classic Literature

Provincial Life and My Difference of Opinion with Virginia Woolf

Middlemarch First Edition

I find Virginia Woolf to be remarkably clear-headed.  Her A Room of One’s Own is one of the few pieces of purely feminist (or purely political, for that matter) writing that I’ve ever read which feels that it was written by someone who was intelligent and thoughtful first and foremost, as opposed to someone defined by their agenda.  It is not only readable, but actually brilliant.

Unfortunately, when it comes to George Eliot‘s Middlemarch, I find myself disagreeing with Woolf violently–which is bad because I’m pretty sure most people will come down on Woolf’s side in any argument, and also because she has been dead for ages, and I can’t actually discuss it with her.

Woolf, as some of you might know, probably gave the most famous review of Middlemarch when she expressed the opinion that it was “one of the few English novels written for grown-up people.”  Writing from the vantage point of 1902, that is very dismissive of everyone from Austen to Thackarey (and let’s not forget the Bell brothers).

Such a ringing endorsement made Middlemarch a must-read.  So read it I did.  And it fell reasonably flat (which is what all the other critics were saying, but I went and believed Woolf!).

Yes, it is for grown-ups.  Of that, there is little doubt.  But it is not for every grown-up.  It is for those men and women whom earlier generations referred to as “Serious-minded”, which seems to mean earnest people obsessed with important issues and for whom smiling was something of a lost art.  Humor, of course, is for children and the unwashed masses.

A Room Of Ones Own by Virginia Woolf, First edition Cover

In that light, Middlemarch works very well.  It plods along logically and earnestly, eventually becoming a character study of many of the types of people you would have found in the English countryside in the late 19th century.  It’s not bad, but one can’t help feel that it would have benefited from having Jane Austen edit it.  Better still, Thackeray whose character studies as much more biting.  No, wait…  Best of all would have been Oscar Wilde.

What I’m trying to say here is that the book is too lineal and earnest for its own good.  Real grown-ups, no matter what Virginia Woolf said, are people who appreciate humor as well as obligation, people who understand that a good life life contains levity as well as grey porridge.

Perhaps the lucid Woolf of A Room of One’s Own wasn’t the real one.  Perhaps she really was as humorless and agenda driven as so many others before and after her have been when they dedicated their lives to a particular cause.

But I choose to believe not.

So the only thing left to do is to read To The Lighthouse, I guess.  That should settle the matter pretty definitively, and show once again how little provocation is required for me to pick up a random classic book.

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James Bond? Not Exactly…

I’m a fan of Joseph Conrad.  I believe that his novella Heart of Darkness is one of the greatest explorations of what really resides in the souls of men ever written.  Today, it has fallen somewhat out of favor because certain vocal literary critics focus on the colonial trappings… and thereby manage to miss the point of the book entirely.  In fact, I like this book so much that I became a bit of a scholar regarding it, and was even asked to write the introduction to the edition linked above.

So when I sat down to read a Conrad book about spies and conspirators, I thought to myself “I am in for quite a treat.”

Turns out I wasn’t.

The Secret Agent - Conrad - First Edition

The Secret Agent, a seminal book about a terrorist plot in England seemed dry and stale and boring.  The bad guys seemed painfully incompetent and unimaginative, and the plot moved at the speed of frozen molasses in quicksand, ti mix three metaphors.

This was the book that, directly or indirectly led to–or at least influenced–the spy genre as we know it?  This is the one that inspired the Unabomber?  Really?

Well, yes, and the secret to understanding what went awry in my own reading comes down to one thing: expectations.

What I was expecting was a fantastic story about glamorous spies that flirts with the edges of plausibility.  What I got was the slightly dramatized retelling of a real-life story of badly-organized and somewhat incompetent anarchists.

Let’s start with that second part, first.  The bare bones of the plot are based around a failed bombing in London in 1894 whose only victim was the bomber himself (a man who intended to plant his bomb and walk away unscathed).   Names are changed, but that is the story. Not only is the plot uninspiring, but it is also told from the viewpoint of the bad guys… which is cool if your protagonist is Al Capone, or someone equally competent, but not so motivating in this case.

So yes, the book is somewhat at fault–even in 1907 there had to be better secret villains to write about–but let’s look at my other point: fantastic vs. slightly dramatic.  In hindsight, it becomes clear that, as the secret agent novel gained popularity, more baroque and twisted stories needed to be concocted and the heroes slowly migrated from regular men in extraordinary circumstances as in The Thirty-Nine Steps (another book with an intro by yours truly… I’m beginning to sense a pattern here) to very exceptional men and women tested to the limits of their own enormous capabilities.

Joseph Conrad

When we read a book in this niche today, we expect the writer to stand on at least some of the shoulders of the giants who came before him.  Yes, the Fleming books from the sixties are tame by today’s standards, but at least some of the tropes are already present, and the cover art is marvelous.

This immediately leads to the question of who those giants are.  And that is where this volume truly comes into its own.  When you dig into the mass of names: Fleming, Buchan, Householder, standing near the bottom, holding up many of the cherished authorial heroes, is old man Conrad.

So, if you are going to read one Conrad book in your life, read Heart of Darkness.  But If you want to understand where Tom Clancy and John LeCarré are coming from, The Secret Agent is worth the effort. At the very least you will have a good example of art that was a victim of its own success.

