classic literature

MR James’ Ghosts: Building on the Victorians

I first heard of MR James in a completely unexpected place.  It happened a few years ago while reading a Martin H. Greenberg anthology called My Favorite Fantasy Story*.  This is a book from the early oughts in which modern writers (including George RR Martin for those of you who must have every printed mention of the man in your collections) chose ONE fantasy story from all of the history of writing and gave their reasons for calling it the best ever.

My Favorits Fantasy Story Cover

As you can imagine, this produced an eclectic mix, with everything from Mopsa the Fairy, a novella from 1869 which was, quite frankly, the strangest selection of the book as well as, in my opinion, the weakest, to a Terry Pratchett tale.  Also in the mix were not one but two of Vance’s Dying Earth stories (Martin chose the best of these) which one is never certain whether to classify as SF or Fantasy.

Finally, there was this weird little ghost story by some guy named MR James, Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad”, chosen by Morgan Llywelyn, which, though a change of pace from most, was one I remembered years later (all right, I’ll admit there were a couple that I still recall, particularly the Zelazny and the two by Vance, but the ghost story was in there).

It was completely different from what I was expecting, but not in a bad way like Mopsa the Fairy.  It was a creepy ghost story of an unseen spirit messing with the protagonist at a pleasant seaside resort.  No gore, no dismemberment, just the much more relatable experience of being alone and certain there was something watching you, and that that something was an evil something.

James Ghost Stories of an Antiquary Illustration

Years later, I took out a subscription to Easton Press’ Horror Classics lineup (I do this for two reasons: the first is that they are very pretty books, and the second is that they often select books that I would never have chosen for myself).  One of the books they sent me was a volume by MR James entitled Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, and it turns out that it’s full of tales philosophically similar to this one.  All of them have barely seen, sometimes imaginary spirits stalking the main character without ever really becoming explicit.  James always leaves the question of whether they are real or product of madness hanging in the air–though the stories, if taken at face value, demand for the explanation to be the former.

These are extremely different from what Le Fanu was creating a few years earlier (despite James familiarity with Le Fanu’s work).  They are much less sexual–not sexual at all, in fact–and they don’t give the reader an explanation about what was happening.  While Carmilla is revealed to be a vampire, James’ haunts remain mysterious.

The best story in the collection, describing what literary experts would refer to as “some seriously bad ju-ju”, was likely “The Ash Tree”, but each will find his or her own favorite among the tales.

More interesting than a review here (there are dozens available), is to talk about MR James himself.  He is a man that one thinks would have enjoyed Classically Educated.  Not just a writer, but a scholar and an administrator, he was a polymath indeed. The fact that his ghost stories have eclipsed the rest of his reputation is almost sad.

One can imagine him sitting in his wood-paneled study or University rooms and exhaustively studying the writers of the supernatural that paved the way for him.  I can especially see him as an expert on many obscure Victorian writers of ghost stories that history has forgotten… because, though written in the 20th century, Ghost Stories of an Antiquary is definitely a Victorian book.  It deals with Victorian preoccupations with a Victorian structure and informed by Victorian mores.

Though he is credited with creating the “antiquary ghost story” subgenre, it seems to me that James was not looking to innovate.  Quite the opposite, in face: the never-changing world of academia (Cambridge and Eton in his case), inspired him to look to the past and refine it.

In doing so, he did something new**, but only by chance.

 

*Though Gardner Dozois had a habit of dismissing Greenberg anthos as “pleasant but minor” in his Year’s Best books for ages, I’ve always found his collections to be pleasant and to contain at least a few memorable stories.  Not to try to contradict Dozois, who is a notable student of the SFF field, but sometimes a lack of readability is celebrated as creating “better” fiction, which seems unfortunate.

**I always think that the 80’s film Gremlins had to take at least some inspiration from this book.

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Seminal Vampires

In A Glass Darkly

 

Of course, Bram Stoker is often cited (by everyone who isn’t a serious student of the genre) as the father of Vampire fiction.  With Stephanie Meyer’s popularity, I suspect that the group of people who aren’t experts but are giving their opinion anyway is pretty big.  Hell, for all I know, Meyer’s fans might think the genre started with Anne Rice…  or with Meyer herself, and that this Dracula guy is a character from one of her unpublished novels.

