BOOK REVIEW | The Vampyre and Other Tales of the Macabre (Oxford World’s Classics)

The vampire as we know it today — often suave, aristocratic, and deadly deceptive — was first conjured during that famous “Haunted Summer” of 1816, when Lord Byron proposed to his guests Mary Godwin (soon to be Mary Shelley), Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Byron’s personal physician, John Polidori, that they each come up with their own supernatural chiller after having just read some German ghost stories. Famously, Frankenstein was born from this contest, but few know that Dracula was as well, or at least its precursor. Polidori and Shelley quickly abandoned their attempts, and Lord Byron began a treatment of prose that he too lost interest with. Byron’s story, about a man who dies while traveling with his friend yet is seen by that same friend upon his return home, was taken up by Polidori and fleshed out into the short story “The Vampyre”. It appears that the tale was left at the Villa Diodati and found by publishers, who mistook it for Byron’s work when they published it a few years later.

Title page for The Vampyre; A Tale (London: Sherwood, Neely, and Jones, 1819)

There is a great deal in the yarn that we recognize today. Modeled after Byron himself, the vampire is mysterious and a corrupter of young women. The story can be read as a supernatural thriller as much as a cautionary tale to girls about marrying or consorting with young libertines like Byron.

John William Polidori

The rest of the Oxford World Classics collection in which I read the story consists of macabre tales which were published in British magazines during the 1830s (aside from those in Blackwood magazine, which are collected separately). Surprisingly, while some tales are dated and even seemingly pointless (like a man trying to get cats off of a corpse), others are still entertaining, like Sheridan Le Fanu’s story about an attempted murder which would later be expanded into his novel, Uncle Silas, or one inspired by the recent murder spree of Burke and Hare. Others are still disturbing, such as a true story about the massacre of a Protestant family in Ireland, where a baby is bayoneted and thrown into a burning house.

As someone who is genuinely interested in early Gothic and who views these stories as historical artifacts in addition to entertainment, I really enjoyed reading this collection. It certainly won’t be for everyone, especially if you have no patience for loquacious writing and single paragraphs that stretch for pages. As for me, it has kept me thirsty for more nineteenth-century Gothic.

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AMERICAN HISTORY | An Overview of The Journal of American History

The Journal of American History is a quarterly journal that was originally established in 1914 as the Mississippi Valley Historical Review. Under the guidance of its first editor, Clarence Walworth Alvord, founder of the Mississippi Valley Historical Association which headed the journal, the first volumes dealt mainly with the history of the political and territorial disputes of American frontier states, particularly those in or near the Mississippi Valley. However, even its first volumes branched out a bit to look at history of the Northwest or Florida, for instance, and though the journal’s scope was regional, it was generally not as provincial as its original title suggests. Within the first fifty years the journal developed a close relationship with the History Department of Indiana University, and by 1964, with the publication of issue #51, it was decided to change the name to The Journal of American History, and to rename the professional association to the Organization for American Historians. The rationale for the change was explained in the June 1964 issue:

Back of this change in title is an awareness not only of a growing nationally distributed membership in the Association but a recognition of a decided shift in contributor emphasis from regional to nationally-oriented history. This change is reflected not only by articles that have been published in the Review over the past half century, but by articles submitted for consideration by the managing editor and the board of editors. For example, only ten out of 167 articles submitted for possible publication during this past year were definitely concerned with Mississippi Valley history.

Though the geographic outlook of the journal expanded, the topics still dealt mainly with political history.

However, as the landscape of professional history broadened, these changes were reflected in the articles found within the journal, as well as in the authors of those articles. Social history and women’s history became more frequent, and especially prominent were conversations dealing with race. These were appearing with regularity by the late 1990s and into the new millenium. For instance, the June 1999 issue included the articles, “Mobilizing Women, Anticipating Abolition: The Struggle against Indian Removal in the 1830s” by Mary Hershberg, and “The Architecture of Race in American Immigration Law: A Reexamination of the Immigration Act of 1924” by Mae M. Ngai. Or in the 2000 issue, with articles such as “The Slave Trader, the White Slave, and the Politics of Racial Determination in the 1850s” by Walter Johns and “From Amazons to Glamazons: The Rise and Fall of North Carolina Women’s Basketball, 1920-1960” by Pamela Grundy. Signifying this shift is the appointment of Joanne Meyerowitz as editor from 1999 to 2004, who has written extensively in gender studies and whose 2002 work, How Sex Changed: A History of Transsexuality in the United States, won prominent awards. In addition to these shifts, a move to seeing American History within the context of a global community is reflected in the extensive list of “International Contributing Editors”.

