"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

Monday, April 24, 2017

"The Spindly Man" (2014) by Stephen Graham Jones

Hans Larwin,  "Soldat und Tod" 1917

     “Next,” [ the spindly man] said, no humor in his voice at all.

     “Who are you anyway?” Lew said.

     “Somebody who needs proof,” the spindly man said.

     “Of what?” Lew said.

     “The intangible,” the spindly man over-enunciated. “You know.”

     “I don’t have to tell you,” Lew said. “I never even told my wife.”

     “Of course, of course,” the spindly man said, all manners now. “Just leave Marcy running home through the darkness all alone.”

     Lew looked from the spindly man to Marcy. Then to me.

     “So maybe I saw something once,” he said.

     Just to have control again, I nodded for him to continue.

     The spindly man shifted his chair in anticipation.

     “We were at . . . well, it doesn’t matter,” Lew started off. “Way past the DMZ. Deep, no support. Somebody was shooting at us from a fortified position. So we ventilated his little roost, and he stopped shooting like you have to. Because you’re dead.”

     “Exactly,” the spindly man said. “The dead don’t shoot, of course they don’t. What is this, television?”

     Lew wasn’t listening to him anymore, though.

    “Only, once we broke cover, that dead sniper, he came back up over the lip of his little parapet. Except—I was the only one to see it—he was still dead. And there was another man up there with him. Moving that dead sniper’s arms like a puppet. Putting his finger on the trigger. We lost three more men that day.”

     “And you made it home,” the spindly man said. “Good for you. You’re living, breathing proof of the intangible. You saw it, respected it, and were given your life in return. Who else, now?”

*   *   *

"The Spindly Man" (2014) by Stephen Graham Jones is an uncanny heart-breaker. I first read it in 2017, and its unremitting emotional intensities and atmosphere of vastation often come to mind. 

Today, I scrolled past a post of Larwin's painting "Soldat und Tod" and "The Spindly Man" was right there before I realized it.


17 November 2022

Sunday, April 23, 2017

If Love were All: Stephen Volk Whitstable

Stephen Volk
Spectral Press, May 1, 2013

Volk's novella Whitstable is a brilliant conceit. Actor Peter Cushing fights a monster in his own town. It's a poignant story and one I really enjoyed.

Wonderful narrative moments abound and underline the menace:

....“Horror isn’t everywhere,” Cushing said. “But horror is somewhere, every day.”

....He woke to the sound of seagulls snagging and swooping above his roof.

At the best of times, he despaired at their racket. And these were not the best of times. Now the noise was no less than purgatory. As a child in Surrey he’d thought they were angels, but now he held no illusions about the species. The creatures were the very icon of an English seaside town, but they were relentless and without mercy. He’d once seen a large speckled gull going for a toddler’s bag of chips, almost taking off its fingers, leaving it bawling and terrified in its mother’s embrace. They were motivated by only selfish need and gratification, thought only of their own bellies and their own desires. It seemed almost symbolic that we never ate sea birds, knowing almost instinctively that their insides would be disgusting, inedible, rank, rancid, foul. It seemed to Cushing that their screeching was both a bombastic call to arms and a cry of pain.

....“Then what do you have to fear from me?” Cushing spoke quietly and with precision.

“I don’t know.” Gledhill shrugged. “I don’t know what you think.” And he laughed again. And the laugh had a wrongness.

There was something in it, a grace note, deep down, disingenuous, that the older man detected and didn’t like. If pressed, he couldn’t have explained it any more than he could have explained why, on meeting his wife he knew instantly they were meant to spend the rest of their lives together: it wasn’t even love, it was that he’d met his soul. Similarly, the thing embedded in Les Gledhill’s laugh was inexplicable, and, inexplicably, enough.

....Now he faced another Jekyll and Hyde, another beast hiding under the mask of normality. A clash with evil in which he could only, as ever, feign expertise. Fake it. But at least with the right tools. And in a costume that felt proper for the fight.

....“Carl?” Cushing said. “Sometimes you can hide the hurt and pain, but there’ll be a day you can talk about it with someone and be free. Perhaps a day when you’ll forget what it was you were frightened of, and then you’ll have conquered it, forever.”


Saturday, April 22, 2017

Perfidia by James Ellroy

Just finished Perfidia. First-rate. And relaxing: no one to sympathize with. Just enjoy the endless historical mayhem.

Excerpts I appreciated:

....Land grabs, plastic surgery, blood libel. Rogue cops, sub attacks, a lynch-mob massacre. Pay phones. A white man in a purple sweater. Secret radios and feigned seppuku. The haughty Left and the bellicose Right. A grand alliance of war profiteers.

He’ll tell it all to Dudley Smith or to William H. Parker. He’ll tell no one if it suits his needs. He has uncovered the real Fifth Column. It is not what anyone thinks.


[After the Dudster randomly shoots a  Japanese-American man in a phone booth to honor a whimsical request from his lover Bette Davis…]

“…. The Chief will be meeting J. Edgar Hoover at Union Station this afternoon. Mr. Hoover is here to further implement his plans to abrogate the civil liberties of your people. Japanese radios and firearms will be confiscated. A good many more Japanese businesses will be forcibly closed. There will be a massive seizure of Japanese property and financial assets, and it is likely that your people will be made to wear demeaning armbands. I condemn these actions, even as I attempt to exploit them. I am grateful that my lawless streak allows me the latitude to maneuver, and to offer opportunities and protection to my colleagues and those who serve to further my designs. I feel that you have begun to emerge as a colleague.”

Ashida went dry-mouthed. The kitchen went gas-stove hot.

Dudley said, “A Japanese man was murdered early this morning. His name was Goro Shigeta, and he was shot in a phone booth south of Hollywood. He appears to have been heavily in debt to bookies in Little Tokyo, and Thad Brown thinks he was killed to settle a gambling debt. I would disagree with that hypothesis. I think a white man motivated by misguided patriotism and racial hatred killed Mr. Shigeta, and I think that a good deal more of such hatred will be inflicted upon your people. I would like to spare you and your family the horror of it.”


....Dudley Liam Smith—fate favors you.

