Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Copsford

CopsfordCopsford by Walter J.C. Murray
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

As a child, I roamed. I was born to roam, I suppose – an American born in Germany who lived in Germany, Texas, the Philippine Islands, Italy, and Minnesota all before the age of ten. Lived – not visited. I have a difficult time remember all the places we visited as a family during that time. Like most children of that day and age, before over-protectiveness stifled wanderlust, I wandered on my own a fair amount, too. After Minnesota, we moved to Nebraska and, when I was 15, we moved to England, where I wandered far and wide, rarely with family, sometimes with friends, often alone – me, on foot, bike, bus, or train, all across England. This summer, my wife and I are planning to travel back there (tickets are already bought) to spend a week in England, then a week in Central Europe (mostly Austria, where my wife lived for a year and a half in her early twenties). But we are avoiding, as much as possible, the glitz of London, the dance halls of Manchester, and spending the vast majority of our time in the area I learned to love by wandering its hills: The Cotswolds. I am planning on doing myself the favor of shutting off my smart phone, save to take photographs or get directions. I long to unconnect, then reconnect. I am fighting to regain my right to roam untethered, if only for a short time.

What do I mean by reconnecting? I struggle to know if it is the vanity of trying to connect with myself or some idealized connection with the world that I strive for, that I enjoyed so much in carefree hours as a child and that I only get today in snippets. It is manifest in a return to the sense of the smell of the fields, the feeling of sun on my skin, the sight of wind combing long grasses, the various voices of wind through the trees. While the sensations are brought from the far reaches of the world (or possibly even beyond, at least in my romantic imaginings), I am the receptacle of the sensations. So, whether the search is vanity or altruism – I cannot tell.

Copsford came at a fortuitous, unexpected time. I am a steady consumer of Tartarus Press books, but this one is significantly different for them – a naturalist work with no supernatural elements at all, a non-fictional work (if Murray is to be trusted, and I think he is). While it takes place in east Sussex, far away from the Cotswolds, I also recall hiking on the High Weald, very near where the book takes place, so I have an affinity for that area, as well. When I first read the notice that Tartarus was producing this work in hardcover, I jumped on it and ordered it as soon as I could, not arguing with the magical timing of the release vis-à-vis my trip back to a place I have not been in over thirty years.

The truth of the matter is that I was legally banished from the place that I had lived in England at the age of 18. It was the late ‘80s, the war on drugs was in full swing, and I lost a battle. Faced with the possibility of a long prison sentence, I count myself blessed that the judge only banished me from the Air Force Base on which the laws were transgressed. Now, the base has been decommissioned, and I will get to go back without fear of the law, to visit the place I once loved. Of all the places I’ve lived in the world, I miss England the most and most especially, the English countryside.

Keep in mind, also, that the last time I lived with my parents for any appreciable length was when we lived in England. With the passing of my Mother last February and my Father last April, is it a coincidence that life has favored me now with the opportunity to go back, just at the time this book was released? You decide.

Copsford recounts the stay of the author, Walter J.C. Murray, at a derelict cottage on a farm, far to the south of London, where he had resided before then. He only stayed there for a spring, summer, and a winter, but it was obviously a profound event for him. Were I not married, with obligations to children and a grandchild (and another, before we leave on our trip), I might be tempted to take the pauper’s course and do something similar, odd as it may sound. But Murray lived in a time in which he could harvest and sell herbs at a good enough rate to actually survive (with some of his savings, from his employment in London), whereas I would stand a good chance of starvation, should I try the same.

It was characteristic of the place that I heard it before I saw it. As I approached, the blustering wind brought to my ears the forlorn rattle of ill-fitting windows that had not been opened for twenty years. There was, too, the thump-thump of a door that swung heavily but never latched: And then I saw it. Grass grew up to the very door-step. The walls were bare, hideously bare; no ivy, rambler, not a plant or shrub nestled against them, just stark brick from grey slate roof to the ground. It would not have been Copsford had bowers of honeysuckle overhung the port or sweet clematis smiled about the sills. There were four windows and a door, not in the usual childish arrangement, but three on the upper floor, and one on the ground floor to the left of the front door. They were square-cornered and grim, and several broken panes gaped darkly at me. There was an ugly grey chimney-stack at the south end, the cottage face east, and on the north wall was a half-ruined brick-and-slate shed to which the door was gone. There had been a wood fence between what should have been the garden and the field, but only the uprights remained and one or two tumbled cross-bars, crumbling in their slots. The rough grass of the field swept in unhindered, lapped the walls of the cottage, washed round behind it. Like a flood-tide, it swamped everything; the cottage stood, a barren, inhospitable rock in the midst.

