Desolation Row

Before I start this, I’m sorry I haven’t posted in a while, it just feels hard to be creative during lockdowns, plus I started working full-time which is great but it involves a 5.30am wake-up and my body clock’s still being a little bitch about it.

Anyway during my commute I’ve once again started attempting to learn Poe’s long-ass, 18-stanza-length poem, The Raven, off by heart because every now and again I convince myself it would be a useful skill to have.

Even if you’re not a huge fan of poetry, its pretty rad tale of someone who’s resistant to accept that he will never see the woman he loves again (and obscure side note: it’s probably a coincidence but I think its cool that in King of the Hill, the ex wife that Bill needs to accept is gone is also called Lenore).

The raven symbolises death, and the poem ends with its narrator’s soul forever living under the shadow of that loss, And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor, Shall be lifted — Nevermore!”. It’s got me thinking of loneliness and desolation in books, specifically desolate places – some fictional, some real and some that are thinly veiled fictional versions of real places. It’s a theme which fits Victoria’s lockdown vibe right now, given lockdowns do leave the streets looking like empty ghost towns (I’m very over lockdowns, mainly because I desperately need a haircut).

The Plague (Albert Camus, 1947)

When I first read this in 2016, it kinda reminded me of The Simpsons movie plot where the town’s isolated under a dome and they all lose it. But rereading it last year, it not only reminded me of the experience of long-term lockdown but also made me appreciate how much worse it would’ve been in any other time period where technology and the ability to easily communicate wasn’t something you could take for granted. And thinking about it now, after recently turning 28, the same age Camus was when he wrote it hits me just how impressive his brain was and how young he was for a philosopher.

Set in Oran, Algeria; the cities experience of a plague outbreak is told in increments, largely through these four characters: Dr Rieuxs, Jean Tarrou who was visiting and gets suck in the city when the borders are closed, Joseph Grand – an elderly civil servant who long before the plague struck had struggled with his ability to express himself, and Raymond Rambert – a French journalist who like Tarrou finds himself trapped in Oran, so attempts to find a way to cross the border.

Beginning with the mysterious death of thousands of rats, high death rates of plague victims quickly becomes a reality citizens are numb to. And while the story and the outbreak its describing is fictional, the real history of the black death is delved into as Camus uses plague as a framework for exploring the human condition.

The Haunting of Hill House (Shirley Jackson, 1959)

Dr Montague chooses the abandoned mansion, Hill House, to conduct a scientific experiment on the existence of the supernatural. Renting the house out for the summer, with the landlord agreeing on the proviso that her adult nephew, Luke can tag along; Montague plans to live there and take notes of his experience alongside the only two people to respond to his invitation, Theodora and Eleanor.

Naturally Hill House has an infamous past, yet what makes it distinctive from a classic ghost story is the uncertainty of a supernatural presence, as structurally the house was built with the intention of being disorientating.

Chernobyl Prayer (Svetlana Alexievich, 1997)

Not strictly a book rather a collection of short interviews of over 500 individuals who were effected in some way by the 26 April 1986 Chernobyl disaster. Why I chose to include this book in a post on desolation is some of the testimonies are from people discussing why they continued to live in Chernobyl following the disaster, and particularly interesting the testimonies of Chechen refugees who were relocated to Chernobyl in the 1990s who created a home in the abandoned city. It’s heart-breaking but its timeless.

Milkman (Anna Burns, 2018)

This one’s pretty Kafkaesque and confusing but worth sticking with. Set in the 1970s in an unnamed Northern Ireland city, its relevant to desolation when desolation is defined as ‘a state of complete emptiness or destruction’. While violence isn’t detailed heavily in the book, the unnamed teenage narrator’s existence is defined by communal policing and distrust of the state.

The main character makes every effort to keep her head down and not attract attention, yet her habit of walking alone and reading at the same time gives her an unwanted reputation. Suddenly when a well-known figure within the IRA who she doesn’t know and has never heard of, known as ‘milkman’, continually offers hers lifts and begins appearing in places she’s scheduled to be, a rumour develops that their in a relationship which gradually begins effecting what’s real.

Not only is it a good book on desolation because of the habitual loneliness the unnamed character lives under, but often it describes her nightly walking path through dead streets and past buildings destroyed by bombings.

In the Dream House (Carmen Maria Machado, 2019)

Interesting side note, horror writer Carman Maria Machado is a huge fan of The Haunting of Hill House and chose it as the scariest book of fiction.

