Wednesday, October 31, 2012

James-A-Day: Wrapup

I just realized that the James event is over.  I thought I had one more day to go!  But no, it is 10:30 PM on Halloween, and October is pretty much over now.  So I missed doing "The Fenstanton Witch" after all.  I was so busy today that I didn't even get past the first two pages.

Here's what I did instead of reading one more MRJ story: made the kids do 3 hours of school in the morning ("But Mom!  It's a holiday AND your birthday!  You deserve the day off!"  Nice try, kiddo.  Now tidy the schoolroom.)  Took the kids to the ever-marvelous Annual Pumpkin Drop at the college, in which we test various theories of gravity by dropping pumpkins off the 6th-floor balcony.  Igor was kind of off this year, BUT they also threw 250 super-bouncy-balls all at once, which was very cool and resulted in utter chaos.  Went out to lunch with two good friends, yum.  Carved jack-o-lanterns (I'm always late), fetched pizza for dinner, spent at least half an hour doing 12-year-old's hair in about 25 braids, grandparents arrived, worried about the rain, took the kids trick-or-treating for over an hour anyway, dragged home to find that we still have most of our candy supply because hardly anyone went out tonight.  Oh, so tired.

Said 12-year-old was the hit of the neighborhood in her jellyfish costume.  9-year-old was adorable in her forest elf outfit (she imagines herself adventuring with Legolas).  Pictures available on the Howling Frog Facebook page.

I hope you all enjoyed reading MRJ this month; I certainly did and I learned a lot too.

I think this is what I want to be for Halloween next year.  It's certainly kind of scary.

Greek Classics: Sept./October Wrapup

I was so taken up with Gothic October that I forgot to post a wrap-up for September.  However, I've also been slacking in the Greek department lately, so I haven't got much to report anyway.  I'm going to have to read a lot in the next two months! 

I really am reading Artistotle's Rhetoric right now.  Just very slowly, on account of it's pretty tedious.  I miss Herodotus.  And I want to read Plato's Republic, too.  My 12-year-old daughter actually has to read Antigone next week for school, ha ha!

How have you been doing with your reading?  And, happy Halloween!

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Italian Readalong: Wrapup

Have you finished The Italian?  What did you think overall?  I must say I did enjoy this story; I remember having quite a hard time with Udolpho (though that was years ago) but this was easy to get into and enjoy.  It's, ahem, just a teeny bit prejudiced about the Roman Catholic Church, but we knew that going in, right? 

We've had some final revelations about the Mystery Monk and his role in the whole thing, and all has been cleared up between Ellena and the Vivaldi family.  Schedoni has conveniently removed himself and the Mystery Monk from the scene, so joy may reign unconfined.

I was impressed with how Vivaldi matured through the story; I said a couple of weeks ago that he's a ninny, but by the end he's an ideal manly type.  Not only is he noble and sensitive and loving, he is honest, kind, and compassionate even to his enemies.  He's worthy of Ellena (who you'll notice gets married on her 18th birthday!).

Paolo gets the last word, which was kind of fun.  He's a bit embarrassing as a character, embodying every possible stereotype about excitable, overemotional foreigners who rarely think through their actions.  At the end, though, he's proven himself to be brave and trustworthy, and he sums up everyone's feelings in his joyful speech.

With her Gothic novels, Radcliffe was painting a portrait of Italy.  Not a terribly realistic portrait, but an intriguing one that could hold English fantasies about a more Romantic kind of life--more rugged, with wilder scenery, emotions right at the surface, and everything less controlled and domestic than it was at home.  Children of the Forest was all about banditti, Udolpho had more about mountains, and The Italian completes the fantasy world with the Catholic Church--albeit as it had not been for at least a hundred years.  Italian words must have sounded impossibly exotic and romantic to English ears in those days--I bet just the word banditti conjured up all sorts of wonderful ideas.

Now we've turned right around and romanticized Radcliffe's own time--or at least, the few years immediately following.  We use the Regency era as an image that can hold our own romantic imagination just like they used Italy, and so there is an endless market for Regency romances and Jane Austen spinoffs.  Think of all those mediocre 'horrid novels' that so appalled those people who disapproved of novels at all--they were filling exactly the same niche as the piles of Jane Austen sequels that so appall some of us now.  (Me for one!)

I hope you've enjoyed a month of Gothic literature and it's put you in the proper frame of mind for autumn and some Halloween fun.  Or, if you're British, for Guy Fawkes fun.  I certainly plan on it.

James-A-Day: The Malice of Inanimate Objects

I think the title is my favorite thing about this story.  To be honest I was a little disappointed with the plot.

Ghosts & Scholars says: "The Malice of Inanimate Objects" was originally published in the inaugural issue of an Eton ephemeral, The Masquerade, in June 1933. It fell immediately into obscurity and was only rediscovered, nearly fifty years later, when Michael Cox tracked it down while researching for his M.R. James: An Informal Portrait (Oxford, 1983). Thanks to Michael, Ghosts & Scholars was able to give the tale its first ever reprint in 1984. It has since appeared in one or two other places, most notably in Michael Cox's Casting the Runes and Other Stories (Oxford World's Classics, 1987).

We meet one Mr. Burton, who is having an unlucky day.  A man of his acquaintance has committed suicide, and it's implied that Burton drove the fellow to it with a court case.  As the day goes on, Burton get more and more unlucky, until he is mysteriously killed in a train.

The moral of the story is a speculation that when your possessions seem to be maliciously getting in your way and injuring you on purpose (as we all know they do sometimes), perhaps it's because Something is pointing out to you that you have done wrong.  So next time you have a day like that, better think over your behavior...

Piers the Plowman

Piers the Ploughman, by William Langland

At long last, I can proudly say that I have finished Piers the Plowman!  I would rather read this than the Romance of the Rose any day, but it was in fact rather long and on the repetitive side.

