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

Author Event: André Aciman discusses Find Me

Excerpts from André Aciman discussing Find Me, the sequel to Call Me By Your Name. The event was on November 11, 2019, hosted by the Harvard Book Store at the Brattle Theater.

Aciman is very fluent, charming, and sort of artfully self-deprecating.

André Aciman speaks from a podium in a dark theater

On being back in Harvard Square, where he was previously a Ph.D. student in Comparative Literature; on nostalgia and the past

On familiar Harvard locations: “…many of which have disappeared, which is what happens when time goes by … many of which have good memories attached, many more of which have bad. If you have been a grad student, you know what I mean.”

“A nosteme is the smallest possible unit of return.” [The etymology of nostalgia is, nóst(os), a return home + algia, pain.]

“[Nostalgia] doesn’t mean that you are not excited about what the future will bring, but it does mean that you can find satisfaction in trying to call back that past. You may not be successful in bringing it back, but you can call it. … The past is always there.”

“Summons up the past and reappraises it or resituates it in the present”

Does he have a spot like Elio and Oliver’s? “There’s a wall, and it is not far from here. I went there this morning, and it still spoke to me. It happened 40 years ago, and the anniversary is coming up because it was in November.”

Civilization and Its Discontents – things built on ruins – “I think this is exactly how identity works… I don’t believe we have a core.”

“I have never had one identity. I have never been one thing.”

Egypt has lost its memory of its Jewish/multiethnic community. “We are rebuilding the Jewish temple, we want you back.” – Egyptian ambassador attempting to woo Aciman back to Alexandria

Continue reading Author Event: André Aciman discusses Find Me

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

Selected poems, by C. P. Cavafy, trans. Edward Keeley & Philip Sherrard [E]

Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 7.1.2018
Book from: Personal collection

All links below go to reproductions of Keeley’s translations by the official Cavafy Archive.

Cavafy is considered the greatest modern Greek poet. Gay, eccentric, private (though not reclusive), and obscure as a poet during his lifetime, he wrote poems during the late 19th and early 20th century, both about his sensual life, and about life in antiquity (often political life) through a deeply personal, everyday lens. His historical poems made immensely more sense to me after I saw translator Keeley report that he “had [the] fascinating capacity to gossip about historical figures from the distant past so as to make them seem a part of some scandalous intrigue taking place in the Alexandrian world immediately below the poet’s second-floor balcony.” Illustrative poem title: “For Ammonis, Who Died at 29, in 610

Cavafy’s poems also often deal with questions of the many possible spheres of Greek cultural identity: Alexandrian, Hellene, Pan-Hellene… all versus, of course, barbarian. I can’t pretend to understand all the nuances of historical and cultural reference that Cavafy draws upon, but I did come away with a sense of the vivid importance for him of embodying belonging to not only an ethnic group or city, but a way of living and bearing oneself, a proud weight of cultural and historical inheritance.

At the same time, “quirky” is actually the first word that came to mind when I thought about how to describe the feel of Cavafy’s poetry. His language is typically flat in tone and diction, yet his point-of-view is always wry, quirked, with an odd and wistful twist often arriving at the end – “Waiting for the Barbarians” probably being the most famous example on that front, but “Morning Sea” being my personal favorite. His attitude towards himself is self-deprecating, self-effacing; likewise he plays with wry affection on the pomposity, short-sightedness, and pettish egos of the ancient historical figures whom he brings to life for brief flashes.

And what of loveliness? The loveliest Cavafy poems have a soft, understated glow of sensuality, tenderness, regret; they distinctly evoke for me the hour or two after sunset, the lucid glow on the horizon, a harborside town rousing to a nocturnal life of furtive delights that quickly slip away.

I end with an attempt at picking out my three favorite Cavafy poems, both for that wistful evening quality, and in general:

The God Abandons Antony

Body, Remember

and maaaybe The Afternoon Sun

Go to:
More poetry reviews on The Black Letters

 

The Grotesque, by Patrick McGrath (1989) E

Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 5.10.2017
Book from: Personal collection – grateful thanks to C. for this gift!

