Cabin Fever and Forced Isolation in Fiction

tenor

via: tenor

I was on the beach in January when I first heard about COVID-19. My uncle made a stellar joke that the only cure for the coronavirus was a lime, and it would be another few days (after stumbling upon an article amid some mindless scrolling) that I realised it was an actual virus that existed and not a disease my uncle made up for the purposes of cracking a funny. 

Like everyone I’m currently spending majority of time inside – occasionally attempting to get some form of work done, and investing more time than I’m proud of attempting to nail the lyric’s to Joe Exotic’s ‘I Saw A Tiger’.

Right now, the days all feel kind of meshed into one. It’s frightening and it’s uncertain but it’s also making me appreciate so many little things which would’ve barely crossed my mind as a thing to be appreciative of a few months ago. I’m incredibly lucky for the stability I do have and for the friendships and relationships I can rely on despite how notoriously crap I am with checking my phone and responding to messages.

Anyway, if you’re currently on the lookout for some reading material that’s relatable but is also a break from thinking about COVID-19, here are a few literary explorations of ongoing and mundane isolation. 

My Year of Rest and Relaxation (Ottessa Moshfegh, 2018)

This was Moshfegh’s second novel, and personally I preferred her first book, Eileen, (which I’ve mentioned before) just because this is essentially about an unnamed narrator’s attempts to hibernate for an entire year [and I can always go back to living my own life if I wanna think about someone who takes a lot of day naps and only leaves the house at obscure times to do a coffee run – its greater meaning might’ve been lost on me]. But this book was the first time I found a new release in a Little Free Library so obviously I went for it.

Set in New York city between 2000 and 2001 pre-9/11, the young unnamed protagonist has lost both of her parents and this on top of being fired from her first job out of college, she chooses to put herself into a chemically induced hibernation for a year – hoping the extended rest will mean she’ll no longer feel tired all the time once it’s over.

Attempting to spend as much time as possible asleep, the only contact with the outside world the narrator has is, her incompetent psychiatrist who freely writes her prescriptions, and a best-friend she seems to secretly hate.

It’s an interesting enough concept, given everyone at one point wishes they could dedicate an extended period of time to sleep or skip over some months and wake up somewhere better.

The Memory Police (Yōko Ogawa, 1994)

Although this was originally published back in 1994, the English translation only came out last year. So for people like me who can’t speak Japanese, this is a 25-year-old new release; it reads like it could’ve been written now though, the story has a very timeless quality to it.

Set on an unnamed island – that happens to be detached from a larger unnamed island; the narrator in this one is also unnamed, and like the majority of her fellow islanders once the Memory Police (who dictate the island) choose to erase a particular object, animal, profession ect., all personal memories and feelings attached to that thing instantaneously disappear.

The secret minority who are capable of remembering, face persecution by the Memory Police, as do people who choose to keep or acknowledge forgotten objects; and due to boats being a forgotten object, locals have no remaining contact with life beyond the island. 

The unnamed narrator is a writer whose editor is being targeted by the Memory for his ability to remember. With the help of an elderly man, who is her only close companion left, the narrator builds a secret space under her floorboards for her editor to hide from arrest.

Basically its a good book to read in isolation because it makes you appreciate that at least you’re not living in a sci-fi Orwellian reality where all the potential things that could’ve entertained you like books or Netflix aren’t suddenly going to disappear on you.

Wide Sargasso Sea (Jean Rhys, 1966)

So spoilers for anyone who hasn’t read Jane Eyre, but the main twist in that is Rochester – the suave brooding fellow Jane has a crush on/the master of Thornfield Hall/her boss – has kept his ‘lunatic’ first-wife, Bertha (who he was technically still married to), secretly locked away in the attic.

Hearing that juicy twist was the primary reason Jane Eyre was on my to-read list, and so naturally I was bitterly disappointed that, what is arguably the most interesting bit of the story, only has roughly six pages dedicated to it. Hence why I prefer Wide Sargasso Sea (plus it’s a significantly shorter read, so it gets extra points for fewer pages because I’m a lazy shit).

Wide Sargasso Sea is an imagined prequel to Jane Eyre told from Bertha’s perspective that makes you entirely rethink how much you can trust Rochester’s side of things in the original classic.