This is a long alliterative (but unrhymed) poem in Middle English, written about 1360 or later.  I read it in a modern English translation--a very old Penguin copy.  (Those old Penguin paperbacks must have been very well-made; the spine is still perfectly sound and flexible though it dates from about 1960 or so.)  The whole thing is a huge allegory in the form of a series of visions about life, faith, and how we should live.   There is a lot of social criticism, and even more theology, much of which is a little weird by medieval Catholic standards.

I was glad that I had read A Distant Mirror before tackling this text, because Tuchman mentions Langland several times and explains much of the background.  Piers the Plowman was written partly in reaction to the ravages of the Black Death and to the society that was so hard hit by it. 

The poet spends much of the text trying to find out how to live properly by searching for Do-well, Do-better, and Do-best, who will be able to tell him what to do.  He meets endless allegorical characters who give him their perspective, and later on he meets Abraham (complete with patriarchs living happily in his bosom), sees the life of Jesus along with His crucifixion and the harrowing of Hell, and finally sees the Anti-Christ.  So there is sort of a religious history of the world included, though it has so many speeches and allegorical figures that it's hard to tell what's going on.

Monday, October 29, 2012

James-A-Day: Wailing Well

"Wailing Well" is another story set at Eton, and it's longer and more substantial than yesterday's story.  It also has quite a bit of detail about Eton life.  It's set in Dorset, on a camping trip, which is exactly where a group of boys were camping when MRJ read out the story to them.  The record states that "several boys had a somewhat disturbed night as the scene of the story was quite close to Camp"--which I take to mean that the story scared the dickens out of some of the boys!  As well it would; it's a creepy one.

This story has some great humor as well, very suited to boys and masters.  I liked this comment:
It was Wilcox again, whom the Provost noticed as he passed through the playing fields, and, pausing for a moment, observed to the Vice-Provost, “That lad has a remarkable brow!” “Indeed, yes,” said the Vice-Provost. “It denotes either genius or water on the brain.”
Remember that MRJ was the Provost, and he and the Vice-Provost were not very friendly.  I think, though, that the comments from the Provost in this story poke a little fun at MRJ himself.  The Vice-Provost seems to come off as more witty (and grumpy, but as we know I like grumps). 

The story concerns one Stanley Jenkins, who is something of a trouble-maker.  He plays pranks all the time, several quite malicious, and then there's this bit:
But it was in the life-saving competition that Stanley Judkins’s conduct was most blameable and had the most far-reaching effects. The practice, as you know, was to throw a selected lower boy, of suitable dimensions, fully dressed, with his hands and feet tied together, into the deepest part of Cuckoo Weir, and to time the Scout whose turn it was to rescue him. On every occasion when he was entered for this competition Stanley Judkins was seized, at the critical moment, with a severe fit of cramp, which caused him to roll on the ground and utter alarming cries. This naturally distracted the attention of those present from the boy in the water, and had it not been for the presence of Arthur Wilcox the death-roll would have been a heavy one. As it was, the Lower Master found it necessary to take a firm line and say that the competition must be discontinued. It was in vain that Mr. Beasley Robinson represented to him that in five competitions only four lower boys had actually succumbed. The Lower Master said that he would be the last to interfere in any way with the work of the Scouts; but that three of these boys had been valued members of his choir, and both he and Dr. Ley felt that the inconvenience caused by the losses outweighed the advantages of the competitions. Besides, the correspondence with the parents of these boys had become annoying, and even distressing: they were no longer satisfied with the printed form which he was in the habit of sending out, and more than one of them had actually visited Eton and taken up much of his valuable time with complaints. So the life-saving competition is now a thing of the past.
So four boys have drowned in this competition, and you can see how very upset everyone is!

Anyway, Jenkins goes too far when he ignores all the warnings and determines to visit the Wailing Well.  I thought the description of his trip to the well, and all that happens to him, was pretty good; there's some good tension and scariness going on there, don't you think?

But "one of the first to recover his spirits was Judkins minor."  Judkins major is unmourned and unmissed.

We only have two days left to go, and tomorrow we'll do "The Malice of Inanimate Objects."  The final story will be "The Fenstanton Witch."  Other bits and bobs count as extra credit. :)  But by all means do read all the stories!

The History of the Caliph Vathek

The History of the Caliph Vathek, by William Beckford

Beckford wrote Vathek in French in 1782, at a time when there were two fashionable crazes: the Gothic and the Oriental.  Beckford married the two genres in a tale of an Arabian king gone wrong.  His story was published in English under the claim that it was a story directly from the Arabic.  The name Vathek sounds kind of German to me, but the name and the story are very very loosely based on a real person, the Abbasid caliph Al-Wathiq ibn Mutasim, who ruled in the 9th century. 

Vathek is about 150 pages long, and has no chapters; it just goes from episode to episode without a break.  (Much, I suppose, as Beckford wrote it--he claimed it only took him a few days and nights.)  There isn't much in the way of character development.

The story is that Vathek is a powerful caliph with a bad temper (his angry glance can kill people!) and a large thirst for knowledge.  A demon, Giaour, shows up and offers him knowledge and power if he will renounce Islam and worship him instead.  Vathek happily does this; he commits blasphemy, sacrifices children to Giaour, and generally makes everyone miserable.  His mother is expert in black magic and helps him out. 

Vathek however has a very short attention span and keeps breaking his demonic contract, especially when he meets a girl.  They recommit to Giaour together and travel to Hell to meet Eblis (another name for the devil, I think).  For a short time they enjoy luxury and unlimited power, but within a few days it's all over and they fall into eternal torment.

I will admit to sort of skimming this story, which isn't all that great.  You needn't bother unless you're really into the genre.  A funny thing about my ebook copy--it's a direct scan of the original book, and for some reason the Vathek story is bundled with Johnson's Rasselas.  Why?  I do not know.


Dodger, by Terry Pratchett

Pterry's new book is not a Discworld book; I'm probably the last person to know this, but I don't like to know too much ahead of time about the books or movies I'm going to enjoy, so I always avoid as much information as I can.  As you might guess from the title, it's a story of early Victorian London (Pratchett calls it a historical fantasy, since he's doing a lot of world-building but moving some bits and pieces around).

