Thursday, October 31, 2013

Book Review: The Scarlet Plague by Jack London

Jack London may be known as an adventure writer (and an adventurer himself), but in 1912, he wrote a work of speculative fiction—more precisely, post-apocalyptic fiction.

The Scarlet Plague (first published in The London Magazine) was not the first American post-apocalyptic work. John Ames Mitchell’s The Last American (1889), Herbert Ward’s Republic Without a President (1891), and a few other works came first, not to mention the many early British post-apocalyptic novels, beginning with Mary Shelley’s The Last Man (1826). 

The Scarlet Plague by Jack London, first edition.

It may be the first American story, though (and I’m sure someone will correct me if I’m wrong), to deal seriously and philosophically with society’s decline, and to have a protagonist with a desire to rebuild civilization. That’s important, as the theme of rebuilding features in some of the great post-apocalyptic works to come later, most notably George R. Stewart’s Earth Abides. Stewart’s book, like London’s, is set in San Francisco after a virus has decimated the population, and both have main characters who are the last to remember the world as it once was. While Stewart was obviously influenced by London’s story, Stephen King used Stewart’s novel as a template for The Stand. Almost every serious post-apocalyptic work since owes an indirect debt to Jack London.

The Scarlet Plague begins in the year 2073, sixty years after the outbreak of a virus known as the Red Death. Most of the story is told as a series of remembrances by an old man, James Howard Smith, who, as his life grows short, wishes to pass on his knowledge to his grandson and the other children his age, who know nothing except the primitive life they currently lead.

He fears that it’s probably too late, as the boys seem like savages to him, and the description of their appearance seems part Lost Boys of Neverland and part Lord of the Flies. Dressed in goatskins, they wear necklaces of teeth, and Smith’s grandson disgusts him by wearing a severed pig’s tail over one ear. Language, too, has degenerated, to something “more guttural and explosive and economical of qualifying phrases.” In fact, the boys have difficulty understanding the old man:

“What I want to know,” Edwin continued, “is why you call crab ‘toothsome delicacy?’ Crab is crab, ain’t it? No one I ever heard calls it such funny things.”

The kids barely believe his stories, living in a San Francisco that has wild horses on the beaches and more bears than people, with the whole city having a population of only 40. Smith had been a university professor, but the concept is impossible for children to grasp, as it has no relevance whatsoever to the world they live in.

"Was that all you did?--just talk, talk, talk?" Hoo-Hoo demanded. "Who hunted your meat for you? and milked the goats? and caught the fish?"

"A sensible question, Hoo-Hoo, a sensible question. As I have told you, in those days food-getting was easy. We were very wise. A few men got the food for many men. The other men did other things. As you say, I talked. I talked all the time, and for this food was given me-much food, fine food, beautiful food, food that I have not tasted in sixty years and shall never taste again. I sometimes think the most wonderful achievement of our tremendous civilization was food--its inconceivable abundance, its infinite variety, its marvellous delicacy. O my grandsons, life was life in those days, when we had such wonderful things to eat."

This was beyond the boys, and they let it slip by, words and thoughts, as a mere senile wandering in the narrative.

Smith’s description of the virus and its immediate aftermath is horrific and sometimes gruesome. He describes dead bodies that seem to fly to pieces, melting away with disease, and airplanes falling out of the sky in flames. He describes people fleeing with infants in their arms, riots, looting and general chaos that “was like the last days of the end of the world.” One passage is an obvious pre-cursor to both Earth Abides and The Stand:

“There were numerous stalled motor-cars, showing that the gasoline and the engine supplies had given out. I remember one such car. A man and a woman lay back dead in the seats, and on the pavement near it were two more women and a child.”

Perhaps the bleakest aspect of The Scarlet Plague isn’t just what has already happened, but the idea that, even if mankind aspires to more and rebuilds itself to its former glory, that it is doomed to fall again in an endless repeating cycle of rebirth and destruction—a destruction of man’s own making. It’s a cycle that, as individuals, we are powerless to shape. Just as George R. Stewart would do later, Jack London uses a speculative scenario in a world far removed from our own to teach us a lot of things about ourselves and our own lives.