Something is rotten at Crook, the decaying English manor house that is the setting for McGrath’s exuberantly spooky novel. Fledge, the butler, is getting intimate with the mistress. Fledge’s wife is getting intimate with the claret. Sidney Giblet, the master’s prospective son-in-law, has disappeared. And the master himself – the one-time gentleman naturalist Sir Hugo Coal – is watching it all in a state of helpless fury, since he is paralyzed in a wheelchair, unable to move or speak.

The Grotesque is simultaneously a whodunnit and pageturner (though from the start it’s insisted that we believe that it was, in fact, the butler), and a thorny psychological thicket of doubles, shape-shifting, adultery, and madness. It made me think of a sniggering, Gothic cousin of Brideshead Revisited, as they share the snarled-up Roman Catholic British aristos, the homoeroticism, the acute class anxiety, and the character of an impish, loyal, dark-haired daughter. “Grand Guignol edition of Wodehouse” also covers it rather well, especially when it comes to names – Sidney Giblet you’ve seen already, and the local village is called “Pock-on-the-Fling.”

The book’s not even 200 pages long, but every page is thick with wordplay (Sir Hugo, for example, puns on his entrapment within the “grottos” of both his own skull and the nook under the stairs where his wheelchair is often left – I had forgotten that “grotesque” comes from “grotto”) and psychological feints. The narrative dodges back and forth across time – a structure that Sir Hugo claims to be a function of his increasingly unreliable wits, but of course also results in the juiciest revelations being put off for last.

I enjoyed the heck out of this elegant mess, and read the first half especially with slightly unhealthy speed. I had to do a bit of thinking about why I didn’t utterly love it, and I think it comes down to the style: I crave continually surprising language, which in Gothics tends to translate to “really florid.” McGrath’s writing is very fine, with physical descriptions of characters being especially sharp and memorable, but for me, the imagery only rarely and the language never hits the heights of the sublime. This might be a constraint of character, as Sir Hugo prides himself on his cold-blooded propriety of thought; I’d have to read more McGrath to see whether his style has broader range.

The freshest and most lastingly troubling element of this book for me was the thematic stuff around ontological confusion. Sir Hugo’s background as a gentleman naturalist, and his morbid embrace of the physical facts of reproduction and decay, provide fertile grounds for elaboration on this sense of “the grotesque.” That is, the grotesque is also “a 16th-century decorative style in which parts of human, animal, and plant forms are distorted and mixed.” Sir Hugo, the paralyzed would-be paleontologist, is neither animal nor vegetable nor mineral. Described as involuntarily grunting like a pig, and “a vegetable,” and “ossified,” he eventually converges with the looming figure of his beloved dinosaur fossil, which by the end of the novel has grown a drapery of lichen due to neglect and damp. Sir Hugo’s neurologist dismisses him as “ontologically dead” – but internally, Sir Hugo shoots back that “I was, I believe, the most ontologically alive person in that room.”

All these uneasy mutations and meltings of category are artistically impressive, but also simply, humanly sad. The most cutting scene of the book for me was the one in which Sir Hugo reflects on how quickly his household writes him off after his accident. Setting aside the fair question of whether Sir Hugo, bastard that he is, might deserve much of what happened to him, this is really sharp, sad writing about the emotional reality of human disability and decline:

“In fact, it was one of the most striking aspects of that first stage of my vegetal existence, the experience of seeing my family’s reactions shift from grief and compassion to acceptance and apparent indifference in a remarkably short period of time. Thus, I notice, are the dead forgotten; thus are persons in my state rendered tolerable… Our kinship with the grotesque is something to be shunned; it requires an act of rejection, of brisk alienation, and here the doctors were most cooperative, for they permitted Harriet and the rest of them to reject my persisting humanity by means of a gobbledygook that carried the imprimatur of – science! … [S]cience proposes, this is how I had lived, but science also disposes, and now I find myself frozen, stuck fast, like a fly in a web, in the grid of a medical taxonomy. My identity was now neuropathological. I was no longer a man, I was an instance of a disease…”

This furious sorrow struck me as some of the only genuine emotion in a narrative otherwise composed mainly of self-absorption and guilty half-truths.

