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.

Poe versus Griswold: Fight! Fight! Fight!

EDGAR ALLAN POE is dead. He died in Baltimore the day before yesterday. This announcement will startle many, but few will be grieved by it.

I’ve never watched RuPaul’s Drag Race (personally I only dig reality tv when it centres around people going on terrible dates or weddings going wrong), but apparently ‘reading someone’ or ‘taking someone to the library’ is drag slang for getting into a verbal war/throwing a barrage of insults somebody’s way – as in you’re reading someone and pointing out all the ways in which they’re shit.

I like it; even though the expression flagrantly disregards the fact that the library is a place for quiet, and the only acceptable type of fight you can have in there is one with a lot of whispering, rude hand gestures and miming ‘fuck you!’.

Anyway, learning this double-meaning got me thinking about literary rivalries and how a war of words is particularly spicy when one or both parties happen to be talented wordsmiths. Because you just know that they’re packing some quality hurtful insults if they’re coming to the table with a proven ability to eloquently string words together.

So let’s talk Poe’s heated exchanges with Rufus Wilmot Griswold (1815-1857) – his rival in life and the sneaky snake who managed to worm his way into writing the first biography of Poe following his death in 1849.

The top quote is a slice from Poe’s scathing obituary in the New-York Daily Tribune written under the name “Ludwig”. Republished in many newspapers, it was the start of what are longstanding myths surrounding Poe’s character – namely that he was a bitter erratic genius; talented, but nevertheless a drunk, paranoid, opiate addicted madman with no friends.

“Ludwig” was Rufus Griswold – a fellow editor and critic, who Poe wasn’t shy about slagging off publicly. Whether any of Griswold’s harsh assessment of Poe’s character is fair, remains debateable – and yet their rivalry is pivotal to understanding every biography written on Poe.

First meeting in 1841, when Poe was the editor at Graham’s Magazine and Griswold was working on the first of his anthology series, The Poets and Poetry of America; initially their relationship was amicable, with both praising the other in reviews.

Things soured in 1842, when Poe left Graham’s Magazine and Griswold was hired and paid more to be his successor. Around about the same time, Griswold paid Poe to write a review on The Poets and Poetry of America (in which three of Poe’s poems were included) and while this review didn’t go full bus stop it wasn’t as positive as Griswold expected, with Poe suggesting in a letter to a friend that Griswold’s payment was a bribe and commenting, “that review has not yet appeared, and I am doubtful if it ever will”.

Poe then went on to write two anonymous articles in 1893 where he criticized Griswold; stating that Griswold was “wholly unfit either by intellect or character, to occupy the editorial chair of Graham’s”, that he was “one of the most clumsy of literary thieves” and his anthology was “a very muttonish production”. In turn an article defaming Poe’s character was subsequently published, that he understandably suspected Griswold of writing (according to a letter from Poe to Griswold).

From 1843-1845, Poe was on an American poetry lecture tour of the East coast; here he publicly discussed The Poets and Poetry of America and accused Griswold of favouring his friends and New England writers rather than good poetry. My personal favourite catty remark was about one of Griswold’s friends, Charles F. Briggs, saying that he, “. . . has never composed in his life three consecutive sentences of grammatical English”.

In an attempt to patch things up, Poe made an effort in his 1845 lectures to omit anything which had the potential to offend Griswold and for little while there was a truce. On speaking terms long enough for Griswold to help Poe keep his magazine, The Broadway Journal, in print; in 1847 Griswold critiqued Poe’s editorial skills amongst general bitching and it was back on!

Needless to say they both shared a mutual suspicion for the other [one scholar even suggests that a large factor of their longstanding quarrel was fancying the same poet, Mrs. Frances Sargent Osgood]. Griswold was likely the last person who Poe would want having any authority over his legacy; and yet, following Poe’s death in 1849 Griswold managed to gain the post-humous rights to publish a collection of Poe’s work through Poe’s mother-in-law, Maria Clemm (who was unaware of their history and the fact that those rights actually belonged to Poe’s sister, Rosalie).

Doubling down on the less-than-flattering obituary; in 1850, Griswold began publishing volumes of Poe’s work, which included a much nastier ‘memoir’ of Poe’s life, where he exaggerated details to make Poe sound like ten-times more of a dropkick than was actually the case (going so far as to forge letters to validate his fabrications).

Griswold died in 1857, and published four volumes of Poe’s work. He was in a position where he was profiting off Poe, and thus it became in his interest to perpetuate the myth that Poe was a train wreck. Until 1875, Griswold’s memoir was the only available account of Poe’s life – and while Poe had his defenders, and more well-balanced biographies were later created, Griswold marred the public image of Poe in a way that was irreversible.

I guess my point is, if you do have a Machiavellian-level nemesis who you’ve ‘taken to the library’ on more than one occasion make sure they don’t have the ability to write a bitter memoir about how shit you were. But at the same time, their exaggerations may also spark a greater popular interest in your bird poetry so it’s not all bad.

