Still among the living

Well, I perpetrated short fiction again, this time with a horror theme. Presumed Dead is a short story I wrote in response to a challenge. It’s brought to you by the folks at Sci-Fi & Scary: Sci-Fi & Horror Reviews, News, and More, and yes, the blog is exactly what it says it is, sometimes serious, sometimes snarky, and where do they go those illustrations?

I’ve done surprisingly little straight horror on this blog, as my longer stories don’t usually quite fit that description even with horror elements in them, the vampires of Martha’s Children being one example. But some short stories qualify as horror. Dead Cellphone is a tasty little bit of supernatural and psychological horror. Death and Professor Appleton is a more traditional horror story, while On Huckman Causeway is in tone spiritual kin to Presumed Dead. And the shorter The Day After Halloween  and longer When the ghost came in from the cold are fair horror humor stories.

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I’ve not been writing fiction for the blog in recent months due to family and professional commitments. Not that I haven’t wanted to; this has been frustrating for me. So I’m happy to point you all to a very short story I wrote about alien life on another planet. It’s called “The Saturnian Rings of Life,” and you may find it here.

It’s brought to you by the blog Sci-Fi and Scary: Sci-Fi and Horror Reviews, News, and More. I’ve been watching this site grow into its name, with its emphasis on covering independent and small press authors and books, commenting on movies, and posting occasional simple silliness. So after you’ve read my story on their blog, mosey around a bit on it to see what else they have to offer, see if there is anything you like.

If you’re coming from that direction, because you want to check out my fiction, you might want to check out some of my shorter horror fiction, “The Day After Halloween” for humor, “Dead Cellphone” for horror with a bit more angst. If you’re feeling ambitious, there are several novel-length stories listed under the blog’s header. Summer of the Netherfield Witch is quite different from either of the short stories, and not a bad place to start.

Not those rings, though!
Photo courtesy of NASA, and isn’t it gorgeous!

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Walking the line between fantasy and reality: two films from the 1920s

The first seduction — Flesh and the Devil

I was recently teaching a course on the Roaring Twenties in the United States. To do this properly, I ended up watching a great many more silent films than I’d ever seen before. Along the way, I stumbled across two films from that era that had a great deal in common, including skirting the borderline between fantasy and reality. There two films are Flesh and the Devil (1926) and Pandora’s Box (1929).

Never heard of either of them? But I’ll bet you’ll recognize the name of the female lead in Flesh and the Devil: Greta Garbo. The female lead in Pandora’s Box is less well known today, but she does have a devoted fan following. Her name is Louise Brooks. Flesh and the Devil made the Swedish-born Garbo a star in Hollywood, while Brooks abandoned Hollywood for Germany to make Pandora’s Box (German title: Die Büchse der Pandora).

Must look like a sorrowful widow when I go on trial for killing a man — Pandora’s Box

The femme fatale was a much beloved character type of the 1920s, not just in the movies, but in literature as well. Ideally, she was mysterious, seductive, promiscuous, and destructive. Garbo’s Felicitas and Brooks’s Lulu fit the ideal. Felicitas begins by seducing a young man, only to be caught by her husband. Lulu is an older man’s mistress who thinks nothing of seducing the man’s son. Naturally, men die for these women, although the women will torment them first.

There’s a whiff of the supernatural about both women. Felicitas’s death leads the two men fighting over her (this time) acting as if they’ve just been released from a spell they’ve been under. We are left to wonder if Felicitas was supernatural, a witch or demon. While Pandora’s Box up front lets us know we are dealing with mythological themes, as well as being a double entendre for Lulu’s femininity. Yet another legendary figure enters the story after Lulu has unleashed a great many evils, just like Pandora, although Lulu’s evils specifically affect those who lust after her.

So are we going to kill each other over Garbo, like sensible men? — Flesh and the Devil

Most of the silent films I had seen before preparing this course had featured actors being overly dramatic in gestures and facial expressions to compensate for their inability to convey their feelings directly by speaking. So it was a revelation to see how subtle Garbo was as Felicitas, able to convey a wide range of emotions with just her face, and an even wider range when we could see her body. In contrast, in Pandora’s Box, it’s not the range of emotions Louise Brooks conveys, as her ability to portray a woman who is seemingly innocent, but in reality far, far from it. Both women are mysteries: Garbo’s Felicitas lures you with hints of hidden emotions, while Brooks’s Lulu presents men with a facade too easily mistaken for her real personality.

It’s heresy to think so, but I think Louse Brooks does a better job at acting in her other German 1929 film, Diary of a Lost Girl.

Are the women just normal, albeit mysterious, seductive, and destructive? Or are they somehow supernatural? One can watch the films and interpret them either way. It’s easy for me, as a man, to see these films as men trying to interpret how women affect them, and realizing they don’t fully understand female sexuality and its effects on them. But one could view these films from a more feminine perspective as the difficulties society throws in the way of women who want to unleash their sexuality. Considering the fates of both Felicitas and Lulu, the movies do not offer a comforting moral for women.

