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1. A Halloween horror story: What was it? Part 5

Every Friday this October we’ve unveiled a part of Fitz-James O’Brien’s tale of an unusual entity in What Was It?, a story from the spine-tingling collection of works in Horror Stories: Classic Tales from Hoffmann to Hodgson, edited by Darryl Jones. Today we’re wrapping up the story with the final installment. Last we left off the narrator, Harry, and his friend, Hammond, tied up an invisible entity, shocking the boarders of the haunted home where they had been staying. Will they learn more about the mysterious creature?

We watched together, smoking many pipes, all night long, by the bedside of the unearthly being that tossed and panted until it was apparently wearied out. Then we learned by the low, regular breathing that it slept.

The next morning the house was all astir. The boarders congregated on the landing outside my room, and Hammond and myself were lions. We had to answer a thousand questions as to the state of our extraordinary prisoner, for as yet not one person in the house except ourselves could be induced to set foot in the apartment.

The creature was awake. This was evidenced by the convulsive manner in which the bed-clothes were moved in its efforts to escape. There was something truly terrible in beholding, as it were, those second-hand indications of the terrible writhings and agonized struggles for liberty which themselves were invisible.

Hammond and myself had racked our brains during the long night to discover some means by which we might realize the shape and general appearance of the Enigma. As well as we could make out by passing our hands over the creature’s form, its outlines and lineaments were human. There was a mouth; a round, smooth head without hair; a nose, which, however, was little elevated above the cheeks; and its hands and feet felt like those of a boy. At first we thought of placing the being on a smooth surface and tracing its outline with chalk, as shoemakers trace the outline of the foot. This plan was given up as being of no value. Such an outline would give not the slightest idea of its conformation.

A happy thought struck me. We would take a cast of it in plaster of Paris. This would give us the solid figure, and satisfy all our wishes. But how to do it? The movements of the creature would disturb the setting of the plastic covering, and distort the mould. Another thought. Why not give it chloroform? It had respiratory organs,—that was evident by its breathing. Once reduced to a state of insensibility, we could do with it what we would. Doctor X—— was sent for; and after the worthy physician had recovered from the first shock of amazement, he proceeded to administer the chloroform. In three minutes afterward we were enabled to remove the fetters from the creature’s body, and a modeller was busily engaged in covering the invisible form with the moist clay. In five minutes more we had a mould, and before evening a rough fac-simile of the Mystery. It was shaped like a man,—distorted, uncouth, and horrible, but still a man. It was small, not over four feet and some inches in height, and its limbs revealed a muscular development that was unparalleled. Its face surpassed in hideousness anything I had ever seen. Gustave Doré, or Callot, or Tony Johannot, never conceived anything so horrible. There is a face in one of the latter’s illustrations to Un Voyage où il vous plaira, which somewhat approaches the countenance of this creature, but does not equal it. It was the physiognomy of what I should fancy a ghoul might be. It looked as if it was capable of feeding on human flesh.

Having satisfied our curiosity, and bound every one in the house to secrecy, it became a question what was to be done with our Enigma? It was impossible that we should keep such a horror in our house; it was equally impossible that such an awful being should be let loose upon the world. I confess that I would have gladly voted for the creature’s destruction. But who would shoulder the responsibility? Who would undertake the execution of this horrible semblance of a human being? Day after day this question was deliberated gravely. The boarders all left the house. Mrs Moffat was in despair, and threatened Hammond and myself with all sorts of legal penalties if we did not remove the Horror. Our answer was, ‘We will go if you like, but we decline taking this creature with us. Remove it yourself if you please. It appeared in your house. On you the responsibility rests.’ To this there was, of course, no answer. Mrs Moffat could not obtain for love or money a person who would even approach the Mystery.

The most singular part of the affair was that we were entirely ignorant of what the creature habitually fed on. Everything in the way of nutriment that we could think of was placed before it, but was never touched. It was awful to stand by, day after day, and see the clothes toss, and hear the hard breathing, and know that it was starving.

Ten, twelve days, a fortnight passed, and it still lived. The pulsations of the heart, however, were daily growing fainter, and had now nearly ceased. It was evident that the creature was dying for want of sustenance. While this terrible life-struggle was going on, I felt miserable. I could not sleep. Horrible as the creature was, it was pitiful to think of the pangs it was suffering.

At last it died. Hammond and I found it cold and stiff one morning in the bed. The heart had ceased to beat, the lungs to inspire. We hastened to bury it in the garden. It was a strange funeral, the dropping of that viewless corpse into the damp hole. The cast of its form I gave to Doctor X——, who keeps it in his museum in Tenth Street.

As I am on the eve of a long journey from which I may not return, I have drawn up this narrative of an event the most singular that has ever come to my knowledge.

Missed a part of the story? Catch up with part 1, 2, 3, and 4 for a frightening Halloween read.

Featured image credit: What happened by Thomas Mues. CC 2.0 via Flickr.

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2. Miriam Toews: The Powells.com Interview

Some people are compelled by a restlessness from within; others are shaped by the unwieldy forces around them. In Miriam Toews's poignant new novel following two sisters raised in a small Canadian Mennonite community, siblinghood is a bond strengthened by this dynamic. Elf is now a world-famous concert pianist with a happy marriage, while her [...]

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3. Six classic tales of horror for Halloween

People have enjoyed the horror genre for centuries, reveling in the spooky, toe-curling, hair-raising feelings this genre elicits — perfect for Halloween. Whether you’re trick-or-treating, attending a costume party, or staying home, we’ve put together a list of Oxford World’s Classics that will put you in the mood for this eerie night.

The Vampyre and Other Tales of the Macabre by John Polidori

“The Vampyre”, a gothic horror that’s sure to push you to the edge of your seat, is considered the first to incorporate a vampire into fiction. And that’s just one of the many squeamish stories in store; from a bloodthirsty vampire to obsessive revenge, let the ghastly atmosphere overwhelm you with this collection of stories.

The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg

Follow the terrifying story of a young man whose descent into madness leads into a life as a serial murderer. In the second half of the novel, the murderer tells his side of the story, revealing his true madness. This psychologically unnerving novel will probably leave you sleepless. Don’t say we didn’t warn you.

A Sicilian Romance by Ann Radcliffe

Perhaps a story about an arranged marriage wouldn’t garner the usual horror fan’s interest. But after nearly (and unknowingly) being stabbed by her jealous stepmother, the protagonist escapes from the arrange marriage into the labyrinth of the passages underneath Sicilian castles. With Ann Radcliffe’s weaving of psychological terror in a gothic setting, this is a perfect book to lose yourself in while (perhaps accidentally) ignoring the trick-or-treaters at your door.

Heart of Darkness and Other Tales by Joseph Conrad

In a story highlighting the horrors that humans can wreak upon one another, Marlow (the narrator in the story) tells of his experience in Africa and of his witnessing Kurtz’s descent into power hunger and madness. The dark themes present throughout Heart of Darkness will sit at the forefront of your mind, an ever-present reminder that humans can be just as frightful as any monster.

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde poster by Chicago : National Prtg. & Engr. Co. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde poster by Chicago : National Prtg. & Engr. Co. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Other Tales by Robert Louis Stevenson

The first story in this four-piece collection is the horrifying story that tells of a doctor conducting experiments that cause him to transform into a violent, murderous man. Is Hyde really a separate “being”? Or is he simply Jekyll unleashed from the confines of moral society…? This classic story is bound to find its way on the list, and with a number of other chilling short stories by Robert Louis Stevenson in this book, you can’t lose.

In a Glass Darkly by Sheridan Le Fanu

You’ll claw your way out of being buried alive in The Room in the Dragon Volant. Or you’ll go mad as a demon haunts you with the intent of destroying you psychologically in Green Tea. With supernatural creatures and nightmarish circumstances, this collection of five short stories will highlight any horror lover’s Halloween.

Headline image: Caw! Caw! Photo by Wayne Wilkinson. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

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4. Celebrating Dylan Thomas’s centenary

Today, 27 October sees the centenary of the birth of the poet, Dylan Marlais Thomas. Born on Cwmdonkin Drive, Swansea, and brought up in the genteel district of Uplands, Thomas’s childhood was suburban and orthodox — his father an aspirational but disappointed English teacher at the local grammar school.

Swansea would remain a place for home comforts. But from the mid-1930s, Thomas began a wandering life that took in London’s Fitzrovia — and in particular its pubs, the Fitzroy Tavern and the Wheatsheaf — and then (as a dysfunctionally married man) the New Forest, squalid rooms in wartime London, New Quay on Cardigan Bay, Italy, Laugharne in Carmarthenshire, and from 1950 the United States where he gained a popular student following and where he died in Manhattan, aged thirty-nine.

For all his wanderings, few of Thomas’s poems were written outside Wales. Indeed, half of the published poems for which he is known were written, in some form, while he was living at home in Swansea between 1930 and 1934. As Paul Ferris, his Oxford DNB biographer writes, “commonplace scenes and characters from childhood recur in his writing: the park that adjoins Cwmdonkin Drive; the bay and sands that were visible from the windows; a maternal aunt he visited” — the latter giving rise to one of Thomas’s best-known poems, “Fern Hill.” In literary London, and in numerous bar rooms thereafter, Thomas’s “drinking and clowning were indispensable to him, but they were only half the story; ‘I am as domestic as a slipper’ he once observed, with some truth.”

Dylan_Thomas_-_Was_there_a_time
Dylan Thomas, “Was there a time” by Biccie. CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

In addition to its life of Dylan Thomas, the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography includes entries on his wife Caitlin Thomas (1903-1994) and David Archer (1907-1971), the London publisher who brought out Thomas’s first collection Eighteen Poems — as well as a guide to Thomas’s fellow bohemians who haunted the saloons, cafes, and bookshops of inter-war Fitzrovia.

The Oxford DNB’s life of Dylan Thomas is also available as an episode in the ODNB’s biography podcast.

 

Or download the podcast directly.

Headline image credit: Swansea Panorama by Sloman. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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5. The 100th anniversary of Dylan Thomas’s birth

On 27th October 1914 Dylan Thomas was born in Swansea, South Wales. He is widely regarded as one the most significant Welsh writers of the 20th century.Thomas’s popular reputation has continued to grow after his death on 9th November, 1953, despite some critics describing his work as too ‘florid‘. He wrote prolifically throughout his lifetime but is arguably best known for his poetry. His poem The hand that signed the paper is taken from Jon Stallworthy’s edited collection The Oxford Book of War Poetry, and can be found below:

DYLAN THOMAS

1914–1953

The hand that signed the paper

The hand that signed the paper felled a city;

Dylan_Swansea
Statue of Dylan Thomas, Maritime Quarter, Swansea, by Tony in Devon. CC-BY-2.5 via Wikimedia Commons.

Five sovereign fingers taxed the breath,

Doubled the globe of dead and halved a country;

These five kings did a king to death.

The mighty hand leads to a sloping shoulder,

The finger joints are cramped with chalk;

A goose’s quill has put an end to murder

That put an end to talk.

The hand that signed the treaty bred a fever,

And famine grew, and locusts came;

Great is the hand that holds dominion over

Man by a scribbled name.

The five kings count the dead but do not soften

The crusted wound nor stroke the brow;

A hand rules pity as a hand rules heaven;

Hands have no tears to flow.

                                                                                            1936

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6. Short stories from the Danish capital

From the narrow twisting streets of the old town centre to the shady docklands, Copenhagen Tales captures the essence of Copenhagen and its many faces. Through seventeen tales by some of the very best of Denmark’s writers past and present, we travel the length and breadth of the Danish capital examining famous sights from unique perspectives. A guide book usefully informs a new visitor to Copenhagen but these stories allow the reader to experience the city and its history from the inside. Translator Lotte Shankland is a Copenhagener by birth who has lived many years in England. In the videos below she discusses the collection, decribing the richness of Danish literature, as well as the Scandinavian noir genre.

