Thursday, April 21, 2016

The Autobiography of a Super Tramp, William H. Davis

Image from Goodreads.
This is a story, an autobiography, of a young man who is a drifter. I think the word 'tramp,' in this case, refers to the style of traveling around the US, Canada, and some parts of Europe. It is available for free on

The story has a certain charm. The man goes from city to city either by hopping onto trains, walking, or some other means. At one point he and some companions buy a house boat which makes its way down the Mississippi River. He also manages to get on board freighters which take livestock across the Atlantic to Europe.

Initially, I thought this would be a book about being some kind of begging hobo, but he is equally a working man. In both cases, he is able to meet his daily needs. His companions help him when he is in need, and he returns the favour. He is able to save money until his friends, who cannot, need his help.

For the most part, up to almost the half way mark of this autobiography, the book has been generally enjoyable. A nice break from Stephen King's The Dark Tower series of which I finished the fourth book late last week. That was until I ran into some pretty heavy hitting racist comments:
Having been to the theatre, and being on my way back home late at night, half a dozen men, whom I scarcely had time to recognise as negroes, sprang from a dark corner, and, without saying a word, or giving the least chance of escape or defence, biffed and banged at my face and head until I fell unconscious at their feet. Their motive, without a doubt, was robbery, but having my money concealed in a belt next to my body, they had to be satisfied with a five cent piece, which was all my pockets contained. Such brutal outrages as these are seldom committed by white men, who having the more cool courage, demand a man's money at the commencement, and do not resort to violence, except it be their victim's wish. But this not very intelligent race half murder a man without being sure of anything for their pains.
Reading that passage was quite painful. The pages go on about the horrors of negro criminality. Later, there are more depressing passages about dirty Jews and such.

These unsightly passages of prejudice and racism are not prevailing throughout. Maybe it's better to see them than not, so as to get a proper taste of what those minorities had to suffer through (and still do).

In his attempt to tramp across Canada, he falls in trying to jump into a train. As a consequence, he loses his leg after or before the knee, and nearly his life. After recovering, he returns to England and suffers some years of want: tramping, begging, selling trivial things such as shoelaces, to make his ends meet. He was a recipient of a small inheritance from his grandmother. That, together with the pennies begged and 'earned' here and there, he manages to save enough money to purchase 250 copies of a book of poems he wrote.

He slowly sends them away freely to contacts he has made over the years, and the media, and slowly gains the respect of a noteworthy poet (not mentioned) whose opinion makes him celebrity enough to give him the life of the poet he aspired to become.

Mostly I enjoyed this book, with the major caveats mentioned about racism.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

The Metamorphosis, Franz Kafka

image from
I haven't read a lot of Kafka's work. But what I have read has been quite impressive. I am rereading "The Metamorphosis." I think this is my third or fourth reading of it. It is my first reading of it on my Kindle. It can be found freely at Gutenberg.

If Kafka had written "The Metamorphosis" and published a decade later, and perhaps better in English than in German (due to his Jewishness in an antisemitic country), he would have developed a following and been better encouraged in his art. But, perhaps it might be said that it is because of stories such as "The Metamorphosis" that there came Weird Tales magazine. It is a shame that his works should have remained in Germany, considering how much was lost, courtesy of the Gestapo, the 20th century's most famous and vicious intolerance.

"The Metamorphosis" is a masterpiece. It's true that I have an English literature background, and many of us are like stinky cheese eaters: we only make sense to one another. However, I detest James Joyce as a drunken buffoon who would have saved students countless wasted hours trying to comprehend that monstrous pile of steaming kak, Shakespeare was a cheating hack (though, such plagiarism was no crime in his day), and Hemingway brought about the death of good journalism. So, I do not subscribe to the general consensus of belongs on the list of greats and what does not. I suppose this should already be clear considering that most of what I read is not academic literature.

So the basic story is that one day, this salesman who has an otherwise very uninteresting life, wakes up and discovers he's at the end stage of being transformed, or metamorphosed into a caterpillar or other many legged creature.

There is some debate I ran into about whether or not Kafka was gay. If he was, then I can see the parallel here. In those days, gays were the scourge of the world. Germany in particular was intolerant towards those it saw as inferior or degenerate. Gays were definitely on their list of degenerates.As such, if the case can be made that Kafka was gay, I can see how this story is really about waking up and realizing that you're gay.