Haunted Legends, ed. by Ellen Datlow and Nick Mamatas (2010) E

Haunted Legends is a 2010 anthology of supernatural horror stories/weird tales/whatever, edited by Ellen Datlow and Nick Mamatas. I picked it up when Kakaner and I went to Readercon in 2010, and have read it 2+ times since. The table of contents is stacked with major names: Catherynne Valente, Caitlin Kiernan, Laird Barron, Ramsey Campbell, et al.

The anthology is themed around local legends, and the presiding tone is chilly, regretful, and uneasy – there are only a few stories that read as more straightforward horror, like Joe R. Lansdale’s lurid creature feature, “The Folding Man,” which closes the volume with a punch and a leer (and won the 2010 Stoker Award for short fiction).

Since most of the authors are North American, most of the stories draw from those legends. Of those that are set abroad, several are objectionably maudlin and touristy, like Kit Reed’s “Akbar” (India) and Carolyn Turgeon’s “La Llorona” (Mexico). Others engage sharply with tourism or imperialism (Catherynne Valente’s tremendous “Fifteen Panels Depicting the Sadness of the Baku and the Jotai” [Japan], Kaaron Warren’s “That Girl” [India]), and/or draw upon authors’ immigrant backgrounds (Ekaterina Sedia’s “Tin Cans” [Russia], Lily Hoang’s vicious “The Foxes” [Vietnam]).

There are also three hitchhiking/roadside phantoms total.

For me, the standouts are Richard Bowes’ “Knickerbocker Holiday” (which I’ll talk about below), and the stories by Caitlin Kiernan, Carrie Laben (a new name for me), Ekaterina Sedia, Catherynne Valente, and M. K. Hobson (all of which hopefully I’ll write about later). Those hit my sweet spot so far as emotional complexity, prose, freshness of concept/execution, and pervasive unease are concerned. Laird Barron and Jeffrey Ford’s stories, which I think share a kind of darkly musing/amusing quality, also made me go “hmm” in a pleasant way.

—–

Richard Bowes‘ “Knickerbocker Holiday” opens the collection, and immediately made me wonder why I hadn’t read Bowes before, and where I could find more of him.

Last Sunday night the Dutchman flew, the Headless Horseman rolled in from Sleepy Hollow. It happened when I paid a visit that was in part nostalgia, but in larger part morbid curiosity, to a corner of my degenerate youth. I even kissed the fingertips of a very bad old habit of mine and told myself it was for memory’s sake.

Fanning myself! The rest of the story sustains this singular, dreamy, morbid flippancy; I couldn’t get enough of it. The narrator is one of a coterie of aging, not terribly glamorous fashion writers who gather to remember dead colleagues, from their youth working together in New York’s old Garment District. Unlikely connections to Sleepy Hollow emerge, laced with bad deaths and sexual unease.

I love the story in large part for its fragmentary yet rich evocation of ’70’s New York. That richness of sense of time and place seems especially appropriate given how lovingly Washington Irving worked to record his Dutch New York in all of his stories. Not much love here, though – instead of autumnal lushness, there’s only an autumnal falling-away, a sense of twist and rot.

Then there’s the painterly way in which Bowes handles the nightmare-like elements of this story. Painterly is the best word I can think of to describe it, and I find the effect utterly arresting – the few, silent, almost stately visions of the supernatural that he presents, simple scenes touched with an inexplicable threat. Like a Magritte painting, is what I’m thinking: simple shapes, arranged wrongly; a few lighted windows invested with unknown meaning.

