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.

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

Book Recommendations from Daria Morgendorffer’s Reading List

Image result for Daria Morgendorffer reading

My two favourite tv bookworms would probably be, Daria Morgendorffer from Daria and Mark Corrigan from Peep Show. Everyone’s favourite, Rory Gilmore from Gilmore Girls, shits me for one reason: I don’t think it’s realistic (regardless of her being gifted) that a teenager whose life is interesting enough that she’s in a quirky jam every week with her mother, has time to read 339 bulky and often dry as fuck classics on top of her schoolwork (give me a break, she’s just holding at least some of them to look like a boffin. I’m calling bullshit! No one under 20 is reading Ulysses unless someone’s holding a gun to their head for several months). 

Daria ran for five seasons, during which 62 books are either read, or referenced, by the brooding misfit – that’s a believable number (and I want only realistic standards for bookish types dammit! unless it’s Lisa Simpson; she’s been eight for 30 years, she can go read Gore Vidal and it not be weird that she’s in primary school).

The Simpsons Episode 25 GIF

The Simpsons Episode 25 GIF

Anyway the reason I’m bringing up every cynical teen’s hero is because I read a surprising bit of trivia recently; only seven of the 62 books Daria reads over the course of the show, are by women. 

Now for those of you who aren’t familiar with the character, this was unexpected because Daria is considered a bit of a 1990s feminist icon – and while she’s fictional, the writers/artists of the show would’ve thought carefully about what books to draw her with to best represent her personality and intellect. 

This got me thinking about my own reading habits and how I too could definitely stand to branch out and read more from different perspectives. 

It’s certainly not been an intentional choice, and this isn’t to say I don’t think the books I read aren’t varied: it’s more something I’ve noticed I could improve, especially when it comes to fiction – because in the fiction department I tend to go for old books or books regarded traditionally as classics and with that there’s a risk of complacence as well as not proactively searching for voices that were/are marginalised but are equally as worthy (or I could just read more fiction brought out in this millennia with an author who’s still alive).  

And I know out the four books I’m about to talk about from Daria’s reading list, only one is by a woman but I promise that with future blogposts I am going to make a better effort to read more diversely and have slightly less dead white guys. Anyway here are four of my favourites that the sarcastic legend is spotted reading! [Of the seven books from the list written by women, I’ve only read two and I’ve already written about Frankenstein in a previous blogpost so I didn’t want to double up] 

The Bell Jar (Sylvia Plath, 1963)

A bell jar traps whatever’s displayed inside – and while transparent, the glass warps the perception of what’s outside the bell jar. This is how The Bell Jar’s protagonist, Esther Greenwood, describes the growing isolation she feels as her mental health descends – ‘under the same glass bell jar, stewing in my own sour air’. 

Told from Esther’s perspective, The Bell Jar begins with the aspiring poet (and recent college graduate) completing a summer internship in New York City for Ladies’ Day magazine. She applies for a writing program which commences immediately after the internship finishes; but following her rejection, Esther moves back to her mothers for the rest of the summer and attempts to start a novel.

However, feeling as though she has no life experience to write something meaningful, teaming with the daunting realisation that college is over and none of the limited paths she has to choose from appeal to her, Esther feels the descent of the bell jar hovering above her head and must eventually undergo electric shock therapy and analysis at the mental asylum.

This is one of those books where I feel like you’re not really going to get a lot out of reading it until life’s thrown you around a little, or you’ve at least feared that your life is directionless.

It’s embarrassing but nineteen was too young for me, and my first impression of The Bell Jar was that it was average. I couldn’t understand what had spurred Esther’s breakdown: myself being a little too immature to get that that’s part of the point – as well as failing to read it with the historical context that opportunities for women were a lot more limited then, or truly appreciate that it was written by a poet who did end her own life less than a month after it was published. In other words I’m very glad I revisited it last year.

Nausea (Jean Paul Sartre, 1938)

You know how in Rocket Man, where it’s a Saturday night and they’re at a rowdy venue and you get the sneaky suspicion that a fight is about to break out so Elton can conveniently play ‘Saturday Night’s Alright’ (oh so subtle); Nausea is kind of like that, in that Sartre’s philosophical ideas are what he wanted to primarily discuss and the story fits around those discussions.

For the French existentialist/campus legend (apparently he once turned up naked at a university event, what a mad dog), “existence precedes essence”, in other words life is all about creating meaning through action.

Like The Bell Jar, Nausea’s main fellow is a writer, called Antoine Roquentin, who is having a ponder –not just about the point of his existence, but human existence in general.

Roquentin documents every thought and sensation he has in order to fully comprehend his own existence (sounding like a writer who’s got a wee bit too much time to kill) and comes to the conclusion that there’s no reason for any of us to exist, the past is meaningless and what he’s going to do with his newfound free will is to write a novel.