Lotte Shankland on the greater significance of short stories within Denmark:

Lotte Shankland discusses her favourite short story, ‘Nightingale’, by Meir Goldschmidt:

From Hans Christian Andersen to Søren Kierkegaard, Denmark has been home to some of the finest writers in Europe. In the National Museum in Copenhagen you will find stories from as early as 1500 BC, covering myth and magic. A walk through the city will most likely involve an encounter with the emblematic statue of the Little Mermaid from Hans Christian Andersen’s famous tale. The Danes continue to tell great stories, as evidenced by the hugely popular Danish TV series The Killing and the Sweedish co-production The Bridge. Copenhagen Tales offers a way to understand the heart and soul of this diverse city, through the literature and art it has generated.

Featured image credit: Copenhagen, Denmark. Public Domain via Pixabay.

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7. Once upon a time, part 2

There is a quarrel inside me about fairies, and the form of literature their presence helps to define. I have never tried to see a fairy, or at least not since I was five years old. The interest of Casimiro Piccolo reveals how attitudes to folklore belong to their time: he was affected by the scientific inquiry into the paranormal which flourished – in highly intellectual circles – from the late nineteenth century and into the twentieth. But he also presents a test case, I feel, for the questions that hang around fairies and fairy tales in the twenty-first century. What is the point of them? What are the uses of such enchantments today? The absurdity of this form of magical belief (religious miracles are felt to be different, and not only by believers) creates a quarrel inside me, about the worth of this form of literature and entertainment I enjoy so much. In what way am I ‘away with the fairies’, too?

Butterfly fairy
This watercolor is part of the collection owned by the Family Piccolo of Calanovella Foundation, created by Baron Casimiro Piccolo of Calanovell, www.fondazionepiccolo.it. All rights reserved. Used with their permission.

Suspicion now hangs around fairy tales because the kind of supernatural creatures and events they include belong to a belief system nobody subscribes to anymore. Even children, unless very small, are in on the secret that fairyland is a fantasy. In the past, however, allusions to fairies could be dangerous not because belief in them was scorned, but because they were feared: Kirk collected the beliefs of his flock in order to defend them against charges of heterodoxy or witchcraft, and, the same time as Kirk’s ethnographical activities, Charles Perrault published his crucially influential collection (l697), in which he pokes fun, with suave courtly wit, at the dangerousness of witches and witchcraft, ogres and talking animals. Perrault is slippery and ambiguous. His Cinderella is a tale of marvellously efficacious magic, but he ends with a moral: recommending his readers to find themselves well-placed godmothers. Not long before he was writing his fairy tales, France and other places in Europe had seen many people condemned to death on suspicion of using magic. The fairy tale emerges as entertainment in a proto-enlightenment move to show that there is nothing to fear.

The current state of fairy tale – whether metastasized in huge blockbuster films or refreshed and re-invigorated in the fiction of Robert Coover, Donald Barthelme, Margaret Atwood or, most recently, Helen Oyeyemi (Mr Fox, and, this year, Boy Snow Bird) does not invite, let alone compel, belief in its magic elements as from an audience of adepts or faithful. Contemporary readers and audiences, including children over the age of 6, are too savvy about special effects and plot lines and the science/magic overlap to accept supernatural causes behind Angelina Jolie’s soaring in Maleficent or the transmogrifications of the characters. Nor do they, nor do we need to suspend disbelief in the willed way Coleridge described.

Rather the ways of approaching the old material – Blue Beard, The Robber Bridegroom, Hansel & Gretel, Snow White and so on – opens up the stories to new meanings. The familiar narrative becomes the arena for raising questions; the story’s well known features provide a common language for thinking about families and love, childhood and marriage. Fairies and their realm allow thought experiments about alternative arrangements in this world. We are no longer looking for fairies at the bottom of the garden, but seeing through them to glimpse other things. As the little girl realises in The Servant’s Tale by Paula Fox, her grandmother through her stories ‘saw what others couldn’t see, that for her the meaning of one thing could also be the meaning of a greater thing.’ In the past, these other, greater things were most often promises – escape, revenge, recognition, glory – but the trend of fairy tales is turning darker, and many retellings no longer hold out such bright eyed hope.

Featured image credit: Sleeping Beauty, by Viktor M. Vasnetsov. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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8. A Halloween horror story : What was it? Part 4

We’re getting ready for Halloween this month by reading the classic horror stories that set the stage for the creepy movies and books we love today. Every Friday this October we’ve unveiled a part of Fitz-James O’Brien’s tale of an unusual entity in What Was It?, a story from the spine-tingling collection of works in Horror Stories: Classic Tales from Hoffmann to Hodgson, edited by Darryl Jones. Last we left off the narrator, Harry, tried to fight off a mysterious creature fighting him in his bed. His friend Hammond had just come to his rescue.

Hammond stood holding the ends of the cord that bound the Invisible, twisted round his hand, while before him, self-supporting as it were, he beheld a rope laced and interlaced, and stretching tightly around a vacant space. I never saw a man look so thoroughly stricken with awe. Nevertheless his face expressed all the courage and determination which I knew him to possess. His lips, although white, were set firmly, and one could perceive at a glance that, although stricken with fear, he was not daunted.

The confusion that ensued among the guests of the house who were witnesses of this extraordinary scene between Hammond and myself, — who beheld the pantomime of binding this struggling Something, — who beheld me almost sinking from physical exhaustion when my task of jailer was over, — the confusion and terror that took possession of the bystanders, when they saw all this, was beyond description. The weaker ones fled from the apartment. The few who remained clustered near the door and could not be induced to approach Hammond and his Charge. Still incredulity broke out through their terror. They had not the courage to satisfy themselves, and yet they doubted. It was in vain that I begged of some of the men to come near and convince themselves by touch of the existence in that room of a living being which was invisible. They were incredulous, but did not dare to undeceive themselves. How could a solid, living, breathing body be invisible, they asked. My reply was this. I gave a sign to Hammond, and both of us — conquering our fearful repugnance to touch the invisible creature — lifted it from the ground, manacled as it was, and took it to my bed. Its weight was about that of a boy of fourteen.

‘Now, my friends,’ I said, as Hammond and myself held the creature suspended over the bed, ‘I can give you self-evident proof that here is a solid, ponderable body, which, nevertheless, you cannot see. Be good enough to watch the surface of the bed attentively.’

I was astonished at my own courage in treating this strange event so calmly; but I had recovered from my first terror, and felt a sort of scientific pride in the affair, which dominated every other feeling.

The eyes of the bystanders were immediately fixed on my bed. At a given signal Hammond and I let the creature fall. There was the dull sound of a heavy body alighting on a soft mass. The timbers of the bed creaked. A deep impression marked itself distinctly on the pillow, and on the bed itself. The crowd who witnessed this gave a low cry, and rushed from the room. Hammond and I were left alone with our Mystery.

We remained silent for some time, listening to the low, irregular breathing of the creature on the bed, and watching the rustle of the bed-clothes as it impotently struggled to free itself from confinement. Then Hammond spoke.

‘Harry, this is awful.’

‘Ay, awful.’

‘But not unaccountable.’

‘Not unaccountable! What do you mean? Such a thing has never occurred since the birth of the world. I know not what to think, Hammond. God grant that I am not mad, and that this is not an insane fantasy!’

‘Let us reason a little, Harry. Here is a solid body which we touch, but which we cannot see. The fact is so unusual that it strikes us with terror. Is there no parallel, though, for such a phenomenon? Take a piece of pure glass. It is tangible and transparent. A certain chemical coarseness is all that prevents its being so entirely transparent as to be totally invisible. It is not theoretically impossible, mind you, to make a glass which shall not reflect a single ray of light, — a glass so pure and homogeneous in its atoms that the rays from the sun will pass through it as they do through the air, refracted but not reflected. We do not see the air, and yet we feel it.’

‘That’s all very well, Hammond, but these are inanimate substances. Glass does not breathe, air does not breathe. This thing has a heart that palpitates, — a will that moves it, — lungs that play, and inspire and respire.’

‘You forget the phenomena of which we have so often heard of late,’ answered the Doctor, gravely. ‘At the meetings called “spirit circles,” invisible hands have been thrust into the hands of those persons round the table, — warm, fleshly hands that seemed to pulsate with mortal life.’

‘What? Do you think, then, that this thing is — ’

‘I don’t know what it is,’ was the solemn reply; ‘but please the gods I will, with your assistance, thoroughly investigate it.’

Check back next Friday, 31st of October for the final installment. Missed a part of the story? Catch up with part 1, 2, and 3.

Featured image credit: Haunted Hotel Room by Manuel Millway. CC 2.0 via Flickr.

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9. Once upon a time, part 1

I’m writing from Palermo where I’ve been teaching a course on the legacy of Troy. Myths and fairy tales lie on all sides in this old island. It’s a landscape of stories and the past here runs a live wire into the present day. Within the same hour, I saw an amulet from Egypt from nearly 3000 years ago, and passed a young, passionate balladeer giving full voice in the street to a ballad about a young woman – la baronessa Laura di Carini – who was killed by her father in 1538. He and her husband had come upon her alone with a man whom they suspected to be her lover. As she fell under her father’s stabbing, she clung to the wall, and her hand made a bloody print that can still be seen in the castle at Carini – or so I was told. The cantastorie – the ballad singer – was giving the song his all. He was sincere and funny at the same time as he knelt and frowned, mimed and lamented.

The eye of Horus, or Wadjet, was found in a Carthaginian’s grave in the city and it is still painted on the prows of fishing boats, and worn as a charm all over the Mediterranean and the Middle East, in order to ward off dangers. This function is, I believe, one of the deepest reasons for telling stories in general, and fairy tales in particular: the fantasy of hope conjures an antidote to the pain the plots remember. The street singer was young, curly haired, and had spent some time in Liverpool, he told me later, but he was back home now, and his song was raising money for a street theatre called Ditirammu (dialect for Dithryamb), that performs on a tiny stage in the stables of an ]old palazzo in the district called the Kalsa. Using a mixture of puppetry, song, dance, and mime, the troupe give local saints’ legends, traditional tales of crusader paladins versus dastardly Moors, and pastiches of Pinocchio, Snow White, and Alice in Wonderland.

marina2
A balladeer in Palermo. Photograph taken by Marina Warner. Do not use without permission.

Their work captures the way fairy tales spread through different media and can be played, danced or painted and still remain recognisable: there are individual stories which keep shape-shifting across time, and there is also a fairytale quality which suffuses different forms of expression (even recent fashion designs have drawn on fairytale imagery and motifs). The Palermo theatre’s repertoire also reveals the kinship between some history and fairy tale: the hard facts enclosed and memorialised in the stories. Although the happy ending is a distinguishing feature of fairy tales, many of them remember the way things were – Bluebeard testifies to the kinds of marriages that killed Laura di Carini.

A few days after coming across the cantastorie in the street, I was taken to see the country villa on the crest of Capo d’Orlando overlooking the sea, where Casimiro Piccolo lived with his brother and sister. The Piccolo siblings were rich Sicilian landowners, peculiar survivals of a mixture of luxurious feudalism and austere monasticism. A dilettante and dabbler in the occult, Casimiro believed in fairies. He went out to see them at twilight, the hour recommended by experts such as William Blake, who reported he had seen a fairy funeral, and the Revd. Robert Kirk, who had the information on good authority from his parishioners in the Highlands, where fairy abductions, second sight, and changelings were a regular occurrence in the seventeenth century.