Get The Scarlet Plague free for your Kindle at Amazon.
Read or download free at Project Gutenberg.

Written for Friday’s Forgotten Books, organized by author Patti Abbott. It’s always a fine collection of reviews. Give them a look.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Can You Spot All Five of the Fiction Authors in This Simpsons Intro?

The Simpsons annual Treehouse of Horror episode that aired earlier this month was the series’ 24th horror-themed episode for the Halloween season (feel old?). In the intro, scared up by director Guillermo del Toro, homage is paid to a whole host of horror flicks, with visual references to B-movies, classics, del Toro’s own films, and everything else in between. (I was particularly pleased to see actor Rondo Hatton, who lends his name to the horror research award for which I was nominated last year.)

Screenshot featuring Rondo Hatton (with shovel) and assorted other movie friends.

Keen-eyed book fans may be able to spot some of their favorite horror authors in the sequence—not just references to their works (you can see those, too), but depictions of the authors themselves. There are exactly five, and if you’re having trouble coming up with names, here’s a clue: some of them are juxtaposed with characters they created.

Can you find and name all five of the horror writers depicted in the video below? 

Bonus points if you spotted the reference to a lost film (regular readers know lost films are my second passion). 

You can check your answers in the second embedded video from Movie Pilot, with all of the references tagged.

Update: it appears the video with the references tagged plays automatically. I've removed it due to the annoyance factor, but you can still find it at this link.

Did you find them all? Which authors would you like to have seen included?

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

All Hallow’s Read: 6 Recommended Books for Giving You and Your Friends the Creeps

The creeps. The willies. The heebie jeebies. Call them what you will, your word choice won’t lessen the feeling of the collywobbles (“How we wobble when we have the collywobbles.” --James Joyce)

This Halloween, consider doing as Neil Gaiman suggests, and share the literary scares. A few years ago, Gaiman came up with the tradition of All Hallow’s Read, and suggested that book lovers give scary books as gifts as a way of celebrating Halloween.

Any excuse to give (and get) books is okay by me, but not every book is for every person, especially when it comes to horror. Each of these books is scary in its own way, from atmospherically creepy to deep-down disturbing. Choose appropriately.

For more suggestions, check out my previous picks for Halloween reads.

The Angel Maker by Stefan Brijs

Not to be confused with the more recent Angelmaker, Brijs’ book was a huge bestseller in Belgium, but managed to go under the radar in the US, despite a release in English translation by Penguin Books. The horror is of the scientific type, and I don’t mean strange viruses. I mean Frankenstein-type experiments, only in a very real, modern day setting, with innocent children possibly being the lab rats. The book manages to have an old-world, small village feel, probably due to the setting in a border town in Belgium. You can almost imagine villagers with torches and pitchforks, but what actually happens is considerably more sinister. Brijs does an excellent job of hinting at horrific happenings, and as a reader you feel compelled to hurry forward and see if your guesses could possibly be right. The small town secrets have a Shirley Jackson vibe about them, but Brijs is definitely in a class by himself.

The Sound of Building Coffins by Louis Maistros

It takes a special writer to make something that is both frightening and beautiful at the same time. Like Baudelaire’s Fleurs du Mal or the movies of David Lynch, Maistros’ The Sound of Building Coffins manages to find what’s lovely in life, while simultaneously, as Eliot said of John Webster, seeing the skull beneath the skin. The book takes place in New Orleans in 1891 (before jazz, if you can imagine the city without it), and deals with murder, possession, decay, infant death, prostitution, crime, and disease. The fact that there’s beauty in these things is due to Maistros’ writing, plus his ability to see the larger picture of death and birth. It’s a tough book to describe, but not one easily forgotten.

