I still and continually this fall owe you my sincere apologies for being somewhat absent from the blogging world. The last time I posted something partially on a personal note, I had also to offer my excuses too (and yes, sometimes an excuse is a reason). The explanation now is the same as it was then: I am still crafting away busily (mainly doing crochet gifts) for Hannukah and Christmas, both fast approaching.
But there are those of us who have not been derelict in our attentions, and I have to thank those of my readers who continue to read along and wait, I assume fairly patiently, since stats have been good, for my return to the blogging scene. I hope to have something to say on literary matters again soon, and until then, know that I have you all in my thoughts as I occasionally stop to read some bloggable material, and try to prepare a post that won’t be too lazy or offhand for your attention. I would also like to thank those newcomers who pop up now and then for their attendance at my site, and hope they keep coming back. As the cold winds blow up a nor’easter here in the States, I am also thankful not only for the readers who come to my site from the U.S. but also for those who read from other parts of the world. You are all welcome, and I am always thrilled by the stats which show your countries of origin. I’ll try not to disappoint when I do return. In the meantime, enjoy the comforts of the season, such as warm blankets, cozy fires, falling leaves to watch, and hot drinks inside away from the elements. And if you have to be out in the weather a lot for work (or even play), I hope you are well wrapped up and as sanguine as possible about it–spring will come again!
Thank you for your readership, and farewell for now. Shadowoperator
Intemperance, Cruelty, Perversity–How Negative Traits Combine to Produce a Haunting Halloween Tale: Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Black Cat”
I was six years old. I was spending a weekend with one of my role models, a twelve-year-old girl, a former neighbor who had moved to another town. She was reading me a spooky story before light’s out one night. The story was Edgar Allan Poe’s very chilling tale “The Black Cat.” I don’t think I slept a wink that night, not only because the story itself was so haunting, but because she herself possessed a large cat, an affectionate creature to her, a distant and shy creature with me, though at this reach of time I can no longer remember if it was black or not. Suffice it to say, every time I drowsed off and the cat settled in the huge king-size bed between the two of us, I felt I had to reach out and touch it, try to reassure it that I wasn’t going to hurt it, while also ascertaining that it didn’t mean to hurt me. I have always loved cats, but that weekend was a severe test of my affection for the species. How could it be otherwise, when a master wordsmith like Edgar Allan Poe had been working on my psyche?
Though in some ways Poe seems to be ascribing supernatural effects to people or animals, quite often eerie results are the products of overtaxed and strained imaginations, results brought on by the combination of character flaws and chance circumstances. Yet the deeper his characters sink into the “bog” of their own making, the more they struggle with inadequate aids to help them, the wrong tools, in fact; the more they struggle, the faster they sink into the morass, as one might expect.
In the case of “The Black Cat,” the narrator starts out as an excessively affectionate man to animals and a good companion to his wife, but as he records from the jail cell where he is being kept awaiting execution, it was “through the instrumentality of the Fiend Intemperance” that he began to be cruel where before he had been kind, both to his many animal pets and to his wife. A modern psychologist might look for a deeper cause, such as some basic personality flaw that produced a tendency to rely on such crutches as alcohol, but to the people of Poe’s time, alcohol was a chancy friend, and a labile personality with a tendency toward addiction was not the chosen explanation: instead, there was something devilish and mysterious about the way alcohol could simultaneously aid or hinder.
The link between his “Intemperance” and a secondary quality is cruelty, and what his drunkenness is linked to is another quality which he calls “Perverseness,” or perversity. He says of this quality: “Of this spirit philosophy takes no account. Yet I am not more sure that my soul lives, than I am that perverseness is one of the primary impulses of the human heart–one of the indivisible primary faculties, or sentiments, which gives direction to the character of Man. Who has not, a hundred times, found himself committing a vile or stupid action, for no other reason than because he knows he should not?” In the grips of this sentiment, the speaker has already committed one act against the cat, and proceeds to commit a second, more final one. But this brings him no relief. Instead, he becomes even more hateful to his wife, and more obsessed with the second cat he encounters, which is very like the first, except for a white blaze upon its chest, which he later realizes with premonitory horror resembles the gallows.