Garbo would go on to hit after hit, easily making the transition to talkies, and being nominated for three Academy Awards in the 1930s. Brooks would make two more well-regarded films in Europe before returning to the United States, where she was never again able to secure a starring role in a major picture. Despite their quite different careers in the 1930s, neither would act in films after 1941. Garbo would become a famous recluse, dying in 1990, age 84. Brooks would be all but forgotten for decades, but be rediscovered and actually become a film critic-historian in her later years, dying in 1985, age 78.

If either of these films sound at all interesting, I’d suggest tackling each paired with another film by the same actress. If you watch Flesh and the Devil, see Garbo in a talkie, maybe the more lighthearted Ninotchka (1939). For Brooks, I’d recommend pairing Pandora’s Box with her other German film, Diary of a Lost Girl. Critics seem to think it a weaker film, but it gives Brooks a wider range of character and feeling than Pandora’s Box, and is thus to me a bit more satisfying.

 

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Six books I have read so often that they are falling apart

William Shirer

I have a lot of books. I read a lot of books. And yet some books I keep coming back to, time after time, until their bindings crack and they are candidates for replacement, or, oddly enough, the recycle bin. So I thought I’d go through my library and see what qualifies.

Right at the top are two history books, William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (1960) and Historians’ Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought (1970) by David Hackett Fischer. One could say Nazism is a historical fallacy, but the connection between these two books for me is a lot deeper than that. Shirer’s book was my introduction to a realistic political history, demonstrating how people, institutions, and customs interacted, often in unexpected ways, to create and destroy Hitler’s state. While Fischer’s book is a serious look at how historians, professional, classical, or amateur, go off the rails with what often sound like plausible arguments.

David Hackett Fischer

Both books are outdated now. I know Shirer got some things wrong, and Fischer often used examples from academic controversies of the 1960s to make his points. Yet I often wish more people read Fischer’s work, because I see his fallacies crop up in social media all the time. And Shirer’s lessons about how informal power structures shape history as much as the formal ones are worth remembering.

Turning to fiction, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813) is the book I read when I’m depressed in the wee hours of the night and need some snappy dialogue and cheerful thoughts. While The Heritage of Hastur (1975) by Marion Zimmer Bradley impressed the hell out of me at the time, thanks to its exploration of both politics and sexuality in a science fiction setting. MZB’s reputation has taken a nosedive because of allegations of extensive sexual abuse by her and one of her husbands, which raises the difficult question of how much we separate the writer’s work from the writer. I respect the novel; I am disturbed thinking about what human costs contributed to it.

J. Frank Dobie

Finally, there are heirlooms. My father passed along some books to me over the years. The very first was a book about legends of buried treasure in the American Southwest, J. Frank Dobie’s Coronado’s Children (1930). Dobie told wonderful stories, and introduced me to a very different part of the world. I wanted to go off and dig for buried treasure! While The Literary Digest 1927 Atlas of the World and Gazetteer showed me that there were many strange places in the world, and that people of that time did not fully understand the history that was being made right before their eyes. There’s a lesson to keep one humble about one’s own place in history.

Again, both books are in different ways obsolete. (That does seem to be a common feature of non-fiction with historical dimensions.) While his liberal politics once cost him his position at the University of Texas, Dobie’s attitude toward Blacks and Hispanics as expressed in his book seems condescending now. And not only is the Atlas long out of date, but its parent publication, the Literary Digest, folded not long after famously predicting the wrong winner of the 1936 Presidential election. It turned out the Digest‘s polling technique was disastrously flawed, being seriously biased to the well-off, which is why it predicted a Republican victory. Instead, Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt won his third term by taking every state except Maine and Vermont.

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Books of wonder: reviewing Ice and Picnic at Hanging Rock

Lindsay when she was about the age of the girls in her novel

There are stupid ideas. And I had one. Why not review two genre-bending works of fiction, both by female British Commonwealth authors, both published in 1967? Won’t the comparisons be fun and informative? And so I sat down to read and review Joan Lindsay’s Picnic at Hanging Rock and Anna Kavan’s Ice. My conclusion? They are both “books of wonder” (to borrow a term I used in a discussion over at SciFi & Scary), but you’re likely to throw one or the other of them across the room after you finish reading them.

Picnic at Hanging Rock is the more familiar, thanks to the 1975 Peter Weir film. Joan Lindsay (1896-1984) was an Australian woman who experimented in various forms before she wrote Hanging Rock. Judging from her Wikipedia entry, she sounds as if she’d have been amusing to know. The novel explored how the inexplicable disappearance of three girls and a schoolmistress on Valentine’s Day, 1900, and the subsequent equally mysterious reappearance of one of the girls, sets off a chain reaction of mostly disastrous consequences for the school they were attending, and the people associated with it. It’s heavily grounded in the Australian physical and social geography of the era.