He got his K-car. He hooked out to the Valley and east to Burbank. The airport cops let him perch on the runway. He had two hours to kill. He smelled Bette on his shirt cuffs.

He had time to scheme and strategize. He had time to craft a disingenuous report to Bill Parker.

Watanabe/​multiple homicide/12-7-41. Second summary—one week in.

He popped three bennies. He padded redundant information. He layered in futile background-check dirt. He heaped on the dead-end leads and stressed the clannish Jap culture that constrained the job.

The bennies kicked in. He shoveled cop officialese and underlined his detective’s frustration.

Record checks were impossible. The war dashed all normal avenues of approach.

Can you read between the lines, Captain? Call-Me-Jack wants this job shitcanned by New Year’s. He will get what he wants—but this damnable case intrigues me.


Monday, April 17, 2017

The Early Stephen King: Night Shift

What makes the stories in Night Shift so good? They were written with a young man's energy and sharpness. And written to sell to a market that had never heard of Stephen King. A market that wasn't crawling after him begging to put his name on the front cover. There were no "specialty" publishers with get-rich-quick schemes for "collectors editions."

That early King, the solid writer with an arresting voice, is also the one John D. MacDonald celebates in his Introduction.
These are stories of high craftsmanship, like the novels I prize from the same period: Road Work and Salem's Lot, and The Stand.

From King's own Foreward:

....Fear is the emotion that makes us blind. How many things are we afraid of? We're afraid to turn off the lights when our hands are wet. We're afraid to stick a knife into the toaster to get the stuck English muffin without unplugging it first. We're afraid of what the doctor may tell us when the physical exam is over; when the airplane suddenly takes a great unearthly lurch in mid-air. We're afraid that the oil may run out, that the good air will run out, the good water, the good life. When the daughter promised to be in by eleven and it's now quarter past twelve and sleet is spatting against the window like dry sand, we sit and pretend to watch Johnny Carson and look occasionally at the mute telephone and we feel the emotion that makes us blind, the emotion that makes a stealthy ruin of the thinking process.

....When you read horror, you don't really believe what you read. You don't believe in vampires, werewolves, trucks that suddenly start up and drive themselves. The horrors that we all do believe in are of the sort that Dostoyevsky and Albee and MacDonald write about: hate, alienation, growing lovelessly old, tottering out into a hostile world on the unsteady legs of adolescence. We are, in our real everyday worlds, often like the masks of Comedy and Tragedy, grinning on the outside, grimacing on the inside. There's a central switching point somewhere inside, a transformer, maybe, where the wires leading from those two masks connect. And that is the place where the horror story so often hits home. The horror-story writer is not so different from the Welsh sin-eater, who was supposed to take upon himself the sins of the dear departed by partaking of the dear departed's food. The tale of monstrosity and terror is a basket loosely packed with phobias; when the writer passes by, you take one of his imaginary horrors out of the basket and put one of your real ones in - at least for a time....

"Strawberry Spring" is a personal favorite.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

The doubled nightmare: Patricia Highsmith

Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith (Bloomsbury Lives of Women)
by Andrew Wilson

Andrew Wilson's Beautiful Shadow [2004] is a biography of the U.S. novelist Patricia Highsmith (1921-1995).

Wilson bases his work on extensive interviews with Highsmith's friends and relatives, her letters, and dozens of her "cahiers." With these resources, he is able to present a portrait of the novelist as complete as any I have read.

Beautiful Shadow is a hard read from the beginning, and I was tempted to give it up nearly every day of the week I spent on it.  In summer 2004 I read all the Ripley novels, and enjoyed them very much.  I'm not sure I could re-read them, or take up any of Highsmith's other books, with the same carefree relish now.

Each book Highsmith wrote was the product of a concatenation of extreme personal emotional misery and misanthropy.  For her entire life, the author suffered from a self-inflicted fantasies about true love, craved connection, yet detested the company of all but a few friends. Each romantic partner seems to have been chosen precisely because they were capable of making Highsmith more unhappy than the previous one.  For Highsmith, "love" was not everyday satisfaction and happiness, but a source of emotional misery.

I can think of few writers, with the exception of Poe, who lead a more unhappy life.

Wilson makes abundantly clear that it was the writing of novels and short stories that allowed Highsmith to escape this prison of her personality.

Below are some excerpts from Wilson's book which pertain to Highsmith's political views.



....‘My personal maladies and malaises are only those of my own generation and of my time, heightened,’ Highsmith wrote in her notebook in September 1950.1 Highsmith’s absence from America had sharpened her powers of perception and on her return in 1953, she viewed the country from an outsider’s perspective, shocked at the mood of paranoia which was sweeping the USA. The Korean War, which rumbled on between 1950 and 1953, a battle between the communist North, backed by China, and the non-communist South, supported by America, symbolised the ideological battle which was raging in the United States. By the time a settlement had been reached – in July 1953 – over five million people had died, but to the vast majority of Americans who were convinced that sending troops to a far-flung land actually helped guard their security and protected themselves from communist aggression, it was a worthwhile sacrifice. President Eisenhower, inaugurated in 1953, even discussed the use of atomic weapons in order to try and settle the conflict.

Highsmith was dismayed by the news of the imminent execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the Jewish couple accused of stealing the secrets of the atomic bomb, and she worried about America’s global reputation, one which was looking increasingly soiled. McCarthy’s continuing communist witchhunt was reaching near-hysteric levels – a phenomenon exposed in Arthur Miller’s 1953 play The Crucible – and in the same year librarians were ordered to remove books by ‘Communists, fellow travelers, and the like’. ‘The whole nation is protesting, some for humanitarian reasons, some because it would endanger our international prestige,’ Highsmith noted in her diary about the Rosenberg electrocution at Sing-Sing prison, New York. ‘Though how it could sink much lower with the present book burning of the Amerika Hauser I don’t see. D Hammett’s Thin Man, Howard Fast, Langston Hughes, were among those which were removed from libraries.’2

