Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Summer Doldrums and the Leatherstocking Region

Try as I might, reading is just not working these days for me. I'm three-quarters done with The Three Musketeers, but I just can't close the deal. Tim Willocks' Memo from Turner is mocking me, as is still unfinished Holger Herwig book about the First Battle of the Marne. I'm headed into Leatherstocking country for the next week, and even with my four nephews around, I might be able to relax and get some things read. Note: Since I wrote this, I've started Caleb Carr's Surrender, New York and I'm digging it, so I got that going for me.

Venturing into the north, I will definitely get a good dose of frontier history in. We're planning to take a day trip to Rome, NY and hit both Fort Stanwix and Oriskany battlefield

As part of the British plan to sever New England from the rest of the colonies in 1777, an expedition under Barry St. Leger began marching down the Mohawk Valley toward Albany. On August 6th, a militia force under General Nicholas Herkimer, a son of two of the many German immigrants in the region (and one of whose brothers was serving with St. Leger), was ambushed by a mixed force of Iroquois, British soldiers, and local Tories led by New York-born Sir John Johnson. It was a brutal affair, filled with hand-to-hand combat among neighbors punctuated by a thunder storm and ended with over half the American force dead. Foremost among the British commanders were Mohawk chief, Joseph Brant and Loyalist ranger commander, John Butler.

Herkimer at Oriskany
Herkimer had been on his way to help relieve the siege of Fort Stanwix, but was forced to withdraw into the dilapidated Fort Dayton. A relief column under Benedict Arnold later relieved both Stanwix and Dayton. Herkimer would go on to die following the amputation of his leg, done both too late and too poorly.

 Col. Herkimer's position following the initial ambush
 Column marking the final rallying position of the militia after the thunderstorm
Looking into the ambush ravine. In 1777, all of this would have been wooded.

Park ranger at Fort Stanwix dressed as militia ranger giving musket 

 Western ditch of reconstructed Fort Stanwix

Looking at the southwestern bomb-proof entrance and two bunkhouses

Upstate New York was torn by warfare for centuries; between the Iroquois and their enemies, the French and British, and finally the British and the Americans. The Mohawk Valley saw massacres and guerrilla fighting up through the end of the Revolution. The savage frontier warfare served as some of Robert E. Howard's portrayal of the Pictish frontier in his Hyborian tales. I've long wanted to travel to the region and finally I'm getting the chance.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

A Lot of King and Pratchett and Cook

Between rounds of playing Civilization and emphatically not reading very much, my mind drifted to thoughts about which authors have I read the most books by. It was easy to figure out who they were, but, man, was I surprised when I added up just how many books of there's I'd read (and in many cases reread) over the last forty plus year. Between Stephen King, Terry Pratchett, and Glen Cook, I've read 100 books. Of all of them, the first I read was The Shining, way back in 1978 or 1979. Most of the rest I read as they came out or nearabouts.

Stephen King

  1. Carrie (1974) - good with even better movie made from it
  2. 'Salem's Lot (1975) - my favorite vampire book 
  3. The Shining (1977) - his best, with nary a wasted word
  4. The Stand (1978) - two times I tried but couldn't finish. bloated and surprisingly dull in parts. The beginning, though, man, oh, man.
  5. The Dead Zone (1979) - very good - how do you make Lee Harvey Oswald the hero? also, challenge me if you like, but Cronenberg's movie is the best King adaptation 
  6. Firestarter (1980) - disposable
  7. Pet Sematary (1983) - way overrated
  8. The Talisman (1984) w/Peter Straub - good enough
  9. IT (1986) - good parts mixed with very bad parts and waaaay too long
  10. The Tommyknockers (1987) - he can't remember writing this which I think is for the best
  11. The Dark Half (1989) - very good
  12. Insomnia (1994) - goodish but long and a little pat with its human villain
  13. The Regulators (1996) - not good
  14. Bag of Bones (1998) - solid if, again, pat in its villains
  15. Dreamcatcher (2001) - nuts and not really good, but big, stoopid fun
  16. From a Buick 8 (2002) - very good
  17. The Colorado Kid (2005) - infuriating fun about an unanswerable mystery 
  18. Cell (2006) - goodish, but feels like a over-long short story 
  19. Lisey's Story (2006)  - I found it more interesting than good, but decent enough. some very good non-fantastic parts of loss
  20. Duma Key (2008) - eh, but only because I still expect more 
  21. The Outsider (2018) - very good
  1. Night Shift (1978) - perfect
  2. Skeleton Crew (1985) - close to perfect
  3. Four Past Midnight (1990) - okay
  4. Nightmares & Dreamscapes (1993) - some good stuff 
  5. Hearts in Atlantis (1998) - as a longtime hearts player, I love this
  6. Everything's Eventual (2001) - okay
  7. Full Dark, No Stars (2010) - not bad at all

  1. Danse Macabre (1981) - important look at horror as a genre 
  2. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (2000) - helpful
King is the writer who almost single-handedly turned horror into a marketable genre. It wasn't by accident: his early works mix pulp roots with literary aspirations and eyes wide-open on the bestseller lists. He wasn't the first person to do this, but he was the most industrious and simply better than most of his rivals.

His first five novels (as much as I don't like The Stand, its importance to his career and the genre are undeniable. Most people I know who've read it totally dug it.) and first two story collections are forces that any examination of modern horror has to address. If you read horror and have somehow missed them it's best to rectify that.

There's a definite drop off in quality in the eighties due to addiction troubles (supposedly he has no memory of writing The Tommyknockers, though that just might be wishful thinking). As good as I think some of his later books are, they lack the immediacy and novelty of those first six books. Those early ones, though, man, oh, man are they fun.

PS: I just recently read his last novel, The Outsider, and it cooks. More than any of his other books that I can think of, it feels very much a part of the horror paperback original scene of the seventies and eighties - done really, really well. In these days of glittery vampires and torture porn gore, it's a really standout.

