Category Archives: Curious Lists

Ahistorical Historical Fiction, Part Deux

Historical Fiction is not always historically accurate, but that’s okay. Please see Part One for more words on the subject and the first half of this list.

***

Gloriana
Michael Moorcock

I’ve written a bit about Michael Moorcock in one of my previous posts, and I return to him again with Gloriana, his rather fantastical and darkly imagined take on the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.  Moorcock always takes pains to write fantasies lacking in idealism, and the England (or Albion) of Gloriana is an unpleasant, decadent, and bloated empire ruled by a debauched queen, with the book’s lurid descriptions of the kingdom and its court sometimes bordering on the didactic.  Written as “a dialogue with Spenser’s The Faerie Queen“, Gloriana offers a rare, unabashedly fantastic take on a supposed golden age that is not afraid to confront the ugly realities of the period.

***

The Sot-Weed Factor
John Barth

John Barth is an occasionally difficult author known to interlace his works with complex structures and esoteric ideas, but his works are also filled with ribald humor, genuine cleverness and exciting storytelling.  The Sot-Weed Factor, his most well-known work, tells the story of Ebenezer Cooke, ‘Poet-Laureate and Virgin’, a somewhat over-aged innocent traveling throughout Colonial America whilst attempting to write an epic poem about his homeland.  Primarily what drives this story is the quirkiness of its characters and the adventurous spirit of the novel, but the work also contains extended portions examining the actual events surrounding American colonization, including a notably different take on the story of John Smith and Pocahontas.

***

Baudolino
Umberto Eco

Baudolino, for what it’s worth, grants the reader a reprieve from Eco’s traditionally overstuffed and extravagantly erudite style of writing.  This may or may not be a good thing, since I tend to enjoy the challenges his fiction offers, but even with its deceptive simplicity, Baudolino stands with Eco’s best works.  Set in the High Middle Ages, Baudolino is the story of the titular character, a born liar and the adopted son of German Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, as he travels across Europe using his genius and penchant for lying to solve the various problems of the continent.  To get the full gist of the story you are best served to have several degrees in European history, but even if you fall short of this requirement it is not hard to grasp the central thesis of the book: the way history, myth, and outright fabrication all contribute to our perception of the past.  Most of the book plays it straight, but in the last third of the story we follow Baudolino to the legendary and quite fictional realm of Prester John, where he encounters satyrs, unicorns, blemmyes and other inventions of the medieval mind.  Although the story is straightforward, much of it is based around a complex, multilayered examination of truth and fiction and the story may leave the reader with some fairly heavy lingering philosophical questions. (What is reality?  How does mythmaking affect our understanding of history and the immanence of time?  Did anything real actually happen to Baudolino or did I just read a 500-page novel that was some guy riffin’ on made up stuff!?)

***

The Baroque Cycle
Neil Stephenson

Like science?  Want to read a 2600 page trilogy about the establishment and early history of science, including excessive jargon, seemingly endless tangents on subjects you never thought to consider, complex historical analysis and bold, occasionally revolutionary diatribes on the changing nature of science and evolving paradigms in the way we view nature and reality?  Neil Stephenson is a science nerd par excellance, and he requires that his readers be the same.  Traditionally challenging, dense, and packed with facts you don’t need to know but should anyhow, his books excel because as an author he rarely forgets the fundamentals of a good story and fills his work with excitement, fun, and, in the case of ‘The Baroque Cycle’, some good swashbuckling.  Set during the time of Isaac Newton’s inquiries into science, the novels track the story of a group of scientists (or natural philosophers, as they were known at the time) as they seek to develop the systematized method of thought and analysis later to become the scientific method.  Lots of other stuff too. And there are enough bizarre and decidedly pseudoscientific events occurring in the series to place them disticntly in the camp of science-fiction, even if the optimist might declare that some of the oddities throughout the story are more improbable than impossible, and that Stephenson is educating us about branches of science that are yet to be uncovered.