At the risk of adding another non-expert voice to the discussion, I will not attempt to trace the genesis of the vampire myth in eastern European folklore (there are people who have dedicated their lives to that.  Go read their work) but will simply limit myself to expressing my thoughts about an early exponent that I happened to stumble across in my readings.

I was never specifically planning to read Sheridan Le Fanu’s In a Glass Darklybut it happened to be included in Easton Press’ Horror Library, which I had signed up for (as mentioned here before, I’m a sucker for pretty editions).  It’s from 1872, which means that it predates Dracula by over 20 years, and it contains at least one story,  “Carmilla” which foreshadows the sexual overtones of Stoker’s book but focused on a lesbian as opposed to heterosexual relationship.

Vampire tits - Sheridan Le Fanu Carmilla

Of course, in 1872, you couldn’t really make things too explicit, but savvy readers will have known what LeFanu was talking about.  In fact, the story (more of a novella than a short story) has been adapted several times for film, always with a view for its shock value.  There’s an excellent article dealing with the film versions here (slightly, not excessively, NSFW).

Despite its notoriety, Carmilla wasn’t, in my opinion, the most memorable story in the book.  That honor has to go to “The Room in the Dragon Volant“, another novella length tale where sexual innuendo and dark motivations combine in what is essentially a modern horror/thriller framed in a Victorian writing style.  It develops slowly, but is extremely satisfying once it does.  No vampires in it, though.

The rest of the book is composed of shorter tales, of which “Mr. Justice Harbottle”, a tale of divine retribution, is also better than “Carmilla” IMO.  Satisfying and brutal– everything one needs in a horror story!

So, without opining on things I have no first-hand knowledge of, I can safely state that, while Stoker might have popularized the form, the vampire story in English literature preceded him.  And LeFanu was much braver in the use of cutting-edge, controversial elements than Stoker would ever be.

All in all, a good book, especially for those who enjoy a good haunt.

 

A Novel Point of View

You know what a novel is, right?

Of course you do.  It’s any one of those fat books on the shelves at Barnes & Noble that isn’t divided into short stories or something.  What a silly question.

Well…

Most people use a working definition of the word “novel” which is pretty similar to the one above, but scholars most certainly do not.  In fact a good way to amuse oneself if one were to be trapped in a college of literary pretensions during a hurricane would be to ask a random professor to define the term for you in the presence of other professors.  It is very important to be prepared for the little disagreements this will generate: bandages, iodine, and possibly a fully-equipped trauma ward would be good things to have handy.

The Theory of the Novel Edited by Philip Stevick

Just as an example of how hard the novel is to pin down, the book that started the mental process towards this article, (Philip Stevick’s The Theory of the Novel) is divided into sections that analyze the novel from different angles (Generic Identity; Narrative Technique; Point of View; Plot; Structure and Proportion; Style; Character; Time and Place; Symbol; and Life and Art), each filled with essays written by such luminaries as Conrad or Cervantes.

It’s quite an impressive piece of name dropping–and an extremely interesting, albeit somewhat dry read–but it would be hard-pressed to fit with the popular perception of what a novel is.

So let’s put that popular perception into words quickly, in order to have a rough working definition moving forward:

Novel: Any work of prose fiction longer than about a hundred and fifty pages or so that tells a story, and which has a beginning, middle, and end.

This clearly isn’t an academic definition, but it gives us the gist – the novel is longer than a short story or a novella, it tells one story, as opposed to being a collection of shorter works, and at the end of the thing, the reader knows how it turns out for the people involved – even if what happens next may be a bit open-ended as in more modern work.  Most people would agree with this definition.

Most scholars would probably move to have anyone proposing such tripe burned at the stake.  Even Wikipedia, that supposedly democratic collection of worldly wisdom has a long, rambling article about novels that touches on every possible inclusion and ancestor, and even has a handy little chart on reading habits in England in the 18th century (and a bonus discussion on Dan Brown discussing whether The Da Vinci Code is an anti-Christian novel.  Don’t believe that? See for yourself).