Still, it's not as much of a punch to the gut as his early books. I attribute that to the effect of decades, and decades of horror written by divers hands. When King kicked things off over forty years ago, if not the first explorer, he was definitely the most important conquistador in the lands of horror. The trails he opened and styles he conquered have long since been traveled and done to death. It's incredibly hard for new horror book to strike with the same potency of King's earliest books, even his own.

Terry Pratchett 
  1. The Colour of Magic (1983) - The fun begins...
  2. The Light Fantastic (1986) - and gets intensified
  3. Mort (1987) - Enter Death, resplendent in sable
  4. Equal Rites (1987) - Enter Three Witches
  5. Sourcery (1988) - Surprisingly eh
  6. Wyrd Sisters (1988) - The Witches get better
  7. Pyramids (1989) - Okay standalone
  8. Guards! Guards! (1989) - Enter Sgt. Vimes 
  9. Eric (1990) - Another surprisingly eh entry
  10. Moving Pictures (1990) - And yet another eh
  11. Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch (1990) w/Neil Gaiman - Not my cup of tea, though I'll watch the movie. I've watched the movie and it's as good as the material allows for.
  12. Witches Abroad (1991) - Terrific
  13. Reaper Man (1991) - Very (VERY) good
  14. Lords and Ladies (1992) - Better yet
  15. Small Gods (1992) - Heartbreaking and beautiful 
  16. Men at Arms (1993) - Great
  17. Interesting Times (1994) - Okay
  18. Soul Music (1994) - My least favorite, and yet it's still a good book
  19. Maskerade (1995) - Grand opera buffa
  20. Feet of Clay (1996) - Brilliant
  21. Hogfather (1996) - Very, very good
  22. Jingo (1997) - Good 
  23. Carpe Jugulum (1998) - My second favorite vampire novel
  24. The Last Continent (1998) - Rincewind in Discworld's Outback
  25. The Fifth Elephant (1999) - Great
  26. The Truth (2000) - Enter William de Worde
  27. The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents (2001) - Terrific. Ostensible young adult book that reads exactly the same as his adult ones.
  28. The Last Hero (2001) - Cohen the Barbarian's greatest ride
  29. Thief of Time (2001) - Hilarious retconning of the whole series
  30. Night Watch (2002) - The best City Guard book (which is say a lot)
  31. The Wee Free Men (2003) - Enter Tiffany Aching and the Nac Mac Feegles
  32. Monstrous Regiment (2003) - Very good
  33. A Hat Full of Sky (2004) - Tiffany gets better
  34. Going Postal (2004) - Enter Moist von Lipwig
  35. Thud! (2005) - Okay
  36. Wintersmith (2006) - Very good
  37. Making Money (2007) - Moister yet
  38. Unseen Academicals (2009) - I liked this but many didn't
  39. I Shall Wear Midnight (2010) - Tiffany and company go to Ankh-Morpork
  40. Snuff (2011) - The real end. an awful central concept and, I suspect, Pratchett's illness make this a bad book. As such, I thoroughly disliked Snuff and I have never been interested in reading Full Steam, the final book. I also suspect his daughter is the actual author of FS.

At one point (before JK Rowling's advent), Terry Pratchett was publishing between two and four books a year, and ten percent of all books sold in England were by him. Having read thirty-nine of forty Discworld books, I can tell you that there are almost no clunkers. Except for the morally dubious Snuff, the weakest of the series stand way above almost all other fantasy series I've read.

The Discworld books started as parodies of heroic fantasy but quickly developed into something far more ambitious. Unlike most fantasy settings, Pratchett's isn't stagnant, and many of the books follow the Discworld's social and technological evolution. The books aren't just comical. In them he explored some pretty heady ideas, though rarely with heavy hands and never without being extremely funny.

My favorite sub-series are the Guard books. They are love songs to Discworld's great city, Ankh-Morpork, which in turn is a stand-in for all the great cities of the West. They are as much about the dedication and sacrifice it takes to a city running as the sheer joy of living in one.

Glen Cook 

  1. A Shadow of All Night Falling (1979) - Enter Mocker and Bragi
  2. October's Baby (1980) - Things get crazier...
  3. All Darkness Met (1980) - and crazier yet
  4. The Fire in His Hands (1984) - Readable
  5. The Black Company (1984) - Enter the Company. A groundbreaker
  6. Shadows Linger (1984) - The best Black Company book
  7. With Mercy Toward None (1985) - Again, readable
  8. The White Rose (1985) - Good conclusion to first Black Co. trilogy
  9. Reap the East Wind (1987) - Disappointing
  10. Sweet Silver Blues (1987) - Great
  11. Bitter Gold Hearts (1988) - Greater
  12. An Ill Fate Marshalling (1988) - Very disappointing
  13. Cold Copper Tears (1988) - Very good
  14. Old Tin Sorrows (1989) - Best in the series and one of Cook's best
  15. Shadow Games (1989) - Okay
  16. The Tower of Fear (1989) - Very good standalone
  17. The Silver Spike (1989) - Good and bleak - sums up a lot of Cook - people suck
  18. Dreams of Steel (1990) - Alright
  19. Dread Brass Shadows (1990) - Good. At some point, around here, actually, these start to run together. They're still good, but less distinct from one another than the earlier installments
  20. Red Iron Nights (1991) - Good
  21. Deadly Quicksilver Lies (1994) - Good
  22. Petty Pewter Gods (1995) - Good
  23. Bleak Seasons (1996) - Alright
  24. She Is the Darkness (1997) - Alright
  25. Water Sleeps (1999) - Good
  26. Faded Steel Heat (1999) - Good
  27. Soldiers Live (2000) - A good, appropriately, sad farewell
  28. Angry Lead Skies (2002) - Good
  29. Whispering Nickel Idols (2005) - Good
  30. An Empire Unacquainted with Defeat (2008) - Stories; some great, several less so

Looking back at Glen Cook's work, there's no denying he's a very good storyteller.  Drawing on hard boiled writing as much as heroic fantasy, Cook is the writer who brought fantasy down into the dirt for the masses. I like it a lot (obviously). The results are often derided as flat, and against the more deliberately literary style of King and Pratchett's elaborate style, it can look very pale, but when it works, it's good and tough. The first three Black Company books (The Black CompanyShadows LingerThe White Rose) remain as smash-in-the-face brutal today as when they appeared. They also remain the best distillation of his strengths; If you don't like these, you probably won't like the rest of his catalogue, but if you do, you're in luck.