Though this is a very well-known tale, I’m not going to spoil it for you by revealing the outcome, except to say that while there is a horrible ending, the actual supernatural effects are all in the speaker’s mind, as he feels that he has been haunted and driven and diabolized into what he has done. In actual fact, the horror derives from the way in which he is slowly but relentlessly pulled down by a combination of chance events (ones he regards as uncanny) and his own personality traits under the influence of alcohol, which have the force of Fate. It is in fact a sort of fated ghastly fear of death which impels him to betray himself to others who are trying to find out what he has done, a kind of self-fulfilling prophetic knowledge of what is going to happen to him that draws him forward into ruin and punishes him for what he has done.
What exactly has he done? Ah, if you have never read the story, then you’ll have to read it to find out–and if you have, Halloween night after the Damnéd Dinner* is the perfect opportunity to chill the blood of your favorite group of guests as you read them the story aloud. I predict that everyone will be both “grossed out” and appropriately horrified.
*The Damnéd Dinner is a Halloween festivity in which each participant prepares one food which feels to the touch like something repellent or vile. The other diners are asked to close their eyes, on their honor not to peek, and then they are served and asked to put their hands in their individual served dishes of the food as the server tells them a dreadful (made-up) story about what they are to eat. They have to eat some of it with their hands or simple implements, and of course after all have eaten it and gotten a relieved chuckle (one hopes) about what it actually is, they are allowed to open their eyes and verify their impressions. Individual after individual takes a turn as server, until everyone has told a Halloween story and (again, one hopes) everyone has had a full repast. Some popular items are peeled grapes or mozzarella balls (which feel like eyeballs if you’re told that’s what they are), strings of long pasta in sauce (brains, of course), or chopped-up jello, which has passed as more than one item in my experience.
The impetus toward discovery is a key feature of human nature, and it has spawned many a great invention and many a new and innovative usage of older inventions. Without those first tentative steps from the depths of the cave and into a new world of perhaps questionable provenance, where would humankind be now? Still in what is somewhat inaccurately known as the Stone Age. Nevertheless, as one would say of a secondary computer program, “concurrently running” is the conservative and opposite function of drawing back and using fear of difference as a guide to behavior, and each of these two impulses has its place in guiding human behavior; each is appropriate and necessary for human survival in a world which at times is placid and forgiving, at times inimical and hostile. As you will see, one without the other can be downright dangerous and spooky, in this Halloween celebration of one of the lesser-known tales of H. G. Wells, “The Flowering of the Strange Orchid.”
T he principle of discovery and the delight one may take in it are articulated in the first paragraph of the story, written at a time when some parts of the globe were still largely foreign and shrouded in mystery: “The buying of orchids always has in it a certain speculative flavour. You have before you the brown shrivelled lump of tissue, and for the rest you must trust your judgment, or the auctioneer, or your good-luck, as your taste may incline. The plant may be moribund or dead, or it may just be a respectable purchase, fair value for your money, or perhaps–for the thing has happened again and again–there slowly unfolds before the delighted eyes of the happy purchaser, day after day, some new variety, some novel richness, a strange twist of the labellum, or some subtler coloration or unexpeccted mimicry. Pride, beauty, and profit blossom together on one delicate green spike, and, as it may be, even immortality. For the new miracle of Nature may stand in need of a new specific name, and what so convenient as that of its discoverer? ‘Johnsmithia’! There have been worse names.” This is the elevated perspective of Winter-Wedderburn, a “shy, lonely, rather ineffectual man, provided with just enough income to keep off the spur of necessity, and not enough nervous energy to make him seek any exacting employment.” This is his hobby, his main enthusiasm, his love.
