Tag Archives: short story collection

German Stories and Tales: Ed. by Robert Pick (Part I)

As part of my 2017 TBR project, I committed to read 48 books that I’d bought any time prior to January 1st. One of the books that made the cut is German Stories and Tales edited by Robert Pick. This paperback was given to me in 1987, but it was published more than 20 years prior to that: 1966. I mention the date of the publication as a couple of the authors whose stories appear in the collection were still alive in 1966. It was eerie reading about Alexander Lernet-Holenia in the present tense, living in “Vienna and Sankt Wolfgang, Upper Austria,” and Hermann Kesten living in NYC.

German stories and tales

So here I am thirty years after being given this book, finally reading it. This is such a modest looking little paperback but what treasures it contains:

Youth, Beautiful Youth by Hermann Hesse
Kannitverstan by Johann Peter Hebel
An Episode in the Life of the Marshal de Bassompierre by Hugo von Hofmannsthal
Lukardis by Jakob Wassermann
Krambambuli by Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach
Cardiac Suture by Ernst Weiss
The Message that Failed by Moritz Heimann
Rock Crystal by Adalbert Stifter
The Bachelor’s Death by Arthur Schnitzler
Unexpected Reunion by Johann Peter Hebel
Mona Lisa by Alexander Lernet-Holenia
The Picnic of Mores the Cat by Clemens Brentano
Zerline, the Old Servant Girl by Hermann Broch
The Friend in the Closet by Hermann Kesten
The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka
A Little Legend of the Dance by Gottfried Keller
Death in Venice by Thomas Mann
The Hussar by Johann Peter Hebel

I’ve never read Herman Hesse although I’ve looked at, and passed on, his books many times. Youth, Beautiful Youth is a wonderful bitter-sweet short story that captures the feeling of lost youth. The story is told in retrospect, by Hermann, a man who recalls his visit home. He’s been away for a few years and has employment lined up for the autumn. This then is his last summer before settling down, possibly permanently, so this is an auspicious visit home:

With creeping caution the train descended the hill in great winding curves, and with each turn the houses, streets, river, and gardens of the town below came closer and grew more distinct. Soon I could distinguish the roofs and pick out the familiar ones; soon, too, I could count the windows and recognize the stork nests. And while childhood and boyhood and a thousand precious memories of home were wafted toward me out of the valley, my sense of arrogant triumph at the homecoming slowly melted away. My desire to make a big impression upon all the people down there yielded to a feeling of grateful astonishment. Homesickness, which in the course of the years had ceased to trouble me, assailed me powerfully in this last quarter-hour. Every clump of broom near the station platform and every familiar garden fence became strangely precious to me, and I asked each to forgive me  for having to be able to forget it and get along without it for so long. 

It’s a wonderful carefree summer with the narrator taking long walks, reading, setting off fireworks with his brother Fritz, and falling in love. The summer stretches out far ahead, and yet it ends all too soon.

And as all loveliness and sweetness is mortal and has its destined end, day after day of this summer, too, slipped through my fingers-this summer which in memory seems to have brought my youth to a close.

This summer is a moment in time–a moment that will never be repeated. Hermann presses memories and scenes into his mind where they remain even though the world Hermann knew passed away. There’s the sense that something happened after the narrator left–was it WWI? And here is how the story ends.

As the train approached our garden, I caught sight of a powerful blood-red flare. There stood my brother, Fritz, holding a Bengal light in each hand. At the very moment that I waved to him and rode by, he sent a skyrocket shooting straight up into the air. Leaning out, I saw it mount and pause, describe a gentle arc, and vanish in a rain of red sparks.

Translated by Richard and Clara Winston.

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Filed under Fiction, Hesse Hermann, Wasserman Jakob

Crimson Snow: Winter Mysteries. ed. by Martin Edwards

“It’s the bloke who spends the night in the haunted chamber who always cops it in the neck.”

Crimson Snow, a collection of crime stories set around the Christmas season is a perfect companion read to Mystery in White. Short story collections are a wonderful way to ‘try out’ new authors, and in the case of Crimson Snow, I had a reunion with Margery Allingham and met some new (to me) interesting authors. And here’s the line-up:

The Ghost’s Touch: Fergus Hume

The Chopham Affair: Edgar Wallace

The Man with the Sack: Margery Allingham

Christmas Eve: S.C. Roberts

Death in December: Victor Gunn

Murder at Christmas: Christopher Bush

Off the Tiles: Ianthe Jerrold

Mr Cork’s Secret: Macdonald Hastings

The Santa Claus Club: Julian Symons

Deep and Crisp and Even: Michael Gilbert

The Carol Singers: Josephine Bell

Solution to Mr Cork’s Secret: (author’s solution and two winning entries)

I shan’t cover every story in the review, but will instead focus on some favourites. The collection itself presents a pleasant variety with private citizens, an unpaid PI, and a few policemen in the mix. While there’s a range of stories, I found myself really enjoying the blend of voices here.

crimson-snow

I’ve been meaning to read Fergus Hume’s The Mystery of the Hansom Cab for years, so I was delighted to read his short story, The Ghost’s Touch, in which the narrator, Doctor Lascalles is invited by an Australian friend, Frank Ringan to spend Christmas at the “family seat near Christchurch.” Frank, whose father made his fortune in the “gold-digging days”  is the wealthy member of the family, but the “head of the family” is Frank’s cousin impoverished Percy Ringan. Alarm bells ring in the mind of any self-respecting crime reader when we learn that the Ringan cousins have made their wills in each other’s favour.

Frank is extremely proud of the ancestral estate and “the position and antiquity of his family,” so he’s thrilled to spend a traditional English Christmas at the ancestral estate at Ringshaw Grange.

It was a wonderful old barrack of a place, with broad passages, twisting interminable like the labyrinth of Daedalus; small bedrooms furnished in an old-fashioned manner; and vast reception apartments with polished floors and painted ceilings. 