Both the character of Gregor Samsa and Kafka are of the same age. Samsa was 31 in the story, which was published when Kafka was 32 (so let's assume it was written the year earlier.) Samsa also sounds very similar to the name Kafka with obvious rhymes between the two names. Kafka also had a stint as a salesman which he quit out of hate for the work. Finally, while Samsa dies at 31, Kafka moves out of his family's home to live on his own at 31 (see Wikipedia's article). The story on where his family lived after he left the apartment, however, is not in the article and I doubt if I can find any information to answer that question. Suffice it to say that there are too many parallels between the story of Samsa and the story of Kafka to walk away from the assertion that Samsa is in fact Kafka, and that it is a kind of Twilight-Zonesque cross between a parable and a fable. Whether or not the physical change of being turned into a many legged monster is a result of his sexuality is a guess. The following will be my interpretation of how turning into a bug was actually a metaphor into his becoming a homosexual. Yes, I am aware of the theory that homosexuality is something people are born into, not constructed (there are good arguments for both theories). However, this could very well be the defining moment, these months of transfiguration in his room, between when he realizes he is homosexual and when he accepts that he is homosexual. The death of the bug itself might in fact be when he himself has accepted it and has moved on.

Gregor Samsa must have felt great pressure to provide for his family despite the fact that he detested his work.
Image from
...he felt a great pride that he was able to provide a (quiet) life... But what now, if all this peace and wealth and comfort should come to a horrible and frightening end?
A metaphor for his increasing alienation from the family and his anxiety about the change:
He spent the whole night (under the couch). Some of the time he passed in a light sleep, although he frequently woke from it in alarm because of his hunger.
Optimism, or a positive way to interpret his sister's fear of him,
Then, out of consideration for Gregor's feelings, as she knew that he would not eat in front of her, she hurried out again and even turned the key in the lock so that Gregor would know he could make things as comfortable for himself as he liked.
Obviously, she locked the door so that he could not get out of the room and terrorize the family, not out of consideration for himself. For, she is free to lock or unlock it, as is anyone else who chooses to enter. But he cannot.

The only family who cares enough about him to feed or otherwise take care of him, is disgusted enough that she cannot touch any of the food that he could not eat. She sweeps it all into the trash.
Nobody wanted to be left home by themselves and it was out of the question to leave the flat entirely empty.
They hold onto the hope that one day Gregor will return to them the way he was before. He rarely mentions, however, wishing that he could return back to his 'human' form. Is this because he knows he cannot? His family wants him to change back.

Towards the end, the sister has reached the limit of her tolerance for her brother's change. She seems either ready to turn him out or kill him.
I don't want to call this monster my brother, all I can say is: we have to try and get rid of it.
As Samsa is dead, and we never do discover what is done with the body: perhaps the maid has something important to say, but she is cut off and we never learn what she had done with it. She is furthermore fired as well as everyone else that knew of their relation to the bug.

The way the family treats Samsa is in fact a big clue as to how Samsa is in fact still a human being. That is to say, they know it's their son/brother even though there was never a reason to see the similarity between the bug and Samsa. What it is in fact, I suspect, is that they know about Samsa/Kafka's homosexuality, and are no longer treating him like a human being. He doesn't feel like a human being. As such, he wastes away and they all try to avoid him as best as they can. When the father throws the apple at him and hits him, the injury never heals and in fact the apple is stuck on him until Samsa's death. In fact, this is not a physical thing so much as it is an emotional thing. The fact that things are thrown at him, at Kafka, even long after the apple is thrown away or eaten, the emotional injury never leaves.

This book is excellent and really addresses the feelings of anxiety associated with being different. It's not just homosexuals who are different. However, they of course have had some very rough treatment at the hands of the intolerant as a result. What I mean is that being a homosexual, especially in Kafka's when and where, would have been a mountain, whereas most of us have to deal in hills.

I wish more of Kafka's work was available freely online. However, since they are translations, one must exercise patience. Kafka's short stories are among my favorite and he is among my most admired writers.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Wizard and Glass, Stephen King

The fourth book, like the others, continues the pattern of growth that the second and third set. The Gunslinger, according to Google, has 224 pages. The Drawing of the Three has 400 pages. The Wastelands 512, and I'm now into Wizard and Glass at 787. Regardless, a second hand paperback copy is available for as little as one penny on Amazon, while the Kindle version is $10.75. So, it is only a modest increase in price despite there being a full novel's worth of extra material.

