Month: September 2019

The 1919 Omaha Incident

America’s Red Summer reached its crescendo with the attempted lynching of Omaha mayor Edward Parsons Smith one hundred years ago this week.  While nearly all white casualties of 1919’s widespread violence occurred when their intended victims responded in self defense, Mayor Smith was attacked by other whites, who resented his interference in their vigilantism.  The incident is reported as a factual passage presented for context in Stacy Danielle Stephens’ monumental work-in-progress, tentatively titled A Citizen of London, and excerpted here.

 

Released in May of 1943, The Ox-Bow Incident opened to reviews which are striking in the consistency of their ambivalence. There could be no denying that it was a great movie, nor could there be any pretense that an audience of that time would enjoy it.
In spite of making it on the lowest possible budget, the studio nearly lost money, and never would have made The Ox-Bow Incident if Henry Fonda hadn’t been determined to star in it. The studio exacted a price for catering to Fonda’s perverse whim, tossing this single golden apple into a barrel so rotten that Fonda would ever afterward refer to the studio as “Penitentiary Fox”.

The eponymous incident is a lynching, and it is this fact which compelled Fonda to sacrifice the next several years of his career for the sake of one unpopular low budget film. As a teenager in Omaha, he had witnessed the lynching of a black man accused of a crime investigators were certain he had not committed, and the attempted lynching of the mayor, who had told the mob they must not do this thing.

* * *

Omaha Lynching 1916

In 1916, the Nebraska State Constitution was amended to allow for the statewide prohibition of beverage alcohol to begin the following year. By 1919, organized crime was already flourishing in Omaha, allegedly under the guidance of Tom Dennison.
Late in the evening of Thursday, September 25th, 1919, an employee of Dennison’s, an M. Hoffman[1] alleged that he and his girlfriend, Agnes Loebeck, had been robbed at gunpoint by a “small negro” who then took them, still at gunpoint, to a vacant lot, where he then allegedly raped Agnes, holding one hand over her mouth while keeping his gun pointed at Hoffman.

A large number of white men, most of them veterans and many of them armed, began searching for likely suspects, but found none. However, on Friday, the 26th, a concerned citizen reported “two suspicious negroes” to the police. What made the two “suspicious” was that they lived with Virginia Jones, a white woman.

The arresting officers found William Brown at the home of Miss Jones. Mister Brown and Harry Johnson, the other “suspicious negro,” said they had been at a show with Miss Jones at the time of the alleged assault. Police made no record of what Miss Jones said, or if she was questioned, and later claimed that Brown had a gun, although no gun was held as evidence, and no description of the gun was ever recorded. The officers claimed to have taken the two men into custody “for their own safety”.

Although the County Attorney felt certain that no man as arthritic as Brown could have assaulted anyone, he charged him with sexual assault, and planned to empanel a grand jury on Monday.

On Saturday morning, the 27th, The Omaha Bee ran a story, more lurid than accurate, under the headline, “Negro Assaults Young Girl While Male Escort Stands by Powerless to Aid Her.”

Having spent a night in jail, Miss Jones [2] decided that Brown had not been with her at the show after all. The prospect of prosecution as an accessory may have helped her memory. Johnson, facing a similar prospect, had a similar change of heart and clarification of memory.

That afternoon, police took Brown to Agnes Loebeck’s home [3], where they presented him to her with the question, “Is this the man?”

“Yes,” she replied, “this is the man. Take him away. The sight of him has been haunting me since he stopped me on the street and dragged me into the clump of weeds.”

“There is not the least bit of doubt,” Hoffman chimed in, “but what he is the negro that assaulted Agnes.” [4]

By this time, a crowd numbering into the hundreds had gathered outside the Loebeck residence, with hundreds more on their way. The officers phoned police headquarters; a police vehicle came to take them, and Brown, back to the courthouse.

Hoffman spent the rest of the evening preparing to incite a riot.

* * *

On Sunday, the 28th, William Fonda took his son, Henry, to the print shop he owned, because there was something he wanted him to see. Henry was puzzled. No one would be working at the shop, across the street from the courthouse, on Sunday, so nothing would be happening. But from a second story window, Henry saw everything.

* * *

Agnes Loebeck had attended Bancroft Elementary School; boys who’d been in her class then were now men. Many of them were veterans, most of them had or could quickly obtain firearms or heavy tools which could be used as assault weapons, whether against persons or structures, and almost all of them were ready to wage war.