Dodger is a boy of the slums--a tosher who searches the sewers for whatever bits and pieces get washed down (though I doubt that any real tosher ever found quite so many pieces of jewelry down there).  It's dangerous work, but Dodger is the best.  When he saves a girl from being beaten to death, he falls into an adventure that takes him to the top and the bottom of London society, and that introduces him to quite a few Victorian stars from Charles Dickens to Disraeli.  Pratchett drops several hints about Dodger as an inspiration to Dickens.

I always enjoy Pterry's style, and this is a typical specimen, funny, incisive, and tragic all at once.  I do think he got a little meandery this time and a bit repetitive with the 'oh yes'es, but he clearly had a wonderful time describing Victorian London and it was a very good read.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

James-A-Day: After Dark in the Playing Fields

"Eton College from Playing Fields"
Old folklore says that animals talk on Midsummer Eve, and in this little story MRJ imagines talking with an owl.  The conversation is interrupted several times, though, by the Little People, who torment the owl unmercifully.  The narrator decides to stick around to see what happens...and will only say that he no longer hangs around the playing fields at midnight, nor does he "like a crowd after dark."  The Little People did something that disturbed him greatly, but we never find out what.

The story takes place on the playing fields at Eton.  Tomorrow's story is also set at Eton, where James presided as provost from 1918 until his death in 1936.  At Eton, the provost is the head of the college--like the president or headmaster--and is appointed by the Crown, so it's quite a prestigious position.

The Cask of Amontillado and Other Bits and Pieces

Montresor coat of arms
All month I've been especially wanting to read Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado."  I don't know why that story popped into my head; I'm not a specially big fan of Poe or anything.  I do remember reading this story in 8th grade and hardly understanding a word of it, which was the case with all the Poe stories we read that year.  (No one explained, for example, what an MS. was, which made "MS. in a Bottle" kind of opaque, and I seem to have spent all of my school years under the impression that I couldn't ask questions.)

Anyway.  "The Cask of Amontillado" is the story of a perfect revenge-murder.  Very creepy and unsettling.  Montresor drops hints to Fortunato the whole time, but Fortunato does not heed the warning.  But everyone knows the story, so I don't have much to say about it.

I've also been reading a couple of other things; I'm most of the way through the story of the Caliph Vathek, though to be honest I'm skimming a bit.  It's nowhere near as good as The Italian.  I also started reading Isak Dinesen's Seven Gothic Tales, and wow, her writing really takes me back.  I am enjoying it a lot--the writing is gorgeous--but I seem to have misplaced the book for the moment.  I think I'd like to revisit all of Dinesen in the future.  

I would still quite like to take a look at Wieland, since it's a homegrown article.  But that won't fit into October.  And I really need to be reading Greek literature!  I've been working my way through Aristotle's Rhetoric, but my goodness it's dull.  I must get back to Herodotus.

Anything Goes

Anything Goes, by Theodore Dalrymple

What?  a non-Gothic book? Yes, and I even read it a couple of weeks ago, but since all my blogging energy is going into MRJ posts, there's been little time to post about much else.

I like grumpy old guys who write grumpy books, and Theodore Dalrymple is probably the King of Grump.  (Well, except maybe Peter Hitchens--I read one of his books once and he made Dalrymple look like sunshine and roses.)  All that is not to say that I don't think Dalrymple has got some valuable things to say; he does.

Anything Goes is a collection of over 30 essays on some pretty random topics.  They were written between 2005 and 2009 for New English Review, a journal I'm not familiar with since probably it's a UK publication.

It is in fact a bit difficult to get Dalrymple's books if you live in California, unless you actually buy them.  I got this one as a Kindle book, and then read it on a road trip.  One advantage of e-books is that you can read them in a car at night without disturbing the driver with too much light.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

James-A-Day: Rats

A gibbet stone
There is not a single rat in this story.  Still, it's a good creepy title, sitting there all by itself.  It's really a reference to the quotation from Dickens story "Tom Tiddler's Ground" used as an epigraph, but the description in the epigraph matches an event in the story.

Mr. Thomson, a typical Jamesian protagonist--that is, scholarly, too curious, and perhaps a bit rabbity--is staying at a quiet country inn for a month to get some reading done.  (Holy moley, who can do that?  I'm not sure if it sounds like paradise or too stultifying for words.  Paradise for a week, at least.)  Anyway, young Thomson is a bit too prone to poking his nose in where it doesn't belong.  He peeks into the inn's front-facing upper room and finds more than he bargained for.

I noticed that there's a mention of a stone base for a gibbet in this story, and those happen pretty frequently with MRJ.  Since they're nearly always described as a stone with a hole in the middle, it took me a while to figure out what they're supposed to be, but I suppose Edwardian readers would have known right away.  Evidently James mentions them in his book Suffolk and Norfolk.  He knew those counties very well indeed, and I'd quite like to read the book, but it's quite hard to get around here.  Maybe I'll hope that it will show up as an ebook one of these days.

Friday, October 26, 2012

The Italian Readalong: Week 4

We're almost done, and information is being revealed!

Wait, I'd better start at the beginning of our section for this week. Ahem.

This week's reading started off by checking on Ellena and her situation at the new convent.  This convent is run by a very different kind of abbess than the old evil convent.  In fact, this abbess is Radcliffe's Ideal Woman--and her ideal woman is not actually a Catholic, so it gets a little awkward towards the end of the first paragraph:
This lady was a shining example to governesses of religious houses, and a striking instance of the influence, which a virtuous mind may acquire over others, as well as of the extensive good that it may thus diffuse. She was dignified without haughtiness, religious without bigotry, and mild, though decisive and firm. She possessed penetration to discover what was just, resolution to adhere to it, and temper to practise it with gentleness and grace; so that even correction from her, assumed the winning air of courtesy: the person, whom she admonished, wept in sorrow for the offence, instead of being secretly irritated by the reproof, and loved her as a mother, rather than feared her as a judge. Whatever might be her failings, they were effectually concealed by the general benevolence of her heart, and the harmony of her mind; a harmony, not the effect of torpid feelings, but the accomplishment of correct and vigilant judgment. Her religion was neither gloomy, nor bigotted; it was the sentiment of a grateful heart offering itself up to a Deity, who delights in the happiness of his creatures; and she conformed to the customs of the Roman church, without supposing a faith in all of them to be necessary to salvation. This opinion, however, she was obliged to conceal, lest her very virtue should draw upon her the punishment of a crime, from some fierce ecclesiastics, who contradicted in their practice the very essential principles, which the christianity they professed would have taught them.

