Reading Help for the Haunted

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When I realized who the ghost was in the first story of Tim Prasil’s new collection Help for the Haunted, I knew I was in for a good time.

The rest of the volume didn’t disappoint. Help for the Haunted is a fun collection of linked short stories, based around a creative theory as to why ghosts are able to return to the plane of the living, and a cute way of detecting these crossovers. Within that framework fall all manner of ghosts and manifestations; every story offers a different kind.

The tales are tightly enough coupled and have enough progression that I’m tempted to categorize the book as a “short story cycle” style novel. The narrator is Tim’s great-grandaunt Lida Prasilova, writing about her adventures with early twentieth century muckraker journalist and occult detective Vera Van Slyke. I love the rapport between Vera and Lida. They’re like a beer-drinking, ghost-hunting Holmes and Watson, if Holmes and Watson were American women.

Like Holmes, Vera’s mind is dedicated wholly to the information she needs for her job. She’s not much for literature (classical or popular), and she’s hilariously bad with names. She doesn’t have much to do with the opposite sex, mostly I think because they can’t handle her. Lida was a fraudulent medium, whom Vera unmasked. She agrees to help Vera with her exposé of the Spiritualism industry, Spirits Shouldn’t Sneeze (what a great title), and eventually becomes Vera’s assistant — and dearest friend.

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Help A Reader Out: Stories That Have Escaped Me

There’s a site I used to drop by occasionally called Smart Bitches, Trashy Books; it’s a blog about romance novels, written by two witty and eloquent women, and read by many women who seem to be equally witty. I don’t read romance novels, so much of the discussion went over my head, but the humor (and the snark) in their book reviews was fun to read.

They have a recurring feature called “Help a Bitch Out”: readers write in with vague recollections of novels that they’d read sometime in the hazy past. Other readers try to recall the title and author of the novel for them.

They seem to have a pretty good hit rate. The descriptions sound something like, “I don’t remember the title or the author. It might have been a Harlequin, but I’m not sure. I read it sometime between 1990 and 2000, though it could have been published much earlier than that. It’s set in Scotland (or maybe Ireland?); the heroine’s fiance runs away with her best friend, who was also engaged. The heroine marries her best friend’s ex so she can snag an apartment that can only be rented to married couples and he goes along with it because he doesn’t want to live in the house that he owned with his ex. Eventually, the marriage becomes real, but then the heroine’s best friend comes back…”

And remarkably, other readers can figure out what she’s looking for — or narrow it down to two or three possibilities.

I’m hoping that this works for ghost stories and weird fiction as well. These are stories that I’ve read — somewhere, sometime — that I’ve wanted to write about or work into a blog post, but I can’t find them again.

Of course short stories are more numerous, and most probably have lower readership per story than novels. And I don’t have as many readers as the Smart Bitches do. But here goes. I haven’t the foggiest idea of the title or author of any of these stories.

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Photo: Nina Zumel

The House Haunted Before the Fact: I think this is set in the English countryside, early in the Twentieth century (but late enough that cars were somewhat common for the upper middle class). An old house has a reputation for being haunted, but no one remembers why, and only some tenants can hear the ghostly sounds. The two elderly spinsters: no. The married couple and the wife’s mother who lives with them: yes. It turns out that the house is actually waiting for the tenants who will eventually haunt it, and as it waits, it tries each current set of tenants on for size, so to speak. Involves a Mrs Robinson style triangle.

I have a strong memory of reading this on a gloomy afternoon, curled up on the living room couch. I feel like I read it on an ereader (which suggests something I found on Project Gutenberg), but I can’t find it in my ebook collection. Nor can I find it in any of the print anthologies I have to hand (most of my books are still in boxes).

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The Vampire, Philip Burne-Jones (1897)
Image: Wikipedia

Snow White, the Vampire Succubus: Told from the stepmother’s point of view. Snow White is a blood sucking succubus, so innocent-looking that she fools everyone. The stepmother, naturally, is innocent (though she is a “witch” of the mananambal type). Snow’s father is a victim, and the Prince is a necrophiliac. Stepmother wants to save the countryside from this young-girl monster. But history is written by the victors, or at least, the ones with better PR.

It’s not Angela Carter (That’s “The Snow Child”, which is quite good, and to my mind, quite dark). I read this in print, and I have a vague memory that the collection it was in had something to do with Neil Gaiman. Whether he compiled it or wrote the foreword to it, or just had a story in it, I don’t remember.