Elaborating on details about Bertha (or Antoinette Cosway as she’s known in Wide Sargasso Sea) which Jane Eyre briefly mentions; this story starts with Antoinette’s isolated youth in Jamaica, being raised on a dilapidated former sugar plantation by her widowed mother, Annette, who is struggling mentally in isolation and holds a growing resentment for Antoinette.

Here, Annette remarries Englishman, Mr. Mason – the man who eventually ‘cons’ Rochester into marrying Antoinette. The book details Rochester and Antoinette’s (whom he renames Bertha) brief honeymoon together to Dominica, his progressing hatred for his new wife and ultimately settling into Thornfield Hall while keeping Antoinette’s existence a secret. 

Day of the Triffids (John Wyndham, 1951)

So bit of context for this fictional post-apocalyptic society: the triffids are these man-size plants that are capable of moving around and have a dangerous sting, and were just an everyday part of life in this society.

The main character, Bill Masen, was a ‘triffidologist’ before everything went to shit, who was recovering in hospital from being temporarily blinded by a triffid sting. The book begins with Bill feeling salty because he has a bandage over his eyes and everyone else is talking about how incredible and once-in-a-lifetime this meteor shower that’s happening right now is.

The next day, everyone who watched this mysterious meteor shower (so the bulk of mankind) has permanently gone blind, and now Bill’s frightened but also slightly smug and now the triffids suddenly harness the chance to do some evil bidding.

This book is a lot of survival, and the minority who do have sight attempting to create safe communities in the countryside while they wait for news or help from other countries which may never come. It’s an alright book, but be warned there’s like three pages in the middle where Wilfred mansplains why women are terrible and not helpful to the rebuilding effort – go fuck yourself Wilfred! Good luck repopulating by yourself there Wilfred!

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.

The Name Game

Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts was the first time I’d heard about Ludwig Wittgenstein’s theory of language and ostensive definition: or as summarized by Nelson, the idea that ‘the inexpressible is contained—inexpressibly!—in the expressed’. 

Roughly, this quote is a summary of Wittgenstein’s lifelong pondering’s into language, and how much power words have to effectively represent every nuance of what reality they are attempting to describe.

A name, assigned to define something through language, and the physical entity itself, have two separate existences. Thus leading a name/word to acquire its meaning through the context its used.

Wittgenstein referred to our everyday intermingling of reality and words as ‘the language game’, and its a theory which has me thinking about how much the names that people know us by reflect the individual they’re there to represent.

Personally, I think my own name (selected in 1993 when Mum was watching a lot of Family Ties reruns) does suit my personality and the look I’ve got going. But sometimes I do wonder to what extent – if any – my life or personality might have alternated had I been carting around another title for the last 26 years. Classic literature after all, is peppered with instances where a character’s name, sculpts their fate or defines their reality. Here are a few I could think of,

The Master and Margarita (Mikhail Bulgakov, 1967)

The first time I attempted to read this Russian classic was five years ago. I quit about twenty pages in, and now after revisiting it I can’t believe how quick I was to dismiss it.

It’s such an incredible book and I could’ve so easily never bothered picking it up again.  I’m such a fool! I missed finding one of my favourite books early – why didn’t I stick with it for a few more pages? A book about Satan working in Moscow as a magician and being cheeky and messing with everyone – that’s well up my alley (and I love that Satan is a smoker – of course Satan doesn’t give a shit about lung health of course!!!).

I’m mad at past me but at the same time it’s so exciting to be able to read it for the first time now.

Anyway the reason it’s relevant to a discussion on whether or not names determine your fate is that in The Master and Margarita, the Prince of Darkness holds a ball whenever he’s visiting a city, and his ongoing tradition is finding a girl from that city  whose name is Margarita to be his date. In exchange, for attending what promises to a wicked part-tay for the damned, el Diablo will grant Margarita her deepest wish.

The Importance of Being Earnest (Oscar Wilde, 1895)

So it’s a play about two rich Victorian socialites who have a weirdly specific type, and are only interested in dating fellows called ‘Earnest’. So naturally two incorrigible gents pretend their names are Earnest to win these fair maidens affections. It’s a comedy, but people were easier to make laugh in Victorian times.

Basically I couldn’t get into it because I just kept thinking, was there ever a point in history where the name Earnest was the ultimate bachelor name? It just makes me think of those of those stupid 1990s flicks where doofus Ernest gets into various jams, like needing to save Christmas or assemble hard furniture.