The Eisenhower years, post-Korean War, have been mythologised as an era of peace and prosperity, the ‘bountiful new world’3 of I Love Lucy, bobby sox, cashmere-cardiganed preppies, drive-in movies, barbecues and convenience living. Between 1950 and 1958 the economy expanded with an annual growth rate of 4.7 per cent and living standards increased. It was the age of the baby boom – in 1940 the population of America was 130 million, by the mid-1950s the figure had risen to 165 million. The suburbs, which to many crystallised the essence of the fifties, expanded and consumers embarked on a frenzied spending spree. Yet the new uniformity of living was also symptomatic of the hollowness of the American dream. Columnist William Shannon observed that, ‘The Eisenhower years have been years of flabbiness and self-satisfaction and gross materialism’, while Norman Mailer dismissed the fifties as ‘one of the worst decades in the history of man.’4

In 1950, the social scientist and lawyer David Riesman published The Lonely Crowd, a controversial book that triggered a national debate into the changing nature of the American psyche, and a work which Highsmith read. Riesman, whose books analysed the place of the individual in a modern, increasingly media-driven society, believed that there were three types of man: the ‘tradition-directed’, those in pre-industrial communities, who inherited their values from their predecessors; the ‘inner-directed’, formed in the nineteenth-century capitalist boom, who relied on their consciences to shape their behaviour; and the ‘other-directed’, people living in a mass society like modern America, men and women whose beliefs were shaped by their peers or from the media. As Riesman saw it, man had moved from the inner to the other-directed and, as a result, had made a transition from industry and achievement to conformity and adjustment. What is common to all other-directed people, wrote Riesman, is that ‘their contemporaries are the source of direction for the individual – either those known to him or those with whom he is indirectly acquainted, through friends and through the mass media.’5

The problem was Americans were suffering from oversocialisation. ‘For centuries moralists had warned that people become unhappy when they get what they want – or think they want,’ writes historian John Patrick Diggins of the fifties. ‘Suburbia offered Americans the cleanliness and safety of a planned community, but nothing is more hopeless than planned happiness.’6

....The Tremor of Forgery is also one of Highsmith’s most political novels, set as it is during the Arab-Israeli Six-Day War of June 1967. In chapter two, news of the start of the hostilities is relayed by an unnamed Western man who had just heard on television that the Israelis had started to blast several Arab airports. By chapter three, the war is over – the Israelis had secured a victory – but the conflict continues to resonate throughout the novel. Highsmith was decidedly anti-Israeli later in life – she boycotted the country from 1977 and despised Ariel Sharon. ‘I think the Jewish lobby, on the Middle East, is pulling Congress around by the nose,’ she told Ian Hamilton in 1977. ‘These little Congressmen are afraid of losing their jobs, frankly, if they don’t send money and arms to Israel . . . I don’t know why America should support a country that is behaving like that.’20

Yet the portrait of the conflict which emerges from the novel is an uncertain one. Several of the characters, living in an Arab country, express strong anti-Arab feelings, including the Danish-born homosexual Jensen, who is not averse to a spot of sexual exploitation and whom a reader might expect to hold more liberal opinions. After the disappearance of his dog, Hasso, which he presumes to have been killed, he says to Ingham, ‘But I’ll tell you one thing, I hate the thought of Hasso’s bones being in this goddamn sand! Am I glad the Jews beat the shit out of them!’21 Similarly, Francis Adams – also known as OWL, an acronym for ‘Our Way of Life’ – whom one might think would proffer more pro-Israeli sentiments, criticises the Jewish state for its arrogant nationalism, ‘ “which was the hallmark of Nazi Germany, and for which Nazi Germany at last went to her doom”’.22 Ingham’s reaction is interesting because, against all expectations, he agrees, at least in part, with Adams’ beliefs, but he chooses to keep his opinions to himself. It just wasn’t worth it, he reasons, as the problem was not his – a lethargy suggestive of Ingham’s gradual collapse of his self. His lack of action after attacking the Arab with his typewriter could, in the same way, be seen as a symbol of the moral apathy at work in the world at large.

....Her vision of the New York of the future is an apocalyptic one, a view shaped by what can only be interpreted as racial prejudice. She imagined life in New York in fifty years time when she would see, ‘coons hanging from 50th story windows, plugging their neighbours (other coons) before taking the lift down to fleece their pockets,’ she wrote to Barbara Ker-Seymer. ‘It has already happened to Newark, New Jersey – which is now almost cleared of whites; they have a black mayor, even, and the highest crime and dope and welfare rate in all the USA.’65 Highsmith had long nurtured an irrational hatred of Jews and now this too started to find expression in her notebooks. She observed how Jewish men said a prayer every morning thanking God that they were born male and not female. ‘The rest of us give thanks that we were not born Jews,’ she said. ‘If the Jews are God’s chosen people – that is all one needs to know about God.’66

....On 22 May, Highsmith read a piece in the International Herald Tribune, reprinted from the New York Times, in which the commentator William Safire launched an assault on Vidal for opinions he had expressed in an essay for The Nation. ‘To make sure that nearly a third of the federal budget goes to the Pentagon and Israel it is necessary for the pro-Israel lobbyists to make common cause with the lunatic right,’ Vidal had written.51 Vidal, whose article also attacked Norman Podhoretz, the pro-Israeli editor of the neo-conservative magazine Commentary, went on to charge American citizens who supported Israel with dual loyalty, concluding, ‘I’ve got to tell you I don’t much like your country, which is Israel.’52 Highsmith agreed wholeheartedly and that night sat down to compose a letter to the Tribune outlining her support for Vidal. On 9 June, Highsmith wrote to Vidal to tell him that the letter published in that day’s International Herald Tribune under the name of Edgar S. Sallich of Brione, Switzerland, was, in fact, written by her. She took issue with Safire for calling Israel a democracy when, in her view, she thought it more of a theocracy, as it defined its borders by Old Testament names. ‘Therefore, the loyalty of U.S. citizens who are Jewish will be forever argued, to little avail,’ she wrote. ‘An American can be loyal to any religion, but CANNOT be loyal to a country other than America if he or she expects to continue being an American.’53 As to why she used a pseudonym, she wrote to Vidal, ‘I don’t care to use my own name too often, so I invent names. I could’ve said that many Jews in USA seem to like America as a safe berth and as a source of money for Israel. But would such a letter get printed?’54