At Ringshaw Grange, however, things begin to go wrong when there’s an unexplained fire in Frank’s bedroom and he’s moved to the notorious haunted chamber, the Blue Room. …

Edgar Wallace’s The Chopham Affair was another pleasant surprise. In the introduction, Martin Edwards states that while “subtlety was not” Wallace’s strongest point, “his short stories have arguably stood the test of time.”  The Chopham Affair, a story of blackmail and murder, was excellent, and this is how it begins:

Lawyers who write books are not, as a rule, popular with their confrères, but Archibald Lenton, the most brilliant of prosecuting attorneys, was an exception.

Off the Tiles from Ianthe Jerrold is a short story with a twist as it ends not so much with a solution (which does occur) as with an observation on the unwavering consistency of human behaviour. The story is an investigation into the death of a woman who appears to have fallen off of her roof. Hostilities exist between the dead woman and her neighbours and the dead woman’s sister insists that murder has occurred.

The Man with the Sack from Margery Allingham was a delight. It’s a story in which we find poor Albert Campion roped into being an unpaid PI during a Christmas gathering which takes place at the home of some old friends. In The Santa Claus Club from Julian Symons, private investigator Francis Quarles is employed by the wealthy Lord Acrise who has been receiving threatening letters from a man who went to prison decades earlier. Christopher Bush’s Murder at Christmas is the story of a golfing holiday interrupted, most inconveniently, by a murder. Victor Gunn’s amusing Death in December features Chief Inspector Bill ‘Ironsides’ Cromwell who investigates a murder that takes place during the holidays at a castle. A dead body pops up and then everyone finds themselves snowed in….

“A fine place to bring me to for Christmas,” he said sourly. “Ghosts all over the place before we even get indoors!”

Crimson Snow, and what a apt title that is, is a most enjoyable read for the season.

Review copy

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Filed under Allingham Margery, Bush Christopher, Fiction, Gunn Victor, Hume Fergus, Jerrold Ianthe, Symons Julian, Wallace Edgar

A Very Russian Christmas from New Vessel Press

“In California they drink gin instead of tea.” 

a-very-russian-christmas

I saved A Very Russian Christmas from New Vessel Press for the right time of year, and while I can’t say that the stories made me full of good cheer, they all definitely contained elements of Christmas in one way of another. There’s a universality to these stories which show Christmas as a troubling time, a time for reflection and, as cheesy as it may sound, being grateful for what we have. Here’s the line-up:

The New Year’s Tree: Mikhail Zoshchenko

The Boys: Anton Chekhov

A Christmas Tree and a Wedding: Fyodor Dostoevsky

At Christmastide: Anton Chekhov

Dream of the Young Tsar: Lev Tolstoy

Makar’s Dream: Vladimir Korolenko (translated by Victoria Zinde Walsh)

A Woman’s Kingdom: Anton Chekhov

A Distant Christmas Eve: Klaudia Lukashevich

The Little Boy at Christ’s Christmas Tree: Fyodor Dostoevsky

Christmas Phantoms: Maxim Gorky

A Lifeless Animal: Teffi

My Last Christmas: Mikhail Zoshchenko

Chekhov’s The Boys is the tale of a planned escape to America; In Mikhail Zoshchenko’s, The New Year’s Tree, the forty-year-old narrator recalls the lessons learned 35 years earlier. In another story from Chekhov, At Christmastide, an older couple pay someone to write a letter to their daughter who has married and moved away. Dream of the Young Tsar from Tolstoy was a bit of a disappointment; it’s sort of a Russian version of A Christmas Carol, heavy handed and moralistic.I’m not going to review all the stories, and instead I’m going to concentrate on my favourites in the collection.

Maxim Gorky’s story, Christmas Phantoms, is the story of a writer who, on one very cold night, is finishing a story about two peasants–a blind husband and his elderly wife, who, after an unsuccessful day begging on Christmas Eve, freeze together to death in the snow. What a dreadful story, I thought to myself, and I felt disappointed (too soon) by Gorky, but he pulled a few tricks and before the story was done, I had a few chuckles. All I’ll say is ‘writers beware what you do to your characters.’

Another favorite was Chekhov’s A Woman’s Kingdom. The story opens on Christmas Eve and focuses on unmarried Anna Akimovna, a young woman who owns substantial property, including a factory which employs 1800 workers. Every year at Christmas, she distributes a certain amount of money to the poor, but this year, an extra 1500 roubles lands in her lap, and she decides to give it away. But who to give it to? She’s faced with a stack of begging letters (and hateful letters), and letting fate award the 1500 roubles, she picks a begging letter at random.

A Woman’s Kingdom is a fairly long story, and one that could have been worked into a novel. We see Anna’s Christmas when she is visited by the local poor who shivering with cold, pay respects, Anna notes “in reality there is something cruel in these Christmas customs,” but she’s powerless to stop the century old traditions.

For Christmas dinner she’s joined by a civil councillor and a slimey barrister, Lysevitch. These men can be seen, ostensibly, as suitors, but neither of them court Anna-although sleek Lysevitch, “like a spoiled horse fresh from the stable,”  is full of stupid advice about Anna taking multiple lovers.He’d “long ceased to believe in anything he had to say in the law courts, or perhaps he did believe in it, but attached no kind of significance to it–it had all so long been familiar, stale, ordinary ..”

Anna, an extremely sympathetic character, was raised from peasantry to wealth by inheritance. She’s not entirely comfortable with her position. She longs for love and marriage, but it seems that she’s destined to remain unmarried. We see a life of privilege but a life that’s sterile. She has wealth but she’s being ripped off in various ways; she’d like to help those in need and give charity, but her actions are either thwarted or futile.

My favourite story in the collection was Dostoevsky’s A Christmas Tree and a Wedding. The narrator is an unnamed man who sees a wedding, and then casts his mind back to a children’s party which took place five years earlier on New Year’s Eve. The family who threw the party were wealthy, and the narrator, an outsider, observes the other guests, the children and their accompanying governesses.

Particularly charming was a blackeyed, curly-headed boy, who kept trying to shoot me with his wooden gun. But my attention was still more attracted by his sister, a girl of eleven, quiet, pensive, pale with big, prominent, pensive eyes, exquisite as a little cupid. 

Idle gossip between the guests whispers that the little girl will inherit 300,o00 roubles, and the supposedly disingenuous narrator notices that gifts, which seem to be randomly distributed, are awarded to the children with “presents diminishing in value in accordance with the rank of the parents of these happy children.” The son of the governess, “the child of the lowest degree” gets a cheap book while the little heiress receives the most expensive doll. To say what happens next would be to spoil the story for other readers, but once again Dostoevsky chronicles the lowest points of human behaviour.