This is one of those cases where a rigorous definition of the subject matter, and the obsession of academics of going beyond popular knowledge is counter-productive.  Sadly, however, it is clear that, other than Sociology, there are few branches of study quite as dominated by obsessive people who wouldn’t be able to survive in any other discipline than literary criticism.  Anyone who has ever heard of critical race theory and is aware that some people consider it a valid approach to literary criticism should be enough to convince you of the unfortunate state of literary criticism.  If that doesn’t convince you, simply pick up or browse your chosen newspaper – you will see that books are not judged based on their literary or artistic merit, but by the politics of their authors (try it, it’s fun – The Guardian is particularly unsubtle about it, which is sad because their cultural section is otherwise among the world’s best).

But if none of the above convinces you, here’s XKCD.  XKCD cannot be argued with.

XKCD impostor

(As always, you can see the original – with the mouse-over, at their site.  Plus, buy their t-shirts and stuff – anyone producing material of that quality and not charging others to use it deserves to be supported.)

But if you really want to start a fight, ask one of your captive professors what the first novel was.  You won’t even need the trauma room, as survivors are unlikely.

Tarzan of the Apes – Revisited as a Reader

Tarzan of the Apes book cover

Over the past ten or twenty years – and earlier, many novels that had been considered unarguable classics have suffered the indignity of revisionism.  Perhaps the clearest example of this is Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which is an obvious target for this behavior, because it is one of (if not THE) greatest pieces of prose ever written, but treads in places and attitudes that not even the bravest twenty-first century writer would approach, for fear of being crucified by special interest groups.

It is a work that, despite the efforts of well-meaning but intellectually misguided revisionists can only be truly analyzed and understood within the context of a) its time and b) human nature itself.

Edgar Rice Burroughs

Another book that, despite not being quite in the same literary league, generates a similar response, is Tarzan of the Apes – one of Edgar Rice Burroughs three supremely successful fantasy milieus (the others being Barsoom and the Earth’s Core).  Though enormously influential in popular culture, the novel itself is seeing a backlash due to its supposedly problematical treatment of non-whites and women.

Now, it’s clear that a book written in 1912 will contain many attitudes that will leave modern readers scratching their heads, but that is part of what makes reading classics a worthwhile.

It’s hard for people to imagine just how much of modern society was created out of whole cloth and necessity in the years of WWI.  Everything from women’s expanded role in industry to the breakdown of class barriers got a huge boost by the harsh realities of a Europe that lost an enormous percentage of its young men to the conflict.  Reading books from the era immediately before it helps understand both what was gained and what was lost.

Tarzan falls into most of the traps the revisionists dislike, but, at the same time, it is truly an unflinching – if somewhat fantastic – view of what the wilderness would have been like, and is therefore valuable to modern readers.  To the revisionists, this is of no moment: they feel that anything which expresses certain attitudes needs to be suppressed – or at least not encouraged.  The prevailing attitude seems to be: watch the Disney version if you must, but avoid the novel.

And yet…

And yet, the novel, despite being a little bloodier and a little less pink-lensed than what a modern equivalent would be, is still FUN.  The archaic attitudes don’t really distract in the least from the adventure story unless you really, really make an effort to be offended.  The good guys and the bad guys are clearly defined, and one can immediately tell what is right and what is wrong.

So this is one that we at Classically Educated recommend with no qualms whatsoever.  Our readers – cosmopolitan, open-minded and educated – will be able to accept the anachronisms and enjoy what, 100 years later, is still a cracking good book.  If you haven’t already, get your hands on a copy!

As for the revisionists, perhaps we can just all agree to take the classics in the spirit in which they were written and be offended at something else*?  Please?

*We propose being offended at the discriminatory practice of painting all bulldozers yellow.  Surely that is sinister and hides a racist message of some sort that most people haven’t yet been able decipher.  Also, it is an important thing that people care deeply about – we’re not just trying to get you to go away.  Honest.

Getting Deeply Classical

Aphrodite in the Trojan War

When one thinks about the Classics, Homer is usually among the first names that comes up.  Sadly, of course, if you say “Homer” to most people, they will immediately think of a yellow cartoon character with an affinity for Duff Beer – but that’s fine, the original probably wouldn’t do much for them anyway.