The Eye of Horus, By Marie-Lan Nguyen, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Casimiro’s elder brother, Lucio, a poet who had a brief flash of fame in the Fifties, was as solitary, odd-looking, and idiosyncratic as himself, and the siblings lived alone with their twenty servants, in the midst of a park with rare shrubs and cacti from all over the world, their beautiful summer villa filled with a vast library of science, art, and literature, and marvellous things. They slept in beds as narrow as a discalced Carmelite’s, and never married. They loved their dogs, and gave them names that are mostly monosyllables, often sort of orientalised in a troubling way. They range from ‘Aladdin’ to ‘Mameluk’ to ‘Book’ and the brothers built them a cemetery of their own in the garden.

Casimiro was a follower of Paracelsus, who had distinguished the elemental beings as animating matter: gnomes, undines, sylphs and salamanders. Salamanders, in the form of darting, wriggling lizards, are plentiful on the baked stones of the south, but the others are the cousins of imps and elves, sprites and sirens, and they’re not so common. The journal Psychic News, to which Casimiro subscribed, inspired him to try to take photographs of the apparitions he saw in the park of exotic plants around the house. He also ordered various publications of the Society of Psychical Research and other bodies who tried to tap immaterial presences and energies. He was hoping for images like the famous Cottingley images of fairies sunbathing or dancing which Conan Doyle so admired. But he had no success. Instead, he painted: a fairy punt poled by a hobgoblin through the lily pads, a fairy doctor with a bag full of shining golden instruments taking the pulse of a turkey, four old gnomes consulting a huge grimoire held up by imps, etiolated genies, turbaned potentates, and eastern sages. He rarely left Sicily, or indeed, his family home, and he went on painting his sightings in soft, rich watercolour from 1943 to 1970 when he died.

marina3
Photograph by Marina Warner. Do not use without permission.

His work looks like Victorian or Edwardian fairy paintings. Had this reclusive Sicilian seen the crazed visions of Richard Dadd, or illustrations by Arthur Rackham or John Anster Fitzgerald? Or even Disney? Disney was looking very carefully at picture books when he formed the famous characters and stamped them with his own jokiness. Casimiro doesn’t seem to be in earnest, and the long-nosed dwarfs look a little bit like self-mockery. It is impossible to know what he meant, if he meant what he said, or what he believed. But the fact remains, for a grown man to believe in fairies strikes us now as pretty silly.

The Piccolo family’s cousin, close friend and regular visitor was Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, the author of The Leopard, and he wrote a mysterious and memorable short story about a classics professor who once spent a passionate summer with a mermaid. But tales of fairies, goblins, and gnomes seem to belong to an altogether different degree of absurdity from a classics professor meeting a siren.

And yet, the Piccolo brothers communicated with Yeats, who held all kinds of beliefs. He smelted his wonderful poems from a chaotic rubble of fairy lore, psychic theories, dream interpretation, divinatory methods, and Christian symbolism: “Out of the quarrel with others we make rhetoric; out of the quarrel with ourselves we make poetry.”

Featured image credit: Capo d’Orlando, by Chtamina. CC-BY-SA-2.5 via Wikimedia Commons

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10. Monastery

Much like his wispy, smoke-filled covers, Eduardo Halfon's writing has an ephemeral quality that is both wondrous and intriguing. In Monastery, the same mysterious narrator as in Halfon's previous work, The Polish Boxer, returns to lead us once again on nomadic travels through time and place. Books mentioned in this post Monastery Eduardo Halfon New [...]

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11. The Paying Guests

I could not put down this tender, haunting, harrowing novel — I read it by campfire light, I read it walking down the street, I read it in bed till my eyes wouldn't stay open. Waters creates a world with her precise observation of atmosphere, emotion, and gesture; her characters live. The Paying Guests is [...]

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12. Colorless Tsukuru and His Years of Pilgrimage

About as introspective as a novel can be, Murakami's latest spends its entirety inside the somewhat sad mind of its protagonist. Damaged by a betrayal he cannot comprehend, Tsukuru is a man wholly undone by his closest friends. After years of loneliness, and only after stumbling into a new relationship with a woman who insists on [...]

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13. A Halloween horror story : What was it? Part 3

We’re getting ready for Halloween this month by reading the classic horror stories that set the stage for the creepy movies and books we love today. Check in every Friday this October as we tell Fitz-James O’Brien’s tale of an unusual entity in What Was It?, a story from the spine-tingling collection of works in Horror Stories: Classic Tales from Hoffmann to Hodgson, edited by Darryl Jones. Last we left off the narrator was headed to bed after a night of opium and philosophical conversation with Dr. Hammond, a friend and fellow boarded at the supposed haunted house where they are staying.

We parted, and each sought his respective chamber. I undressed quickly and got into bed, taking with me, according to my usual custom, a book, over which I generally read myself to sleep. I opened the volume as soon as I had laid my head upon the pillow, and instantly flung it to the other side of the room. It was Goudon’s ‘History of Monsters,’—a curious French work, which I had lately imported from Paris, but which, in the state of mind I had then reached, was anything but an agreeable companion. I resolved to go to sleep at once; so, turning down my gas until nothing but a little blue point of light glimmered on the top of the tube, I composed myself to rest.

The room was in total darkness. The atom of gas that still remained alight did not illuminate a distance of three inches round the burner. I desperately drew my arm across my eyes, as if to shut out even the darkness, and tried to think of nothing. It was in vain. The confounded themes touched on by Hammond in the garden kept obtruding themselves on my brain. I battled against them. I erected ramparts of would-be blankness of intellect to keep them out. They still crowded upon me. While I was lying still as a corpse, hoping that by a perfect physical inaction I should hasten mental repose, an awful incident occurred. A Something dropped, as it seemed, from the ceiling, plumb upon my chest, and the next instant I felt two bony hands encircling my throat, endeavoring to choke me.

I am no coward, and am possessed of considerable physical strength. The suddenness of the attack, instead of stunning me, strung every nerve to its highest tension. My body acted from instinct, before my brain had time to realize the terrors of my position. In an instant I wound two muscular arms around the creature, and squeezed it, with all the strength of despair, against my chest. In a few seconds the bony hands that had fastened on my throat loosened their hold, and I was free to breathe once more. Then commenced a struggle of awful intensity. Immersed in the most profound darkness, totally ignorant of the nature of the Thing by which I was so suddenly attacked, finding my grasp slipping every moment, by reason, it seemed to me, of the entire nakedness of my assailant, bitten with sharp teeth in the shoulder, neck, and chest, having every moment to protect my throat against a pair of sinewy, agile hands, which my utmost efforts could not confine,—these were a combination of circumstances to combat which required all the strength, skill, and courage that I possessed.

At last, after a silent, deadly, exhausting struggle, I got my assailant under by a series of incredible efforts of strength. Once pinned, with my knee on what I made out to be its chest, I knew that I was victor. I rested for a moment to breathe. I heard the creature beneath me panting in the darkness, and felt the violent throbbing of a heart. It was apparently as exhausted as I was; that was one comfort. At this moment I remembered that I usually placed under my pillow, before going to bed, a large yellow silk pocket-handkerchief. I felt for it instantly; it was there. In a few seconds more I had, after a fashion, pinioned the creature’s arms.

I now felt tolerably secure. There was nothing more to be done but to turn on the gas, and, having first seen what my midnight assailant was like, arouse the household. I will confess to being actuated by a certain pride in not giving the alarm before; I wished to make the capture alone and unaided.

Never losing my hold for an instant, I slipped from the bed to the floor, dragging my captive with me. I had but a few steps to make to reach the gas-burner; these I made with the greatest caution, holding the creature in a grip like a vice. At last I got within arm’s-length of the tiny speck of blue light which told me where the gas-burner lay. Quick as lightning I released my grasp with one hand and let on the full flood of light. Then I turned to look at my captive.

I cannot even attempt to give any definition of my sensations the instant after I turned on the gas. I suppose I must have shrieked with terror, for in less than a minute afterward my room was crowded with the inmates of the house. I shudder now as I think of that awful moment. I saw nothing! Yes; I had one arm firmly clasped round a breathing, panting, corporeal shape, my other hand gripped with all its strength a throat as warm, and apparently fleshly, as my own; and yet, with this living substance in my grasp, with its body pressed against my own, and all in the bright glare of a large jet of gas, I absolutely beheld nothing! Not even an outline,—a vapor!

I do not, even at this hour, realize the situation in which I found myself. I cannot recall the astounding incident thoroughly. Imagination in vain tries to compass the awful paradox.

It breathed. I felt its warm breath upon my cheek. It struggled fiercely. It had hands. They clutched me. Its skin was smooth, like my own. There it lay, pressed close up against me, solid as stone,—and yet utterly invisible!

I wonder that I did not faint or go mad on the instant. Some wonderful instinct must have sustained me; for, absolutely, in place of loosening my hold on the terrible Enigma, I seemed to gain an additional strength in my moment of horror, and tightened my grasp with such wonderful force that I felt the creature shivering with agony.

Just then Hammond entered my room at the head of the household. As soon as he beheld my face—which, I suppose, must have been an awful sight to look at—he hastened forward, crying, ‘Great heaven, Harry! what has happened?’

‘Hammond! Hammond!’ I cried, ‘come here. O, this is awful!

I have been attacked in bed by something or other, which I have hold of; but I can’t see it,—I can’t see it!’

Hammond, doubtless struck by the unfeigned horror expressed in my countenance, made one or two steps forward with an anxious yet puzzled expression. A very audible titter burst from the remainder of my visitors. This suppressed laughter made me furious. To laugh at a human being in my position! It was the worst species of cruelty. Now, I can understand why the appearance of a man struggling violently, as it would seem, with an airy nothing, and calling for assistance against a vision, should have appeared ludicrous. Then, so great was my rage against the mocking crowd that had I the power I would have stricken them dead where they stood.

‘Hammond! Hammond!’ I cried again, despairingly, ‘for God’s sake come to me. I can hold the—the thing but a short while longer. It is overpowering me. Help me! Help me!’

‘Harry,’ whispered Hammond, approaching me, ‘you have been smoking too much opium.’

‘I swear to you, Hammond, that this is no vision,’ I answered, in the same low tone. ‘Don’t you see how it shakes my whole frame with its struggles? If you don’t believe me, convince yourself. Feel it,— touch it.’

Hammond advanced and laid his hand in the spot I indicated. A wild cry of horror burst from him. He had felt it! In a moment he had discovered somewhere in my room a long piece of cord, and was the next instant winding it and knotting it about the body of the unseen being that I clasped in my arms.

‘Harry,’ he said, in a hoarse, agitated voice, for, though he preserved his presence of mind, he was deeply moved, ‘Harry, it’s all safe now. You may let go, old fellow, if you’re tired. The Thing can’t move.’

I was utterly exhausted, and I gladly loosed my hold.

Check back next Friday, 24 October to find out what happens next. Missed a part of the story? Catch up with part 1 and part 2.

Headline image credit: Green Scream by Matt Coughlin, CC 2.0 via Flickr.

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14. The Professional: Donald E. Westlake

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Deadspin columnist/Yankees fan/out-of-print litterateur Alex Belth recently sat down over email with Levi Stahl, University of Chicago Press promotions director and editor of The Getaway Car: A Donald Westlake Nonfiction MiscellanyTheir resulting conversation, published today at Deadspin, al0ng with an excerpt from the book, includes the history of their engagement with the Parker novels, Jimmy the Kid‘s amazing cover design, culling through Westlake’s archive, an obscure British comedy show, and the perils of professional envy vs. professional admiration. You can read the interview in full here, and have a look at a clip after the jump below.

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Q: In a letter, Westlake described the difference between an author and a writer. A writer was a hack, a professional. There’s something appealing and unpretentious about this but does it take on a romance of its own? I’m not saying he was being a phony but do you think that difference between a writer and an author is that great?

