Thursday, November 19, 2015

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Washington Irving

I am sure I have seen the movie, though I cannot recall anything of it. This story is famous, I think, and prominent amongst American horror literature. I am certainly familiar with the figure of the Headless Horseman, which has always been a favorite of mine.

Being short fiction, no time is wasted in setting the tone. The image of a peaceful valley is interwoven with that of a headless horseman allegedly in search of his lost head.

The narration is in first person but the narrator has no place within the story.

The first character described in any depth is that of the school teacher, Ichabod Crane. The school teacher is also the headmaster: his school being run by himself alone. His life described is quite a contrast to what teachers see today. "...his worldly effects (are) tied up in a cotton handkerchief," while he lives on a different farmstead each week. He is not just a teacher, but helps the farms with the menial labour which is never ending. He is a gossip. Despite all the good words describing him, it is then written that,

he was a perfect master of Cotton Mather's "History of New England Witchcraft," in which, by the way, he most firmly and potently believed.
which is one wicked piece of writing.

Another character, Katrina Van Tassel, described as a coquette (flirt) for wearing a
 provokingly short petticoat, to display the prettiest foot and ankle in the country round.
But, all his efforts are for nothing: the more masculine Brom Bones was perhaps the only real contender while she may have used him as a means of motivating Brom to propose.

As Ichabod returns home, he is intercepted by Brom who pretends to be the Headless Horseman. He terrifies him so badly that he leaves and never returns.

The story has some really gorgeous descriptions of the settings in which the scenes are played out. But, I was a bit disappointed by the fact that the story wasn't really scary at all. The climax left me wanting.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll

I'm not sure if I read Alice's Adventures in Wonderland when I was a child or not. I certainly remember the animation. It is probably one of Disney's best old school animations. The book itself is short, and freely available courtesy of the wonderful people at

Parts of the animation are very similar to the book: the falling scene; the scene in the White Rabbit's house. Other scenes are different: there are no scenes with oysters, for instance.

I am a particular fan of the surrealist movement. Dali, at least in my youth, was amongst the most intriguing artists. Max Ernst and Picasso, Fay Pomerance, being some very few, intrigue me like few others. I grew up frequently listening to the musical version of "The Point." Though Wikipedia suggests that the movement didn't really start until the 20s (and certainly the term wasn't coined until 1917 by Guillaume Apollinaire), the spirit of the movement is clearly well established within the Caroll's most famous story, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Thus, this is the birthplace of surrealism and all of its glory. For that reason alone, it is a book worth reading.

The story goes that Alice follows a hare down a hole and goes through a great adventure. She meets a variety of interesting characters: a mad hatter, a vanishing cat, and attends a strange trial.

The trial goes well but ends with Alice waking up. I'm not sure if the trial is a mockery of justice or if he was merely being silly. My favourite line from the trial is where the king is demanding a witness to give testimony:
"Give your evidence," said the king, "and don't be nervous, or I'll have you executed on the spot."
The whole trial is a mockery. And really, just as I start to think I'm getting the idea of it, Alice wakes up and it is essentially over. There is a sequel: Through the Looking Glass. I'm not sure if I will read it, but I am slightly tempted.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

A House of Pomegranates, Oscar Wilde

I have a particular love for Oscar Wilde. His fiction is most often poetic and romantic. I have read A House of Pomegranates. It is a real shame that his life was cut short by stints in prison for having sex with men.
most, if not all, of his short fiction. In fact, this is the second time I am reading

A House of Pomegranates follows in the footsteps of The Happy Prince and Other Tales, which was a r
emarkable piece of romantic fiction. Although not nearly as famous for fairy tales, nor as prolific, as say Hans Christian Andersen, he nonetheless had a great talent for it. Perhaps if he had not been persecuted for his sexual preferences, we might have a great deal more of his work to appreciate today.

The Young King

"The Young King" is the first story in this short collection of fairy tales. A young man goes from rags to riches. Once a poor sheepherder, he is recognized as the king's heir to the throne. He is morphed into a new kind of man: no longer the ragged caretaker of sheep, he comes to love the finery which goes with his new found wealth.