In her lectures to the nuns she seldom touched upon points of faith, but explained and enforced the moral duties, particularly such as were most practicable in the society to which she belonged; such as tended to soften and harmonize the affections, to impart that repose of mind, which persuades to the practice of sisterly kindness, universal charity, and the most pure and elevated devotion. When she spoke of religion, it appeared so interesting, so beautiful, that her attentive auditors revered and loved it as a friend, a refiner of the heart, a sublime consoler; and experienced somewhat of the meek and holy ardour, which may belong to angelic natures.

Sorry that's kind of long, but I thought it was worth quoting.  What do you think of that?  I was pretty stunned to find that the best kind of abbess is a secretly-kind-of-Protestant abbess.

Next interesting thing: the mysterious monk!  Who is this guy?  He is not Schedoni, Vivaldi finally figures out.  Sometimes he's like a ghost, walking around unseen.  Other times he's a monk of the Inquisition and the head Inquisitor knows who he is.  Very strange.  Although he is Schedoni's enemy and wants to bring him to justice, the Mystery Monk is not a good guy and I'm not quite sure yet what to make of him.

And then there's Olivia, who manages to turn up at the ideal abbess' convent just in time to reveal herself as being exactly who we figured she would be.  And she reveals more important information about Schedoni, too!

Finally we have some news about the Marchesa, too, who has unexpectedly died and left a parting wish that Vivaldi and Ellena be allowed to marry.  The Marchese has finally figured out where his son is, and so perhaps he will soon be rescued.

But we still have just a few chapters to go in order to solve the rest of the story and make everything clear.  Have fun finishing!

James-A-Day: There Was A Man Dwelt By A Churchyard

Illustration used as cover image for G&S
Today's story is a very very short one, and as James says, it's very old and familiar.  Do you know a version of this story? 

The title of the story is "the beginning of the story about sprites and goblins which Mamilius...was telling to his mother" when she was dragged off to prison.  This is from "The Winter's Tale,"  Act II, Scene 1, and here is the dialogue:

Hermione. What wisdom stirs amongst you? Come, sir, now
I am for you again: pray you, sit by us,
And tell 's a tale.
Mamillius. Merry or sad shall't be?
Hermione. As merry as you will.
Mamillius. A sad tale's best for winter: I have one
Of sprites and goblins. 
Hermione. Let's have that, good sir.
Come on, sit down: come on, and do your best
To fright me with your sprites; you're powerful at it.
Mamillius. There was a man—
Hermione. Nay, come, sit down; then on. 
Mamillius. Dwelt by a churchyard: I will tell it softly;
Yond crickets shall not hear it.
Hermione. Come on, then,
And give't me in mine ear.
[Enter LEONTES, with ANTIGONUS, Lords and others] 

Whether James is really giving us the story Mamilius would have told, I suppose no one but Shakespeare knows, but it's a nifty way to introduce his tale.

The story itself tells about John Poole, who lives next to a churchyard and keeps an eye on the burials.  He is watching when an old woman reputed to be a witch is buried, and the priest drops the money she gave him into the coffin, since he thinks it's tainted gold.  Poole has no such scruples and digs up the grave to get the money, but that isn't a very clever thing to do.

Ever since I read this story, I've been walking around with an echo of "Who has got my golden arm?" playing in my head.  Am I the only one? 

Thursday, October 25, 2012

James-A-Day: An Evening's Entertainment

The Cerne Abbas Giant (Victorianly expurgated edition)
This story does not feature an actual ghost or creature; instead it's just about people engaging in some sort of pagan rituals--particularly ugly ones evidently.  And it has an unusual little frame around the story.

I quite like the frame, about how in the old days granny would tell terrifying stories by the fire, and the mid-Victorians came up with books especially "aimed at extinguishing by substituting for Error and Superstition the light of Utility and Truth."  I think I have one of these books on my tablet; it's by Charles Kingsley, called Madam How and Lady Why.  There is this funny little mock conversation between a father and son, such as you would find in one of these books, and that never ever happened in any real household:
Charles: I think, papa, that 1 now understand the properties of the lever, which you so kindly explained to me on Saturday; but I have been very much puzzled since then in thinking about the pendulum, and have wondered why it is that, when you stop it, the clock does not go on any more.

Papa: (You young sinner, have you been meddling with the clock in the hall? Come here to me! No, this must be a gloss that has somehow crept into the text.) Well, my boy, though I do not wholly approve of your conducting without my supervision experiments which may possibly impair the usefulness of a valuable scientific instrument, I will do my best to explain the principles of the pendulum to you. Fetch me a piece of stout whipcord from the drawer in my study, and ask cook to be so good as to lend you one of the weights which she uses in her kitchen.
Anyway, we're going to find out what it's like "in a household to which the beams of Science have not yet penetrated," and hear the story Grandmother tells.

The actual story is quite difficult to piece together and I'm not sure we're supposed to be able to do it at all.  Grandmother, after all, is telling a tale that she heard in her childhood and adding in bits and pieces she heard from her father, and no one seems to have figured out what was going on back then, either.  There are hints of witchcraft in the area, other hints of sun-worship or some other kind of paganism--maybe a group?--and then a reference to outright devil-worship.

Mr. Davis and his young companion were certainly up to something, but what that something was is quite murky.  They liked to camp out at an "old figure cut in the hill-side," which seems to be a fictional version of something like the Cerne Abbas Giant.  They were interested in getting some of that old-time religion.  And they were both found dead in horrible ways; for generations afterward, something evil lingered in the area.  That's all we really know!

What do you think they were getting up to?

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

James-A-Day: A Warning to the Curious

Isn't this a great drawing?