Will Brown and the Mob at Omaha Courthouse

As they proceeded to the courthouse on Sunday, the 28th, they were peaceably dispersed several times, but regrouped, ever closer to the courthouse, in another few minutes. And as they went, word of where they were headed and what they intended spread, so that other groups of similar inclination were on their way to meet them. By three o’clock, the police surrounding the courthouse were themselves surrounded, and vastly outnumbered, but believed themselves to be in control of the situation. By five o’clock, the courthouse and the police protecting it had become engulfed by more than four thousand angry white men [5]. A pair of police attempted to scatter the crowd by flailing vigorously with their night sticks, charging toward the apparent ringleaders.

Unintimidated, the crowd charged back, disarming the two and flinging a third through a glass door. From inside, other officers sprayed a fire hose at the crowd, momentarily driving it back, until people from the rear of the mob moved forward, pushing through the wet and confused men in front of them, flinging rocks, and shattering windows. As the first group of police shut off the disappointing fire hose, another group fired their revolvers into an elevator shaft, hoping the sound of gunfire would frighten the mob. It did nothing of the kind.

As the mob began splintering a door to force their way in, the Chief of Police came to a window, asking to address them. In a few minutes, they were calm and listening. He asked them to allow justice to take its course. This was not what they wanted to hear. With renewed frenzy, the mob pressed forward again, overpowering and looting individual policemen before resuming their efforts to smash through the doors.
Inside, police moved prisoners to the fifth floor, then set up a defensive line on the fourth floor, where they intended to hold back the mob or die trying. They held back the mob.

By seven o’clock, members of the mob had brought gasoline, and were pouring it throughout the first and second floors. By eight o’clock, the police had an inferno beneath them, and no way of holding it back. They also had no means of escape. Anyone attempting to flee the building was shot at by several gunmen outside. Firemen arriving on the scene were kept away from the building by the mob.

It was nearly eleven that night when Mayor Ed Smith went out to address the crowd, imploring them to let the law handle this case [6], adding that “If you take him from this courthouse, it will be over my dead body.” Obligingly, someone clubbed him, someone else grabbed him, and in the course of the melée, a rope was put around his neck, then removed as he was rescued and taken to a car which was overturned. He was taken out of the overturned car, and dragged by another rope around his neck to the southwest corner of the courthouse lawn and hoisted on a street lamp. He hanged there momentarily until a car drove through the crowd to reach him, and four or five men [7] managed to cut the rope, get him into the car, and drive him to a hospital.

The fire had now moved to the third floor, where two bottles of formaldehyde were stored. When the heat broke the bottles, the burning formaldehyde rapidly filled the building with toxic fumes. The remaining police moved the prisoners to the roof.
What happened next cannot be confirmed; the least suspect of accounts say the police began attempting to negotiate the release of white prisoners while black prisoners implored Brown to give himself up; if he didn’t, they would surely all be lynched, unless they died in the fire.

It was now clear to everyone, particularly to everyone on the roof of the courthouse, that William Brown had no hope of seeing the sun rise. Beyond that, all accounts of the next few minutes are suspect. Everyone on that roof had reasons to say what they said about those few minutes, and no one had anything to gain by telling the truth. All that matters, really, is that when those next few minutes had passed, the mob had William Brown, and he was certainly dead even before they’d taken him the two blocks to the corner of Seventeenth and Dodge, where they hanged his body, and continued to shoot it as it hanged there [8] . It was later taken down, doused in kerosene, and burned. And when it had ceased burning, it was dragged through the streets.

The next week, the rope used to hang and drag him was cut into short pieces, each of which was sold for a dime [9]. Even today, one could probably locate a few of these souvenirs.

 

[1] In his original report to police, Hoffman gave Millard as his first name; however, the address he gave was a vacant lot.  Someone by the name of Milton Hoffman lived near to that vacant lot, so it was assumed that Milton had been misquoted by police and news reporters.  To assume otherwise would suggest that the whole of his allegation was a fabrication.

[2] They had also arrested her, presumably for her own safety.

[3] If Brown had been a serious suspect in a rape case, police would have brought Agnes downtown to pick him out of a lineup.  What he was actually being prosecuted for was his intimate relationship with Virginia Jones.