“Quoth the Raven: what a shine

Siblings in books

At 28 years old, a blindfolded Fyodor Dostoevsky narrowly avoided execution for anti-government activities, right as he stood in line of the firing squad, instead sent to a Siberian labour camp at the last minute (I swear I am going somewhere with this).

Unbeknown to the young Dostoevsky, this was a mock execution intended to instil fear in dissidents of Tsar Nicholas I. Yet, convinced he was about to die, Dostoevsky’s final thoughts before he was spared were of his brother,

“I remembered you, brother, and all yours; during
the last minute you, you alone, were in my mind,
only then I realised how I love you, dear brother
mine!” 

Despite this likely being one of Dostoevsky’s least favourite moments, I do love this story. It’s incredibly sweet that the future novelist shared that kind of relationship with his brother, and that perhaps it took facing death for him to fully appreciate how strong their bond truly was.

I’m reading Little Women at the moment, and was reminded of Dostoevsky’s ‘final’ thoughts within the ‘Dark Days’ chapter, where it takes Beth being close to death for each of her sisters to reflect on just how much she means to them, and what losing her would mean.*

“Then it was that Jo, living in the darkened room with that suffering little sister always before her eyes, and that pathetic voice sounding in her ears, learned to see the beauty and the sweetness of Beth’s nature, to feel how deep and tender a place she filled in all hearts, and to acknowledge the worth of Beth’s unselfish ambition, to live for others, and make home happy by the exercise of those simple virtues which all may possess, and which all should love and value more than talent, wealth or beauty.”

[*But I’m also super childish and, in between being sad, the fact that Beth’s doctor is named Dr Bangs is giving me big laughs – I don’t deserve classic literature!]

Sibling’s are interesting; they’re essentially friends your parents assign you for life. Yet despite them looking like you and being raised by the same crowd, there’s no guarantee you’ll hit it off or even like each other (obviously though I lucked out with my sister whose a legend – and I’m not just saying that cause she reads my blog). 

Plus given I only have the one sister, I can only imagine what it’s like to experience multiple siblings (and to see multiple alternative results of your parents’ parenting technique walking around). 

It’s interesting what’s unique and what’s universal about these relationships. So let’s brood over a few sibling relationships found in fiction and memoirs, to see what bits feel comparable to our own complex ties. 

We Have Always Lived in the Castle (Shirley Jackson, 1962)

For some reason, I do disproportionately go for American books and/or books written in the 1960’s. I’m not sure why that is, it’s just a pattern I’ve started to notice lately.

Anyway, written by the author of The Lottery (which does not include any tips on how to win the lottery), We Have Always Lived in The Castle tells the story of two ostracised sisters, Merricat (18) and Constance (28) Blackwood.

Both live with their elderly, wheelchair bound, uncle, on the margins of a town that despises them for the suspicious poisoning of the rest of the Blackwood family six years prior.

Although she is eighteen, Merricat is incredibly childlike, to the point where you will flip back at least once to double-check you got the age right. Whereas Constance refuses to leave the house as she is unofficially blamed by the townspeople for her family’s murder despite being formally acquitted.

The good/infuriating thing about this short novel is how many unanswered questions it raises and leaves open for interpretation. I’m into it, but at the same time I’m lazy and I wouldn’t have been against everything eventually being spelt out for me.

Plus from a sibling standpoint, I think it’s touching/miraculous that Constance and Merricat live in such isolation for so long, with essentially only each other for company, yet rarely piss each other off. I love my own sister dearly, but it would take less than a week living in similar conditions for a scrag fight to kick off.

A Streetcar Named Desire (Tennessee Williams, 1947)

That’s another thing, I generally go for books which are on the shorter side or at least have a bigger font – I think it’s cause I’m impatient and like to get through things fast; and A Streetcar Named Desire is under 100 pages so here we are.

Blanche DuBois is Stella Kowalski’s older sister. It’s presumed that they haven’t been in contact for a while given Blanche hasn’t yet met Stella’s husband Stanley, and Stella wasn’t aware that they’d lost their family property or that Blanche has been fired from her teaching job (for sleeping with a student – Blanche is a bit of a hot mess).

As the family home is gone, what Stella thought was Blanche visiting is now her crashing at their very tiny New Orleans flat indefinitely, and immediately Stanley can’t stand Blanche for being a car-wreck as well as somehow convinced she’s still upper-class.

The feeling is mutual, as Blanche considers Stanley belligerent and coarse, and she regularly make’s it known to Stella that she can’t understand why she chooses to stay with him.

Without giving too much away, after Blanche and Stanley’s hostility reaches its peak, ultimately Stella chooses denial and her husband over believing her sister, who is too easily dismissable [and I don’t know why I’m so scared about giving spoilers, the play is over 70 years old. But I don’t know though, you might want to read/see it and go in fresh].