***

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
David Mitchell

The most recent work on this list, and directly and openly inspired by Norfolk’s Lempriere’s Dictionary.  Set in Japan during the Napoleonic Wars, (making it the third book on this list set in that period,) The Thousand Autumns chronicles the lives of Dutch traders living on a small traders’ post in Nagasaki Harbor, attempting to adapt to the alien culture as well as to the changing times.  For the most part this book is very straightforward, and might read as some exceptionally well-written spinoff of the ‘Shogun‘ novels, but the inclusion of an immortal Zen master and his rather enigmatic temple adds what is, for my money, some old fashioned science fiction goodness to an otherwise very unremarkable tale of culture class, forbidden love, and days of trade and plunder.  I won’t say too much about what happens, but I will say I have a distinct theory about what Mitchell leaves to the reader to figure out. (Hooray for me.) Also, let it be noted that Mitchell has announced this book IS a science fiction novel, despite the scarce evidence to prove it as such, and he is currently planning two sequels that will involve the theme of immortality and take place in the far future.

 

Happy Reading!

-Kevin

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Ahistorical Historical Fiction, Part One

Historical fiction is perhaps one of the toughest genres to write in.  The author walks a fine line on one side of which there is the need to represent the period in question as truthfully and carefully as possible, and on the other, to make the work somehow relevant and interesting to the modern reader.  But, no matter what the effort, is it really possible to do both of these things at once?  Even with the most impeccable research imaginable, an author writing in an historical setting is going to have to wing it more than most are ever comfortable with.  Also, how in the world does an author accurately represent the mindset of people from another time, without simplifying or presenting a biased view of them in light of modern perspectives?  However you look at it, historical fiction is a mine field for writers struggling for verisimilitude.

But how much does accuracy really count in historical fiction?  Naturally, some inaccuracies are unforgivable even in fiction, but just because an author chooses to write about a specific period does not mean they have to write about it as an historian would.  In fact, I believe that sometimes it pays for a writer to be bold and take creative license with their representation of history.  Which, as you may have guessed, leads me to the subject of my latest list.  For your reading pleasure, I have created a list of several works that are ostensibly historical fiction, but which take rather glaring liberties with the format.  All of these works contain elements of historical fiction, but also self-consciously abandon the idea of perfect accuracy and quite simply take the story where it wants to go.

***

I, Claudius
Robert Graves

One of my favorite novels, and arguably the standard to which all historical fiction aspires. I, Claudius, nevertheless, possesses numerous inaccuracies and instances where Graves deliberately modifies events to suit the purpose of his story.  The main overarching narrative of the story, which is Claudius’ transition from an idealistic believer in the Roman Republic to an apathetic monarch, seems to have been wholly an invention of Graves’.  Furthermore the book features a great deal of meddling and conspiring among the women of the Julio-Claudian Dynasty, which fits into Graves’ larger contention of the secret influence of women in traditionally patriarchal cultures — but it seems unlikely that anything like this ever actually took place in Rome.  This would perhaps be a problem if Graves was less of a scholar and less capable of depicting these events in a believable manner, but on both counts he succeeds.  And anyhow, part of the entire purpose of I, Claudius is to read it as a secret history, which refutes the accepted history and offers an equally questionable but totally different perspective on known events.  It is sort of a complicated trick Graves pulls with this work; at the beginning of the books we are told we are reading a work written by the Emperor Claudius and translated by Graves, knowing full well what Graves is offering is a fictionalized account, but over the course of the book we come to question on many levels the ‘accurate’ accounts left by chroniclers of the period.

***

 

Lempriere’s Dictionary
Lawrence Norfolk

First of all, if you are going to read Lempriere’s Dictionary, which I suggest you do, you should make sure to pick up the English edition and not the significantly dumbed down American edition.  Now, provided you do as I suggest, get ready for one of the strangest and most esoteric works of historical fiction ever written. Lempriere’s Dictionary follows the callow and naive John Lempriere, a real person in the 17th Century who went on to write his eponymous dictionary on the subject of mythology.  Fictionally, at least, Lempriere suffers bizarre hallucinations and has a habit of witnessing violent events paralleling Greek mythology.  After watching his father get ripped apart by wild hounds in a rather myth-suffused manner, the young Lempriere runs off to join the East India Company.  What follows is a strange, deliberately confusing mixture of fact and fantasy involving international politics, secret conspiracies, and a large array of increasingly improbable characters.  While fantastic in many places, this novel also deals truthfully with the history and impact of the East India Company, which had an important role in shaping the modern world, as one of the first international corporations.