Speaking on the other side of the question is his housekeeper, who is also a distant female cousin. Every time he enthuses about orchids or discoverers of orchids who have risked life and limb in jungles and swamps to search for the strange blooms, she promptly puts him down. And every time he longs for something new and different to happen in his life, she applies the breaks of reason, and assures him that such thoughts are perilous, controversial, and undesirable. He doesn’t listen, however, but keeps wishing for an eventful life, totally opposed to the efforts he actually puts forth to get one: “‘Nothing ever does happen to me,’ he remarked presently, beginning to think aloud. ‘I wonder why? Things enough happen to other people. There is Harvey. Only the other week–on Monday he picked up sixpence, on Wednesday his chicks all had the staggers, on Friday his cousin came home from Australia, and on Saturday he broke his ankle. What a whirl of excitement!–compared to me.'” His housekeeper, feeling perhaps that he is heading for disaster (as in fact he is, by wishing for a life which is basically opposed in action, even if whimsically, to his own), responds: “‘I think I would rather be without so much excitement….It can’t be good for you.'”
He continues, without hearing her caution, to mull over the even more adventurous life, recently ended, of an orchid collector: “‘That orchid-collector was only thirty-six–twenty years younger than myself–when he died. And he had been married twice and divorced once; he had had malarial fever four times, and once he broke his thigh. He killed a Malay once, and once he was wounded by a poisoned dart. And in the end he was killed by jungle leeches. It must have been all very troublesome, but then it must have been very interesting, you know–except, perhaps, the leeches.” The housekeeper, however, also sticks to her convervational guns: “‘I am sure it was not good for him….'” He prepares to go to another orchid sale, she, once again protectively, makes sure he has his umbrella, and he heads straight for the adventure he has been longing to have. As this story among many shows, the old adage “Be careful what you ask the gods for, for you shall surely receive it,” is spot on the money.
He comes back with a selection of orchids of various kinds, some of which are recognizable and one of which is not identified. He is very excited by it (it is described as “a shrivelled rhizome),” but his housekeeper in immediate answer takes what seems like an unreasonable dislike to it. “‘I don’t like the look of it….It’s such an ugly shape….I don’t like those things that stick out….It looks…like a spider shamming dead.'”
He addresses her concern by answering with something which is not, in fact, any further recommendation to her, but to him and his perspective: “‘They found poor Batten lying dead, or dying, in a mangrove swamp–I forget which…with one of these very orchids crushed up under his body. He had been unwell for some days with some kind of native fever, and I suppose he fainted. These mangrove swamps are very unwholesome. Every drop of blood, they say, was taken out of him by the jungle-leeches. It may be that very plant that cost him his life to obtain.’ ‘I think none the better of it for that’ [says the housekeeper].'” Remarks this ludicrous little Walter Mitty-ish hero, “‘Men must work though women may weep,'” thus partaking in the glory of one of his own supposed role models. But he is in for more than he bargained for.
As the orchid grows and develops, Wedderburn becomes more and more protective of it, adjusting everything in his small hothouse to suit it. The housekeeper maintains her prejudice, however, and the aerial rootlets, reaching forth like so many fingers, do not increase her confidence in it. She refuses to go to the orchid-house until the day when Wedderburn is extremely late for tea, given his usual punctual habits. This is the same day when he first notices the “new odour in the air, a rich, intensely sweet scent,” and sees to his delighted surprise that the orchid has blossomed. “…[B]ehold, the trailing green spikes bore now three great splashes of blossom,, from which this overpowering sweetness proceeded. He stopped before them in an ecstasy of admiration….The flowers were white, with streaks of golden orange upon the petals; the heavy labellum was coiled into an intricate projection, and a wonderful bluish purple mingled there with the gold. He could see at once that the genus was altogether a new one. And the insufferable scent! How hot the place was! The blossoms swam before his eyes….He would see if the temperature was right. He made a step towards the thermometer. Suddenly everything appeared unsteady. The bricks on the floor were dancing up and down. Then the white blossoms, the green leaves behind them, the whole greenhouse, seemed to sweep sideways, and then in a curve upward.”