One reason Streetcar is considered Williams’ greatest work is its frank portrayal of dysfunctional family dynamics. It is very of its time yet its timeless and if you’re going to watch it, try and see it as a play – they change the ending in the 1951 film adaption because it was considered too dark (or alternatively you can always get a not-so-great gist from watching the Streetcar episode of The Simpsons, A Streetcar named Marge – that’s where I learnt prior to reading that there is some bowling in it but no partial nudity).

High School (Tegan and Sara Quin, 2019)

I really wish this book existed when I was a teenager. Rarely do I reread books but I will read this again next summer when its less fresh in my head.

So this one is a shared memoir of Canadian musicians and twin sisters Tegan and Sara, which primarily focuses on high school and their 1990’s adolescence. Starting in grade 10 (when they’re 15), each chapter swaps between which sister is narrating, and begins with Tegan’s perspective and hurt confusion when Sara starts wanting to spend more time alone with their shared best friend.

Unbeknown to Tegan, this becomes Sara’s first serious relationship, and it’s fascinating reading how two people, who are so close and in a lot of ways similar, how their story’s of self discovery and coming out could be so distinctive, as well as reading about two siblings both realising this huge part of themselves, for a long time in secret. 

Each chapter is a fragment story from high school, which lead to the sisters winning their first music competition and getting their first taste of success at 18. It’s touching and relatable no matter what decade high school was for you, and the line that stuck with me the most is close to the end, when Sara remembers her aunt’s response to her shaving her head – “you look exactly like yourself”

[Plus (in a non-creepy way) I’m a huge fan of other people’s family photos, and there’s lots of them in this book]

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (Dave Eggers, 2000)

This is the breakout memoir of Dave Eggers, published two years after McSweeneys came into existence (the publishing house Eggers founded), and I’m not going to lie, a large part of why I wanted to read this was how good that title is. 

The title make’s it sound like it’s going to be hilarous, and while there are many little funny moments, the book’s focus is Eggers losing both his parents to cancer at 21 within weeks of each other, and becoming a guardian to his eight year old brother, Christopher “Toph”.

While this divides people, and admittedly the later chapters where he’s starting up Might magazine are weaker than the first chapters, Eggers’ shifting relationship with his younger brother and their experiences creating a new normal after such a heavy loss is uplifting and does make you think about what you were up to age 21 and whether you had your life together enough to handle that level of responsibility.

Poe and Other Writers who may have had the French curse

[I’ve just wanted an excuse to use that South Park clip for a while now, it’s got nothing to do with anything beyond our darling lord of darkness featuring in it]

Several months ago I wrote an article (not for this blog) about syphilis amongst bohemian types in the Victorian era; so an extremely handy by-product of this has been that I still have a bunch of syphilis-based trivia etched into my brain (I do have a trivia night tomorrow though, I’m sure this wealth of syphilis fun-facts will make me a real asset to the team!).

I don’t want to brag, but my horror-movie night buddy, Mitch, took us all to see a play last week – in an attempt to bring a touch more class to spooks night – and I guessed one of the characters had syphilis within seconds of them mentioning he’d been hanging out with artistic types in Paris, and that he had a headache (the play was Ghosts by Henrik Ibsen – the ghosts were metaphorical, it was a huge letdown).

By the end of the nineteenth century, it’s estimated that 15% of Paris’s population was infected with syphilis, hence the term ‘French curse’. Yet due to factors such as: the stigma surrounding the disease, the difficulty of diagnosing syphilis in it’s first stage and the long period of remission that untreated syphilis will go into before ultimately reaching the final tertiary stage – generally scholars can only speculate as to whether the death’s of certain notable figures were perhaps connected to the venereal disease.

One theory, concerning Poe’s mysterious surrounding death, for instance, is that the writer had tertiary stage syphilis. This theory, would explain why Poe was in a complete state of delirium in the four days leading up to his death, however it remains unconfirmable.

Like Poe, here are a few other literary figures whose untimely deaths could have, or were speculated, to have been syphilis-related.

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844 – 1900)

The last 11 years of German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche’s life were spent in a Swiss asylum following a public breakdown on the streets of Turin, Italy. He had been triggered by seeing a horse being whipped by its master, and became so distraught that he threw his arms around the animal, in an attempt to defend it.

Although in 2003 a medical study by  Dr. Leonard Sax, confirmed that the cause of Nietzsche’s progressive dementia was brain cancer, Nietzsche’s initial diagnosis was tertiary syphilis, and it is still a subject to debate whether Nietzsche contracted syphilis from experiences at brothels. 

Oscar Wilde (1854 – 1900)

Wilde’s tombstone in Paris is covered in lipstick marks. I personally think that’s an adorable and wholesome graffiti tradition, but apparently it’s really terrible for stone erosion.

Anyway, following the Irish playwright’s release from his two year prison sentence, he spent the final three years of his life in various hotels across Paris, until his death at age 46 of cerebral meningitis.