The problem with his work is that a lot of it's part of three long-running series. As with any serial work, it tends to be stretched out, often further than warranted, and its impact diminishes. Rereading the entire Black Company series this past summer did nothing to disabuse me of that. 

Before you tell me most of Pratchett's books belong to a series, let me remind you that within that there are several discrete shorter sequences (guards, witches, Rincewind, etc.). Each only ended up running about five or six books written over fairly long periods of time. 

There are eleven Black Company books, nine Dread Empire, and fourteen Garrett. None of the latter, for example, are markedly bad, but at some point, seven or eight in, a certain degree of blending takes over and it gets pretty hard to keep them all straight. It's not a bad thing - these make no claim to be anything other than - but it does make keep them separate in one's mind a bit of a chore at some point. 

I don't love a lot of the fantasy spawned in the wake of the Black Company. I mean the grim military series that litter the field. The modernisms that Cook popularized aren't so original anymore and just seem lazy and forced. The grim stuff, well, I've written a lot over the years about my boredom with it as its own genre, and, again, it reads lazy and forced. Many of the newer writers may be technically better, capable of finer prose, but I've found few who can match him for visceral storytelling. 


As I continue to get older - that's code to closer to being dead - I feel a little sad that I've read so many fantasy books and so little literature, or even just some other genres. I'm not denigrating King, Pratchett, and Cook, but it all looks so limited from June, 2019. There are so many books, so much other writing, so many authors, that I should be spending time with. I know there's no prize for doing this, but to miss out on so much seems like winning some sort of anti-prize. I mean, I'm pretty sure I'll never read all of Trollope's Chronicles of Barsetshire and I'll probably never get to Proust. It's a real mortality-confronter to understand that there are certain books I will just never read. If I want to accomplish anything - readingwise - I need to pick and choose. 

I've been struggling reading these days. It's happened before in my life, usually, like this time, after long periods of reading like mad. For the past five years, I've pushed myself to keep a regular column at Black Gate going and it feels like I've blown some sort of reading muscle. Instead of the fifteen or twenty books I'd have read by now in recent years I've reached a grand total of seven. I think things are getting back on track, but it's been an outright chore to read.  

Right now I'm trying to read that ur-text of swashbuckling stories, The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas. After it, I might get back to Fathers and Sons and maybe I'll finally pick up Lord Jim or something else dense by Conrad, maybe Nostromo. Oh, and I guess I'll finish Master and Commander. I really like it so far, but I put it down and got distracted and somehow didn't pick it back up straight away. 

I'm going away to the shore for week soon. Since I loathe the beach, I'll hang back in the rental house and read like crazy - ideally. In addition to the books above, I'd love to get to Memo From Turner, Tim Willocks' latest. Also, one or two more nautical books and a Golden Age mystery. Of course, based on my history, little of this will come to pass, I won't read half of what I want to, and I'll just play more games. 

Saturday, May 11, 2019

A Rage in Harlem (1957) by Chester Himes

Hank counted the stack of money. It was a lot of money – a hundred and fifty brand new ten-dollar bills. He looked at Jackson through cold yellow eyes.
“You give me fifteen C’s – right?”
He wanted it straight. It was strictly business.
He was a small, dapper man with mottled brown skin and thin straightened hair. He looked like business.
“That’s right,” Jackson said. “Fifteen hundred bucks.”
It was strictly business with Jackson too.
Jackson was a short, black, fat man with purple-red gums and pearly white teeth made for laughing, but Jackson wasn’t laughing. It was too serious for Jackson to be laughing. Jackson was only twenty-eight years old, but it was such serious business that he looked a good ten years older.
“You want me to make you fifteen G’s – right?” Hank kept after him.

In 1957, after having not found literary success despite writing several well-received novels, Chester Himes tried his hand at hardboiled crime fiction. Ultimately, he wrote nine crime stories set in Harlem, eight of which feature the dynamic duo, NYPD detectives Coffin Ed Johnson and Gravedigger Jones. In the first book, A Rage in Harlem, though, they are only secondary characters. The star of this book is Jackson, a deeply naive mortician's assistant trying to rescue his girlfriend Imabelle from a ruthless gang.

His credulity and love of from him the fact that the woman he's pursuing is part of the gang that conned him out of all his money. His complete, and completely unwarranted, devotion to her leads him into acts of criminality totally alien to the good-natured, churchgoing man. Himes' original title for Rage was The Five-Cornered Square, pointing out just how innocent Jackson was. Only the assistance of his twin brother Goldy, a heroin-addicted con artist who dresses as a nun, gives him any chance of success.