Review copy

Makar’s Dream translated by Victoria Zinde Walsh

My last Christmas and The New Year’s Tree copyright estate of Mikhail Zoshchenko

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Filed under Chekhov, Dostoevsky, Fiction, Gorky Maxim, Korolenko Vladimir, Lukashevich Klaudia, Teffi, Tolstoy, Leo, Zoshchenko Mikhail

Christine Stead Week: November 14-20, 2016

Lisa at ANZLITLOVERS organised a week honouring Christina Stead. I’m swamped at the moment, but I ordered Ocean of Story: the Uncollected Stories of Christina Stead. Since it’s OOP, there wasn’t much information out there, but my copy arrived and here’s the contents of this 552 page book:

ocean-of-story

1: The Early Years: Australia

The Old School

The Milk Run

A Little Demon

2: Apprentice Writer

A Night in the Indian Ocean

La Toussaint

O, If I Could But Shiver!

About the House

Uncle Morgan at the Nats

3: Pre-War Europe

The Azhdanov Sailors

Private Matters

Lost American

4: New York

Life is Difficult

A Harmless Affair

I Live in You

My Friend, Lafe Tilly

An Iced Cake with Cherries

UNO

The Fathers

5: Post War Europe

The Captains’ House

Yac, Yac

The Hotel-Keeper’s Story

A Household

The Woman in the Bed

The Boy

Trains

6: England

Street Idyll

1954: Days of the Roomers

A Routine

Accents

7: Biographical and Autobiographical

A Waker and a Dreamer

A Writer’s Friends

Les Amoureux

Another View of the Homestead

Did it Sell?

The Magic Woman and Other Stories

Afterword from R. G. Geering, literary executor and life-long friend.

This post is created for anyone else out there interested in the contents of this book. My review of The Little Hotel is here.

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Filed under Fiction, Stead Christina

Marseille Noir: ed. Cédric Fabre

“As long as I was only whacking them in my dreams.”

It was a bizarre coincidence that the night I finished watching the French-Belgian film, The Connection, I started a story from Marseille Noir which mentioned Gaetan Zampa and the murder of a judge. The film doesn’t leave the impression that things were ‘cleaned up’ in Marseille–rather the opposite–that political and police corruption triumphed in the end. But that was in the 70s, so let’s fast forward to 2015 and Marseille Noir. How do a group of writers depict this famous city now? I’ll have to say that after finishing this collection, I don’t think any reader is going to rush out and book a trip to Marseille.

marseille noirThe book contains an introduction from author, contributor & Marseille resident, Cédric Fabre, which gives an overview of the current crime situation in Marseille and just why Marseilles is such great raw material for the crime novelist.

However, Marseille-bashing–the city is a byword for economic stagnation, political patronage, drug trafficking in the northern suburbs, organized crime (actually in decline since the demise of the French Connection smuggling chain), recurrent drive-by killings and, of course, police corruption–is grist for the mill of crime fiction.

Here’s a breakdown of the stories.

The Josettes Really Liked Me: Christian Garcin

Extreme Unction: François Thomazeau

Silence is Your Best Friend: Patrick Coulomb

The Dead Pay a Price for the Living: René Frégni

I’ll go away with the First man Who says I Love You: Marie Neuser

On Borrowed Time: Emmanuel Loi

What Can I Say: Rebecca Lighieri

Katrina: François Beaune

The Problem with the Rotary: Philippe Carrese

The Prosecution: Pia Petersen

Green, Slightly Gray: Serge Scotto

The Red Mule: Minna Sif

The Warehouse for People From Before: Salim Hatubou

La Solidarité: Cédric Fabre

I’m not going to discuss every story in the book, but instead I’ll mention my favourites: The Josettes Really Liked Me–a wonderful story set against a backdrop of the shifting face of crime in Marseille,  Extreme Unction– the tale of a young boy who has a series of strange meetings with an even stranger man, and The Problem with the Rotary, a tale packed with atmosphere and dark rancid humour. In one story, The Prosecution: Pia Petersen, a disgruntled man finds himself stuck in Marseille, a “city where anything was possible.” In some of the stories, crime comes to the average person;  In Silence is Your Best Friend, a teacher in Le Panier neighbourhood is plagued by noisy neighbours, and in I’ll go away with the First man Who Says I Love You–a woman takes her strayed lover on a bizarre, gory trip. Other stories argue that the past never really goes away; in The Dead Pay a Price for the Living, a ex-prisoner returns home to exact vengeance, and in On Borrowed Time, a man’s past catches up with him after ten years. I’ll also mention the story The Red Mule about a violent punk who works for the “narco-jihad” and poses for bloody selfies. Well you know that story isn’t going to end well…

The Josettes Really Liked Me (Christian Garcin) is told by a man who recalls the four sisters of Ange Malatesta.

I never knew which one of Ange Malatesta’s four sisters was the craziest. I don’t know anything about the symptoms of dementia, psychosis, schizophrenia, or any other mental illness, so I certainly wouldn’t dare to diagnose them, but I do know they were all nuts. Besides, they took turns in a mental hospital, sometimes even together.

The narrator’s father is supposed to be a “salesman of wine and spirits” but is rumoured to work for the mob.

Sure, he was a mobster, but a small-time mobster, someone who never threatened anyone. Or not very often–or let’s say, not on a regular basis. Who in any case had never stolen, or killed anyone. He had connections to the Corsicans, who controlled the slot machines in the bars and cafes. He was a collector. Otherwise he was a very nice, sensitive, and generous man who loved his wife and son. I was an only child.

The narrator grows up with Ange, who comes from a Sicilian family. Ange’s father is a frightening presence, and Ange’s four sisters, known as “the four Joes,” are all completely crazy. When the narrator is nine, something strange occurs between him and one of ‘the Joes.’ It’s an event that reveals Ange Malatesta’s violent nature, but it’s also an event that leads to payback years later when the narrator is called to an appointment with Raymond Burr:

 the nickname of a baron of the Damiani branch of the powerful Altieri family, who ran part of the city. Raymond Burr was mostly in charge of the Endoume-Corderie Catalans sector, going up toward Notre-Dame de la Garde. He was said to be utterly devoid of scruples. Some claimed his nickname came from his temperament, others said it was because he was paralyzed and in a wheelchair, which still others denied. Me, I had no idea: I’d never met him.

