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

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

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

The sound of enormous wings - Homefront Horrors: Frights Away from the Front Lines, 1914-1918 Edited by Jess Nevins

Editor Jess Nevins' anthology of stories written and published in wartime do not refer to the war itself.

Homefront Horrors gives us the spectrum of working class atomization and middle class insularity. The stories move back and forth between London and the East.

(Hard to fathom the logic of a WW1 homefront anthology sans Machen's brilliant homefront tales.

The Wings of Horus  (1917) short story by Algernon Blackwood
My dissent on Blackwood probably mimics Joshi's absurd criticism about Machen: he wrote too much. Far be it from me, though, to criticize a jobbing writer's need to make ends meet. But Blackwood's stories of lands southeast of the Danube, much less "east of Suez," leave me cold. It's not the Orientalism of his generation. It's the preciousness and overpowering pong of inconsequential contrivance.

Laura  (1914) short story by Saki
One of Munro's perfect jewels, perfectly set. His lack of sentiment includes the reader in the joke. Death is only the droll beginning of authorial cleverness, after all.

The Place of Pain  (1914) short story by M. P. Shiel
Perhaps the perfect tale of cosmic horror? In which the horror ( turning a man of God into a homeless social dropout) is forbidden to narrator and reader by the concatenation of narrative events. The sublimity of the undisclosed.

The Three Sisters (1914) short story by W. W. Jacobs
Jacobs perfectly organized his fictional material. It was a skill he must have mastered over years of hard work and serious revision. "The Three Sisters" is a loving depiction of avarice and "the biter bit."

An Episode of Cathedral History (1914)  short story by M. R. James
Perhaps this us my favorite M.R. James story because of its social scope. We spend time with the high and low of a great cathedral. The heroes are a boy and his little dog. The boy comes close to understanding the mysteries and horror that visit his community, but misses the final revelation. It was only an episode.

The Pavilion (1915) short story by E. Nesbit
....The doctor made an examination and gave a death-certificate. "Heart failure," was his original and brilliant diagnosis. The certificate said nothing, and Frederick said nothing, of the creeper that was wound about the dead man's neck, nor of the little white wounds, like little bloodless lips half-open, that they found about the dead man's neck.

Not on the Passenger List short story by Barry Pain
....There is a curious mixture of conscience and temperament which is sometimes mistaken for cowardice and is often accompanied by extraordinary courage.

The Liqueur Glass(1915) short story by Phyllis Bottome
....It is true he had no motive for suicide, but there was still less motive for murder. Nobody wished ardently that Henry might live, but, on the other hand, nobody benefitted by his interesting and mysterious death—that is to say, nobody but Henry's family; and it is not considered probable that well-dressed, respectable people benefit by a parent's death.

The Pin-Prick (1915) short story by May Sinclair
....I couldn't have believed it possible for a woman to be so effacing and effaced. It was super-feminine; it was, as Frances said, hardly human.

Thirteen at Table (1916) short story by Lord Dunsany
....he burst into tears and took me by the hand. 'How can I ever thank you?' he said to me then. 'We have been thirteen at table for thirty years and I never dared to insult them because I had wronged them all, and now you have done it and I know they will never dine here again.'

The Bird (1916) short story by Thomas Burke
Burke is a pure product of London, sui generis. "The Bird" is the kind of conte cruel puzzle only a colonial power's cauldron of social contradictions could upthrust.

Enoch Soames (1916) novelette by Max Beerbohm
....Throughout, in fact, there was a great variety of form, and the forms had evidently been wrought with much care. It was rather the substance that eluded me. Was there, I wondered, any substance at all? It did now occur to me: suppose Enoch Soames was a fool! Up cropped a rival hypothesis: suppose I was!

The Ghoul (1916) short story by Sir Hugh Clifford
Colonialism's contradiction: surrender versus mastery.

Powers of the Air (1917) short story by J. D. Beresford
"The little birds are prey to the powers of the air when the darkness comes," I said; "and their only chance of life is to come within the beam of the protecting light. And when they could find no place to rest, they hovered and fluttered until they were weak with the ache of flight, and fell a little into the darkness; then in panic and despair they fled back and overshot their mark."

Old Fags (1917) novelette by Stacy Aumonier
Four shillings a week for two people means ceaseless, gnawing hunger. The widow and her daughter lost pride and hope, and further messages to Mr. Meads failed to elicit any response. The widow became so desperate that she even asked "Old Fags" one night if he could spare a little stew for her daughter who was starving. The pungent odour of the hot food was too much for her.

The Separate Room (1917)  by Ethel Colburn Mayne
Magnificent. The story's great ambitions are fully achieved. A mother and daughter are buried alive in a cheap hotel in a condition of what used to be called "genteel poverty." The daughter comes close to escaping when she gets a job.

The King Waits (1918)  by Clemence Dane
"The deed is done!" cried Henry. "Uncouple the hounds and away!"

Friday, July 20, 2018

“It’s the wind in the rocks. Try and go to sleep again.” Charles Birkin's collection Devil's Spawn reviewed.

DEVILS' SPAWN by Charles Birkin

1936. Reissued by Valancourt 2015



A stroke-muted mother tries to save her son from the murderous plans of his spouse. The story powerfully conveys physical helplessness.


Caught in a torrential rain storm in the wilds of Brazil, Michael Christie takes shelter for the night with a peasant family. The casual and almost throw-away style in which Birkin conveys the man's doom is a beautiful assault on the reader.


Never visit Paris. In Paris, never stop at The Blue Lizard. If at The Blue Lizard, never order the stew. And if you must complain about the stew, do not enter the kitchen to do so.


Birkin almost matches the intensity of L.P. Hartley's sublime tale "Podolo."

The setting and the characters are perfectly conveyed.  


What can a patient do when the doctor is sick?


Birkin gives us the vigilante "dish best served cold." But Birkin is never on the side of the self-righteous avenger. Nor the side of the punished evil-doer.  Birkin seems to be on the side of an unblinking parade that simply passes by the consequences of ghastly retribution.


Never visit France.  Never buy cast-off property of a village murderer hung the day before.   And stay out of ruins.


Rivals "The Harlem Horror" as the masterpiece of this collection.  Another writer might have telescoped this pathological family romance into the retrospective and cozy reminiscence of some old Chowder Society member. Not Birkin. No, not Birkin.


Birkin's genius for stylistic economy is perfectly displayed in this devastating story.  I can only comment that when it was over, I wanted to scream.


Recalls Poe's "Cask of Amontillado," but absent the likable characters and the happy ending.


When Marx referred to "the idiocy of rural life" he meant intellectual stultification and social atomization. In "Obsession" we are given the rural idiocy of a Nature that laughs at lovers and slaps-down hard.


The Russian Revolution of 1917 does-in another happy couple.


Not quite spring-loaded spikes in a pair of binoculars.


I think if Robert Bloch read Charles Birkin, he would have given this one the slow-clap of applause. I would call the mode pitiless.


A nicely observed tale of supernatural intervention in a movie.  Widely publicized premiere ballyhoo collapses into a brooding conundrum.


Sibling rivalry. Between sisters. One has a blind fiancé. And dark room well-stocked with acid.


20 July 2018