***

Jonathan Strange and Mister Norrell
Susanna Clarke

Proof that you can have your cake and eat it too, Jonathan Strange and Mr.Norrell is a work of pure fantasy masquerading as a Georgian novel, written consciously in the manner of Jane Austen and Charles Dickens, with more than a little Tolkien rolled in and a decent showing of David Foster Wallace-style footnotes.  And as unwieldy a concoction as it may be, JS&MN is a work that’s garnished both critical acclaim and popular recognition, and it’s a lot of fun to read on top of all that.  Ms. Clarke’s work takes place in England at the height of the Napoleonic War, but in a Britain altered by the inclusion of magical and mythic elements.  Though hardly a new conceit, her imagining of fantastical Great Britain is fascinating, detailed, and so spot-on it’s not hard to think it’s actual history.  Don’t let the gargantuan size of the book fool you, this is a fast and exciting read.

***

Blood Meridian
Cormac McCarthy

In the Old West life was tough, and to make it you had to be a man’s man who didn’t cotton to fancy things like punctuation or proper grammar.  Blood Meridian, widely considered  Cormac McCarthy’s best novel and a quintessential ‘dad’ book, is the tale of a teenage runaway in the Western Territories who meets up with a band of outlaws and killers and engages, for most of the book, in a stomach-churning rampage of murder, bloodshed, and what-have-you.  Blood Meridian explodes many of the myths of the Old West and focuses on the unbearably gristly reality of this period.  But, despite the book’s naturalism the story has many disconcerting and unnatural events, most of them revolving Judge Holden, a grotesque and enigmatic figure who declares his ambition to be ‘Suzerain of the World’.  Many critics have explored the significance of Judge Holden’s supernatural powers and the general agreement is that he is an Archon; essentially, a hostile and authoritarian spiritual being native to early gnostic belief (think of Zuul in ‘Ghostbusters’ and you’re not far off).

***

Mists of Avalon
Marion Zimmer Bradley

Mists of Avalon is probably the most popular book on this list, and responsible for inspiring its own entire subgenre of pseudo-historical mythofeminist romance novels (though Mary Renault and Jean Auel could supply protoexamples).  Similar to I, Claudius in many respects, Mists of  Avalon expands on the myth of King Arthur in order to explore the Christianization of Anglo-Saxon England, and primarily focuses on a group of women in and around Arthur’s court trying to uphold the traditions of Paganism.  Like Graves, Bradley depicts European paganism through a rather modern filter, overemphasizing the role of women in so-called ‘matrilineal’ societies, but her research is impeccable and she packages the book as nothing more than a fantasy.  Mists is a landmark book in both speculative and historical fiction, and no doubt you’ve seen it lingering on a few bookshelves over the years, so get reading!

***

The Passion
Jeanette Winterson

Quick question.  Who’s the greatest living English prose stylist?  Well, according to Jeanette Winterson, the answer is Jeanette Winterson.   Big talk perhaps, but Winterson had established herself as a literary heavyweight by the tender age of 28 and has consistently dazzled critics with her excellent use of language, bold and imaginative subject matter and impressive ambition.  Set in France during the Napoleonic War, The Passion concerns Henri, a young chef working for The Little Corporal himself, and the surrealistic love affair he has with a web-footed prostitute.  Subjects such as love and longing, militarism, gender-identity, crime, and madness are all addressed, and the novel is filled with all sorts of acts of magic and wonder.  Of all the books on this list, this is the one that falls most neatly into the camp of magical realism, but it lacks much of the poesy sometimes endemic to that style of writing.  Instead, I would describe The Passion as a fairly intellectual and probing work, unsettling and hard-eyed, as well as beautiful.

***

 

TO BE CONTINUED. STAY WHERE YOU ARE.

 

-Kevin

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New People Should Read Works by Old People in Order to Become Worthwhile Old People Some Day

Despite its remove from our own day, ancient civilization has a massive influence on modern society, and one of the fundamentals of a well-rounded education, which in this country is a rare thing,  is a familiarity with the classics (or to be more specific, Greco-Roman literature).  Certain names spring to mind when the classics are mentioned — Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey, Virgil’s Aeneid, and Sophocles’ Theban Cycle — but the ancient world produced many works that are slightly less well-known, which capture the intelligence and passion of its peoples.

‘The Ancient World’ ended with the fall of Rome (476 CE), and all these works will predate that.  Not all the works on this list emerged from either Rome or Greece, and some could be said to be pre-ancient, being rather old.

We’d like to think this is a good list to start an education with at 17, round one out at 71 and fill in the holes any time in between.