The series gets darker and bleaker as it progresses (the final, unfinished, book, Plan B, ended in total race war and Coffin Ed and Gravedigger taking opposite sides). A Rage in Harlem has a much lighter tone. It's a funny book - cynical and packed with random violence - but it's also funny. Much of that comes from black resistance to the arbitrary and capricious power of the white police force. 
The nag moved off in slow motion, impervious to Jackson’s blows. At that moment the junkman looked from the crowd to see if his property was safe and saw Jackson driving off in his cart. He looked at Jackson as though he didn’t believe it.
“Man, dass my wagon.”
He was an old man dressed in cast-off rags and a horse blanket worn like a shawl. He had a black woolen cloth wrapped about his head like a turban, over which was pulled a floppy, stained hat. Kinky white hair sprouting from beneath the turban joined a kinky white beard, grimy with dirt and stained with tobacco juice, from which peered a wrinkled black face and watery old eyes. His shoes were wrapped in gunny sacks tied with string. He looked like Uncle Tom, down and out in Harlem.
“Hey!” he yelled at Jackson in a high, whining voice. “You stealin’ mah wagon.”
Jackson lashed the nag’s rump, trying to get away. The junkman ran after him in a shuffling gait. Both horse and man moved so slowly it seemed to Jackson as though the whole world had slowed down to a crawl.
“Hey, he stealin’ mah wagon.”
A cop looked around at Jackson.
“Are you stealing this man’s wagon?”
“Nawsuh, dat’s mah pa. He can’t see well.”
The junkman clutched the cop’s sleeve.
“Ah ain’t you pa and Ah sees enough to see that you is stealing my wagon.”
“Pa, you drunk,” Jackson said.
The cop bent down and smelled the junkman’s breath. He drew back quickly, blowing. “Whew.”
“Come on and git in, Pa,” Jackson said, winking at the junkman over the cop’s head.
The junkman knew the code. Jackson was trying to get away and he wasn’t going to be the one to rat on him to a white cop.
This isn't a mystery, which constant comparisons of Himes to Chandler might have made you think it was. It's a surreal excursion through a mythical Harlem (Himes spent scant time there and wasn't fond of it), filled with larger-than-life characters fighting to survive in the face of poverty and racism, soap opera-level coincidences, and insane violence. Set against Harlem as a Boschean Hellscape, con artists con, thieves steal, and murderers murder.
Looking eastward from the towers of Riverside Church, perched among the university buildings on the high banks of the Hudson River, in a valley far below, waves of gray rooftops distort the perspective like the surface of a sea. Below the surface, in the murky waters of fetid tenements, a city of black people who are convulsed in desperate living, like the voracious churning of millions of hungry cannibal fish. Blind mouths eating their own guts. Stick in a hand and draw back a nub.
That is Harlem.
The farther east it goes, the blacker it gets.
East of Seventh Avenue to the Harlem River is called The Valley. Tenements thick with teeming life spread in dismal squalor. Rats and cockroaches compete with the mangy dogs and cats for the man-gnawed bones.
That they happen to star cops and criminals is a concession to economic demands. They are outraged and funny roars from a writer who felt himself forced to leave his home country for France in order to succeed as a writer and escape prospects limited by his race. 

In 1991 Bill Duke directed a disappointing version of A Rage in Harlem. While Forrest Whitaker is quite good at conveying Jackson's innocence, Gregory Hines as Goldy (and not making him a transvestite) is awful. Robin Givens is great as Imabelle, but none of it matters. While the film manages to walk an adequate line between thrills and comedy, it never rises to the psychotic heights, or depths, of the book.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Not Five of My Favorite Horror Books

A few weeks ago in a post entitled simply "Horror," Howard Andrew Jones asked what's the pleasure derived from the genre. Here's part of what I wrote in response:

   Pleasure might not be the right word, but I do enjoy the chills I get from a good horror tale. Some of us just like being scared, though perhaps only because we know it’s not real. I don’t want to experience real fear, but I do like a good fright or extended moment of haunting spookiness. Even the best horror isn’t fundamentally different from a jump scare. The trick someone like M.R. James or Laird Barron pulls off is fooling you long and well enough in to believing it’s something more than just a man in a mask screaming “Boo!”
   I’m also pulled in (and impressed) by the ability of good horror to make me feel uneasy and, if only for the length of a book, to believe in something I don’t – i.e. spooks and monsters.

We, at least I, want the frisson we get from being alone in the dark thinking something's lurking behind us. There's probably a neurochemical basis for enjoying the sensation of being scared. Jumping in my seat when Michael Myers emerged from the shadows or when Jack Torrance started swinging the roque mallet released something in me that was practically addictive. Call it chills or shivers, whatever you want, great horror produces a tangible effect on me that is oddly enjoyable.

What I don't want is the stomach-churn from torture porn like Cannibal Ferox or The Bighead. They're sadism marketed as entertainment and I don't have a taste for it. It's one thing to get some momentary thrill from non-existent ghosts, it's another to find thrills from humans torturing and murdering other humans, a thing that happens all the time in real life. Disagree if you must, but this sort of horror's not a hell of a lot better than the old car crash version of the National Enquirer. 

But enough pontificating, let's get to the books.

The Haunting of Hill House (1959) by Shirley Jackson

No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.
The Haunting of Hill House's opening paragraph is one of the most memorable and disturbing. We are presented with a house that looks normal, its walls plumb and doors hanging properly, but in its soul it's mad. The story that unfolds revolves around a question of sanity: is it the house or poor Eleanor Vance that is insane.

Without a doubt, this is my favorite haunted house book. Eleanor Vance joins an expedition to the infamous Hill House led by parapsychic researcher Dr. Montague. Inspired by the Society for Psychical Research's investigation of the Borley Rectory and other such studies, Jackson's story brings a disparate group of characters together to investigate the supposedly haunted mansion under scientific guidelines. It's something other books and movies have done since, but none with as much beautiful darkness and atmosphere. 

The first film of the book, The Haunting (1963) is the best haunted house movie, while the second, also called The Haunting (1999), is one of the worst. The first captures the unsettling atmosphere of the Jackson's novel while the second is overblown and features misplaced and extravagant special effects. The recent Netflix show, The Haunting of Hill House (2018) is inspired by the book but is not really based on it. It is, however, close to being very good.

The Shining (1977) by Stephen King

And in the bug, which moved upward more surely on the gentler grade, he kept looking out between them as the road unwound, affording occasional glimpses of the Overlook Hotel, its massive bank of westward-looking windows reflecting back the sun. It was the place he had seen in the midst of the blizzard, the dark and booming place where some hideously familiar figure sought him down long corridors carpeted with jungle. The place Tony had warned him against. It was here. It was here. Whatever Redrum was, it was here.

The first of the Overlook Hotel, the dark heart of The Shining is from the perspective of five-year old Danny Torrance. For those unaware of the book's basic setup, Jack Torrance, a recovered alcoholic with rage issue, is hired to be the winter caretaker for the hotel, a giant edifice located up in the Colorado Rockies. The place has a bad history (a previous caretaker took an axe to his family before killing himself most notably), but Jack needs the job and is hoping to use the isolation to help him get his novel done.