From 2005 to 2016, the journal was edited by Edward T. Linenthal, a historian whose particular interests lie in memorials and sacred spaces. A shift towards the inclusion of public history and historical memory is reflected in the 2007 special issue, “Through the Eye of Katrina: The Past as Prologue?”, which states in its introduction: “As historians have long recognized, current events – especially traumatic shocks that disrupt the status quo – alter our perceptions of the past. In the shadow of human catastrophes, scholars are pushed to formulate new questions and to revisit old orthodoxies as they probe for fresh meaning.” Here the journal looks to current events as history-in-the-making.

The journal has expanded in other ways, including online articles, podcasts, and a blog called Process, which “features posts about teaching, public history, careers in history, the newest scholarship on U.S. history,” among other topics. The current editor, Benjamin H. Irvin, a historian of Early America, began his post in the summer of 2017.

BOOK REVIEW | A History of Horror

Wheeler Winston Dixon’s A History of Horror offers a substantial list of horror films from the silent beginnings to the first decade of the twenty-first century. He takes a studio approach, highlighting the directors, producers, and a few of the actors which thrived under certain eras. Only on rare occasions does he touch upon the cultural aspects under which these films were made, and a great deal of the text is taken up by various plot synopses. For someone new to the genre looking for a curated list of horror films to seek out, this book will suffice.

However, for a reader who’s been baptized in the blood and gore of the genre, curious inaccuracies will have one scratching their head. Some errors can be brushed off as innocently typographic, such as placing the release of Robert Rodriguez’s From Dusk Till Dawn as 1986 and not 1996, or referring to Chucky as Charles Ray Lee instead of Charles Lee Ray. Others are more difficult to ignore, such as claiming that Henry Frankenstein perishes with the Monster and the Bride in Bride of Frankenstein (1935), when the Monster actually tells Henry and Elizabeth, “Yes! Go! You live!” and then proceeds to kill himself, the Bride, and Dr. Pretorius while his creator makes his escape. Dixon’s obvious distaste for slashers and, in particular, the Friday the 13th franchise, likely accounts for why he inaccurately describes the first installment: “Jason, played in the first film by Ari Lehman, is a mute, imbecilic, homicidal maniac in a hockey mask who runs amok at Camp Crystal Lake, where an assembly line of teens who smoke pot, have sex, and drink are hacked to death for their ‘transgressions’.” This description may serve to characterize some of the later installments, but it calls into question how much Dixon remembers the first film, or the second for that matter.

While Dixon’s long catalogs of films are largely comprehensive, he neglects the atomic age creature features, such as 1954’s Them! and many other influential sci-fi horror films of the 1950s. Where he proves most useful is in his inventory of foreign horror films for the first decade of the 21st century, which he rightly designates as being superior to the Hollywood horror offerings of the time (though he leaves out the most famous French Extremity film, 2008’s Martyrs). Dixon will, however, find few who are sympathetic to his favorable analysis of Twilight as a positive influence on the genre, and rightly so.

For someone new to the horror genre, Dixon’s history is a useful guide to finding which films one should explore. For a veteran fan, though, there’s not enough to recommend it.

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POETRY | Arachni’venom (What Waiting Fed’m)

Arachni’venom

(What Waiting Fed’m)

Spiders spin webbing, an all-consuming threading,

Behind his eyes by scores.

Stopping paths of thought, catch’em in their pearly knots,

He thinks on them no more.

Spiders weave pinken gums, clamping teeth, one by one,

Jaw cages unseen sores.

Voice constricted tight, wrapped within restrains of white,

We think on him no more.