I very much look forward to investigating more of Bowes’ short fiction.

Wet Moon vols. 1 and 2, by Sophie Campbell (2004) E

Reviewer: Emera
Date read: Nov. 2016

I’ve enjoyed the work of Sophie Campbell (formerly Ross Campbell) for 12, 13 years maybe. In high school I spent hours poring over the endless portraits (almost exclusively Wet Moon characters, at the time) in her deviantART account – humid, sexy, angsty, a little uncomfortable, very Goth, all executed in her trademark style of mostly monochrome ink and marker, with lots of lovely wash textures. There was a lot going on that you didn’t see much of in comic art those days – chubby girls, black girls. I was fascinated almost equally by the bodies and the fashion – hair, piercings, soft thighs under ripped fishnets – of all those languorously sprawling, sulkily self-possessed, implicitly vulnerable girls (and very occasional androgynous boys).

I have no good reason for why it took me so long to actually read Wet Moon, except that it used to be harder to find comics from smaller labels.

In the time since, Campbell came out as trans. To put it baldly, this presented an easy resolution to my one discomfort with Campbell’s work: that it could come off as voyeuristic, or fetishistic. To have a lingering male gaze suddenly revealed as [trans]female – suddenly consumption, desire, appreciation, longing are all construed so, so differently. Finding out that Campbell had come out as trans remains the most interesting shift I’ve ever experienced in my perception of an artist and their relationship to their work.

Wet Moon is a dark, dreamy slice-of-life comic, featuring a cast of southern, small-town punks, Goths, and art students, almost exclusively women, and heavily queer. Flavors: cigarettes, hairdye, patchouli, art-supply-store air, pie, swampwater. I’ve also seen comparisons to Twin Peaks, though being only two volumes in, the implied supernatural/mystery element is very slight. There’s a missing student who left a strange dark circular stain on her apartment floor, for example, and inexplicable, moonstruck behavior performed by various characters – midnight swamp immersions, ritualistic circling in front of windows. It’s all lovely and unsettling, and reminds me of, yes, the earliest episodes of Twin Peaks, where I had no idea what was going on, and small moments were rendered all the more terrifying because of it. (Those shots of the traffic light at night, for example – I don’t think I’ve ever been more afraid of what a traffic light might mean.)

The protagonist is Cleo Lovedrop (yes, all of the characters have wonderful, absurd names – Malady Mayapple might be the winner), with the blue forelock on both of the covers above. Her struggles with romantic confusion and low self-esteem have so far provided the most obvious or continuous dramatic impetus for the series. But the drama is deliberately minimal; the interest lies more in mood, in the understated sense of mystery, and in the affectionate evocation of the banter – listless, playful, or barbed – and small upsets within an extended network of friends.

And then, much of the series so far has been implicitly about bodies: resenting them, costuming them, wanting them to be something different, subjecting them to long minutes of mute observation and appreciation. Multiple characters receive scenes of self-examination in mirrors: sucking in stomachs, examining scars, trying to make muscles. Most of the characters are overweight; some have disabilities or deformities. There’s so much bodily difference that different becomes the order of the day. The cumulative effect is, again, lovely; all the soft curves and folds and rumpled, revealing clothing contribute their own sense of soft melancholy.

Wet Moon is a unique and soulful work of art; I’m grateful that it exists. Scuttlebutt suggests that the series does become plottier, or at least more overtly dramatic – as a devoted fan of plotlessness, I’m almost disappointed, but obviously excited too for whatever Gothic mayhem awaits. Now it’s on me to track down the remaining four volumes (hopefully in the updated editions, with Campbell credited as Sophie, and some great cover designs by Annie Mok); volume 7 is still being eagerly awaited.

