Dwarf hospitality in chapter 15 of To Ride the Lightning Bolt


Daphne Vane’s just escaped from being attacked by a panther, only to fall into the hands of the dwarves of legend and myth. She may be half-dwarf herself, but she knows next to nothing about these people. And it turns out they aren’t sure what they know about her! See Daphne get caught in a truly unspeakable situation in “Prisoner of fate,” chapter 15 of To Ride the Lightning Bolt, my weekly serial about a young American woman’s quest to assert her identity. If you haven’t been reading it before, you can start at the beginning. All the chapters are hyperlinked to the previous and succeeding chapters.

In preparing this post, I ran across mention of the delightful dwarf statues in Wrocław, Poland. There are now several hundred of these scattered around the city. So I’ve posted pictures of two of them here. (Picture credit to Wikipedia/Pnapora for both; sculptors’ names not given, unfortunately.)


And like last week, this chapter is up ahead of schedule. I’ll spare you the details of my busy life, except to say I’m having great fun teaching a course on “American Political Scandals.” I hope next week I get back to my regular schedule.


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Exiled and confused in chapter 14 of To Ride the Lightning Bolt

A forest at twilight can be quite ominous.
(“Landscape in the Forest at Compiègne” by Paul Huet (1803-69))

Daphne Vane has three and a half days to find her father in the very strange land the dwarves of legend now inhabit. Pity she only had one hour to be briefed on conditions and prepare any gear. But given a choice between braving the unknown dangers of an alien forest, and marrying one of the pathetic demigods the Council has chosen as her suitors, she’ll take Exile, thank you! Still, Daphne can’t escape unwanted attention while in the woods, as she finds out in “A night in Exile,” chapter 14 of To Ride the Lightning Bolt, my weekly serial about a young woman whose life is definitely not the cat’s pajamas right now.

I expect that due to weather and other circumstances, I won’t be on the Internet for a few days. That’s why I’m posting this chapter two days early. So I might be a bit slow in approving and replying to your comments. Please be patient.

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In memoriam: Robin St. John Conover (1944 – 2008)

It’s her birthday today, so I thought I would say a few words about my first Internet friend, Robin St. John Conover. We met in an online Brontë forum. I was the amateur, just reading my way through all the sisters’ novels, not just the famous ones, and contemplating graduate school. She was the pro, working on her Ph.D., an analysis of Charlotte Brontë’s juvenilia. Turned out she was also on the other side of the continent, studying at the University of Victoria, British Columbia.

We hit it off, so our conversations gradually expanded to cover other topics in our lives. I was trying to cope with beginning graduate school in New York City. She was hunting for a son she’d given up for adoption years before. (She found him, which made her very happy.) We talked about politics, literature, and life. It was fun, the way I’ve always hoped the Internet could be.

I met her only once. Robin had been an “Ada” at Smith College, recipient of a special scholarship for “nontraditional” undergraduates, and wanted to attend her class reunion. But she had been cruelly felled by a stroke just after completing her dissertation. Managing such a trip would strain her resources in many ways. I was living in Amherst, only a few miles from Smith College, and offered to let her stay in our apartment while she attended the reunion. We didn’t get much chance to talk, but that was understood from the start: Robin needed to conserve her energies for the reunion. All I could really do, then, was to offer her a place to rest. And that she got.

Not long after, we somehow fell out of touch on the Internet. So it wasn’t until several years afterward that I discovered Robin had died, appropriately through an Internet search turning up her obituary. And I learned there was a lot about Robin I didn’t know but would like to have known. We hadn’t exhausted all the things we could have talked about. Isn’t that true for every friendship?

So here’s to the memory of my first Internet friend. I have no picture of you, Robin, so I’m going to post a picture of the person at the heart of your dissertation, instead.

Charlotte is usually identified as the sister on the right. (Anne to the left, Emily in the middle.)

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Review: uncertain narrators in horror: novels by Hogg and Tryon

Live head cast of James Hogg (1770-1835)

We tend to think of the unreliable narrator as a 20th century development. The unreliable narrator rejects the apparent objectivity of the omniscient narrator so beloved by the Victorians, warning us that all knowledge is subjective, all stories told from a viewpoint. So it’s a bit of a shock to run into the unreliable narrator in a pre-Victorian novel, 1824’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg (1770-1835).

