On Bookmarks, and Memories

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Bookmarks. What do you use for bookmarks? I’m not one of those people who is appalled at the idea of dog-earing a page, but if I have the choice, I try to use a bookmark. Reshelving all our books this past week, I’ve noticed all the ragged little bits of stuff peeking out of this volume and that one. Bits of envelope, pieces of napkin, lots and lots of Post-Its, the receipt for the book itself, often with the date — it’s sobering to see how long ago I bought some of my books, especially the ones I haven’t finished yet. I’ve found old shopping lists, those annoying coupons that are always stuck in the middle of magazines (and when’s the last time I subscribed to a magazine?), and more than a few ghosts of bookstores past. I posted one of these ghosts a few days ago; since then I’ve found many more.

These are mostly my bookmarks (or my husband’s), and therefore my memories. Some of them are stowaways from used bookstore purchases. I used to save the things I found in used books, but I’ve lost them all now. It’s too bad; imagining the story behind these found objects is part of the fun of a used book.

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The Ghost of a Bookstore Past

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This fell out of one of my books a couple of days ago, as I was unboxing and reshelving them. I think it might have been Sébastien Japrisot’s A Very Long Engagement. The bookmark is from the San Francisco Mystery Bookstore, which, alas, is no more.

Floating below the Golden Gate, you could see a blonde wig and a crimson scarf. The perfect place for a tragic ending.

That would make a great opening for a story. I wonder where it’s from.

And by the way: A Very Long Engagement is a very good book.

On Reading Ghost Story Collections

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Which authors do you think of as the mainstays, surefire appearances, in anthologies of ghost stories, weird tales, fantastic fiction, or “literary horror”? Poe, maybe. Or Lovecraft. M.R. James, Charles Dickens or Robert Lewis Stevenson might come to mind.

Would you have thought of Joyce Carol Oates?

I came to this epiphany today while loitering in the horror anthology section of Borderlands Books. I flipped through Dark Descent (1986), featuring Ms. Oates on the cover, along with Clive Barker, Stephen King, Ray Bradbury and Shirley Jackson. I looked at the Oxford Book of Ghost Stories, The Penguin Book of Ghost Stories, American Supernatural Stories (published by Penguin, edited by S.T. Joshi), Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural, from the Modern Library series, and Crucified Dreams, a collection of urban fantasy and horror noir edited by Joe Lansdale. I quietly coveted the various volumes of the Ash Tree Press Macabre Annuals: elegant, erudite, and way too expensive. I finally settled on The Dark: New Ghost Stories (2003), edited by Ellen Datlow.

I can’t say Ms. Oates was in every single one of those collections (she’s not in The Dark), but she was certainly in quite a few of the anthologies that I looked through. It surprised me, though I’m not sure why. When I think of female writers of the weird or fantastic, I tend to think of Edith Wharton, Evelyn Nesbit, Shirley Jackson, Angela Carter, or Isabel Allende. Poppy Z. Brite, when I think of more contemporary writers. It doesn’t surprise me to see Ms. Oates in any single collection, but somehow, it surprises me that she seems so ubiquitous.

As it happens, we finally moved all our books out of storage just two days ago (hurray!), and I can now actually put my hands on all (well, most) of my weird/fantastic fiction anthologies. Turns out I have quite a few of them. And now I wonder: what’s the JCO (Joyce Carol Oates) content in my collection of collections? Continue reading

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?

Mirror, Mirror

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The Queen at her mirror. Illustration by W.C. Drupsteen, 1885

Now the queen was the most beautiful woman in all the land, and very proud of her beauty. She had a mirror, which she stood in front of every morning, and asked:

Mirror, mirror, on the wall,
Who in this land is fairest of all?

And the mirror always said:

You, my queen, are fairest of all.

And then she knew for certain that no one in the world was more beautiful than she.

— Brothers Grimm, Little Snow White (1812 version)

I’ve gotten to the age where I get Snow White. Or to be precise: I get the evil queen. When I was younger (young enough to be reading fairy tales for serious), the queen was the obligatory, generic villain. Kids don’t worry about motivation: stepparents hate their stepchildren, just because — that’s how it works. Why would the queen be jealous of Snow White? How can she possibly compare herself to Snow? She’s a mom! She’s old!

But I get it now.

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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?

O-Kame: A Japanese Vampire Tale

After watching Kwaidan last week, I spent some time flipping through Shadowings and Kotto, which I’d never read before. I found this little vampire-style story in Kotto. It seems familiar; I think I’ve read a similar tale before, possibly a Chinese version.

