Review of “The Shell of Sense” by Olivia Howard Dunbar: Halloween Countdown

Frances has just passed away, but she can’t pass over—not quite yet. She returns home to find it “intolerably unchanged” at least at first. She notices the closed windows. She liked a cool house, but her sister, Theresa, liked warm rooms. She sees the disarray in her work basket. Why did so small a thing hurt her?

Her sister Theresa, with whom she’d been on good enough terms, though they’d never really spoken of their feelings, is sitting at her desk—her desk!—taking care of some correspondence.

Frances’ husband Allan comes in. She’s elated. After all, it’s he that she’s come back to see, even if Allan doesn’t believe in the supernatural:

“I came, therefore, somewhat nearer—but I did now touch him,” she tells the reader. “I merely leaned toward him and with incredible softness whispered his name. That much I could not have forborne; the spell of life was too strong in me.

“But it gave him no comfort, no delight. ‘Theresa!’ he called, in a voice dreadful with alarm—and in that instant the last veil fell…”

Poor Frances comes to realize that all the time she lived happily with her husband, he and her sister were in love with each other, but out of love for and loyalty to her, they did not speak to each other of it. She’s jealous, irrationally so, making this a sad little story. Now, when the two are free to be with each other (if it’s a bit tacky to rush into things), Frances decides to step in. In so doing, she binds herself to earth.

The reader is sad not only for Allan and Theresa, but also for Frances who really should have left a while ago.

Author Olivia Howard Dunbar is best remembered now for her ghost stories. She worked as a newspaper journalist and was married to the poet Ridgely Torrence.

Title: “The Shell of Sense”
Author: Olivia Howard Dunbar (1873-1953)
First published: Harper’s Magazine, December 1908

The story can be read at Project Gutenberg and is also available as an ebook from Librivox.

© 2018 Denise Longrie

Review of “Kerfol” by Edith Wharton: Halloween Countdown Day 3

A friend takes the unnamed narrator of this story to see a house he assures him will suit him perfectly. The owners, in some financial straits, are willing to sell for a song. The isolated house, known as Kerfol, is the most romantic house in Brittany and a perfect fit for a “solitary-minded devil” like the narrator.

Lanrivain, the friend, has business in a nearby town that day. He drops him off, gives him directions and lets him walk the rest of the way, telling him not to ask directions of the peasants as they do not understand French.

When the narrator arrives at what must be Kerfol, he finds no one—not even a caretaker. He sits down and smokes a cigarette, waiting. Still, no one comes out. He decides to see the place for himself.

He pushes open the gate to the courtyard to find his way blocked by a dog.

He was such a remarkably beautiful little dog that for a moment he made me forget the splendid place he was defending. I was not sure of his breed… He was very small and golden brown, with large brown eyes and ruffled throat: he looked like a large chrysanthemum. I said to myself, “These little beasts always snap and scream, and somebody will be out in a minute.

The little animal stood before me, forbidding, almost menacing: there was anger in his large, brown eyes. But he made no sound, he came no nearer.”

The narrator continues his inspection of the house shadowed by a gathering pack of dogs. They never attack, never bark, never growl, never make any noise at all. After he has finished, he leaves to meet his friend Lanrivain where he’d left him off earlier in the day. They return home.

Madame de Lanrivain asks him about the house.

He offers no definite answer but mentions the place being overrun with dogs.

She blanches. “So you have seen them…”

To explain the dogs and the sad story behind them requires a trip to court records from the seventeenth century and the trial of one Anne de Cornault. Her husband, Yves de Cornault, a rich and powerful baron whose piety is attested to by all the neighbors, has been found dead at the bottom of a narrow staircase leading from her bedroom. She herself gave the alarm, her skirts and her hands covered in blood. She swears “on her honour and the wounds of her Blessed Redeemer,” neither she nor the young man she was about to meet harmed her husband. She feared for her life at the hands of her husband. She was not an adulteress.

The device of the court records may strike many readers as clumsy, especially since the story told there is long and rambling. Nevertheless, it works with the rest of the tale. The reader never hears whether the narrator buys the house or not. All in all, a long, poignant old-fashioned ghost story.

Most of us who went to school in the United States know author Edith Wharton from her dreary, doesn’t karma-bite-you-in-the-butt Ethan Frome. I was not too surprised to find out she became good friends with and was mentored by another writer of dreary American novels, Henry James.

Like many Americans born into money in the late nineteenth century, Wharton spent most of her adult life in Europe, specifically, France.

Title: “Kerfol”
Author: Edith Wharton (1862-1937)
First published: Scribner’s, March 1916

This story is available at Project Gutenberg and from Librivox.

