Tuesday, September 17, 2019

The New York Frontier in the Revolution

Looking down the Mohawk Valley
Between the Adirondack Mountains to the north and the Catskills to the south, the Mohawk River runs eastward for 149 miles to the Hudson River. At its headwaters near modern-day Rome is the Great Carrying Place, a spot where boats could be portaged to the Wood River and gain access to Lake Ontario and the interior of North America.

During the French and Indian War (1754-63), the French capture of Fort Oswego on the shore of Lake Ontario opened the rich farmland of the valley and the homes of the British-allied Mohawk nation to military threat. The valley survived the war mostly intact. It was a very different story twelve years later in the American Revolution.

A Plan to Strangle the Revolution

The Tories said 1777 "had three gallows in it" for the resemblance of the sevens to that means of execution. For a time in the summer of that year it looked as if the British might succeed in splitting the colonies and killing the revolution. 

General William Howe, Commander in Chief, North America, suggested a plan to cut off patriot-heavy New England from the rest of the colonies by marching 10,000 troops up the Hudson Valley from New York City and seizing Albany.  Split along the Hudson, in the regions to the south, starved of patriotic fervor, the revolution might suffocate and die. 

When Philadelphia, the rebel colonies' capital, became too-tempting a target, Howe abandoned this scheme and instead marched south. That decision resulted in the battles of Brandywine and Germantown, two of the biggest of the war and the loss of the American capital. What it didn't do was change the path of the war.

Gen. John Burgoyne

The Hudson Valley

About the same time Howe was changing his mind regarding the march on Albany, General John Burgoyne made a similar proposal to sever New England from the rest of the colonies, but from the opposite direction. He would march 8,000 men south from Quebec along Lakes Champlain and George, and then along the Hudson. The goal was the same as Howe's had been: Albany. There the two British forces would join up.
Simultaneously with Burgoyne's expedition, Colonel Barry St. Leger was to march from Fort Oswego down the Mohawk Valley towards Albany. The valley, sparsely populated and split at least evenly between patriots and Tories, was a rich source of food to Washington's army. 

Burgoyne's dreams were broken at Saratoga by an army led on paper by General Horatio Gates, but on the field more by Benedict Arnold. In retrospect, the British operation seemed doomed from the start - thousands of men trekking through the wilderness of New York with only a tenuous supply line back up the lakes to Canada. Expecting to move mostly over water, sufficient wagons for the overland-trek from the bottom of Lake George to Albany and drivers weren't procured until late, delaying the army's march. Ultimately, it took three months to reach Saratoga.

It must have been eerie for Burgoyne's army when it set off down Lake Champlain. While Indians and Europeans had used the lakes to travel for centuries, the region was not far removed from virgin forest. To have been one of 8,000 men moving by boat and then foot, through vast and untenanted wilderness would have unnerved the heck out of me. 

Burgoyne's supply issues were highlighted a month before the first battle of Saratoga, Freeman's Farm, when a Hessian foraging detachment was defeated near Bennington, Vermont. The American victory boosted morale, leading to more militia men joining General Gate's force and the loss to Burgoyne of nearly a thousand troops, half of them regulars.

The Battle of Freeman's Farm on Sept. 19th, ended with the British in command of the field but deprived of six hundred men. By the time of the second battle, Bemis Heights, on Oct. 7th, Burgoyne's army had been whittled down by desertions and sickness while Gates' army had only grown. The second battle opened with a British attack that failed, followed by an American one that captured pivotal portions of the British fieldworks. A week later, Burgoyne surrendered to Gates, and marched his remaining soldiers into captivity. The British surrender, coupled with Washington's continued survival, was what convinced the French to begin serious negotiations with the rebels to enter the war against Britain.

The Mohawk Valley

Johnson negotiates
with the Mohawk
On July 25, almost two months after Burgoyne left Montreal, St. Leger with about 2,000 men - a mixed force of regulars, Canadian and Tory militia and Iroquois left Fort Oswego. The plan was to strike quickly and take Fort Stanwix, seize control of the portage then secure the Mohawk Valley before marching to Albany.

When the Revolution began British control of Western New York seemed a forgone fact. For years, the region had been under the gruff, intelligent command of Sir William Johnson, Superintendent of Indian Affairs for the northern district. A hero of the French and Indian War, he spoke the Mohawk language and lived with Molly Brant, sister of Mohawk leader, Joseph Brant. The Indians, in particular, trusted him. Unfortunately, in the summer of 1774, he died. His son, John Johnson inherited his lands and titles and his nephew (and son-in-law), Guy Johnson, took over his duties as Superintendent. Neither had the old man's skills.