This goes well for him until he has a dream. In his dream, he becomes a witness to the human cost of his gains. For his robe, he has this dream: a sweat shop filled with 'Pale, sickly-looking children... faces pinched with famine... a horrible odour filled the place... the walls dripped and streamed with damp...' When the heir to the throne asks why the man doesn't just leave his job, he replies,
...the rich make slaves of the poor. We must work to live, and they give us such mean wages that we die. We toil for them all day long, and they heap up gold in their coffers, and our children fade away before their time... We tread out the grapes, and another drinks the wine. We so the corn, and our own board is empty. We have chains, though no eye beholds them; and are slaves, though men call us free...
His next dream takes him to a ship sent out to find pearls. Malnourished men row the ship, and when come to a stop, collapse into sleep still manacled. A diver is sent to find pearls. He dives and rises, each time with a pearl, until at last he comes up with one which is 'fairer than all the pearls of Ormuz.' But the cost of this pearl is his life. His death resulted in no ceremony: simply kicked back into the water while the ship returns with the prize pearl.

Finally, he is confronted by a scene between Avarice (greed) and Death: Death demands a grain of corn, but Avarice always refuses. The result is the deaths of all the subjects of Avarice.

Up to the point of his dream, he had no clue as to the sacrifice required by so many to acquire the materials required for his lavish raiment. Being recently a common person, he could no longer live with the inhuman treatment of those who were sacrificed on the behalf of raiment. He therefore refuses to wear them. Refusing them leads to mockery by all: both those who sacrificed their lives, to the soldiers, to the courtiers and lords.

He makes his way to the church where he is to receive his crown. While there, the soldiers are ready to arrest and perhaps kill him, when god intervenes and gives him heavenly robes. It's a fairly shallow ending, to be honest. Or, at least religiously romantic: something I have no taste for.

The Birthday of the Infanta

There are some curiosities about this short fiction. One being that the mother of the Infanta had died before. The King of Spain loved her so much that he had her preserved. He would 'kiss her painted face' in hopes of bringing her back to life. 

The infanta (or daughter of the king) of Spain has a birthday. A part of her entertainment is a an ugly little dwarf. The dwarf does not know that he is ugly. All the children love his entertainment and everyone laughs at him. Everyone mocks him except the birds, who remember his kindness to them.

He comes across a mirror and discovers how ugly he is. He then understands that all the children were laughing at him. The shock is so great that it kills him.But as the dwarf lies on the floor dying in agony, the infanta and her friends come upon him and are moved to even greater amusement:
...when they saw the ugly little dwarf lying on the ground and beating the floor with his clenched hands, in the most fantastic and exaggerated manner, they went off into shouts of happy laughter...
The ending is particularly catching when the Infanta declares, "For the future let those who come to play with me have no hearts."

Of course, why wouldn't the dwarf have seen his image in some still pond or pool of water?

The Fisherman and His Soul

 Of the stories in this collection,  this one is the most romantic fairy tale.

A fisherman goes out and finds a mermaid of great beauty. Upon seizing her, she promises to sing for him that he might catch many fish. But, as she does so, he falls in love with her so hard that he willingly gives up his soul that he might be with her.

The soul never wanted to leave the body, and demanded a heart before it went away. Being denied this, it knew not of love or compassion. It therefore wanted to tempt the fisherman to take back his soul.

The soul found riches and wisdom, but the fisherman cared for neither of these things, but only the love he had for his mermaid. At last, however, the soul tempts him by telling him of dancing girls. This offer is a ruse, however. The soul bids him to do evil acts which the man regrets. At last he is ready to abandon his quest to see the dancers and goes back to the sea. He wants to rid himself of his soul once more, but it is too late and the reattachment is irreversible. He therefore contents the rest of his days singing for his lost mermaid. The mermaid herself dies and washes on the shore. He goes to her only to be swallowed up by the sea and killed. 

The story is filled with lovely poetic language and imagery.

The Star Child 

This is the last short story of this collection.

A child is delivered by a shooting star. This is a disappointment to two poor men who had been seeking a pot of gold. His wife reluctantly welcomes him into the family and the poor couple take care of him as if he was their own. But, he is cruel to everyone and everything around him. Eventually his own mother comes upon him, but he refuses her on the basis of her ugliness. As a consequence, he has his gift of beauty replaced by repulsiveness.