Preacher: Gone to Texas by Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon (Preacher, vol. 1)

A comic about a demon-possessed preacher is by its nature not for everyone. If you can put up with violence and some disturbing images, though, you’ll find that Texas preacher Jesse Custer is one of the most moral characters in fiction, with an unshakable sense of right and wrong. Gone to Texas collects comics 1-12, beginning with Custer’s possession —an event that destroys his entire congregation with fire. He hits the road to find out the truth, accompanied by his ex-girlfriend Tulip and Cassidy, an alcoholic Irish vampire. The result is by turns unsettling and comedic, while simultaneously maintaining a vibe of twisted Southern Americana. It’s The Exorcist meets The Quick and the Dead. 

Carmilla by J. S. Le Fanu

For those who like their horror tales on the more subtle side, this 1872 novella has atmosphere in spades. You can read my full review of Carmilla from earlier this year to find out more about the story that influenced Dracula so much that Stoker’s original notes set his novel in Styria, where Carmilla takes place. (You can also pretty easily spot the inspiration for Dr. Van Helsing’s character.) The story is as much about mutual obsession as it is about vampirism, and as the creepy Carmilla weaves a spell around ingenue Laura, it’s sometimes hard to tell just who is seducing whom. 

The Shining by Stephen King

Sure, Stephen King has dozens of books that would make for appropriate Halloween reading, but with the recent release of Dr. Sleep, King’s much-anticipated sequel to The Shining, it’s a better time than ever to revisit the book that started it all. (Plus, the Kindle edition is a bargain, and includes a preview of the new book.) If you’re reading it for the first time, forget what you know from the movies or The Simpsons and let the story do the talking. It’s genuinely scary, with perfect pacing that builds and builds to that can’t-go-to-sleep-until-you-finish-it point. If you’re dipping into it as a re-read, you might find yourself surprised at how quickly the sense of claustrophobia takes over again.

The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson

Realistic terror is always scarier than the paranormal to me. While I can enjoy a good ghost or monster story, I can always go to sleep certain that there’s not a mummy or a bolt-necked Frankenstein’s monster outside my window. A serial killer, though? That’s within the realm of possibility. It’s hard to find a killer more disturbing than Deputy Sheriff Lou Ford, and the fact that the book is told from his point of view makes sure you don’t miss a bit of his twisted persona and what he calls the sickness. Don’t let the fact that the book was written in 1952 deter you. It’s as troubling as anything you could find written today. 

Read anything scary lately? Share your recommendations in the comments.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

People Are Freaking Out About Morrissey’s Autobiography Being a Penguin Classic

Former Smiths frontman, lyricist, and solo artist Morrissey released his new autobiography a few days ago. It’s blown the top off the book charts in the UK, but a lot of people are upset about Penguin Books’ choice to release it as a Penguin Classic. 

Morrissey's Autobiography: an instant classic?

That’s the imprint reserved for classic classics, such as Tolstoy or Voltaire, and not the Modern Classics line, for the likes of less time-tested writers. (You know, like Virginia Woolf or Albert Camus.) And then, of course, there are regular old Penguin Books: books that aren’t deemed classics at all. Celebrity memoirs, for example.

The reason for the brand new book’s status as a Penguin Classic? Morrissey insisted on it. In fact, it was a condition of his signing a contract with Penguin, who no doubt caved due to predicting the cash cow the book would prove to be. Those who know the singer are not so shocked. It’s a similar move to one he made in 1988 when he persuaded EMI to revive the retired His Master’s Voice label solely for his recordings.

Morrissey joins the rank of other Penguin classic novels and biographies.

Some literary types have their knickers in full twist, such as Boyd Tonkin of The Independent, with the headline “Morrissey gets what he wants, and Penguin Classics sinks in the Ship Canal.” Tonkin says the publisher has chucked “67 years of editorial rigour and learning out of the corporate window” just to “kowtow to the whims of a petulant pop icon.” Brendan O’Neil of The Telegraph says that Penguin has “destroyed its own reputation.”