Related reading:
Wolf in White Van, by John Darnielle (2014) E

Rat Queens, vols. 1-2, by Kurtis Wiebe, Roc Upchurch, Stjepan Sejic (2014-5) E

Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 10.2016
Book from: Library

 

book-ratqueens-violet

Rat Queens is a rambunctious Dungeons ‘n’ Dragons parody featuring a gang of ultraviolent, foul-mouthed lady adventurers: Hannah the moody, uptight elven mage, dwarven warrior Violet (pictured above with her orc boyfriend Dave), escaped-from-a-Lovecraftian-cult cleric Dee, and candy/hallucinogen-obsessed smidgen (i.e., halfling) Betty. In Volume 1, the Queens deal with the consequences of their inability to rein in their penchant for destructive brawling, which has earned them enemies within the walls of their own town. In volume 2, the airing of old grudges escalates to the summoning of Lovecraftian beasties; the ensuing ruin is intercut with flashbacks that begin revealing the younger lives of most of the Queens.

Rat Queens is inextricably linked with Brian Vaughan and Fiona Staples’ Saga in my mind: they’re both recent Image comics that feature racially/sexually diverse casts, obstreperous women, “pretty” art with a light anime influence, sarcastic humor, and graphic violence. In that match-up, though, Rat Queens comes up lacking. Wiebe writes pretty awkwardly at times, and tonally, the comic is in that regime of sarcastic trope-busting where if you’re even slightly not feeling it, it just comes off as try-hard.

In terms of art, Upchurch is likewise okay. He’s good at facial expressions, and occasional panels are quite pretty, but his art often mashes down into strange scribbled shapes that betray a mediocre sense of volume and anatomy. The backgrounds are weak as well; they often feel kind of incoherent and joylessly drab to me. Here’s a representative Upchurch page – theoretically pretty chicks with wandering facial features, backgrounds blurred beyond usefulness:

book-ratqueens-17

Stjepan Sejic picks up art duty partway through Volume 2: Kurtis removed Upchurch from the series after he was confirmed to have committed domestic abuse. Sejic, not Upchurch, is responsible for the cover art featured up top. Sejic’s work is strong – seductively painterly and with great taste in color and light, as evidenced by the cover – and he’s an excellent match for the comic thematically since he’s done a number of hilarious trope-busting joke comics. His only obvious weakness is his inability to draw kids without them looking like creepy adult heads pasted onto miniature bodies. My understanding is that unfortunately Sejic departed the series after Vol. 2 due to work conflicts.

But between Sejic’s work and increasingly substantive storytelling, the comic did grow on me as I dug into Volume 2. That whole volume felt narratively solid to me: the character development is thoughtful, mostly dwelling on issues of authority, belonging, and trust (familial, cultural, religious), and also deepened my appreciation of the Rat Queens’ friendships.

Still, I think I could drop this series without feeling like I’d missed that much. First, the interpersonal conflicts, while humanely portrayed, are pretty standard for fantasy (“I’m an outsiderrrrr”). (I think a significant part of why Saga is so unique and successful is that Vaughan investigates familial relationships in a much more specific and personally informed manner, rather than drawing from the typical sff stockroom of Generic Angst Causation.) Second, there isn’t yet a compelling overarching external conflict. Finally, though I feel fondly towards several of the characters (mainly Dee, Hannah, and Braga), I’m not so invested that I feel the need to keep reading just to see what happens to them.

Altogether, I’d call this fun but not unmissable. Blessings on the proliferation of media focusing on female protagonists, though.

Go to:
Saga, vol. 1, by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples (2012) E
On the road to Saga

Tamsin, by Peter S. Beagle (1999) E

Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 6.20.2013 
Book from: Personal collection

Arriving in the English countryside to live with her mother and new stepfather, Jenny has no interest in her surroundings, until she meets Tamsin. Since her death over 300 years ago, Tamsin has haunted the lonely estate without rest, trapped by a hidden trauma she can’t remember, and a powerful evil even the spirits of night cannot name. To help her, Jenny must delve deeper into the dark world than any human has in hundreds of years, and face danger that will change her life forever.