[4] Both of these statements appeared in the next morning’s paper.  It seems likely the editor paraphrased what was actually said, perhaps for the sake of clarity.

[5] By midnight, as many as 15,000 men and women may have gathered in the immediate area of the Douglas County Courthouse.

[6] Although the police and prosecutor were obviously aware that Brown had not committed the crime he was to be arraigned on, there can be little doubt he would have been tried and convicted, because of his intimate relationship with Virginia Jones.  However, the maximum penalty for forcible rape in Nebraska at that time was twenty years.

[7] Sources do not agree on the names or number of these men.

[8] Some sources indicate he was first hanged at 18th and Harney, from the same street lamp where the attempted lynching of the mayor had occurred.

[9]Approximately $1.25 in current dollars.

 

 

 

 

 

A Taste of New York in the Eighties

In June, I was in New York speaking with a friend of mine who is also a writer, and she happened to mention that she had gone to art school (SVA) with Keith Haring.  My wife almost lost it; Haring is one of her all-time favorite artists.

She’s been a fan since forever, but the depth of her reaction might have been helped along because by a book I’d bought her a couple of years earlier.

Keith Haring

Entitled simply Keith Haring, by Jeffrey Deitch, Suzanne Geiss and Julia Gruen, this one is what I’d call an “art biography”. You don’t get much about the subject’s childhood, you don’t get too much about who was sleeping with whom, but you get a comprehensive explanation of the milestones in his artistic career, from elements of his style to people he met along the way and even specific trips and events that proved particularly notable in his career.

It’s a book tinged with sadness, of course–Haring died of AIDS in the early 1990s at far too young an age–but it doesn’t dwell on the sadness.  This book represents that overused phrase: “a celebration of life”.

And it was a life to be celebrated.  Few artists mix innocent style and good-natured self promotion with controversial (and sexual) themes as seamlessly as Haring did.  He preferred to change the world that affected him, even though he wasn’t averse to taking on the bigger-picture issues if he was called to do so.  To me, his Crack is Wack mural is much more indicative of the way he thought–it was inspired by one of his best friends’ addiction–than his action in anti-nuclear protests.

Crack is Wack Mural

I will admit that his art isn’t exactly my cup of tea.  It’s interesting, especially as I see the eighties as a morally straight-laced decade wildly at odds with his more pornographic imagery, but it’s not the kind of thing I would go out of my way to view.  Give me a good Constable any day.

However, this is a man who defined a city in a decade.  The book gives us a glimpse of New York’s art scene and a city lost to gentrification.  Also, a night scene lost to AIDS which utterly destroyed the libertine air that Haring lived and breathed.  From that perspective, this volume is fascinating even if Haring isn’t your favorite artist.  You want to read this book as a cultural icon of a lost world that still influences us today.

And most people who love art think of Haring in terms more similar to the way my wife does than the way I do.  I bought this book in L.A. alongside one of the Complete Peanuts volumes.  The guy at the cash register looked up at me approvingly.  “Haring and Peanuts,” he said.  “Two of my favorites.”  And then he offered me a Barnes & Noble points card.

Anyway.  This is interesting for both arts lovers and people who want to know what the eighties were really like.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  He sometimes creates literature as opposed to entertainment.  If you like that kind of thing, you might enjoy his collection Love and Death.  You can check it out here.

A Small World

Here at CE we’ve looked at hobbies before.  Most notably, we often look at book collecting which may be the first modern hobby, though we do it tangentially by mentioning pretty books.  We also looked at stamp collecting which, in the 20th century, might have been the most popular hobby of all.

One thing I’ve found many traditional hobbies to have in common is that the age of the people who practice them has been creeping up to the point that one of the biggest challenges the organizing bodies (wherever organizing bodies are found) is to get younger enthusiasts involved or risk disappearing.

Book collections and, to a lesser extent, stamp collections, have academic value and are often absorbed by institutions, but other hobbies are at risk.

A good case in point might be scale modeling.  It’s a kid’s pastime, right?

Nope.  Not anymore, at least.  Most practitioners are adults with a perfectionist streak, a passion for detail work and access to serious tools, all of which become obvious when you pick up any publication dedicated to the activity.