Acton Bell was the Best of them

It’s quite possible you’ve never heard of Acton Bell.  After all, this was a writer overshadowed by better-known siblings Currer Bell and Ellis Bell.

What?  You haven’t heard of them either?

Ah, you must not be a collector of first editions or a student of literary history.  You see Currer Bell published a novel entitled Jane Eyre, while Ellis was responsible for a tome entitled Wuthering Heights.

first edition tenant of wildfell hall

Yes, they were.  Google the first editions if you don’t believe me.

All right.  In their era, it was difficult to get published, so the Brontë sisters sold their work under male pseudonyms, Ellis, Acton and Currer being the sobriquets chosen by Emily, Anne and Charlotte.  But while even the most casual readers are familiar with the work of Emily and Charlotte–either via the written word or the countless TV and film adaptations of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights (or, for absolute bizarreness, the music video of the latter)–very few have been exposed to Anne’s work.

There is a reason for that.  Charlotte, who was the only one who didn’t die terribly young, kept Anne’s novels from being reprinted after her death (she is also rumored to have burned a manuscript of a second novel by Emily).  So while Charlotte’s work was becoming ever more well known, Annes languished, only beginning to get critical recognition much later, with the early feminist movement.

Political use of her work aside, it’s a true pity that Anne seems to be the forgotten sister (brother Branwell, by all accounts, squandered any talent he might have had due to a dissipated lifestyle).  Judging simply by her writing, she seems to have been, by far, the best of the three.

Yes, I know. That’s supposed to be Emily, the firebrand whose prose scars you as you read.

Yes, it’s true that Emily’s writing, and her characters are both more memorable than Charlotte’s.  They are tortured, egoistic souls stymied by their preferences and circumstances and as melodramatic as it is possible to be.  Definitely better than Charlotte’s stultifying boredom (yes, I know there was a madwoman in a tower.  Still boring)…

Anne Brontë by Branwell Brontë

But Anne, as a novelist, took more risks than Charlotte, and wrote a clearer, better-paced story than Emily.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is the best of the Brontë novels.  If you don’t believe me, that’s because you haven’t read it.  It contains sympathetic protagonists who defy the conventions of their time enough that they feel almost modern, and the story is about the way they struggle against those conventions and the consequences of rebellion.  Also, it has an antagonist who deserves to be despised.

Though the novel’s re-acceptance into 19th century canon is cause for rejoicing, it’s a bit unfair that it’s been tarred with the “early feminist novel” brush.  That alone will keep many people from approaching this book–anyone familiar with the writing of Kate Chopin will have learned their lesson: writing that only survives because of a political push is always terrible, even if the politics are sound.  It’s a pity that this should be so because Anne’s novel is actually good literature, despite the anger that might or might not have informed some of its more memorable scenes.

Yes, the very act of writing and publishing this book was a feminist act (as was that of Wuthering Heights, which is just about the most un-feminist book I can think of), and yes, when Anne’s protagonist leaves her husband, it was the first time something like that had happened in a major English novel.

But there are more important things going on in this book, and the political significance, whether contemporary or post-mortem, was given to it by others.  It’s really just a book about characters dealing with their world as best they can.  And it excels in that light.

So go to your library and ask them for something by Acton Bell.  Hopefully, a librarian should know what you mean… if not, send them here!

Writing Ideas Come from the Strangest Places

Today’s post is written by writer Gustavo Bondoni, who also happens to be our Editor-in-Chief. He speaks a little to that age-old question about where writers get their ideas.

Confessions of an English Opium Eater by Thomas De Quincey Cover

To be brutally honest, I thought that my reading of Thomas De Quincey’s best known work, Confessions of an English Opium Eater, was going to be another of those things that I would simply have to file away under “I read it because it was supposed to be a classic, but it’s not really all that enthralling.”

This isn’t to say that the book wasn’t memorable. The subject matter, and the first person perspective combined to ensure that it is a deeply visceral work.  The main problem with it is that it manages, somehow, to be dry and overwritten at the same time.  The fact that it became a best seller was due more to the controversial nature of the work than the writing.  Both the subject matter itself and the fact that De Quincey seemed to harp upon the pleasures of laudanum and downplay the pains both contributed to a good number of books sold.

When I finished it, I was happy to have read it and thought about it for a bit, but did not feel that it would be among those books that would influence me when writing my own work.

The above just proves how much I know.

A year after finishing Opium Eater, I found myself writing a noir novel set in Buenos Aires during WWII.   Argentina was neutral in the conflict, and the cabarets of the city were likewise unaffiliated, catering to Axis, Allies, rich and poor alike.  And I found that laudanum and the opium it was made from played a key role not just in the recreational activities of the characters, but also in the political background.

Bottle of Laudanum

Now, I don’t know if the drug would have been there or not if I hadn’t read De Quincey’s book.  After all, there were fewer recreational drugs available back then, and there was a war on, which meant that some products–especially those from Asia–presented more interesting logistical and political ramifications than, say, cocaine, which is from the Americas.  So it’s possible that opium would have been present anyway.  But one thing that I’m certain of is that the image of how addicts behaved, the shape of  that particular situation in my mind, certainly wouldn’t have been the same.