Homer, as we know, it the name given to the person who compiled two of the great masterpieces of Classical Antiquity: The Iliad and The Odyssey.  There has been much speculation regarding whether he was a historical figure or not, but we won’t get into that, now, as there are much more interesting things to discuss, especially with regards to which version of Homer should be read by anyone with truly “Classically Educated” pretentions and also the question of if any other work has had such a direct-line, continuous descent to modern times.

The first point is extremely interesting.  Assuming one doesn’t read ancient Greek (and yes, we should all read ancient Greek or at least change the name of this blog, as it used to be one of the requirements), and that your language of preference is English, there are many options available to you.  The first is to go with a prose translation.  This is the quick, easy way of becoming immersed in the glorious tapestry that is the mythology of the Trojan war.  It is a much more accessible way to to get a clear grasp on events, and is the best option for casual readers.

And by casual readers, we mean wimps.

Greek Text Odyssey

A true Homeric enthusiast will insist on a verse translation, and there are many, many available – from great poets to men and women that no one has ever heard of.  Poetic translations are evaluated on a number of criteria, the most important of which is fidelity to the original – and the tradeoffs: is it more important to be faithful to the meter or the rhyme or the meaning?  Hard to do, I imagine – plus, you need to be able to read ancient Greek.  Here’s a decent primer, if you’re looking into one of these.  They are not for wimps…

But they’re not for the true, died-in-the-wool elitist, either.

Homer

For he who must have bragging rights, there is only one option.  Chapman’s Homer.  This 1000 page block of epic poetry in Elizabethan English is the true test of an advanced reader (OK, OK, we’ll get into Finnegan’s Wake at some other point) who is not content with reading The Odyssey and The Iliad, but needs to read it in the first English translation, the one that influenced many of the great writers in the English language.  The challenge here, especially in The Iliad, is to avoid being drawn into the language, rhythm and rhyme and losing track of what is actually going on.  The Odyssey is much easier to digest, for some reason – possibly because it has more action and less talking (despite the battlefield setting of The Iliad).

It is a long, difficult read, but it is worth it.  After reading it, you will not feel a need to read another translation (unless you are a scholar, of course), as you will have ultimate bragging rights among people who’ve read this (and what is academia other than knowing more than the guy sitting next to you?).

This one gets our vote.

But what to do next?  Homer’s odyssey didn’t end with Homer.  There are a few books that come after that are direct-line descendants of the ones he actually (or mythologically) wrote.  In chronological order, they are:

The Aenid.  This is the poem that made Virgil a household name (well, if your household is composed of literate individuals).  There are several editions available, and it’s a significant piece of Roman mythology.

The Divine Comedy.  Clearly, Dante’s household was a literate one, as he had not only heard of Virgil, but chose him as his muse.  Even the deeply classically educated among you won’t be able to decipher the sneaky attacks on Dante’s contemporaries and political enemies in this one, but just chuckle at the fact that they’re still being tormented centuries later.  Most people never get past Inferno, which is clearly the best bit, but to earn respect, you’d best go through the whole thing.  This edition is recommended because it is a) cheap, b) contains illustrations by Gustave Doré, c) looks great on a shelf and d) is translated by Longfellow.

Ulysses.  If you’ve read it, you will have nearly supreme street cred among people who hardly ever go out into a street.  The only ones who will be able to look down their noses at you are the ones who claim to have understood Finnegan’s Wake, and you really don’t need to worry about them as whatever drug they’re on that gave them that illusion will soon finish them off.

– No credit is given for knowing the name of Bart’s teacher.

homer-simpson

Tough guys and gals, of course, don’t even need this post.  They pick up the original Greek, in manuscript form, and end up looking like the picture above.  We salute you.

Anyway, that is our Homeric lesson for the day.  We’d love to hear your experiences and recommendations.  We’d also love for you to tell us that we’re elitist jerks (this is a very validating thing to us).  Comments are all welcome!

 

Also, we have a fan page.  No one your mother wants you to hang out with has liked it…  so you definitely should (plus, it will ensure that you get our updates on your feed).