The book has an introduction and an afterword that are original. So, unlike the first three novels, there is some little interest here. In the afterword, it's quite interesting to note how many years passed between King's writing of the third and fourth installation of The Dark Tower series.

Due to the sluggishness of The Wastelands, I had a good deal of fear that Wizard and Glass would feel equally dull through an even greater number of pages. However, I couldn't have been further from the truth. The Drawing of the Three was OK, with some sections that were good. But it just didn't have the literary flare or beauty that The Gunslinger had. And, for quite a number of pages, Wastelands was sheer drudgery that almost caused me to drop the book and move onto something else. Wizard and Glass, however, is another animal. Stephen King really mastered his craft when he forged this volume. I might even be so bold as to say that this volume is superior to the first. Where in the first volume was a mixed bag of genius and tired-and-forced expressions, there is none of that forced or tired feel to this volume. It reads brilliantly. I don't know what King was doing as he was writing this, but he was a bloody poet through parts of this. Since I have only read about 20% of the novel at this time, I can only hope he maintains his style and craft at this level.

The group of unlikely knights or gunslingers do very little in this novel. It is mainly a novel about Roland's background story. It's quite a good read. I'm glad I went through the boggy spots.

In the opening scene of Roland's story as a youth, we meet a witch that is to become involved with Roland as a young boy. Almost certainly not to Roland's benefit. In any case, it's just a marvelous scene:
... curled atop the box was a slim green snake. When she touched its back, its head came up. Its mouth yawned ina  silent hiss, displaying four pairs of fangs--two on top, two on the bottom.
 She took the snake up, crooning to it. As she brought its flat face close to her own, its mouth yawned wider and its hissing became audible. She opened her own mouth; from between her wrinkled gray lips she poked the yellowish, bad-smelling mat of her tongue. Two drops of poison--enough to kill an entire dinner-party, if mixed in the punch--fell on it. She swallowed, feeling her mouth and throat and chest burn, as if with strong liquor. For a moment the room swam out of focus, and she could hear voices murmuring in the stenchy air of the hut--the voices of those she called  "the unseen friends."
I would have preferred King to use a young woman, or younger, or of some average age. I've never been a big fan of coupling ugliness and wickedness together. Charlize Theron, for example, made a great wicked witch in Snow White and the Huntsman. For her alone was that movie worth watching. The wicked witches as haughty, powerful women, are a favorite of mine.

Another example of how King makes these brilliant flourishes that add a wonderful spice or flavor to his narrative:
(she) looked into the glass once more. The horse and its interesting young rider were gone. The rose light was gone as well. It was now just a dead glass ball she held, its only light a reflection borrowed from the moon.
Now that I'm further along, almost half way through the novel, it has become ponderous again. Some tired cliches about purity and virginity and golden yellow hair. The sick (perverted) old man is hot for the 16 year old girl, Susan, and has a hall pass from his wife on her since he's wanting a child and his wife can't (or he can't, but the narration suggests the problem is with her). Since the sick perverted man is also a powerful mayor, this is going to cause a major problem between Roland and the people.

I guess it's still in vogue today: writers who paint in moral black-and-white and rarely shades of gray.

Also, despite King being the sort of writer who doesn't mind saying fuck, when it comes to romance scenes, he's about as graphic as a cheap Harlequin novel. I guess the difference might be that in the Harlequin novel the scenes are not rape. Or are they? I have actually never read more than a few pages of a romance novel.

 His eyes were bulging, there were big drops of sweat on his forehead in spite of the room's coolness, and his tongue was actually hanging out, like a dog's on a  hot day. Revulsion rose in her throat like the taste of rotten food. She tried to pull away and his hands tightened their hold, pulling her against him. His knuckles cracked obscenely, and now she could feel the hard lump at the center of him.
He paints a singularly lecherous man who can barely contain himself for his desire of this young flesh. King can't even say cock this time. It's the hard lump at the center of him. What happened to you when you wrote this part, King?

Fortunately, the drudgery of this bland, two dimensional romance, is short enough to endure, and the narrative gets much better and easier to stomach.

Another few negative criticisms I have of King's narrative: First, his treatment of the veritable descendants of Mexicans. He refers to their language as 'crunk.' I guess it's the old cliché, right? Lots of movies were nasty towards Mexicans and (sic) Indians. Fortunately, I suppose, King left the Native Americans alone.