The delightful twist (and sorry for spoilers) is that the two gents find out their names were Earnest all along so they were technically never liars – isn’t life funny like that?

Tess of the D’urbervilles (Thomas Hardy,  ‎1891)

Tess Durbeyfield is the eldest of John and Joan Durbeyfield – a dirt poor couple, whose hopes go up when they learn that they may be descendants of a noble family the d’Urbervilles.

Tess’ family name is the reason she is sent by her parents to ‘claim kin’ and ultimately work at the d’Urberville estate for Alec d’Urberville. Yet the reason I’m bringing this book up in this post, is for the name she gives her son – the product of Alec’s crime against Tess – baby Sorrow.

One Hundred Years of Solitude (Gabriel Garcia Márquez, 1970)

The saga of six generations of the Buendía family, all living within the isolated village  their family founded called Macondo, one reason this book gets progressively more difficult to follow is that names are passed down through the generations. The most extreme example being the second son of José Arcadio Buendía (the first generation’s patriarch), Colonel Aureliano Buendía, who names his seventeen sons (to seventeen different women – the Colonel was a dog!) all Aureliano. 

Here, the consistent repetition of names within the family is part of the novel’s ongoing point that history is a cycle repeating itself. 

 

The Original Animorphs

 

So I hope you don’t think less of me but I never read any of The Animorphs books as a kid.

I wasn’t a big reader, and every time the Scholastic catalogues used to arrive at school I wasn’t that bright and I couldn’t understand why the Scholastic’s range was so damn book-heavy (put a gameboy in the catalogue you squares that’ll get more kids interested in the scholastic book club!!!).

Based on their trendy AF cover art though – where we’re lucky enough to witness every awkward look in the transition from human teen to aardvark – the extensive series seems like it raises that same question Bojack Horseman, Transformers or that awful art-house film The Lobster do – what creature/appliance best represents you for a morphing? Would your life be more fulfilling as a werewolf or a some kind of starfish – you tell me?

Anyway, so while little Ellen clearly deprived herself of what could have so easily been a meaningful phase of really wishing I could transform at will into a hawk, in a way I feel I have inadvertently read some Animorphs when I remember these works of literature.

Dracula (Bram Stoker, 1897)

While vampires were part of folklore for centuries before Bram Stoker’s Dracula, this book popularised that classic brooding, cape-laden, vampire image we’re all familiar with (as well as marking the beginning of a hurtful Transylvanian stereotype).

Count Dracula’s ability to shape shift between bat and human forms anytime he’s in the mood for some evil biddings is definitely enough to classify him as a misunderstood Animorph that was well ahead of his time – i’m not sure though did all the Animorphs have to be good? What a pack of wusseys if they are, they’re in desperate need of a bad boy to sex up their image!

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (Robert Louis Stevenson, 1886)

This short story happens to be home to my favourite pun possibly ever. When one of the main fellows, John Utterson, is trying to learn more about this mysterious wrongin’ Edward Hyde by following him around and such, Utterson says to himself ‘if he be Mr Hyde, I shall be Mr Seek’ – oh Utterson you should’ve saved that sick trash talk for when you’re finally in a room together.

Not strickly an Animorphs as such, given Dr Henry Jekyll is interchangeably transforming into another appearance rather than an animal whenever he drinks his home-brew serum. BUT you could get philosophical and say that because the new face gives Jekyll the freedom to do whatever he wants without consequence he is transforming into an animal.

The Metamorphosis (Franz Kafka, 1915)

What I respect about this story is that rather than getting bogged down into any details as to why/how this guy, Gregor Samsa, has turned into a giant insect Kafka just wants you to accept that he’s woken up like this and move straight into how this is going to affect Gregor’s daily living.

If this were an Animorphs it’d be the depressingly realistic one, where the transformation means they’ve understandably lost the capacity for speech communication, they can’t turn themselves back and the family is forced into poverty because they couldn’t afford the loss of income which came with an inexplicable shape-shift.

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.

Super Hans’s ambiguous moral teachings and life hacks

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via ILAB

There’s this story that Charles Dickens once found Danish author Hans Christian Andersen lying outside on the lawn, crying inconsolably over one bad review. I really love that this happened. It just seems like such a timeless thing a beautifully delicate, creative type might do.