When the housekeeper finally reaches the hothouse, an eerie sight greets her: “He was lying, face upward, at the foot of the strange orchid. The tentacle-like aërial rootlets…were crowded together, a tangle of grey ropes, and stretched tight with their ends closely applied to his chin and neck and hands….She did not understand. Then she saw from under one of the exultant tentacles upon his cheek there trickled a little thread of blood.” At first, she approaches and tries to tear the tentacles off, but the scent of the orchid begins to overpower her as well, so she masters her main force and drags both man and orchid with a crash into the open air. There she is able to tear away the rootlets, where she can see that he is “white and bleeding from a dozen circular patches.” She calls the odd-job man, and Annie, the housemaid, and sends for Doctor Haddon. Wedderburn’s life is saved, and the others go to the orchid house later and see that the odd orchid is in a stage of decay, though when the doctor steps too near, one of the aerial roots still stirs upward briefly.
The next day, the adventure is over, but even though the housekeeper’s warnings have been supported and verified by events, Wedderburn is unrepentant. “Wedderburn himself was bright and garrulous…in the glory of his strange adventure.” So, the next time you wish your life were more eventful, or envy even slightly the busy, bold, bustling life of your favorite hero or heroine, reflect that there is a reason why such people exist and a reason why you exist as you do, not in the forefront, but safely in the rearguard, or the main body. For, such people’s stories are meant to inspire you, perhaps, to continue forth with your own adventure, while reassuring you that great things are possible. And also odd and eerie–Happy Halloween!
I know that I certainly owe my readers an apology: I have been away from the posting box for several weeks now, and during that time, occasional checks have shown me that my readers are a great deal more faithful than I am. Readers from all over the world have been reading or possibly re-reading all my posts thus far, while I have been doing other things that called me away from the computer
What have I been doing, you ask? Or possibly you’ve lost interest by now–let’s hope not, though. I have been busy starting to get handmade gifts ready for Christmas in a few months. And, I have been up early and late when I would have preferred to have been getting a good night’s sleep, many a night. I am either sleepless thinking of all I have to get done, and have been wakeful in the wee hours (and finally, I usually give up and get up to start my day), or I’m up late at night, finishing up some aspect of one of my projects. Sometimes, I have actually been up all night in my eagerness to get work done. Little by little, I have been aware of how much more people could get done if only they didn’t sleep. But finally, last night, my hectic schedule caught up with me: I was so sleepy that all I could do was eat, read the very last of a book which has supplied me with a few moments here and there of literary pleasure during my work, and go off to sleep.
The book? Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless NIghts. How appropriate, I hear you say! Yet, I have preferences in general for books which are not all about style and issues of style, whether of writing or of life. But I had simply chosen this book off the shelf at random out of the sort of idle curiosity which has led to some of my most favorite literary adventures, so I persisted with it. Though accordingly it’s not really my type of book, it was perfect for the episodic and halting manner in which I had time to read it.
The book begins by announcing an apparent scenario, topic, and theme, which I give here in brief: “How nice it is–[this crocheted bedspread,] this production of a broken old woman in a squalid nursing home. The niceness and the squalor and sorrow in an apathetic battle–that is what I see. More beautiful is the table with the telephone, the books and magazines, the Times at the door, the birdsong of rough, grinding trucks in the street….If only one knew what to remember or pretend to remember. Make a decision and what you want from the lost things will present itself.” From that point onward, however, one gets lost in a kaleidoscopic shifting back and forth from one place and time to the next, from a girlhood (based on Hardwick’s own) in Kentucky, to homes in New York, Maine, Connecticut, to many life stories not her own, for example of some of the cleaning ladies and laundresses she has known. These are all short sketches, then the topic is switched to someone else, some other locale. Perfect to me for reading from moment to moment, a few pages one night, a few pages the next!