Confessions is a horror story of man who takes the Presbyterian doctrine of predestination to its logical, or perhaps illogical, extreme: because God has determined from the beginning of time who will be saved and who will be damned, and because no man can be save by his own efforts, it follows that no man can be damned by his own efforts. Convinced he is among those who will be saved, our protagonist lies, steals, and kills in the name of God. And he does so at the suggestion of an individual who or may not be the Devil.

Confessions offers us two narrators, the first by a man supplying what is commonly known about the events involving the protagonist, and the second, a memoir composed by the protagonist himself. The contrast is an effective way of signaling the unreliability of both narratives, the first for not necessarily being correct, the second for not necessarily being honest.

The unreliability of the narrators serves two purposes. Hogg portrays the protagonist’s hypocrisy effectively. And he leaves us in doubt as to the reality of the supernatural elements.

Before he became a writer, Tryon (1926-1991) was a Hollywood actor

Jump a century and a half, and we reach The Other, Thomas Tryon’s 1971 novel that helped kick off the horror craze of the 1970s. In many ways, The Other resembles Confessions. There are, in effect, two narrators, and we have strong reasons for doubting the accuracy of what either of them says.

Yet The Other is clearly a story of madness, although that madness is only slowly revealed as we turn the pages. Niles Perry becomes increasingly worried as his twin brother Holland shows signs of reckless and criminal behavior. The question of what Niles can do to stop Holland gets tangled up in the issue of how complicit Niles is in his brother’s behavior. The unreliable narrators keep us confused while setting up the problem, and ultimately they also provide a definitive horrific resolution.

Tryon is more subtle than Hogg. Hogg aims to expose hypocrisy, Tryon to undermine our certainty with madness. Hogg’s two narrators have completely different perspectives; Tryon’s are intimately related. Paradoxically, by the end we can be certain of what happened in The Other, while uncertainty lingers when one puts down Confessions.

Overall, both novels use their unreliable narrators to portray self-delusion. Whether hypocrisy or madness is the source (and are they so different?), the result is a protagonist who cannot admit the reality of who he is and what he has done. Curiously, the conclusion is both heartening and disturbing. It would seem that people wish to be good, and do not wish to be bad, yet are fully capable or rationalizing or irrationalizing their bad behavior.

Much of Confessions is set in old Edinburgh

It’s worth reading these two novels back to back, as I did, to get a broad idea of how the unreliable narrator can be used effectively in horror. If you have time for only one? Hogg will give you a supernatural story set in old Scotland with a depiction of moral depravity. Tryon will give you a sentimental account of an American childhood from several decades ago that has gone very, very wrong. Let your tastes be your guide.

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Up against Mother in chapter 13 of To Ride the Lightning Bolt

It’s time for a showdown!. In this corner, Cynthia Vane, goddess, casual lover of a great many men, never defeated. In the other corner, Daphne Vane, Cynthia’s daughter, not even officially recognized as a demigoddess, one of her many defeats. It looks like it should be no contest, but Daphne’s been laying the groundwork for this fight for some time. I’m going to defy the bookies and say it will go a whole fifteen rounds unless one side or the other scores a knock-out — and I’ll lay even odds on which one of them will do it! Check out the action in “Mommy dearest, Daddy dearest,” chapter 13 of To Ride the Lightning Bolt, my weekly serial about a young American woman who’s prepared to blackmail her mother to get out of an arranged marriage.

If you’re just joining the story, you can start here. And if you’re read some chapters, but need to catch up, go visit the hyperlinked table of contents to connect to any chapter.

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Daphne attacks! in chapter 12 of To Ride the Lightning Bolt

Daphne Vane is tired of getting pushed around. The Council, her mother, Enforcement, and now her doppelganger have been making of her life a misery. And all because she’s not the nice little goddess she should have been. Well, they’re all in for another think coming. Because Daphne Vane now knows how to even turn her disadvantages into advantages. It’s time for her to start taking control in “Flagrantly imperfect,” chapter 12 of To Ride the Lightning Bolt, my weekly serial about the travails of an almost normal young American woman (if you exclude being a demigoddess, having a doppelganger, and a few other things) who finds the deck stacked against her.