The Grapes of Wrath (John Steinbeck, 1939)

Image result for The Simpsons Grapes of Wrath

In 1948, Stalin allowed the film adaption of The Grapes of Wrath to be released in the USSR because it depicts destitute Americans and it heavily criticises capitalism. This backfired however as Soviet citizens turned out to be impressed that even the poorest Americans owned cars.

The first time I read The Grapes of Wrath I was also nineteen (the uni library had a stellar American classics section) and I reread it again this year because 2020 hadn’t made me cry enough on its own. 

I love Steinbeck, and I know this book has received contemporary criticism for having historical inaccuracies but it still has merit regardless; you can feel Steinbeck’s raw anger like he’s talking to you and his point has that rare quality of being both of its time and equally politically pertinent now. There’s a reason he received the Nobel Prize of Literature for it and if anyone wants to tell me it wasn’t their cup of tea that’s fine but you have terrible taste and we’re going to have to take this outside!

During the Great Depression over a half a million Americans migrated west in the space of two to three years; The Grapes of Wrath focuses on a fictional Oklahoma family, the Joads, who lose their farm due to draught, recession and the introduction of tractors. Their only option is to make their way to California and try to get work fruit picking. The book follows the Joads’ journey travelling on Route 66 with everything they own in a beat up Hudson, and the disheartening reality that awaits them as migrant workers, when they finally reach California.

Breakfast of Champions (Kurt Vonnegut, 1973)

This one’s a lot more fun compared to the other books on this list – it has many delightful illustrations from Vonnegut himself and a fascinating theory about mirrors being ‘leaks’ to different dimensions – good choice Daria.

So this one splits between two strangers, Kilgore Trout – an elusive and essentially unrecognised science fiction writer, and Dwayne Hoover – a mentally unstable yet respected car dealership owner and local businessman, Dwayne eventually reads a novel by Trout, after a chance meeting at an arts festival, and takes his book literally that he (Dwayne) is the only free-willed being in the universe with dire consequences. As the narrator, Vonnegut also interjects regularly to give his hot take on life.

[Images via Triple M, Bookglow, Scoopnest, and aerogrammestudio]

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.

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.

‘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?????

April is the Cruelest Month

Knowing that this is definitely my last year of uni ever (seriously I can’t stress this enough – I’m never coming back for more of this shit!!!) means that my mind has recently started replaying the highlight reel of past procrastination, kind of like the flashback episode of a sitcom (particularly moments from my undergrad, that was pro level).

It’s all pretty embarrassing really, here’s a list of genuine things I’ve done over the years while procrastinating,

  • Got mad good at computer mah-jong and solitaire
  • Decided now was the best time to learn as much of Poe’s The Raven as I could off by heart (I can still get up to verse four though!)
  • Decided now was the best time to get back into knitting again
  • Spent the best part of a day carefully hand-picking the arils out of pomegranates
  • Watched the music video to Another Brick in the Wall a bunch of times then wondered why I wasn’t exactly feeling motivated to finish that essay

Anyway the reason I’m bringing this up is that, having a reminisce over all the self-inflicted pain which naturally comes with procrastination, has also got me thinking a lot about T.S Eliot – in particular the poem he is arguably most renowned for, The Wasteland.

While Eliot’s great line, ‘distracted from distraction by distraction’  from Four Quartets may seem like a more appropriate sentiment for talk on procrastination; The Wasteland‘s morbid exploration into the futility of modern existence, and the personal suffering behind the poem’s creation, can easily be applied to procrastination. Plus surprisingly, The Wasteland is even able to give an unintentionally optimistic perspective on treading through the shittier times (or it’s likely that maybe I’m being way too positive, it is pretty bleak).

First published in 1922, The Wasteland traces modernity’s descent into hell in five parts, and was the piece which first gained Eliot attention as a poet (interestingly James Joyce’s Ulysses was published earlier that year – my brain needs to get a whole lot more bigger and impressive before I attempt to read that though).

Throughout The Wasteland, hordes of tragic figures are mechanically walking through life,

‘I had not thought death had undone so many,     

Sighs, short and infrequent were exhaled

And each man fixed his eyes before his feet’  

Eliot warns of culture’s progressing erosion and the monotony to be faced trapped in ‘the wasteland’. This theme of dredging through tedium is comparable to that feeling of just wishing a task was over, to the point where you almost feel detached from the initial reason why you’re doing this work.

Yet conversely, these words are also a challenge to be better. To find purpose and beauty, and not settle for sleepwalking through your existence. In my case, I shouldn’t overlook the fact that even the most tedious tasks, form part of something greater that I care deeply about.

Going deeper, and extending beyond the poem’s words; Eliot famously credited his tumultuous eighteen year marriage to Vivienne Haigh-Wood for ‘…the state of mind out of which came The Wasteland’.

An awareness that the darkest point in T.S Eliot life, sparked what is arguably the most significant piece of his literary legacy, puts present unhappiness towards tedium into perspective. Yes, maybe the present feels like a struggle – but maybe by living through it, something truly brilliant will derive out of it?