This introduction is symbolic of the push and pull between beauty and decay that Murray moved between. It was not all flowers and birdsongs (though there if plenty of these, as well). Writers interested in giving a realist bent to post-apocalyptic fiction should read this chapter about Murray's war against the rats. There is grist for the mill here. Now I see why giant rats were a thing in Dungeons and Dragons.

Much of the heartbeat of Murray’s experience had to do with his keen awareness of his surroundings: The weather ruled all, and I often thought of all those millions in London, and indeed in every town and city, to whom changes in the weather meant no more than carrying or not carrying a gamp to the station, office, or workshop; all those for whom work went on just as ever it had done, no matter whether skies were blue or grey, no matter whether the sparkling dew drenched the awakening countryside, no matter whether the wind set hard and dry in the east or wet and billowy from the west. And I wondered, wondered at the artificiality of their lives, cut off from natural loveliness, variety and life . . . Being a city-dweller now for some years (right on the wild edge of a major city), I do miss that connection, or at least a fullness of it, that one feels when one lives in the landscape. Some of this has to do with not having the time to wander like I did as a child, to feel the land in you.

For a time, in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, I worked at the largest canoe and kayak shop in the US (at that time, anyway). My house is a block from one of the main lakes in Madison (a city built “on” four interconnected lakes) and I was able to canoe to and from work each day, so long as the water wasn’t yet hard. During those commutes, I often felt locked in with nature, that my human body was once again a part of the Earth from which it arose (and to which it will return). One of the primary reasons for this was the connection I felt with the light of day and its energizing effect on me. Murray puts it this way:

. . . during those summer months at Copsford, when I was oppressed by no anxieties or worries, when no evil bore me down, when I lived to the full every carefree hour, when perhaps my eye was single, it was then that light had its strongest hold upon me. Do not we take light too much for granted? Is not light the only chain that links universe to universe at last?

Because Floss (Murray’s dog) and I rose early to greet the sun on those happy summer mornings, it must not be thought that I was one of those unbelievable persons who can always spring on waking, from their beds, fresh and energetic. In those Copsford days, it was natural; it would have been unthinkable, impossible, to lie in bed with the July sun rising high in the heavens . . .


One reason for my distance from nature must have to do with driving. When I lived in England, I did not drive, but bussed, rode my bike, and walked everywhere. I walked a lot. I still take great joy in walking when winter has abated. But time is limited now, and I cannot wander, as I did as a child, for hours on end. I am, sadly, more connected with pavement than with dirt, though I do take opportunity to hike when I can. Because of this, I have a great deal of jealousy for Murry and his summer on foot:

We walked on regardless of time and distance. That upland turf is a carpet which never seems to weary those who tread it. So short it is, so compact, so springy; and the view and the sea and the distance hypnotized us; and the roll of the hills, fold on fold, lured us on. There should be no end to such travellers’ joy.

I could not agree more. I am ready to wander and not be lost. Catch me if you can!


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Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Ghost Stories of an Antiquary

Ghost Stories of an AntiquaryGhost Stories of an Antiquary by M.R. James
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Mark Fisher, in his erudite examination of horror, The Weird and the Eerie, notes that eeriness is characterized either by “a failure of absence or a failure of presence”. I would posit that M.R. Jame’s arguable opus, Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, is full of textbook examples of each. It would be spoiling the book to note which stories failure absence or presence, but it must be noted that this book could be taken as a master course in the eerie. It must also be noted that Jame’s (intentional?) elimination of summary explanations in (or about) his stories is part of what gives these tales this nearly-mystical feeling. You won’t find stories here that are neatly tied off, for the most part, with a “big reveal” that provides that opium for the masses of readers: closure. No, you will find that many of these stories are unresolved. They end, simply, as matters of observed facts. You might construct an explanation in your own mind of what happened, who did what and why, and what went horribly wrong. But all of these explanations happen, as they do with all good literature, in your head. You will become a participant in these stories. You, like many of the characters therein, will be haunted by the experience. Let’s draw up our salt-circle (or not) and summon the ghosts:

"Canon Alberic's Scrap-Book" had to inspire many of Lovecraft's stories. Antiquarian book? Check. Occult rituals? Check. Suspicious-seeming natives? Check. Creepy noises in the dark? Check. "Journal entries" (marginalia, really)? Check. Investigation of strangeness with academic undertones? Check. Freaky creature? Check. Just add tentacles and hyperbole. I liked this a lot more than most of the Lovecraft I've read, but I'm a little burned-out on the Mythos, to say the least. I grow tired of Lovecraft and his imitators. Give me four eerie stars, without tentacles, please! In all seriousness, if someone with a mind like Sandy Peterson’s had picked this story to create an investigative roleplaying game, we might not have Call of Cthulhu now, we might have Call of Canon Alberic! Of course, if you're looking for ghostly roleplaying of the Jamesien variety, look no further than English Eerie. I recommend it. And now, we return from our commercial break . . .

