The Virgin Suicides, by Jeffrey Eugenides (1993) E

Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 10.19.2021
Book from: Library

Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides is one of the most ecstatically beautiful, dream-like, and mournful books I’ve ever read, up next to Lolita. The two work together well in so many ways: the cuttingly yet not wholly satirical paean to the promise of America; the drenching languor and lust; the pathological yet resplendent objectification of beautiful, inaccessible girls. There’s a bit of Poe in there, too: the Gothic obsessiveness, the unreliable narrators.

The novel centers on many of the same themes as Eugenides’ Middlesex, but it’s much tighter, less sprawling, less broadly tragicomic. The single bullet in a revolver loaded for Russian roulette seems like an appropriate metaphor—elusive yet potent.

From a craft perspective, there was so much I admired about this book: sentence after sentence that floats and twists with metamorphic elegance and surprise; image after image of nightmare-dreamish beauty and suffering. (The final paragraph of the book gives me a wave of goosebumps every time I read it.) There were moments where Eugenides’ fabulist or magical-realist leanings put me in the same space as the horror movie It Follows. The queasy, desperate image of Lux Lisbon copulating on the roof of her parents’ house, night after night, blended in my mind with the scene in It Follows where the entity stands naked on a neighborhood rooftop, looming and improbable. The shadow of sex, death, and disorder falls over suburbia.

The book’s narrative technique, Eugenides’ choice of a “we” perspective, whose identity and role become clearer and clearer over the course of the novel, is quietly astonishing, hypnotic, and unnerving. It might be this choice that does the most work to lend the book its ineffable quality. We hear the story of a neighborhood as filtered through a shifting surveillance network, an aggregate view that is ultimately fallible, individual, and selfish, yet by assuming the status of “we” insists on a semblance of omniscience and authority.

This paradox of collective identity seems like the crux of the novel, and Eugenides plays on it in several configurations: through the narrating “we;” through the despairing alliance of the Lisbon sisters; and through the social landscape that surrounds them, the tidy suburbia crumbling at the edges, where the decay and racial tension of neighboring Detroit are seeping through. Every union is imperfect; everything contains the seeds of entropy.

Related reviews:
Picnic at Hanging Rock, by Joan Lindsay (2020)

Desultory Annotations for Gerald Durrell’s “The Entrance” (1980)

Gerald Durrell’s infamous Gothic horror story “The Entrance” is the final story in his collection The Picnic and Other Inimitable Stories (1980), which otherwise comprises a series of arch, Wodehousian, semi-autobiographical comedies, centering on absurd mishaps that beset Durrell’s family outings and European travels. (“The Havoc of Havelock” is one of the funniest things I’ve ever read.) I got turned on to “The Entrance” after seeing a number of remarks about it on the Internet along the lines of, “Durrell, why would you do that to us?!” Obviously I couldn’t pass up experiencing the tonal whiplash for myself.

Whiplash there was! Although, warned in advance, I couldn’t help noting the morbid humor that crops up in his comedies, too—in particular, “The Michelin Man” is highly reminiscent of Roald Dahl’s horror/comedy fiction for adults. (“Lamb to the Slaughter,” anyone?) Durrell himself tries to give ample warning for “The Entrance”: he cushions our arrival with a typically cozy frame story where he arrives at the cottage of a couple of bohemian friends in the south of France, complete with loving descriptions of the wine and truffles they consume. But then—amid an evening storm, the friends produce “a very curious manuscript” whose contents are promised to be “horrid.” There we enter into “The Entrance.”

I was delighted, disturbed, and baffled by the story: so here are my notes and attempts at analysis. Page numbers are from the 1980 Simon & Schuster edition. I welcome any contributions, corrections, and alternative interpretations.

Continue reading Desultory Annotations for Gerald Durrell’s “The Entrance” (1980)

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

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

Dracula: A Symphony in Moonlight & Nightmares, by Jon J. Muth (1993) E

Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 1.5.2019
Book from: Personal collection

Jon J. Muth’s graphic-novel retelling of Dracula is delicate, foreboding, and ravishingly lovely – if slightly unconvincing from a narrative perspective; luckily the written narrative is almost beside the point when the art is this lovely. I ride or die for watercolors, and had to locate a copy of this out-of-print volume after seeing Muth’s watercolor illustrations for it online: sheer lavender shadows, chill expanses of castle stone, translucently pale flesh, and an overall air of elegant, sensual hush and expectancy.

Honestly, I think it’s a shame that he decided to do the cover of the novel in oils (though I understand that watercolors often don’t hold up as dramatic cover art) since it looks that much more generic, in addition to that particular illustration aesthetically betraying the work’s 90s vintage. (There are also a couple of interior illustrations where the women have seriously 90s hair, which makes me smile, but undermines what I otherwise feel to be a timeless style.)