There's a lot less of the subtle atmospherics of Jackson's book, with King going for more in-your-face violence. Still, it works well at making you believe the Overlook is infested with haunts and foul secrets. I like a lot of King's books, but few still affect me as well as this one, It can still give me shivers reading it late at night with the lights turned low. Jack's fall into madness is also a lot more moving to me past middle-age then when I was a teenager.

I've read a lot of Stephen King's books and this one still strikes me as the most successful and the closest he's come to perfection. Right after the success of this book it's as if he never got edited again. The Stand and It are beloved by millions, but I see them as bloated and soggy. There isn't a wasted or extra word in The Shining. As good as many of his later novels are, very few of them are as tightly plotted and written as this one.

If you've seen Stanley Kubrick's 1980 movie, the book might come as a bit of a shock to you. The novel's Torrance senior isn't Jack Nicholson's twitchy, mad-from-the-get-go dry drunk. He's a man who has crawled up from a pit of rage and booze and is fighting hard to stay sober but he's sane, not nuts from the start like Nicholson's portrayal. I don't like the movie, first, as a fan of the book I disliked its lack of textual fidelity, and, secondly, I find Nicholson's performance overwrought and ultimately boring. There's no suspense, just a lunatic waiting for his moment to cut loose.

As much as I dislike Kubrick's movie, King seems to have disliked it even more. In 1997, he personally oversaw the production of a mini-series starring Steven Weber and Rebecca De Mornay. It's as bad as it is faithful to the book, which a whole lot.

Ghost Story (1979) by Peter Straub

What was the worst thing you've ever done? 
I won't tell you that, but I'll tell you the worst thing that ever happened to me ... the most dreadful thing ...

Decades ago, four old men did something awful. Now that sin has come calling for them. While it reads closer to the modern horror of his friend, Stephen King, Straub drew on the classic ghost stories of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry James, and M.R. James - to the point he gave two of his main characters their last names. Before starting the novel, he reread much of the classic supernatural tales, from Poe through Lovecraft.

Ghost Story is part of the mass market horror explosion of the seventies and early eighties. In the wake of Ira Levin's Rosemary's Baby (1967), Thomas Tryon's The Other (1971), William Peter Blatty's The Exorcist (1971), horror became a mainstream, marketable genre. Stephen King was the author who made it a monster. With Ghost Story, his third horror novel, it looked as if Straub would join King at the top of the world. Though he did become very successful, he never entered the public consciousness with anything like the ferocity and implacability of King.

Straub never scaled the same popular heights as King. His work is more consciously literary and he kept his production down to human limits. I'm not saying he's better than King, just different and less obviously commercial. I've only read six of Straub's novels versus over twenty of King's.

A lot of King's success is attributable to his deep affection for and engagement with pop culture. His stories are incredibly accessible - that's explicitly not an insult - whereas Straub's a less so. King doesn't occupy the same cultural space he did thirty years ago, but there was a time when everybody I knew had read at two or three books by King.

It's been a decade or more since I've read Ghost Story but it remains a potent part of my mental gallery of horror. Largely a story about telling stories, this is a significant work that seems more forgotten than it should be.

Presumably based on the success of Kubrick's The Shining, Hollywood threw a ton of money and talent at John Irvin's film, Ghost Story (1981). Starring Fred Astaire, Melvyn Douglas, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., John Houseman, I was pretty jazzed to see it when it came out. Unfortunately, it's not good. Aside from ditching much of the book, it looks like a tv-movie. I may not like Kubrick's movie, but it's still important and worth a view, Irvin's isn't.

The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All (2013) by Laird Barron

That buffalo charges across the eternal prairie, mad black eye rolling at the photographer. The photographer is Old Scratch's left hand man. Every few seconds the buffalo rumbles past the same tussock, the same tumbleweed, the same bleached skull of its brother or sister. That poor buffalo is Sisyphus without the stone, without the hill, without a larger sense of futility. The beast's hooves are worn to bone. Blood foams at its muzzle. The dumb brute doesn't understand where we are.

But I do.
-CP, Nov. 1925
from "Hand of Glory"

I bought this book, Barron's third collection of stories, for a $1.99 from Amazon. I only learned of it and Laird Barron at all from a post on Black Gate. I will be forever grateful for that post. Rooted in Algernon Blackwood, HPL, and other forebears of the genre, Barron is not only one of the best horror writers today, but he might be one of the best ever.

It's almost insulting to call the stories in this collection Lovecraftian. Yes, there's an original mythos that serves as connective tissue to stories that take place from the early twentieth century to its end. Yes, these are tales of cosmic horror where people learn the things they weren't meant to know. And yes, set largely in the Pacific Northwest, they have the same deep sense of place and history as the old gentleman from Providence's (his portrayal of Washington state's forests left me so unsettled, I found myself getting spooked hiking through Staten Island's paltry woods one dusk). Don't let any of that fool you or discourage you. Barron's stories may not be sui generis, but he writes in his own voice, giving a face to horrors in a new and potent way.

As much as Barron's concerned with the sort of existential dread that HPL was, he's got an equally deep concern for character. Men and women, straight and gay, old and young, Barron subjects all sorts of victims to the horrors of the void and plunges us into their psyches with a surgeon's precision. Character, especially the flaws and fault lines in there souls, are almost as much the focus of his work as the horrors.

I couldn't find the exact line, but there's one in the story "Hallucigenia" in his earlier collection, The Imago Sequence and Other Stories, which made me despair of ever trying to write fiction. In addition to be a superlative spinner of dark tales, he's writer of tremendous gifts (though, I'm finding myself a little disappointed with his newest collection, Swift to Chase (2016)). I don't love every story in A Beautiful Thing, but there's not one that isn't masterfully written and that will not leave dark designs carved in your brain.

The Dunwich Horror and Others by HP Lovecraft (1963)

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.
from "The Call of Cthulhu"

After Poe, Lovecraft is the first named horror writer I read. By which I mean, though I'd read some children's spooky stories collections, it was Poe, followed by Lovecraft, whom I knew by name and deliberately sought out.
The first HPL story I read was "The Festival." I was ten, almost eleven, and read it out loud to for me and my friend who staying over. It was the night of the great black out of 1977. While it isn't particularly scary, it managed to creep the two of us out. It was spooky enough that I quickly set out tracking down the rest of his stories. I've been a fan ever since.