The next criticism I have comes from my feminist side: he refers to the virginity of Susan, Roland's love interest as something that makes her honest:
... calling her as she had all those months ago, on the night Susan had come to her hut to be proved honest.
I wonder if King would say that this is the language of the setting, or the perspective. Or if he just thinks a woman who is not a virgin is not honest? Or is King just trying to reflect the general sexist racist stereotypes for this one book? Or is King himself not racist and sexist, only his writing? Fortunately I'm white, so it's easier for me to swallow. If I was a minority maybe I'd walk away from King and his novel. Or maybe I'm too PC. Most of the time it's OK, and only mildly detracts from the story.

Friday, April 8, 2016

The People of the Black Circle, Robert E. Howard

Image from
As mentioned in my previous blog post, Robert E. Howard is one of my favorite fantasy writers. Perhaps had he lived another 30 years, he might have written something as grand as Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. This is a novella which can be read in a single sitting. It is one of the better ones available at If you are wanting to start somewhere, this is pretty much as good as it gets. One of the great things about Howard's fiction is that, despite the stories having the same heroic character, Conan, they are all perfectly independent and can be read in any order. In fact, he wrote them in no specific order. Also, this one can be read in a single sitting as it is a novella.

This is not the first time I've read this story. I have read it many times over a period of 30 years. I have read it in the well illustrated Conan Saga series, in paper with the very cover I reposted here, once on my cell phone and once on my Kindle. I don't know if there's any other writer I've reread so many times (aside from Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven" and a few other poems).

A group of wizards, the most powerful of their kind, referred to as the people of the black circle, get involved in the political workings of their neighbor. They destroy and slowly kill a king, and his sister wants revenge. Meanwhile, Conan's got some of his tribesmen in the prisons and are being used as hostages. As Conan goes to negotiate for their freedom, he runs into the Devi, who is this kingdom's heir to the throne.

There are many puppets and puppet masters in this story who work above and below board in this tale. It is complex and dynamic, which is quite amazing for a novella. But Howard is not one to waste words. We don't get to find out what he ate for breakfast or spend a lot of time checking on his feelings. He's a brute of a man who is loyal to his code of honor. As such, he becomes a good companion to Devi and takes her all the way to the black circle where he is able to dispense of all of the worst Stygia has to offer.

This is one of the stories that will make you really appreciate fantasy fiction and give you a good taste of Howard's magical style. Fritz Leiber wrote, "It has stirring language, strong motives, awesome sorcerers, brilliant magical devices, sympathetic hero-villains, and a Conan subdued enough to make the outcome interesting."

The Waste Lands, Stephen King

Image from
The Waste Lands is book #3 of 8 of The Dark Tower series. Thus far, this is the longest of the three and stands at about 500 pages. I have to say, the first half of the book drags. There are entire sections which go on about breakfast without having any particular purpose. There are also a lot of typos, wrong words, and misspellings. I think the proofreader of this book was definitely out to lunch for the ebook version. I don't know how the paperback fared. You can buy it for your Kindle or a paper version of it on or the audiobook from You can buy the paperback version, plus shipping, for 6 cents on Amazon. The Kindle version is a bit over $10. For a library binding it's almost $20.

There are other things that bother me about this book. The female character, Detta/Odetta/Susannah, is so far very unimportant for this book. I can't help but wonder if she was added as an afterthought. (sic) Let's just add an amputee woman and a black one at that and we've got the minorities covered. Through the first half of the book (where I'm at now as I'm writing my thoughts) she is little more than a severe hobble on the questing group's journey. The way she talks seems so cliche stereotyping. The biggest thing that she did for the group thus far was allow herself to get semi-raped by some kind of ghost so that her 'white bread' boyfriend can make the spell that brings Jake out of his world and into Roland's world. Once Jake has become a part of the group, she says almost nothing and has become even less satisfying as a character. He might as well have written in that there was a big rock that has to be carried to the Dark Tower.

As I am better than half way through the book, now, the pace is picking up and it's getting more interesting. The typos and wrong words are a bit more common, but the narrative is more interesting from about the time that Jake started getting written in and has continued to improve since then. I hope it continues to be at least this good, or better, or I may never finished The Dark Tower series.