In his day, Hans Christian Andersen (1805 – 1875) was one of the most renowned writers in Europe. And his life is still often viewed as a rags-to-riches fairy tale in itself.

The son of a cobbler and an illiterate washerwoman, who very likely suffered dyslexia and who struggled with a crippling fear that he was unlovable, yet whose stories remain widely recognised and beloved well over 200 years after his death – and above all a man who could clearly handle some creative criticism in a dignified and think-skinned manner – who better to seek some guidance from?

So let’s ponder over the lessons Hans bestowed upon us as children. Because to be honest it’s still beyond me what the moral of the Emperors New Clothes is – you can’t get arrested for indecent exposure if you make a convincing argument when the cops show up that you’re wearing pants of the mind?

The Ugly Duckling

Sometimes puberty is kind and people get better looking with age, so be nice just to be on the safe side. This is a terrible lesson.

The Little Mermaid

Seriously though its important to learn how to negotiate a good trade. Your voice and every time you walk it feels like your treading on sharp knives? Jesus do a bit of haggling! I know you really want that human soul but at least try to get it down to say… trading your sense of smell and every time you walk, it feels like your treading on lego?

The Wild Swans

Shirts knitted from stinging nettles you found in a cemetery will somehow help your swan brothers return to human form.

Don’t try and make the best of a bad situation and teach them some kind of sign language, and get them to do your evil bidding like an army of flying monkeys.

No, keep your dignity and be that odd one on the street with eleven swans who yells at the neighbours when they give you judgey glares. They’re the ones who’ll look stupid just as soon as your done knitting your collection of stinging nettle attire.

The Red Shoes

Cursed by a mysterious man – as punishment for wearing red shoes to church – Karen’s shoes are bound to her feet and force her into a tortuous loop of continual dancing. Wee bit harsh there.

What about that time I wore whatever shoes I wanted on a Sunday and didn’t go to church for 25 years in a row? Section me out mysterious beard man – I look  embarrassing when I dance too so it’d really hit me hard.

The Princess and the Pea

You can win a Prince’s heart by being very vocal about your extremely first world problems. It’s a pea get over it! If you’re having a rough nights sleep in a stranger’s bed cause you can feel something under their mattress, and in the end it just turns out to be a pea you’ve dodged a potentially awkward and gross bullet and you should be very very thankful.

Thumbelina

Toads are bastards who will attempt to kidnap you in the dead of night and force you into an arranged marriage with their toad son.

The Shadow

Your shadow is such a prick. Just don’t trust that guy – he’s shady (GET IT!!!)

The Flying Trunk

Don’t ride in your enchanted flying trunk and let off fireworks! Drive sensibly, this is why we can’t have nice things!!!

Ada Lovelace and Lord Byron (who has the kavorka)

(c) Newstead Abbey; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

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Lord Byron’s notorious facility for pulling both female and male love interests is one of those bits of historical trivia that I find a little perplexing – I mean, I’ve seen his portrait, I don’t know what all the fuss was about, maybe back in that century the dating pool was very slim pickings?

But I shouldn’t go underestimating the allure a talented wordsmith can have – the Romantic poet truly had the Kavorka, with his clubfoot only adding to his irresistible  aura.

By his own account, Byron slept with over 200 women in the later years of his life, while living in exile in Venice (‘by his own account’ though does immediately sound a wee bit suspect, I mean by my own account this is still the year I’m definitely getting into shape).

Byron’s half-sister, Augusta, wasn’t even immune to his charm, with the two having an affair – and subsequently a child – during his very short-lived marriage to Annabella Milbanke (this was gross and scandalous even by early 19th century standards).

Byron’s life of just 36 years is defined not only by the poetry he left behind, but equally by the enthralling, usually sordid, details of his personal life. For me though, the most fascinating thing about Lord Byron’s existence is the life of daughter he never knew, Ada Lovelace – a pioneer in mathematics and computer programming in a time when women could not attend university in Britain.

Weeks following the birth of Augusta Ada Byron on December 10 1815 (more commonly known by her middle name for obvious reasons. Love how she has the same name as the sister, way to rub it in Byron!!), Annabella left with her daughter to her parents house after Lord Byron’s famous threat to his wife that he would ‘do everything wicked’. The poet would never see either of them again, with the separation sparking such intense public scandal that Byron left Britain in disgrace in 1816.