There are literary riffs played on the life and times of Billie Holiday, detailing her behind-the-scenes experiences as viewed by a close outsider, close in proximity if not in emotional terms. Yet, it is hard to tell just how much of the meandering and rather plotless narrative (one cannot reallly call it a story) is actual fact and how much is made up. Hardwick mentions at one points that her mother criticized her for making up some things which weren’t true and putting them amongst things which were, and if one were out to get either a purely fictional story or essay or conversely a memoir, then the demand to separate fact from fiction might be apt.
However, this book is a book about getting one’s insomnia steaze on, about all the ideas, notions, pictures of the past and speculations about the present and future which occur to one when one is wakeful, and if one accepts the book on those terms, then one will be more than satisfied. Yet, it is not, curiously, the author’s own insomnia which gets main mention, first mention, or even predominant mention in this book. She tells about Louisa, for example, an acquaintance who actually suffers from insomnia, and says: “After a dreamy day, Louisa went into her nights. Always she insisted they were full of agitation, restlessness, torment. She was forever like one watched over by wakefulness in her deepest sleep. She awoke with a tremor in her hands, declaring the pains, the indescribable, absorbing drama of sleeplessness. The tossing, the racing, the battles; the captures and escapes hidden behind her shaking eyelids. No one was more skillful than she in the confessions of an insomniac. These were redundant but stirring epics, profoundly felt and there to be pressed upon each morning, in the way one presses a bruiise to experience over and over the pain of it….Her hypnotic narration is like that of some folk poet, steeped, as they say, ‘in the oral tradition.’ Finally, it goes, sleep came over me…At last…It was drawing near to four o’clock. The first color was in the sky…Only to wake up suddenly, completely….Unsavory egotism? No, mere hope of definition, description, documentation. The chart of life must be brought up to date every morning: Patient slept fitfully, complained of the stitches in the incision. Alarming persistence of the very symptoms for which the operation was performed. Perhaps it is only the classical aching of the stump.” Thus, insomnia is compared poetically to a sort of illness or medical condition for which one requires surgery, and which must be kept track of by someone to assure the patient’s health and well-being.
Romances of the author’s fictional self are sketched out (for one must remember that none of this book actually purports to be a memoir, while it prefers to blur the lines and distinctions between fact and fiction). There are also portraits of romances and life histories in miniature of other sets of lovers of whom the author knew, or with whom she was acquainted, not necessarily anyone as famous as Billie Holiday, but people who form part of the landscape of the author’s mind. In short, these are all the topics and scenarios about which a fictionalized version of the author has thought in the small hours, and the connection amongst them is maintained by the style of masterful reminiscence of a long life, though without the sort of condescension to “elderly” memories that one might see as a danger to be avoided in this style of writing.
Thus, it seems that it can truly be said, in the “Urban Dictionary” slang of our own time, that Elizabeth Hardwick is in this work showing her “steaze” ( I am told this word means, among other things, “styling with ease,” making it an appropriate if anachronistic accolade for such a writer). It’s not essentially my kind of work, since I prefer to be reading a consistent or at least a less episodic story line. Still, it kept me reading from night to night as I got my own insomnia steaze on, and a good literary companion is not to be cast down upon. I would recommend this book for its sense of control of a difficult and querulous subject, a subject as difficult and querulous as an insomniac herself. And who knows, you might come greatly to admire a writer who can seem to meander and wool-gather without once losing track of her readers’ interest and willingness to go along in an exploration of the places and times and acquaintances of a single, remarkable, if fictionalized, life.