....Should writers have political and social commitments outside their literary work? ‘If a writer (or painter) starts preaching, consciously, in his work, it is no longer a piece of art,’ Highsmith said. Yet, nevertheless, she had a range of political opinions and was willing to ‘boycott, and to be boycotted in return’. Was the dedication in the European editions of People who Knock on the Door, which reads, ‘To the courage of the Palestinian people and their leaders in the struggle to regain a part of their homeland. This book has nothing to do with their problem,’28 aimed at the PLO? ‘Yes, it is addressed to the leaders, singular or plural, of the Palestinian people, who must choose their own leaders,’ she replied. ‘If they choose the PLO, as 96 per cent seem to do at the time that I write this, then my dedication is to the PLO. It could be to another organisation next week – if the Palestinian people choose another leader.’29

The dedication, however, further alienated her American market and brought about the collapse of her relationship with yet another US publisher. When Otto Penzler saw the line he called Highsmith’s agent and asked if he could replace the dedication or drop it altogether. ‘I said this is really not going to go down very well in America – the publishing and the reviewing worlds are very heavily populated with Jews and that is just part of New York culture,’ says Penzler. ‘But I didn’t hear back, it got closer and closer to publication date and finally I called the agent again and I said, “Listen we have to have an answer – yes or no,” and she said, “OK just drop it,” which I did. Years later Pat was being interviewed by a journalist and she told the writer that she wasn’t speaking to me because I had dropped the dedication from one of her books. She thought I had done it without her agent’s permission, something I would never have done even though I thought it was suicidal for her literary career. At the time, I didn’t even know I had had a fall out with Pat as she was always so unfriendly and openly hostile.’30

....Highsmith felt passionate about the complex issues surrounding the Arab-Israeli conflict and genuinely traumatised by the uprising in the Gaza Strip and West Bank which broke out in December 1987 and which continued to dominate the news in 1988. ‘I spent a lot of time composing letters I think may be useful to peace and stopping the deaths,’ she wrote in her diary on 28 February, ‘72 Palestinians so far dead, no Jews.’24 She felt motivated by a genuine sense of injustice and, as a member of Amnesty International, she felt compelled to ‘speak up and speak out’. She viewed the conflict as a David and Goliath battle, with her sympathies firmly on the side of the underdog. Yet the methods she chose to articulate her particular point of view were far from subtle. For instance, in February 1989, while on a publicity trip to Milan, she insisted on wearing her, ‘ “Palestine PLO check” sweater’ for the photo-shoots. ‘I was able in perhaps 4 out of 12 interviews, to express genuine USA opinion on Israeli atrocities in Gaza & West Bank,’ she wrote in her notebook,25 while the dedication in Ripley Under Water reads, ‘To the dead and the dying among the Intefada and the Kurds, to those who fight oppression in whatever land, and stand up not only to be counted but to be shot.’26 In addition she sent money to the Jewish Committee on the Middle East, an organisation which represented American Jews who supported Palestinian self-determination.

In an unpublished essay Highsmith wrote about the Middle East conflict in August 1992, she outlined the historical background that had formulated her position. When Israel was created – in May 1948, while Highsmith was at Yaddo, writing Strangers on the Train – following the withdrawal of the British, she remembers feeling optimistic about its future. ‘How happy and cheerful we all were then, gentiles and Jews alike!’ she wrote. ‘A new state had been born, and was therefore to be welcomed into the community of democracies.’27 Yet soon after the state was formed – initially an area comprising of Jewish and Arab land, together with an internationally administered zone around Jerusalem – it was invaded by Arab forces, a move which in turn prompted Israeli troops to seize and gain control of three-quarters of Palestine. Highsmith was appalled at what she saw as Israeli brutality and insensitivity, remembering how some of her Palestinian friends were forced to flee their homeland. Since then, of course, the area has been the site of a series of complex, and increasingly violent, power struggles, yet from the beginning Highsmith aligned herself with other writers such as Gore Vidal, Alexander Cockburn, Noam Chomsky and Edward W. Said, who believed in Palestinian self-determination. In December 1994, Highsmith nominated a collection of Said’s essays and talks, The Politics of Dispossession: The Struggle for Palestinian Self-Determination 1969–1994, as her book of the year for the Times Literary Supplement, commenting that she thought him ‘both famous and ignored. His eloquence on the real issues makes America’s silence seem all the louder.’28 Highsmith agreed with Said’s opinion that the alliance between Zionism and the United States had resulted in the continued displacement of Palestinians. As a result, she felt forced to take a stand, no matter how small. After the election of Menachem Begin as Prime Minister in 1977, Highsmith would not allow her books to be published in Israel. ‘I’m sure the world couldn’t care less, but it shows that not every American refuses to see what’s happening,’ she said.29 In interviews she told journalists that she loathed Ariel Sharon and the Likud party, and that she found America’s support of the Israeli regime to be despicable.

‘Americans and the world know that America gives so lavishly to Israel,’ she wrote, ‘because the United States wanted Israel as a strong military bulwark against Soviet Russia during the Cold War. Now that the Cold War is over, America has cut none of its aid . . . What is an American tax-payer to make of the fact that the USA gives thirteen million dollars a day, still, to Israel without any request for repayment? . . . I blame my own country for the majority of injustices now being inflicted by the Israelis in what they consider Greater Israel . . . I blame [the] American government for the bad press permitted about the Arabs in the United States.’30