And that’s just the critics. As per usual, some web commenters are just as disgusted. Below the book’s publication announcement on the Penguin Facebook page, one user stated that he wouldn’t be buying it, saying that “presenting it as a Penguin Classic is prostituting the brand.” Others, especially Morrissey’s many fans, are excited about the autobiography, and see the imprint as a wink on the part of the publisher. It’s a one-off joke, and unlikely to happen again. 

Huw Gwilliam's imaginings of albums as Penguin paperbacks seem prophetic now.

While unlikely to be a classic in the vein of Homer, there’s a good chance Morrissey’s book will at least be literary. His lyrics drop book references as often as they do confessions of angst, starting with How Soon Is Now? The Smiths’ first club hit opens with the line “I am the son and the heir of a shyness that is criminally vulgar. I am the son and heir of nothing in particular" -- a reworking of the line in Eliot’s Middlemarch: "To be born the son of a Middlemarch manufacturer, and inevitable heir to nothing in particular". Morrissey quoted playwright Shelagh Delaney directly with “I dreamt about you last night, and I fell out of bed twice” in Reel Around the Fountain. None of this means Penguin Classic status is guaranteed, but the man knows his lit.

There’s no doubt Morrissey knew exactly what he was doing with Penguin Classics, just as he did with EMI. This is the man, after all, who wrote about media and marketing machinations in Paint a Vulgar Picture. (“And oh, the plans they weave! And oh, the sickening greed!”)

As far as Penguin’s complicity, a line from that very song seems in order:

But you could have said no, if you’d wanted to. 

You might also enjoy these Book Dirt articles:

People Are Freaking Out About the New Cover of The Bell Jar


People Are Freaking Out About the New Cover of Flowers in the Attic

Friday, October 18, 2013

Book Review: Tales of St. Austin’s by P. G. Wodehouse

P. G. Wodehouse himself is decidedly not forgotten. He’s ranked as one of the greatest and most enduringly popular writers of humorous novels of all time. Outside of Jeeves and Wooster, Psmith, and the Blandings Castle stories, ol’ Plum’s books do tend to get overlooked, though. That’s too bad, considering that some of his stand-alone novels are every bit as clever as their more famous counterparts. (Laughing Gas, for example, wherein a Wooster-esque member of the Drones Club swaps bodies with a bratty child movie star, is a hoot.)
First edition of P. G. Wodehouse's Tales of St. Austin's.

Wodehouse’s career was a long one, spanning over 70 years. He produced books from 1901, when he was 20 years old, until his death in 1975, leaving an unfinished Blandings novel. In those seven decades, he wrote more than 90 novels, 20 screenplays, collaborated on 30 stage plays, and wrote lyrics for more than 250 songs for musical theatre, including the lyrics to “Bill,” one of the most famous songs in Kern & Hammerstein’s Show Boat.

It would seem then, that Wodehouse could do no wrong, or at least I didn’t think so, as a pretty die-hard fan of his novels from the ‘20s and ‘30s. His earliest stories, though, are rather hard to love, unless you happened to be a British schoolboy at the turn of the century, or obsessed with amateur cricket. Tales of St. Austins’s is a collection of stories written for a particular audience in a particular time and place, and getting through them can be a bit of a slog.

Tales of St. Austin’s was published in 1901, collecting stories and essays Wodehouse wrote for the school magazines The Captain and Public School Magazine. As the readership was almost exclusively made up of young boys, the plots are driven by student problems: petty gambling, being unprepared for tests, sneaking out of school. The tone is often moralistic, and bad deeds are generally punished.

Copy of the short-lived Public School Magazine.

Wodehouse had yet to develop his signature style when the school stories were published, which makes the subject matter even more of a snooze, especially when entire cricket matches are describe play by play. In later works, Wodehouse hones his humor so well that the subject matter becomes irrelevant. Golf? Hysterical! Hat-making? Even more hilarious! Collecting silver cow creamers? Call an ambulance, I’m dying!