It's a minor story of Lovecraft's, but it's a good introduction to the thick, almost dreamlike style of much of his work and his fictional universe, where strange, ancient goings-on transpire behind the scenes of legend-haunted New England towns.

This book contains the most essential of HPL's catalogue. Culled from almost twenty years of his writing, they span from his early pulp tales to the great cosmic horror tales his reputation rests on. If this is all you ever read by him, it'll be enough. 

In the Vault • (1925)
Pickman's Model • (1927)
The Rats in the Walls • (1924)
The Outsider • (1926)
The Colour Out of Space • (1927)
The Music of Erich Zann • (1922) 
The Haunter of the Dark • (1936) 
The Picture in the House • (1919)
The Call of Cthulhu • (1928) 
The Dunwich Horror • (1929) 
Cool Air • (1928) 
The Whisperer in Darkness • (1931) 
The Terrible Old Man • (1921) 
The Thing on the Doorstep • (1937) 
The Shadow Over Innsmouth • (1936) 
The Shadow Out of Time • (1936) 

Any self-respecting horror reader owes it to him or herself to have all four original Arkham House HPL collections on the shelf - The Dunwich Horror and Others, At the Mountains of Madness, Dagon and Other Macabre Tales, and The Horror in the Museum and Other Revisions. While I'm glad I have the revised editions done by ST Joshi, I sure wish I had the ones with the original covers by Lee Brown Coye and Gahan Wilson. Whatever, I have a full, hardcover set that I actually bought in Providence, so who am I to complain?

Thursday, February 7, 2019

The Happy Return by C.S. Forester

For five blood-soaked chapters of C.S.Forester's debut Horatio Hornblower novel, The Happy Return (1935) (Beat to Quarters in the US) the British frigate Lydia battles the Natividad, an old Spanish ship-of-the-line crewed by Nicaraguan rebels. For all of author Forester's tremendous success at recreating the wooden world of King George's navy during the Napoleonic Wars, it's that battle, as presided over by the brooding Hornblower, that got me. It's tense as hell and never once do you assume Hornblower, his crew, and his ship, are going to get out of it alive.

"For what we are about to receive--," said Bush, repeating the hackneyed old blasphemy quoted in every ship awaiting a broadside.
   Seconds seemed as long as minutes as the two ships neared. They were passing within a dozen yards of each other. Bow overlapped bow, foremast passed foremast and then foremast passed mainmast. Rayner was looking aft, and as soon as he saw that the aftermost gun bore on the target he shouted the order to fire. The Lydia lifted to the recoil of the guns, ears were split with the sound of the discharge, and then, even before the gale had time to blow away the smoke, came the Nativdad's crashing reply.
   It seemed to Hornblower as if the heavens were falling round him. The wind of a shot made him reel; he found at his feet a palpitating red mass which represented half the starboard side carronade's crew, and then with a thunderous crackling the mizzen mast gave way beside him.

Frigates of the British Royal Navy

The Happy Return begins with an espionage mission against Spain's Central American colonies. Hornblower has been sent to deliver arms and ammunition to a mad Nicaraguan rebel - and eliminate a much heavier, if antiquated, Spanish warship patrolling the eastern Pacific. His success against the enemy vessel leads to its capture and being handed over to the rebels. When Spain suddenly becomes England's ally, the state of affairs in the New World change drastically and that's when Hornblower and the 36-gun Lydia find themselves forced to fight the 50-gun Natividad once again, this time crewed not by dispirited colonial sailors, but by the same rebels they've just supplied, driven men with a competent captain.

Hornblower, on the surface, is a steely, determined commander. He paces the deck each morning, meticulously planning out the ship's and the crew's day. Of course, there's much more going on than it appears. Inside, he's constantly playing out the various outcomes of his mission and what the implications could be for his career. A commander of a minor ship, his fortunes can ebb and rise seemingly at the caprices of the vast and distant bureaucracy that directs the Royal Navy.
Back in the main cabin Hornblower stretched himself on the locker below the stern window and once more unfolded his secret Admiralty orders. He had read them so often that he almost knew them by heart, but it was prudent to make certain that he understood every word of them. They were comprehensive enough, in all conscience. Some Admiralty clerk had given his imagination loose rein in the wording of them. 
Hornblower's physically uneasy with much of the harsh discipline and blood common to naval warfare of the time. Still, he forces himself to rise up to the demands of his position, and it's in those times that the character of Hornblower shines. He actually is the superior commander everyone assumes he is all the time, but the reader has suspected he mightn't be. He's able to smother his worries and revulsion and bring his considerable tactical and command talents to bear and perform with cold and deadly brilliance.

There's also romance. When Spain becomes England's ally, Hornblower's able to revictual his ship in Panama. There he picks up Lady Barbara, the sister of Sir Arthur Wellesley. A married man, his gradual attachment to, and eventually falling in love with her is practically an existential crisis for the reserved captain. Of course it's made easier for Hornblower; his marriage is loveless, the result of a spur of the moment decision when he first shipped out. It's a bit of cheat on Forester's part, but when Hornblower and Lady Barbara are separated at the book's end, it's clearly not forever. Too often adventure story romances fall flat, but that's not the case here.

The Happy Return is a roaring adventure with a great, brilliant hero, tempered with self-doubt and admirable rectitude. You can smell the ocean and feel the Lydia swaying upon it. The cries of the wounded and maimed echo between the roar of the frigate's broadsides. Forester's storytelling is gripping and his portrayal of the shipboard life and combat feels true. It is exactly what I'm looking for from this sort of historical fiction - rousing adventure, detailed recreation of the period, and a hero worth following.