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Photo: Nina Zumel

The Fog brings our Angry Ancestors: Specifically, the fog that rolls unseasonably into San Francisco is the manifestation of the angry ancestors of that city’s Chinese immigrants. The fog comes when their descendants displease them. I so want this to be a real folktale or piece of Californiana, but I can’t find it in any of my California folktale collections or California short story collections. The closest I can find is a Dark Horse graphic novel that was sold as co-branded promotional material (is that the right term?) when John Carpenter’s The Fog was remade in 2005. The graphic novel (also called The Fog) is the prequel to the two movies; it tells the stories of the Chinese villagers who caused the original curse that drives the plot of each of the movies, and what became of them.

So that mystery might be solved, but not in a satisfying way.

That’s it. Does anyone out there have any idea who wrote the stories I’m talking about, or what they’re called? How about you? Are there stories or novels that you read, and wish you could reread — if only you could remember what they were?

Reading The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales


The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales, Chris Baldick, Editor.
Oxford University Press, originally published 1992; Second edition 2009.

This has been on my “to-read” list for several months, since about the time that I wrote my post on American Gothic Tales, an anthology I’m quite fond of. One of the commenters on the post, while generally praising the collection, took issue with editor Joyce Carol Oates’ definition (or non-definition) of gothic fiction.

I think Oates here is conflating the gothic, horror, black comedy, and social commentary genres. In the end, the stories in the anthology are good, but I think that a collection such as The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales or Oxford’s Late Victorian Gothic Tales represented a truer sampling of what is conventionally meant by “gothic” (although without the focus on American authorship.)

— Theophrastus, from his comment on my earlier post

So, of course, I found The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales. By coincidence, Anil Balan over at Ghost Cities recently wrote a post discussing gothic fiction and its history, so I won’t rehash what he’s already said quite eloquently. I’ll just quote editor Chris Baldick’s pithy one-liner:

Gothic fiction is characteristically obsessed with old buildings as sites of human decay.

Nice, if oversimplified. According to Baldick, the theme of gothic fiction is the tyranny of the past; the decaying mansion or other claustrophobic physical space that serves as the setting for the story symbolizes the inability of the protagonist to escape that past. Historically, the “tyranny of the past” was the tyranny of the Catholic Church (gothic has its origins in Protestant countries, particularly with “the British and Anglo-Irish middle class”). As this tyranny faded into history (as far as readers were concerned), it was replaced with more relevant forms: family skeletons, repressive social mores, patriarchal society.

And that is the definition that Chris Baldick used to select the stories in this collection.

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A Summer Gothic

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The view out my front window right now. See that marine layer way off in the distance?
Usually it sits right on top of us, this time of year.
Photo: Nina Zumel

It’s summer!!! For most of you (in the Northern Hemisphere, anyway), this is hardly news. But when you live in San Francisco (and especially in my specific neighborhood), this is a very big deal. The fog usually saunters up my street on Memorial Day (for all intents and purposes, the U.S. beginning of summer), and squats over my house like a hen on an egg until the end of Fogust — I mean, August. And then, if we are lucky, the three month twilight lifts.

This year has been quite the exception. All those cute tank tops and summer skirts that I tossed when I moved back to San Francisco from Pittsburgh and never missed? I miss them now. I finally remember again what summer mornings and summer sunsets look like. It’s an epiphany.

So, to celebrate, here’s a little gothic tale with a decidedly non-“goth” atmosphere: Sheridan Le Fanu’s “A Chapter in the History of a Tyrone Family”, from 1839. I first read it in The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales (which I plan to post about, soon. Well, soon-ish); some people think it is one of the inspirations for Jane Eyre. It does indeed feature an ancient family castle, but there is nothing gloomy about this castle at all — from the outside.

Enjoy.

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Shuck Unmasked

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Shuck Unmasked, by Rick Smith and Tania Menesse.
Top Shelf Productions, 2003

I haven’t fallen in love with a comic book this way since I picked up Vampire Loves — the first comic I ever read by Joann Sfar, and still my favorite. Both books treat mainstays of horror fiction in a distinctly non-horror fashion. In a sweet fashion, even. Sfar’s book is about a vampire, obviously, while Smith and Menesse write about The Devil. At least, I think it’s The Devil, with a capital Tee and a capital Dee, but he isn’t in charge of hell, or anything else. In fact, he’s retired, and would like to stay that way.

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Free Reading!