Yes, there are pirates and sea adventures. Yes, there are crossed love affairs and duels. And yes, there are shivery moments of speculation upon death and the devil, abundantly so. Well, what else would you expect from a book by Robert Louis Stevenson? Nevertheless, in this book, The Master of Ballantrae, what is in the forefront of the book for more of its length than anything else is a psychological case study of a family, its woes, its inner politics, its relationship to the outer world, and what brings it to grief. Again, this highly reputed examination of the family of the Duries in Scotland during the time of the Scottish-English wars and the years thereafter not only takes place in a reality that was romantic for many by its very nature, but also makes real what would seem an otherwise romantic situation, rendering it thus susceptible to the dictates of reason.
Briefly, the situation is this: Lord Durrisdeer has two sons between whom has grown up a fierce rivalry: his elder son, James the Master of Ballantrae, and his younger son, Henry. From the very first, there is a bitter feud going between them, though initially not in a sustained way. But it is the time of Bonnie Prince Charlie and the opposing English King George, and the family is split down the middle. This is not only due to where their allegiances and basic personality tendencies lie, but is also due to Lord Durrisdeer’s odd wisdom, of sending one son to fight for Bonnie Prince Charlie while the other son, Henry, the second in line to the tltle, stays at home and helps represent the family as loyal to King George. Funnily enough, though this arrangement may seem like a highly fictionalized one, it is in fact an old tried and true method in the real world as we know it, even to the present day, for families in territories at war. It enables at least half of the family fortunes to be saved, along with (possibly) one future heir.
One of the less political things at issue between the two brothers is their mutual love and rivalry over Miss Alison Graeme, a cousin, whom it is more or less assumed will marry Jamie (James), not only because she loves him and is ready and willing, but also because her fortune could help restore the family’s finances, which are in a sad state. James puts on that he loves her, but he loves himself more, gads about among the women of the district, and even has a bastard child with one woman. When he goes to battle with the Prince, Alison sews the revolutionary cockade upon his cap; she continues to bear allegiance to him even when he’s away. Henry loves her too, but hopelessly and at a distance. Not only does James have all the romance to which a young woman might be susceptible behind his role, but Henry is a practical young man not given to moonshine and daydreams, too pragmatic a figure to cut a dash in the world.
The rivalry and finally actual hatred between the two brothers creeps in further when, due to the apparent death of James, Alison agrees to marry Henry to improve the family’s monetary situation. She continues to grieve and moan over Jamie’s loss, as does his father, Lord Durrisdeer, for whom he was the favorite son, and even after she has a child by Henry, and the title passes to him, they seem to shut Henry out from their fond recollections and reminiscences. But the real problem arises when James returns “from the dead,” and continues to taunt and bait Henry in secret and make nice to him in front of the others, all the while courting Alison, his wife, in spite of the fact that he has no real intention to win her away from Henry, but only acts in order to make trouble for Henry.
There is, to be sure, more than one perspective to this book, even though James seems like the very devil himself and acts fiendishly throughout. That he has abundant charm, a fine intellect, and a strong personality is shown as well. As Mackellar, the land steward who is Henry’s friend and confidant even more than he is his employee, says to James, it’s not so much that he is evil, but that he has the capacity to be so very right-mannered and good a person that is discouraging to his approval of him. Like Satan in Paradise Lost, however, James would “rather reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.” Mackellar’s perspective on the two brothers is the main narration device for most of the novel, though (as in other books using varying points of view) there are other narrators whose memoirs or editorial comments add sidelights to the narrative, which of course allows us to see that Henry too is flawed in his own particular way. After a certain point in the story, even Mackellar, loyal as he is to the family and Henry in particular, must realize that in Henry as well there are negative traits which bite deeply. Take the novel as a whole, the adventures and roamings, the war and sea tales and travels to India and the state of New York and the Adirondacks–the latter where Stevenson wrote some of the novel–are perhaps romantic, but at the same time, they provide the background and opportunity for the exhibition of the psychology of the two brothers’ interactions and mutual attempts to overreach each other.