Although the piece is an attempt by Highsmith to argue rationally about the Middle East conflict, in conversation her views were far from logical and coherent. ‘I agreed with her that the Palestinians should have a state of their own, but felt that her disparagement of Israel was sometimes unduly harsh,’ says Kingsley.31 Friends remember how Highsmith would recommend certain books on the subject. One of these was Douglas Reed’s The Controversy of Zion, which she first read in 1988. The book, published in 1978, is the work of a former London Times correspondent in central Europe, who died in South Africa in 1976 at the age of eighty-two. After leaving full-time employment in 1938 he turned to writing books, including a number of non-fiction bestsellers such as Insanity Fair and Disgrace Abounding. Yet there was one issue he wanted to address – the subject of Zionist nationalism – which he suspected would never be properly analysed in the British or American press, a media which, for the most part, censored any unfavourable comment. In his 1951 book, Far and Wide, Reed questioned the number of Jews who had perished in the Holocaust, believing the generally accepted figure of six million to be too high, but after its publication he was effectively silenced by the mainstream publishing industry and the manuscript of The Controversy of Zion was discovered sitting on the top of his wardrobe after his death. In it, Reed attempted to trace the links between fundamentalist Zionism and the modern political landscape, illustrating how the Jewish massacre at the Arab village of Deir Yasin on 9 April 1948 was motivated by a literal reading of ‘ “the Law” laid down in Deuteronomy . . . This was the most significant day in the history of Zionism.’32 Reed believed that a fundamentalist interpretation of the ancient texts of the Talmud and the Torah, a movement he described as ‘Talmudic chauvinism’, would result in catastrophe. ‘In our time, I judge, a barbaric superstition born in antiquity and nurtured through the ages by a semi-secret priesthood, has returned to plague us in the form of a political movement supported by great wealth in all capitals of the world.’33

Highsmith wrote to Gore Vidal about Reed’s book in December 1989, telling him how she had recently bought three copies to send to friends. The Israelis did not ever want peace because, she believed, they were yearning for the next Holocaust and that they ‘love to be hated’.34 Yet, in her essay on the Middle East, she said that she still harboured a hope for peace. Although some of her views on the subject were, quite frankly, objectionable, ultimately all Highsmith was striving for was a more honest and balanced analysis of the situation. It was the responsibility of each individual, she said, to make his or her mind up on such a subject, a process which involved wrestling with a complex matrix of historical and cultural questions. ‘The important thing is to express one’s view, not to be a sheep, not to feel like a sheep,’ she had once said, ‘and not to allow one’s government (presumably elected) to believe that the people it is governing are a herd of sheep.’35

....Highsmith was appalled to learn of the Los Angeles riots, in which more than fifty people died and 2,000 were injured, following the acquittal of the police officers accused of the Rodney King beating. In the forthcoming presidential election she said she intended to vote for Ross Perot, the Texan-born billionaire and founder of the Reform Party, as opposed to the mainstream candidates George Bush and Bill Clinton; such a move was, she said, a protest. In the last election, she had voted for Bush; even though she loathed him – all he cared about was, she said, ‘the rich, plus his golf games’26 – she hoped he ‘would take a more realistic stand about the situation in Palestine’.27 She had been proved wrong. ‘Instead of that they keep issuing more money to those people there, the Israelis.’28 Even though Perot was defeated in the election – he received 19 per cent of the votes – she admitted to feeling pleased when Clinton became President later that year.

Uncanny Oppenheim: E. Phillips Oppenheim's story The Two Spinsters

This is a charming book of interconnected adventures. They are not clued and puzzly classical who-done-its. They are stories of a bacherlor Scotland Yard man and his dog on a six month vacation in 1920s Devonshire.
Most are stand-alone adventures with real melodramatic charm. But "The Two Spinsters" has done real moments of uncanny menace, and I found it very moving.