Scale Auto Modeler - August 2004

I recently picked up an issue of Scale Auto Modeler (August 2004) and read through it.  Though I’m not detail oriented enough to ever consider entering a model in a contest, I enjoy building a scale car every now and then, and I’m good enough at it that my non-modeling acquaintances think they’re store-bought expensive handbuilts (the secret is, of course, shiny paint).

So I loved reading this one, but I see where a novice would be scared away (I always shake my head that, to get decent results at a contest level, you need both proficiency with an airbrush and a reliable source of compressed air, both of which can be daunting for someone who just wants to build a little car).  I also notice (see the cover) that the subjects most admired by the target audience (I assume that the editors know what they’re doing and that the magazine is adequately targeted) tend to classic vehicles as opposed to more modern expressions.

There’s a good and a bad side to this aging of the customer base. On one hand, older consumers are wealthier, and the hobby does seem to be in robust good health, with truly expensive kits dominating the landscape.  On the other hand, of course, model builders aren’t getting any younger.

I imagine a lot of “crafty” pursuits are in a similar situation as the current generation spends more time immersed in intangible virtual worlds and wonder if they will ever make it out.  If you’ve read my novel Outside, then you know one way I think it could end.  There are other takes.

Anyway, for a writer, it’s all grist for the mill.  There are countless story ideas in these situations.  I just need to make time to write them all.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer.  Outside, mentioned above is a novel of both warning and hope.  You can check it out here.

Merril, Saved by the Year

Judith Merril was probably the most notable science fiction anthologist of the sixties.  She was completely aligned with her decade, and probably wouldn’t have felt out of place at one of Warhol’s happenings.  Her selections and her own written intros were very self-consciously built to reflect the intellectual trends of the sixties.  We’ve discussed her before many times, and even dedicated individual posts to two of her books (here and here).

I’m not a fan of her work in the sixties.  She had a few too many pretentious works to choose from and as a consequence, her anthos veered into the strongly literary as opposed to being SF collections of the kind I enjoy.  I don’t read genre work for its literary merit–I prefer the books to be well-written, but I’ve found that the more experimental they get, the less I enjoy them.  You can replace “experimental” with “political” and the previous sentence still works.  I don’t mind “intellectual” quite as much, but if that intellectual tangent is exploring a faddish (or even lastingly popular) social question then it’s unlikely to hold my interest very long.

So what happens when an anthologist whose tendencies are New Wave, puts together an antho before there were New Wave stories to select?

The Year's Greatest Science Fiction and Fantasy - Second Anual Volume - Edited by Judith Merril

The answer to that is The Year’s Greatest Science Fiction and Fantasy – Second Annual Volume,  and the other answer is that you get a really good book.

Under the masterful guidance of the great John W. Campbell, the most important and influential editor the SF field has ever known (and likely WILL ever know), the genre had evolved from a literature that focused on sword and planet stories where the science was secondary (if addressed at all), to the genre we know and love.

Mature stories, and places where they could be published began to appear, and writers with a more literary bent found themselves able to sell stories that would have languished in an earlier era.  The genre became the stomping ground of many great stylists…

But the conditions were not yet in place for them to completely undermine the foundations of what made SF a popular pastime.  They had to play within a certain set of rules, and apply their undoubted talent and literary inclinations to building a fun or intriguing speculative story.  Navel-gazing or mindless political or social tracts were out of the question.  So was excessive experimentation.

It’s possible to argue that the years selected, 1955 and 1956, might represent one of the true great ages of the SF genre.  Great names like Asimov, Knight, Sturgeon, Kornbluth, Budrys and Ballard were present, but the field had already expanded to include such outlets as Galaxy and Playboy, magazines that went well beyond Astounding’s traditional formula.  We had all the literary merit without any of the forgettable pretentiousness that arrived with the 1960s.

Even Merril, whose eye for a good story clearly wasn’t as bad as her work from the 60’s made it appear, couldn’t mess this group up.  The book is massively strong all the way through, and represents what can happen when that happy middle ground is achieved.  It would not be found again until the post-new wave reminded everyone that SF is supposed to be fun, and literary aspirations and politics are secondary (a lesson that we seem to have forgotten in the 2010s as purely political forces again besiege the genre – luckily, it’s happened before, and they will go away and bug someone else, eventually).

Interestingly, the antho’s strength lies in the fact that all the stories entertain, more than in having one or two standouts.  Of the tales in this volume, the best is probably Sturgeon’s “The Other Man”, but they are all pretty close.