Thus, a conflict which starts out in youth as a minor thing is gradually aggravated by opportunity for mischief on James’s part and stern and unforgiving resilience on Henry’s, and because of circumstances and chances, swells to fill the whole canvas of the changing locales in the novel. Though I’ve enjoyed Treasure Island, Kidnapped, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, I don’t think I’ve been as spellbound from start to finish with such a fine psychological study as I found in this book. I hope you will read its short number of pages and find it gripping likewise.
When is “genre writing” (so-called) not genre writing, but quality entertainment? or, Lauren Owen’s “The Quick”
Though books often take me by surprise, dazzle me, shock me, take me off-guard, I can’t say that one has ever done so before in quite this same way. I sometimes look in the back of a book to find out about the author while I’m reading, just out of curiosity, and I was not at all surprised, when, about one-fourth into this one (Lauren Owen’s The Quick) I found out that Lauren Owen is very well-educated and erudite. She is a talented writer who started in English at Oxford, continued at the University of Leeds, then continued in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia. She received a writing award in 2009. Now she is working on her Ph. D. in English Literature at Durham University. So, though I was a little taken aback that this is only her first novel and yet is so gripping and intelligent and out-of-the-ordinary, I wasn’t surprised that it read for the first fourth or so very much like a classic English novel from the Victorian period, as if she were modelling herself on the talented women writers of that period.
Basically, I couldn’t get a handle on it. What kind of novel was it? It started out like a character exploration of the two young protagonists, Charlotte and James Norbury, who are left orphans in the care of a distant relative when first their mother dies and then their father sickens and passes on as well. They have previously resided at Aiskew Hall, and when they are orphaned and left in the care of Mrs. Chickering, they continue to reside in the smaller East Lodge of the property, so that they can do with fewer staff and manage costs better. But Charlotte and James have had some games that they play, a bit odd that’s true, but ones which they continue even after they reside with their new guardian, which take place in Aiskew Hall itself. These games are “dare” games, largely thought up by the slightly older Charlotte, which they play in order to be brave and prove themselves equal to their situation. The unusual thing about these dares is that though Charlotte is more or less responsible for them, she doesn’t really “pick on” James with them. There is one incident when she can’t get back away from the adults to release James from an outside-lock priest hole in the library as quickly as she had promised, but she is conscience-stricken and guilty over it, and repines quite a bit. They regard these games as ways of overcoming their misfortunes, and play them until James is sent away to school, leaving Charlotte behind in the care of Mrs. Chickering and whatever governess is current at the moment.
Then, the story shifts again: we begin to follow James Norbury in his career at Oxford, where he meets Geoffrey Margoyle, who introduces him to another young fellow who will become his flatmate and close intimate friend, one Christopher Paige. There is a bit of misdirection in the plot, because just before James is actually introduced to Christopher, he happens upon him in the library stacks, where Christopher is busy kissing Miss Emily Richter, whom James knows to be engaged to someone else. There is a moment of awkwardness, therefore, when James and Christopher actually are introduced, and in the way of the average reader, I suppose, I thought that Emily was going to be key to the plot. Nothing could be further from the truth. But I won’t spoil it by telling what does happen, except to say that regarding Christopher, when he and James go to a party together at Emily’s house, she warns James to “be careful” about something unspecified, and he seems to understand her. But the reader is left in the dark for a number of pages.
Then, the story shifts yet again, this time to a romance, though a very atypical one for the literary form. I have no intention of spoiling this surprise either, except to say that it’s handled in a very wonderful, feeling manner. But it doesn’t last long before the plot shifts to its final emphasis, which is, I will clue you in, that of horror. The one hint I will give you is to point to the title (if you are familiar with the Scriptural phrase “the quick and the dead,” you will be a step ahead). Nevertheless, though the novel retains this subject matter until the very end, it doesn’t desert its picture of Victorian London and other parts of the globe at the same era. It might even be a period history, and the novel seems amazingly true-to-life because of this, though we see things from a peculiar perspective, which might be termed “askew” (perhaps we were even given a clue in the title of the original home of Charlotte and James, “Aiskew Hall”?).