Narratively, this is what I’d call a slightly transposed Dracula, where characters’ identities are swapped or merged, so that ultimately the focus rests even more firmly on the experience of the female protagonists. Here, Mina is the red-headed, morbid hysteric/consumptive, while Lucy is the grave and dark one. Both are subtly at odds with the masculine society around them, here represented by a conglomeration of most of the sympathetic male cast of Dracula into a few paternal[istic] figures. With this choice, Muth removes the Bachelorette sideshow of Mina’s courtship, foregrounding instead the telos of Dracula, Lucy, and Mina.

Continue reading Dracula: A Symphony in Moonlight & Nightmares, by Jon J. Muth (1993) E

The Lodgers (2017)

INCEST, the answer is incest.

If you’re marketing anything in the line of gothic horror, it takes a minimum of three words to establish that the big reveal is incest: “twins” and “no outsiders.” 

2017 Irish horror film The Lodgers is lusciously beautiful, slightly underbaked, and very much undercut in the suspense department if you happen to take the above deductive shortcut. The Gothic is one of the preeminent genres where obviousness doesn’t necessarily undercut efficacy – in fact, can easily be an asset, a piece of set dressing that evokes delicious foreboding. The Lodgers, though, suffers from a general sense of unrealized intensity and suspense: lukewarm chemistry among the actors, ghosts that are scary-ish at best, etc. This makes the hand-wringing over what ails those reclusive twins, and all the film’s other emotional stakes, all seem a bit empty or tedious, sometimes comically so.

That said, the film is atmospherically beautiful enough to be enjoyed purely on the basis of looks and sound. On those counts, it has the deeply satisfying sensory and emotional coherence of a fairy-tale pocket universe – the psychogeographic trinity of the haunted mansion, the deep woods, and the huddled village. I’ve also mentioned before my affinity for water-based imagery, and The Lodgers overfloweth with mists, depths, drowning phantoms, and surreal, gravity-defying drips.

Anglo-Irish twins Rachel and and Edward live in a decaying country mansion, governed by a set of nursery-rhyme rules (be in bed by midnight; no outsiders), surrounded by phantoms, and feared/scorned by the nearby villagers. The film opens on their 18th birthday, the brink of rupture: Edward is both traumatized by and deeply loyal to the legacy of their house and its rules, while Rachel is restless, defiant, and drawn to a young villager, Sean, who has recently returned from World War I.

Continue reading The Lodgers (2017)

LeFanu II: Haunted houses, gouty judges, over-familiars

Reviewer: Emera
Date read: December 2017
Book from: Personal collection

Reviews of Best Ghost Stories of J. S. LeFanu, pt. I: Green Tea, Squire Toby’s Will, The White Cat of Drumgunniol

Many of J. S. LeFanu’s human ghosts share a moral type – grasping, corrupt old men of power – and a countenance: “sensual, malignant, and unwholesome” in “Ghost Stories of the Tiled House,” “[wearing] a smile so sensual, so unspeakably dreadful that my senses were nearly overpowered” in “An Account of Some Strange Disturbances on Aungier Street.” Both of these are brief, emininently rereadable traditional haunted-house stories, more reliably delivering a pleasurable chill (in my opinion) than many of his weirder, more wandering tales of guilt and spirits. (The second section of “Tiled House” has also been published or anthologized as “The Ghost of a Hand,” notably in Roald Dahl’s Book of Ghost Stories.)

“Mr. Justice Harbottle” is another of that spirit-type: “an elder man, stout, and blotched with scurvy, and whose features, fixed as a corpse’s, were stamped with dreadful force with a character of sensuality and villainy.” His story is a Jacobite-era ghost story; I’ve tended to enjoy that setting ever since reading Peter Beagle’s Tamsin; and M. R. James of course has several Jacobite tales. But I confess to finding most of “Harbottle” slow and predictably moralizing – except for the spectacular nightmare-journey midway through, featuring a “gigantic gallows” with capering hangman, a hell-court, and other demonic delights. I want to say that the story reminded me a bit of Washington Irving thanks to its combination of delirious horror and dark satire, but I’m still not quite sure that Irving is the comparison I really have in mind…

The prominence of evil judges did make me wonder about the impact of LeFanu’s courtroom experience on his moral landscape – but a quick Wiki search reminded me that while he studied law at Trinity College, he never actually practiced. Perhaps LeFanu encountered Harbottle’s original during his work as a journalist, instead? It’s hard not to indulge in this kind of biographical speculation when the type recurs with such exactness.