BOOK REVIEW | African-American Poetry: An Anthology, 1773-1927

African-American Poetry: An Anthology, 1773-1927, is a slim volume which gives a taste of the African American experience from the dawning of the Revolution to the heyday of the Harlem Renaissance. There are many fine pieces found within, and it is interesting to see the attitudes change over time, such as when Phillis Wheatley, an eighteenth-century slave, expresses gratitude for have left Africa to learn about Christ (“On Being Brought from Africa to America”), gives way to Langston Hughes’s romanticism of his ancestral roots in the continent’s past “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”).

The only grievance which I can muster lies in a lack of notation that may have given many of the poems their proper context. This is especially so in the many dialectical poems where frames of reference would have been helpful. In particular, James Edwin Campbell’s “The Cunjah Man” was so dialectically dense that I had to read it several times to get even a sense of what the subject was. As it stands, I am not sure the “Cunjah Man” is a hoodoo conjurer, the Devil, or something entirely unrelated.

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BOOK LOG | June 2020

What follows is a list of what I read/listened to in the month of June 2020, accompanied by a short publisher’s description and my brief thoughts/reactions.

NONFICTION

The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus

“One of the most influential works of this century, The Myth of Sisyphus–featured here in a stand-alone edition–is a crucial exposition of existentialist thought. Influenced by works such as Don Juan and the novels of Kafka, these essays begin with a meditation on suicide–the question of living or not living in a universe devoid of order or meaning. With lyric eloquence, Albert Camus brilliantly posits a way out of despair, reaffirming the value of personal existence, and the possibility of life lived with dignity and authenticity.”

A fascinating rumination on absurdity and on living a life without meaning, or more properly, finding your own meaning in life. Camus encourages us to accept and to find power in a meaningless universe. I read this book right before reading Richard Matheson’s The Shrinking Man and was surprised to see both books, published around the same time, tackled so many of the same themes.

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Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam by James M. McPherson

“The Battle of Antietam, fought on September 17, 1862, was the bloodiest single day in American history, with more than 6,000 soldiers killed four times the number lost on D Day, and twice the number killed in the September 11th terrorist attacks. In Crossroads of Freedom, America’s most eminent Civil War historian, James M. McPherson, paints a masterful account of this pivotal battle, the events that led up to it, and its aftermath.”

I had read Drawn with the Sword: Reflections on the American Civil War, McPherson’s collection of essays, and really enjoyed it. I looked forward to checking out this slim volume and was not disappointed. McPherson masterfully balances the dramas of war, political maneuvering, social change, and global pressures in this account. The reader comes away not only with a sobering understanding of the battlefield carnage, but also with an appreciation for just how much was at stake and how easily the currents of history might have shifted. This is an excellent primer. For a more detailed military history, readers should check out Landscape Turned Red: The Battle of Antietam by Stephen W. Sears.

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FICTION

The Shrinking Man by Richard Matheson

“While on holiday, Scott Carey is exposed to a cloud of radioactive spray shortly after he accidentally ingests insecticide. The radioactivity acts as a catalyst for the bug spray, causing his body to shrink at a rate of approximately 1/7 of an inch per day. A few weeks later, Carey can no longer deny the truth: not only is he losing weight, he is also shorter than he was and deduces, to his dismay, that his body will continue to shrink.”

Matheson crafts a thoughtful, fast-paced sci-fi horror novel. The horror of the novel comes from the fears of emasculation, which is a common theme we see in the 1950s due to the rise of suburbia. Until the end, Scott Carey can’t get out of the mindset of the 1950s male, with expectations that he should be taller than his wife, the primary breadwinner, the master of the house, and respected by his child. He should be ruler of his domain. The book, therefore, is a record of the slow death of the male ego. The situations in which Carey finds himself in the book are dark, especially for the 1950s, including nearly being molested by a drunk in a car who mistakes him for a prepubescent boy. His shrinking stature also makes him susceptible to being bullied by neighborhood teens. More than anything we see his sexual frustrations, such as when he’s sitting next to his wife and desiring her, but he’s the size of a twelve-year-old and is afraid she’ll reject him or be disgusted if he tries anything. As he gets smaller he resorts to spying on a teenage babysitter and then later laying with a doll in a dollhouse desperate for some form of human affection.

It’s not until he drops the rigid ideals of conformity that he stops thinking of himself as a freak or a child or effeminate and comes to accept himself for what he is that he finds release.

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For a discussion of the 1957 film version, The Incredible Shrinking Man, listen to Episode 89 of The Horrorcast.