Now I have completed book #3. The pace, indeed, did sustain itself from the half to the end and left us at a cliffhanger. While I remained unimpressed with Susannah's character, the horror of this post apocalyptic city is an excellent backdrop to the horror of a powerful computer which, over the course of 800 years of decline, has gone mad. The people of Lud are half rotted, much like the great bear from the previous volume, infected by some kind of poison (radiation is hinted at but never explicitly stated).

Will I jump into book four right away or do I need a break? Stay tuned...

Friday, April 1, 2016

Gods of the North, Robert E. Howard

Image from The Crom Cast.
For a very long time I have been a fan of Robert E. Howard. How unfortunate it is for me and many
of his readers that he cut his life so short. At the age of 30, due to depression on account of his mother's death, he killed himself. Literary success, had he hung on a few more years, surely would have come his way. But in the end, happiness and success are not bound to each other, right Robin Williams? I did some serious reading of most of his books when I was in my teens, and have recently reread them.

"Gods of the North," a short novella, is available freely on
In a great battle, there are but two survivors. They clash together and thanks to Conan's trusty helmet, and a killing blow, Conan survives the ordeal. Even as he barely clings onto consciousness, a nearly naked girl comes into the scene:
Image from

Her body was like ivory, and save for a veil of gossamer, she was naked as the day. Her slender bare feet were whiter than the snow they spurned. She laughed, and her laughter was sweeter than the rippling of silvery fountains, and poisonous with cruel mockery.

Beautiful, Conan is taken over by lust. She leads him on, always just out of his reach. But this vixen has no love for our hero. She is bringing him as the main course for her brothers' dinner. They, being giants, do not expect a mortal half dead from battle to offer much combat. Not only can he still fight, but he kills them as well.

He is ready to rape her. But just as he gets to her, feet bleeding from running, she disappears even as he grasps her gossamer gown. He then learns the story from an old man:
"It was Atali, the daughter of Ymir, the frost-giant! To fields of the dead she comes, and shows herself to the dying!"
Found at The Crom Cast,  "...Atali is Siren-like. Not because it absolves Conan from being a rapist, but because it fits the evidence we're given in the story better." It seems to me that perhaps the criticism is trying to avoid labeling Conan as a rapist. Quite frankly, throughout all the books of Howard's that I have read, I have never seen a character of his rape a girl. This is as close as it gets. But this brings up an interesting topic which is common in rape culture theory: a girl can say no at any time. Well, this is the ultimate test of such a theory. What if in this fantastical world a girl is siren-like. She can compel a man to follow her by using her charms, but does so at her own peril. Eventually she is defenseless and has to be rescued by her father (or destroyed?) If her father hadn't saved/destroyed her at the last moment, Conan would certainly have raped her. Would his reputation therefore suffer? Would he no longer be the heroic figure who would champion beautiful women against impossible odds, but rather a man who gives into his passion despite the vixens protestations? I think I would have forgiven Conan for it. But Howard loved his mother far too much to let Conan so soil even the tantalizing 'siren.'

I really love Robert E. Howard's stories. He writes very well. If you've thought about trying some classical fantasy hack-and-slash literature, it gets no better than Howard. While many compare him to Lovecraft, Lovecraft simply isn't on the same battlefield.

R. H. Barlow once wrote a poem in memoriam for Robert E. Howard shortly after his death. He laments Howard and Conan, as being one and the same. Little did he know that Conan would rise from such an ignoble end, and continue hacking and slashing. However, while the likes of Robert Jordan lent a pen to such a resurrection, the truth of the matter is that they were in no way able to match Howard's brilliant narrative style. However, I think Barlow very nearly captured Howard's poetic narrative in "R. E. H."

R. E. H. 

Conan, the warrior king, lies stricken dead 
Beneath a sky of cryptic stars; the lute 
That was his laughter stilled, and sadly mute  
Upon the chilling earth his youthful head. 
 There sounds for him no more the clamorous fray,
 But dirges now, where once the trumpet loud:  
About him press old memories for shroud, 
And ended is the conflict of the day.  

Death spilled the blood of him who loved the fight  
As men love mistresses, and fought it well—  
His fair young flesh is marble where he fell 
With broken sword that vanquished all but Night;  
And as of mythic kings our words must speak 
Of Conan now, who roves where dreamers seek.
 R. H. Barlow 1936