Oh boy, I think this is a great story!  It must be one of the most famous MRJ tales. 

Two scholarly gentlemen are taking a seaside holiday at Seaburgh (a lightly disguised Aldeburgh, in Suffolk), and meet another, younger man who is strangely anxious and relieved to have a bit of company.  This fellow is named Paxton and he has a weird tale to tell; he heard a local legend about ancient crowns buried on the coast to protect England from invasion.  Two are lost, but he managed to figure out where the third crown would be and actually discovered it.  Now he is haunted by the crown's guardian, and he must put the crown back.  Even so, he knows he has committed an unforgivable crime and he'll have to pay.

I just love ancient legends like this, so I hunted around a little for information about the crowns.  Did James make it up or does it have roots in reality?  I'm having a hard time finding solid information, actually; I might need to go on a proper librarian quest.  But several minutes of poking around on the Internet shows that indeed three crowns are the traditional insignia of East Anglia (gold on blue, as shown in the flag below).  There are a few mentions of three crowns that guard East Anglia--one in Norfolk, one in Suffolk and one in Essex--but most of them seem to feature this story as the evidence.  My book's notes claim that there is a legend not of crowns, but of "magical coins buried on the coast in Anglo-Saxon times" to prevent invasion, but I really can't find anything about that. 

A more convincing history for the three crowns insignia is given in saints' legends.  St. Edmund was King of the Angles in the 10th century and was tormented and killed by Viking invaders.  Eventually he became the patron saint of East Anglia.  His symbol is three crowns, for his kingship, his martyrdom and his virginity.  He is invoked against plague, and his feast day is coming up on November 20 so maybe do something fun for that.

Fictitious flag of East Anglia--designed 1900

I really like not only the legend of the crowns, but the idea of the guardianship being passed from father to son for so many years.  (I always enjoy stories like that.)  The last guardian died, but he's still keeping watch over his stewardship.

So what did you think of this one?

Atlas of Love

Atlas of Love, by Laurie Frankel

Jenny at Teach Your Baby to Read did a PNW authors festival recently, and asked me if I'd read Atlas of Love (the link is to her excellent review).  I'd never heard of it, but the plot intrigued me and I promptly ILLed it.

We have three grad students in literature who are best friends as they study and teach at a university in Seattle.  When Jill becomes unexpectedly pregnant and her much-younger boyfriend disappears, the three women decide to move in together, make a family, and raise a baby while earning their Ph.D's.

I really enjoyed about 75% of this book.  There was lots of good writing about the nature of love and family.  I got attached to several of the characters, the plot kept me hanging on, I felt for the narrator--I could hardly put it down.  Some bits were very funny and yet real at the same time. Overall, the book is pretty great.

(The rest of my review here is a little ranty and over-long.  You may skip this bit: )

But.  One of the three friends, Katie, is billed as a Mormon, and there is quite a lot about her character that really did not convince me.  Katie is a Mormon feminist academic (Victorianist, woo)--fine.  I have known lots of those; in fact I've been one.  Katie goes on lots of dates with LDS guys and would quite like to get married--fine.  She is a returned missionary who served in Guatemala--excellent.  (The bit where she gets diagnosed with Guatemalan parasites is one of my favorite parts of the book.)

Most of Katie's behavior, though, is very strange.  This is all supposed to be behavior-that-is-strange-to-outsiders-but-makes-sense-to-Mormons, but if I knew a real-life woman like Katie, I would think she was unhinged.   She is desperate to get married, and spends a lot of the book figuring things out that most people figure out at about 19--such as that asking a non-LDS person to convert just for you is a Super-Bad Idea and that desperation to get married is a good reason to not do it.  Most of the Mormon feminist academics I've known were not desperate to get married and a bit wary about the whole thing, since it's kind of a big commitment and all. 

For some reason it's hard for Katie to find an LDS guy who can deal with the fact that she's an academic who reads books, which is kind of mysterious to me as they are not a rare breed.  She does find a boy--and gets engaged after a week and starts planning a wedding for a month away.  Now some people do get engaged quickly, but a week is crazy.  Some people plan a fast wedding, but a month--after knowing the guy for a week--is really super-crazy.  (She's right that Mormons are geniuses at throwing great weddings on short notice.  But the timing has been exaggerated to the point of insanity.)

Most bizarre of all, Katie and her fiance decide to get married in a backyard so that all their close friends can attend.  Now the plot of the novel requires that all the characters treat each other like family and therefore the author wants them all at the wedding, but this is jaw-droppingly, insanely unrealistic.  Katie just tosses it off as no big deal--"Oh, we decided to get married in the backyard so you can all come and we won't have to go to Utah to the temple, and squee, I'm getting married for time and all eternity!"  Uh, no you're not, Katie, and you would know that if you were a real person.  Also, there's a temple in Seattle--there has been for 30+ years now.  Also, what?  It would take a long time to explain all the things that are wrong with this scenario, but I've run out of energy and I'm sure you've run out of patience.

I suspect that the author thought she knew more about Mormons than she actually did.  But the REST of the book is pretty good, so don't let that stop you from reading and enjoying it as long as you remember that Katie is not a real person.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

James-A-Day: A View From a Hill

I ought to make a list of haunted items in James stories; it's would be so varied and funny.

Lots of books
Bedclothes (twice)

Yes, today's possessed item is a pair of binoculars.
They have lain undisturbed for years, so the current owner doesn't realize, but lends them to a friend, who promptly activates them by giving an accidental blood offering.  (I love how Mr. Fanshawe reacts by calling it a "disgusting Borgia box" --but then he makes a mistake in saying "I don't begrudge a drop of blood in a good cause."  He'll be taken seriously.)  The binoculars have an amazing property for the person who can use them, and Mr. Fanshawe is bewildered by what he sees.

It seems that one Mr. Baxter made the binoculars and filled them with...I suppose, the boiled-down essence of a man hanged long ago. (My book's notes say that it's the actual eyes that were used, but that seems unlikely to me if Mr. Baxter was grubbing around for centuries-old remains.)  Looking through the glasses lets the viewer see the landscape as the dead man would have seen it. But Mr. Baxter has been meddling too much in what he ought not, and so he is taken away, presumably by the ghost of the hanged man.