So, of the dozens of books I read in a year, one that I expected to pass unnoticed had contributed significantly to one of my novels.  I certainly didn’t see that coming, but those things happen.  I had Incursion under contract by that time, so I wrote that book, which has no sign of opium in it at all.  Normality, it seemed, had been reestablished.

After incursion, I decided to writer a sort of elegy for the life of pre WWI Italy.  My next novel took place in the late spring and early summer of 1914.  It was a book that I initially intended to be a tale in the vein of Brideshead Revisited, with a sort of misty, soft-focus nostalgia made infinitely more poignant by the fact that we all know what happened after that summer, and we know all about the waste and suffering of the Great War.

But as I began to write, the characters decided that they had their own ideas about how they should act and what the book would be about (other writers will know what I mean), and the edge that was supposed to be delivered by the reader’s own knowledge of events began to make its way onto the pages.  Suddenly this wasn’t a comment on that last glorious summer of the traditional European aristocracies, but became a comment on both the good and the bad of their way of life.  Sex crept in (much more copiously than I’d planned–this one is by far the raunchiest of my books), as did the abuse of power relationships.  And drugs.  You can’t have a good post-fin-de-siécle blowout without a drug or two.

And which drug played the most prominent role?  Why, laudanum, of course.  And De Quincey is back once again.

I’d never list the man as one of my major influences.  I still feel he hasn’t contributed much to my style or my subjects.  But he seems to have delivered my particular drug of choice–at least for my mainstream novels set in the past century…

It just goes to show that you never can tell.

The Defining Moment of Modernist Literature

There are certain literary works about which it is universally agreed that everyone should read them once in their lives.  The traditional classics, of course: Homer, the other Greeks, Virgil and certain other Romans.  Dante and Beowulf.  Then there are the more modern works such as Cervantes and Chaucer and Shakespeare.  Voltaire.  There are books among the Romantics and Victorians that are considered mandatory: Austen, two of the Brontë sisters (probably the wrong ones, but that’s a post for another day), Dickens and Thackaray.  Melville.  After that, perhaps Hemingway and Fitzgerald, maybe interspersed with some Salinger and Woolf to keep people honest.  The list above does not attempt to be comprehensive, it’s just off the top of my head… but most people know which classics they should have read by now.

Ulysses by James Joyce - First edition

There are some gaps in my own reading, even of the limited list above.  I haven’t read enough of the non-Homer and Virgil classics.  And I’m missing a boatload of poets and dramatists, mainly because I prefer prose (which made reading Chapman’s Homer and Longfellow’s Dante a chore).

But I can finally hold my head up high despite all of this.  You see, I read James Joyce’s Ulysses from cover to cover.  In fact, I enjoyed it much more than I thought I would.

Why, I can hear people asking as they scratch their heads, is Ulysses so significant?  It won’t change the fact that I’m woefully lacking in Yeats and Cicero, after all.

Well there are a couple of answers to that one.  The first is perhaps more banal: even among people who self-describe as extremely well-read, there are many who only pretend to have read the thing.  No one likes to admit that they haven’t cracked a significant volume open, but unless it was specifically mandated in college, most won’t have.  That, alone, makes me happy to have taken the effort.

The second reason is because Joyce was anointed as the absolute master of modernist literature and, since the Modernists (note capital M), like all -ists believed that their movement was the be-all and end-all of artistic relevance, he was therefore the greatest writer to ever live.

I wouldn’t go as far as that, but it’s fair to say that, by  adopting a number of then-revolutionary techniques, modernism (unlike its successor, post-modernism, which has contributed little to anything but irrelevant and impractical political stances) did help to mold what we consider contemporary prose.  If nothing else, stream-of-consciousness has become a perfectly valid modern-day tool.

And which book is the standard-bearer for stream-of-consciousness?  Well, it has to be Ulysses, doesn’t it?  An argument might be made for Woolf, but it would be a short one, mainly because most people agree that Joyce was the writer who epitomizes this technique, and Ulysses is the novel where he shows it off.

Joyce Ulysses Period REview Clipping

OK.  So the book is relevant.  But how is it to read?

That answer also has two facets.  The first is that of a reader approaching it for the first time.  The amount of ink dedicated to explaining how to go about that is astounding (it’s a good thing we don’t get our ink from squids, or mass extinctions would have ensued).  They tell you to first familiarize yourself with homer, then read the manuals and commentaries and then…

No.

If you’re a reader of this blog, then you are likely to be pretty well-read and of above-average intelligence and culture.  In fact, the mere fact that you’ve heard of Ulysses and are thinking of picking it up probably means that you don’t need to do all that to read a mere novel.  No matter if that book is the vaunted champion of the modernist world.

Pick it up.  Turn to the first page.  Read to the end.  You will catch some of the allusions.  You will miss others.  But, crucially, you will have formed your own opinion about it.  The book will have a shape inside your head unaffected by what others have said or thought.  It will be your reading.  And that is priceless.

Only afterwards does the second facet of the answer come into play.  Only once read and digested should you go back through it and understand its relationship with the classic material and the underlying irony of the comparative faithfulness of the two Penelopes, as well as the differing attitudes of the parallel Odysseuses.  And all the rest of what is hidden below the surface.