"Lost Hearts" is another tale that evokes Lovecr. . . Wait - I see what you did there with the title, James! You sly old dead dog, you. I love this little ghostly/occult tale. I would love to see it rewritten to show what would happen had Mr Abney succeeded . . . that could make another terrifying tale, possibly overshadowing the origi. . . Hmm . . . I've got some paper and a pen. Hmm . . . first let me draw these four stars. I'm never going to get this review done, at this rate.

I've read "The Mezzotint" before, and heard a fantastic audio adaption of it on what has become my favorite podcast, of late, and yet, despite all my familiarity, it still does not fail to make on shiver. One of the best "weird" stories written. This one has staying power, with latent images that only partially fade over time. The imagery is burned on the lens of my mind. And my mind created it, prompted by James' words that I read with my eyes, or rather, my mind transformed the words - it is a strange thing to think about. Where do these creations of the mind come from? What makes words form images in my brain? I will meditate upon these five stars and give it more thought.

Ew, ew, ew, eeeewwwww!! "The Ash-Tree" = #nopenopenope. Just. No. And not the most effective story thus far, but still better than most other strange stories of a similar ilk. But this story gives me the jibblies for fifteen minutes straight. In all seriousness, this pushes too far into gross territory for me. I'm not about gross or gory. Creepy is not the same as gross. Four slightly disgusted stars.

"Number 13" is a great little mystery. Not the strongest story so far, but by no means weak. If you wonder where Mephistopheles took Faust, this might give an indicator. And it's closer than you think. In fact, it might be right next door. The trick is to find the door . . . and avoid it at all costs! Four stars cast the shadow of Danielewski’s House of Leaves.

At first, I thought "Count Magnus" was a novella. We need more novellas in the world. Many, many more. I wish the majority of published works were novellas. But I'm a snob that way. Then, after skimming ahead a second and third time, I discovered that "Count Magnus" is NOT a novella: Whomever did layout on this edition (Good Port) done screwed up! After this story, we have "Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad," and "The Treasure of Abbot Thomas". The layout is so screwed up, in fact, that these last two don't even appear in the table of contents. So if layout is your thing, best pick a better port than Good Port.

"Count Magnus" is the most evocative story in this collection. By "evocative," I mean that it is . . . well, not subtle, but not "in your face," either. It's more creepy than horrific, and that's the sort of thing that I love. This could easily be a Twilight Zone episode! And, like my favorite TV show (the ORIGINAL Twilight Zone, or OTZ), this story gets five stars.

My first note on the next story: "*Sigh* you had to go and blow the whistle, didn't you, Parkins? This is the part where things go horribly, horribly wrong, I suppose."

And I supposed right.

Important safety tip: If you find something in a grave, don't play with it. Whatever you do , don't touch it to your lips! Yuck!

"Sinister" is the best word, I think, to describe the feeling of the story "Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You My Lad". The apparition therein is the scariest of all in this book thus far. I did not sleep well the night I read it, all wrapped up in bed sheets. This story makes innocent bed sheets terrifying. Sleep tight! Five shuddering stars.

"The Treasure of Abbot Thomas" is a textbook mystery marbled through with supernatural elements. The narrator's presentation is a well-played shell game of obfuscation and revelation. I would have liked a more consequential ending, but that trick was for later authors. Five stars, despite the flat-ish ending.

There is no doubt why this collection gets reprinted again and again (sometimes poorly, as you can see from my review). If there ever was one "classic" single-author collection of ghost stories, this is it.

Go.

Read.

Fear.



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Saturday, April 13, 2019

Art Deco: An Illustrated Guide to the Decorative Style, 1920-40

Guide To Art Deco Style 1920 40, Illustrated Guide To The Decorative StyleGuide To Art Deco Style 1920 40, Illustrated Guide To The Decorative Style by Arie van de Lemme
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

For the life of me, I can't understand the low ratings given for this book on Goodreads. Then again, some of the same people who gave it low ratings also gave The Catcher in the Rye five stars, and you know my opinions regarding that putrescent skid mark on the underwear of literature.

Now that I've gotten that out of my system . . .

As an undergraduate, I was a Humanities Major with a history emphasis. This meant that I studied a bevy of disciplines, including visual arts, sculpture, architecture, dance, cinema, theater, music, philosophy, history, and literature. It was a good education. While studying, I became particularly enamored of a few different artistic movements: Art Nouveau, Modern Abstractionism, Pre-Raphaelite art, and Art Deco. I did a fairly exhaustive study of each (I had to in order to graduate!), so I'm coming at this as someone who knows a bit about the movement and the art movements that were chronologically before, during, and after Art Deco. There was a lot going on there between the two World Wars, and I don't have the time or patience to outline the historical precedents and antecedents of the movement known as Art Deco.