The popular belief that Wilde had syphilis was especially perpetuated by Arthur Ransome’s 1912 biography of Wilde. Although, none of Wilde’s doctors recording syphilis as a cause of death, Ransome’s biography stated that the poet’s death was directly due to meningitis, the legacy of an attack of tertiary syphilis’: a claim which subsequent biographers would continue to make despite no definitive evidence or a recorded syphilis diagnosis.

Arthur Rimbaud (1854 – 1891)

Described by Patti Smith as ‘the first punk poet’ and famously by Andre Breton as ‘a veritable god of  puberty’; French poet, Arthur Rimbaud became a legendary figure, for what he achieved during the five years he was a practicing poet, but also for his cheeky trouble-making antics and affairs throughout his tumultuous and poverty-stricken youth.

Rimbaud wrote his first published poem just before he turned sixteen, and quit writing altogether at age 20, choosing to spend his life as a colonial trader in Africa. He died at age 37 after losing his leg to a knee injury. However whether this injury was a complication of syphilis or bone cancer is a subject of debate amongst biographers. 

Graham Robb’s biography Rimbaud (2000) for instance, contends that Rimbaud got syphilis working as a trader, after becoming involved with women. But Rimbaud’s adult and post-poetry life is pretty shrouded in mystery so evidence on that one is quite slim pickings.

Ghostbusting

In all seriousness I once had what I’m definitely convinced was a paranormal experience.

I was on a ghost tour of an old building with some friends on Valentine’s Day last year (I can’t stress enough I went with other people! It wasn’t some completely tragic stag valentines evening), and this burst of light went past me. I didn’t tell anyone though just cause I’d been a massive smart ass up until that point (what you’d except you know, doing the creepy hand up people’s backs and the like).

This isn’t to say though that this one experience was enough to get me one hundred percent convinced in the existence of ghosts (and to be fair we had been drinking before this tour started), but it is quite poetic to believe that places remember their history and hold onto past energy. It’s like that classic Einstein quote which those terrible ghost hunting shows tend to reference, that ‘energy can neither be created nor destroyed it can only change forms’.

Anyway so let’s talk about ghosts in literature, and judge how they’re choosing to spend their afterlife. I haven’t read A Christmas Carol though, just cause I like to go into a book fresh and I think every person knows that plot before they’ve even knew it was Dickens – thanks a lot Muppets Christmas Carol!!!

The Canterville Ghost (Oscar Wilde, 1887)

This story is more adorable than it is scary. I think it must’ve been a children’s story.

So an American family moves into this long-abandoned mansion in the UK, Canterville Chase, and they’re warned by the seller, Lord Canterville, that no one wants to live there because it’s haunted by one of his dead relatives. But the Otis family are ballers, and they move in anyway cause the place was a bargain (which I respect).

Anyway so the Canterville ghost starts making its first appearances, but the family are treating the sight of the un-dead with impressive levels of nonchalance. Especially the two twin boys whose incessant pranks on the ghost actually start making the ghost so depressed that he starts keeping to himself in his room.

Its at this point that the youngest daughter, Virginia, starts to feel sorry for the Canterville ghost and she helps him on this little quest to get out of limbo and move into the afterlife. AWWWW!!!

The Turn of the Screw (Henry James, 1898)

Honestly it’s been roughly two years since I read Turn of the Screw, and personally I found it pretty underwhelming.

I had to quickly google what the plot was as I couldn’t for the life of me remember what happened beyond – it takes place in a mansion and the children act creepy for 80% of the story. So clearly I’ve blocked this reading experience from my memory.

Anyway so according to Sparknotes, what happens is a governess is taking care of two children, Flora and Miles, at this country home called Bly, and the kids progressively act more and more strange especially at night, as the governess frequently spots them roaming around outside.

Understandably the governess becomes more disturbed by these goings-on so she’s doing a bit of research, and it turns out the ghosts of Bly’s former governess and footman, Miss Jessel and Quint, are manipulating the children.

Truly, even rereading a plot summary I can’t remember this story at all. I do however remember thinking at the time, why would you want to spend your after-life hanging out in your old workplace with only some snooty manor house children for company?

The Brown Hand (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, 1899)

So because Arthur Conan Doyle is obviously most known for Sherlock Holmes, my very immature mind hoped that this story was a grim tale of Sherlock solving a fairly simple case of how a hand got brown (I’m disgusting and I need to grow up).

This one’s pretty good. It’s about a doctor who for twenty years has been visited every night by the ghost of a former patient. This patient was an Afghan hill-man who had his hand amputated by the doctor, and for religious reasons he needed to be buried with all parts of his body. The doctor had made a promise to the him that he would keep the hand preserved with his other specimens and he could have it back to be buried with, but due to a house fire the doctor was unable to keep his promise. So the deceased patient comes back every night, searches the remnants of the doctor’s collection and then looks angrily at the doctor because he can’t see his hand amongst the collection.