LS: I suspect that it’s not, and that to some extent even Westlake himself would have disagreed with his younger self by the end of his life. I think the key distinction for him, before which all others pale, was what your goal was: Were you sitting down every day to make a living with your pen? Or were you, as he put it ironically in a letter to a friend who was creating an MFA program, “enhanc[ing] your leisure hours by refining the uniqueness of your storytelling talents”? If the former, you’re a writer, full stop. If the latter, then you probably have different goals from Westlake and his fellow hacks.

But does a true hack veer off course regularly to try something new? Does a hack limit himself to only writing about his meal ticket (John Dortmunder) every three books, max, in order not to burn him out? Does a hack, as Westlake put it in a late letter to his friend and former agent Henry Morrison, “follow what interests [him],” to the likely detriment of his career? Westlake was always a commercial writer, but at the same time, he never let commerce define him. Craft defined him, and while craft can be employed in the service of something a writer doesn’t care about at all, it is much easier to call up and deploy effectively if the work it’s being applied to has also engaged something deeper in the writer. You don’t write a hundred books with almost no lousy sentences if you’re truly a hack.

Read more about The Getaway Car here.

 

 

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15. Reading Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations with a modern perspective

Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations is a remarkable phenomenon, a philosophical diary written by a Roman emperor, probably in 168-80 AD, and intended simply for his own use. It offers exceptional insights into the private thoughts of someone who had a very weighty public role, and may well have been composed when he was leading a military campaign in Germany. What features might strike us today as being especially valuable, bearing in mind our contemporary concerns?

At a time when the question of public trust in politicians is constantly being raised, Marcus emerges, in this completely personal document, as a model of integrity. Not only does he define for himself his political ideal (“a monarchy that values above all things the freedom of the subject”) and spell out what this ideal means in his reflections on the character and lifestyle of his adoptive father and predecessor as emperor, Antoninus Pius, but he also reminds himself repeatedly of the triviality of celebrity, wealth and status, describing with contempt the lavish purple imperial robe he wore as stained with “blood from a shellfish”. Of course, Marcus was not a democratic politician and, with hindsight, we can find things to criticize in his acts as emperor — though he was certainly among the most reasonable and responsible of Roman emperors. But I think we would be glad if we knew that our own prime ministers or presidents approached their role, in their most private hours, with an equal degree of thoughtfulness and breadth of vision.

Another striking feature of the Meditations, and one that may well resonate with modern experience, is the way that Marcus aims to combine a local and universal perspective. In line with the Stoic philosophy that underpins his diary, Marcus often recalls that the men and women he encounters each day are fellow-members of the brotherhood of humanity and fellow-citizens in the universe. He uses this fact to remind himself that working for his brothers is an essential part of his role as an emperor and a human being. This reminder helps him to counteract the responses of irritation and resentment that, he admits, the behavior of other people might otherwise arouse in him. At a time when we too are trying to bridge and negotiate local and global perspectives, Marcus’s thoughts may be worth reflecting on. Certainly, this seems to me a more balanced response than ignoring the friend or partner at your side in the café while engrossed in phone conversations with others across the world.

By Pierre-Selim. CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
Bust of Marcus Aurelius, Musée Saint-Raymond. By Pierre-Selim. CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

More broadly, Marcus, again in line with Stoic thinking, underlines that the ethics of human behavior need to take account of the wider fact that human beings form an integral part of the natural universe and are subject to its laws. Of course, we may not share his confidence that the universe is shaped by order, structure and providential care — though I think it is worth thinking seriously about just how much of that view we have to reject. But the looming environmental crisis, along with the world-wide rise in obesity and the alarming healthcare consequences, represent for us a powerful reminder that we need to rethink the ethics of our relationship to the natural world and re-examine our understanding of what is natural in human life. Marcus’s readiness to see himself, and humanity, as inseparable parts of a larger whole, and to subordinate himself to that whole, may serve as a striking example to us, even if the way we pursue that thought is likely to be different from that of Stoicism.

Another striking theme in the Meditations is the looming presence of death, our own and those of others we are close to. This might seem very alien to the modern secular Western world, where death is often either ignored or treated as something too terrible to mention. But the fact that Marcus’s attitude is so different from our own may be precisely what makes it worth considering. He not only underlines the inevitability of death and the fact that death is a wholly natural process, and for that reason something we should accept. He couples this with the claim that knowledge of the certainty of death does not undermine the value of doing all that what we can while alive to lead a good human life and to develop in ourselves the virtues essential for this life. Although such ideas have often formed part of religious responses to death (which have lost their hold over many people today) Marcus puts them in a form that modern non-religious people can accept. This is another reason, I think, why Marcus’s philosophical diary can speak to us today in a language we can make sense of.

Featured image: Marcus Aurelius’s original statue in Rome, by Zanner. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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16. A Halloween horror story : What was it? Part 2

We’re getting ready for Halloween this month by reading the classic horror stories that set the stage for the creepy movies and books we love today. Check in every Friday this October as we tell Fitz-James O’Brien’s tale of an unusual entity in What Was It?, a story from the spine-tingling collection of works in Horror Stories: Classic Tales from Hoffmann to Hodgson, edited by Darryl Jones. Last we left off the narrator had moved into a reported haunted boarding house. After a month of waiting for something eerie to happen, the boarders were beginning to believe there was nothing supernatural at all in the residence…

Things were in this state when an incident took place so awful and inexplicable in its character that my reason fairly reels at the bare memory of the occurrence. It was the tenth of July. After dinner was over I repaired, with my friend Dr Hammond, to the garden to smoke my evening pipe. Independent of certain mental sympathies which existed between the Doctor and myself, we were linked together by a vice. We both smoked opium. We knew each other’s secret, and respected it. We enjoyed together that wonderful expansion of thought, that marvellous intensifying of the perceptive faculties, that boundless feeling of existence when we seem to have points of contact with the whole universe,—in short, that unimaginable spiritual bliss, which I would not surrender for a throne, and which I hope you, reader, will never—never taste.

Those hours of opium happiness which the Doctor and I spent together in secret were regulated with a scientific accuracy. We did not blindly smoke the drug of paradise, and leave our dreams to chance. While smoking, we carefully steered our conversation through the brightest and calmest channels of thought. We talked of the East, and endeavored to recall the magical panorama of its glowing scenery. We criticised the most sensuous poets,—those who painted life ruddy with health, brimming with passion, happy in the possession of youth and strength and beauty. If we talked of Shakespeare’s ‘Tempest,’ we lingered over Ariel, and avoided Caliban. Like the Guebers, we turned our faces to the east, and saw only the sunny side of the world.

This skilful coloring of our train of thought produced in our subsequent visions a corresponding tone. The splendors of Arabian fairy-land dyed our dreams. We paced that narrow strip of grass with the tread and port of kings. The song of the rana arborea, while he clung to the bark of the ragged plum-tree, sounded like the strains of divine musicians. Houses, walls, and streets melted like rain-clouds, and vistas of unimaginable glory stretched away before us. It was a rapturous companionship. We enjoyed the vast delight more perfectly because, even in our most ecstatic moments, we were conscious of each other’s presence. Our pleasures, while individual, were still twin, vibrating and moving in musical accord.

On the evening in question, the tenth of July, the Doctor and myself drifted into an unusually metaphysical mood. We lit our large meerschaums, filled with fine Turkish tobacco, in the core of which burned a little black nut of opium, that, like the nut in the fairy tale, held within its narrow limits wonders beyond the reach of kings; we paced to and fro, conversing. A strange perversity dominated the currents of our thought. They would not flow through the sun-lit channels into which we strove to divert them. For some unaccountable reason, they constantly diverged into dark and lonesome beds, where a continual gloom brooded. It was in vain that, after our old fashion, we flung ourselves on the shores of the East, and talked of its gay bazaars, of the splendors of the time of Haroun, of harems and golden palaces. Black afreets continually arose from the depths of our talk, and expanded, like the one the fisherman released from the copper vessel, until they blotted everything bright from our vision. Insensibly, we yielded to the occult force that swayed us, and indulged in gloomy speculation. We had talked some time upon the proneness of the human mind to mysticism, and the almost universal love of the terrible, when Hammond suddenly said to me,

‘What do you consider to be the greatest element of terror?’

The question puzzled me. That many things were terrible, I knew. Stumbling over a corpse in the dark; beholding, as I once did, a woman floating down a deep and rapid river, with wildly lifted arms, and awful, upturned face, uttering, as she drifted, shrieks that rent one’s heart, while we, the spectators, stood frozen at a window which overhung the river at a height of sixty feet, unable to make the slightest effort to save her, but dumbly watching her last supreme agony and her disappearance. A shattered wreck, with no life visible, encountered floating listlessly on the ocean, is a terrible object, for it suggests a huge terror, the proportions of which are veiled. But it now struck me, for the first time, that there must be one great and ruling embodiment of fear,—a King of Terrors, to which all others must succumb. What might it be? To what train of circumstances would it owe its existence?

‘I confess, Hammond,’ I replied to my friend, ‘I never considered the subject before. That there must be one Something more terrible than any other thing, I feel. I cannot attempt, however, even the most vague definition.’

‘I am somewhat like you, Harry,’ he answered. ‘I feel my capacity to experience a terror greater than anything yet conceived by the human mind;—something combining in fearful and unnatural amalgamation hitherto supposed incompatible elements. The calling of the voices in Brockden Brown’s novel of “Wieland” is awful; so is the picture of the Dweller of the Threshold, in Bulwer’s “Zanoni”; but,’ he added, shaking his head gloomily, ‘there is something more horrible still than these.’

‘Look here, Hammond,’ I rejoined, ‘let us drop this kind of talk, for heaven’s sake! We shall suffer for it, depend on it.’

‘I don’t know what’s the matter with me to-night,’ he replied, ‘but my brain is running upon all sorts of weird and awful thoughts. I feel as if I could write a story like Hoffman, to-night, if I were only master of a literary style.’

‘Well, if we are going to be Hoffmanesque* in our talk, I’m off to bed. Opium and nightmares should never be brought together. How sultry it is! Good-night, Hammond.’

‘Good-night, Harry. Pleasant dreams to you.’

‘To you, gloomy wretch, afreets, ghouls, and enchanters.’

Check back next Friday, 17 October to find out what happens next.

Headline image credit: Once Upon a Midnight Dreary by Andi Jetaime, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 via Flickr.

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17. An excerpt from Lee Siegel’s Trance Migrations

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From Trance Migrations: Stories of India, Tales of Hypnosis by Lee Siegel

The Child’s Story
And now, if you dare, LOOK into the hypnotic eye! You cannot look away! You cannot look away! You cannot look away!

THE GREAT DESMOND IN THE HYPNOTIC EYE (1960)

I was eight years old when my mother was hypnotized by a sinister Hindu yogi. Yes, she was entranced by him, entirely under his control, and made do things she would never have done in her normal waking state. My father wasn’t there to protect her and there was nothing I, a mere child, could do about it. I vividly remember his turban and flowing robes, his strange voice, gliding gait, and those eerie eyes that widened to capture her mind. I heard his suggestive whispers—“Sleep Memsaab, sleep”—and saw his hand moving over her face in circular hypnotic passes. “Sleep, Memsaab.”

It’s true. I heard it with my own ears and saw it with my own eyes as I watched “The Unknown Terror,” an episode of the series Ramar of the Jungle, on television one evening in 1953. Playing the part of a teak plantation owner in India, my mother, the actress Noreen Nash, was vulnerable to the suggestions of the Hindu hypnotist they called Catrack. “ When the dawn comes,” he instructed her, “ You will take the rifle and go to the camp of the white Ramar. You will aim at his heart and fire.”