“An Authentic Narrative of a Haunted House,” as its name suggests, is another traditional haunted-house story. Nothing spectacular, but very satisfactorily eerie:

“This figure was seen always in the act of retreating, its back turned, generally getting round the corner of the passage into the area, in a stealthy and hurried way, and, when closely followed, imperfectly seen again entering one of the coal-vaults, and when pursued into it, nowhere to be found.”

And there’s also something pleasantly eerie, just unresolved-enough, about the way LeFanu’s narrator ends the story with a bit of speculation about who the specters are and what they might be about. I think it’s the only one of LeFanu’s stories where I liked how he enacted his tendency to over-explanation.

On the subject of less-gripping guilt ‘n’ spirits: “The Familiar” I thought overlong and repetitive. It shares the narrative device used in “Green Tea” of increasingly close confrontations with a persistent specter, but feels punishingly plodding at over 30 pages. As suggested above, I was also very disappointed by the way LeFanu diffuses its main mystery – why an upright naval officer should be haunted by a menacing figure – with a blatant explanation at the end. The title was intriguing to me, though: LeFanu diverges from the more, well, familiar sense of a witch’s companion spirit, and uses “familiar” in a sense a bit closer to a doppelganger. This, together with the prominence of seamen, gave the story a slight Poe-ish aura to me.

Finally, “The Dead Sexton” I enjoyed well enough while reading, but had trouble recalling afterwards. Set in LeFanu’s fictional, idyllic-yet-haunted town of Golden Friars, Northumbria, it’s all a bit cute about the earnest, bustly village types, and the petty villainy of the title character. The dark visitation who leads to the story’s final climax is charismatically drawn, but as with “Harbottle,” the narrative’s predictable morality undercuts the impact of its spookier bits.

Go to:
Tales of Horror and the Supernatural, by Arthur Machen (1948): review by Emera
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) E

Reviewer: Emera
Date read: Vars. in November and December 2017
Book from: Personal collection

The Dover collection of Best Ghost Stories of J. S. LeFanu (originally issued in 1964, with a rapturous introduction by an E. F. Bleiler, “an editor, bibliographer, and scholar of science fiction, detective fiction, and fantasy literature” according to Wiki) contains the following stories:

Squire Toby’s Will, Schalken the Painter, Madam Crowl’s Ghost, The Haunted Baronet, Green Tea, The Familiar, Mr. Justice Harbottle, Carmilla, The Fortunes of Sir Robert Ardagh, An Account of Some Strange Disturbances on Aungier Street, The Dead Sexton, Ghost Stories of the Tiled House, An Authentic Narrative of a Haunted House, Sir Dominick’s Bargain, Ultor de Lacey

…of which I’ve currently read all but “The Dead Sexton,” “Sir Dominick,” and “Ultor de Lacy” (which is what I’d like to name an S&M lingerie shop). (Note that LeFanu’s work is available online for free, being in the public domain.) Presently I’m in the middle of re-reading “Carmilla,” one of the only two stories I’d read before.Thoughts on some of the rest…

—–

I was a bit disappointed and perplexed by “Green Tea,” having heard that it was LeFanu’s most renowned story after “Carmilla,” and having been intrigued for quite some time by the seductively mysterious title. The central specter (which is not tea) is devilishly uncomfortable, and there’s a powerful sense of dark magnetism dictating the specter’s encounters with the narrator. (M. R. James’ unstoppable horrors later echo the same narrative rhythm.)

But I feel the story’s integrity is spoiled by the preening narration of Dr. Hesselius, LeFanu’s proto-Van-Helsing, who prides himself on his ability to counteract supernatural influences through rational medical practice. His flippant, self-congratulatory closing pontifications pretty well ruined the story for me, even if his final sentence is tasty:

“Thus we find strange bed-fellows, and the mortal and immortal prematurely make acquaintance.”

Talking-head Hesselius makes this story the most explicit enumeration of LeFanu’s supernatural principle, which would go on to inspire Lovecraft – that we are at all times surrounded by terrible sights and malign beings, but only certain states of physiological or psychological disturbance make us vulnerable to influences. This principle shows up explicitly in almost all of the stories claimed to have been drawn from Hesselius’ files, and I think one or two others as well. Personally I find it notable as a literary feature, but not interesting; it’s discussed too fussily to evoke a sense of dread.

—–

“Squire Toby’s Will” suffers from what I think is LeFanu’s most frequent narrative weakness: poor pacing. The opening scenes feel leaden and ungainly, and the feuding between the rival brothers at the plot’s center reads as failed comedy. But the story does draw atmospheric power (1.21 English Gothic gigawatts!) from its rainy, moldering setting and crabbed, ill-tempered characters. And as in “Green Tea,” the central specter is memorably uncomfortable:

The head of the brute looked so large, its body long and thin, and its joints so ungainly and dislocated, that the Squire, with old Cooper beside him, looked on with a feeling of disgust and astonishment, which, in a moment or two more, brought the Squire’s stick down upon him with a couple of heavy thumps. The beast awakened from his ecstasy, sprang to the head of the grave, and there on a sudden, thick and bandy as before, confronted the Squire, who stood at its foot, with a terrible grin, and eyes with the peculiar green of canine fury.