The Inexperienced Ghost (H.G Wells, 1902)

I do love how the majority of Victorian-era ghost stories all seem to start in the same way, where a group of men are in a cigar room or something and they all decide to exchange ghost-stories.

In this story, a man called Clayton is telling his golf buddies about how the previous night he met a sobbing ghost, and while he’s telling this story he dies of a heart-attack leaving his fellow golfers not sure whether his story was true or just an elaborate joke.

What is sadly relatable about this story is that the ghost is crying because he’s really terrible at doing hauntings and it’s gotten to him that even in death he’s managed to find something else he sucks at.

Also Wells gets some points for this stellar pun: ‘but being transparent of course he couldn’t avoid telling the truth’ – Wells you sly ol’ wordsmith you!!!

The Mound (H.P Lovecraft, 1929)

H.P Lovecraft is to science fiction what Poe is to Gothic literature, and I am surprised/deeply disappointed in myself that this is the first mention of him on this blog.

What’s great about Lovecraft’s Cthulhu stories is that even though each are individual pieces that can be read individually and in no particular order, they interlace together through the fictional forbidden book of black magic, Necronomicon. 

In The Mound an ethnologist is visiting Binger, Oklahoma to study a mysterious Indian mound which the town is situated under. This mound is deeply feared by the locals due to the fates of the few people who have attempted to explore it. What’s more, it is said to be haunted by two ghosts, a man during the day and a headless woman at night.

And (*spoilers) while the two ‘ghosts’ haunting the mound turn out not to be ghosts but rather guards of a gateway into the underground realm of K’n-yan, I figured this story still belongs on the list because initially you do assume that the two recurring figures are ghosts. (If you’re going to start reading Lovecraft though, The Mound isn’t the best one, try The Thing on the Doorstep or The Shadow Over Innsmouth first).

Eileen (Ottessa Moshfegh, 2015)

Not strictly a ghost story either, but it uses ghosts as a metaphor often enough that I think I can bring it up here. Also it’s just impressive that for once I’ve branched out and actually read something written in this century for a change.

Recanted by the main character in her old age, Eileen takes place the week leading up to Christmas, 1962 – what would ultimately be the then 24 year old Eileen’s last week in her hometown of X-ville before she started a new life away from her abusive drunken father. It’s a clever hook because you do end up reading it pretty fast in a desperate need to know what’s gonna finally push Eileen to stand up for herself.

Specifically ghosts are regularly mentioned in relation to the dilapidated house she shares with her father, which has been left to fall apart since her mother’s death two years ago, but also more literally, her father is convinced that thuggish ‘hoodlum ghosts’ are living in their walls – which is a story-line I wish they further elaborated on.

‘There is a gentlemen, rather the worse for wear…’

[That cover image is Vincent Price in the film adaption of The Mask of the Red Death. Yes, he really does look like a massive weirdo in that costume – like the person who is ruining your otherwise rocking Halloween party]

In life, there are countless moments of varying significance that, for whatever reason, manage to get themselves forever lost to ol’ father time. For me personally, the absent memory of how that mysterious dalmatian ended up on top of me the night drinking Yahtzee was invented is the first thing that springs to my mind.

It’s usually a rather mundane reality that naturally not every single moment in history was recorded, and that memory is incapable of preserving every lived minute in pristine condition. Yet when it concerns a figure like Edgar Allan Poe – who never really needed any additional assistance coming across enigmatic – this commonplace phenomena becomes ten-fold more enthralling.

Poe’s unexplained disappearance and his subsequent mysterious death four days after he was found, is one of those historical subjects that gets me a little bit excited – as a fan of both some Poe trivia and a good mystery. Plus it makes me wonder whether fellow crime writer Agatha Christie ever thought of Poe during her own eleven day disappearance in 1926.

On 7 October  1849, at Washington College Hospital – in a cell-room normally reserved for drunks; the gorgeous 19th century equivalent of Robert Smith allegedly whispered ‘Lord help my poor soul’ before dying at age 40 – ten days before he was to marry what would have his second wife, fellow widow Elmira Royster Shelton.

Officially Poe death was documented as ‘congestion of the brain’, however an autopsy was never conducted, and as his doctor had denied all visitors, only one account exists of the state Poe was in leading up to his death.

During Poe’s four days of hospitalisation he was in a complete state of delirium, incapable of accounting what had happened since he was last seen on 27 September leaving Richmond, Virginia for an editing job in Philadelphia.

Poe had been found 3 October outside a tavern and polling location (it was during an election), by a printer named Joseph Walker who recognised the famous poet. Poe gave Walker the name of an acquaintance, Dr. Joseph E. Snodgrass, and Walker got in contact with Snodgrass asking for help,

Dear Sir, 

There is a gentleman, rather the worse for wear, at Ryan’s 4th ward polls, who goes under the cognomen of Edgar A. Poe, and who appears in great distress, & he says he is acquainted with you, he is in need of immediate assistance.