I watched as my mother, wearing a pith helmet, bush jacket, and jodhpur pants, rose from her cot, loaded her rifle, and then trudged in a somnambulistic trance, wooden and emotionless, through the jungle to Ramar’s tent. Since my mother, as far as I knew her at home, had no experience with firearms, I was not surprised that she missed her target. She dropped the rifle and disappeared back into the jungle.

Later on in the show, once again hypnotically entranced, she was led by Catrack to the edge of a cliff where the yogi declared, “ We are in great danger, Memsaab. The only way to escape is to jump off this cliff.” Just as my mother was about to leap to her death, Ramar arrived on the scene and fired his rifle into the air. The loud bang of the gunshot awakened her in the nick of time and caused Catrack to flee. Thanks to Ramar, my mother survived her adventures in India.

The seeds of my curiosity about hypnotism and an indelible association of it with an exotic, at once alluring and foreboding, India were sown in front of a television. At about the same time I saw my mother hypnotized and made to do terrible things by a yogi, I watched another nefarious Hindu hypnotist, Swami Talpar, played by Boris Karloff in Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, try to take control of the feeble mind of Lou Costello. Both India and hypnosis were dangerous.

But then another old movie, Chandu the Magician, assured me that just as Indian hypnotism could be used for evil, so too it was a power that could be employed to overcome wickedness and serve the good of mankind. The film opened somewhere in India at night with a full moon casting eerie shadows on an ancient heathen temple as the American adventurer Frank Chandler bowed down before a dark-skinned, long-bearded Hindu priest in a white dhoti and matching turban. The Hindu swami addressed his acolyte in a deep echoic voice:

“In the years that thou hast dwelt among us, thou hast conquered the Atma of the spirit and, as one of the sacred company of the Yogi, thou hast been given the name Chandu. Thou hast attained thy reward by being endowed with the ancient Oriental magical power that the doctors of thy race call hypnotism. Thou shalt look into the eyes of men and they shall be as straw in thy hand. Thou shalt cause them to see what is not there even unto a gathering of twelve by twelve. To few, indeed, of thy race have the secrets of the Yogi been revealed. The world needs thee now. Go forth in strength and conquer the evil that threatens mankind.”

That India was the home of hypnotism was further confirmed by listening to my mother read Kipling to me at bedtime. We had moved on from The Jungle Book, read to me when I was about the same age as Mowgli, to Kim. And I imagined the hero of that story and I were the same age, as well. “Kim flung himself wholeheartedly upon the next turn of the wheel,” my mother began. “He would be a Sahib again for a while. . . .” and soon I’d yawn, blink, blink, and yawn again, feel the heaviness of my eyelids, heavier and heavier, more and more relaxed. I’d roll over, eyes closing, and soon be able to imagine that her voice might be Kim’s: “I think that Lurgan Sahib wishes to make me afraid,” she’d say he said. “And I am sure that that devil’s brat below the table wishes to see me afraid. This place is like a Wonder House.”

I’d picture the interior of Lurgan’s shop as vividly as if I were there and could see what Kim saw, focusing my attention on each of the objects, suggested one by one: “Turquoise and raw amber necklaces. Curiously packed incense-sticks in jars crusted over with raw garnets, devil-masks and a wall full of peacock-blue draperies . . . gilt figures of Buddha . . . tarnished silver belts . . . arms of all sorts and kinds . . . and a thousand other oddments.”

When, as commanded, Kim pitched the porous clay water jug that was on the table there to Lurgan, I saw it “falling short and crashing into bits and pieces.”

My mother reached over and lightly placed her hand on the back of my neck as Lurgan, in his attempt to hypnotize Kim, “laid one hand gently on the nape of his neck, stroked it twice or thrice, and whispered: ‘Look! It shall come to life again, piece by piece. First the big piece shall join itself to two others on the right and the left. Look!’ To save his life, Kim could not have turned his head. The light touch held him as in a vice, and his blood tingled pleasantly through him. There was one large piece of the jar where there had been three, and above them the shadowy outline of the entire vessel.”

“Look! It is coming into shape,” my mother whispered and “Look! It is coming into shape,” echoed Lurgan Sahib. Yes, it was coming into shape, all the shards of clay magically reforming the previously unbroken jug. I could see it. The words my mother read aloud to me were as hypnotic as the words uttered by Lurgan.

My childhood fascination with hypnosis was sustained by a school assignment to read Edgar Allan Poe’s stories, several of them—“The Facts in the Case of Mr. Valdemar,” “Mesmeric Revelation,” and “A Tale of the Ragged Mountains”—being about mesmerism, and the final story reaffirming an association of hypnosis with India. The main character goes into a trance in Virginia in which he has a vivid vision of Benares, a city to which he has never been, indicating that he had lived in India in a previous lifetime.

“Not only are Poe’s stories about hypnosis,” I grandly proclaimed in a book report I wrote in the seventh grade, “They are also written in a language that is very hypnotic, especially if they are read out loud.” Little did I suspect that that homework assignment would be prolusory to a book written more than half a century later.

When subsequently in the eighth grade I was required to prepare a project for the school science fair, I was determined to do mine on hypnosis as the only science, other than reproductive biology, in which I had much interest. The science teacher warned that it was a dangerous subject: “Hypnotism is widely used in schools in the Soviet Union to brainwash children so that they believe that Communism is good and that they must do whatever their dictator, Nikita Khrushchev, commands.”

Despite its abuse behind the Iron Curtain, I was determined to learn as much as I could about hypnosis. And so I ordered a book, Home Study Way to Hypnotic Practice, that I had seen advertised in a copy of Twitter magazine, a naughty-for-the-times pulp publication that I had discovered hidden in my uncle’s garage.

The ad promised that a mastery of hypnotism would enable me to control the minds of others, particularly the minds, and indeed the hearts, if not some other parts, of girls: “‘Look here’—Snap! Instantly her eyes close. She seems to be asleep but she isn’t. She’s in a hypnotic trance. A trance you put her into by saying secret words and snapping your fingers. Now she’s ready—ready and waiting to do as you command. She’ll follow your orders without question or hesitation. You’ll have her believing anything you suggest and doing whatever you want her to do. You’ ll be in control of her emotions: love, hate, laughter, tears, happy, sad. She’ ll be as putty in your hands.”

The winsome smiling girl with closed eyes in the advertisement reminded me of a classmate named Vickie Goldman, whose burgeoning breasts were often on my mind. I was naturally intrigued by the idea that by means of hypnotism those breasts might become as putty in my hands.

It was disappointing to discover in reading that book that a mastery of hypnotic techniques was much more complicated and tedious to learn than the ad for it had promised, and even more disheartening to learn that, in order to be hypnotized, Vickie would have to trust me and want to be hypnotized by me.

Another ad, in another copy of Twitter snatched from my uncle’s collection of girlie magazines, however, suggested that, by means of various apparatuses, I would be able to take control of her mind without her consent. All I’d have to do is say, “Look at this,” or “Listen to this.”

So, for the sake of having both a science project and as much control over Vickie Goldman’s emotions and behavior as Catrack had had over my mother’s, even as much power over her as Khrushchev had over children in the Soviet Union, I ordered the products advertised by the Hypnotic Aids and Supply Company: the Electronic Hypnotism Machine, the Electronic Metronome, the folding, pocket-sized Mechanical Hypnotist, and the 78-rpm Hypnotic Record. Because I was spending more than ten dollars on these devices, I also received the Amazing Hypno-Coin at no extra charge. My mother was willing to pay for these devices since I needed them for my science project.

I also purchased the book Oriental Hypnotism, “written in Calcutta India with the cooperation of Sadhu Satish Kumar,” because the yogi pictured in the ad reminded me of the one who had hypnotized my mother in Ramar of the Jungle. The text revealed that, by means of hypnosis, “the power of Maya,” Hindu yogis are able to “charm serpents, control women, and win the favor of men. Self-hypnosis gives the Hindus their amazing ability to lie down on beds of nails. And it is by means of mass hypnosis that their magicians have for thousands of years performed the legendary Indian Rope Trick.” I was familiar with the rope trick from seeing Chandu use his hypnotic power to cause “a gathering of twelve by twelve” to imagine they were seeing it performed.

My science project exhibit, HYPNOTISM EAST AND WEST IN THE PAST, PRESENT AND FUTURE BY LEE SIEGEL, GRADE 8, featured a poster board mounted over a table upon which waved my Hypnotic Metronome and spun both the Hypnotic Spiral Disc of my Electronic Hypnotism Machine and side one of my Hypnotic Record. Over the eerie drone of Oriental music there was a monotonously rhythmic deep voice: “As you listen to these words your muscles will begin to relax, to become more and more relaxed, yes, very relaxed, and your eyelids will become heavy, yes, heavier and heavier, very, very heavy, very relaxed. Deeper and deeper, relaxed.” The words “relaxed,” “heavy,” and “deeper” were repeated over and over and then there was counting backward, then imagining going down, “deeper and deeper,” in an elevator, more counting backward, and finally, at the end of the record, right after “three, two, one,” came the crucial the hypnotic suggestion: “The next voice you hear will have complete control over your mind.”

That’s when I would to take over. That’s when, if the principal of our school, the judge of the projects in the fair, listened to the record, I’d command: “ You will award Lee Siegel the first-place blue ribbon for his science project.” And if Vickie would look and listen, that’s when my interest in hypnosis would really pay off: “ You will go behind the handball courts with Lee Siegel and there you will ask him to fondle your breasts.”

To intensify the hypnotic mystique of my project, I placed a warning sign by the Electronic Hypnotism Machine: Stare at the Spinning Disc at Your Own Risk. Lee Siegel will not be held responsible for any actions resulting from a loss of mental control.

Along with all of my puchases from the Hypnotic Aids Supply Company, I placed the Westclox pocket watch on a chain that my uncle had given me for my bar mitzvah.

I livened up the poster board with a photo labeled EAST: Sadhu Satish Kumar, Hindu Yogi Hypnotist, cut from Oriental Hypnotism side by side with a picture labeled WEST: Dr. Franz Mesmer, Father of Animal Magnetism, that I had clipped from the World Book Encyclopedia.

There was also a timeline beginning in 3000 bc (as estimated by Sadhu Satish Kumar) with “Indian Fakirs and Yogis” and ending “Sometime in the Future” with “Lee Siegel who has learned so much for this science fair project that he plans to become a professional hypnotist. After graduating from high school and college he will go both to India to study hypnotism with yogis and to Oxford University to study it with science professors.”

In between the ancient Hindu hypnotists and my future self were luminaries in the history of hypnosis as enumerated in the World Book Encyclopedia: Franz Mesmer (1734–1815), the Marquis de Puységur (1751– 1825), Abbé Faria (1756–1819), John Elliotson (1791–1868), James Braid (1795–1860), James Esdaile (1808–1859), Ivan Pavlov (1849–1936), and Sigmund Freud (1856–1936). In order to make the list more acknowledging of India’s contributions to hypnosis I added Swami Catrack (1919–1953), Frank Chandler, a.k.a. Chandu (1932–), and Sadhu Satish Kumar (1928–). I also included The Amazing Kreskin (1935–) and William Kroger (1906–—), because, other than Catrack, Swami Talpar, Chandu, Lurgan, Satish Kumar, Nikita Khrushchev, and Sigmund Freud, they were the only hypnotists I had ever heard of. I knew that Sigmund Freud was a psychiatrist who thought that little boys were in love with their mother and that little girls wished they had a penis. I included Kroger, a gynecologist, avid proponent of medical hypnotherapeutics, and a friend my parents who occasionally visited our home, in the hope that he might, once I had shown him my science project, write a note on the official stationery of the International Society for Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis of which he was president, something to be framed and included in my display, something like “Lee Siegel’s science project deserves a blue ribbon and should be sent on to the national competition, which it will certainly win.”