He is cast out and spends years searching for his mother and forgiveness. On coming to one castle or kingdom, he is tormented and sold to a wizard who would have him as a slave. He redeems himself while under the evil wizard's control by giving to the poor what he needs to avoid severe punishment and even win his freedom.

He is then returned to his former glory. Immediately, the people revel in his beauty and declare him their new monarch. He then finds his mother and cries at her feet for forgiveness, whereupon her beauty is restored. He then discovers his father who was in fact the beggar upon whom he had sacrificed himself for, and his beauty is restored.

He lives a short life, just three years. It is remarked that those who came after him ruled evilly.

I don't think that it's Wilde being superficial, but rather showing how superficial people are: that how we treat one another depends on how we look. The only reason that the main character is good is because he had an opportunity to live in the shoes of the poor and ugly.

How unfortunate it is that we are still mired in such a superficial mind-set. We still mock and bully those who are ugly and elevate those who are beautiful. It's hard to estimate whether or not we will change.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

The Yellow Wallpaper, Charlotte Perkins Gilman

The Yellow Wallpaper is a short fiction by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. It is available for free at Wikipedia says of her that she is a feminist. This story is somewhat confounding and not for a gentle reader looking for a simple escape. The meaning is complex and offers much food for thought.

A woman is a prisoner in her own home. Her jailer is her husband, who is also a doctor, and a servant. She is stuck in a room on the second floor. There are bars on her window. She cannot leave her room voluntarily. She is not allowed to write. She has no entertainment, and her instructions are basically that she is to get as much rest as she can.

Her attention is drawn to the yellow wall paper. In the yellow wallpaper is a woman who is struggling to be free. But, it is no haunted house. It is a reflection of herself. It is her that needs to escape from her room. The end result is that she is crazy.

I must say, I am struggling with this story to identify whether these are metaphors or if the images of bars, wall paper, creeping women, etc., are to be taken figuratively. The paper, I suspect, is her own skin. She has peeled her own skin off of herself; torn it off. That would be the only reasonable explanation for what caused her husband to faint (a doctor being someone who is resistant to such effects).

Wikipedia writes that she suffers from understimulation. While this is quite evidently so, we are only
given a very narrow view into the last months of her transformation into deep psychosis. To be perfectly honest, there is more than a passing resemblance to Franz Kafka's "The Metamorphosis" (published in 1915) which describes the life of a supernatural transformation from a man into a kind of caterpillar.

In "The Yellow Wallpaper" Gilman portrays the narrator's insanity as a way to protest the medical and professional oppression against women at the time. While under the impression that husbands and male doctors were acting with their best interests in mind, women were depicted as mentally weak and fragile. At the time women’s rights advocates believed that the outbreak of women being diagnosed as mentally ill was the manifestation of their setbacks regarding the roles they were allowed to play in a male-dominated society. Women were even discouraged from writing, because their writing would ultimately create an identity and become a form of defiance for them. -
The article on Wikipedia suggests that everything in this story is literal, and that we are simply viewing the world from the eyes of someone who has gone mad. However, I cannot account for that theory in the idea that John, her husband, faints. It seems to be something deeper, more deeply disturbing perhaps, that is hinted at. However, throughout the various criticisms of the story, I did not find any support for my thought on this.

But, Lovecraft is quoted,
"The Yellow Wall Paper rises to a classic level in subtly delineating the madness which crawls over a woman dwelling in the hideously papered room where a madwoman was once confined."
Does he refer to the inner insane mind of a woman who was outwardly sane? Or does he mean that there was some kind of ghost which was eventually released by the narrator?

Certainly, this is one of those kinds of stories which would do well in a literary class. There is much debate available for a contentious literary group!

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Lord Jim, Joseph Conrad

I think I have read a few of Conrad's stories, but I can only recall having read A Heart of Darkness. I wouldn't be surprised if I'd read it at least twice. That was a good enough book to recommend me to this novel, Lord Jim.

Jim is a sailor who seems to fit the mold of the ideal sailor: unafraid of anything the sea can throw at him; large and strong; one who took to the sea because of some reading he had done and consequently fallen in love with the trade.

