Invasion of the Grey Ones

I recently saw the 1956 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers for the first time. It’s much better than I thought it would be. My husband loves cheesy 1950’s sci-fi B-movies, and that was what I expected Body Snatchers to be. But it’s really not that cheesy at all. It’s fairly suspenseful, and its moody cinematography makes the film feel more noir than sci-fi. The inevitable romantic relationship between the male and female leads felt refreshingly adult, and quite relevant to the story. Drop the “happy ending” frame story (which both the producer and director objected to), and make the alien pods look a bit less like giant Belgian endive, and the film would be even closer to perfect.

Pod vs Endive
Left: A pod. Right: A Belgian Endive. I rest my case. Screenshot: moviescreenshots.blogspot.com. Endive: Wikimedia

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On the Obligations of the Reader

Adapted from some ramblings of mine on Twitter.

I recently came across the essay “Let Me Tell You,” by author Cecilia Tan. It’s a response to the old writing dictum “show, don’t tell,” and in the process of arguing against it (specifically in the SF/Fantasy genres), the essay also takes a shot at the myth of “universality” that underlies the dictums of writing “quality” (read: literary) fiction.

I highly recommend the essay to you. But in addition to what it says to writers/readers of SF/Fantasy, it crystallized some other thoughts of my own – a reader, not a writer, and not generally an SF/Fantasy reader either – about the obligations of the reader.

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Clumsy exposition (“as you know…”) is one of my pet peeves. And I’ve noticed that I sometimes prefer reading works from an X writer to those of an X-American or otherwise hyphenated writer (X-British, X-Canadian, etc.), and this is kinda why: X-Americans often feel an obligation to write to “Americans”. That is, they feel the need to explain bits of X culture or history to the mainstream “American” reader.  X writers write only to X-ians.

A Filipinx author can leave the fraught relationship/history between the Philippines and US unsaid, even when that relationship is central to their themes or to their characters, because readers in the Philippines know. But not all Americans do, so a Fil-American author might feel the need to somehow work a little history lesson into their narrative.

But is it always necessary?

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Something

“I’m going to be something!” said the eldest of five brothers. “I’m going to be useful in the world, however humble a position I hold; if that which I’m doing is useful, that will be Something. I’ll make bricks; people can’t do without bricks, so at least I’ll do Something.”

— “Something” by Hans Christian Andersen. Translator Jean Hersholt

They say Hans Christian Andersen wrote fairy tales, but so many of them are really more like parables. And not necessarily for kids, either.  I like “Something,” because it speaks to an urge so many of us have: to make some sort of difference in the world.

Bricklayers, Childe Hassam

In the story, the brickmaker’s brothers laughed at him, because his ambition was so humble. Better to be a bricklayer, who makes houses; or an architect, who designs them. Better yet to be a “genius,” who breaks new ground and creates original things — or a critic, who tells everyone else what they could have done better.

The brickmaker didn’t become as rich or as respected and admired as his more ambitious brothers, but in the end, he accomplished Something. On the way, he did a good deed by giving his broken bricks (and a few whole ones) to a poor woman so she could build herself a house. She in turn eventually sacrificed her life to save a group of merrymakers from a terrible disaster. And so the brickmaker and the old woman got into heaven, because they did Something.

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The Flowers of Dorian Gray, Part Three

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Last of a three-part series on flower symbology in The Picture of Dorian Gray.


So far, we’ve looked at flower symbology in Dorian Gray generally (Part One), and with respect to specific flowers (Part Two). It’s true that some of what I’ve pointed out could be happenstance: Wilde clearly liked flower imagery, and he might have been using it merely decoratively, as random details to fill rooms, like the divans that characters constantly fling themselves into (no one ever just sits down in this novel). But here, in Part Three, we’ll look at some interesting parallel structures that Wilde built into the novel, using flower-related imagery. I think it’s a good bet that these parallel constructions are conscious and deliberate.

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The Flowers of Dorian Gray, Part Two

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Second of a three-part series on flower symbology in The Picture of Dorian Gray.


In Part One, we looked generally at the use of flowers in The Picture of Dorian Gray. In this post, we’ll look at the repeated use of a few specific flowers, and try to connect them to flower symbology, both Victorian floriography and the meanings that Wilde himself invests into the flowers. Roses we covered a bit in Part One, but there’s more.

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The Flowers of Dorian Gray, Part One

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First of a three-part series on flower symbology in The Picture of Dorian Gray.


I recently bought Mark Valentine’s anthology, The Scarlet Soul: Stories for Dorian Gray, which is a collection of some of my favorite authors riffing on the themes found in Oscar Wilde’s novel. It had been quite a while since I’d read The Picture of Dorian Gray, so I decided to re-read it before diving into the anthology.

Of course, I noticed (again) all the things in the book that one usually notices: the gay subtext of artist Basil Hallward’s feelings for Dorian, Dorian’s moral decline, the characters’ witty (or precious, depending on your point of view) conversation, Wilde’s little digs at Victorian upper-class society, and what a poser and asshole Lord Henry Wotton is.

About a third of the way in, I ran face-first into this passage. Basil has just learned of Dorian’s engagement to Sibyl Vane, and Basil, Lord Henry, and Dorian are having dinner before going to see Sibyl’s performance in Romeo and Juliet. In conversation, Henry says, “When we are happy, we are always good, but when we are good, we are not always happy.”