But whether that effort is worth your time must come from your first reading.  Does your mind get pulled in by the dangerous undertows of the underlying narrative?  If so, it is a book worth studying.  If not, onto the next.  Ultimately, the book needs to stand on its own.

Does it?  Well, I’m not going to answer that.  If you want to find out, you’ll have to take join the honorable ranks of those who have finished Ulysses.

As for me, I’ve read the supposed bugaboo of the twentieth century.  But we all know that this one is just the famous sibling.  The true elephant in the room is Finnegan’s Wake.  Kind of like Ulysses, but at night, while in a fever dream.

Hmmm…

Speculative Poetry: Past, Present, and Future

Über-polymath Richard H. Fay is back this week.  Over the past few weeks, he’s shown his deep knowledge of occult subjects, but this week gives us a beautifully-researched glimpse into the world of speculative poetry, from Gilgamesh to today.   You can read his blog here, and we also recommend checking out his Zazzle Store.  

Gilgamesh Tablet

Occasionally shoved into a dark, stuffy corner of the literary attic by its critics, speculative poetry actually possesses a heritage and current potential at least as rich and exciting as that claimed by its mainstream kin. Dealing with the fantastic as opposed to the mundane, speculative poetry travels winding roads leading to wondrous worlds, regions never traversed by mainstream verse. It mines the same creative vein as speculative fiction, using verse instead of prose to delve into the limitless depths of human imagination. With roots planted firmly in the mythic and folkloric epics and ballads of yore, and branches reaching high into the endless skies of modern fantasy, science fiction, and horror, speculative poetry is a historic and vital poetic genre.

Speculative poetry of one form or another has been with us a very long time. Ancient myths and legends presented in verse form were merely speculative poems cloaked in the shroud of belief. Even though these tales may have been accepted as fact at the time of their telling in the courts of ancient kings or before ancient hearths, their fantastic natures firmly planted them in the realm of the speculative.

One of the earliest literary works, the Ancient Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh, was also an important antecedent of all later heroic epics. Written in cuneiform on clay tablets, the poem described the incredible adventures of Gilgamesh, the King-God of Uruk. The strongest super-human that ever lived, Gilgamesh was two-thirds god and one-third human. After besting Enkidu in a furious wrestling match, Gilgamesh befriended the hairy wild man. The hero king and his hirsute companion then battled Humbaba the Terrible, the demonic guardian of the great Cedar Forest, and slew the mighty Bull of Heaven. Enkidu’s eventual death sent Gilgamesh on a futile quest for immortality. All of these elements would feel right at home nestled within the pages of a modern fantasy work.

The Ancient Greeks continued the tradition of including speculative elements in their own versified myths. Homer’s Odyssey, one of the foundational works of Western literature, recounted the tale of Odysseus’ long journey home from the Trojan War. Along the way, the Ithacan hero encountered many fantastic creatures and situations. He blinded the Cyclops Polyphemus, resisted the shape-shifting spell cast by the sorceress Circe, sought counsel from the dead, avoided the fatal allure of the Sirens’ song, navigated past the double-threat of Scylla and Charybdis, and ended up a captive of the amorous nymph Calypso. With aid from the gods, Odysseus finally made it back to Ithaca after a ten-year odyssey. All the trials and tribulations faced by Odysseus during his long voyage home influenced later journey tales.

No less imaginative than their ancient predecessors, medieval bards and balladeers wove fantastic threads into the tapestry of their own mythic, legendary, and folkloric works. In the Old English epic Beowulf, the eponymous main character battled the monstrous Grendel, Grendel’s ogress mother, and a deadly dragon. Another Old English poem, “The Dream of the Rood”, told the tale of the Crucifixion as witnessed by the tree that became the Holy Cross, an unusual viewpoint reminiscent of the inhuman perspectives found in some modern speculative verse. In the Middle English chivalric romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the enchanted Green Knight lost his head without apparent ill effect. Some medieval ballads such as “Thomas Rhymer”, “The Unquiet Grave”, and “The Laily Worm and the Machrel of the Sea” drew on supernatural themes, featuring fairies, ghosts, dragons, and other fantastical beings and beasts.

Spenser Faerie Queene

Although the veil of belief may have slowly lifted from the Renaissance on, poets still continued to incorporate elements of the fantastic into their works. The Elizabethan poet Edmund Spenser set his allegorical epic The Faerie Queene in a “Faerie Land” populated by chivalrous knights, noble ladies, deceitful witches, shape-shifting sorcerers, heroic satyrs, and terrible dragons.

At times, the great playwright and poet William Shakespeare penned scenes containing fantastical characters and situations. Some of his dramatic verse delved into the realm of fairies, witches, ghosts, and sorcerers. Shakespeare featured fair folk meddling in the love lives of mortals in his romantic comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Scheming witches foretold the future with ominous results in Macbeth. The ghost of the murdered Danish king haunted Elsinore castle as well as the prince’s troubled mind in Hamlet. Served by the airy spirit Ariel, the sorcerer Prospero conjured up a storm in The Tempest.