Works and Days and Theogony
Hesiod
7th Century BCE

Even though some examples of literature predate him, Hesiod is widely considered by Classicists to be the father of Western literature.  Like his junior Homer, Hesiod’s primary accomplishment was to take various strands of oral tradition and synthesize them into a consistent written narrative.  Theogony, the result of this effort, is a complete history of the Greek mythic universe from its initial, primal state to the victory of the Olympian gods over their rivals, the Titans.  Though it reads a bit like the begats, Theogony is a must for any fan of Greek mythology, since it is probably the most important single piece of work on the subject.  Despite the singularity of its influence in later Greek culture, Theogony was certainly not a text to be understood literally; Hesiod all but owns up to making up segments and re-purposing older myths to fit his narrative.  There is great deal of insight into Greek religion in this work; we can see how even early on their views were complex, flexible, and highly subtle.

Hesiod’s only other complete surviving work, Works and Days, is even more fascinating, despite its decidedly non-mythic subject matter.  Written within the framing device of an admonishment to his brother, Works covers subjects as diverse as astronomy, sailing, farming, law and justice and (for the first time ever,) economics.  Through Works and Days we get a very real sense of what life was like in those days.  Even more than that, we get a sense of who Hesiod was as a person.  Moralistic, folksy, and something of a grouch, Hesiod emerges as a unique personality, but as one who could be found anywhere, in any time.

***

The Epic of Gilgamesh
Author Unknown
21st Century BCE

Lost until the 19th Century, the oldest surviving epic poem has had something of a second wind since its rediscovery and now enjoys relatively large readership in the modern world.  Gilgamesh is, to put it quite simply, epic.  The King of Uruk, Gilgamesh, who is two-thirds god and one-third human (just think about that lineage for a moment…) tyrannizes his people in the name of progress and, to combat the gods, sends the beastman Enkidu.  After a knock-down, drag-out fight, Gilgamesh and Enkidu make peace and get bromantic, and together they have many awesome adventures, including fighting giant scorpion-men, forest demons, thunderbirds, and other staples of the 1st edition Dungeons and Dragons Monster Manual.  Enkidu dies tragically, and the rest of the story involves Gilgamesh traveling to the most distant points in the universe on an unsuccessful quest to achieve immortality.  Like I said: epic.  But, also, The Epic of Gilgamesh is surprisingly nuanced, offering a commentary on the issues facing civilization as it first became urban-based. The story contends with issues of morality, civil society, friendship, environmental stewardship, the responsibilities leaders have to their subjects, and finally, it offers a touching meditation on the inevitability of death.

***

The Birds
Aristophanes
5th Century BCE

Aristophanes is regarded as the first notable playwright to perform comedy, and the genre owes the same debt to him that tragedy does to Sophocles.  His plays, of which there are several, are all highly satirical, often bawdy and off-color, and they all offer scathing criticisms of Athenian society (most of which would ring familiar to us today).  The Birds, which was a bit of a sensation in its time, offers a Swiftian combination of fantasy and satire and is really quite enjoyable in print, and even more to watch performed.  Pisthetaerus, an Athenian everyday Joe, is transported up in to the sky where he encounters the avian denizens of Cloudcukooland.  At first an outsider in a comic utopia, Pisthetaerus soon comes to rule through application of common sense, and with his loyal bird subjects he soon overpowers the gods themselves and is declared the supreme monarch of the universe.  On top of the play’s absurdity, The Birds is also noted for its unusually realistic character development — all the protagonists are average people with realistic, fully realized relationships.

***

The Golden Ass
Apulieus
2nd Century AD

To my eye, The Golden Ass appears as the most ‘modern’ of the works on this list, containing many of the qualities and details we expect to see in modern and postmodern literature.  Written as an epic picaresque, the story starts with the virile and stupid Lucius witnessing a forbidden ritual in witch-haunted Thessaly, and accidentally getting turned into a donkey as a result thereof.  For the remainder of the story we witness Lucius in various forms of servitude and degradation, until eventually, and after many interludes, the Goddess Isis intervenes to restore a wiser Lucius to his human form.  The Golden Ass is perhaps the only work in the Roman canon to examine the condition of the lower classes with any sympathy, but is also filled with (very bawdy) humor, biting satire, realistic and in-depth detailing of events and customs, archaic (even for the time) and elaborate choice of words, and a hearty dose of esoteric mysticism.  Robert Graces does a superb translation, but many other more recent interpretations are also worth a look.