Yours, in haste,
JOS. W. WALKER
To Dr. J.E. Snodgrass.

What’s particularly intriguing though, is that Poe was found dressed in clothes that were not his, yet still in possession of a sword cane he had nicked from a friend of his called Dr John Carter, who Poe had visited the night before he left Richmond (to be fair if any of my friends owned an actual sword cane I would “accidentally” leave their house with it too. I would so “accidentally” conceal it under my jacket somehow).

There are numerous theories that attempt to give an explanation on what precisely caused Poe’s death – such as rabies, carbon monoxide poisoning, alcoholism, a brain tumour. Or more sinister explanations such as murder, or being victim of ‘cooping’ – a type of voter fraud where gangs would kidnap victims and force them to repeatedly vote in various disguises.

What’s annoys me the most though about this never to be solved riddle is that a medium in the 1860s claimed Poe’s ghost wrote poetry through her – if you could communicate with Poe’s ghost, WHY DIDN’T YOU ASK HIM TO EXPLAIN HIS DEATH SO THAT IT ISN’T A TOPIC OF DEBATE 169 YEARS AFTER IT HAPPENED?????

Fictional Couples whose happiness won’t make you want to be sick in a bucket

In hindsight, I think the main reason I didn’t have any interest in reading as a teenager was that – in my experience anyway, a lot of books directed primarily towards adolescent girls, tended to have a strong sappy romantic sub-plot; and being the cold-hearted cynic that I was/am, I genuinely believed that it was impossible for a novel to have romantic themes and not be a complete load of dull shite.

And while yes, I still wouldn’t be caught dead reading Romeo and Juliet (YOU’RE THIRTEEN, you will meet other people! A bit of get the fuck over it is in order), I’m proud to say that my palette has slightly widened over time. I won’t automatically dismiss reading something anymore based purely on the knowledge that a loved-up couple will be featuring a lot in it.

Don’t get me wrong, if a book isn’t a little dark, I will probably lose interest, BUT I’ve learned not to be so narrow minded. Falling in love is a big theme, and of course not every single fictional representation of it, is doomed to feel simplistic and clique. So here are a few fictional couples whose stories have helped me broaden my horizons.

Robert and Maria (For Whom the Bell Tolls, 1941)

This is such a beautiful book, seriously get on it.

Inspired by Hemingway’s own experiences travelling across Spain, reporting on the Spanish Civil War; For Whom the Bell Tolls takes place over the course of four days, and tells the story of an American volunteer Robert Jordan, who must blow up a bridge of strategic importance behind enemy (Fascist) lines.

For the offensive attack to be successful, the bridge needs to be blown up at a minutely specific time; and the story begins with Robert meeting a small group of guerrilla fighters, living within the mountains, who have been assigned to help him.

This group includes Maria – who they found in a horrifically traumatised state and took in. The cruelty inflicted on her, following the Fascist takeover of her town, is still a very fresh wound – yet her gentle demeanour hasn’t been poisoned. She and Robert are instantly drawn to each other and from the first night they are an item.

What’s particularly poignant about their relationship, is that while it moves fast as a consequence of the immense instability surrounding them, it feels realistic because Robert is frequently ruminating whether his passion for Maria is genuine, or if his feelings have only been intensified by the knowledge he could easily die during this mission.

Although some contemporary criticisms feel that Maria’s character is far too one-dimensional: factoring in its cultural/historical context, I’m not sure if that’s a fair assessment. But I would’ve loved to have known more about Maria’s personality outside of Robert.

Stephen and Mary (The Well of Loneliness, 1928)

As my previous blogpost on The Well of Loneliness, focused more on its obscenity trials rather than the book’s actual story, I figure I could talk about it here without doubling up.

Now the reason you’ll feel particularly invested in Stephen Gordon and Mary Llewellyn’s happiness is because prior to meeting each other as ambulance drivers during World War I, the novel details all of Stephen’s personal history.

Her incapacity, growing up, to comprehend her difference, her crippling loneliness, her unrequited obsession over a married neighbour, her mother’s eventual disownment of her – all of these experiences, despite the long held criticism that this book hasn’t aged well, have a deep, and timeless resonance. Plus, having a nuanced understanding of who Stephen is before she finds love, means as a reader you have a greater impression of how much Mary enriches her existence.

Another great quality of this class piece of literature is Hall’s additional effort to highlight the strong class element that restricted the freedom of queer women during this time. In the story Mary and Stephen are close friends with another lesbian couple, Jamie and Barbara, whose choice to live as a couple has left them ostracised from their small village destitute and ‘starvation poor’. As well as their influence on the overall plot progression, Jamie and Barbara’s existence within the story is vital because it highlighted the freedom Stephen’s wealth had given her.