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There’s some kind of irony in the fact that I bought my e-reader device (an iPad) mostly to read free books, but there it is. I mentioned in a previous post, that the e-reader has expanded the range of authors that I’ve read; this is partially because I can find things that I might not stumble upon in a library, or a bookstore. It’s also because there is a feeling of low commitment with an etext, particularly a free one. No time limit as with a library book; no issues about taking up precious shelf space. Once I have it, I can read it, or not. This leads me to pick up etexts that I might not pick up physically — often to my benefit.

But where to go for all this classic, public-domain (and most importantly: free!) reading? I’m sure you all have your favorite sites; these are mine. Not all of these site provide ebooks, as such; some of them provide pdfs, and others only html. All of them are interesting. The list, it goes without saying, is slanted towards my own tastes.

Here we go:

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Stories for the Short Attention Span

I took a Greyhound bus to New York and stayed at the YMCA, fifty cents a night. I took my stories around to a dozen publishers. Nobody wanted them. They said, We don’t publish stories. Nobody reads them. Don’t you have a novel? I said, No, I don’t. I’m a sprinter, not a marathon runner. I was ready to go home when, on my last night, I had dinner with an editor at Doubleday named Walter Bradbury—no relation. He said, Wouldn’t there be a book if you took all those Martian stories and tied them together? You could call it “The Martian Chronicles.” It was his title, not mine. I said, Oh, my God. I had read Winesburg, Ohio when I was twenty-four years old, in 1944. I was so taken with it that I thought, Someday I’d like to write a book like this, but I’d set it on Mars. I’d actually made a note about this in 1944, but I’d forgotten about it.

— Ray Bradbury, interview in the Paris Review.

Rest in Peace, Mr. Bradbury.

I haven’t read The Martian Chronicles in years, and Winesburg, Ohio has been on my to-read list for several months, now. This has finally inspired me to start it. I’ll probably re-read The Martian Chronicles again, after that.

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I’m a bit surprised that it’s taken me so long to get to Winesburg, Ohio, since it’s a form I’m quite fond of: the short story cycle. I wrote a post about them once — another time, another blog — and since I’ve been remiss about posting here, I’ll share it again. I haven’t revised the post at all, although of course I’ve finished The Goon Squad by now. Melancholy, lovely; “Found Objects” (the book’s opening chapter) is still my favorite of the stories.

Anyway, here’s the original article.


I’ve always preferred short form reading — short stories, essays, magazine articles — to the novel. I like to blame this on my busy life; my downtime comes in short intervals, spaced far apart, which prevents me from really swimming in the long, leisurely stream of a novel-length narrative.

But let’s be honest: it’s my short attention span. It’s not that I don’t care about the protagonist’s struggle and emotional journey; really, I do care. Let’s just get to the point already, okay?

But novels are the fiction form of choice in the publishing world, it seems, and my tastes mean that I don’t get enough of authors who prefer novels, or write long form better than short form (Margaret Atwood, say). I also think that the prejudice towards the novel does a disservice to authors who are really much better at writing short sweet pieces than they are at long narratives (hello, Stephen King!).

The compromise: the short-story cycle. Linked short pieces that, together, form a longer coherent narrative. Short-story cycles are good for readers who like their reading in bite-size pieces, but still want the gradual plot unfolding and character development that is best done in a novel. They also work well for for writers who like to wrap their chapters up in pretty foil wrapping, like a chocolate kiss. This year’s Pulitzer prize winner, Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad is a short story cycle; I recognized the first chapter as a story I’d read in the New Yorker some time ago. Each chapter focuses on a different character, at a different time of their life. I’m about a third of the way through it now, and I’m enjoying it thoroughly. It should be interesting to see how she ties it all together.

For those of you who are like me, here’s my list of novels for the short-story lover. The list is in no particular order, except maybe how I found them on my bookshelf, and of course it’s completely prejudiced by my own tastes. Some of these are truly novels that feel like linked short stories, some of them are really short story collections pretending to be a novel. I’m sure I’ve missed a lot of great books, but this is a start.

Enjoy!

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Book Spine Literature

Schietree just introduced me to book spine poetry: so fun! I had to play.

This is a bit challenging, since most of our books are in storage. The majority of the physical books in the apartment are technical, and making poetry out of The Elements of Statistical Learning or The Analysis of Financial Time Series is a bit beyond me (any quant jocks up for the challenge?).

But I prevailed.

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Heart songs:
wonder tales,
fragile things,
ghosts of yesterday.
The interior castle --
the secret parts of fortune.

The second one is more like flash fiction.

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Olive Kitteridge,
   monstress,
barbequed husbands.

Warnings to the curious!

What poetry lurks in the spines on your bookshelf?