I gather that there are many beliefs about dark supernatural powers present in the remains of a hanged man.  Most people have probably heard of a Hand of Glory, for example.

There's another hint about the blood offering in Mr. Baxter's story, when he gleefully hints that "you'll have to pay for peepin', so I tell you."

How are you doing with your James-a-day story?

Monday, October 22, 2012

James-A-Day: A Neighbour's Landmark

Paul Lowe's illustration for "A Neighbour's Landmark"
"Cursed be he that removeth his neighbour's landmark."  That's Deuteronomy 27:17, and it's a curse that comes true in today's story.

Our narrator is a lucky fellow who has taken on the pleasant job of sorting through and cataloging a friend's library: "...generations back, two country-house libraries had been fused together, and no descendant of either stock had ever faced the task of picking them over..."  So he's staying in a pleasant country manor and  he's all set.  (Perhaps not everyone thinks this is such a great job, but I am a librarian, after all.)

He comes upon an interesting bit of local folklore that is almost entirely forgotten: an old country song that says
That which walks in Betton Wood 
Knows [not] why it walks or why it cries.
Some detective work will uncover the story--but before we find out about that, the narrator actually experiences the cry of the thing that walks in Betton Wood:
There thrilled into my right ear and pierced my head a note of incredible sharpness, like the shriek of a bat, only ten times intensified — the kind of thing that makes one wonder if something has not given way in one’s brain....I thought no longer of kind mellow evening hours of rest, and scents of flowers and woods on evening air...but instead images came to me of dusty beams and creeping spiders and savage owls up in the tower, and forgotten graves and their ugly contents below, and of flying Time and all it had taken out of my life. 
 Betton Wood is gone, but the mindless creature remains.  It can't rest until the injustice of removing a neighbor's landmark is rectified, but that is an impossible task.  The victims are nameless and forgotten, and if there are any descendants they are unknowable.  The wood itself is gone, and the legal dispute is nearly forgotten except in old records no one reads.  "...and so we take it she can't leave Betton before someone take and put it right again."

This tale is based on a real court case, that of Theodosia Bryan, Lady Ivie, in the late 1600s.  MRJ enjoyed reading old court cases very much, especially those of the second half of the 17th century--and as we know from "Martin's Close," most especially the cases in which Judge Jeffreys took part.  "Things are never dull when he is at the bar or on the bench," commented James.

I really like the opening sentences, which describes all of us who are readers:
Those who spend the greater part of their time in reading or writing books are, of course, apt to take rather particular notice of accumulations of books when they come across them. They will not pass a stall, a shop, or even a bedroom-shelf without reading some title, and if they find themselves in an unfamiliar library, no host need trouble himself further about their entertainment. The putting of dispersed sets of volumes together, or the turning right way up of those which the dusting housemaid has left in an apoplectic condition, appeals to them as one of the lesser Works of Mercy.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

James-A-Day: The Uncommon Prayer Book

An early 18th century prayer book
Possessed prayer books--I have to say, that's a little odd.  Doesn't the Book of Common Prayer have a section on exorcism?

These, however, are uncommon prayer books with a special section just for cursing Oliver Cromwell, on his birthday no less. (I checked my copy of the prayer-book and sure enough, April 25 is St. Mark's Day and no service ever uses Psalm 109.)  I suppose the old Royalist grandmother observed the cursing for the rest of her life, and went on doing it afterwards too.  Or do you think it was something else?

I like how Mr. Davidson realizes that no ordinary prayer-book would have been likely to be printed in 1653.  I suppose a British person interested in history would be bound to realize that 1653 is the middle of the Protectorate--Lord Peter Wimsey would know it right away--but I certainly never would. he was changing his socks before dinner, he suddenly paused and said half-aloud, ‘By Jove, that is a rum thing!’ It had not occurred to him before how strange it was that any edition of the Prayer–Book should have been issued in 1653, seven years before the Restoration, five years before Cromwell’s death, and when the use of the book, let alone the printing of it, was penal.
This story also has another example of fabric being used as a vehicle for a supernatural attack.  This time it's white flannel instead of linen; MRJ seems to have found linen the most scary, but flannel is a close second.

Here is the 109th Psalm, in the King James Version.  It was interesting to read it and think of it as directed at Cromwell:

A Cry for Vengeance
To the chief Musician, A Psalm of David.

1  Hold not thy peace, O God of my praise;
2  for the mouth of the wicked and the mouth of the deceitful are opened against me:
they have spoken against me with a lying tongue.
3  They compassed me about also with words of hatred;
and fought against me without a cause.
4  For my love they are my adversaries:
but I give myself unto prayer.
5  And they have rewarded me evil for good,
and hatred for my love.
6  Set thou a wicked man over him:
and let Satan stand at his right hand.
7  When he shall be judged, let him be condemned:
and let his prayer become sin.
8  Let his days be few;
and let another take his office. 
9  Let his children be fatherless,
and his wife a widow.
10  Let his children be continually vagabonds, and beg:
let them seek their bread also out of their desolate places.
11  Let the extortioner catch all that he hath;
and let the strangers spoil his labor.
12  Let there be none to extend mercy unto him:
neither let there be any to favor his fatherless children.
13  Let his posterity be cut off;
and in the generation following let their name be blotted out.
14  Let the iniquity of his fathers be remembered with the LORD;
and let not the sin of his mother be blotted out.
15  Let them be before the LORD continually,
that he may cut off the memory of them from the earth.
16  Because that he remembered not to show mercy,
but persecuted the poor and needy man,
that he might even slay the broken in heart.
17  As he loved cursing,
so let it come unto him:
as he delighted not in blessing,
so let it be far from him.
18  As he clothed himself with cursing like as with his garment,
so let it come into his bowels like water,
and like oil into his bones.
19  Let it be unto him as the garment which covereth him,
and for a girdle wherewith he is girded continually.
20  Let this be the reward of mine adversaries from the LORD,
and of them that speak evil against my soul.
21  But do thou for me, O GOD the Lord, for thy name's sake:
because thy mercy is good, deliver thou me.
22  For I am poor and needy,
and my heart is wounded within me.
23  I am gone like the shadow when it declineth:
I am tossed up and down as the locust.
24  My knees are weak through fasting;
and my flesh faileth of fatness.
25  I became also a reproach unto them:
when they looked upon me they shook their heads. 
26  Help me, O LORD my God:
O save me according to thy mercy:
27  that they may know that this is thy hand;
that thou, LORD, hast done it.
28  Let them curse, but bless thou:
when they arise, let them be ashamed;
but let thy servant rejoice.
29  Let mine adversaries be clothed with shame;
and let them cover themselves with their own confusion, as with a mantle.
30  I will greatly praise the LORD with my mouth;
yea, I will praise him among the multitude.
31  For he shall stand at the right hand of the poor,
to save him from those that condemn his soul.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