Anna Kavan

Ice? You’ve heard of it or its author? You were ahead of me. Anna Kavan (1901-1968) was an English woman who became addicted to heroin in the 1920s and who radically changed her personality and writing style when she took the Kavan name from one of her fictional characters in 1939. She seems like the sort of person best described as “high maintenance.” Her novel, if that’s what it is, is about a nightmarish future in which the world is apparently being destroyed by wars while a new ice age is about to destroy all human life for good. The narrator spends most of the story pursuing “the girl,” a very blond, very fragile creature who has been socialized into being a perpetual victim. To the extent it’s grounded in anything real, the story traces its origins to a trip around the world Kavan took at the start of World War II. But in truth, it’s about a surrealistic world. It’s often held to be an allegory of Kavan’s heroin addiction, or a proto-feminist work about how women are degraded by society. Yes, you can read it those ways. And you’ll still be left with issues. It’s not a tidy work that way.

Despite the obvious differences, these two works have something in common. Both are “books of wonder,” engrossed with mysteries. Hanging Rock is about the missing girls: who they were, what happened to them, how they affected others. It’s a mystery set in an ordinary world, and scary for that reason. While the mystery in Ice is the entire surrealistic story. “The girl” is a mystery, the fate of the world is a mystery, the narrator is a mystery, whether any episode is real or a dream is a mystery. It’s about abnormal people in an abnormal world. The scary part? It resembles our own world far, far too often.

The movie version of Picnic at Hanging Rock, which came out in 1975, is so well known it is hard to read the novel without the movie in mind. But do try. Weir’s depiction of innocent teenage female eroticism is so powerful that it makes it hard to see the larger canvas the novel is covering. It’s about relationships of various sorts, many of which have dark edges, leading to the sometime classification of this as a gothic novel.

The cover illustration on the Penguin paperback conveys something of the mood of the book
(Cover art: Hsiao-Ron Cheng)

About the nearest way I could think of how one might film Ice would be to model it on A Scanner Darkly, Philip K. Dick’s 1977 novel that was adapted into a movie in 2006. That A Scanner Darkly is also about drug addiction is no coincidence. Ice would require layers of reality and unreality in visual terms to convey its nightmare-like qualities.

I’d say people who aren’t bothered by open-ended mysteries, or who like gothic novels, or who want an Australian novel, would all enjoy Picnic at Hanging Rock. While Ice requires a sophisticated taste for surrealism and a nonlinear subjective narrative shaped around what appears to be a violent sexual obsession and a dystopian future. I expect more people would enjoy Hanging Rock than Ice. In fact, I’m hard put to figure out who would enjoy both. Me? I like Hanging Rock, both the novel and the movie, for somewhat different reasons. I’m still trying to figure out my own reaction to Ice. It’s a hard book to categorize, to follow, to enjoy. To the extent I can sympathize with the narrator’s obsession with “the girl,” or understand the bleak view of humanity it offers, I can see depths in it. So I haven’t yet thrown it across the room. And probably won’t.

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And we come to an end of riding the lightning bolt

Is this to be Daphne’s fate?

Daphne’s no longer going to be forced into an arranged marriage with some pathetic demigod. Her sister Agatha isn’t going to be forced to divorce her husband and marry her father. All’s right with the world, eh? Well, there is that problem of a death sentence the Council passed on Daphne’s head. And guess who’s responsible for carrying out that sentence? And how close she’s sitting to Daphne? It’s the end of Daphne’s adventure, one way or another, in “Verdicts and decisions,” chapter 22 of To Ride the Lightning Bolt.

And for me, it’s the end of a ride that mostly began and ended in October when I wrote almost all of this story at a fever pitch. Ever since then, it’s been rereading and revising while watching my readers react to the story. A bit more relaxing than the times I’m composing only a chapter ahead, I tell you!

As usual, the story writing part of this blog will go on hiatus for a month to give me time to recharge my batteries. And now that some personal issues in my life have been resolved, I’ve time to think of where to take this blog next. In the meantime, there will still be occasional posts. I know at least one book review that should come up next week.

Thanks for visiting and reading!

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Showdown in chapter 21 of To Ride the Lightning Bolt

Daphne expects the same favorable treatment meted out to Marie Antoinette before the Revolutionary Tribunal

All Daphne Vane originally wanted was not to have a marriage forced on her by the Council. But her marriage became tangled up with many other political issues of greater import to others, and she stands before the Council accused of violating its dearest values. Can Daphne succeed in bringing the Council over to her side? And even if she does, what political consequences will there be? Find out in “Daphne plays out her hand,” chapter 21 of To Ride the Lightning Bolt.

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