Review of “John Granger” by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Susy Lorton has just turned down John Granger’s marriage proposal. She hopes they can remain friends. John’s heart is broken. His lease on the old farm of Friarsgate is up. He’d planned to renew it and make her mistress of the place—oh. There’s someone else, he realizes.

She admits as much. Robert Ashley.

Well, John says. Robert Ashley isn’t a bad fellow. Not like Susan’s cousin, the guy who works in the bank, Stephen Price.

John decides to sell his possessions and immigrate to the wilds of America. He says he will return and, maybe years later, sit by the fire with their children.

The evening he leaves, he says goodbye to everyone in the small town, saving his farewells for Susan and her father for last. Cousin Stephen stops by. While he’s there, he asks about his travel arrangments. Will he be carrying much cash?

Susan asks him to promise to write when he arrives on the other side of the Atlantic. He promises.

No letter ever arrives. In the meantime, everyone is relieved when the jerk cousin Stephen takes off, except those to whom he owes money. They look for him in London, but to no avail.

One evening, after Susan and Robert are married, she sees John sitting in a chair by the fire. He says nothing, but vanishes.

Robert pooh-poohs the incident. She fell asleep and dreamed. John is safe in America. Didn’t the bank get a request for money from him? Sure, he’s a cad for not writing, but he’s busy.

Thoughts:

Sadly, the reader can see what’s coming from a mile away. The characters are engaging, however. The reader immediately feels for John Granger. Sure, the poor guy just had his dreams dashed, but he doesn’t wallow in self-pity. He’s alone in the world. He still loves Susy. He sees the man he lost out to as a decent sort. He just doesn’t have a place in town anymore. He wishes them well and makes plans to leave.

At the same time, the reader can’t blame Susan. She is the one who brings about justice for John, despite a disbelieving husband, who is determined to tell her not to worry her pretty little head.

This brings out a theme I’ve noticed in much nineteenth century “women’s” literature: a quiet, but firm feminism. Susan actually gets the chance to ask her husband, “Do you believe me now?”

Having said all that, though, even with as much as I found to like about this engaging little tale, it was too obvious, and the characters too one-dimensional for me to recommend it.

Bio note:

British author Mary Elizabeth Braddon was a prolific writer, producing some ninety works. She was best known for her “sensation” novels and short stories, that is, tales often dealing with horror, true crime, or the supernatural. Her most well-known work is perhaps Lady Audley’s Secret. Braddon also edited the magazine Belgravia.
In a time when such things were frowned upon, she lived with the married publisher William Babington Maxwell while his wife was in an insane asylum. After his wife’s death, Maxwell and Braddon married.

Title: “John Granger”
Author: Mary Elizabeth Braddon (1835-1915)
First published: 1870

Book Review: “Veiled Atrocities” by Sami Alrabaa

 

This nonfiction book is a collection of narratives of people who have suffered as a result of policies and practices of the Saudi Arabian government. In his introduction, the author says he collected these stories while he was an instructor in the 1990s at King Saud University in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. He claims he conducted “multiple interviews,” sometimes with the “victimizer.”

As one might expect, he begins with an indictment of the Saudi higher education system. Here, the author shows that, paradoxically, hard work is not all necessarily. As for academic achievement? Well, not a big deal. Connections are more important. Whom do you know? The graduate, regardless of his marks, can expect to spend most days at a ministry job his uncle or cousin arranged for him, drinking tea while the foreign laborers take care of whatever work needs to be done.

King Saud University allows women to attend, but they must be strictly kept separate from men, even male instructors. The women can see the instructor, but the instructor is not permitted to see them or hear their voices. A strange woman’s voice might send him in a tailspin of lust. They deal with this in one of two ways. The male professor lectures remotely or through a screen.

The author relates one story to illustrate how silly the situation can get: once a foreign instructor lectured a class of women via video camera. After half an hour, he asked if there were questions, which could be submitted by fax. When he received none, he continued. Some time after the close of class, a Western female colleague mentioned she had passed by his class. “You know, you really don’t have to make so much effort,” she told him. “The girls were skipping out. There wasn’t a single student in that lecture hall.”

Other stories are as absurd, but with far more sinister consequences, inside and outside academia. Before readers finish the book, they will have heard of people mutilated, disappeared, stoned to death, and women raped, beaten, tortured and murdered. This is a harrowing read.

Questions come up regarding the author’s credibility. He gives the various people aliases, though he often mentions how he knows them. At times, he knows people both on the receiving and the giving end of an atrocity. A torturer may be a former student of his, for example.

Do these things happen? There are repeated reports of these sorts of things happening documented by organizations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.

As I finished this book, the first reports surfaced of the disappearance Saudi journalist and Washington Post contributor, Jamal Khashoggi. He went to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to obtain paperwork to prove a divorce so he could marry a Turkish woman. That’s the last anyone has seen of him to date. Grisly stories have emerged of a Saudi hit team torturing and murdering him. His body, so the stories go, was then dismembered.