Extreme Unction (François Thomazeau) is a story centred on the Vélodrome Stadium. A narrator, now an adult, recalls 4 times  when he was picked up from his grandmother’s home by a man and taken to Vélodrome Stadium.

We wouldn’t exchange a word. He’d light up a cigarette, lower his window, stick out his arm, and cough all the way. At the stadium, a flunkey would open the gate for him and we’d park smack in the middle of the empty parking lot in front of the main entrance that said Jean Bouin. When there was someone there beside the guard, he’d politely say hello to André, lowering his eyes. Occasionally some bolder guys would throw out a “Hi, Dédé.” And he’d cough to answer them.

André tells the teenage boy stories while passing crumpled bags of potato chips, and the trips end with a pizza from the stadium pizzeria. It’s not until the narrator is an adult that he finally figures some things out about these four trips.

With various Marseille locations central to the action, one of the really good things about this collection is that you can’t imagine that you are anywhere else in the world but Marseille.

The problem with Marseille’s South End is how strangely mixed it is. Opulent homes stand alongside sordid housing projects, luxurious villas next to derelict cabins, and terraces with swimming pools look down on boat garages with rusty doors turned into summer dwellings. The beautiful Roy d’Espagne park spread its lawns one alley away from the dilapidated Cayolle projects where the former shantytown that Le Corbusier had invented was razed to make way for a supermarket on permanent borrowed time by local vandals. Baumettes prison is at the end of all the dead ends, the old stone mansions still shelter a handful of end-of-the line aristocrats holding onto their ghosts and past glory, a few wealthy families are holed up in their famous architect-built houses, their windows stained with the sticky resin of the ever-present Aleppo pines. The nouveau riches and the old poor, the show-offs and the sluts. The sun weighs down on minds, the sea cools them off, the most beautiful streams in the whole world are within any tourist’s reach, and the dealers are two bus stops away from the nearby junior high. Marseille, its pervasive mess, its generalized thoughtlessness. But is that really a problem…? (from The Problem with the Rotary: Philippe Carrese)

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: short story collections are a great way to discover new authors, and in this case, many of the authors are not available in English. Finally a word on the Akashic Noir series which was launched in 2004… If you like crime and have an interest in a particular country or city, this is a great way to be a safe armchair traveler. For those interested, I read Mexico City Noir and really liked it.

Translated by David Ball and Nicole Ball

Review copy

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See You in Paradise by J. Robert Lennon

 

See You in Paradise is a wonderful collection of short stories from American author J. Robert Lennon. His novel, Familiar, a story of a woman who trips into an alternate universe, made my best-of-year list in 2012. I loved this novel because its premise was unique, and I also really liked the way that the author concentrated on plot and didn’t try to explain what happened to his main character. Ultimately we are left not knowing whether or not the novel is about a woman who falls into a parallel universe or if she’s just so wracked with regret and guilt that she has a psychotic break.

In 2013, I read Lennon’s novel Happyland, a very funny take on what happens when a wealthy businesswoman begins buying up a small new England college town and turning it into a cheesy tourist destination for her tremendously successful doll company. And to give the full J. Robert Lennon background here, I’ll also add that my introduction to this author was in 2011 through Castle, a psychologically  intense story of a man who returns to upstate New York and buys a home which includes some acreage. After investigating the title to the property, he discovers that there’s a small section of land right in the middle that he doesn’t own, and that the owner’s name which should appear on the title has been blacked out. The key thing about this book, an exploration of memory, is exactly where fantasy and reality split…

see you in paradiseThe descriptions of those three novels (and there are more I’ve yet to read) should give an idea of this author’s scope. J. Robert Lennon has a reputation as a writer of speculative fiction, and that’s a very broad term. Not all the stories in See You in Paradise can be classified as speculative, but if there’s a recurring theme here, it’s the unexpected. Take Zombie Dan, for example, a (speculative) story that made me wince when I read the title, but which rapidly became one of my favorites.

They figured out how to bring people back to life–not everybody, just some people–and this is what happened to our friend Dan Larsen. He had died falling off a yacht, and six months later, there he was, driving around in his car, nodding, licking his pale, thin lips, wearing his artfully distressed sports jacket and brown leather shoes.

Dan’s indomitable mother enlists Dan’s friends to man shifts at his bedside during the crucial phases of the “revivification process,” and we get a little background on this.

The discovery of the revivification process had resulted, initially, in great controversy. Surely, the naysayers wailed, not everyone who died could be brought back to life. What would separate the haves from the have-nots? Science offered one answer. To be eligible for revivification, you had to die in a certain way. Drowning was best. Suffocation. Anything that resulted in a minimum of harm to the body, other than its being dead. Freezing wasn’t bad, and a gunshot wound, if tidy, could be worked around. Electrocution was pushing it, as was poisoning. Car crash, cancer, decapitation. old age? Right out.

But still, who then? Who among the drowned, the frozen, the asphyxiated, would get to come back?

The rich. Naturally.

The narrator explains that the news that revivification was an option for the wealthy dead under some circumstances was initially expected to have catastrophic results:

Riots had been predicted, the burning of hospitals and medical schools, the overthrow of the government. None of it materialized. The rich had been getting the goodies for millennia.

But there’s another reason for the lack of class resentment.  “Revivs” or zombies (both considered politically incorrect terms) as they are known are a “little bit off.”

So if you asked a random person from the street whether, if they choked to death on a Jolly Rancher, they would like to be revived, the answer was generally yes. But not an especially enthusiastic yes. “Sure,” accompanied by a shrug, was the common response. By and large revivification was thought to be something weird rich people did, something along the lines of hymenoplasty, or owning an island.

That’s quite a few quotes from a short story, but they convey the tone of the story and also how the author approaches speculative fiction. We aren’t given a date in the future or the nitty gritty details of the process itself–revivification is a given, and now both the reader and the author, having accepted the premise, must deal with the results which are both hilarious and terrifying.