All he wrote, however, was: “ Young Siegel has done a good job in presenting a subject that deserves wider recognition and acceptance.”

Not having been awarded the first-place blue ribbon—or a ribbon of any other color, for that matter—for my science project, nor having been able to successfully use my hypnotic aids to turn Vickie—or any other girl—into putty in my hands, ready to follow my orders without question, my interest in hypnotism waned.

I don’t think I thought about hypnosis very much until a couple of years later when, in 1960, I happened see a horror film, The Hypnotic Eye, the movie, according to publicity posters, “that introduces HypnoMagic, the thrill you SEE and FEEL! It’s the amazing new audience sensation that makes YOU part of the show!” There were warnings that HypnoMagic could cause viewers of the film to actually become hypnotized: “Watch at your own risk!”

The movie was about a mysterious series of gruesome acts of self-mutilation by beautiful women, none of whom were able to remember why or how they had disfigured themselves, and all of whom, a detective, the hero of the film, discovered, just happened to have gone to a theater to see the stage hypnosis show of The Great Desmond. That each of them had been hypnotized during one of his performances caused the detective to suspect that the hypnotist might have been involved in the crimes. Consulting a criminal psychologist, he learned that, “ Yes, posthypnotic suggestion could indeed cause a woman to do things she would not otherwise consider doing.”

At one point in the film, during a performance of his stage show, the despotic Desmond held up something meant to resemble an eyeball flashing with light—the titular Hypnotic Eye! After daring his audience to stare into it, he turned to the camera and dared us, the audience in the movie theater, to do the same. The camera moved in closer and closer on the pulsating orb as, “deeper and deeper” was repeated again and again until soon, as commanded by the diabolical hypnotist, the members of his audience were lifting their arms and then lowering them. And then Desmond stared straight at us again and commanded us to do the same, and soon, together with the audience in the movie, we, the audience of the movie, were lifting our arms, then lowering them, again and again, until Desmond finally ordered us to stop and then, after counting from one to three, he snapped, “ Wake up!”

Although I don’t think I was actually hypnotized by the Great Desmond and don’t know how many members of the movie audience were, I felt compelled to go along with the show, to act as if I was in a trance, and do as I was told. That, I would suggest, is in and of itself a kind of hypnosis. Hypnosis, like listening intently to a story, is playing along with words.

At the very end of the movie, after the crimes had been solved and the evil hypnotist apprehended, the criminal psychologist addressed the viewers of the movie: “Hypnotism can be a valuable tool, helping humanity in many ways. But, just as it can be used to do good, so too, in the hands of unscrupulous practitioners, it can be used to perpetrate evil. We must be wary to maintain our safety because they can catch us anywhere, and at anytime.” He paused as the camera moved in for a close-up: “ Yes, even during a motion picture in a movie theater.” He winked, then smiled, and the screen faded to black.

I didn’t think much about the film until recently, when I began writing about hypnosis. I confess, although I should probably be ashamed to admit it, that this text has been stylistically inspired by the B movie gimmick. In the spirit of The Hypnotic Eye, the tales in this book that are meant to be read aloud to a cooperative listener are written with HypnoMagic, the thrill you SEE and FEEL! It’s the amazing literary sensation that makes the listener part of the story! But beware! HypnoMagic could cause listeners to actually become hypnotized and actually imagine that they are participants in the tales they hear.

Read more about Trance Migrations here.

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18. “The top 10 fairytales”

Marina Warner’s new piece in The Guardian is a must read for fairy tale aficionados…

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19. A Brief History of Video Games Played by Mayors, Presidents, and Emperors

Brandon Bartlett, the fictional mayor of Portland in my novel Sherwood Nation, is addicted to playing video games. In a city he's all but lost control of, he relishes the little bit of control that can be got by sticking oneself behind the cockpit of a WWII airplane or facing off against a small band [...]

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20. The World of Publishing: 1991 vs. 2014

The Diamond Lane, published in May 1991, was my second novel, and what is most striking about the difference between the publishing process 23 years ago and now is not that the book was written on a Kaypro, Xeroxed at Kinko's, and sent overnight in a FedEx box to G. P. Putnam's Sons, but that [...]

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21. Excerpt: Roger Grenier’s Palace of Books

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“Private Life”

The expansion of the media has put the writer in the spotlight, even if, nowadays, people who write have lost much of their prestige and their importance in society. Some of them find themselves afflicted with a lack of privacy once reserved for movie stars. Sometimes they ask for it. Michel Contat writes about “this form of media totalitarianism that gives the right to know everything about someone based on the simple fact that he or she has created a public image.” This phenomenon is not so new, if you think about Sartre and Beauvoir, not to mention Musset and George Sand, Dante and Beatrice, Petrarch and Laura, or even the self-dramatizing Byron or Chateaubriand. Nowadays we have scribblers who manage to pass themselves off as writers because they’ve already made a name for themselves as celebrities.

Gérard de Nerval was a victim of the public’s need to know, due to conditions that would be unimaginable today. Jules Janin, in the Journal des débats of March 1, 1841; Alexandre Dumas, in Le Mousquetaire of December 10, 1853; Eugène de Mirecourt in a little monograph in his series Les Contemporains in 1854, wrote openly about their friend’s mental illness. Poor Gérard wrote to his father on June 12, 1854, in response to Mirecourt’s pamphlet on “necrological biography,” and said he was being made into “the hero of a novel.” He dedicated Daughters of Fire to Alexandre Dumas: “I dedicate this book to you, my dear master, as I dedicated Lorely to Jules Janin. You have the same claim on my gratitude. A few years ago, I was thought dead, and he wrote my biography. A few days ago, I was thought mad, and you devoted some of your most charming lines to an epitaph for my spirit. That’s a good deal of glory to advance on my due inheritance.”

Is knowing the private life of an author important for understanding his or her work?

The debate was renewed with great panache by Marcel Proust in By Way of Sainte-Beuve. Proust noticed that Sainte-Beuve, a subtle and cultured man, made nothing but bad judgment calls as to the worth of his contemporaries. Why? Jealousy doesn’t explain it. He couldn’t have been jealous of writers like Stendhal or Baudelaire, who were practically unknown. The fault was with his method. Sainte-Beuve wanted to adopt a scientific attitude. “For me,” he wrote, “literature is indistinguishable from the rest of man. As long as you have not asked yourself a certain number of questions about an author and answered them satisfactorily, if only for your private benefit and sotto voce, you cannot be sure of possessing him entirely. And this is true, though these questions may seem to be altogether foreign to the nature of his writings. For example, what were his religious views? How did the sight of nature affect him? What was he like in his dealings with women, and in his feelings about money? Was he rich? Was he poor? What was his regimen? His daily habits? Finally, what was his persistent vice or weakness, for every man has one. Each of these questions is valuable in judging an author or his book.”

Sainte-Beuve decides that he is engaging in literary botany.

Proust finds all this knowledge useless and likely to mislead the reader: “A book is the product of a different self than the self we manifest in our habits, in our social life, in our vices. If we would try to understand that particular self, it is by searching deep within us and trying to reconstruct it there, that we may arrive at it. Nothing can exempt us from this effort of the heart.”

Proust also writes: “How does having been a friend of Stendhal’s make you better suited to judge him? It would be more likely to get in the way.” Sainte-Beuve, who knew Stendhal and Stendhal’s friends, found his novels “frankly detestable.”

What Proust holds against Sainte-Beuve is that he made no distinction between conversation and the occupation of writing, “in which, in solitude, quieting the speech which belongs as much to others as to ourselves, we come face to face once more with ourselves, and seek to hear and to render the true sound of our hearts.”

Proust admires Balzac, all while thinking that from what he knew of Balzac’s personal life, his letters to his family and to Madame Hanska, he was a vulgar human being. Stefan Zweig raises the same issue. He admires Balzac the writer and seeks reasons to admire the man. He is infuriated because he can’t find any. He has discovered that genius is incomprehensible.

Gaëtan Picon thinks that if Proust attacks Sainte-Beuve so violently it’s because he needs to believe that genius is based on a secret distinct from intelligence. That a man whose life is frivolous and empty, a failure, can nonetheless create a great work. The question is inevitable, beginning with the case of Proust himself. How did this intolerable social climber, whom Lucien Daudet called “an atrocious insect,” become the author of In Search of Lost Time? Paul Valéry concludes his famous study of Leonardo da Vinci with a line that shows in a striking way how much distance he puts between an artist and his work: “As for the true Leonardo, he was what he was.”

Flaubert would have sided with Proust against his friend Sainte-Beuve. He writes to Ernest Feydeau on August 21, 1859, with his customary truculence, “Life is impossible now! The minute you’re an artist, the gentlemen grocers, the auditors of record, the customs agents, the cobblers and all the rest enjoy themselves at your expense! People inform them as to whether you’re a brunette or a blond, facetious or melancholy, how many moons since your birth, whether you’re given to drink or play the harmonica. I believe that on the contrary, the writer must leave behind nothing but his work. His life doesn’t matter. Wipe it away!”

He doesn’t stop there, but insists: “The artist must arrange things so as to make us believe in a posterity he hasn’t experienced.”

You’d have to put Chekhov in Proust’s camp. From his Notebook: “How pleasant it is to respect people! When I see books, I am not concerned with how the authors loved or played cards; I only see their marvelous works.”

The same is true for Henry James, who writes in his short story “The Real Right Thing”: “[. . .] his friend would at moments have shown himself as holding that the ‘literary’ career might—save in the case of a Johnson or a Scott, with a Boswell and a Lockhart to help—best content itself to be represented. The artist was what he did—he was nothing else.” In this fantasy tale, the ghost of a dead writer appears to prevent his biography from being written.

Proust seems rigid. He is right to say that there is a truth for the writer, especially if he’s a genius, that remains a mystery and cannot be explained by social appearance or private life. But he also presents a counter-argument to his own theory when he writes in Jean Santeuil: “[. . .] our lives are not wholly separated from our works. All the scenes that I have narrated here, I have lived through.”

Most of the time, the characters in Jean Santeuil and the Search are indiscreet, eager to know everything about the artists they encounter. Freud, whose theory is close to Proust’s, doesn’t hold back from delving into the private life of Leonardo da Vinci and a few others. J.-B. Pontalis suggests with a touch of malice that Proust and Freud take the opposite tack to Sainte-Beuve’s because they don’t want their own private lives examined: if Proust’s perversion of torturing rats was discovered. . . . The private lives of others are another story!

Nietzsche also pondered the question, but from a different point of view. He thinks that knowing an author distorts our opinion of his work and his person. “We read the writings of our acquaintances (friends and foes) in a twofold sense, inasmuch as our knowledge continually whispers to us: ‘this is by him, a sign of his inner nature, his experiences, his talent,’ while another kind of knowledge simultaneously seeks to determine what his work is worth in and of itself, what evaluation it deserves apart from its author, what enrichment of knowledge it brings with it. As goes without saying, these two kinds of reading and evaluating confound one another.”

But what to do in cases where the work can only be explained by the life? Why deprive ourselves of this source of knowledge?

In the case of Albert Camus, once you know about his impoverished childhood in an illiterate milieu (he described this in The Wrong Side and the Right Side, his first book, and in The First Man, his last), you understand his attitude of respect and rigor towards literature, and the tenor of his style. In the same way, his youth near the sea and the sun, and the illness that continually threatened him, explain to a large extent the spirit of his work, his thought.

Finally—and Proust is right about this—if the author is not a simple manufacturer, if he puts his interior self in his books, the reader will be attracted by this self. The reader will seek out this personal, private self beneath the sentences.

In 1922, the young Aragon wrote, “My instinct, whenever I read, is to look constantly for the author, and to find him, to imagine him writing, to listen to what he says, not what he tells; so in the end, the usual distinctions among the literary genres— poetry, novel, philosophy, maxims—all strike me as insignificant.”