At this point, his fate is unknown, but there has been no proof of life he entered the consulate on October 2.

What author Alrabaa calls for is the world community push Saudi Arabia to account for its human rights abuses and its support of international violence in the name of Islamic fundamentalism.

“Hatred, discrimination, and violence are crimes against humanity and must be stopped,” Alrabass writes. In another spot, he adds, “All this has nothing to do with religion and much less with religious freedom.”

Title: Veiled Atrocities
Author: Sami Alrabaa
First published: 2010

Review of “Basilissa” by John Buchan: Halloween Countdown

The orphan Vernon dreams, upsetting his nurse, Mrs. Ganthony. He tells no one what the dreams contain, for even he understands little. He only senses a Fear, a Something several rooms away.

When he is fifteen, he realizes the dream comes on the night of the first Monday in April. He also realizes the Something moves one room closer each year. Presently, it was about ten rooms away. He was thus comforted to some degree, understanding the mystery would end eventually. He would not struggle with it forever.

Years later, while recovering after a storm sailing around the Greek isles, Vernon and some friends come across an old white building. It appears to have been fortified in the past, perhaps once the home of some old Venetian sea-king. Vernon asks a local who lives there.

The man crosses himself and spits over the bow of his fishing vessel. “Basilissa,” he says.
Further explanation reveals this “Basilissa” (“Queen”) is a great witch, the Devil’s bride.
“In the old day in spring they made sacrifice to her, but they say her power is dying now. … We do not speak her name.”

This must be the Fear, the Something. It is now the first Monday in April. Vernon has to see this Basilissa for himself, Devil’s bride or not.

Thoughts:

The dreaminess of Vernon’s early childhood forms a sharp contrast to the adventures of the latter part of the story. He seems to want to shake off the dreams. He trains to strengthen his body and keep himself fit.

However, the dream mechanism comes across as clumsy at points, particularly when the reader meets Basilissa. It reads almost like a superhero comic. Not that there’s anything wrong with superhero comics, but in the present context, the actions strain credulity.

The ending did not live up to the promise of the beginning of this story, a disappointment. Nevertheless, the story remains quite readable and ultimately sweet.

Author John Buchan was a Scottish novelist and politician who served in South Africa. He was eventually appointed governor of Canada. His most notable work is the adventure novel, The Thirty-Nine Steps, which Alfred Hitchcock later adapted for film.

As governor of Canada, Buchan, along with his wife, established the Governor General’s Literary Awards, which remain among the most prestigious Canadian awards for literature. They have expanded to include both English and French language works in seven categories each.

Title: “Basilissa”
Author: John Buchan (1875-1940)
First published: 1914 The Watcher by the Threshold 1918

The story is available here.

 

Review of “No. 252 Rue M. le Prince” by Ralph Adams Cram

Upon finding himself in Paris in May 1886, the narrator of this story wishes to impose himself on an old friend, Eugene Marie d’Ardeche. D’Ardeche deserted Boston after learning that an aunt had died and willed him property in Paris. This puzzled his old friend since he and he aunt were not on good terms. In fact, it was believed practiced black magic.

The aunt lived there alone but had a frequent visitor, who was seen to arrive but never leave, a wicked older sorcerer. Once a year, carriages gathered outside No. 252 for a night of odd music and (so people who’d placed their ears up against the wall said) odd chanting. Eugene decides this was Walpurgisnacht (a “witch’s night” heralding the coming of spring). To make things weirder, the noises of this party go on even after the aunt has gone on to her reward.

One of the problems owning this property, of course, is that d’Ardeche can’t keep tenets. He’s still paying taxes on it. His alternatives are to move in himself—he’s presently staying at another of his aunt’s properties outside Paris—or let the wicked old sorcerer friend of his aunt have it.

He and couple of his friends, all medicals students, decide to stay the night. Now that M. l’Américain has arrived, there will be four of them.

The house is a monstrosity, complete with a ritual room covered in black lacquer with a pentagram on the floor. Interestingly, the story refers to another horror story of the day, “The Haunters and the Haunted,” by Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton to which it bears more than a passing resemblance. The story also contains a description of what might be sleep paralysis. There is some humor. The evening before the four are to stay the night in the haunted house, they have dinner across the street. The medical students discuss their adventures in the dissecting room while the narrator squirms and asks for a change in topics.

This is gothic horror, not to everyone’s taste. This particular mixture of black magic, horror, ghosts, and humor is a little over the top for me, but it had its moments. That it doesn’t take itself too seriously is a nice redeeming characteristic.

Author Ralph Adams Cram was a noted architect, particularly of ecclesiastical buildings. His expertise in architecture shows in this story.

Title: “No. 252 Rue M. le Prince”
Author: Ralph Adams Cram (1863-1942)
First published: Black Spirits and White: a Book of Ghost Stories 1895

The story can be read at Project Gutenberg.

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