A proponent of the Sturm und Drang and later Weimar Classicism movements, the German poet, novelist, playwright and natural philosopher Johann Wolfgang von Goethe echoed folk themes about malevolent forest spirits in his poem “Der Erlkönig“. Composed in 1782, this chilling ballad followed the haunting ride of a father and his doomed son through the Erl-King’s wood. Invisible to adult eyes just like any modern bogeyman or monster-in-the-closet, the increasingly aggressive Erl-King eventually took the boy by force. At the end of the journey, the father was left holding a corpse.

Several Romantic-era poets must be included among the predecessors of modern speculative poets. Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Queen Mab” may have been a revolutionary philosophical poem, but much of the imagery involving the Fairy Queen and her chariot’s flight through time and space was fantastical in nature. John Keats’ “Lamia” drew heavily from the well of ancient mythology, but also contained a drop or two of fairy folklore. The macabre and occult poems of the American Romantic writer Edgar Allan Poe could be considered the grand-sires of some of the more horror-tinged verse composed by today’s dark speculative poets.

Later Victorian and Edwardian poets also created works that contained the fantastic, poetry that could be considered speculative in nature. “Goblin Market” by the Victorian English poet Christina Rossetti told the tale of two sisters and their experience with the deliciously evil fruit of goblin men. One fell into temptation and ate their fruit, then the other braved the goblins’ wrath to rescue her sister from a pining death. Alfred, Lord Tennyson created The Faerie Queene of his age when he penned the Arthurian cycle Idylls of the King, a work based on Sir Thomas Mallory’s Le Morte d’Arthur and the medieval Welsh collection of tales called the Mabinogion. Merlin’s magic and miraculous visions mingled with the chivalrous exploits of Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table within the pages of Tennyson’s masterpiece. Rudyard Kipling explored mythic and fantastical themes, often as allegories of his own experiences, in some of his poetic works such as “The Centaurs” and “Pan in Vermont”.

William Butler Yeats, an Irish poet who bridged the gap between the Victorian and the Modernist and was a driving force behind the Irish Literary Revival, found inspiration in Celtic myths, legends, and folklore, as well as personal mystical encounters. “The Wanderings of Oisin”, one of Yeats’ earliest works, presented the mythic story of Oisin’s adventures in the isles of Faerie as told through his dialogue with Saint Patrick. Niamh called seductively as the fair folk rode out from Knocknarea in “The Hosting of the Sidhe”. The poem’s narrator tells of his imaginative vision of a sphinx, a Buddha, and a girl who danced herself to death in “The Double Vision of Michael Robartes”.

Some well-known authors responsible for the creation and popularity of modern fantasy literature also penned fantasy poetry. Robert E. Howard, father of the sword-and-sorcery genre, wrote poems such as “Cimmeria”, a work about the gloomy homeland of Conan the Barbarian. J.R.R. Tolkien, a writer often considered to be the father of high-fantasy and one whose works sparked a resurgence of interest in fantastical literature, interspersed song and poetry throughout his wondrous prose tales. He also wrote a collection of poems, ostensibly taken from the Hobbit manuscript the Red Book of Westmarch, entitled “The Adventures of Tom Bombadil”.

With the advent of science fiction as a literary genre, poets soon found ways to put the genre’s varied wondrous subjects and themes to verse. Just as Edgar Allan Poe, Jules Verne, and H.G. Wells pioneered the writing of science fiction in prose, a handful of far-sighted poets pioneered the writing of science fiction in verse. Ray Bradbury, one of the masters of the science fiction or science fantasy genre, also wrote speculative poetry. In 2008 he was named the Science Fiction Poetry Association’s latest Grand Master. Several magazines devoted to publishing science fiction in prose, such as Asimov’s, also published science fiction poetry. Some journals such as Star*Line focused on publishing poetry of a speculative nature.

In the recent past, science fiction poets, or genre poets in general, have experimented with different poetic forms. One such form adopted by speculative poets is the haiku, a minimalist poem of Japanese origin. In 1995 Tom Brink laid out the rules for scifaiku in The Scifaiku Manifesto, but science fiction haiku had been around at least since the publication of Karen Anderson’s “Six Haiku” in 1962. Speculative haiku need not be inspired by science fiction alone; they may also utilize fantasy and horror themes, with horror-themed examples often called “horrorku”. Scifaikuest, a Sam’s Dot magazine published in both print and on-line versions, specializes in the publication of scifaiku and horrorku, as well as other Japanese-inspired forms like tanka and haibun (haiku combined with a prose paragraph). All these forms continue to be a valid method of poetic expression for speculative writers, and can be a great exercise in word economy.

As ancient poetry often presented fantastical myths, legends, and lore in verse form, modern speculative poets use verse so their readers can experience wonder, weirdness, and horror. Many of today’s genre writers and poets practice the art of speculative poetry composition, including Bruce Boston, David C. Kopaska-Merkel, Kendall Evans, Deborah P. Kolodji, and Mike Allen. Many magazines and journals such as those mentioned above continue to publish works by speculative poets. Many venues, both print and on-line, offer opportunities for rising poetic talents, giving them a chance to let their imaginative voices be heard. With a potential limited only by the poet’s imagination, speculative poetry possesses the capability to grow far beyond its parent genres.