It is fun to find some early glimmers of Wodehousian snark, though you’ll have to mine for it (unlike the Jeeves and Wooster novels, which I’ve always maintained are so funny that you can open a page at random and find something hilariously quotable).

When a student is trapped in a room, Wodehouse writes:

“Now, the immediate effect of telling a person that you are unable to open a door is to make him try his hand at it. Someone observes that there are three things which everyone thinks he can do better than anyone else, namely poking a fire, writing a novel, and opening a door.”

The sarcastic opening to the story “The Prize Poem” is also indicative of the later style the author would develop:

“Some quarter of a century before the date with which this story deals, a certain rich and misanthropic man was seized with a bright idea for perpetuating his memory after death, and at the same time harassing a certain section of mankind. So in his will he set aside a portion of his income to be spent on an annual prize for the best poem submitted by a member of the Sixth Form of St Martin’s College, on a subject to be selected by the Head Master. And, he added,—one seems to hear him chuckling to himself—every member of the form must compete. Then he died.”

Some fun bits in otherwise tepid stories:

“The qualities which in later years rendered Frederick Wackerbath Bradshaw so conspicuous a figure in connection with the now celebrated affair of the European, African, and Asiatic Pork Pie and Ham Sandwich Supply Company frauds, were sufficiently in evidence during his school career to make his masters prophesy gloomily concerning his future.”


“Bradshaw looked up from his book. He was attempting to get a general idea of Thucydides’ style by reading Pickwick.

Overall, the stories are a mixed bag, mostly mediocre, with a few real snoozers. There is one excellent standout, worth reading by itself: “The Tom Brown Question.” A spoof of theories concerning Homer (though Shakespeare also comes to mind), the humorous essay concludes that the author of the first half of Tom Brown’s School Days could not possibly have written the second half. One point of evidence involves cricket: “Tom may have been young, but would he, could he have been young enough to put his opponents in on a true wicket, when he had won the toss? Would the Tom Brown of part one have done such a thing?”

If you haven’t read any Wodehouse, Tales of St. Austin’s won’t make you a fan. If you enjoy his work, I’m fairly certain these stories will fall short for you. They are of some interest, but mainly as an insight into how his writing style developed over time.

Download free at Amazon 

Written for Friday’s Forgotten Books, usually hosted by Patricia Abbott, taking place this week at George Kelley’s blog. Check out some of the other reviews of forgotten novels.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Preparing for a Writer’s Residency at Wildacres

I wanted to make the title of this post “Dude, I’m So Stoked to Win This Residency.” It’s an inside joke inspired by my daughter, who once came up with the line “Dude, I’m so stoked to win this Nobel” as one that’s unlikely to ever be spoken. It’s silly, but it’s true. I am stoked.
Residency cabin at Wildacres

Wildacres Retreat is a conference center in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, and in addition to hosting all manner of non-profit arts and education programs, they offer one-week residencies for writers and artists to work on a project in the solitude of a mountain cabin.

I learned a lesson about persistence when I was awarded a residency this year, as I almost didn’t fill out the application. I had applied before (twice, actually) and my project been turned down. This year, I almost didn’t bother, but I also felt that my lost film book had a better shot at being accepted. The fact that the article that inspired it had been nominated for an award (The Rondo Hatton Award, honoring classic film research) was validation that pushed me into trying one more time.

And I got it. Now, my goal is to live up to the opportunity. It’s both a tool and a gift. As much as I value privacy, real solitude is pretty rare in my life. This is a chance to get a lot of writing done, without interference from body-climbing cats or my neighbor’s tuba lessons. I’m somewhat afraid of liking it too much. (Don’t be shocked if a post titled “I’m Moving to the Woods” appears.)

While I’ve been busy researching for months now, the next couple of weeks are a flurry of activity. I have a ton of research materials on the way, and I’m scrambling to get at least somewhat close to the end of the major research. The goal is to be ready to write when the residency time comes.

Then, maybe later, a Nobel.