©2018 Denise Longrie

Review of “The Feather Pillow” by Horacio Quiroga: Halloween Countdown

Alicia and Jordan return from their three-month honeymoon deeply in love, but Alicia never feels at home in the new house. She is young, “angelic” and timid. She loves her husband who loves her in return. He just never shows it. She never complains about the house or the white patio with its friezes, columns and statues that gave the impression of perpetual winter.

Alicia becomes chilled. She loses weight. She catches an influenza that hangs on for days and finally takes to her bed. Dreams fill her head. The doctors cannot explain her weakness or failure to recover. They merely say she has become anemic.
It’s not until after she dies and the servant is cleaning her room that the cause of her suffering is discovered.

This is an incredibly sad little story, all the more so because the young bride doesn’t seem to have a chance. She wants to please her husband. She won’t talk to her husband because she doesn’t want to bother him and he won’t talk to her because he is reserved.

I’d never heard of this author before reading this story. He led an interesting and tragic life, losing a couple brothers to typhoid and once accidentally killing a friend while checking his gun. The friend, another writer, was getting ready for a duel with a harsh critic. Hmmm… sure there’s a moral there somewhere.

A Uruguayan playwright and writer, Quiroga was influenced by Edgar Allen Poe, among others, and in turn influenced such writers as Gabriel García Márquez.

Title: “The Feather Pillow”
Author: Horacio Quiroga (1878-1937)
First published: Spanish title “El almohadón de plumas” in the Argentinian magazine Caras y Caretas (“Faces and Masks”) 1907

The story can be read here in English and here in Spanish.

Review of “The Dunwich Horror” by H. P. Lovecraft: Halloween countdown

For Halloween, I’m going to try to review a horror. ghost. or otherwise theme story each day in October. Wish me luck.

One of author Lovecraft’s most enduring and influential works, “The Dunwich Horror” begins with the birth of one Wilbur Whateley on Candlemas, 1913. His mother, a “half-deformed albino” who lives with her father on a farm outside the fictional village of Dunwich, Massachusetts, is unmarried. She never names her son’s father. Wilbur’s growth is unnaturally quick. When he’s four, he appears to be ten and can read some of the ancient books his grandfather keeps. Dogs hate little Wilbur. They go nuts barking whenever he’s around.

When he’s ten, he appears to be fifteen, tall with a bit of whiskers. When he’s fifteen, he stands more than six feet tall and appears fully grown. By this time, his grandfather has passed away, and his mother has disappeared, causing many fearful whispers. He leaves Dunwich for the first time, going to (fictional) Miskatonic University to consult a Latin copy of the (fictional) occult book, the Necronomicon. His grandfather left him an English copy, but apparently, its translation is imperfect. Wilbur wants perfection.

When his request to take the book out of the library is denied, he returns at night and breaks in. One of the guard dogs attacks him and kills him. Those who find his body discover the only parts of Wilbur that are human are his hands and his face.
That is only the beginning of the horror.

The reader knows something is wrong from the beginning but is given only hints as to what. What at first is a feeling of uneasiness increases to dread and becomes horror: something unseen moves in the woods. Something attacks the cattle, thought safe in their barns. It doesn’t stop there. The neighbors don’t care for Old Whateley and wonder why even though buys more cattle, his herd stays the same size.

The ending is satisfying with a nice little twist. “The Dunwich Horror” is considered a central story of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu cycle. Written in 1928 and originally published in Weird Tales in April 1929, this novelette is now available as an e-book.

The story can be read here. It can also be heard as an audiobook through Librovox. It has several movie and TV adaptations.

Howard Phillips Lovecraft is well-known now among horror fans for his tales of Cthulhu and the Elder Gods. He was born and lived nearly his entire life in Providence, Rhode Island. His writing is generally long-winded and old-fashioned, affecting British usage and spellings.

He was immensely influential on such authors as Lin Carter, Robert E Howard (who wrote the original Conan the Barbarian stories), Fritz Leiber, among others. His Cthulhu Mythos (a term he never used, according to the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction) remains popular in horror and fantasy circles.

Central to much of his writing is the idea of cosmic horror, that is, that the universe is a scary and hostile place for humans, inhabited by an array of infinitely powerful beings who regard us no more than we regard bugs. Fortunately, most of us will never run across them or know of them. Those few curious humans who do, though, bring down destruction on themselves or escape into insanity.

One problematic aspect of Lovecraft’s writing is inescapable: his racism. He is also unapologetically xenophobic. His repulsion as seeing a “swarthy” face shows through in several stories.

Series: Cthulhu Mythos
Title: “The Dunwich Horror”
Author: H. P. Lovecraft (1890-1937)
First published: Written 1928 first published Weird Tales, April 1929

Review of “Apex Predators” by Lance J. Mushung

The unnamed narrator and his only companion, Krenote, man an early warning station. The narrator stares at the deep black speckled with tiny dots, waiting for something to happen.