Jean and Helene (The Blood of Others, 1945)

I was debating for a bit whether or not Jean and Helene belonged on this list, given technically it’s really not a love story – more an exploration into personal responsibility and what we owe other people. But when I read it years ago, I remember it partially strengthening my own, very limited, understanding of why certain things had turned to shit. And that’s pretty impressive from a book that’s premise was completely unknown to me before starting it (my motives for reading it were basically – I wanted to read some Simone de Beauvoir and it was the thinnest book I could find).

Set within a German occupied France, and like For Whom the Bell Tolls, also inspired by Beauvior’s own personal experience working for the French Resistance: The Blood of Others is the story of a brief affair relived through a succession of flashbacks, as the main protagonist, Jean, watches his former lover Helene, die of a gunshot wound (he wasn’t the one who shot her by the way, it was a French Resistance related accident).

What’s central to Jean and Helene’s story is that Jean is never sure that he loves Helene, yet he tells her he loves her anyway because he is fascinated by how Helene’s happiness becomes dependant on this imperfect understanding she has of him. In other words, it’s the classic existentialist mind-fuck where it dawns on you that you can only know a person to an extent.

 

 

Wrongdoings and Getting Judged for Them

I remember my first run-in with an authority figure that wasn’t one of my parents. I was seven, and I had to sit on the step for saying some cheeky rhyme with the word ‘bum’ in it, in front of the new preps. Rather than taking my punishment with a quiet dignity, I cried the entire time I was on the step – I wasn’t the most rebellious of youth.

Each person’s own unique and ongoing relationship to the rules they’re told to abide by, is fascinating and not always fair.  Regardless of whether you choose to challenge or comply with moral or societal restrictions, the influence rules have in sculpting who we are, is immeasurable. And sometimes, you’ll fight the law and the law wins.

So if you’re in the mood to ponder the judicial process, here are a few bits of writing which are thankfully much shorter reads than Crime and Punishment (just don’t read Crime and Punishment I proper struggled)

The Trial (Franz Kakfa, 1925)

Like Kafka’s other stories, The Trial is often considered particularly chilling because it’s said to foreshadow life under Nazi occupation – an era which Kakfa never lived to see.

Originally written in 1915 and published posthumously, The Trial tells the story of Josef K. who wakes up one morning told he has been charged for a crime which is never revealed to him by a mysterious bureaucratic system.

Josef K. hopelessly fights his case even though he doesn’t know what exactly he is being charged with, to a powerful yet invisible, system that’s structure is unknown.

Twelve Angry Men (Reginald Rose, 1957)

A short American screenplay which, as you’re promised, has twelve men in it that are sometimes arguing (it never escalates into a street fight though which is a bit of a let down).

Set in a sequestered jury room, the jurors need to reach a unanimous verdict on the 19 year old defendant accused of killing his father. If found guilty he’ll be sentenced to death.

In short, the play is the jurors arguing into the night, attempting to determine whether there is a reasonable doubt. It’s also meant to make you think about how much personal prejudices can be put aside to ensure they don’t ‘obscure the truth’.

The Ballad of Reading Gaol (Oscar Wilde, 1898)

Written after his release, this powerful poem describes a hanging Wilde witnessed during his two year prison sentence of a Royal Horse Guards trooper, Charles Thomas Wooldridge who had murdered his wife in a jealous rage for suspected infidelity.

A statement against capital punishment, Wilde humanise’s Wooldridge by detailing his movements as he walks toward the scaffold. He attempts to capture the pain of witnessing a fellow man die ‘a death of shame’; his underlying point being that we are all sinful yet not all of us are forced to die this way. Repeatedly the poem describes the ‘wisful eyes’ of Wooldridge on this fateful day, and comes back to this one poignant verse,

‘Yet each man kills the thing he loves,
By each let this be heard,
Some do it with a bitter look,
Some with a flattering word,
The coward does it with a kiss,
The brave man with a sword!’

Inferno (Dante Alighieri, 1472)

I have two favourite parts of this classic epic poem/brochure of what to except if you’ve been a bit of a wrongin during your life,

  1. That God seems to be a fan of handing out very specific ironic punishments
  2. People who were unable to commit to the church because it was before their time-period are still sent to the first circle of hell for not believing in God. That’s a bit of a dick move.

The first of three poems (I have only read this one though, cause I thought it would be juicy), Inferno is about Dante getting himself lost in the forest and the ghost of Virgil needing to lead him through the nine circles of hell to get back onto his path.

Death in Poe’s Short Stories

I’m a disgrace. A year has officially passed since I started this blog and I haven’t dedicated a single post to gorgeous lord of the goths Edgar Allan Poe yet, what is that about? What am I actually doing?

So lets amend that shit right now, and look at Poe’s explorations of death, and the range of ways death has come (or nearly come) to characters in Poe’s short stories.

I have noticed that the moral of a fair percentage of Poe’s work seems to be, Victorian mansions are creepy as fuck and you will definitely get yourself killed in one.