by E. Phillips Oppenheim.  1927



NICHOLAS GOADE was without doubt a very first-class detective, but as a wayfarer across Devonshire byroads, with only a map and a compass to help him, he was simply a "washout." Even his fat little white dog, Flip, sheltered under a couple of rugs, after two hours of cold, wet, and purposeless journeying, looked at him reproachfully. With an exclamation of something like despair, Goade brought his sobbing automobile to a standstill at the top of one of the wickedest hills a Ford had ever been asked to face, even on first speed, and sat looking around him. In every direction the outlook was the same. There were rolling stretches of common, divided by wooded valleys of incredible depth. There was no sign of agricultural land, no sign of the working of any human being upon the endless acres, and not a single vehicle had he passed upon the way. There were no signposts, no villages, no shelter of any sort. The one thing that abounded was rain—rain and mist. Grey wreaths of it hung over the commons, making them seem like falling fragments of cloud, blotting out the horizon; hung over every hopeful break in the distance—an encircling, enveloping obscurity. Then, vying with the mists in wetness, came the level rain—rain which had seemed beautiful early in the afternoon, slanting from the heavens on to the mountainside, but rain which had long ago lost all pretence to being anything but damnably offensive, chilling, miserably wet. Flip, whose nose only now appeared uncovered, sniffed disgustedly, and Goade, as he lit a pipe, cursed slowly but fluently under his breath. What a country! Miles of byways without a single signpost, endless stretches without a glimpse of a farmhouse or village. And the map! Goade solemnly cursed the man who had ordained it, the printer who had bound it, and the shop where he had bought it. When he had finished, Flip ventured upon a gentle bark of approval.
"Somewhere or other," Goade muttered to himself, "should lie the village of Nidd. The last signpost in this blasted region indicated six miles to Nidd. Since then we have travelled at least twelve, there has been no turning to the left or to the right, and the village of Nidd is as though it had never been."
His eyes pierced the gathering darkness ahead. Through a slight uplifting in the clouds it seemed to him that he could see for miles, and nowhere was there any sign of village or of human habitation. He thought of the road along which they had come, and the idea of retracing it made him shiver. It was at that moment, when bending forward to watch the steam from his boiling radiator, that he saw away on the left a feebly flickering light. Instantly he was out of the car. He scrambled on to the stone wall and looked eagerly in the direction from which he had seen it. There was, without doubt, a light; around that light must be a house. His eyes could even trace the rough track that led to it. He climbed back to his place, thrust in his clutch, drove for about forty yards, and then paused at a gate. The track on the other side was terrible, but then so was the road. He opened it and drove through, bending over his task now with every sense absorbed. Apparently traffic here, if traffic existed at all, consisted only of an occasional farm wagon of the kind he was beginning to know all about—springless, with holes in the boarded floor, and with great, slowly turning wheels. Nevertheless, he made progress, skirted the edge of a tremendous combe, passed, to his joy, a semi-cultivated field, through another gate, up, it seemed suddenly, into the clouds, and down a fantastic corkscrew way until at last the light faced him directly ahead. He passed a deserted garden, pulled up before a broken-down iron gate, which he had to descend and open, and which he punctiliously closed after him, traversed a few yards of grass-grown, soggy avenue, and finally reached the door of what might once have been a very tolerable farmhouse, but which appeared now, notwithstanding the flickering light burning upstairs, to be one of the most melancholy edifices the mind of man could conceive. With scant anticipations in the way of a welcome, but with immense relief at the thought of a roof, Goade descended and knocked upon the oak door. Inside he could hear almost at once the sound of a match being struck; the light of a candle shone through the blindless windows of a room on his left. There were footsteps in the hall, and the door was opened. Goade found himself confronted by a woman, who held the candle so high above her head that he was able to see little of her features. There was a certain stateliness, however, about her figure, which he realised even in those first few seconds.
"What do you want?" she asked.
Goade, as he removed his hat, fancied that the answer was sufficiently obvious. Rain streamed from every angle of his bemackintoshed body. His face was pinched with the cold.
"I am a traveller who has lost his way," he explained. "For hours I have been trying to find a village and inn. Yours is the first human habitation I have seen. Can you give me a night's shelter?"
"Is there any one with you?" the woman enquired.
"I am alone," he replied—"except for my little dog," he added, as he heard Flip's hopeful yap.
The woman considered.
"You had better drive your car into the shed on the left-hand side of the house," she said. "Afterwards you can come in. We will do what we can for you. It is not much."
"I am very grateful, madam," Goade declared in all sincerity.
He found the shed, which was occupied only by two farm carts in an incredible state of decay. Afterwards he released Flip and returned to the front door, which had been left open. Guided by the sound of crackling logs, he found his way into a huge stone kitchen. In a high-backed chair in front of the fire, seated with her hands upon her knees, but gazing eagerly towards the door as though watching for his coming, was another woman, also tall, a little past middle age perhaps, but still of striking presence and fine features. The woman who had admitted him was bending over the fire. He looked from one to the other in amazement. They were fearfully and wonderfully alike.
"It is very kind of you, ladies, to give us shelter," he began. "Flip! Behave yourself, Flip!" A huge sheep dog had occupied the space in front of the fire. Flip without a moment's hesitation had run towards him, yapping fiercely. The dog, with an air of mild surprise, rose to his feet and looked enquiringly downwards. Flip insinuated herself into the vacant place, stretched herself out with an air of content, and closed her eyes.
"I must apologise for my little dog," Goade continued. "She is very cold." The sheep dog retreated a few yards and sat on his haunches, considering the matter. Meanwhile the woman who had opened the door produced a cup and saucer from a cupboard, a loaf of bread, and a small side of bacon, from which she cut some slices. "Draw your chair to the fire," she invited. "We have very little to offer you, but I will prepare something to eat."
"You are good Samaritans indeed," Goade declared fervently.
He seated himself opposite the woman who as yet had scarcely spoken or removed her eyes from his. The likeness between the two was an amazing thing, as was also their silence. They wore similar clothes—heavy, voluminous clothes they seemed to him—and each had a brooch at her bosom. Their hair, black and slightly besprinkled with grey, was arranged in precisely the same fashion. Their clothes belonged to another world, as did also their speech and manners, yet there was a curious distinction about them both.
"As a matter of curiosity," Goade asked, "how far am I from the village of Nidd?"
"Not far," the woman who was sitting motionless opposite to him answered. "To any one knowing the way, near enough. Strangers are foolish to trust themselves to these roads. Many people are lost who try."
"Yours is a lonely homestead," he ventured.
"We were born here," the woman answered. "Neither my sister nor I have felt the desire for travel."
The bacon began to sizzle. Flip opened one eye, licked her mouth, and sat up. In a few minutes the meal was prepared. A high-backed, oak chair was placed at the end of the table. There was tea, a dish of bacon and eggs, a great loaf of bread, and a small pot of butter. Goade took his place.
"You have had your supper?" he asked.
"Long ago," the woman who had prepared his meal replied. "Please to serve yourself." She sank into the other oak chair exactly opposite her sister.
Goade, with Flip by his side, commenced his meal. Neither had tasted food for many hours, and for a time both were happily oblivious to anything save the immediate surroundings. Presently, however, as he poured out his second cup of tea, Goade glanced towards his hostesses. They had moved their chairs slightly away from the fire and were both watching him—watching him without curiosity, yet with a certain puzzling intentness. It occurred to him then for the first time that, although both had in turn addressed him, neither had addressed the other.
"I can't tell you how good this tastes," Goade said presently. "I am afraid I must seem awfully greedy."
"You have been for some time without food, perhaps," one of them said.
"Since half-past twelve."
"Are you travelling for pleasure?"
"I thought so before to-day," he answered, with a smile to which there was no response.
The woman who had admitted him moved her chair an inch or two nearer to his. He noticed with some curiosity that immediately she had done so her sister did the same thing.
"What is your name?"
"Nicholas Goade," he replied. "May I know whom I have to thank for this hospitality?"
"My name is Mathilda Craske," the first one announced.
"And mine is Annabelle Craske," the other echoed.
"You live here alone?" he ventured.
"We live here entirely alone," Mathilda acquiesced. "It is our pleasure."
Goade was more than ever puzzled. Their speech was subject to the usual Devonshire intonation and soft slurring of the vowels, but otherwise it was almost curiously correct. The idea of their living alone in such a desolate part, however, seemed incredible.
"You farm here, perhaps?" he persisted. "You have labourers' cottages, or some one close at hand?"
Mathilda shook her head.
"The nearest hovel," she confided, "is three miles distant. We have ceased to occupy ourselves with the land. We have five cows—they give us no trouble—and some fowls."
"It is a lonely life," he murmured.
"We do not find it so," Annabelle said stiffly.
He turned his chair towards them. Flip, with a little gurgle of satisfaction, sprang on to his knees.
"Where do you do your marketing?" he asked.
"A carrier from Exford," Mathilda told him, "calls every Saturday. Our wants are simple."
The large room, singularly empty of furniture, as he noticed, looking round, was full of shadowy places, unillumined by the single oil lamp. The two women themselves were only dimly visible. Yet every now and then, in the flickering firelight, he caught a clearer glimpse of them. They appeared to him to be between forty and fifty years of age, so uncannily alike that they might well be twins. He found himself speculating as to their history. They must once have been very beautiful.
"I wonder whether it will be possible," he asked, after a somewhat prolonged pause, "to encroach further upon your hospitality and beg for a sofa or a bed for the night? Any place will do," he added hastily.
Mathilda rose at once to her feet. She took another candle from the mantelpiece and lit it.
"I will show you," she said, "where you may sleep."
For a moment Goade was startled. He had happened to glance towards Annabelle, and was amazed at a sudden curious expression—an expression almost of malice in her face. He stooped to bring her into the little halo of lamplight more completely and stared at her incredulously. The expression, if ever it had been there, had vanished. She was simply looking at him patiently, with something in her face which he failed utterly to understand.
"If you will follow me," Mathilda invited.
Goade rose to his feet. Flip turned round with a final challenging bark to the huge sheep dog, who had accepted a position remote from the fire, and, failing to elicit any satisfactory response, trotted after her master. They passed into a well-shaped but almost empty hall, up a broad flight of oak stairs, on to the first landing. Outside the room from which Goade had seen the candlelight she paused for a moment and listened.
"You have another guest?" he enquired.
"Annabelle has a guest," she replied. "You are mine. Follow me, please."
She led the way to a bedchamber in which was a huge four-poster and little else. She set the candle upon a table and turned down a sort of crazy quilt which covered the bedclothes. She felt the sheets and nodded approvingly. Goade found himself unconsciously following her example. To his surprise they were warm. She pointed to a great brass bed-warmer with a long handle at the farther end of the room, from which a little smoke was still curling upwards.
"You were expecting some one to-night?" he asked curiously.
"We are always prepared," she answered.
She left the room, apparently forgetting to wish him good night. He called out pleasantly after her, but she made no response. He heard her level footsteps as she descended the stairs. Then again there was silence—silence down below, silence in the part of the house where he was. Flip, who was sniffing round the room, at times showed signs of excitement, at times growled. Goade, opening the window, ventured upon a cigarette.
"Don't know that I blame you, old girl," he said. "It's a queer place."
Outside there was nothing to be seen, and little to be heard, save the roaring of a water torrent close at hand and the patter of rain. He suddenly remembered his bag, and, leaving the door of his room open, descended the stairs. In the great stone kitchen the two women were seated exactly as they had been before his coming and during his meal. They both looked at him, but neither spoke.
"If you don't mind," he explained, "I want to fetch my bag from the car."
Mathilda, the woman who had admitted him, nodded acquiescence. He passed out into the darkness, stumbled his way to the shed, and unstrapped his bag. Just as he was turning away, he thrust his hand into the tool chest and drew out an electric torch, which he slipped into his pocket. When he re-entered the house, the two women were still seated in their chairs and still silent.
"A terrible night," he remarked. "I can't tell you how thankful I am to you for this shelter."
They both looked at him, but neither made any reply. This time, when he reached his room, he closed the door firmly, and noticed with a frown of disappointment that except for the latch there was no means of fastening it. Then he laughed to himself softly. He, the famous captor of Ned Bullivant, the victor in a score of scraps with desperate men, suddenly nervous in this lonely farmhouse inhabited by a couple of strange women.
"Time I took a holiday," he muttered to himself. "We don't understand nerves, do we, Flip?" he added, lifting the bedcover.
Flip opened one eye and growled. Goade was puzzled.
"Something about she doesn't like," he ruminated. "I wonder who's in the room with the lighted candles?"
He opened his own door once more softly and listened. The silence was almost unbroken. From downstairs in the great kitchen he could hear the ticking of a clock, and he could see the thin streak of yellow light underneath the door. He crossed the landing and listened for a moment outside the room with the candles. The silence within was absolute and complete —not even the sound of the ordinary breathing of a sleeping person. He retraced his steps, closed his own door, and began to undress. At the bottom of his bag was a small automatic. His fingers played with it for a moment. Then he threw it back. The electric torch, however, he placed by the side of his bed. Before he turned in, he leaned once more out of the window. The roar of the falling water seemed more insistent than ever. Otherwise there was no sound. The rain had ceased, but the sky was black and starless. With a little shiver, he turned away and climbed into bed.
He had no idea of the time, but the blackness outside was just as intense, when he was suddenly awakened by Flip's low growling. She had shaken herself free from the coverlet at the foot of the bed, and he could see her eyes, wicked little spots of light, gleaming through the darkness. He lay quite still for a moment, listening. From the first he knew that there was some one in the room. His own quick intuition had told him that, although he was still unable to detect a sound. Slowly his hand travelled out to the side of the bed. He took up the electric torch and turned it on. Then, with a little cry, he shrank back. Standing within a few feet of him was Mathilda, still fully dressed, and in her hand, stretched out towards him, was the cruellest-looking knife he had ever seen. He slipped out of bed, and, honestly and self-confessedly afraid, kept the light fixed upon her.
"What do you want?" he demanded, amazed at the unsteadiness of his own voice. "What the mischief are you doing with that knife?"
"I want you, William," she answered, a note of disappointment in her tone. "Why do you keep so far away?"
He lit the candle. The finger which, on the trigger of his automatic, had kept Bullivant with his hands up for a life-long two minutes, was trembling. With the light in the room now established, however, he felt more himself.
"Throw that knife on the bed," he ordered, "and tell me what you were going to do with it?"
She obeyed at once and leaned a little towards him.
"I was going to kill you, William," she confessed.
"And why?" he demanded.
She shook her head sorrowfully.
"Because it is the only way," she replied.
"My name isn't William, for one thing," he objected, "and what do you mean by saying it is the only way?"
She smiled, sadly and disbelievingly.
"You should not deny your name," she said. "You are William Foulsham. I knew you at once, though you had been away so long. When he came," she added, pointing towards the other room, "Annabelle believed that he was William. I let her keep him. I knew if I waited, you would come."
"Waiving the question of my identity," he struggled on, "why do you want to kill me? What do you mean by saying it is the only way?"
"It is the only way to keep men," she answered. "Annabelle and I found that out when William left us. We sat here and we waited for him to come back. We said nothing, but we both knew."
"You mean that you were going to kill me to keep me here?" he persisted.
She looked towards the knife lovingly.
"That isn't killing," she said. "Death wouldn't come till later on, and you could never go away. You would be there always."
He began to understand, and a horrible idea stole into his brain.
"What about the man she thought was William?" he asked.
"You shall see him if you like," she answered eagerly. "You shall see how peaceful and happy he is. Perhaps you will be sorry then that you woke up. Come with me."
He possessed himself of the knife and followed her out of the room and across the landing. Underneath the door he could see the little chink of light—the light which had been his beacon from the road. She opened the door softly and held the candle over her head. Stretched upon another huge four- poster bed was the figure of a man with a ragged, untidy beard. His face was as pale as the sheet, and Goade knew from the first glance that he was dead. By his side, seated stiffly in a high-backed chair, was Annabelle. She raised her finger and frowned as they entered. She looked across at Goade.
"Step quietly," she whispered. "William is asleep."