The Witches by Roald Dahl

“This is not a fairy-tale. This is about real witches. Real witches don’t ride around on broomsticks. They don’t even wear black cloaks and hats. They are vile, cunning, detestable creatures who disguise themselves as nice, ordinary ladies. So how can you tell when you’re face to face with one? Well, if you don’t know yet you’d better find out quickly-because there’s nothing a witch loathes quite as much as children and she’ll wield all kinds of terrifying powers to get rid of them.”

This was without a doubt my favorite book when I was a kid. I remember the summer after second grade sitting in a lawn chair in the backyard devouring each page. The curse of the little girl trapped in the painting, growing older each day, haunted me for years. This time I read it with my seven-year-old son and took to it just as I had. It’s certainly different reading it as an adult. One sees the gendered assumptions more clearly, for instance. This time I was struck by the Grand High Witch’s germanic accent and her diatribe against children, and I wondered if Dahl was channeling Hitler’s speeches as he wrote it. But considering Dahl’s documented antisemitism, there’s room for doubt.

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AUDIOBOOK

The Life and Times of Prince Albert by Patrick Allitt

“In 10 lectures, award-winning historian Patrick N. Allitt transports listeners to England in the 1840s and 1850s. During those two decades, Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, became one of the most influential people in the country and remains a figure of fascination even today. In fact, the British royal family as we know it wouldn’t exist without the private and public actions of this detached, impartial, and upright political figure.”

Royal life does not usually peak my curiosity, but Allitt does a fine job of explaining the era in a balanced and objective manner. I was surprised to find how many modern customs and attitudes stem from Albert, and it was very interesting hearing the impact he had on Britain and the world.

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BOOK REVIEW | Stones from the River

In Stones from the River, set in wartime Germany, in the fictional town of Burgdorf, Ursula Hegi sets the theme of her book early on through the protagonist’s mother. She allows her young daughter, Trudi, to run her fingers across the scars on her thigh, feeling the grains of gravel beneath, telling her, “People die if you don’t love them enough.” The grains of gravel paralleled the stones in the river (hence the title) – they were sins people committed that, like the ripples in water from a stone being cast, showed their scar on the surface for only a short time and then disappeared, but the sins remain beneath, unseen. Already one can see the relevance this will have regarding the upcoming events in the novel and the atrocities of the Third Reich.

By the end, after the Holocaust has come to light and Germany begins to put itself back together, the theme of the stones in the river is once again manifested. People try to forget or pretend that the atrocities of war did not happen, though beneath the surface the effects are still potent and permanent. Through this symbolism we see that it was people’s lack of empathy and compassion that allowed such a horror to occur.

Stones from the River offers the reader insight and understanding into this important era of history, whose hometown experiences of prejudice, denial, and hysteria are not entirely unique. The novel traces the hardships of several families in Trudi’s small town with varying degrees of emotional impact. The story slumps and meanders at times, particularly in the beginning. Patience is required. The story’s greatest strength lies in the middle, and it is this portion that makes the endeavor worthwhile.

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BOOK REVIEW | Norman Rockwell

Elizabeth Miles Montgomery’s Norman Rockwell does a fine job of placing the over-sized, vividly colored plates found within this collection in their proper context. As she writes of Rockwell: “His critics have said that he chose to depict only the good side of the American experience. This is not altogether accurate, but in any case, it is beside the point. The real question is, how true were the things he did choose to paint?”

Quite true, as it turns out. Montgomery makes the case that Rockwell’s work rang true for generations of Americans, and that his obsessive attention to detail and authenticity, often involving expensive travels and acquisitions, marks him as a significant ethnographer and a dependable lens with which to view various aspects of the first half of the twentieth century. Also a value to historians are his depictions of American colonial life, as they show not only the early twentieth century view of that era, but Rockwell collected and analyzed antique artifacts and clothing to discover just how the fabrics looked, were constructed, and how they hung from the body.

Norman Rockwell, 1921.

Rockwell was first and foremost an illustrator, and thus the subjects of his work and their construction were often dependent upon the commissions he received. But what he did within those boundaries knew no boundaries of their own.