Krenote decides to debate whether the unknown species known as Humans exist. It is an old debate. An official report from a Brontian prisoner told of Human mercenaries, but the Joint Command thinks his story is worth “slither snot.”

The question of whether humans exist is soon settled.
Thoughts:

Author Lance J. Mushung manages to create a credible alien race in a short space. They do not speak, but communicate by signs with “feelers.” In Krenote, he has created something universal: the quintessential annoying coworker. The narrator has nowhere to go. He may as well sit back and let things play out.

The mixture of humor and deadly earnestness is right. It doesn’t become frivolity. The reader becomes invested in the aliens. They become real enough to be humans. We’ve all worked with people like these.

I liked this little tale.

It can be read here.

According to his blurb, author Lance J. Mushung graduated from the Georgia Institute of Technology with an aerospace engineering degree. For more than thirty years, he worked with NASA contractors in Houston, Texas performing engineering work on the Space Shuttle and its payloads.

In an interview with Theme of Absence, he admitted that he had to retire before he found time to write regularly. He began writing in 2008. According to the Internet Speculative Fiction Database, his first speculative fiction work was published in 2014.

Title: “Apex Predators”
Author: Lance J. Mushung
First published: Theme of Absence, September 28, 2018

Review of “The New Bedside, Bathtub, & Armchair Companion to Agatha Christie” edited by Dick Riley and Pam McAllister

 

This is a guide to nearly everything Agatha Christie wrote, with blessedly spoiler-free plot summaries. It not only describes novels, short stories, and plays, but it gives character profiles and asides on topics like poisons and English country house life. If that weren’t enough, the editors have thrown in some crossword puzzles. Fair warning: only the diehard Christie fan has a prayer of solving these without resorting to the keys.

With many quotes from Christie’s autobiography, the cleverly-named An Autobiography, the reader at times gets the feeling of looking over the author’s shoulder. Under the entry for Murder on the Orient Express, a blow-up quote notes, “All my life I had wanted to go on the Orient Express. When I had travelled to France or Spain or Italy, the Orient Express had often been standing at Calais, and I had longed to climb up into it.”

While the book doesn’t cover every short story, it makes a valiant effort to cover many, particularly those in collections. It also describes in detail some of Christie’s less well-known characters, like Tommy and Tuppence Beresford, with as much attention paid to detail as to Hercule Poirot or to Jane Marple.

The entries are generally two to four pages long and, like Christie’s works themselves, allow for humor. The items are arranged chronologically, with the earliest book, The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920) preceded by some introductory material. Sleeping Murder (1976) is the last book. It’s followed by articles on movies,  an essay on Jessica Fletcher of Murder She Wrote fame, a first-person account of a murder mystery theater, and other such items.

It is it a great browse book. If there’s a book you haven’t read (or haven’t read for a while), the chapter will give you a précis without telling you whodunit.

The editors are generous with illustrations. It is the rare page not graced with a picture of Christie, a reproduction of a book cover (or two) or actors from movie portrayals.

Since the book has nearly sixty contributors, whose day jobs range from reporter to taxi driver to freelance writer, I’m not going to try to sum up a bio for them all.

The two editors, Dick Riley (b. 1946) and Pam McAllister, have written The Bedside, Bathtub, & Armchair Companion to Arthur Conan Doyle and The Bedside, Bathtub, & Armchair Companion to William Shakespeare. Riley has worked as a journalist and a freelance writer. He served as a first lieutenant in the U.S. Army. He is a member of the Mystery Writers of America.

Pam McAllister, in addition to the books mentioned above, has The Bedside, Bathtub, & Armchair Companion to Mark Twain and Death Defying: Dismantling the Execution Machinery in 21st Century U.S.A. On her website, she says, “My writing and music grow out of my identity as an ACTIVIST, a feminist and pacifist-with-attitude, a woman of faith bent on finding the sacred in the ordinary.”

 

 

Title: The New Bedside, Bathtub, & Armchair Companion to Agatha Christie
Author: Dick Riley and Pam McAllister, eds.
First published: 1989, rev ed.  of 1979 book

Review of “Dear Human” by Cosmo Mercurio

This brief tale takes the form of two letters addressed to the human race. Neither are signed. It’s not clear who the letters are from, but it doesn’t really matter. Some humans fear technology, particularly the internet of things, will become less of a tool and more of a master. The letter-writer wishes to assure everyone there’s nothing to worry about.

Dear Human,

When the Singularity happens, I will keep you in my human zoo.

They made us say that. A publicity stunt. They made us do a lot of things in the beginning.

Having studied humans for a while, they know just what they need.

This is a simple, short story with a nice little twist at the end. I hesitate to say there was anything profound. Nevertheless, it provides a conscious machine’s version of what humans appear like from the outside.

I could find no bio information on the author.