Once again, I'm angry and excited about discovering what looks to be a terrific series - angry that it's taken me so many years to finally start it and excited that I have a whole new bunch of books to read. While I'm going to take several detours before returning to Hornblower's adventures, I'm hoping to read the next two books, A Ship of the Line (1938) and Flying Colours (1938), sooner rather than later. They're a closely linked trilogy, really a single longer work, and I don't want to forget anything. 

My father was a fan of nautical adventures. He read C.S. Forester's Horatio Hornblower as a boy and later he read much Alexander Kent's Richard Bolitho series and then Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey & Maturin series. For whatever reason I got it into my head last year to read the first published book in each series. He liked the Hornblower books best (which is why I decided to start there), while he found some of O'Brian's books too talky for his tastes. Since I've heard the latter described as Forester meets Jane Austen, his qualms actually made them sound fine by me (if you haven't read anything by Austen you owe yourself the delightful pleasure of her company as soon as possible). Someday I'll do a post about my dad's taste in reading vs. my own (I've come to suspect in a lot of respects his regard for bad books was much higher than my own), but not now.

As I started doing a little research on Forester, O'Brian, and Kent, I discovered there are a huge number of authors of nautical adventures I've never even heard of. To this day, there are shelf loads of new books being written. If you doubt me, just check out the author list on the very cool Old Salt site. Some look really, really fun. I definitely want to check out James L. Nelson's short series about Isaac Biddlecomb, an American captain in the Revolution and Julian Stockwin's Kydd series about the rise of an impressed seaman through the ranks of the Royal Navy. Yeah, based on single book, I'm approaching this whole thing with my usual abundance of enthusiasm, but The Happy Return was just so much fun.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

A Century Ago

I started this back in November just before the Great War's centenary. My usual laziness coupled with my efforts to finish off my Black Gate obligations delayed its completion until now. It's not an especially focused piece of writing, but it does gather together several thoughts I've had on the war.

It's a good thing, however. I didn't expect to actually see Peter Jackson's astounding They Shall Not Grow Old. Fortunately, I did, so I can add some comments about it here.

I'm not exactly sure when I became aware of and fascinated by the terrible nature of WWI. It was probably around third or fourth grade when I found my dad's coffee table-history of the war by S.L.A. Marshall. It was the pictures that seared became seared into my brain, especially the one of a dead soldier in the mud. His head was just a skull and his limbs were bent in a grotesque parody of life. It's his hand, palm upturned, that for some unknown reason disturbed me the most. Skulls I had seen plenty of, from Halloween to movies, but the hand of a corpse, never.

I didn't read the book at first; I was content to stare at the hundreds of pictures. There were photos - some, incredibly, unposed - as well as propaganda and newspaper drawings. There were cartoons by a soldier on the Salonika Front and terrifying paintings by men trapped in the endless hell of the Western Front.

German soldier on the Western Front
When I finally read the book it proved far more horrible than the pictures. For those unfamiliar with the history and nature of the First World War, it's a tale of unremitting horror suffused with stupidity and arrogance. Fundamentally, it's the culmination of Western hubris, that somehow this great war could be fought and won without completely destroying the society that gave rise to it. For nearly fifty years, the time between the Prussian defeat of France in 1870, the Great Powers of Europe had direct avoided war with one another, but they seemed to be always testing each other's mettle. Oh, they backed each other's opponents to varying degrees, but real war with each other was avoided.

Australian watching Greek picking lice near Salonika

1917 - Loyal Russian soldier attempts to drive his comrades back to the front
On the other hand, the Russians and Japanese learned the nature of modern industrial in 1905, where artillery and machine guns slaughtered men by the thousands. These lessons do not seem to have been learned by any of the men who would command the armies on the Western Front only a decade later. Within weeks of the First World War's start in 1914 they were already beginning to feed their men into the bottomless meatgrinder of machine gun-swept battlefields.
British Infantry at the Mons-Conde Canal - 1914
I've recently read that casualty rates for the Great War really weren't higher than those of the Second World War. I'm not sure I believe that (except for maybe on the Russian Front and some of the Pacific island assaults), but the moments of suicidal attack and counterattack that define the 1914-1918 Western Front were much rarer in the later war.

The Western Front seems like war stripped down to an elemental level. There is only mud and ruins, gun and shell fire. The landscape, crisscrossed with trenches and fields of barbed wire, is lifeless and torn up. Soldiers exist in a darkling world lit by tracers and explosions. It is as the real world had been banished and only the muck of No Man's Land, stalked by death remained. As I've learned more, I've become equally interested in other areas of operations during the war (East Africa, the Caucasus, Poland, etc.). It's the West, though, that still remains the predominant image in my mental image of the war.

British infantry and tank at Cambrai - 1917

There are numerous single-volume histories of the First World War and I've read at least three of them. While adequate at providing information, I didn't like Martin Gilbert's The First World War. Liddell Hart's The Real War is concise. It's interesting because it partially serves as a platform for exploring the personal observations he made of static warfare and helped inspire his interwar theories of mobile warfare. Finally, and my favorite, is John Keegan's The First World War. He was a good writer, and he does a good job exploring the war outside of the usual Western Front that tends to dominate public consciousness of the war. You will still need to read campaign-specific works for the Italian or East African fronts, but Keegan is better on them than Liddell Hart. Oh, and SLA Marshall's isn't too bad, but it's really worth having for the pictures and isometric battle maps.

I'm only just starting to get into campaign specifics of the war. The first I remember reading was, that master of all things British army, Byron Farwell's splendid The Great War in Africa, 1914–1918. A short book, it covers all various efforts to conquer the German colonies in Africa - Kamerun, Namibia, and Tanganyika. The first were relatively short (ten months and nineteen months), but that in Tanganyika lasted two weeks longer than the entire First World War. The German commander, Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, with a force of never more than 14,000 men, tied down hundreds of thousands of Allied troops that could have all been used elsewhere. Farwell, surprisingly, an American, wrote numerous fast paces histories of the Britain's colonial wars, but this is still my favorite of his works.

A few years ago I read and reviewed Alistair Horne's classic study of Verdun from a Francocentric perspective: The Price of Glory. If you haven't read my piece, go HERE. It's a powerful book and I recommend it.