The Horla

"The Horla," by Guy de Maupassant

I've never read de Maupassant before.  Gothic October is opening up all sorts of new doors for me!  Since "The Horla" is only the first story in a whole book of stories that I downloaded, I'll need to read the other ones too.  One is simply titled "Mad!"  I have GOT to read that one soon.

The story is written as a series of journal entries and we never learn the narrator's name.  He's feeling pretty good one day as he watches the ships sail up the river, but after that he gets gradually more and more disturbed, especially at night.  He's convinced he must be sleepwalking, or perhaps going mad.  A trip away restores his health, but once home, he gets worse again, and eventually realizes that some entity is trying to take him over...

It's a very spooky and tension-filled tale, a classic of the genre.  It has inspired imitations and homages--movies, Star Trek episodes, and most famously, Lovecraft's "Call of Cthulhu" story.  I had never heard of it before, and was surprised to see how very influential it has been.  So, if you've never read it before, it will well repay the short amount of time it takes to read it.

James-A-Day: The Haunted Dolls' House

The house under construction
 "The Haunted Dolls' House" was written for a very particular occasion: the gift of an enormous, elaborate, amazing dolls' house to Queen Mary in 1924.  The Queen loved miniatures.  It was Princess Marie Louise's idea, and a good many of the most famous names of the day helped in the design and building.  Lutyens built it, composers contributed musical scores, authors gave specially written stories in tiny books (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote a Sherlock Holmes story just for the house), and on and on.  It's so detailed and thorough that it's actually a nice source of historical information about domestic life in the 1920s.  You can explore the dolls' house here. 

MRJ, naturally, wrote a special ghost story for the  house's library, concerning a dolls' house that is remarkably similar to Queen Mary's, though it's a replica of a fabulous manor house "in Strawberry Hill Gothic" instead of a royal palace.  You should thus imagine it as having fewer stories than this one, but built along much the same lines and on the same scale.

The dolls' house is purchased for a suspiciously low price by an avid antiques collector, but he gets a nasty surprise.  In the middle of the night the house lights up and puts on a show; a re-enactment of a murder and subsequent haunting with deadly results.

James noted at the end of the story that this is pretty much "The Mezzotint" carried out in a different artistic medium, but hoped that there was "enough of variation in the setting to make the repetition of the motif tolerable."

The dolls' house library

The plot of this story was lifted wholesale for the children's book The Dollhouse Murders, by Betty Ren Wright, in 1983.  It was republished fairly recently, so if you want to read it, you shouldn't have any trouble finding it at the library.


Friday, October 19, 2012

James-A-Day: The Two Doctors

MRJ in 1900
MRJ's later stories mostly have elements of detective stories included (as we've already seen).  "The Two Doctors" really is a murder mystery for the reader to solve; it's just a supernatural murder mystery.  If you piece together the clues, you can figure out what happened.

I hate to tell you what happened, though, which doesn't exactly give us a lot to talk about today.  I will point out that the doctors' names, Quinn and Abell, sound remarkably like Cain and Abel, although their characters are switched.

I do love the opening sentence.  It really made me laugh when I read it:
It is a very common thing, in my experience, to find papers shut up in old books; but one of the rarest things to come across any such that are at all interesting.
I rather assumed that a bedstaff is one of the posts on a four-poster bed, but Ghosts & Scholars says that it's "a staff for making up a bed," which is hardly helpful.  How do you use a staff to make up a bed?  A general Internet search turned up much clearer information; Johnson's Dictionary defined it as "A wooden pin stuck anciently on the sides of the bedstead, to hold the clothes from slipping on either side." Even better, a website called Finding Shakespeare has an entire article on bedstaves, complete with photographs!  Wow, you can find anything on the Internet.

It made me happy to see one character, Mr. Pratt, say distinguo.  It's Latin for "I distinguish," and was once commonly used in debate to say "Now wait a minute, let's just define our terms clearly before we continue."   Dorothy Sayers used it in her essay about classical education, and I didn't know what it meant then.  I think we should bring it back into common usage!

See what I did there, sneaking one of my favorite essays in?

Jane Austen's Sewing Box

Jane Austen's Sewing Box: Craft Projects and Stories from Jane Austen's Novels, by Jennifer Forest

As soon as I heard about this crafty sewing book back when it was published, I wanted to get it.  It wasn't printed in the US, though, and I was worried that it would turn out to be like many current sewing books--long on simple projects and pretty photography, but short on anything I would actually want to do.  Even my favorite designers seem to do that.  I finally decided to get the book through ILL so I could check it out properly, and I'm very glad I did.

This book is beautifully illustrated--full of Regency fashion plates, old drawings, and photographs (mostly very close-up photos of furnishings).  Pretty pictures are at least half the content.  It has lovely essays on  Regency domestic life, sprinkled with apt quotations from Austen novels.  It features 18 fairly simple projects based on everyday items: a reticule, a workbag, a netted purse, a man's cravat.

What it does not have is good photographs of the projects or detailed instructions, though to be fair most of the projects are simple enough not to need them unless you're a beginner.  Each project gets one photo, usually from an angle that makes a very pretty set piece but does not allow for a good view of the item.