***

Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor
Amenaa the Excellent of Finger (attributed)
Middle Kingdom Period (2055 BCE to 1650 BCE)

Generally regarded as the first fantasy story, Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor is an Ancient Egyptian piece of literature that stands separate from either folk stories or religious myths.  Relatively simple in its telling, the story follows a sailor shipwrecked on an island in the Nile and his extended parlay with a wise bearded serpent.  The sailor is eventually rescued, and the serpent rewards him with a treasure to bring the Pharaoh.  This story obviously predicts future tales with a similar theme, Sinbad the Sailor and Robinson Crusoe springing to mind, and it also contains a notable example of that ultimate staple of fantasy, the Dragon.

***

The Ramayana
Valmiki (attributed)
4th Century AD

It’s sort of silly to pass The Ramayana off as a ‘lesser-known’ classic, since billions are intimately familiar with it not only as a religious text but also as an adventure story.  Even more impressive than Gilgamesh in terms of its blockbuster epic-ness.  Over 1,300 pages long (making it the same length as a medium-sized fantasy novel,) The Ramayana is the life story of the legendary Indian king and avatar Rama as he matures and establishes his kingdom, reaching its climax with the war between Rama’s forces and those of the demon-king Ravana.  Huge battles, complex political drama, and a phantasmagorical cast of characters all make The Ramayana the Star Wars of classic literature.  If you like Bollywood cinema, there are some cheestastic television adaptations worth watching.

***

Hymn of the Robe of Glory
Judas Thomas (attributed)
1st Century AD

The Hymn of the Robe of Glory, commonly ascribed to the Apostle Thomas (Doubting Thomas), but probably not written by him, represents a rare and fascinating example of ancient gnostic literature.  Devotional, and certainly spiritual but not necessarily religious in tone, Hymn of the Robe of Glory is the account of a traveler who travels far from home and gets lost in Egypt, forgetting his past and his familial connections.  Metaphorically, the hymn represents the gnostic attitude towards the world and the human condition, emphasizing humankind’s forgetting of its true spiritual nature as a chief cause of evil.  More than that though, the story is immediately visceral, and gives the reader a heartbreaking sense of the loneliness and desolation the author experiences.

***

Medea
Euripides
5th Century BCE

It’s probably not inflammatory to note that for all their sophistication and enlightened thinking the Ancient Greeks were not big on feminism.  Medea, which was not a big success in its time, is a notable exception, acknowledging the unequal treatment women faced in Greek society.  Medea, barbarian princess and granddaughter of the Sun, is betrayed by her husband (Jason the Argonaut, who like most Greek heroes, was apparently not a nice guy).  Choosing to avenge herself on her wayward ex, she kills Jason’s new wife and murders her own children, and that’s the story of Medea.  Of all the various Greek tragic plays, this is my favorite. Besides Medea being all-around one of my favorite women of Greek Mythology, the story is dark, tragic and poignant without excessive moralizing, and it addresses issues of social justice and equality in society (though some critics would say we in the modern day make too much of this).

 

-Kevin

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Goth Talk, Part II

Precisely one eternity after Part I, (which you should read before wading in here,) we bring you the second installment of Kevin’s most excellent list, in time for…

well, just in time.

***

The Historian
by Elizabeth Kostova
2005

Debuting at what may be considered the beginning of the now slightly moribund vampire craze, The Historian is a novel that had a fairly good run on the bestseller list and gained some fairly favorable reviews.  Written in a self-consciously literary style, with chapters split into alternating timelines and much of the story told in epistolary form, the novel has a similar vibe to it as occult-academic thrillers such as Foucault’s Pendulum and The Club Dumas.  Taking place in three different periods of the 20th Century, the novel follows an academic, and later his daughter, as they try to unravel the legacy of Vlad Tepes, the real-life character Dracula was based on.  Never coming quite fully into the story, Tepes is imagined by Kostova as combining the qualities of the historical Vlad the Impaler with those of the literary Dracula, as imagined by Bram Stoker.  Painstakingly researched, the novel analyzes the folkloric roots of the vampire legend in Eastern Europe, as well as offers an in-depth look at Eastern Europe’s significance as a transitional region between the Islamic East and Christian West during the Middle Ages and between Capitalist and Communist societies in the Modern Era.