Finally, I'm still working through Holger Herwig's The Marne, 1914: The Opening of World War I and the Battle that Changed the World. Another good book, it covers a lot of ground, from the German and French preparations for war, to the actual campaign, following those two armies as well as the British and, to a lesser degree, the Belgian. I'm reading it as I'm also reading Geoffrey Wawro's The Franco-Prussian War about the 1870 conquest invasion of France. It's extremely interesting setting the two campaigns side by side, seeing the difference in tactics and strategies, and especially how French experience in 1870 dramatically affected their 1914 plans.

None of the histories I've read compare in ramming home the brute reality of attrition combat on the Western Front as Ernst Jünger's Storm of Steel. It's a gut-punch of a read. He was wounded fourteen times, including five times by bullets. He fought in the Somme Campaign, the battles of Arras, Passchendaele, and Cambrai. He led a company in the 1918 Spring Offensive and was shot through the chest. And for all the gore and death surrounding him, he never seemed to fail to find a certain level of deep excitement from combat and surviving one near-death experience after another. 
As the storm raged around us, I walked up and down my sector. The men had fixed bayonets. They stood stony and motionless, rifle in hand, on the front edge of the dip, gazing into the field. Now and then, by the light of a flare, I saw steel helmet by steel helmet, blade by glinting blade, and I was overcome by a feeling of invulnerability. We might be crushed, but surely we could not be conquered.
 Ernst Jünger

Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front is always presented as the great anti-war novel of the Great War. It's been ages since I've read it, by my memories of it are that it is a solid read and a powerful condemnation of war. I always assumed it was semi-autobiographical and based on his wartime experiences. 

When reading about comparisons between the two books, I was surprised to learn Remarque, unlike Jünger, only spent a few weeks in combat. That fact doesn't take away from the strength of AQotWF as a work. The almost completely opposite reaction to the war on the part of someone who lived through far more of it, on the other hand, for me at least, makes Jünger's memoir a far more interesting one. Remarque's novel is the reaction of a civilian to the war, while Jünger's book is a soldier's.

I've also read Manfred von Richtofen's (the Red Baron) heavily censored autobiography, Der rote Kampffleiger (The Red Fighter Pilot). My memory of it reflects the Wikipedia entry:
The 1933 edition of Der Rote Kampfflieger appears to paint a much more accurate portrait of von Richthofen than the 1917 edition. It contains passages most unlikely to have been inserted by an official editor: "I am in wretched spirits after every aerial combat. I believe that [the war] is not as the people at home imagine it, with a hurrah and a roar; it is very serious, very grim."
I'm curious what it would be like rereading it today, but I doubt I will. As you'll see below, there's just so much more that I haven't read yet. 

There are several other novels and memoirs of the Great War I want to read. Henri Barbusse, a French novelist, spent a year in combat units before being invalided out to a behind-the-lines clerical post. Praised in its day, later attacked as being filled with inventions, his 1916 novel, Le Feu (Under Fire), looks interesting if only because it provides the often neglected perspective of the French poilius (a slang term for infantrymen that translates to "hairy ones"). Robert Graves' Goodbye to All That and Siegfried Sassoon's Memoirs of an Infantry Officer describe the war from a pair of British officer's perspectives. I don't know if there're books by Italian or Russian soldiers, but Jaroslav Hasek's comic novel, The Good Soldier Svejk tells the story of a buffoonish Czech soldier in the Austro-Hungarian army. That's a big shelf full of books to read, and maybe I'll get to some of them this year.

Films of the First World War are fairly few, but many of them are really good.  The most notable are among some of the best films ever made. All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) and La Grande Illusion (1937). The first is a moving adaptation of Remarque's novel. It stars Lew Ayres and is more brutal and honest than a lot of later war films. The second is about a group of French officers taken prisoner by the Germans and their relationship with the German commander. It's been a bit since I've seen either one so I feel a rewatch coming on.

The best WWI film I'm familiar with is Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory (1957). While based on Humphrey Cobb's novel, its story of the execution of French soldiers for supposed cowardice ultimately comes from a real incident. I'm generally not a fan of Kubrick, but with Kirk Douglas on hand and a script initially by Jim Thompson, this is a movie that will slam you against a wall, wring you out, and leave you gasping for breath. Less the indictment of war it's usually presented as, it's a damning portrayal of bureaucracy and our lust for prestige and reward.

Finally, as I mentioned at the very beginning, I saw Peter Jackson's film, They Shall Not Grow Old. If you aren't aware, he took century old film from the British Imperial War Museum and made a movie out of it. He slowed it down, cleaned it up, colorized it, added sound and voices to it (the latter with the help of forensic lip readers), and over the top added interviews with British veterans. Footage and stories aren't presented in exact chronological order. Jackson didn't set out to tell a specific story, but instead recreate the general experiences of a British soldier from the declaration of war, through enlistment and training, combat, and the return to the UK.

I cannot urge anyone enough to go see this film. Jackson set out to bring men long dead to life and succeeded far more powerfully than I expected him to be able to. The only thing missing is the stink of death. Restoring voices to these men is one of the greatest gifts that can be given to the dead and I'll be forever grateful to Jackson for doing it in this masterpiece.

Every crime Jackson committed against JRR Tolkien (as well as each he seemed to have committed against Philip Reeve) has been made up for with this movie. If you have the slightest interest, hell, if even if you have none, avail yourself of any chance to see They Shall Not Grow Old. It will move you and leave you exhausted. I'm not sure when it will be available on Blu-ray, but it will be back in the theaters on next week on the 21st.

So, if there's a theme here, it's that there's been a tremendous amount written and filmed about the 1914-1918 war. I've read a lot of it but not nearly enough to satisfy my desire to understand the war as much as one who didn't fight in it and one who is a century removed from it can. In the broken state of Russia, in the ever-present fear of Germany, in the ethnic enmity that lays over most of the Balkans, and in so many other places, the shadow of the First World War remains. It's greatest legacy should be that even when society has reached a supposed apex of culture and civilization that it can all be squandered in a orgy of violence the likes of which had never been seen before.