Johnson Hall, Johnson, NY
The Johnson cousins were unable to organize sufficient militia forces to keep control of the region west of Albany. A significant number of the 8,000 settlers in the region were Dutch and Palatinate Germans and the had a strong dislike for the high-handed ways of the Johnsons and their Iroquois friends. Here's an 1877 article by  Harold Frederic from Harper's that presents a detailed look at the maneuvering that took place in the first year of the war that lead most of the loyalists to flee to Canada. Sir John Johnson would return to New York in the summer of 1777, attached as an officer in St. Leger's column.

St. Leger had been lead to believe capturing Fort Stanwix would be easy. Instead, the American forces under Colonel Peter Gansevoort (Herman Melville's maternal grandfather), were stronger and better prepared than expected. Prepared for the British attack, the Americans had already sabotaged the roads to delay St. Leger's march. Gansevoort then hunkered down and waited for reinforcements.

Fort Stanwix was built by the British between 1758 and 1762. Occupied and renamed Fort Schuyler by the Americans in 1776, it burned down in 1781. In the mid-seventies, the National Park Service decided to rebuild the fort. Today, instead of a lonely, wilderness outpost, Fort Stanwix stands in the middle of downtown Rome, NY, an old canal port that saw its best days sixty years ago. Standing on the parapets, if you look into the fort's interior, again, it's possible to imagine yourself two and half centuries back. Then a car honking breaks the spell and it's today once more. 

Fort Stanwix from above
As soon as word of St. Leger's movements spread across Western New York, militia began forming across the region. While a larger body under Benedict Arnold gathered at Albany, 800 men of the Tryon County militia marched to relieve the fort. Under the command of General Nicholas Herkimer they were ambushed at Oriskany on August 6. A bloody mess of a battle, fought at close quarters, hundreds of Americans were killed. It's a testimony to Herkimer's character that, despite being severely wounded, a wound from which he'd die a few days later, he was able to reform his men and eventually get them to the relative safety of Fort Dayton (here's an article on the search for the fort's remains by the Herkimer County Historical Society). 

Oneida warriors vs. Tory militia 
Though surrounded by wood, most of the Oriskany battlefield park's grass is neatly mown and the trees less dense than in 1777. Still, if you walk down to the edge of the ravine where Herkimer's soldiers were ambushed, it's easy to imagine the sound of war cries, musket fire, and the screams of the dying and wounded.

I was there around the same time of the year and it was hot and muggy. It's only about seven or eight hundred feet from where the ambush started to the where Herkimer rallied his men, but it's upward, out of a steep ravine and up a slight incline. Militia during the Revolution had a habit of breaking pretty quickly when they took even light losses. To have made that move under fire, having already taken hundreds of losses, is a remarkable achievement.

Looking east toward the ambush ravine
While the bulk of the British and Indian force was attacking Herkimer's column, Gansevoort seized the chance to strike a blow. Colonel Marinus Willett and 250 men sortied from Fort Stanwix and ravaged the British encampment and destroyed much of the Indian warriors' possessions. The latter event led to many of the Iroquois leaving the siege and returning to their villages.

The siege ended when Arnold arrived with a relief column of 700 men. Insecure in the ability of his force to defeat St. Leger on the field, Arnold sowed disinformation in his enemy's camp leading him to believe there were many more Americans than there really were. With his brother held as a hostage, Loyalist prisoner, Hon Yost Schuyler, along with an Oneida warrior, was sent into the British lines to convince them Arnold led an overwhelming force. On August 22, St. Leger broke camp and retreated to Lake Ontario.

The Burning of the Valleys
After the disaster at Saratoga, the British decided to unleash the Indians and commence a guerrilla war on the western colonial frontier. Mohawk leader, Joseph Brant, and Loyalist irregular commander, John Butler were ordered to recruit soldiers and begin raiding the settlements and farms of the Mohawk, Susquehanna, Delaware, and Upper Hudson Valley. This was war up close and personal. For the Indians and Loyalists, it was a war against the people intent on driving them from their homes. For the Americans it was a fight to hold on to the land they were colonizing. Largely fought by irregulars, it meant ambush and terror were common. Scalping was a common practice by all sides. Where earlier the war in New York had been fought largely by armies facing each other in the field, it was now carried on by small bodies of men ranging killing soldiers and civilians alike.
Joseph Brant

Throughout 1778, forces from both sides raided and destroyed the other's settlements. In May, Brant and a force of nearly 300 men attacked the village of Cobleskill. In July, Butler and the Seneca war chief, Cornplanter, ravaged the Wyoming Valley in Pennsylvania and killed over 300 Americans. In September, Brant struck again, burning out nearly 700 settlers around the New York town of German Flatts. Finally, in November. a force of Indians and Loyalists attacked the New York village of Cherry Valley. It's come down in history as the Cherry Valley Massacre. The Seneca warriors, it is alleged, particularly targeted civilians, leaving at least thirty dead by the raid's end.