Freud showed that every child constructs a “family romance” that he will later repress. Whereas the writer continues to manufacture a novel which, if not a family romance, is at least a personal one. Marthe Robert has noted that all novelists relate to some extent their sentimental education, their apprentice years, and their search for lost time. The paradox is that they confess their secrets to a piece of paper. Yet they’re careful to disguise them as fiction.

Revealing a lot about oneself is not the purview only of novelists. It is also what poets do, and not just the elegiac poets. For centuries, and in a variety of civilizations, well before there were novels, the great majority of poems came from the poet’s effusion in speaking about his life, his loves, his torments, his anger, his religious feeling, his exile. Gérard de Nerval asks, “Which is more modest: to portray oneself in a novel disguised as Lélio or Octavio or Arthur, or to betray one’s most intimate emotions in a volume of poetry?” That his life and his illness were made public by his friends gave him an argument: “Forgive us our flights of personality, we who are constantly in the limelight, and who, whether we live in glory or in failure, can no longer hope to obtain the benefits of obscurity.”

You might think that contemporary poetry, tending towards abstraction and situated in a world where the air is rarified, has little to do with private life. This is not always true. Even an erudite poet like Jacques Roubaud, who delves into mathematics, writes about a deeply personal unhappiness in Something Black.

The same is true for the playwright, the filmmaker, even the nonfiction writer. You can sense this clearly in the philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre, Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes. Descartes was already inserting elements of autobiography in Discourse on Method. In this essential essay, he portrays himself in Holland, seated next to his stove throughout the winter, reflecting. Thus there is a back-and-forth movement, a dialectic, practically a contradiction. One retreats into oneself in order to communicate better with others.

Authors, whenever they delve into their own private lives, even if they embellish or transpose, find themselves confronted with the issue of personal discretion. They go well beyond simple indiscretion when they attempt to bring to light what is hidden in the deepest part of themselves.

With his taste for nonsense, Julio Cortázar describes an “enlarged self-portrait from which the artist has had the elegance to withdraw.” This little joke reveals the aspirations of so many writers: to be at once invisible and present, to say everything about oneself without seeming to.

Offering your essence to nourish what you write is what Scott Fitzgerald called “the price to pay”: “I have asked a lot of my emotions—one hundred and twenty stories. The price was high, right up with Kipling, because there was one little drop of something not blood not a tear, not my seed, but me more intimately than these in every story: it was the extra I had.”

Scott Fitzgerald couldn’t write without including his entire history. And even when he lost his creative vein, he dug to the depths of his anguish to write The Crack-Up.

John Dos Passos, another American who is now neglected after having been overrated, made a distinction between a literature of confession and a literature of spectacle. Of course he categorized his own books Manhattan Transfer and the U.S.A. trilogy as literature of spectacle. But I’m pretty sure you can find confession beneath the spectacle.

The young novelist’s first book is often autobiographical. Yet this is the phase when one has lived the least. Other, perhaps better, writers save the most personal, the most intimate in their lives or in the history of their families for much later.

On the other hand, some seem to write primarily to cover up a secret. Paul-Jean Toulet never shows his wounds—neither in his novels, frankly mediocre and marred by the most odious clichés of his era: anti-Semitism, etc.—nor in his poetry, far more charming; nor even in the letters he addressed to himself. His friends knew he had a broken heart. Why broken? And by whom? One of the qualities of his poetry is precisely that you can perceive, beyond the light-hearted fantasy, a floating veil of sadness or perhaps despair. We’ll never know the whole story. That is the claim in the last quatrain of his Contrerimes—a kind of challenge:

If living is a duty, when I will have ruined it,

May I use my shroud as a mystery

You must know how to die, Faustine, how to grow silent,

Die like Gilbert by swallowing the key.

(The allusion is to the strange death at age thirty of the poet Nicolas Gilbert, author of the Le poète malheureux [the unhappy poet] who apparently swallowed his key in a fit of delirium.)

In the life of a man or a woman there are always one or two things that he or she will never consent to speak about, not for anything. Secret gardens. But if that man or woman is a writer, we might find those things hidden deep within a novel.

We know that Dickens lived through some very unhappy times in his childhood. The casual egotism of his parents was to blame.

His father, a loudmouth who was often imprisoned for debt, is in part the model for Mr. Micawber. In chapter eleven of David Copperfield, we find, barely altered, what Dickens experienced at age twelve. For six or seven shillings a week, he packaged shoe polish in a putrid factory, working under unspeakably miserable, humiliating conditions.

While he didn’t hesitate to use this experience for David Copperfield, in life he hid the memory as his most closely guarded secret. He refused to talk about it. He even took detours in London to avoid the place where he had been so unhappy. A fragment of his autobiography was found where he confirmed:

No word of that part of my childhood which I have now gladly brought to a close, has passed my lips to any human being . . . I have never, until I now impart it to this paper, in any burst of confidence with anyone, my own wife not excepted, raised the curtain I then dropped, thank God.

Until old Hungerford Market was pulled down, until old Hungerford Stairs were destroyed, and the very nature of the ground changed, I never had the courage to go back to the place where my servitude began. I never saw it. I could not endure to go near it. For many years, when I came near to Robert Warrens’ in the Strand, I crossed over to the opposite side of the way, to avoid a certain smell of the cement they put upon the blackingcorks, which reminded me of what I was once. It was a very long time before I liked to go up Chandos Street. My old way home by the Borough made me cry, after my eldest child could speak.

Thus Charles Dickens and David Copperfield, C. D. and D. C., meet in the person of a humiliated child. Humiliation is a feeling that very few people can tolerate. But it has inspired many books.

Léon Aréga, a forgotten writer who endured endless ridicule, once said to me about one of my novels in which I put much of myself: “It’s a treatise on humiliation.” Which, coming from him, was a great compliment. It is easy to find the humiliated child in many of Chekhov’s short stories. His remark has been quoted a hundred times: “In my childhood, there was no childhood.”

Confessions are made on purpose in David Copperfield. But in most novels they aren’t. They surface in the form of fantasies, obsessions. With Dostoyevsky it’s impossible not to find an allusion to the rape of a little girl in The Possessed, Crime and Punishment,The Eternal Husband.

One rather strange point of view comes from Joseph Conrad. He thought you needed to be a genius to dare unveil your intimate self and thus move the public. If the effect was ruined you would sink into ridicule:

If it be true that every novel contains an element of autobiography—and this can hardy be denied since the creator can only express himself in his creation—then there are some of us to whom an open display of sentiment is repugnant. I would not unduly praise the virtue of restraint. It is often merely temperamental. But it is not always a sign of coldness. It may be pride. There can be nothing more humiliating than to see the shaft of one’s emotions miss the mark of either laughter or tears. Nothing more humiliating! And that for this reason should the mark be missed, should the open display of emotion fail to move, then it must perish unavoidably in disgust or contempt.

This is what the authors of a fashionable genre, baptized “autofiction” in 1970 by Serge Doubrovsky, seem not to fear, and their works collect like dregs on booksellers’ shelves.

Sometimes the most impersonal work can signify something deeply intimate to the author. This is the case of the great allegorical novel by Melville, Moby Dick. He achieves a fusion of a great myth with his own torment. The dire questioning, the violence of Ahab, are his. The Plague, another book that generates a myth, is also a novel about separation, since Camus wrote part of it isolated by the war, cut off from Algeria, from his wife, from his close friends. Virginia Woolf ’s Orlando seems like a fantastical novel of imagination, when it is really the portrait of Vita Sackville-West, who was so dear to the author. In a fairy tale like Alice in Wonderland, Reverend Dodgson confides his passion for Alice Liddell.

The sole fact of starting to write is motivated by a cause that belongs to what is most intimate for the author. I quoted Flaubert, who talks about the sorrow that launched him into the enterprise of Salammbô.

The critics always remind us that Proust and John Cowper Powys wrote their great novels only after the death of their mothers. You could say they waited for their mothers’ deaths to write.

We mustn’t forget the role of the unconscious. Benjamin Crémieux noticed that “the writer who rereads one of his books discovers, after the fact, secret traits he never suspected having put there, traits he may not even have known he possessed—and whose existence is suddenly revealed to him. In all that we write in our own style, the truest aspect of ourselves is inscribed in filigrain.”

How, without blushing, can we agree to deliver to the public so many confessions and intimate motivations, even those that are disguised or dissimulated? This is the mystery of the quasi-religious value we assign to literature.

To read more about Palace of Books, click here.

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22. A Halloween horror story : What was it?

We’re getting ready for Halloween this month by reading the classic horror stories that set the stage for the creepy movies and books we love today. Check in every Friday this October as we tell Fitz-James O’Brien’s tale of an unusual entity in What Was It?, a story from the spine-tingling collection of works in Horror Stories: Classic Tales from Hoffmann to Hodgson, edited by Darryl Jones.

It is, I confess, with considerable diffidence that I approach the strange narrative which I am about to relate. The events which I purpose detailing are of so extraordinary a character that I am quite prepared to meet with an unusual amount of incredulity and scorn. I accept all such beforehand. I have, I trust, the literary courage to face unbelief. I have, after mature consideration, resolved to narrate, in as simple and straightforward a manner as I can compass, some facts that passed under my observation, in the month of July last, and which, in the annals of the mysteries of physical science, are wholly unparalleled.

I live at No. — Twenty-sixth Street, in New York. The house is in some respects a curious one. It has enjoyed for the last two years the reputation of being haunted. It is a large and stately residence, surrounded by what was once a garden, but which is now only a green enclosure used for bleaching clothes. The dry basin of what has been a fountain, and a few fruit-trees ragged and unpruned, indicate that this spot in past days was a pleasant, shady retreat, filled with fruits and flowers and the sweet murmur of waters.

The house is very spacious. A hall of noble size leads to a large spiral staircase winding through its centre, while the various apartments are of imposing dimensions. It was built some fifteen or twenty years since by Mr A——, the well-known New York merchant, who five years ago threw the commercial world into convulsions by a stupendous bank fraud. Mr A——, as everyone knows, escaped to Europe, and died not long after, of a broken heart. Almost immediately after the news of his decease reached this country and was verified, the report spread in Twenty-sixth Street that No. — was haunted. Legal measures had dispossessed the widow of its former owner, and it was inhabited merely by a care-taker and his wife, placed there by the house-agent into whose hands it had passed for purposes of renting or sale. These people declared that they were troubled with unnatural noises. Doors were opened without any visible agency. The remnants of furniture scattered through the various rooms were, during the night, piled one upon the other by unknown hands. Invisible feet passed up and down the stairs in broad daylight, accompanied by the rustle of unseen silk dresses, and the gliding of viewless hands along the massive balusters. The care-taker and his wife declared they would live there no longer. The house-agent laughed, dismissed them, and put others in their place. The noises and supernatural manifestations continued. The neighborhood caught up the story, and the house remained untenanted for three years. Several persons negotiated for it; but, somehow, always before the bargain was closed they heard the unpleasant rumors and declined to treat any further.

It was in this state of things that my landlady, who at that time kept a boarding-house in Bleecker Street, and who wished to move further up town, conceived the bold idea of renting No. — Twenty-sixth Street. Happening to have in her house rather a plucky and philosophical set of boarders, she laid her scheme before us, stating candidly everything she had heard respecting the ghostly qualities of the establishment to which she wished to remove us. With the exception of two timid persons,—a sea-captain and a returned Californian, who immediately gave notice that they would leave,—all of Mrs Moffat’s guests declared that they would accompany her in her chivalric incursion into the abode of spirits.