I don't really have to, because Art Deco: An Illustrated Guide to the Decorative Style has done a pretty good job of it. No, it's not a philosophically deep treatise. If someone were looking for that, I'd recommend a book a little longer than 128 pages, many of which are taken with pictorial examples of the trends being examined therein. But the introductory chapters give a very good, high-level overview of the context in which the movement arose, taking L'Exposition Des Arts Decoratifs Et Industriels of 1925 as an approximate starting point. From hence the term "Art Deco" arose.

After a brief, but more than adequate review of the history, the book plunges into the various areas in which Art Deco manifested itself. Far from being a merely artistic (that is, painterly) phenomenon, Art Deco was a true movement, an attitude, really, of some parts of society (those that would afford it - though mass production and cheap materials made Art Deco more easily available to common folk) that was reflected in the material culture of Europe and the United States. This inhered in the realms of great commissions (such as the great luxury ship Normandie, The Hoover Factory in Britain, and The Chrysler Building in New York City), furniture, metalwork, tableware, ceramics, glass, fashion, painting, design, and jewellery [sic], all of which are addressed in this work. One of the more interesting aspects of this movement is the fact that there was very little by way of visual arts (namely painting) and that other visual movements, such as cubism and fauvism, were predominant in the world of painting. There are few paintings outside of posters that can be termed "Art Deco" proper, but almost any painting of the time would likely be surrounded by Art Deco sculpture, framed in wood crafted in an Art Deco style, and many of them would be housed in a building that was composed of Art Deco elements. Think of Art Deco as, quite literally, the world in which other art was housed.

One can gather from this that the line between art and craft was often blurred during this period. Many of the more prominent practitioners of one discipline were inclined to cross over into another or, at least, to collaborate with another. For example, the famous metalworker Edgar Brandt, created bronze jardinieres with cobras rearing their heads, which were, in turn, surmounted by exquisite glass work by the famed Antoine Daum. The architect Frank Lloyd Wright (one of our hometown heroes here in Madison, Wisconsin) designed furniture in his signature style, and many other craftsmen and artists worked magnificent pieces outside of their moyen.

My solitary complaint about the book is that sometimes a piece is referenced on a page nowhere near its picture, and a few pieces that are lauded with high praise do not appear in the book at all. A few of these are because the artifact that held them (namely, the ship Normandie) was scuttled and no longer exists. Not all the sands of time make it from the top of the hourglass to the bottom, unfortunately.



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Thursday, April 4, 2019

The Stars My Destination

The Stars My DestinationThe Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Stamped on the inside front cover of this used book is the following:

William Howell
620 N. Oakhill
Janesville, WI

PLEASANT 2-0543
MAY--1961

Who was this? He owned and likely read this book 8 years before I was born. He might be older than my father, if he's still alive. Is he? My daughter and grandson live in Janesville. Do they ever walk past that address? Does he still live there? Is any of this relevant to the book? Maybe . . . maybe . . . in the end. But I’m not giving away the end. No, you need to work for it.

I suppose the mystery engendered by this name and address put me in the proper frame of mind to explore the personality of Gulliver Foyle, the anti-hero of the book. Gully is driven by vengeance, driven by himself – and I mean this in a very literal, physical sense. But you won’t know why I mean that until the end. Like William Howell, he is an enigma. Even an enigma to himself, which we grow to learn as we explore the interstices of Foyle’s near-animal brain.

This book must be read straight through. Don’t set it aside. This book is . . . sudden. It takes sudden, unexpected turns. Yes, it starts out with an infodump. And normally I hate infodumps. But this one is critical to the story. When you get to the end . . . again, don’t stop till you get there . . . you will see how the infodump at the beginning was totally necessary to the success of the entire story. Bester has ensured that all the necessary loose ends are tied up. “Necessary,” because there are plenty of loose ends left at the end. But they make sense, in the context of the story. This is a tight biome for your brain, but it leaves room for . . . “growth” is the word that comes to mind.

Now, you might want to cheat and head straight to the end and read it. But I guarantee the story will make no sense whatsoever to you if you do that. This is as much an experience as it is a piece of writing. It envelops the reader’s brain while the reader’s brain simultaneously envelops it. It’s as close as one can get to some of the deeper mysteries of quantum mechanics by merely reading words on a page. And it causes the reader to reflect on their own inner being, a sort of science-fiction Rorshach test.

It took me by surprise. Though I had heard for many years just how “good” it was, I don’t think that any words (other than the words of the book itself) can convey the way that Bester grabs the attention of the reader and immerses them in the tale. As one finally starts to come up for water, one realizes just how deeply enmeshed they are in the story. Love or hate him, we are all, in some way, Gully Foyle.


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