[Bit of an interesting fun-fact I learnt while doing some note-taking for this post: the owners of Eliot’s old family beach house in Massachusetts claim that its haunted by Eliot’s ghost. In life, T.S was a bit of a prude, so I like to think that his ghost only appears in the throes of passion to give you a judgemental glare

I will be your father figure

This is a bit of a generalisation, but I’ve started to notice that there’s an extensive number of crappy parents in the classics, and I’m wondering what percentage of these are reflections of an author’s own imperfect relationship with their parents.

After all many renowned literary figures had fractured relationships with one or more of their parents. Our gorgeous friend and raven lover, Edgar Allan Poe for instance, had a deeply strained relationship with his adoptive father John Allan, which once erupted into a two day argument.

Channelling anger – or any kind of hurt, into creating a beautiful piece of writing is known to be quite cathartic. Or once its done, if you’re still mad, at the very least the person who’s pissed you off probably got the passive-aggressive hint after reading your piece. I’m assuming for example that Sylvia Plath’s dad and her husband, Ted Hughes, both got the very subtle message that there was a dash of hostility directed their way after reading the poem Daddy.

But while there are a lot of literary explorations of strained parental bonds, I want to talk about fictional characters who’s children actually love and admire them. The one’s who are strong role models, and who you hope you could emulate for your children.

Because the abundance of neglectful parents in literature, makes it even more touching when you find one that is hopeful and kind. So anyway here are three of my favourite father figures from fiction.

Atticus Finch (To Kill a Mockingbird,1960)

[If I didn’t mention Atticus in this post that would be pretty sacrilegious.]

‘The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.’

I probably will end up reading Go Set A Watchmen eventually, it’s just that I’m apprehensive. I don’t know if I could handle flawless Atticus suddenly being reduced to a senile bigot – his character deserved more than that, and more importantly Harper Lee deserved more than to have it published in the first place.

Its understandable why the 2015 release of Go Set a Watchmanthe sequel of To Kill a Mockingbird, was met with extensive criticism. Setting aside the alleged manipulation of Harper Lee, Atticus Finch is arguably one of the most beloved and inspiring characters in 20th century century literature.

To have his character lose all the principles that made him a powerful symbol, contradicted the reasons why To Kill a Mockingbird still holds such reverence 57 years after its initial publication.

So on that note let’s forget about Go Set a Watchmen here and focus specifically on the Atticus Finch of To Kill a Mockingbird. 

Set in Maycomb, Alabama during the depression, Atticus is the sole parent of Scout and Jem, who humbly demonstrates throughout the novel, what it means to truly seek fairness and to abide by one’s moral compass.

His children, quite rightly, idolise him as he exemplifies moral strength, both in his impossible role as defence attorney for a falsely accused black man, and in his general demeanour.

What’s more his ability to drop pearls of wisdom that touch your soul, is second to none. That final moment of the book, where Scout is talking about finally meeting Boo and her surprise that he’s friendly, and Atticus goes and drops this sweet exit line – ‘Most people are Scout when you finally see them’, is frankly getting me a little teary right now just thinking about it.

Hans Hubermann (The Book Thief, 2013) *spoilers

‘Trust was accumulated quickly, due primarily to the brute strength of the man’s gentleness’

Speaking of things which make me teary, the bond between Hans Hubermann and his foster daughter Liesel is one of the main reasons Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief is one of my favourite books. Even death himself – who narrates the novel, is deeply touched by their relationship and considers Hans to have the best kind of soul.

Set in Germany under Nazi rule, Liesel is taken to live with Rosa and Hans Hubermann at the age of ten, as both of her parents are communists – a label she doesn’t understand. The book is obviously centred around what’s happening in Europe and Germany at that point in time, yet it’s also a story of a girl developing a love for words – a love that’s spurred by Hans, who teaches her how to read and doesn’t crack it with her too much when she occasionally steals books.

They both just hold such a beautiful adoration for each other, and that bit at the end where Death tells us that the final thing Hans’ soul whispered before he dies was ‘Liesel’ –  I can’t handle it.

Jean Valjean (Les Miserables, 1862)

‘Poor sweet little creature whose heart had till that moment only ever been crushed.’

If you’re up for a fun-fact, the year Victor Hugo starting writing Les Miserables was the same year Poe’s The Raven was first published, 1845.

Anyway, just as in the musical adaption of Les Miserables, on the lam prisoner, Jean Valjean (who impressively managed to get his shit together and become a factory owner and the mayor of Montreuil-sur-mer before goody-two-shoes Javert had to spoil everything), rescues eight year old Cosette from her lonely and abusive existence living under the inn-keeping couple, the Thenardiers, after he makes a promise to her dying mother Fantine.

Now because the Thenardiers are campy and funny in the musical adaption, it does tend to kinda gloss over the fact that they really are the worst, and that Cosette has had a life of ongoing traumatic hardship up until Jean Valjean comes into her life.

Their bond is uniquely beautiful because both of them have had deeply lonely existences before finding each other. Plus its touching to read Cosette finally getting to have a parent who is filled with love for her.

 

 

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.