Our removal was effected in the month of May, and we were charmed with our new residence. The portion of Twenty-sixth Street where our house is situated, between Seventh and Eighth Avenues, is one of the pleasantest localities in New York. The gardens back of the houses, running down nearly to the Hudson, form, in the summer time, a perfect avenue of verdure. The air is pure and invigorating, sweeping, as it does, straight across the river from the Weehawken heights, and even the ragged garden which surrounded the house, although displaying on washing days rather too much clothes-line, still gave us a piece of greensward to look at, and a cool retreat in the summer evenings, where we smoked our cigars in the dusk, and watched the fire-flies flashing their dark-lanterns in the long grass.

Of course we had no sooner established ourselves at No. — than we began to expect the ghosts. We absolutely awaited their advent with eagerness. Our dinner conversation was supernatural. One of the boarders, who had purchased Mrs Crowe’s ‘Night Side of Nature’ for his own private delectation, was regarded as a public enemy by the entire household for not having bought twenty copies. The man led a life of supreme wretchedness while he was reading this volume.

A system of espionage was established, of which he was the victim. If he incautiously laid the book down for an instant and left the room, it was immediately seized and read aloud in secret places to a select few. I found myself a person of immense importance, it having leaked out that I was tolerably well versed in the history of supernaturalism, and had once written a story the foundation of which was a ghost. If a table or a wainscot panel happened to warp when we were assembled in the large drawing-room, there was an instant silence, and everyone was prepared for an immediate clanking of chains and a spectral form.

After a month of psychological excitement, it was with the utmost dissatisfaction that we were forced to acknowledge that nothing in the remotest degree approaching the supernatural had manifested itself. Once the black butler asseverated that his candle had been blown out by some invisible agency while he was undressing himself for the night; but as I had more than once discovered this colored gentleman in a condition when one candle must have appeared to him like two, I thought it possible that, by going a step further in his potations, he might have reversed this phenomenon, and seen no candle at all where he ought to have beheld one.

Things were in this state when an incident took place so awful and inexplicable in its character that my reason fairly reels at the bare memory of the occurrence.

Check back next Friday, 10 October, as the events of the narrator’s night unfolds.

Featured image: Hotel Meade by Nomadic Lass. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.

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23. “There is no escape.” Horace Walpole and the terrifying rise of the Gothic

This year is the 250th anniversary of Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, first published on Christmas Eve 1764 as a seasonal ghost story. The Castle of Otranto is often dubbed the “first Gothic novel” due to Walpole describing it as a “Gothic story,” but for him the Gothic meant very different things from what it might do today. While the Gothic was certainly associated with the supernatural, it was predominantly a theory of English progress rooted in Anglo-Saxon and medieval history — effectively the cultural wing of parliamentarian politics and Protestant theology. The genre of the “Gothic novel,” with all its dire associations of uncanny horror, would not come into being for at least another century. Instead, the writing that followed in the wake of Otranto was known as the German School, the ‘Terrorist System of Writing’, or even hobgobliana.

Reading Otranto today, however, it is almost impossible to forget what 250 years of Gothickry have bequeathed to our culture in literature, architecture, film, music, and fashion: everything from the great Gothic Revival design of the Palace of Westminster to none-more-black clothes for sale on Camden Town High Street and the eerie music of Nick Cave, Jordan Reyne, and Fields of the Nephilim.

And the cinema has been instrumental in spreading this unholy word. Despite being rooted in the history of the barbarian tribes who sacked Rome and the thousand-year epoch of the Dark Ages, the Gothic was also a state-of-the-art movement. Technology drove the Gothic dream, enabling, for instance, the towering spires and colossal naves of medieval cathedrals, or enlisting in nineteenth-century art and literature the latest scientific developments in anatomy and galvanism (Frankenstein), the circulation of the blood and infection (The Vampyre), or drug use and psychology (Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde).

The moving image on the cinema screen therefore had an immediate and compelling appeal. The very experience of cinema was phantasmagoric — kaleidoscopic images projected in a darkened room, accompanied by often wild, expressionist music. The hallucinatory visions of Henry Fuseli and Gustave Doré arose and, like revenants, came to life.

The Nightmare by Henry Fuseli, 1781. Public Domain via Wikiart.
The Nightmare by Henry Fuseli, 1781. Public Domain via Wikiart.

Camera tricks, special effects, fantastical scenery, and monstrous figures combined in a new visual style, most notably in Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920) and F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu: A Symphony of Terror (1922). Murnau’s Nosferatu, the first vampire film, fed parasitically on Bram Stoker’s Dracula; it was rumored that Max Schreck, who played the nightmarish Count Orlok, was indeed a vampire himself. The horror film had arrived.

Cabinet of Dr Caligari 1920 Lobby Card
Cabinet of Dr Caligari Lobby Card (1920). Goldwyn Distributing Company. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Mid-century Hollywood movie stars such as Bela Lugosi, who first played Dracula in 1931, and Boris Karloff, who played Frankenstein’s monster in the same year, made these roles iconic. Lugosi played Dracula as a baleful East European, deliberately melodramatic; Karloff was menacing in a different way: mute, brutal, and alien. Both embodied the threat of the “other”: communist Russia, as conjured up by the cinema. Frankenstein’s monster is animated by the new cinematic energy of electricity and light, while in Dracula the Count’s life and death are endlessly replayed on the screen in an immortal and diabolical loop.

It was in Britain, however, that horror films really took the cinema-going public by the throat. Britain was made for the Gothic cinema: British film-makers such as Hammer House of Horror could draw on the nation’s rich literary heritage, its crumbling ecclesiastical remains and ruins, the dark and stormy weather, and its own homegrown movie stars such as Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. Lee in particular radiated a feral sexuality, enabling Hammer Horror to mix a heady cocktail of sex and violence on the screen. It was irresistible.

The slasher movies that have dominated international cinema since Hammer through franchises such as Hellraiser and Saw are more sensationalist melodrama than Gothic, but Gothic film does thrive and continues to create profound unease in audiences: The Exorcist, the Alien films, Blade Runner, The Blair Witch Project, and more overtly literary pictures such as Bram Stoker’s Dracula are all contemporary classics — as is Buffy the Vampire Slayer on TV.

And despite the hi-tech nature of film-making, the profound shift in the meaning of Gothic, and the gulf of 250 years, the pulse of The Castle of Otranto still beats in these films. The action of Otranto takes place predominantly in the dark in a suffocatingly claustrophobic castle and in secret underground passages. Inexplicable events plague the plot, and the dead — embodying the inescapable crimes of the past — haunt the characters like avenging revenants. Otranto is a novel of passion and terror, of human identity at the edge of sanity. In that sense, Horace Walpole did indeed set down the template of the Gothic. The Gothic may have mutated since 1764, it may now go under many different guises, but it is still with us today. And there is no escape.

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24. “A Bright But Unsteady Light”

Edgar Allan Poe died 165 years ago today in the early morning of 7 October 1849. Only a few details of the illness that extinguished his “bright but unsteady light” are known because his physician, Dr. John Joseph Moran, used the illness to promote his own celebrity and in the process denied posterity an accurate clinical description. One of his later accounts, one summarized by Charles Scarlett, Jr. in the Maryland Historical Magazine (1978; 73: 360-75) came to my attention shortly after returning to Baltimore after 14 years at the Dallas VA Hospital in 1988. I was so taken by Moran’s fascinating and detailed description of Poe’s final days, I decided to use it as the subject of a clinical conference that has long been my favorite – the Clinical Pathologic Case Conference (CPC) Conference. This would prove to be the first of an ongoing series of historical CPCs devoted to the likes of Alexander, Columbus, Mozart and Lenin, stretching over two decades and spawning too-numerous-to-count articles in the international press, scores of manuscripts published in medical journals, and two books.

The clinicopathological conference is a standard medical conference designed to teach physicians and physicians-in-training basic medical concepts and clinical problem-solving techniques. It is a case-based exercise, in which the featured speaker and the audience struggle together to diagnose a particularly challenging illness of some patient using only the information included in a clinical summary prepared especially for the conference. That clinical summary, distributed well in advance of the conference, typically contains all of the medical information pertaining to the case in question, except for the definitive, diagnostic test result. That result, known only to the conference organizers, is revealed at the very end of the conference as a validation or repudiation of the presenter’s conclusions. To my knowledge, our “Poe Historical CPC” was the first to use an historical, rather than a current, patient as the subject of the conference.

Illustration for Edgar Allan Poe's story "Descent into the Maelstrom" by Harry Clarke (1889-1931), published in 1919. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Illustration for Edgar Allan Poe’s story “Descent into the Maelstrom” by Harry Clarke (1889-1931), published in 1919. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

In 1995, during this first Historical CPC at the University of Maryland, Dr. R. Michael Benitez concluded that Poe died of rabies resulting from an unrecorded and most likely unrecognized animal exposure prior to his hospitalization in Baltimore. His diagnosis became a media sensation covered in venues as diverse as Science magazine and the answer to the final Jeopardy question of the TV show of the same name. Benitez based his diagnosis on evidence of autonomic instability (dilating and contracting pupils and an irregular pulse which alternated between rapid and slow), fluctuating delirium, and hydrophobia (suggested by Poe’s adamant refusal of alcohol and difficulty swallowing water) included in Moran’s later descriptions of the terminal illness.

Rabies, in fact, has much in common with Moran’s later description of Poe’s final illness. It is a viral encephalitis (i.e., an infection of the brain) marked by acute onset of confusion, hallucinations, combativeness, muscle spasms and seizures, all of which tend to wax and wane during the course of the illness. Autonomic instability marked by alternating tachycardia (racing pulse) and bradycardia (slow pulse), profuse sweating, lacrymation, and salivation are also characteristic. The infection is virtually always fatal, with a median survival time after the onset of symptoms of four days. Poe died four days after being admitted to the hospital.

Moran gave no such indication of autonomic instability or hydrophobia in the letter he wrote to Mrs. Clemm a month after her son-in-law’s death. Only decades later, most likely relying on memory alone, does he mention a “very low pulse” and that his famous patient’s “pulse which had been as low as fifty was rising rapidly, though still feeble and variable.”

Many diagnoses have since been offered to explain Poe’s death. The earliest and most persistent has been that of alcohol-induced delirium tremens. Moran’s later case summary, one almost certainly written to satisfy his public’s appetite for ever more moving and ironic details of his patient’s final hours, has generated several more. These include homicide, carbon monoxide poisoning, suicide, syphilis, and mercury intoxication, reflecting more an unwillingness on the part of the proposers to accept an ordinary disease as the cause of Poe’s death than any convincing clinical evidence of such disorders.

Given numerous well-documented instances of Poe’s refractory alcohol abuse and its adverse effects on his physical and mental health prior to his departure from Richmond in late September of 1849, and the nature of the illness described by Moran in his letter of 15 November 1849 to Poe’s mother-in-law, one need look no further than delirium tremens as an explanation for his death. Whether his last bout with alcohol was the result of “cooping,” his own inability to control the craving that had for so many years driven him to drink, or a second (successful) attempt at suicide will never be known. However, if one ignores Moran’s later expanded description of Poe’s final illness, which deviates so spectacularly from his initial description in his letter to Maria Clemm a month after his patient’s death, neither rabies, homicide, mercury intoxication, nor, for that matter, any of the myriad other explanations proposed in the century and a half since Poe’s death, offers a better fit than delirium tremens.

Headline image credit: A photograph (taken by C.T. Tatman in 1904) of a daguerreotype (taken by Edwin H. Manchester in 1848) of Edgar Allan Poe. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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25. The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher

In first-rate style, replete with her wicked humor and merciless eye, Mantel cuts to the quick in this dazzling and diverse collection of stories. Ranging from sinister to unsettling, these sharply drawn and thrillingly unpredictable stories further demonstrate the insightful intelligence and dark brilliance of this gifted author. Books mentioned in this post The Assassination [...]

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