Anyway In the Dream House is a memoir of Machado’s experience of domestic abuse within a three year relationship, and ‘the dream house’ is both a real place where Machado and her unnamed girlfriend start living together shortly after meeting, as well as a framework for exploring why the history of domestic abuse in same-sex partnerships are often treated as non-existent.

Trapped within ‘the dream house’ by the ideal of the women she fell in love with, the book recounts Machado’s rationale for staying, alongside examples of folklore and cultural representations of abusive and what it means to be queer.

Ya filthy animal

I’ve never read the Harry Potter books; as a kid I was a little bit of a hipster and thought that too many people liked it so it must be a bit shit (which admittedly wasn’t great logic given The Simpsons was also hugely popular).

I wound up watching all the movies for the first time in lock-down last year because I started dating someone who’s pretty into them (she’s also made me watch Con Air – I’ve given a lot to this relationship), and one thing I’ll say is that Nagini is an adorable name for a pet snake no matter your thoughts on Voldemort (Seven is a lot of books, I was a pretty lazy kid/teen, I was never going to make that kind of commitment to any one series).

Anyway, since my Animals Have Eerie Powers blogpost over two years ago, other animals who are enchanted or just have a proven ability to fuck shit up have continued popping up here and there in short stories/novellas I’ve been reading. So let’s add to that list now shall we?!

The Murder of Rue Morgue (Edgar Allan Poe, 1841)

Homicide investigators are too quick to dismiss the possibility that sometimes the murderer is in fact an escaped pet orangutan of a local sailor, and that’s just sad.

In this story, the narrator makes a new chum at the library called, C. Auguste Dupin. They gab about their shared interest in analysis and the importance of insignificant details, and later on when the unprecedented murder of Madame L’Espanaye and her daughter, Mademoiselle Camille is all over the papers, these two hardy boys team up and blow the cops minds with their conclusion. Who’s to say though whether they were too quick to overlook the possibility that that orangutan still had motive?

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (Lewis Carroll, 1865)

There’s a lot of cool animals petering around Wonderland -white rabbits in business casual, caterpillar-chillers smoking a hookah and giving sage advice about growth and such; but the Cheshire Cat has the ability to disappear and reappear and is basically everything you’d want in a guardian angel. He grins over you, he gives you reliable directions, plus he warns you on the beginning of your quest to watch out for how odd everybody else is.

Heart of a dog (Mikhail Bulgakov, 1925)

Starting from the perspective of a stray dog in Moscow (who’s given the name Sharik by a typist) one day he follows home a man who has given him some food. This man is a scientist called Professor Philip Philippovich Preobrazhensky, and after keeping Sharik pampered in his apartment for several days the professor performs an operation where he replaces Sharik’s pituitary gland and testicles with those of a recently deceased human.

From this point the story is told through the professor’s notes of Sharik’s progression as he gradually becomes a very hairy human. It not as cute as it sounds though – as Sharik evenually becomes the drunk disappointing drop-kick son that the professor regrets, and ultimately turns back into a dog.

Saint Katy the Virgin (John Steinbeck, 1936)

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I read this in a Mcsweeney’s; the cover had Alfred Hitchcock and Ray Bradbury fist fighting in Heaven so naturally I went for it at the second-hand bookshop [the collection’s a mix of old short stories from an out-of-print Hitchcock spooky story collection called Stories Not for the Nervous, with a Bradbury collection, Timeless Stories for Today and Tomorrow].

This story was one of Bradbury’s and was originally published in Steinbeck’s collection, The Long Valley. and the moral of this story is essentially this, if you find yourself a victim of a rabid pig attack you best recourse of action is to try and baptise sed pig.

Saint Katy is a pet pig of a local jerk called Roark whose evil disposition rubs off on his pet pig. One day just to be an asshole, Roark donates his pig to two priests who are out tithing, and when they go to pick her up from the pen, Katy attacks and has them climbing up a tree in fear of their lives. Out of desperation they figure why not try baptising her and from that moment she’s a good girl and stops attempting to maul them.

Between Sea and Sky (Kirsty Logan, 2020)

This short story is from a recent collection, Hag, in which forgotten British and Irish folklores have modern feminist retellings by eminent female writers from Britain and Ireland. It’s pretty rad, plus the original stories are in the back so you can compare them.

Between the Sea and Sky is a retelling of The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry, a 19th century Scottish ballad: and just as in the original tale, Logan’s story is about a woman whose son is a ‘Selkie’ – a shape-shifting part human, part seal.