To which Basil responds, what does Henry mean by good?

“Yes,” echoed Dorian, leaning back in his chair and looking at Lord Henry over the heavy clusters of purple-lipped irises that stood in the centre of the table, “what do you mean by good, Harry?”

For some reason, that paragraph stopped me cold. What on earth were those irises doing there? Wilde does spend a lot of time describing settings: the furniture and bric-a-brac in a room, the plants in a garden; but he hadn’t described this particular room at all. Was it important that Dorian had to look over the irises to see Lord Henry?

That sent me back to the beginning of the book, looking for all the flower references. And I realized that there are a LOT of flower references. The Victorians were into floriography, the language of flowers; did Wilde fill the text with symbology that I wasn’t catching?

Probably he did; and probably literary and mythological references that I also missed. But he also built quite a lot of explicit structure into the novel through flowers, as well. I’m sure there’s a dissertation out there somewhere on this, but it was new to me, and so for fun, I thought I’d suss it out, along with some possibly apropos flower symbology.

Warning: plot spoilers abound. I’m assuming that you’ve read Dorian Gray, or at least skimmed the synopsis in Wikipedia.

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Winter Tales Season: The Doll’s Ghost

Every year, from the beginning of December until Epiphany, I like to share some winter tales — stories to tell or to read around a warm fire on a cold dark night, preferably with a steamy hot drink to wrap your hands around. This year I’ll open with a lesser-known story from F. Marion Crawford.

Curtain design with doll

“The Doll’s Ghost” first appeared in the 1896 Christmas supplement of the Illustrated London News1, and again in Crawford’s posthumous 1911 collection Wandering Ghosts (Uncanny Tales in the UK). In his lifetime, Crawford was well known and well regarded for his historical novels and romances; today, he is mostly known for his supernatural tales, especially “The Upper Berth,” which M.R. James called a “horrid story” — in the positive sense of “full of horror” — in “Some Remarks on Ghost Stories.”

I picked “The Doll’s Ghost” to open up this year’s series because I like it, of course; also because the doll of the title shares my name, and Mr. Crawford and I share a birthday. It’s a “benign ghost” story, the kind M.R. James disapproved of, but it does have its creepy moments. For parents, it has genuinely scary moments. I think it’s good for the season. Continue reading

A Budget of Book Reviews: Terror Edition

Two book reviews this time: one old short story collection, one new.

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Dedication inside my copy of The Mammoth Book of Horror:
“Here’s something to keep you occupied on those cold and foggy S.F. nights when the wind(?) is howling through the cracks in the floorboards, and there’s no one to keep you company save the menacing strangers looming in the corners of your eyes.”
Names redacted for privacy.

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Reading Honolulu Mysteries

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I discovered Glen Grant’s noirish Honolulu detective Arthur McDougal in Grant’s collection Obake: Ghost Stories in Hawaii. The two McDougal tales in Obake have supernatural villains, so one could say that McDougal in these stories is a (reluctant) occult detective. The other tales in Obake, which mostly focus on aspects of Japanese supernatural folklore that “migrated” to Hawaii, are also delightful.

The short stories in Honolulu Mysteries are different. Although the tales include various aspects of Hawaiian folklore and sometimes even feature a touch of Hawaiian supernatural phenomena, the bad guys are all definitely human — just as they ought to be, in McDougal’s view.

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The Department of Dead Ends

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I adore Columbo; I got addicted to reruns of the original Seventies-era series when I was in graduate school, and it’s still one of my favorite TV shows. Columbo’s sharp eye for apparently trivial incongruities, his deceptively bumbling manner, his mythical wife who’s a fan of everything and everyone, his equally mythical Captain who just hates loose ends — I love it all.

Columbo‘s format is the so-called inverted mystery, where the viewer (or reader) knows whodunit, how, and even why. The real mystery is how the murderer will be caught. You could make an argument that inverted mysteries existed in literature at least as far back as Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment ; I read somewhere that the creators of Columbo cite this novel as on influence on the Columbo format. That, and the “cozy English mystery” tradition of elaborately complicated murder amongst the upper classes (investigated by the not so upper class police). But the official original inverted mystery is R. Austin Freeman’s “The Case of Oscar Brodski” (1911).  The story was popular enough that Freeman wrote four more and collected them with “Brodski” into The Singing Bone (1912).

Beyond the twist of presenting the crime before the investigation, Freeman’s stories are classic ratiocination stories. His protagonist, Dr. Thorndyke, is basically Sherlock Holmes, complete with a (portable) laboratory and a Dr. Watson (Dr. Jervis, in this case). Thorndyke notices things the police don’t, and awes them with his deductive prowess. As with most stories in the ratiocination genre, the detective and his extraordinary abilities are the center of the tales.

The stories in Roy Vickers’ The Department of Dead Ends (1949) are inverted mysteries of a different style. The Department of Dead Ends is a group within Scotland Yard whose sole purpose is to take “everything the other departments rejected:” clues that led nowhere, cases that can’t be closed (or that no one is interested in closing), puzzling but seemingly irrelevant information, lost items. The department solves cases (often cold cases) via this massive collection of minutia mostly by serendipity: someone happens to notice that a puzzling fact from one case, when put together with some irrelevant trivia from an apparently unrelated situation, becomes an observation neither puzzling nor irrelevant to either circumstance.

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