequel to my favorite of her series, The Immortals Quartet. In it, we get to witness the childhood of one of the most powerful “present-day” characters in the land of Tortall: the mage Numair Salmalín, né Arram Draper. The novel follows Arram’s schooling at the University of Carthak as an uncommonly powerful boy mage of 11 to 14.

I love magical apprenticeship narratives, but despite its title (which Pierce admits she generated with every expectation of her editor rejecting it), Tempests & Slaughter is mainly boring in a soothing way. It’s hard not to take away the impression that there’s little plot other than “and then Arram grew older and took different, harder classes and boy did he like learning because he sure liked learning, and being the learning of things, and look how all nice almost all of his masters are.” However, Pierce does work to build the impression of conspiracy manipulating the line of succession to the Carthaki throne, as well as exploring Arram’s discomfort with the Carthaki institution of slavery; both of these threads introduce more darkness and tension.

Continue reading Tempests & Slaughter, by Tamora Pierce (2018) E

Seven Gothic Tales, by Isak Dinesen (1935) E

Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 11.25.2018
Book from: Personal collection

On a rainy night in the winter of 1874, on an avenue in Paris, a drunken young girl came up and spoke to me. I was then, as you will understand, quite a young man. I was very upset and unhappy, and was sitting bareheaded in the rain on a seat along the avenue becaues I had just parted from a lady whom, as we said then, I did adore, and who had within this last hour tried to posion me.

This, though it has nothing to do with what I was going to tell you, was in itself a curious story…

from “The Old Chevalier”

I’m so, so very glad that I finally read this, almost 10 years after picking it up in a used bookstore. Dinesen’s gothic tales are very elegant and very strange, in a way that’s difficult to communicate. But their strangeness has to do, I think, with their extreme subtlety (if such a thing can exist), the way that the narrator always seems to be smiling very gently as she delicately manipulates the pieces of the story into a more pleasing – yet curious – configuration. The surprises are frequent and witty yet so quiet that I often ended up laughing not so much at the surprise itself, as at the fact that it almost flowed by me unremarked.

Many of her stories do have a puzzle-box construction, where the pieces gradually become available, and a “solution” is eventually possible, revealing a full picture, a completed tableau. (References to marionette theater are frequent, and the clearest moral and artistic ethic that Dinesen offers is an ideal of humanity as actors arranged through the action of the divine.) Such solutions, if directly addressed by the characters, tend to be declared only in a handful of half-obscured phrases, which leaves one with a sense of a kind of twilight elegance and, again strangeness – frail, fey silhouettes glimpsed from a distance against a sunset sky.

Dinesen loves liminally gendered characters (and so I love her!): cross-dressing women, gay or bisexual men, women of all ages who are obsessed with defending their virginity – but especially old maids, whom Dinesen writes frequently and with fascinating psychological sharpness. They project their unrealized hopes or distorted convictions onto the young around them with such ferocity that they cannot be merely tragic figures.

Continue reading Seven Gothic Tales, by Isak Dinesen (1935) E