To muddy the waters just a bit, actual individual definitions of speculative poetry may vary almost as much as individual definitions of poetry in general. Some see speculative poetry in broad terms, covering all verse containing elements of the science fiction, fantasy, and horror genres. Others take a narrower view, claiming that speculative poetry is a special kind of genre verse, moving beyond the literal and into the suggestive and allusive. However you look at it, broad or narrow, speculative poetry is the poetry of the fantastic, poetry of the wondrous, poetry of the “what if?”. And such poetry should appeal to all fans of genre literature, whether they think they like poetry or not. After all, the family tree of speculative fiction has poetry at its roots.

 

(Article originally published in the on-line version of Abandoned Towers, January 2009, and also published in Issue 17 of the print zine Illumen, Autumn 2012.)

 

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– Kipling, Rudyard. “The Centaurs” & “Pan in Vermont”. A Complete Collection of Poems by Rudyard Kipling: Edward Bovner’s Poet Lovers’ Page. (2006). http://www.poetryloverspage.com/poets/kipling/kipling_ind.html.
– Poe, Edgar Allan. The Works of Edgar Allan Poe in One Volume. New York: Walter J. Black Co. (1927).
– Quiller-Couch, Arthur. The Oxford Book of Ballads. Oxford: Clarendon. (1910). New York: Bartleby.com. (2001). http://www.bartleby.com/243/.
– Rossetti, Christina. “Goblin Market”. The Victorian Web. Ed. George P. Landow. (2005). http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/crossetti/gobmarket.html.
– Sandy, Mark. “Queen Mab”. The Literary Encyclopedia. (2002). http://www.litencyc.com/php/sworks.php?rec=true&UID=2505.
– Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. New York: Dell Publishing Co. (1966).
– Shakespeare, William. Macbeth. Harlow, England: Longman Group UK Limited. (1986).
– Shakespeare, William. A Midsummer Night’s Dream. New York: Signet Classics. (1963).
– Shakespeare, William. The Tempest. New York: Signet Classic. (1987).
– Shelley, Percy Bysshe. “Queen Mab”. The Complete Poetical Works. New York: Houghton Mifflin. (1901). New York: Bartleby.com. (1999). http://www.bartleby.com/139/shel111.html.
– Spenser, Edmund. The Faerie Queene. London: William Ponsonbie. (1596). The University of Oregon’s Renascence Editions (2008). http://darkwing.uoregon.edu/~rbear/ren.htm
– Stevens, Mark (editor). “Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von”. Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Encyclopedia. Springfield, USA: Merriam-Webster Incorporated. (2000).
– Tennyson, Alfred. Idylls of the King. New York: Bantam Books. (1965).
– Tolkien, J.R.R. A Tolkien Miscellany. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company. (2002).
– Wallace, Susan (2008). “Ballads”. Mostly Medieval. com. http://www.mostly-medieval.com/explore/ballads.htm.
– Wedin, Warren. “Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats”. William Butler Yeats Seminar Homepage, Department of English, California State University. Northridge: California State University. (1998). http://www.csun.edu/~hceng029/yeats/collectedpoems.html.

A Mad Scientist Primer

The Island of Dr Moreau

Well before the pulp era, the giants of the science fiction genre were writers of novels such as Verne and Wells (Mary Shelley, as well, of course, but it seems she was inserted into the SF canon years later, when the true significance of Frankenstein was understood).

Of these, Verne clearly wasn’t concerned with any of the bad things that progress might bring.  He seemed more of the kind of man who delighted in imagining what the future was going to look like.  The conflict in his novels is either man against man or man against the elements.  Man against progress didn’t seem to be his thing.

Wells,on the other hand, always gave his speculations a much sharper edge.  He had a brilliant imagination, more than capable of asking what if? but he was also willing to go that extra step and say… what if we took it too far?  And then answer the question to the best of his ability.

Today, mad scientists (and Bond villains) are expected to have their lairs hidden on isolated tropical islands, but when Wells wrote The Island of Dr Moreau, he was breaking new ground: creating a place isolated from society where that society’s nightmares and anxieties could be given palpable shape.

So Moreau, though less well-known than much of Wells output such as The Time Machine and War of the Worlds, is equally influential.  Perhaps more than the other two in many senses.

And it’s definitely this one that really shows Wells’ true colors.  Was he enthusiastic about science?  Probably.  But he was also deeply concerned about the possibility of abuse, and this novel is perhaps the most palpable expression of that fear.  If only for that reason, it’s a must-read.

Easton Press Island of Dr Moreau

A word about the edition that I read: it’s an Easton Press edition which is just as pretty as the ones we spoke of a couple of months ago.  We probably should have added this one into that post, but I already had an Easton book there, and it would have seemed like shilling.  Still, most used bookstores have these for sale at reasonable prices, so might not hurt to ask!

Three Unconventional Roads To Wodehouse

Mention PG Wodehouse in a conversation and most people will immediately think of Jeeves and Wooster.  That’s partly due to the success of the books and stories, but, I suspect, mostly because of the various film and TV adaptations.  Of course, the one with Hugh Laurie as Wooster utterly deserves to have that notoriety.

But there is more to Wodehouse than the butler and his hapless gentleman.  No less a writer (and polymath) than Isaac Asimov said that Wodehouse, on a sentence level, is one of the three greatest writers in the English language (the other two, if memory serves, being Austen and Dickens).