I don’t believe the vampire myth, as we know it in the West, exists in Japanese folklore. However, (at least according to Wikipedia) the Japanese do have two kinds of “hungry ghosts”. The gaki are the ghosts of jealous or greedy people who have been cursed with insatiable hunger (so O-Kame might qualify). The jikininki are ghouls (corpse-eaters). Neither type seems to suck blood or life essence, as a vampire does. So it’s likely that Lafcadio Hearn transposed a folk motif (or several) from another place, either Europe or perhaps China, to Japan.

Either way, it’s a good story. Enjoy.

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Illustration from Kotto: being Japanese curios, with sundry cobwebs (1902).
archive.org

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Cranky Thoughts about Language

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Photo: Paul Zumel

Poger Rock: a “forgotten, moribund collection of buildings tucked into the base of wooded valley” in rural Washington State.

Next to a dumpster, a pair of mongrel dogs were locked in coitus, patiently facing opposite directions, Dr. Doolittle’s Pushmi-pullyu for the twenty-first century.

And about a paragraph later, the protagonist limps into a bar — excuse me, a tavern — where a stuffed black wolf “snarled atop a dias near the entrance.”

Hmmm, I think as I read this. The author is trying a bit too hard, isn’t he? Because this is a horror story, light reading. But I kept reading anyway, because certainly, I am often guilty of trying too hard, myself. I’ve learned the hard way that I have to throw away the first thing I write after having read Nabokov, because I fall so in love with his language — so beautiful, so luminous — that I try to emulate it. It doesn’t work, mostly because I’m not Nabokov, but also because, honestly, the subjects I tend to write about don’t lend themselves to his style. That’s how I felt about the use of language in this piece.

I read far enough to learn that the protagonist was fleeing from her abusive husband, to a remote hunting cabin where she was staying with her lover. I suffered through said lover discovering an old fur cloak in a hunting blind in the woods. Oh, and by the way, did you know the man who built this cabin was driven out of Scandinavia because of rumors that he was responsible for the gory unexplained murders in his village? And that Scandinavian legend says that to wear the skin of the beast is to become the beast? All this information was given to me in a fire hose of exposition, the kind that makes for awkward narrative and really clumsy dialog. I stopped reading and went to the next story.

Last, the bullet blooms agains steel. Still almost pristine until that moment, now its conical head flattens. Its copper jacket splinters into shrapnel needles, wire-fine, scattering. The core splashes, the force of impact so great that cold metal splatters like syrup, droplets blossoming in an elegant chrysanthemum. The butt of the casing flattens against the engine block for a split second before it peels away and falls.

But it’s already exited the girl, and the girl is falling.

That’s the opening of “The Romance”, by Elizabeth Bear. I had to read those lines a few times, because I was still in a bad mood from the last story, and my brain refused to work at parsing the “fancy language”. But in the end it was worth it. The narrative cuts back and forth between the slow-motion shooting above, and a middle-aged children’s librarian who is attending a fiftieth-birthday party that features a haunted carousel. Naturally, I was hyper-vigilant for clumsy exposition, but Ms. Bear managed to inform me of the carousel’s history, and the protagonist’s history, without irritating me. She even used the phrase “the ineffable,” and I didn’t hurl the book across the room. It’s all about having a light touch.

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Puritanism and American Gothic

The New England Puritans were an intolerant people whose theology could not have failed to breed paranoia, if not madness, in the sensitive among them. Consider, for instance, the curious Covenant of Grace, which taught that only those men and women upon whom God sheds His grace are saved… those excluded from God’s grace…are not only not saved, but damned.

— Joyce Carol Oates, Introduction to American Gothic Tales

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Photo: John Mount

Following on our notion from the last post that gothic horror is the literature of “our awful helplessness” in the face of universal realities, it should come as no surprise that early American Gothic literature shows the strong influence of the Puritan mindset.

The first selection in Oates’ anthology is an excerpt from the 1798 novel Wieland, or The Transformation, by Charles Brockden Brown. Theodore Wieland is a man of obsessional piety: “God is the object of my supreme passion,” he states. In the chapter that Ms. Oates excerpts, he is testifying on his own behalf, while on trial for a terrible crime.

My days have been spent in searching for the revelation of that will; but my days have been mournful, because my search failed…. I turned on every side where glimmerings of light could be discovered. I have not been wholly uninformed; but my knowledge has always stopped short of certainty. Dissatisfaction has insinuated itself into all my thoughts.

Dissatisfaction, because he has not achieved the epiphany, the ultimate knowledge of God that he has been working all his life to gain. All the same, he is apparently prone to fits of mystical ecstacy.

At first every vein beat with raptures known only to the man whose parental and conjugal love is without limits, and the cup of whose desires, immense as it is, overflows with gratification. I know not why emotions that were perpetual visitants should now have recurred with unusual energy….The author of my being was likewise the dispenser of every gift with which that being was embellished. The service to which a benefactor like this was entitled, could not be circumscribed.

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