But, he is unfortunate in that he gets work as a first mate on the Patna. A ship fated by chance to strike a submerged log which severely damages her. She may have survived, but an oncoming storm makes such survival impossible. These two circumstances quickly sink her. The white crew: captain, engineer, and a few of the others, order Jim to not wake up the others. There are many men and few boats. They reason that no one should escape if they should be awakened to the emergency.

Jim is severely caught between his obedience to his captain's orders and his natural courage and chivalry which demands that he shout out to the many crew members who sleep through, oblivious. The crew make their getaway on a row boat. Jim jumps onto the boat, but regrets his decision. Shortly thereafter, The Patna sinks and all the men with her.

The surviving crew members are tried for their desertion, but none of them are punished. But, while the others get away with no repercussions, Jim himself is weighted heavily by his actions. His life from then on is spent escaping the terrible story of the Patna's sinking. People discuss it around him, not even knowing that he was a part of the story, and consequently lose him as a member of their company: Egstrom, one of his employers who runs a company to supply visiting ships says of his work ethic and ability, first, "'That's a reckless sort of a lunatic you've got for water-clerk, Egstrom. I was feeling my way in at daylight under short canvas when there comes flying out of the mist right under my forefoot a boat half under water, sprays going over the mast-head, two frightened niggers on the bottom boards, a yelling fiend at the tiller. Hey!! hey! Ship ahoy! ahoy! Captain!... more like a demon than a man. Never saw a boat handled like that in all my life." and then,  "... it seemed as though he wouldn't mind going a hundred miles out to sea in an old shoe to nab a ship for the firm. If business had been his own and all to make yet, he couldn't have done more in that way." He is a fearless character, but one of extreme sensitivity. Such that, one day when the Patna is mentioned, Egstrom puts out that of the crew of the Patna, "It's a disgrace to human natur'--that's what it is. I would despise being seen in the same room with one of those men." But later, as he is told by the narrator that Jim had been one of those very crew members, he exclaims, "And who the devil cares about that?" as to say, he wouldn't have cared at all. His value as a man of courage and valour had been well established. He would have thought no less of him. But of course, Jim was gone and the damage was already done.

One of my favourite passages in the book I had to copy here which I find so remarkably true of men and women, and how they view themselves: people want to be a saint, and they want to be a devil--and every time they shut their eyes they see themselves as very fine people--so fine as they can never be... In a dream..." Surely this is so very true: human beings like to see themselves as a saint even when they do great evil.

Jim goes through a major shift in his life when he is brought to a remote jungle where he is able to escape his reputation (even if no one knew who he was or how he was related to the abandonment of the sinking vessel). Through the strength of his courage, he wins the emancipation of a small village from a petty tyrant, and his reward is their great respect and the love of a young woman. But, as is the case with life, this new found self respect and love which he longed for comes at a heavy price: the sacrifice of wanderlust; the sailing and adventure that the endless vast ocean offers.

Ultimately, it is a similar sacrifice I think some men make: it's love or the high seas. Conrad puts it wonderfully,
...his wandering days were over. No more horizons as boundless as hope, no more twilights within the forests as solemn as temples, in the hot quest for the Ever-undiscovered Country over the hill, across the stream, beyond the wave. The hour was striking! No more! No more!--
However, his fate is not that of living a long family life amongst a people grown to love him. Rather, it is far less noble. Chance throws a bad cast at him. A ruthless captain, out of desperation, hungry and thirsty, looked to raid his village. He was no match for the village, and only by diplomacy, manages to negotiate a peaceful resolve: an escort back to his ship. On his way back to the ship, led by a traitor, Cornelius, they attack and kill the very men who had lead them to safety. The head of which was the son of the king, Doramin.

Jim, rather than fleeing the jungle with his love, returns to Doramin who exacts his revenge on Jim by killing him.

Why was Jim like this? Was it his father who taught him that there was only one way to live and to die? While Jim may not have subscribed to the same narrative or ideals that his father did, did he not have his own unfaltering script which lead him to his fate?

The first half of the book certainly drags on relentlessly. For awhile through the middle of it, I even considered giving up on it. Once through the it, however, the action and pace pick up. I definitely recommend it.