People often scoff at that, of course.  A mere humorist upstaging countless numbers of earnest, serious writers, some of whom are even politically committed?  Blasphemy.  My answer to that is simple: pick up any of Wodehouse’s books, turn to a random page, and read any sentence that is more than five or six words long.  If you know anything about literature or writing, the odds are that you will have to concede the point.  He is consistently that good.

The above means that it’s a bit of a tragedy that casual readers don’t always go beyond Jeeves and Wooster so, in order to address that failing, we present three other good Wodehouse books (and discuss the three very different editions we read).  Think of it as a Classically Educated public service (you can thank us by buying our mug)!

The Girl in Blue.  PG Wodehouse.  Paperback

The first is The Girl in Blue.  This is a fairly typical standalone Wodehouse novel, and is a good non-Jeeves primer.  As you can see from the cover illustration of the version we read, a policeman ends up in a pond.  This is a recurring theme in Wodehouse, and upon reflection, we feel that if it were only a recurring theme in other types of literature as well, the world would be a better place.  Of course, star-crossed lovers feature as well, another central tenet of the canon.  If you’re going to start, and have already read the Jeeves books, this is a good place to begin.

Mr Mulliiner Speaking PG Wodehouse

Unlike the above novel, which is unrelated to other Wodehouse tales the Mr Mulliner stories are linked together in various books.  The one we’ll be discussing here is entitled Mr. Mulliner Speaking, and is sheer happiness.  Mr. Mulliner is an older and wiser character, so he is usually above Wodehousian shenanigans but, to the eternal entertainment of his drinking buddies, he has a number of young, nearly brain-dead, relations who get themselves into ridiculous situations.  They always work out for the best, of course, but the way they do reminds us that in Wodehouse, as in life, it’s about the journey, not the destination.  And few journeys are more rewarding.

We read this one in the original hardcover from 1929 (pictured above), and it was fun to experience it as pre-war readers would have.  But even though these are plentiful and affordable, there’s no real need to track one down, as 1929 is reasonably modern, so the book is just a book, not some artifact.

 

Utterly Uncle Fred PG Wodehouse

Finally, we reach the main course, a volume entitled Utterly Uncle Fred, which is quite possibly, the perfect Wodehouse.  The reason is that Uncle Fred is, perhaps, the most demented character in his oeuvre.  Age has not made this one wise, not in the least.  Instead, it sharpened his sense of chaos.  Of course, he is a kindly old man despite the propensity for landing his nephew in the soup, and his ability to get everyone in trouble is matched only by his knack for pulling them back out.  Once again, it’s the journey, not the destination that makes this book.

The book above is an omnibus edition (one of the nicest things about Wodehouse is the number of collections you can buy) containing three novels and one story, so it’s a meaty proposition.  We’d recommend buying it even if you’ve never read a line of Wodehouse in your life… but most people are too cautious with their money to do so, perhaps start with one of the other two.

Or just read some Jeeves and Wooster.  I’ve never heard of anyone going wrong with that!

BTW, apart from mugs, we also have a Facebook page.  You can like it if you like it!

Beyond a Few Statues

Statue of Lenin Dropped

If you were alive in 1989, then you remember the end of socialism.  Millions of people decided that individual freedoms were more important than collective security and, defying humorless men with guns, brought down nearly every government in Eastern Europe.

One of the lasting images burned into the retinas of those of us glued to CNN was that of statues of socialist leaders being pulled down all across the region.

Of course, it wasn’t that simple.  The destruction of a few statues was not enough to destroy the idea of socialism, and, twenty years later, the world is awash with left-leaning ideas that cover the spectrum from slight sacrifices in personal freedom in the name of more equality for vulnerable populations to full-blown communism.  Socialism clearly isn’t dead.

Why?  Well, because the statues weren’t socialism, and neither was the Berlin Wall.  Socialism is a collection of ideas about how society should be structured in order to achieve a certain number of goals.  These ideas range from making capitalism a little more “fair” to doing away with the capitalist system altogether.

And these ideas don’t live in statues.  Statues are about power, but ideas live in books.  That’s why socialism didn’t die when everyone thought it had: those books stayed on the shelves and eventually a new generation of activists and scholars rediscovered them.

The above seemed a timely reminiscence, as today’s review is about Gone with the Wind.  The book, not the movie.

Why timely?  Because, as I write, there has been a very recent series of high-profile removals of Confederate statues from public spaces in the US, mainly of General Lee.  These removals took place in a highly polarized climate, but were undeniably driven by a large number of people (although they were probably also opposed by an equal number… as one can imagine, reliable numbers in today’s media climate are hard to come by).  Protesters and counter-protesters clashed, with violent and even tragic results.

Perhaps the problem is that both sides seem to have forgotten the lessons of 1989.  No one cared about the statues until they became front page news; they were just part of the urban landscape, and I’d have been willing to bet that most could not have told you who the guy on the horse was until everything hit the fan.

But the ideas?  They exist.  In the case of the Confederacy there is a structured case for why it existed: broadsides, pamphlets, letters and even the constitution are in university archives.  But these documents are not the ones that keep the idea of the Old South alive for its proponents.  Popular media does that job.