Anyway, this is a good one.  Probably not too hard to find, but these old paperbacks are starting to disintegrate, so best hurry.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is the author of several books in various genres, including the well-received science fiction novel Outside.  You can check it out here.

A Fleet Street Pratfall

As a writer, sometimes you read something and wonder why you even bother with writing.  You will never be as brilliant as *insert writer name here*, so why waste your time.  You can just tell everyone to go read *insert writer name here*..

I recently got that feeling (I’m here to tell you that what can be a joy as a reader can be agony as a writer).  The first thirty-five pages of Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop are so good that I can replace the unknown writer from the first paragraph with Waugh and not feel in the least bit guilty.

Scoop by Evelyn Waugh

Now, I’m no stranger to Waugh’s work, but Brideshead Revisited is a very different animal.  It’s a beautiful book, and a beautifully written book, but it’s not a brilliant book of the kind that makes you shake your head in wonder that someone can make words do what they are doing.

That feeling only comes once in a while.  Wodehouse is probably the guy who does it to me most often, but Waugh… well, the first thirty-five pages of this one are pure gold.

It can’t go on, of course, and once the story hits Africa, it loses a little momentum and becomes merely very good and very entertaining.  Also, the characterization of how things work in a third world country are spot-on.  Modern readers from the developed world might be offended at the generalizations about banana republic governments, but I’m writing to you from Argentina to say that it’s perfectly all right and you can read the book without guilt.  Waugh satirizes it perfectly.

And that doesn’t even touch on the central tenet of the book: Waugh’s masterful send-up of the British newspaper industry, its lords and ladies and hangers-on.  Though the misunderstandings in the plot are worthy of the Marx Brothers, it comes across as truth… and I’m pretty certain that there’s a central kernel of true story around which each of the anecdotes in the book accreted.  It would be fascinating to have lived back then to know which ones.

Like in Dickens, the characters are archetypical with the most predatory of all being “the girl” as in “boy meets girl”.  In Waugh, of course, boy certainly does not keep girl… and the reasons for it are spectacularly funny.

Also interesting is that Waugh was apparently conscious of the way this book’s style approximated Wodehouse’s.  He even named a character Bertie Wodehouse-Bonner in case anyone missed the point.  Two masters coming together in prose.

I’ve had my eye on the Folio Society edition of Vile Bodies for a while now, and my reading of Scoop has pushed it to the very top of my list.

Do yourself a favor and read this one.  It will make you happy.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  He has recently launched a collection of linked short stories entitled Love and Death.  You can check it out here.

Scared of Creepy Clowns? Accursed Toys are Worse.

Sha'Daa Toys - Michael H. Hanson and Edward F. McKeown

Ah, the innocence of childhood, those rose-tinted days of warm security and grass-scented summers.  Idyllic and wonderful right up to the point where a group of horror writers take the magic and run with it.

The horror genre has a long history of twisting childhood tropes into something darker with It and Chucky perhaps being the best known examples of the type.

So when my contributor copy of Sha’Daa Toys arrived (I have a story in this one entitled “Between Boy and Man”), I was pretty sure I knew what to expect.  I’d been in a couple of Sha’Daa anthologiess before, after all.

Nevertheless, I was still surprised by the sheer breadth of the stories within.  An impressive lineup of writers takes on the question: if the apocalypse is upon us and there are enchanted toys out there–both on the side of good and the side of evil–what would it look like?

The answers are as varied as the writers.

From teddy bears to toy blocks to GI Joe dolls, everything anyone ever wanted to play with is in here.  I personally believe that Etch-A-Sketches were always the work of hell, so not surprised to see one of those there either.  It’s strange that no one included the most evil toy ever, the Rubik’s cube.

And the stories are just as varied as the toys themselves.  Hyper-dark, heartwarming, adventure-driven and even humorous, they keep this hefty (nearly 400 pages) volume from becoming monotonous.

The Sha’Daa series is one of the longest-running shared-world anthos out there, and this book is a good example of why.  It stands alone and each writer’s voice comes through clearly… and yet, it is of a piece with the rest of the series.  This is a series that should continue for a long, long time.

Favorite story?  I’ll go with “Samuel Meant Well and the Little Black Cloud of the Apocalypse” by Shebat Legion and Joe Bonadonna, mainly because the little black cloud of the title is a memorable character in itself.