—–

Sticking with the theme of “critters,” “The White Cat of Drumgunniol” is a cross between a fairy tale and a vengeful-ghost story:

“There is a famous story of a white cat, with which we all become acquainted in the nursery. I am going to tell a story of a white cat very different from the amiable and enchanted princess who took that disguise for a season.”

The story opens with a lakeside scene witnessed by the narrator by a boy, and which I think is goddamn amazing – tense, eerie, calm, unbearably strange. (It reminds me of the climactic vision in I Am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House.)

The story decrescendoes from there, sustaining some of the tension and the chilly sense of otherworldly hostility, but terminating wistfully and weakly. The ending suits when the narrative is taken as the verbal account it’s purported to be, but, for a literary story, is disappointingly stingless.

Related reading:

Tales of Horror and the Supernatural, by Arthur Machen (1948): review by Emera

The Haunted Dolls’ House and Other Ghost Stories, by M. R. James (1919, 1925): review by Emera

Flesh and Bone, by Julia Gfrörer (2013) E

Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 6.16.2017
Book from: Gift from K. (<3)

Flesh and Blood is Julia Gfrörer’s first published comic, and my second-favorite of the three I’ve read, after Black is the Color. Grim, wry, blood-and-hemlock-flavored, this is highly recommended for lovers of Robert Eggers’ film The Witch.

This is so narratively satisfying, all the symmetry and the sinewy Machiavellian strength of the witch’s plotting. She’s a dark free agent, pulling snare-cords neat and tight around convenient prey. She’s not quite so dispassionate a predator as the mermaids in Black is the Color, though. Displaced romantic and erotic desire teases the otherwise calm, chilly surface of her calculations. This culminates in an uncomfortably powerful erotic scene involving a mandrake. Period.

The displacement of desire and passion – longing for what’s not close to hand, fulfillment through proxies – creates a weird kind of momentum throughout Flesh and Bone. I imagine water continually spilling from unstable vessel to vessel, never at rest, and shared between vessels only in passing.

Like all of Gfrörer’s work that I’ve read, the comic is also an inhabitation of the experience of grief – grief that is more than sorrow, grief that wrings to the bone. This grief that strains the limits of human capability – and the teasing touches of hopeful sweetness, as expressed through longing and eroticism – all that mixed together, in one brief comic, it’s exquisite, and sublime.

Gfrörer’s work is an uncommonly raw expression of the intensity of existence. It goes deep, deep, deep, like almost nothing I’ve read or seen before, except (as I said before) Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. There is nothing precious, or half-way, or untrue about her work. I think she’s a visionary not in the sense of seeing something beyond – I think she looks at human existence and sees in.

Related reading:

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


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Laid Waste, by Julia Gfrörer (2016) E

Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 6.14.2017
Book from: Gift from K. – THANK YOU!

So fucking dark and anguished. Julia Gfrörer’s Laid Waste is a desperate song about human love amid plague-stricken Europe – like a graphic novel cousin of Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. Grasping, bony fingers and limp corpses.

Gfrörer intercuts long passages of the deepest existential despair with wisps of dark humor – two children flatly discussing how best to avoid breathing in the smoke from a bonfire, for example – and with the fragile suggestion of divine grace. Better, though, than the questionable blessing of unlooked-for survival, is the desperate strength of human connection: “Everything outside of this is darkness.” “Yes.”

I don’t know that I’ve ever felt so deeply, with both mind and body, the vast loneliness and despair of one of history’s darkest periods – and humanity’s baffling, tragicomically stubborn resilience in the face of unrelenting loss.

Like her storytelling, Gfrörer’s art feels both delicate and terrifyingly honest. It establishes a territory somewhere between Dürer and Egon Schiele. Meticulous hatching contrasts with wavering, slightly uncomfortably organic shapes. That wavering quality creates a strange sense of movement even when she’s working through one of a series of mostly stationary panels, which compel us to wait and watch and feel with her characters. With most other artists, the inconsistency of shape and anatomy would register as a technical shortcoming; with Gfrörer, it’s another means of expression.

I feel very, very lucky to have been introduced to Gfrörer’s work through a generous gift from friend K.; I plan to write about the two other comics he gifted me, Black is the Color and Flesh and Bone, over the next few weeks, and hope to buy the rest of her comics soon.

Go to:
FLOOD Magazine: Sex, death and suffering – a conversation with Julia Gfrörer, author of Laid Waste