In Logan’s rendition, the main character, Skye is an archaeologist sent to Glenecher to study a intriguing mass grave of mothers with their babies. Skye also happens to be a single mum to a baby who’s a few months old, and the small town treats her with suspicion because they’re unsure who her babies father is (fools it wasn’t any of your husbands it was a man seal!).

I don’t want to give spoilers but one thundery night her baby-daddy comes to the door and they decide to spilt custody with her baby spending half a year as a human and half under the sea – with unfortunate results.

Animals have Eerie Powers

There are a few animal/show-business type questions that do occasionally cross my mind.

I wonder whether a consequence of literally every animal sport film, is that every single sport rule-book now includes a 30 page list of species that are barred from joining the team.

I naively wonder whether there is even the smallest possibility that Babe is still alive.

I wonder just how many kangaroo paw-sticks the sickos who made the show Skippy needed for the close-up handshake scenes.

And, much as I would rather not think about it, I do wonder whether Tarzan actually dated gorillas before Jane showed up.

Also what do you think was the ultimate objective the bird’s had when they took over in The Birds? Were they just sick of our shit? Could the humans have thrown a truckload of hot chips to appease them?

So on that note, let’s talk about a few classic animal narratives within literature, and the unanswered questions they too have left me with.

Animal Farm (George Orwell, 1945)

This is one of those books where it is quite obvious why people are made to read it in school – the Stalinist parallels are about as subtle as a brick to the face.

Also given how much I relate to Mollie the horse – who is swayed to go back to a regular farm because she misses sugar-cubes – it’s probably definitely a sign that I’m really not a team player.

Anyway I’m sure you’re all probably loosely familiar with this allegory of the farm animal’s failed attempt at a utopia where all animals are equal.

The animals choose to  overthrow their oppressive captor, Mr Jones, following the vision of Old Major – a respected elderly prize pig – for a future where all animals are free from humans.

Personally though, the one detail which I really don’t think get’s the attention it deserves is just how nonchalant all the humans in this book seem to be about how bloody fast the animals in this book can organize group projects and teach themselves to read.

Mr Jones spends a good deal of the book sitting around the pub having a moan, like this kind of thing is somehow not that absurd. And I kept thinking when the other surrounding farmers pull down the windmill that the animals have been building for two years, wouldn’t you just be impressed that the animals built something? Why hasn’t the press visited?

Charlotte’s Web (E.B White, 1952)

This book raises another question I’ve long had – how come Wilbur’s the one who gets famous instead of the spider who can write in English for some reason?

Watership Down (Richard Adams, 1972) *spoilers

Watership Down is surprising. Initially you assume that you’re not going to get that emotionally invested in the lives of some fictional rabbits – you’re not a child and the film Marley and Me failed to move you because you’re a cold hearted monster. But then you massively do, to the point where you’re not sure you’ll be ok if Fiver doesn’t survive.

It’s just such a beautifully dark story, the main rabbits are just such a noble little squad who’ve got each other’s backs – and fuck being a rabbit would be pretty grim, even if all the characters have really adorable names like Strawberry and Thistle.

To roughly sum up, a small group of rabbits flee their warren because Fiver has the capacity to sense when something bad is about to happen, and he has this vision of ‘blood across the warren’. It details the dangers the group face beyond the warren they’ve known their whole life, and – in the later half of novel – how establishing their own warren is reliant on challenging the leadership of a totalitarian-style warren.

The Black Cat (Edgar Allan Poe, 1843)

Similar to The Tell-Tale Heart, where killing someone because their glass eye got to you sometimes seemed like an overreaction, The Black Cat‘s narrator is bitten one night by his wife’s cat, Pluto, and therefore decides to act rationally and gouge one of the poor cat’s eyes out with a penknife.

Following this shitty thing he’s done, every time the narrator looks at the cat – who’s now naturally terrified of him – he feels remorse, so he decides to be super rational again and murder the cat. Then big surprise he starts to feel even more ravaged by guilt, so he brings another cat home for his wife and see’s his being nice to the new cat as some kind of atonement.

Then, I shit you not, he get’s angry at this cat because it reminds the narrator still of Pluto, and in an attempt to kill the cat with an axe he accidentally kills his wife (it’s really hard to feel sorry for this guy).

Anyway to cut a long story short, he entombs his wife behind a brick-wall in the basement, and just when he thinks he’s gotten away with it the police hear a cat meowing behind the brick-wall and find Pluto alive standing on the head of his dead wife’s corpse. Pluto somehow came back to life to grass on him and it feels great that karma has weirdly been served.