This is the book that restored my Beagle-faith after I bounced violently off of The Innkeeper’s Song; frankly I think it’s a bit of a hidden gem, given how little I’ve seen it mentioned or discussed. I cannot recommend this more for fans of spooky English/Celtic fantasy, like Elizabeth Marie Pope’s The Perilous Gard, or even Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series. It is also quite queer, in a very sweet, nondramatized way. (Jenny remarks on her head-over-heels reaction to Tamsin by saying, “I’d never been the type to get girl-crushes before,” and that is the full extent to which she dissects any issues of sexual identity; the rest of the time she just goes on loving Tamsin.)

The initial few chapters – when it’s not clear yet what sort of haunted universe Jenny has stepped into, and her encounters with the uncanny are glancing and inexplicable – are by far the creepiest. But even once the central mystery is mostly laid bare, the combination of characters and world, both fantastical and actual-historical, are terrifically compelling.

Continue reading Tamsin, by Peter S. Beagle (1999) E

Winter into spring, some short fiction reads

Rikki Ducornet, “Wormwood” (1997)
Available in the Iowa Review and in Ducornet’s collection The Word ‘Desire’

Strange, jagged, haunted, heated – like an animal taking little bites out of a freshly killed rabbit. Two children whisper dark stories and dirty, childish love-words to each other as a grandfather lies dying and a terrifying sculpture presides. The last batch of short fiction that I read by Ducornet – her collection The One Marvelous Thing – tended to the precious, in my opinion. I much preferred “Wormwood” for its rawness, its closeness to nightmare or fever-dream.

Stephen King, “A Death” (2015)
Read for free online: The New Yorker

The jury took an hour and a half. “We voted to hang him on the first ballot,” Kelton Fisher said later, “but we wanted it to look decent.”

A spare Western tale of moral doubt and casual miscarriage of justice. I admired its extreme tautness of language, and darkly funny dialogue. I had to read it two or three times before I’d satisfied myself that I’d explored plot possibilities other than the most obvious one presented at the story’s end.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “Apollo” (2015)
Read for free online: The New Yorker

and

Rikki Ducornet’s “Bazar” (1991)
Available in the Chicago Review and in Ducornet’s collection The Complete Butcher’s Tales

These two get filed together on account of both being stories of repressed homosexual desire – one narrated by a Nigerian man revisiting his childhood friendship with his parents’ houseboy, and the other set in the heat and clutter of a bazaar in French Algeria shortly before its war for independence in the 1950’s.

“Apollo” is quietly tragic; disappointed affection turns into a moment of severance, of irreversible cruelty; this brings us back round to contemplate things initially unsaid by the the adult narrator. The story is also very much about class, and about the wary orbit that children maintain around their parents, and about reevaluating things seen at a distance (parents included).

Speaking of orbiting: Adichie relates in the accompanying interview that the etymology for “Apollo,” a colloquial term for conjunctivitis, might have to do with the Apollo-11 mission, and the American Academy of Optometry confirms so here. In the body of the story itself, no etymology is mentioned, and so I loved the term’s potent mysteriousness – its bittersweet glow, its intimations of an idealized, youthful homoeroticism, and of health and healing. (On revisiting the story, I noticed that the houseboy who preceded Raphael has the similarly suggestive name of “Hyginus” – also Greek, and having to do with health.)

Ducornet’s “Bazar” is almost explosively cruel by comparison – further explosions being foreshadowed by the impending Algerian War – though interspersed also with extremely funny dialogue between the bazar-owner and his bossy, canny American-expat friend. As with “Wormwood,” there’s a nightmarish viciousness to it; Ducornet’s trademark baroque language tumbles, slithers, lurches, and plunges among the crowded topography of the bazar, and the pitfalls of its proprietor’s psychology.