The collection’s title story, See You in Paradise was also a great favourite. This is the story of  “nice guy” Brant Call who still works at the college he attended. He’s the managing editor of the business school’s alumni magazine, and one of his tasks is to solicit donations. It’s in this capacity that he meets Cynthia Peck, a horsey, libidinous heiress. Their relationship becomes quite serious and then he meets her ruthless father:

Peck took Brant’s hand, but took it limply, making Brant’s strong grip, intended to express a marriageable masculine confidence, instead seem like a withering critique of the old man’s waning virility. Peek actually winced, and Brant jerked his hand away. “Uh, I ought to thank you, sir, for the—“

“Please,” Peck said, secreting the hand back under the table, “there’s no need to grovel. Now Brant.”

“Yes sir.”

“You’re diddling my daughter.”

“Yes, sir.”

“You’re thinking of marrying her, right.”

“Uh, yes.”

“Get yourself a piece of the family fortune?”

The interview with Cynthia’s father doesn’t go as expected and Brant can never get control of the conversation. After calling Brant’s motives into question, Mr Peck gives Brant Hobson’s Choice: he can agree to a job in Bermuda or ….

“If you say no, you can get the hell out of my daughter’s graduation party, and if you ever again fondle so much as a tit I’ll have all your arms broken. And don’t think I can’t do it.”

Brant takes the job….

See You In Paradise is another very funny story, but the most fascinating aspect of this story is that you ever really know what game Cynthia and her father are playing. The ‘job’ in Bermuda initially seems to be a test of Brant’s devotion to Cynthia, but when the story concludes, we have reason to think otherwise.

Many of the stories explore the danger in everyday life. The story Portal, for example, tells of a gateway to time and space discovered in the back garden and used repeatedly with mixed results by a family. Do they travel to other worlds, back in time, or to hell? With each successive use of the portal, the trips become increasingly surreal and dangerous. In The Wraith, a woman appears to split in two, leaving her anger and depression at home in the form of a wraith. While the wife becomes absurdly cheerful, the wraith, embodying the negative, lurks in the home and shows an unhealthy interest in the husband. In Hibachi, a husband and wife exact revenge against their friends, while in No Life, two couples find themselves competing to adopt the same child. In this excellent, disquieting and unconventional collection, J Robert Lennon delivers the unexpected. These darkly imaginative tales hint at an undercurrent of unease through the limitless of possibilities–even in the most mundane situations. Finally just a word on the book’s title: See You in Paradise–a phrase that holds a threat and also the hint that paradise, perhaps, isn’t so great after all.

Review copy

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Horror Stories: Classic Tales from Hoffman to Hodgson Edited by Darryl Jones

“But there are men, sane men, who are entirely of the opinion that it is quite within the bounds of reason to suppose that there may be what the world commonly calls spiritual manifestations–dealing with the seen and the unseen. Of such men, I avowedly, am one.”

A severed hand with murderous intentions, a portrait that drips blood, a husband out for revenge, opium-fueled dreams, and a locked bedroom in which a brother turns into a monster… yes all this (and more) occurs in Horror Stories: Classic tales from Hoffmann to Hodgson from Oxford University Press. The book, a review copy sent to me from a friend who chose not to read this, comes with a fantastic intro from editor Darryl Jones.  I would not call myself a fan of horror and typically avoid the gore of modern horror novels–although for some reason I have a weakness for a handful of films that fall under that heading: The Shining, The People Under the Stairs, Nightbreed, and Hellraiser. And this brings me back to the informative intro which adds a great deal to the selected stories.

Horror is a phobic cultural form, both in the sense that it is designed to produce a specific reaction–fear and loathing–but also in the way that it is produced by and directly reflects cultural preoccupations, fears and anxieties at any give moment, which it renders obliquely, in displaced and often highly metaphorical guises, as monsters, madmen, ghosts. A very clear example of this can be seen in the rise of colonial horror in the later nineteenth century. As the British Empire and the other empires of nineteenth century Europe reached their zeniths, so appeared the ‘reverse-colonization’ narrative, a paranoid cultural form in which conquered or oppressed colonial subjects return to the West (or to the Western officials in the colonies) to wreak terrifying revenge.

There are several examples of this ‘reverse-colonization’ in this wonderful collection, and I doubt that I would have made the connection but for this savvy intro which also explores the nineteenth century emergence of fascination with spiritualism, the “elements of terror,” the “contradictions” of Horror, and the “terror/horror binary.” Darryl Jones states that “the long nineteenth century was the great age of the ghost story,” and that the ghost story “represents a significant breach in the Victorian narrative of progressivism and modernity.” Jones, who obviously took a great deal of care in making his selections for this collection, points out that Stephen King, “by far the most prominent living horror writer” acknowledges The Monkey’s Paw (included here) as a “quintessential example of the tale of terror.” 

Horror storiesThe 29 stories in this collection are from the period 1812-1916, and while many of the author names are expected (Edgar Allan Poe, Sheridan Le Fanu, M. R. James, Algernon Blackwood, William Hope Hodgson,) many are unexpected–Zola (The Death of Olivier Bécaille), and Balzac (La Grande Bretêche) are just two examples of authors I didn’t expect to find here.

As I read the stories, I was struck by how the authors keyed into our deepest primal fears. In Sheridan Le Fanu’s Strange Event in the Life of Schalken the Painter, for example, the narrator explains how he came across this strange story through his acquaintance with a military man who owns a disturbing painting by the long-dead painter Schalken. The painting seems to capture a horrifying moment, and the owner of the painting relates the tale of a beautiful young woman claimed by a dead man. Yet another terrifying painting plays a role in E.H Benson’s creepy The Room in the Tower–the story of a man who has a recurring dream which involves being left to sleep in a tower room. Inevitably, of course, the person who suffered a lifetime of bad dreams finds himself relegated to the tower room which contains … a painting which drips blood. I’d run for the hills, but our narrator spends the night almost as though he cannot resist this moment. Zola’s The Death of Olivier Bécaille tells the tale of a young man who falls ill and enters some sort of coma state, and of course eventually he faces another of our primal fears: being buried alive. Yet another deep rooted fear is the centre of W. F. Harvey’s August Heat– the story of a man who learns the date of his death.