Suffused with an atmosphere of eeriness and subtle terror, The Historian is not filled with grue and blood like other Gothic tales; rather, Kostova obsesses on another stock feature of Gothic literature: books.  This book is filled with lavish, evocative, and slightly obsessive descriptions of maps, documents,  mysterious tomes, old letters, and the decaying structures that house them. [Ed.  Yum!]

**

The Great God Pan
by Arthur Machen
1894

One of horror’s forgotten classics and a significantly influential book to many later writers, The Great God Pan explored the theme of the rational mind’s inability to deal with the monsterousness and perversity of nature.  Starting out as something of a science fiction story, the novel soon turns into a story of supernatural horror, as the narrative follows a woman who appears to be the offspring of the pagan god, Pan.

Machen has some flaws as a writer, but he has a singular ability to write stories that are bizarrely imaginative and still shocking by today’s standards.  The Great God Pan, like The Horla, (see Part I) had a significant influence on later Weird Horror writers such as H.P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, Robert E. Howard, and others, inspiring the concept of the ‘Eldritch Abomination’: a creature of godlike capabilities and malignant indifference towards mankind, who can drive a person insane simply by its presence.  Later writers would usually cast their abominations as extraterrestrial or inter-dimensional beings, but Machen’s Pan is stated explicitly to be the well-known pastoral deity known from Greek mythology, who, according to ancient standards, was far more dangerous and terrifying than we would ever imagine.

**

The Ballad of the Sad Cafe
by Carson McCullers
1951

Despite achieving some popularity in her lifetime and having a fairly interesting circle of Lost Generation friends, Carson McCullers’ life was not an easy one.  Suffering several strokes before the age of twenty and constant physical impairment afterward,  watching a promising career as a young musical prodigy peter out before it started, and enduring an endlessly repetitive cycle of bad relationships throughout her life, it is no wonder her stories are almost without exception about misfits and outcasts living in some degree of isolation or deprivation.  Told  in the relatively realistic tradition of Southern Gothic literature, her stories usually forgo horror for horror’s sake and instead offer startlingly sympathetic and often heartbreaking looks at the lives of her characters.  The Ballad of the Sad Cafe, one of her more fantastic and fable-like novellas, is the story of two strange outcasts: the extremely masculine Miss Amelia, and the hunchbacked, childish Cousin Lymon.  The two meet each other and a Platonic love blossoms between them as they run the increasingly popular Sad Cafe, which offers them both acceptance and a sense of purpose within their community.  Into the mix comes Miss Amelia’s ex-husband, and a very strange, somewhat tragic love triangle develops.  Unlike any other work on this list, McCullers’ fixation on deformity, deprivation and suffering is not intended to horrify, but to give the reader a sense of the universality and inescapability of these conditions, and to posit as to the manner one may find dignity and hope within them.

**

Rebecca
by Daphne du Maurier
1938

Sharing much in common with Jane Eyre, Rebecca is a sort-of Gothic crime novel chronicling a young woman’s journey into adulthood as she finds herself living under the shadow of her husband’s former wife, the seemingly perfect and beatific Rebecca.  Although there is not a hint of the supernatural, this story is as Gothic as they come.  Dark secrets, sadistic villains, labyrinthine mind-games, dangerous attractions, decaying country homes, and poignant descriptions of bad weather, Rebecca self-consciously appropriates the tropes of Gothic literature but does so rather effortlessly.  A rare and celebrated case of high literature that reads like a guilty pleasure.

**

The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea
by Yukio Mishima
1965

It is debatable whether Yukio Mishima falls in to the realm of the Gothic tradition or if his personal perspective was just so weird and unpleasant that he appropriated the features of the genre in his work without knowing it.  The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea is a good example of just how effective a writer he is in any case.  Set in a Japanese village by the sea, the story follows a sailor, a young mother, and her son, as their relationships constrict around each other.  Dreamlike, with spare, tense passages and a sense of menace that descends slowly, we float along as the anger and isolation surrounding the young son Noboro give way to a suggestion of horrific, senseless violence.  What I like about this book, besides its serious weirdness, is its ambiguity.  Characters in the story seem supernatural at times, but little is explained, and a great deal is left to the reader’s imagination in terms of what actually happens.  [Ed. If you insist on watching the film first, (which happens not to be terrible,) be sure to pick up the book at some point after and marvel, mouth agape, at how much more satisfying your own imagination can be for your various forms of hunger.]