Pick one of these up.  It doesn’t matter which: they are all a treat for horror lovers looking for something a little different.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine author whose collection Off the Beaten Path was launched in August.  There are some dark works in that one, too.  You can check it out here.

A Western that Managed to Make my Wife Forget She Hates Westerns

I watch the 1001 movies list with my long-suffering wife.  She normally enjoys the good ones (some of them more than I do) and sits through the strange, foreign or noir ones with long-practiced stoicism.  Mainly, she is an enthusiastic participant in the project and often asks for a film if we’re not too tired when our day ends.

But there is one exception: westerns.  She hates them and usually falls asleep in the middle, with clear instructions that I should watch the thing myself and not bug her.  She even abandoned My Darling Clementine halfway through.

John Wayne in Red River

Red River, however, was another story entirely.  After a couple of false starts we watched the entire movie until the end, even though I wanted to go to sleep and finish it the following day.

Why?

I think the answer lies in the unrelenting tension and the huge number of actual cows onscreen… and those two things are related.  Let me explain.

The tension is, to a certain degree, driven by the plot.  You have some guys trying to drive a herd a long way against all odds in an unforgiving land where both the elements and groups of bandits and indians are out to get them.  Then, in the middle of it, one of the main characters abandons the group in order to follow them and try to get revenge by killing he group’s leader.

I think what makes the whole thing seem real, though is that the cows are on screen a good chunk of the time.  There are lots of them, and they are really there.  They’re big, they’re constantly moving and, somehow, they make everything seem real.  There’s a stampede scene which is probably the most memorable scene in the film.

Red River Film Poster

The acting is superb and, of course, John Wayne is the ultimate tough guy who hides his deepest feelings from outside scrutiny.  It works spectacularly well, and there’s little question as to why the film was beloved from the word go.  It is most definitely the opposite of a chick flick, and all the stronger for it.

Of course, if you’re the kind of person who is offended by either John Wayne or the attitudes prevalent in the 1940s, this one will shock you to the core – Westerns of this era are not for the socially sensitive.  The rest of you should go out and find this film as soon as you can.

And enjoy what might just be The Duke’s best performance in a film so good even my wife approves.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer who has never written a western.  However he has recently launched a collection of short SF and Fantasy stories which you can check out here.

A New Favorite Dickens

I probably read Charles Dickens in the wrong order.  My first exposure to the man was a volume called Hard Times which didn’t impress.  This was followed by Oliver Twist, probably also a mistake.  The overly melodramatic and emotional has never been my cup of tea.

Things began to look up with A Tale of Two Cities which, by dint of being about something other than suffering, immediately took the top spot in my personal rankings.  At the time I enjoyed it a lot.

Enough, in fact, that I went on to read David Copperfield.  That one was a masterpiece, and probably, if one is objective, the best of Dickens’ work.

Luckily, though, I didn’t stop reading with that one.  His minor work (Great Expectations, A Christmas Carol) was duly consumed and found reasonably good, and I did enjoy Dickens’ London, a compendium of sketches by Boz and other essays.

But now, I can say that I’ve finally found MY Dickens. (Yes, that does sound unfortunate when you read it out loud.  Don’t read it out loud.  Especially in a crowded train).

The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens

The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, better known as The Pickwick Papers, is one of the best books I’ve ever read.  Certainly the one book by old Charles that creates a feeling of wonder as opposed to simple admiration about how well the guy writes on a sentence level.  This one is also entertaining, a bit kooky (yes, that is a technical term reviewers use all the time) and just as well written as his heavier works.

And therein lies the rub.  This one un very un-Dickens-ian in the sense that it’s a light-hearted romp through several counties of English countryside (some, perhaps all, apocryphal) as opposed to a worrying grind through an urban landscape.  It’s like reading Wodehouse written by Dickens, which is always a treat (more on that particular angle in my forthcoming review of Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop).

Essentially, it tells the adventures of four friends who, though wealthy enough to go on the kind of lark one would usually enjoy, are utterly clueless when it comes to everything else, apparently.  Hilarity ensues.

As such, it’s a pleasure to read.  Every singe page is fun stuff, and Mr Pickwick must rank among Dickens’ most memorable characters, which is quite a feat in itself.