Next, though we leave Charlotte to her own devices and desert her history with Mrs. Chickering for a long span of the novel as we follow James and his story, finally she rejoins the plot and even takes over the action in parts. The ending is a chill-fest, with a heart-stopping finale that I feel will surely appeal to even the most jaded of spooky novel readers. So, pick up this book today and see if you too are not gripped by the unusual plot, characters, events, and conclusion. You won’t be sorry, unless it causes you to lose some sleep….!
Is a happening a mere coincidence (correlative), or the will of God (causative)?–Kingsley Amis’s “The Alteration”
Back in the days when I was teaching English Literature to undergraduates, we listened to the entire “Carmina Burana” as a partial entry into the mindset of the Medieval and Renaissance worlds. I still recall a tangential discussion that developed from this, in which I explained that in those days, it was usual for boys to sing and play the parts of women exclusively. And of course, their voices at a certain point would begin to lower and deepen, and then (in many cases) their singing careers were over, unless they chose to sing baritone, tenor, or bass parts (no more soprano for them!). And then I delivered the news which of course shocked many of my less well-informed students, that many a young man was altered (had his testicles removed) before his voice changed, in order to preserve his soprano voice for the rest of his life. But one of my students, a lover of music, was even better informed than I: he told us that he had heard that the last legal alteration done was performed in 1906.
In Kingsley Amis’s fascinating fantasy-satire The Alteration, the world of 1976 is transformed into a landscape in which the Catholic Church (which did alterations regularly to enable singers to perform church music and some secular music for the glory of God) has never left off ruling England through the Pope, and in which Protestants in some European countries are still called Schismatics (as are those Protestants in New England and what there is of America attached to it, very different from our actual America of today). It is still an Age of Faith, and science and electricity, though practiced in New England, are forbidden and frowned upon in Europe and England. There are, of course, fantasy/science fiction novels of the time, but they too are forbidden, and deal with such things as the electricity that Europeans cannot have. Elizabeth Tudor was never taken from her Catholic beliefs, Jean-Paul Sartre is a Jesuit priest, American sailing captains are people such as Edgar Allan Poe and the ships are gas airships, though the Wright Brothers are becoming well-known in America.
In the midst of this bewildering world of difference, we meet young Hubert Anvil, a chorister whose heavenly voice is the rumor of all of England and much of Europe once he sings in front of two castrati sent by the Pope from Rome. The decision is made by the Church and its officials to alter him, and he tries to make himself obedient to the course set for him, though not even all of the preceptors he knows from religious guidance are free of misgivings. But when he finds out and begins to truly understand that not only will he be unable to have sex with a woman, but will even be unable to find time to compose his own music, one of his most beloved activities, if he is a renowned singer, then he determines to run away. His young friends Decuman, Mark, and Thomas help him flee, and his older friend the American Ambassador van der Haag makes preparations to smuggle him away. At the last moment, however, something quite unexpected happens, and those who have previously prepared to help him escape are left wondering at the turns life sometimes takes: is a happening a mere coincidence, or “concurrence,” as they call it, a correlative event, near in time only and not in meaning, or is it the will of God (causative)? Perhaps you too will be left wondering about how humans interpret events, but even more you will perhaps have a sly, but somewhat nervous smile, at Kingsley Amis’s clever twist (“twist” being the “operative” word, to make a couple of bad puns you may not understand until you nearly finish the book). That’s the closest I’m going to get to a spoiler, and even if you are a good guesser, you should still allow yourself to enjoy this book for all of its many satirical points; the culprits may be different in this imagined world from the culprits we know of in our actual world (the Catholic Church is not, after all, a huge bugabear), but there are always those in power who abuse their positions. While this is not a feel-good book, it’s full of plottings and whimsy enough to keep you reading all the way through. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.