**

Exquisite Corpse
by Poppy Z. Brite
1996

Like with most works by Poppy Z. Brite, either you will enjoy this book or you will read it and want to immediately wash your brain out with bleach.  Brite is the master of two things:  Baudelairean, bruise-purple prose and incredibly detailed and explicit acts of depravity, murder, torture and etcetera. Exquisite Corpse is one of her non-supernatural stories– essentially the novel is the story of two serial killers in New Orleans as they indulge themselves in their favorite pastime.  Though gore and torture are not my cup of tea in literature, I have to admit a lot of respect for Brite’s absolute mastery of the genre and his ability to go to the darkest and most horrific places imaginable while rising above the cheap-shocking and sensationalistic.

****

As a final thought on the subject, I’d like to broach a topic that has been debated furiously over the last few years.  Is  the Twilight Saga Gothic Literature? It does, on the surface, have some resemblance to the Gothic genre; primarily the inclusion of supernatural elements and the theme of a young woman’s journey into a terrifying world where she confuses the fearful for the alluring.  The reason Twilight does not quite make the grade is because the alluring is too alluring, and the terrifying not terrifying enough.  Elements of terror and the grotesque surface, but mostly fleetingly.  Instead of the main character (who, being a somewhat dim-witted innocent, is undeniably a Gothic heroine in the high style,) being confronted with the hideous and malevolent as she falls deeper into a dangerous attraction, the primary drive of the Twilight Saga is her  love for the angelic Edward.  Making evil attractive is a feature of Gothic literature, but it is debatable if Twipires are in fact evil (their feeding habits are somewhat similar to those of Bunnicula).  Where Twilight succeeds is as a supernatural romance,  but as I have stated the supernatural is not a guaranteed element of Gothic literature, and the intense focus on beauty and love as major themes run counter to the traditional Gothic formula.  Other young adult books like Harry Potter, The Spiderwick Chronicles, and especially Lemony Snickett, fulfill the requirements of Gothic literature at least somewhat notably.

If anyone would like to comment on this dilemma please feel free to do so.  The question of if the Saga qualfies as good literature is beside the point. Since it is consciously modeled on the formula of Gothic literature and currently sets some standard for that genre, it is a question I think is worth asking in good faith.

-Kevin

 

[Ed. Wait. So. Do you mean to say, Kevin, that you read Twilight? I’m confused. Apologies for tactlessly butting in, Aida.]

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Special Books Banned for Special Reasons, 5

Banned Book of the Day: Friday, October 1st

The Fragile Flag, by Jane Langton, is a little book about little Georgie, who decides to march to the White House from her home in Massachusetts, with only her brother and sister in tow. She does this because she believes she can sway the mind of the President of the United States of America. The President, you see, is in possession of a big bad bomb and knows how to use it. And will. Unless Georgie stops him. Along the way, against all odds, presumably, she is joined by many thousands of other children. And they march to Washington, DC– they do so peacefully, with one end in mind: to ensure peace.

Banned. Yes, this book was challenged and banned. Why? Because this book “portrays the U.S. government as lacking in intelligence and responsibility.” Ha!

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Special Books Banned for Special Reasons, 4

Banned Book of the Day: Thursday, September 30th

Shel Silverstein was one of the greatest poets this country has produced. (Have you read The Missing Piece?) They tried to ban this book quite often and in quite a lot of places when it came out. Eventually they succeeded at some elementary schools, in the mid-’80’s.

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If You Have to Dry the Dishes, by Shel Silverstein

If you have to dry the dishes
(Such an awful boring chore)
If you have to dry the dishes
(‘Stead of going to the store)
If you have to dry the dishes
And you drop one on the floor
Maybe they won’t let you
Dry the dishes anymore.

Also, a funny poem about a girl who dies because she doesn’t get a pony, which some parents definitely did not find funny. Because they feared their children would threaten to kill themselves if their requests for ponies were denied? Or because they feared their children would grow to believe that they’d die without ponies?

Also, obviously, the poem above encourages dish-breaking. And that’s definitely not a good thing.

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Special Books Banned for Special Reasons, 3

 

Banned Book of the Day: Wednesday, September 29

 

Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley, was banned in Ireland in 1931, not because the future it describes is unconscionable for its inhuman orderliness, anesthetization and roboticization, but because there is just too much sex in it and promisuity is simply anti-family and anti-religion. No ifs, ands or buts about it.

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