JUST as the first gleam of dawn was forcing a finger of light through the sullen bank of clouds, a distraught and dishevelled-looking man, followed by a small, fat, white dog, stumbled into the village of Nidd, gasped with relief at the sight of the brass plate upon a door, and pulled the bell for all he was worth. Presently a window was opened and a man's shaggy head thrust out.
"Steady there!" he expostulated. "What's wrong?"
Goade looked up.
"I've spent a part of the night in a farmhouse a few miles from here," he explained. "There's a dead man there and two mad women, and my car's broken down."
"A dead man?" the doctor repeated.
"I've seen him. My car's broken down in the road, or I should have been here before."
"I'll be with you in five minutes," the doctor promised.
He was as good as his word. Presently they were seated in his car on their way back to the farm. He listened to Goade's story and nodded sympathetically.
"If the way I've been piecing it together turns out to be right," he remarked, "you've had a narrow escape."
It was light now and showed signs of clearing, and in a short time they drew up in front of the farmhouse. There was no answer to their knock. The doctor turned the handle of the door and opened it. They entered the kitchen. The fire was out, but, each in her high-backed chair, Mathilda and Annabelle were seated, facing each other, speechless, yet with wide-open eyes. They both turned their heads as the two men entered. Annabelle nodded slowly with satisfaction.
"It is the doctor," she said. "Doctor, I am glad that you have come. You know, of course, that William is back. He came for me. He is lying upstairs, but I cannot wake him. I sit with him and I hold his hand and I speak to him, but he says nothing. He sleeps so soundly. Will you wake him for me, please. I will show you where he lies."
She led the way from the room, and the doctor followed her. Mathilda listened to their footsteps. Then she turned to Goade with that strange smile once more upon her lips.
"Annabelle and I do not speak," she explained. "We have not spoken for so many years that I forget how long it is. I should like some one to tell her, though, that the man who lies upstairs is not William. I should like some one to tell her that you are William, and that you have come back for me. Sit down, William. Presently, when the doctor has gone, I will build the fire and make you some tea."
Goade sat down, and again he felt his hands trembling. The woman looked at him kindly.
"You have been gone a long time," she continued. "I should have known you anywhere, though. It is strange that Annabelle does not recognise you. Sometimes I think we have lived together so long here that she may have lost her memory. I am glad you fetched the doctor, William. Annabelle will know now her mistake."
There was the sound of footsteps descending the stairs. The doctor entered. He took Goade by the arm and led him on one side.
"You were quite right," he said gravely. "The man upstairs is a poor travelling tinker who has been missing for over a week. I should think that he has been dead at least four days. One of us must stay here whilst the other goes to the police station."
Goade caught feverishly at his hat. "I will go to the police station," he declared.