Rockwell fell out of favor in the 1960s and 1970s as young people saw his works as representing all that they wished to change from their parents’ generation, often not really understanding or studying the works which they criticized. As Montgomery concludes, “Rockwell saw the poetry and beauty in everyday life and made others see it too. He also saw the humor and the sadness… It is all too easy to discredit a popular figure of the past for being a man of his time. It is less easy to value him for the same reason… It is hardly a reproach to Rockwell that there will always be people who do not like to be reminded that their emotions are not much changed from those of their ancestors or that a painting does not lose its claim to greatness because it can move its viewers to tears or laughter.”

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If you would like to learn more about the artist, I recommend a visit to the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, MA. Stockbridge is a beautiful New England town and the museum is just one of several historical treats in the area.

BOOK REVIEW | How I Became Stupid

French author Martin Page’s How I Became Stupid is an amusing story of one man’s quest to remove the shackles of intellect by any means necessary so that he might finally live comfortably among the uninquiring masses. For those who can genuinely relate to this plight and wish to find a fictional kindred spirit, this book will probably not deliver. Part of the humor in the book, which could easily be read in a single sitting, is the main character’s hypocrisy. So assured is he of his intellectual superiority that he retains most of the vices of those who he looks down upon while justifying them in an overly intellectualized form of snobbery.

The book starts out strongly, with his asking a drunkard at a bar for instruction on how to obtain alcoholism and with his cleverly written seminar on suicide. The first half of the book is certainly the most entertaining half, as the rest delves into the “real” world of capitalism where the laughs become few. The ending is resolved rather suddenly, albeit in an amusing way, with a dues ex machina device, which is ultimately to the story’s detriment, unfortunately. Still, its short length makes it a quick and painless read which will garner a few laughs, and it’s a good book to share with overly-intellectual friends.

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BOOK REVIEW | The Grand Design

The Grand Design, by famed physicist Stephen Hawking, who sadly passed away in 2018, and Leonard Mlodinow, attempts to answer, or at least to approach, our most important questions: why is there something rather than nothing? Why do we exist? Why are the laws of nature what they are? Did the universe need a designer and creator? In the process they make an argument for a grand unified theory that will adequately take into account all the known forces of nature: gravity, electromagnetism, and weak and strong nuclear force. According to the authors, this explanation will be M-theory. That is, once it’s defined and proven.

The first section of the book deals with the evolution of scientific laws and how we can only approach reality by the use of models. Fair enough, but they begin this assessment by (crudely, in my opinion,) announcing that “philosophy is dead” because it has not kept up with the advancement of science. This is the first of many sweeping generalizations that, while meant to be approachable to a wide audience, come at the expense of presenting half-truths and historical distortions. It makes it more difficult to trust their judgments which is crucial, for we are forced by the general nature of the book to continually take the authors at their word.

Photo by Rakicevic Nenad on Pexels.com

The book then goes on to explain the fundamentals of quantum physics. Though these are difficult concepts, the authors do a fine job making them as accessible as possible to the layperson reader. Truly, this is the section that makes the book worth a perusal.

Finally, the authors try to make a case for M-theory as the best candidate for what Einstein called a “theory of everything,” but while they try to explain what M-theory would cover they do not present a satisfying case as to what it would actually look like or why we should accept it. Really, just when you expect all that historical background and exploration into quantum physics that we have invested our time in to coalesce into the climax of M-theory, their purported Grand Design barely gets any treatment. While the authors caution against accepting explanations on faith or allowing miracles to fill gaps of logic, they are essentially asking us to do the same here. This left the reader unsatisfied and feeling no closer to understanding what M-theory is and perhaps forced to ask the question: “What was the point?”

Did the authors answer those important questions which they said they would answer? Not really. At least, not fully. The dissatisfaction runs deeper, as the whole book, while informative, feels like an article that has been extended too long, or a bloated introduction to a book that would have actually laid out the evidence for M-theory. Hawking was an undoubted genius and rightly valued as a physicist, but he had also proven himself to be quite good in the marketing aspects of his work and recognizable persona. Ultimately, the creeping suspicion becomes unavoidable that the rather brief project was an attempt to cash in on the Hawking brand –  the glossy pages and wide margins, and the nearly thirty-dollar price tag upon its release did not do much to quell such suspicions.

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