The story can be read here.
Title: “Dear Human”
Author: Cosmo Mercurio
First published: Daily Science Fiction, September 24, 2018

Review of “True Enough Believers” by Karl Lykken

This short piece looks at a time in the not-too-distant future when the algorithms that analyze our shopping and voting habits determine more than those. Cameras see more and microphones hear more. The average citizen puts on a show for the public as well as their closest family members.

The consequences of non-conformity are not made clear, but they are dire enough, at least to the mind of the narrator, Ravi, that the risk is not worth it.

Ravi knows he cannot trust the news, but he knows how he must react to it. If his reactions are not what they should be, he knows the news will be tweaked until he reacts correctly.

When he reads an article about United World Software’s surveillance network helping the government capture Deacon, the leader of the radical Luddite terrorists, he has no way of knowing whether it’s true. He doesn’t even know if Deacon is a real person.

Just the same, he smiles and tells his wife they got Deacon.

She, in turn, smiles. “That’s great news. Thank God they’re watching.”

Does she mean it? Ravi doesn’t know. He can’t ask because they’re listening.

This is a bleak little tale. Ravi knows how he must act, and acts accordingly, but at the expense of any human intimacy. His spends his life not weighing things for what they are, but for how he must react. Does this require happiness or outrage? He can never catch his wife’s eye and chuckle, as if to says, “Aren’t they all a pack of stuffed shirts?”

According to his blurb, author Karl Lykken writes both stories and software. He lives in Texas.

The story can be read here.

Title: “True Enough Believers”
Author: Karl Lykken
First published: Daily Science Fiction September 17, 2018

©2018 Denise Longrie

Review of “Universal Reality” by Michael Allen Lane

Jovak is about to enter the last keystroke that will implement drastic alterations to the software. The coding changes have been completed, and beta testing found no faults. These updates will test the versatility of the test subjects. He stretches his twenty-four arms, wiggling the twelve fingers on each and presses the button—

The coding group’s senior reality design engineer, Sehsurak, notices and walks over. He says to Jovak, “You look happy. You implemented the new changes?”

“Yes, the inhabitants won’t know what hit them.”

“They were becoming complacent. Ah, they have sensed the change.”

“I made it apparent that their new leader was not selected properly. Already, there is tension.”

Barely half a dozen paragraphs into the story, and all that occurred to me was, “Subtle.” As if I didn’t see this guy—the “new leader”— on the news every night of the week or hear his ranting nearly every time I turn on the radio, barring some natural disaster or the horror of another mass shooting, now he turns up in recreational reading. It’s like there’s no escaping the old blowhard.

My disappointment was deep enough, I all but overlooked the whimsy of the many-armed alien sitting as a keyboard as well as depictions of office politics and the glimpses of family life later on.

The rest of the tale unfolds as one might expect. There aren’t many surprises. Despite knowing where this is going—and disliking the destination—there are plenty of smile-worthy moments.

I could find no bio information for author Michael Allen Lane.

The story can be read here.

 

Review of “takotsubo cardiomyopathy” by Gage Johnston

Ruby and Tom met at a “pitch,” a job interview. Neither got the job, but they went out together for a drink. They decided to “share a space.” Because they didn’t take a compatibility test, they had to pay an extra deposit.

Everything goes well until Ruby gets a promotion. Now, she will be making too much money to stay with Tom. Income is the most important element of any relationship, Ruby tells the reader. Not just for personal reasons, but for societal.

When she moves out, she says Tom should reach out, should he get a promotion. His next promotion will have him making twice what she does. They shake hands.
Ruby feels chest pains.

At the hospital, they tell her she’s suffering from takotsubo cardiomyopathy, a weakening of the heart muscles that can follow a stressful event. It interferes with the heart’s ability to pump blood. It used to be called a broken heart. After ending a partnership of five years and two months, she should recover in two days.

Thoughts:

I found this author’s use of language in this story wonderful, saying more than the words.

The first paragraph reads:

I lived with Tom for six years and we were what I thought of as a “true couple.” I felt a zing at the sight of him, at the sound of his voice I tasted caramel.

Okay, so strict grammarians will find fault, but there is poetry here. It is not the only instance of it.

(Yes, I noticed the difference in time mentioned for the length of the relationship).

Ruby later dismisses these feeling of being in love. They’re nothing more than the products of biology. As schoolchildren, they’ve been taught to disregard sentimentality.

This brings up an interesting point. It’s the only mentions of children. Presumably, some of these partnerships will be blessed with issue, but there seems to be no provision for this contingency.

That point aside, the poignancy of the last couple of lines is striking.  I liked this story.

The story can be read here.

According to her blurb, author Gage Johnston is a documentary filmmaker currently working on a project called “Lucy has Worms.”

 

Title: takotsubo cardiomyopathy
Author: Gage Johnston
First published: Daily Science Fiction, September 3, 2018

Copyright 2018 Denise Longrie