One of the biggest surprises of the collection was Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Case of Lady Sannox. A childhood exposure to Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes created a lack of curiosity in Arthur Conan Doyle as an author, but I loved this clever story, and perhaps some of my enjoyment can be explained by my newfound recognition of ‘reverse-colonization.’ This is, of course, one of the best aspects of reading a collection from several authors–we are inevitably exposed to someone we’ve never read before.

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s  The Case of Lady Sannox, Douglas Stone “one of the most remarkable men in England” is embroiled in a passionate affair with the notorious Lady Sannox. Stone is a “high-handed, impetuous” man, one of the most famous surgeons in London.

Those who knew him best were aware that famous as he was as a surgeon, he might have succeeded with even greater rapidity in any of a dozen lines of life. He could have cut his way to fame as a soldier, struggled to it as an explorer, bullied for it in the courts, or built it out of stone and iron as an engineer. He was born to be great, for he could plan what another man dare not do, and he could do what another man dare not plan. In surgery none could follow him. His nerve, his judgment, his intuition, were things apart. Again and again his knife cut away death, but grazed the very springs of life in doing it, until his assistants were as white as the patients.

Lady Sannox, a former actress, has many lovers in her past, and there’s a degree of speculation as to whether her mild-mannered husband is clueless about her affairs  or “miserably wanting in spirit.” But when Douglas Stone becomes Lady Sannox’s latest lover, there’s no attempt to hide the affair which very quickly becomes a subject of scandal and threatens Stone’s career.

As I noted earlier, I would not classify myself as reader of Horror fiction, but I am certainly a fan of Gothic fiction and the supernatural. The book’s title: Horror Stories: Classic tales from Hoffman to Hodgson may possibly alienate potential readers, and that’s a great shame. Gothic or Supernatural Stories may have a wider appeal, and yet as the intro emphasizes, Gothic “is a term with a bewildering variety of referents.” After reading this excellent collection, the use of “Horror” in the title seems most appropriate as we move from anticipated dread (which in Gothic fiction may not materialize) to the horror of our fully realized fears.

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Filed under Balzac, Blackwood Algernon, Dickens Charles, Fiction, Hodgson William Hope, Hoffmann, Jacobs W W, James M R, Machen Arthur, Stevenson Robert Louis, Stoker Bram, Zola

Funny Once by Antonya Nelson

“I’ve had to deduce that women grow hard over time while men grow soft.”

A few years ago, I read Antonya Nelson’s novel Bound, the story of a woman who unexpectedly finds that she’s the guardian of a teenage girl. Bound explores the issues of obligation, responsibility and loyalty through the lives of its characters, and while I enjoyed the novel, I have to say that these short stories in the author’s latest collection, Funny Once, are truly superb.

If there’s a common thread in the nine stories and novella in  Funny Once, then that common thread must be the unexpected links we make with people, and once again obligation, responsibility and loyalty are issues at play.  These stories are not about dysfunctional families, but rather it’s fractured families that are examined here. What sort of stew do you get when someone has been married 3 or 4 times, has children and step-children from various marriages, and old relationships with former in-laws? Move over the theme of dysfunctional families and instead let’s look at a very common scenario, at least in my part of the world, the crazy quilt of fractured families.

Funny onceIn Soldier’s Joy, Nana, a woman married to her much older husband returns home to Kansas following her father’s accident. There she meets a former lover,  a man who was a crucial factor in her much later marriage.  Nana’s husband is her former professor:

She and Helen had met Dr. Shock at an apex, his as a certified celebrity, theirs as nubile acolytes. He had then been a casual tenant of his attractive still-young body, but now was a fearfully vain and anxious one of the older model. For two consecutive years he had gone about claiming to be sixty-nine, not even consciously, so averse was he to the number seventy.

Nana and her husband  don’t have children, but they own dogs.

Lacking children, Nana and her husband had settled for dogs; their friends no doubt pitied their misplaced affection. This was the third pair of siblings they’d owned. First black labs, next Cocker Spaniels, now the Corgis–each set a slightly smaller breed. “We’ll die with Chihuahuas,” Nana had once told her husband.

“You” die with Chihuahuas,” he’d corrected her. “”I’ll die during the dachshunds.”

Nana’s parents have never really understood her marriage or why all of her education “led her no further than housewifery.” When Nana returns home, she discovers that her parents have become surrogate grandparents to the children of the neighbours, and that the neighbour is her first boyfriend. This difficult situation is fraught with might-have-beens and fantasies of a possible future. There’s a shock in store for Nana, but it’s not what you expect.

One of my favourite stories in the collection, and it’s hard to just pick a few favourites, is The Village. In this story, Darcy, now middle-aged recalls how a car wreck she caused as a teenager led to a strange confession by her father of an extra-marital affair with a woman named Lois. He begins with the sentence “sometimes people do things that other people might call mistakes.” Circumstances lead to Darcy meeting Lois, and she becomes one of the formative people in Darcy’s life. When Darcy goes to Lois’s funeral, she thinks she’ll finally be able to acknowledge exactly what her father’s long-time mistress meant to her, but she learns otherwise. This is a wonderful, and curious story, as Lois is a shadow figure. We never actually meet her so we only see her reflected in the mirror of various memories. To one lot of people, Lois was a remarkable woman, while to her own family, she’s something else entirely.

In IFF a woman finds herself living with hairdresser Gloria, her ex-mother-in-law, detritus from the divorce from Nathan.  Gloria is Nathan’s stepmother, and while he’s moved on, and is about to remarry, there’s simply no room in his new life for his step-mother, and Nathan seems to think Gloria is an -ex too. Like unwanted baggage, Gloria is left behind, yet she and her former daughter-in-law share a bond that goes beyond the tenuous bond of a wobbly marriage.

In First Husband, Lovey now married for the second time, deals with her step-daughter, Bernadette, her “ex-husband’s youngest most difficult girl.” While her other step-daughters found Lovey “lacking,” Bernadette, was “needy” and formed a relationship with her young stepmother which continues in spite of the divorce and remarriage. Lovey and Bernadette share a complicated bond of loyalty and disappointment stemming from their relationships with the same man–Bernadette’s father and Lovey’s ex-husband.