Kwaidan (Ghost Story)

THERE was a young Samurai of Kyōto who had been reduced to poverty by the ruin of his lord, and found himself obliged to leave his home, and to take service with the Governor of a distant province. Before quitting the capital, this Samurai divorced his wife,—a good and beautiful woman,—under the belief that he could better obtain promotion by another alliance. He then married the daughter of a family of some distinction, and took her with him to the district whither he had been called.

— “The Reconciliation” from Shadowings, by Lafcadio Hearn

Kwaidan (1965), directed by Masaki Kobayashi, won the Special Jury Prize at the 1965 Cannes Film Festival. The film consists of four short stories, taken from the writings of Lafcadio Hearn.

Kwaidan

At first, it seemed odd to me that a Japanese film, about Japanese folklore, should be based explicitly on versions of this folklore as rendered by a westerner — even a westerner as fully assimilated into Japanese culture as Hearn apparently was. Lafcadio Hearn was born in Greece, raised in Ireland, lived much of his adult life as an American, and finally moved to Japan, becoming a Japanese citizen in 1895. He taught English literature at the Imperial University in Tokyo, changed his name to Yakumo Koizumi, and married a Japanese woman. His previous wife, in Cincinnati, was African-American — this, at a time when miscegenation was illegal in the United States. Although he is best known for his writings on Japan, he also wrote extensively on New Orleans, where he lived for about ten years. In a sort of foreshadowing of his future Asia-based writings, he wrote the first known article (for Harper’s Bazaar) about Filipinos in America: the “Manilamen” of Saint Malo, Louisiana.

On the face of it — especially when reading his lovely prose — one might accuse him of Orientalism — that is, of promoting an overly romantic view of the far East, especially Japan. On the other hand, much of what I’ve read while researching him for this post suggests that Hearn was a champion of “cultural miscegenation”. His goal was not to appropriate the cultures of The Other — the Creoles of Louisiana, the Japanese — but to try to understand them (and encourage understanding of them), to find the commonalities in all human experience, and to create literature, colored by his own multicultural, “perpetual outsider” experiences.

And as far as I can tell, his writings on Japan are looked on favorably by Japanese readers and folklorists, even now. So it’s not so surprising, after all, that Kobayashi would base his film on Hearn’s stories.

So. Back to the movie.

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Joe Hill’s 20th Century Ghosts

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I found this in the “Customers Also Bought” section while buying an ebook version of Stephen King’s Different Seasons — another great collection. Hill is King’s son, and also writes horror, as well as mainstream fiction. 20th Century Ghosts is mostly a mix of horror and fantastic realism, with a few mainstream fictions thrown in.

It’s interesting to see the themes that repeat in multiple stories: Sons’ relationships with their fathers, or with their brothers — sometimes positive, sometimes not. Boyhood school friendships. Autism and other developmental disabilities. Missing children. Child abuse. Fratricide. Patricide. There’s a certain ambiguity in how mothers are represented, leaning towards the negative.

Some of the tales could be classified as supernatural horror, but the horror element isn’t from the supernatural, but from the prosaic: a child predator, or from some latent sociopathic tendencies in one of the characters. The supernatural instead often serves a positive function in the story. For instance, in one story, the ghosts of previous abduction victims find a way to help the current kidnapped child.

My two favorite stories aren’t horror; one isn’t even fantastic. “Better than Home” is a sweet story of an autistic boy’s relationship with his father, the coach of a losing baseball team. “Pop Art” is about a “tough kid” and his friendship with the class bully-bait, a boy named Arthur with a hereditary condition: he was born inflatable. It’s also a story about death, and loss, and letting go. I read it on a plane, and I’m sure the flight attendant wondered why I was crying. Hill writes boys’ relationships — with parents, with siblings, but especially with other boys — really well.

When your best friend is ugly — I mean bad ugly, deformed — you don’t kid them about shattering mirrors. In a friendship, especially in a friendship between two young boys, you are allowed to inflict a certain amount of pain. This is even expected. But you must cause no serious injury; you must never, under any circumstances, leave wounds that will result in permanent scars.

— From “Pop Art”

“Dead-Wood” reminded me of Jack Cady, though it was too short to be a satisfying story. More of a sketch, really. “My Father’s Mask” felt a bit like Thomas Ligotti, at least I think it did. It’s been a long time since I’ve read Ligotti (he’s not my favorite author). “Best New Horror” was the weakest story, in my opinion. It went exactly where you knew it would, although Christopher Golden, in the collection’s Introduction, argues that this is as it should be, for that piece.

Overall, a beautiful collection of tales, especially if you like a dose of the fantastic. Recommended.