Frightened that artistic pursuits would have a destructive influence on Ada, and that she would want to follow a destructive path like her famous father, Annabella encouraged Ada into mathematics by hiring several tutors. And at 17 Ada would meet mathematician and inventor Charles Babbage, through who she began being tutored by University of London professor, Augustus de Morgan.

Babbage became Ada’s mentor, and when asked to translate an article on Babbage’s design for the ‘analytical engine’, her extensive notes she added to the original document are now considered the first examples of a working software program ever published. What’s makes this even more incredible is that the machinery that could run the code wouldn’t be invented for another century.

What I love about Ada’s story is that she is remembered in her own right, in a field that is completely distinct from the field Lord Byron has reverence in. She is buried next to him in the Church of St. Mary Magdalene in Nottingham, yet in life they were strangers and had minds that – from an outside perspective – seem like they shared little in common.

[images via wikipedia and pcmag]

 

 

‘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?????

The Reader of Novels

There’s a generic image of what an avid reader looks like (in Hollywood anyway): it’s someone who’s a bit dorky, socially awkward, maybe is fashioning some glasses and is introverted – and it’s built on the assumption that the act of reading is far from edgy or dangerous.

Now I know sitting in bed with a cup of tea and a book on a Friday night doesn’t exactly scream huge rebel. Yet throughout history, access to literature and books so often induced mass societal fear, that when you think about it, current attitudes towards reading don’t do justice to its long held rebellious reputation.

The past is scattered with instances where people feared the consequences of reading, and one particularly fascinating example of this is the Victorian era’s deep concern over the reading habits of women.

There is a 19th century painting by Antoine Wiertz’s called The Reader of Novels (1853), where a mysterious demon-like creature tempts a young naked reader with another book. This portrayal of a female reader, is a reflection of a prevalent Victorian anxiety – what increased female literacy would mean for their ‘purity’ and for larger society.

During this period in Europe, particularly in Britain, the female reader was the topic of public moral debate because she was a new reader.

Major shifts meant formerly untouched demographics, including women, now had much higher literacy levels and greater access to reading material. These changes included the rise of public libraries, and primary school education becoming compulsory.

Warnings to fathers and husbands, of the corruptible power novel reading had over women, was not a new thing; with humanist philosopher Juan Luis Vives cautioning in 1540,

‘A woman should beware of all these books, like as of serpents or snakes’

However this quantitative level of females regularly reading was unknown up until this point.

Embedded preconceptions of the intelligence capacity of women, meant that their ability to handle this new freedom (to logically interpret fiction) was under constant scrutiny.

By nature women were considered more fragile and impressionable, and thus many people opposed women reading without some level of guardianship, on both moral and medical grounds.

As a cautionary tale to parents, novelist Charlotte Elizabeth Browne wrote in 1841 of her experience reading The Merchant of Venice at aged seven,

‘Reality became insipid almost hateful to me’

This was a common argument: that girls and women were more prone to hysteria and more likely to get themselves lost in fiction rather than focus on reality.

Physicians like Dr John Harvey Kellogg, believed women were more susceptible to both escapism and addiction and thus reading as a habit had the potential to become ‘as inveterate as the use of liquor or opium’.

Many revered medical professionals of the time shared this view that exposure to novels could have a negative effect on women’s health. For instance, female physician Dr Mary-Ann Wood, stated in her book What Young Women Ought to Know (1899) that,

‘Romance-reading by young girls will, by this excitement of the bodily organs, tend to create their premature development, and the child becomes physically a woman months, or even years, before she should.’

The popularity of romance novels was also a subject of moral concern because it was feared they were corrupting influences on purity, and that they set unrealistic expectations.

A woman’s chastity was deemed immensely important during this time, and novel reading was seen as both a distraction to their domestic obligations, and a threat to the gender expectation to be a faithful and docile wife and mother.

Reflecting on an historical period where the notion that a woman can have independence over what she reads was still an emerging and highly contested, makes me further appreciate how incredible it is to be able to read and have access to knowledge, and creative works. It’s so easy to take for granted this freedom, so let some people  associate bookish types with being massive dorks, we know that they’re bad-asses! (at least by 19th century standards)