For those who think that humor is somehow a guilty pleasure, you can rest assured that it’s all right.  No one will shake their heads at you in disapproval at your next literary gathering because A) Dickens is a classic writer, B) it’s 800 pages long so most of your literary friends won’t have read it and C) it has redeeming social commentary, so you can pretend you read it only because of that.

So you can enjoy every one of those 800 pages without having to make any excuses at all.

Perfect.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer.  His laters book is a collection of short genre fiction set in non-traditional places entitled Off the Beaten Path.  You can check it out here, and it’s worth having a look for the cover art alone.

We’re All Mad Here

If I were to tell you that I watched a film about a woman’s struggle with mental illness, I think most of you would yawn and write it off as another opportunity for Hollywood to show off its capacity for melodrama and cheap emotional body shots.

But what if I told you I enjoyed the hell out of it?

Let me explain.  The first data point you need to know is that the film is from 1948.  The more knowledgeable among you will be nodding at this point.  Hollywood was a little less banal back then.

The second thing that made this one good was a truly spectacular performance from Olivia de Havilland.  Again, the knowledgeable are nodding along.  Those who know about planes because Olivia was the daughter of the magnate of Mosquito fame, and those who know about classic film because you already know I’m talking about The Snake Pit.

The Snake Pit Film Poster

de Havilland, who is still alive and more than a hundred years old, navigates the film in a fog of confusion and uncertainty, and we never know her ultimate fate until a few moments before the end.

The madness on screen is understated, avoiding the grotesque and the exaggerated in favor of a lighter touch which is, in the end, much more effective.  Even the asylum politics aren’t harped upon but left for the viewers to understand on their own terms.

Once more, it begs the question: were viewers in 1948 more sophisticated than those in 2019?  Or was it simply a case of filmmakers creating for intellectually superior portion of their audiences?  In a world saturated by least common denominator communication in every sphere, where literature and film seem more intent on teaching the consumer their political and moral ideas in bite-sized, easily digestible oversimplifications of a complex reality, old movies (and old books) are a breath of fresh air.

The Snake Pit Crowd Scene

They take people as they are.  Heroines are flawed, they are imperfect, and many of their troubles are self-inflicted, they DON’T overcome their failings over the course of the piece–they are still as imperfect at the end as at the beginning–and yet they are still sympathetic characters.

Best of all, these films show us the world as it really was, not the way the political activists who want to rewrite history think it should be portrayed.  The bits that make modern audiences uncomfortable are still there.  Hooray!

All in all, it makes for an entertaining film as opposed to one designed to be suffered through for your own good.

A final note on de Havilland’s performance.  She was nominated for the Best Actress Oscar that year, but didn’t win…

If you need me, I’ll be on Google investigating who did win that year.  It must have been a performance for the ages.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose book Love & Death is a collection of linked lives in paper (and electronic) form.  You can check it out here.

Off the Beaten Path Has Been Launched!!

Off the Beaten Path by Gustavo Bondoni

Most books have a story behind them.  This one is no exception.  When I started writing short fiction for publication, back in the mid-2000’s, there were very few people from the non-English part of the developing world writing original work in English.  Oh, some people were translating stuff that happened to land on their desk, but it was a scattershot effort.

So, mixed in with my more usual fare (fiction set in an American or Western European setting), I loved to change it up on editors a bit and drop my characters into unexpected places.  So you get a noirish dystopia in Namibia, a parrot story in New Zealand or a straight up SF espionage tale on the moon… in which two of the antagonists are India and China.

These stories sold, so I kept creating them until, almost without realizing it, I soon had enough for a book dedicated to just my published work that takes place, as the title suggests, off the beaten path of traditional SF.

And it just happened that I already worked with the perfect publisher for a book of this kind.  Guardbridge Books is based in Scotland, but has specialized, since its launch, in books from different cultures.  They had published my novel, Outside, and when I pitched the idea, they were delighted to have a look… and they, like the editors who’d bought the stories initially, also decided to publish.

Of course, they asked for a couple of new stories, which I was more than happy to write, and which round out the book wonderfully (of course I think that… I’m the author!).

So, that’s the genesis of this particular book.  Have a look!  Buy a copy!  Hell, buy multiple copies…  give one to all your friends.  Sign it and pretend I did it (I’ll back you up).

Anyway, you can buy the book on Amazon and at Barnes & Noble.  Let me know if you enjoyed it.