When she married him, he was at the tail end of his fruitful handsomeness, it’s fulmination, at forty-five, still moving in the world with the confidence of a man who’d bedded a lot of women, all of them except the first few–when he was a beginner, when he was on the receiving end of a romantic education–younger than himself; he was a serial seducer. “Handsome men are dangerous,” Lovey’s mother had warned her. Lovey had been his third wife; perhaps she could have predicted that she would not succeed where those others had failed, but that was the nature of love, and of youth, and the combination, youthful love, to make one arrogant, or stubborn, impervious to the lessons of others.

If you took all the lessons of others, you might never do anything.

Now Lovey has moved on to a very placid, comfortable re-marriage to William, a doctor, but still the past intrudes through the obligations she feels to Bernadette. Bernadette was her step-daughter, and now she has children. Is Lovey a grandmother? Are these her grandchildren? And what of Lovey’s second marriage to William?

And she understood that William, too, had been disposed of, that his ex-wife had had a similar nuclear potency, and that he loved Lovey with the same conscious intensity of somebody exacting a kind of revenge, or, perhaps, simply forever behaving with the belief that his ex was paying attention, that he had need to prove he’d survive and thrive, the victor. A victor, anyway.

The novella, Three Wishes, follows the lives of the three Panik siblings, Hugh, Hannah, and Holly, and the story begins when they deliver their father, duct-taped into his recliner, to a nursing home. With their father in a home, the siblings return to their lives. Hannah, the only one who’s married, is the one who seems to have her life together whereas Hugh and hopeless single-parent, Holly are visibly stunted. There’s a great scene when the siblings enter a bar called Ugly’s:

Hannah had a nervy awareness of her femaleness, the way the den of men had vaguely stirred, straightened its collective spine–math nerds, slackers, divorced professors–when she and Holly had entered. Her older sister looked like a woman who knew how to have fun in the world, whose smile came from zealous desire, whose mind was worth investigating, who wouldn’t reject you without a test run.

His little sister looked like somebody who’d threaten to kill herself if you broke up with her.

Hugh, who’s been living in the ramshackle family home (with hippies next door), and works a marginal job, returns there and begins attending creative writing classes at night at the local college–“his current attempt to curtail his drinking.” Over time we learn that there should have been a fourth sibling, Hamish, who died, “animation suspended at age nineteen.” Even though he’s been dead for decades, Hamish’s shadow lingers over his siblings who never quite connect with their lives.

The characters here are aging and trying to come to terms with the mistakes in their lives even as they mull over the invisible crossroads that took them to unintended destinations. Even Ms. Fox, the bitter creative writing professor in Three Wishes doesn’t seem to know how she ended up in Kansas. Antonya Nelson’s stories are relevant to today’s family situations where the nuclear family is riddled with fault lines–multiple marriages and divorces, step-children, step-parents, & step-grandparents. We know that responsibility doesn’t end with divorce, and with great sensitivity and insight Antonya Nelson explores the reaches of loyalty which trumps legal obligation. This is a marvellous collection and comes highly recommended.

Review copy.

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Filed under Fiction, Nelson Antonya

Wings by Stuart Evers

Anyone who’s ever had a tattoo knows that there are many reasons behind the decision. Love or the marking of life change are just a couple of catalysts for a trip to the tattoo shop; grief and the desire to carry a permanent memorial with us are others. In Wings, a story from the new collection, Your Father Sends His Love, from British author Stuart Evers, Maria steps outside of her life and into a tattoo shop on her dead sister, Gwen’s 40th birthday. She wants a tattoo–a pair of wings as a memorial; the sisters had planned to get tattoos together when they turned forty, so in a way, Maria is keeping a promise to the dead.

‘My sister  died,’ she says as he points out a pair of wings that cover the entirety of a man’s back. ‘It’s her birthday today.’

‘A tattoo is a good way to remember someone,’ he says. ‘The earliest of all tattoos were for remembrance, you know?’

Tattoo virgins often imagine the experience as they gather up courage, and the imagined experience is ultimately different from reality:

It is nothing like she imagined. There are over sixty different pairs of wings in the portfolio and the tattooist is all-too helpful picking out a design. Many come with a little background, a summary of how long they take to ink, whether he feels it is a good design for her. It reminds her of looking at carpet swatches and kitchen counter tops, salesmen pitching the longevity, the luxury of their products. Like those men, the tattooist repeats that at the end of the day the choice is hers.

While Wings just grants us a brief glimpse into the lives of its characters, we clearly see the impact of grief on one sister whose life must go on even as the life of another has faded. The scant information that we are given allows us to fill in the blanks as we see Maria coping with grief and an emotional absence from her own life. Poignant and deeply melancholic, the story opens a window into Maria’s understandable grief, but is there something more going on here? This is a life that should be considered successful, but there’s been a detour, a freezing of time.

In the mirror, the wings look as though they have always been there. She thinks of Gwen, unillustrated, and begins what she understands is a kind of not crying, a sort of anti-crying, a physical process undertaken by those who have grieved enough and need no longer to grieve. She sits down on the edge of the bed and puts her head in her hands and imagines her sister laughing. The intensity of it spangles, makes constellations inside her limbs and torso. The wings beat and she can see her sister standing in the mirror, staring at her, eyes fixed and dilated.

I’m a believer in discovering new authors through short stories. If I like their style, their themes and their characters, then I’ll dig deeper.  I liked Wings enough to buy the author’s novel, If This is Home. I’ll be reading it soon…so watch this space….

review copy

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Filed under Evers Stuart, Fiction

T.C. Boyle Stories II: The Collected Stories of T. Coraghessan Boyle

At 945 pages, T.C. Boyle Stories II: The Collected Stories of T. Coraghessan Boyle, follows volume 1 which was a mere 708 pages. If you’re a TC Boyle fan, then you really can’t go wrong with this collection, and if you’ve never read this author but like short stories, then there’s something here for you. The first volume was published in 1998, so here we are 15 years later with volume 2, and T.C. Boyle’s been busy. The stories are a combination of various short story collections: After the Plague (15 of the 16 stories), Tooth and Claw (15), Wild Child (14), and 14 uncollected stories which appear in the final section of the book under the title: A Death in Kitchawank.