The Fall of the House of Usher (1839)

In this, an unnamed narrator receives a letter from an eccentric childhood acquaintance, Roderick Usher, asking for his company, as his sister, Madeline is dying of a rare illness. They are all living together is this decrepit old mansion and Madeline soon dies.

Because her illness was rare, Roderick wants her quickly buried to avoid her body being the subject of scientific examination. So they place her in the family tomb located in the basement of the house.

Over the next few days, both the narrator and Roderick keep hearing these terrible noises, and the narrator starts thinking that the house has an evil aura to it. Then one night (of course its night and of course there’s a storm) they both finally realise that they’ve accidentally encapsulated Madeline while she was still alive, and Madeline then walks in looking really pissed off, ‘blood on her white robes and the evidence of some bitter struggle upon every portion of her emaciated frame’.

She attacks and kills Roderick, because she thinks he’d done it on purpose, and the unnamed narrator runs off into the night questioning his decision to respond to that letter.

The Pit and the Pendulum (1842)

Set during the Spanish Inquisition, the narrator has been sentenced to death and is having a big ponder while he’s sitting in this dungeon. He then wakes up, tied to a rack while pendulum, ‘like a razor’, slowly descends.

The Masque of the Red Death (1842)

Look if you’re a royal, and you’re currently avoiding thinking about a plague that’s ravaging your people, maybe don’t have a big mad house party to celebrate how un-plaguey your palace is. Because if you do the red death himself will gatecrash and freak everybody out.

The Tell Tale Heart (1843)

My favourite part of this short story is the reason why the narrator wants to kills the old man in the first place. Its because he doesn’t like the old man’s glass eye – bit of an over reaction there, maybe just put some shades on him instead?

I’m sure you’re all familiar with this story: a man commits a murder with meticulous detail, then dobs on himself because his conscious can still hear the old man’s heart beating under the floor boards.

‘Dissemble no more! I admit the deed – tear up the planks here! – it’s the beating of his hideous heart’

The Premature Burial (1844)

‘The boundaries which divide Life and Death are at best shadowy and vague.’

I love this story because its the biggest anti-climax. The premise is that the narrator has a terrible phobia of being buried alive as he suffers from a condition called catalepsy – which induces day long trances that make it appear as though he is dead.

One day he wakes up confined in a wooden space, he thinks that its finally happened and he shits himself. But it turns out that he’s just fallen asleep in the wooden berth of a boat and its all fine.

The Cask of Amontillado (1846)

This one is quite an intense revenge plan.

What happens is, the narrator is once again shitty with something a friend of his called Fortunato has done, so he puts an end to this madness by luring Fortunato while he’s drunk down to his family’s catacombs in the attic, under the guise that he has a wine that could pass for Amontillado (a type of sherry).

The narrator chains Fortunato in the catacombs and walls up the entrance.

Who’s the Existentialist that’s a sex machine to all the chicks? CAMUS! You’re damn Right!

I haven’t had a lot of sleep over the last two night as I’ve been watching quite a lot of old Twin Peaks episodes. And because I’m sleep deprived while simultaneously trying to follow this beautifully bizarre plot, it got me thinking about Camus’ concept of ‘absurdity’ in comparison.

There’s an automatic presumption around the word ‘absurd’, that it’s a word used to describe that which is odd or strange. But for French-Algerian existentialist, Albert Camus (1913-1960), absurdity is found in the mundane and surrounds all aspects of our existence, ‘the Absurd is not in man…nor in the world, but in their presence together’.

Camus dedicated threes texts to contemplating absurdity; which included a novel (The Outsider), an essay (The Myth of Sisyphus*) and a play (Caligula).

Of these, The Myth of Sisyphus (1942) is the more obvious exploration (which ironically makes it the text that is the harder to fully unpack) and through its attempt to understand the deeply complicated ‘relationship between the absurd and suicide’ it suggests that absurdity is our only absolute, and that seeking clarity or rationality in our existence is futile, ‘the absurd becomes god…and that inability to understand becomes the existence that illuminates everything’.

Camus compares existence to the mythical tale of Sisyphus who was condemned by the gods to endlessly roll a stone up a hill only to have it continually roll back down.

Now initially this sounds really grim, but what makes this a surprisingly optimistic essay is Camus’ contention that ‘absence of hope (which is not the same as despair)’ and acceptance of the absurd nature of everything, means life is more fully lived,

‘Men who have given up all hope are endowed with a lucid indifference’

It’s quite beautiful, the idea that life has meaning and is worth living precisely because it has no meaning and full clarity alludes us. There is meaning and depth in ‘the world’s lack of meaning’.

If you are going to try and read all of The Myth of Sisyphus though, be warned it is possibly more hard to follow than Twin Peaks.

[*which dead set I thought was pronounced ‘syphilis’ until I was recently corrected]