Daphne’s going in for the kill!
(Source: Wikipedia/Harsh.kabra.98)

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Movie reviews: many Cat People

I’m just an innocent girl who likes to hang out in the zoo with the big cats!

Back some time ago, I reviewed the Midwich Cuckoo films, an odd trilogy that consisted of the original Village of the Damned (1960), a remake with the same title in 1995, and an odd offshoot, Children of the Damned (1964). It turns out this is not the only horror franchise to follow such a pattern. For there is Cat People (1942, 1944, 1982).

Both Cat People, the 1942 original and the 1982 remake, revolve around an exotic-looking woman named Irena, who discovers she cannot get sexually excited without turning into a murderous feline. In both movies, Irena does not wish to be a killer and looks for ways to avoid this fate. And the 1982 film pays homage to its predecessor by copying several of its key scenes.

So am I!

Otherwise, the two films could hardly be more different. The 1942 film is a low-budget black-and-white production in which Irena is descended from devil worshipers who turn into cats. She isn’t sure herself if she’s a cat person or not, but she lets her fear keep her from consummating her marriage. Unfortunately, her husband is increasingly attracted to a colleague at work, while Irena’s psychiatrist decides seduction should be part of his “treatment” of her. Thanks to the Hays Code, the sexuality is never explicit. Thanks to the budget, neither is the horror. We see shadows, not monsters. They can be threatening enough.

I’m her brother and I am NOT crazy, just a poor sinner who will be redeemed by incest

The “remake,” made as a Hollywood feature film with “name” stars, doesn’t so much echo the first film as ring a new set of changes on the same ideas. Irena is now the descendant of predatory cats who sucked up the souls of humans sacrificed to them. She’s not too sure of exactly what she is, either, but faces a long-lost brother who wants to convince her so that he can have sex with her. And her “good guy” human lover is a bit less patient that his 1942 predecessor. There’s enough nudity, explicit sexuality, and some gory scenes to get an R rating in the United States.

Fittingly, the cat woman in each film was played by a foreign actress. Simone Simon was a French actress whose brief career in the United States was severely limited by her accent and temperamental behavior. She’s got an off-beat beauty and wide-eyed innocence about her, which makes it curious that her two most notable American roles were as evil women, here and in The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941). Nastassja Kinski, who has a German-Polish background, was then at the peak of her career in the United States. She successfully played Irena as a very young woman at first uncertain of her sexuality, who struggles to come to terms with it as it unfolds.

It’s hard to say which film is better, since their tone and plots are so different, even to the point of Irena resolving her problem in different ways. The original does a good job of suggesting horror, though some of its techniques are shopworn now. But I believe that the remake is the richer film, in spite of the usual rule that explicitness is a sign of shallowness. Malcolm McDowell’s performance as Irena’s brother is by turns horrifying and comic, sometimes both. While Irena’s decisions toward the end become increasingly tragic as she herself slips into a sort of insanity much more complex that the psychological turmoil of her 1942 predecessor.

This is me and my imaginary friend. Is it just a coincidence that she looks like my father’s first wife who thought she was a cat person?

And then there is 1944’s The Curse of the Cat People. Despite the title, despite the trailer, despite three of the leading actors returning to reprise their roles, this is NOT a horror film, and it’s not really about cat people, either. It’s actually the story of a young girl, precocious, introverted, lonely, and imaginative. She conjures up an imaginary friend who, in Turn of the Screw fashion, may or may not be supernatural. Ann Carter (1936-2014), playing the little girl, carries this film. Her performance is a gem. But too many people, for some strange reason, such as the entire promotional campaign for this film, thought they were going to see a horror film, and it did poorly.

If you like old-fashioned horror films, 1942’s Cat People is a worthy example. Modern horror? I think 1982’s Cat People strikes an interesting balance between psychological horror and the sex and gore we’ve come to expect. Besides, it features a David Bowie song, “Cat People (Putting Out Fire)” that’s so popular it’s appeared on other movie soundtracks, including this year’s Atomic Blonde. I’m not sure whom to recommend The Curse of the Cat People to, but it’s a pity Ann Carter’s performance is probably mostly seen by disappointed horror fans.

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