TC Boyle StoriesAs with any collection, there are some stories that hit a nerve and stay with you. This is such a large collection, it’s impossible to discuss all my favourites, but Boyle got my attention right away with the first story in the collection: Termination Dust. This story is set in Alaska–a place I’ve never visited, but a state that holds a fascination for me. The story is about a ‘event’–I don’t know what else to call it–which involves 107 single, all-too available women who arrive from the lower 48 to meet Alaskan bachelors:

There were a hundred and seven of them, of all ages, shapes and sizes, from twenty-five-  and thirty-year-olds in dresses that looked like they were made of saran wrap to a couple of big-beamed older types in pantsuits who could have been somebody’s mother–and I mean somebody grown, with a goatee beard and a job at McDonald’s.

Our narrator is Ned, a man who’s there to greet the mostly “hard-looking” women as they arrive at a hotel for the Labor Day Weekend event which includes a buffet, a “Malibu Beach Party,” and an auction. See in a town like Boynton, population 170, there are just 32 women, “all of them married and all of them invisible.” Women are in short supply, and there are reasons for that. English teacher, Jordy seems to stand out from the rest of the women at the auction, so after the meet-and-greet it’s probably not surprising that bidding for a date with Jordy is hot and heavy. Local bad boy Bud Withers, who now has plastic feet after his real ones were badly frostbitten following a night of boozing, bids against Ned. The proceeds from the auction are for charity, but charity is far from the minds of the men as they bid, furiously, for the women.

Nobody talked about sex–that would demean the spirit of the thing–but it was there, under the surface, like a burning promise.

Killing Babies is another favourite and this story shows how TC Boyle can take a controversial subject and weave it into fiction but this is not a ‘statement’ story, so the characters feel very real . This is the story of Rick, a young addict, just out of rehab, who moves in with his brother, sister-in-law and their children as part of his court-dictated release agreement.

When I got out of rehab for the second time, there were some legal complications, and the judge–an old jerk who looked like they’d just kicked him out of the Politburo–decided I needed a sponsor. There was a problem with some checks I’d been writing for a while there when my resources were going up the glass tube.

Rick leaves sunny California and lands in Detroit in the middle of the long winter–a place where “the only palm trees are under glass in the botanical gardens.” Rick is one of those people who doesn’t take life too seriously:

I wasn’t stupid. Not particularly–no stupider than anybody else, anyway–and I was no criminal, either. I’d just drifted into a kind of thick sludge of hopelessness after I dropped out of school for a band I put my whole being into, a band that disintegrated within the year, and one thing led to another. Jobs came and went. I spent a lot of time on the couch, channel-surfing and thumbing through books that used to mean something to me. I found women and lost them. And I learned that a line up your nose is a dilettante’s thing, wasteful and extravagant. I started smoking, two or three nights a week, and then it was every day, all day, and why not?

Rick hasn’t seen Philip in six years, and Philip hasn’t aged well:

So Philip. He met me at the airport, his thirty-eight year face as trenched with anal-retentive misery as our father’s was in the year before he died.

You’d think there would be some catching up to do, but the relationship slides back into its old grooves. At first, Rick thinks that Philip has an enviable life, but there’s something wrong, and Rick, who’s hired as “an entry-level drudge” at his brother’s clinic, soon finds out what the problem is. Rick’s never taken anything in life, even his rehab, his check-bouncing, and his court appearances to heart, but now here suddenly he finds himself in the middle of a situation fraught with tension and controversy. Will this be a maturing experience or an explosive one?

Boyle shows his incredible range in these stories, always hitting an authentic voice–no matter the subject, the character, or the situation. In Achates McNeil, a young college student who was abandoned by his famous, hip author father, is confronted by the very man he loathes in his Contemporary American Literature class when he sees two of his father’s novels on the syllabus. Achates find out the hard way that having a famous father has its benefits and its drawbacks, and even the benefits seem to morph into drawbacks somehow. Achates finds himself publicly confronted with his father’s impossible ego, stripped of any privacy he may have had when his father decides, once again, to use real life as the raw material for a novel.

After the Plague takes a look at a post-apocalyptic America, and I loved this story for its unique take on a clichéd much-overused scenario. In Peep Hall, a story in which reality and fantasy collide, a under-employed middle-aged man who works on his Master’s thesis (eleven years behind schedule) in his spare time, becomes addicted to “Peep Hall,” a subscription website in which six college girls “going about their business” are monitored by strategically placed cameras as they shower, gossip, and exercise (in the nude). In  Jubiliation, a great favourite, no matter which author or story collection under consideration, concerns an affluent man who decides to buy a home in a popular Florida theme park. In this “dream community,” houses are in demand and are sold by lottery. Jackson Peters Reilly considers himself lucky to ‘win’ and he moves into the community–only to find that things can still go south.

I’ve been living in Jubilation for almost two years now. There’s been a lot of change in that time, both for the better and the worse, as you might expect in any real and authentic town composed of real and authentic people with their iron-clad personalities and various personal agendas, but overall I’d say I chose the Contosh Corp’s vision of community living. I’ve got friends here, neighbors, people who care about me the way I care about them. We’ve had our crises–no question about it–Mother Nature has been pretty erratic these past two years–and there isn’t a man, woman or child in Jubilation who isn’t worried about maintain property values in the face of all the naysaying and criticism that’s come our way. Still, it’s the people this whole thing is about, and the people I know are as determined and forward-looking a bunch as any you’d ever hope to find. We’ve built something here, something I think we can all be proud of.

With some exceptions, this bulk of this collection explores many aspects of contemporary American life–the controversial, the mundane, life as we experience it in its many manifestations. As fans of Boyle’s work know, one of this author’s favourite themes is the conflict between civilisation and the wilderness, so that theme also appears frequently here in many of the stories. From the back story of the underground gardens of Fresno, a case of plane rage, and the voice of a middle-aged woman who believes that “cleanliness … is what separates us from the animals,” Boyle shows compassion, insight and a remarkable ability to create authentic voices.  This is a huge collection, and it serves to showcase Boyle’s incredible talent.
Review copy

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Filed under Boyle T. C., Fiction