I kind of feel like the projects are too simple for an advanced sewist, but the instructions are too sparse for anyone who is not at an advanced level.  None of the projects are at all challenging, but a beginner will be frustrated.  (That said, my 12-year-old daughter is happily constructing a muff--though why she wants one is beyond my understanding.  I'd do the workbag or reticule.)

I enjoyed the essays very much.  They are informative and well-done; Forest is a historian so that's her strength, and they are by far the best part of the book.  But I'm glad I didn't purchase it.  I would have been quite disappointed if I'd invested $30 or more in hopes of getting a great sewing book.

The Italian Readalong: Week 3

Wow, things have been moving right along in our story!  I am a little frustrated that there has not been one word about Vivaldi all week.  The poor guy is languishing in the dungeons of the Inquisition or something but we don't know a thing about how he's doing.  Spoilers follow:

Our story has followed Ellena and Schedoni almost exclusively.  The Inquisition toughs were only actors, and they turned Vivaldi over to the real thing but brought Ellena out to Schedoni's remote house!  (Which means that Schedoni has indeed turned Vivaldi in.  Boy, that's going to backfire on him, don't you think?)  Ellena is marked for death, but there is a big reveal!

And I really was surprised by it.  I did not expect Schedoni to turn out to be Ellena's father.  What would you bet that he was once married to Olivia?

Meanwhile, the Marchesa has had such a moral downfall that she is upset to hear that maybe it's OK that Ellena is still alive, although she's no happier to think Ellena might be dead:
The Marchesa reclined on a sofa before an open lattice; her eyes were fixed upon the prospect without, but her attention was wholly occupied by the visions that evil passions painted to her imagination. On her still beautiful features was the languor of discontent and indisposition; and, though her manners, like her dress, displayed the elegant negligence of the graces, they concealed the movements of a careful, and even a tortured heart. 

....she wished, yet dared not ask, whether Ellena was no more, and averted her regards from him, whom she almost believed to be a murderer. (p.292-3)
 Schedoni's case is no better:
Schedoni, not less affected, though apparently tranquil, as sedulously avoided the face of the Marchesa, whom he considered with a degree of contempt almost equal to his indignation: his feelings had reversed, for the present, all hi opinions on the subject of their former arguments, and had taught him, for once, to think justly. Every moment of silence now increased his embarrassment, and his reluctance even to name Ellena. He feared to tell that she lived, yet despised himself for suffering such fear, and shuddered at a recollection of the conduct, which had made any assurance concerning her life necessary.
.  No one seems to be too worried about Vivaldi.

What do you think?  Are you enjoying The Italian?  I really am liking it!  Be sure to read chapters 4-10 of Volume III this week!

Thursday, October 18, 2012

James-A-Day: The Story of a Disappearance and an Appearance

This is a truly grotesque story, and I think also more mysterious than usual.  Uncle Henry, a stern and unforgiving rector, has gone missing, and we get the story of the search from a series of letters addressed to the narrator's brother.

The heart of the story is a nightmare of a Punch and Judy show which somehow serves to hint at what really happened to Uncle Henry.  The nightmare is really more of a vision than an ordinary dream, and it's horrifying:

The stage got perceptibly darker as each crime was consummated, and at last there was one murder which was done quite in the dark, so that I could see nothing of the victim, and took some time to effect. It was accompanied by hard breathing and horrid muffled sounds, and after it Punch came and sat on the foot-board and fanned himself and looked at his shoes, which were bloody, and hung his head on one side, and sniggered in so deadly a fashion that I saw some of those beside me cover their faces, and I would gladly have done the same. But in the meantime the scene behind Punch was clearing, and showed, not the usual house front, but something more ambitious—a grove of trees and the gentle slope of a hill, with a very natural—in fact, I should say a real—moon shining on it. Over this there rose slowly an object which I soon perceived to be a human figure with something peculiar about the head—what, I was unable at first to see. It did not stand on its feet, but began creeping or dragging itself across the middle distance towards Punch...
Punch is pretty nightmarish anyway, but MRJ makes it about seventeen times worse.

The innkeeper with a grievance against Uncle Henry may have murdered him.  Or maybe a monster got him, or maybe Punch did.  I'm not at all sure.  What do you think happened?

"Fuseli's foul sketch" -- a nightmare

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

James-A-Day: An Episode of Cathedral History

Today's story is a very spooky one, but we receive it at two removes--the author is writing up notes made 20 years previously by a scholar who wrote down the childhood memories of an elderly man.  There is so much ordinary stuff about cathedral archives and renovations that the horrible creatures come as a shock.  This is just what MRJ liked to pull off; he wrote: “Let us, then, be introduced to the actors in a placid way.  Let us see them going about their ordinary business undisturbed by forebodings, pleased with their surroundings; and into this calm environment, let the ominous thing put out its head, unobtrusively at first, and then more insistently, until it holds the stage.” 

Canterbury Cathedral choir
James based his fictional cathedrals on a mixture of Canterbury, Salisbury, and Hereford.  There is no cathedral in Southminster, only a church; I don't think he would have wanted to besmirch the name of a real cathedral by implying that it was haunted.

It looks to me as though there are actually two monsters or creatures or whatever they are in this story.  I think that might be new for an MRJ story--both his ghosts and his scholars are usually loner types.  We have one imprisoned under the pulpit, and once the pulpit is gone, it starts waking up and struggling to get out.  Meanwhile its mate, or its friend, is running around the cathedral close every night, scaring everyone out of their wits, and it would probably be a bad idea to leave any animals unsecured out there.  But once the bound monster escapes (and it, naturally, is "all over hair"), they are never heard of again.

The inscription, "Ibi cubavit Lamia," is from the Vulgate Bible.  I have two quite different translations of the phrase here.  The KJV renders it as "There hath the lamia lain down and found rest for itself."  Rosemary Pardoe shows it as "There shall be the lair of the night monster."

And Rosemary Pardoe has quite an interesting short article about an apparent hoax based on this story!  Head over to the Ghosts and Scholars archive and read "The Demon in the Cathedral."