Misunderstanding Roth's The Ghost Writer

Just finished this, a novel I first read obsessively in early 1984 after seeing the TV movie on PBS's now-vanished American Playhouse.

What better novel for a young man who wanted to be a writer than one about a young writer? I'm surprised to find I remember some early sections of part one by heart.

But I find to my chagrin I totally misunderstood part three. It was Zuckerman's authorial improvisation on overheard snippets of conversation mulched together with his own personal crisis.

The Amy Bellette character thinking she is Anne Frank is just a fictional improvisation Zuckerman tries on for size.

John Leonard in NYRB:

....Nathan fantasizes that Amy is really Anne Frank; that Anne Frank somehow survived and came to the United States and found out she had written a best-selling book turned into a play and realized that if she revealed herself, even to her own father, her witness would be sullied. And he, Nathan, will marry her and introduce her to his relatives, and what will his relatives be able to say about his Jewishness when he is the boy who married Anne Frank?

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Behind the lines: Dennis Wheatley's novel The Scarlet Impostor

Dennis Wheatley's 1940 novel The Scarlet Impostor is set in the World War II.

I have read dozens of novels in the subgenre of spy-versus-spy behind-the-lines in Hitler's Europe. The Scarlet Impostor is superior to my previous favorites, novels like The Eagle Has Landed, Cold Harbor, and Night of the Fox by Jack Higgins.

Wheatley fills his novel with ten times the action, variation, and complication as Higgins.

Gregory Sallust is sent to Germany just after war is declared in 1939. His mentor Sir Pellinore Gwain-Cust wants him to make common cause with anti-Hitler elements in the German ruling class and provide them with a list of Gestapo agents bent in thwarting their conspiracy.

Sallust disguises himself as a Wehrmacht general and blows his own cover within 48 hours through his own impatience and arrogance. Two leaders of the anti-Hitler conspiracy are killed because of his actions.  Sallust then spends weeks on the run in fine Buchan/Household style, followed by interment, before returning to the UK.

Once back home, Sallust must try to pull together a few remaining leads, then make another infiltration of Germany. In this he is aided by the an almost infuriating use (or better yet, abuse) of coincidence by Wheatley.

Preoccupations with torture and blinding recur at different turning points in The Scarlet Impostor. SS leader Grauber blinds an English communist leader while torturing him to find out about the communist underground in Germany. Later, in a fight with Sallust, Grauber is himself blinded in one eye.

The Scarlet Impostor is well worth reading, a rich and very satisfying hunter-hunted thriller.