Perhaps the most virulent example of propaganda in that respect is a film: Birth of a Nation.  It tells the story from the Southern side, and no matter where your sympathies lie, you end up feeling strongly for the characters.  Yes, time has passed it by and the premise of the “Ride of the Klan” is cartoonish and grotesque, but the film is very well done all the same.  In fact, it is considered one of the true greats of early film.

More subtle is Judge Priest, where folksy Will Rogers shows us how it’s done without beating anyone over the head with it.

Gone with the Wind Paperback

There are countless other examples, mainly from the twenties and thirties when mass media was working up some serious steam, but the biggest seller of the idea of the Old South was clearly Gone with the Wind.

The film… was just a Hollywood blockbuster, and not really a propaganda piece (despite never questioning the nobility of the Confederate cause), but I’d argue that the book is the Old South’s Communist Manifesto.  It’s impossible to read this brick and not feel truly moved by the plight of every single Southern character (except Scarlett–she’s unbearable), and feel a deep sense of loss for a way of life that ended in blood and fire.

I don’t read books with an eye to the politics, which meant that I approached this simply as a book (and a romance at that), which meant that, until I sat down to write this review, was only concerned with the story itself and the plight of the characters.  The fact that it also contains a good blow-by-blow account of what was happening in the war made it doubly interesting for anyone who enjoys history (and if you’ve read our manifesto, you know we do).

By the end of the book, I felt truly sorry for what the characters had to live through… and also pined for the society that existed at the beginning of the book.  Granted, it only takes a little bit of analysis to recall that the gentrified lifestyle existed on the back of a slave economy but I postulate that most casual readers will not do the exercise of analyzing this and will walk away with a deep sense of loss.

I’ll go one step further: I will categorically bet that no one who picks up this book purely for pleasure will do this analysis.  The people who are sensitive to the issues it raises will either avoid it or read it for study purposes, not for fun.

Perfect propaganda.

So what to do with it?  It’s still selling very well, so it’s not going to go out of print anytime soon (and the Kindle is bringing it to a completely new audience).

So, ban it?  Burn it?  Try to pressure the publisher into canceling the next huge print run?

Or perhaps just accept that ideas can’t–and shouldn’t–be killed?

Whatever happens, it should be an interesting battle to watch.

 

 

Plot Versus Divine Retribution – Two Very Different Horror Classics

I’ve mentioned before, most recently here, that I had subscribed to the Easton Press Horror Classics.  This series allowed me to read a good number of works that I’d not read before (but that every horror aficionado should read).  But it also allowed me the opportunity to replace some dog-eared paperbacks with better looking books and, much more importantly, to reread some classics that I’d last perused in high school.

Easton Press Frankenstein

Our first subject today is Frankenstein.  Talk about a seminal work.  Mary Shelley‘s little ghost story written for a challenge in which she was very much the junior writer among the participating trio not only established her as the most famous of the three (I challenge even the readers of this august blog to name a work by Bryce Shelley or even by Lord Byron without Googling it–and they were much more famous than 18-year-old Mary before the publication of Frankenstein).

A blow-by-blow is unnecessary, of course, as everyone knows the story (mostly from watching the numerous film adaptations), but suffice to say that, if you haven’t reread this recently (or have–shame, shame!–only seen the films) I highly recommend it.  This isn’t a book about a guy who builds a monster; it’s a tale of suffering and penance and retribution, and ultimately about justice.  It’s more of a sad tale than a frightening one, and the structure, another thing that falls into the cracks of memory, is interesting, couched as it is in epistolary format.

Of course, this one isn’t really a horror book; it’s the very first real science fiction novel.  It explains its creature via science that still makes a certain amount of sense today, as opposed to the handwavery that was so common back then and still is today.  Even more than the pathos of the creature, that is what I like most about this book.

There’s a reason the book is a classic, and it has little to do with what makes the film a classic – they are very different experiences.

Easton Press Phantom

The second novel I reread was Gaston Leroux‘s The Phantom of the Opera, a book that became much more interesting to me once I realized that Leroux, far from being a horror writer, was actually a writer of detective fiction.

Read back-to-back with Frankenstein, the overarching impression is that the plot is much more important in the Leroux than in the Shelley.  There is little insight into the mind of the Phantom (or the other protagonists, really) other than through his actions.  The upshot, of course, is that watching any of the film adaptations, or even (shudder) the Lloyd Weber musical* gives one a reasonable approximation of what the book feels like.

This one is basically a crime novel with a horror element, and it reads that way.  And that may also be what made it so popular in the first place.

Perhaps the main takeaway from these readings is that the eternal discussion about whether a focus on plot or character make a book “better” are pretty much moot and a waste of everyone’s time.  Only the passing of the years can establish a book as a classic, and these two are basically opposite in their approach to that equation (Frankenstein drags a bit while deep thoughts are expressed, The Phantom races along) and yet both have become parts of the popular consciousness by way of literary acceptance.

Just about the only thing they have in common is a memorable and menacing, yet somewhat pathetic monster as the antagonist…  perhaps that’s the trick.

 

*Honesty compels me to admit that, while musicals in general (except for the comedies from the London stage of the twenties and thirties) should be punishable by death, The Phantom is actually bearable.  One of the few that can say that.