Wyoming Valley
The British actions precipitated drastic responses from the Americans. In October, the 4th Pennsylvania Regiment marched north into New York and burned down the Mohawk villages of Unadilla and Onaquaga. The towns had evacuated ahead of the soldiers' arrival, but the loss of the towns infuriated the Iroquois and helped precipitate the frenzy at Cherry Valley. 

Cherry Valley
By 1779, thousands of settlers had seen their farms burned and been evacuated from the frontier. Regions that Washington relied on to feed his army were devastated. There seemed to be no end to the Indian and Loyalists raids, some reaching as far as Vermont. Seeing no alternative, General George Washington order his staff to organize a campaign against the Iroquois and their allies and take "the war home to the enemy to break their morale."

Orders of George Washington to General John Sullivan, at Head-Quarters (Wallace House, New Jersey) May 31, 1779
The Expedition you are appointed to command is to be directed against the hostile tribes of the Six Nations of Indians, with their associates and adherents. The immediate objects are the total destruction and devastation of their settlements, and the capture of as many prisoners of every age and sex as possible. It will be essential to ruin their crops now in the ground and prevent their planting more.I would recommend, that some post in the center of the Indian Country, should be occupied with all expedition, with a sufficient quantity of provisions whence parties should be detached to lay waste all the settlements around, with instructions to do it in the most effectual manner, that the country may not be merely overrun, but destroyed.But you will not by any means listen to any overture of peace before the total ruinment of their settlements is effected. Our future security will be in their inability to injure us and in the terror with which the severity of the chastisement they receive will inspire them.
Sullivan victorious at Newtown
Under the command of General John Sullivan, over 3,000 soldiers marched into the Iroquois homeland in Western New York and burned out at least forty Indian towns, much of their crops, and drove nearly 5,000 people into exile in Canada. The one major engagement, the Battle of Newtown on August 29 was an American victory, but a minor one. Most of the Iroquois warriors had already fled the region ahead of Sullivan's force.

Sullivan's Campaign against the Iroquois

Old Stone Fort - attacked on 10/17/1780
The loss of the Indian villages did not entirely stop Indian raiding through the end of the war. The attacks were less widespread than in earlier years, focusing on the Mohawk and Schoharie Valleys. In  August 1780, the town of Minden was attacked and destroyed. In October of the same year, at the Battle of Klock's Field, 1,500 men under General Robert Van Rennselaer defeat 1,000 under Sir John Johnson and Joseph Brant. The victory, though, hadn't come in time to prevent the destruction of a twenty-mile long region between Stone Arabia and Fort Hunter. 

The next year, Marinus Willet, veteran of Fort Stanwix, defeated a force of British regulars and Loyalist militia at Johnstown. It was one of the last battles in the Northern Theater of the Revolution. During Willet's pursuit of the retreating British toward Lake Oneida, John Butler's son, Walter was killed. 

After the War

John Butler
With the death of Walter Butler, one sees the death of the Loyalist fight to maintain control of New York. John Butler would end his life a prominent landowner and politician in Ontario. Sir John Johnson would end up in Quebec and become the Head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs for Lower Canada. I imagine the greater number of Loyalist settlers remained in Canada as well.

Only Joseph Brant attempted to continue the war against the Americans. He kept fighting in 1782, but by then, the war clearly lost with Cornwallis' surrender at Yorktown, the British refused to supply him anymore. Eventually, he too, would end up in Canada, an exile vainly attempting to rebuild his New York homeland. He tried to get all the Iroquois emigrants to settle near him as well as his old Loyalist neighbors. 

Brant also tried to forge an alliance between the tribes of the Ohio Valley, land he, and all of the tribes inhabiting it, felt had been unfairly ceded to the Americans by the British. When war finally came in 1785, despite appeals by the Western Indian Confederacy, Brant refused to bring the Iroquois into the war. He knew the British would provide no support so war might mean the end of his people. Instead, he watched the Confederacy, one of the last Indian powers in the northern United States fall in defeat at Fallen Timbers in 1795. Brant himself would live another twelve years, dying in Ontario, hundreds of miles from where he was born.

By 1825, any of the war's participants would have seen a drastically different region from the sparsely settled one they'd fought across. The Iroquois Confederation was no more. Many of its people had fled to Canada. Even the American-allied Oneida tribe saw most of its people migrate to Wisconsin. The Erie Canal had opened, linking the East Coast to the Great Lakes and the interior of the United States. Cities like Rome and Rochester sprang up, bringing people and industry. The original American frontier was gone.

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?