The Squeamish Obsessions of Edgar Allan Poe


I read some of Edgar Allan Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination last year and , although I found the Tales themselves a bit disappointing, I became interested in his life. So I listened to BBC Radio 4’s Open Book programme this afternoon when Peter Ackroyd discussed how Poe’s strange obsessions and troubled relationships with women affected his life, and outlined the mystery of his death. Ackroyd’s biography of Edgar Allan Poe is due out on 7 February this year and it’s going on my wishlist.

The programme gave me more insight into Poe’s work and made me think I’ll go back to the Tales. Ackroyd talked about Poe’s life and character. Apparently he was a difficult person to understand or to like and was accused of being a hypocrite and a liar. He lived a life of penury and misery and his obsessions were reflected in the themes of his Tales – death, illness, premature burial, decay, and a sense of doom. He earned very little from his writing, either as a critic, or as a poet despite the success of his poem The Raven.

Louise Welsh, Kim Newman and Diane Roberts were also taking part in the programme. Apart from being the first Amercian writer of gothic horror, Poe is also credited with inventing the literary detective through Dupin, and the beginnings of science fiction, in Words with a Mummy which recounts how an Egyptian mummy is electrified (through its nose!), opening its eyes, blinking, etc and eventually speaking, in Egyptian of course! I must read that one. Poe’s work is both dark, ironic and claustrophobic, conveying as it does the fear of constriction in confined and dark places. I remember vividly my horror of waking in the pitch blackness of a two-man tent way out in the countryside, far from street lighting and my panic as I tried to get out.

Poe’s work has a cultural afterlife – through films of his stories and in music. Alfred Hitchcock was influenced by Poe’s work as was Stephen King and other authors such as William Faulkener, in such books as The Sound and the Fury. Modern authors have tried to solve the riddle of his death but as Peter Ackroyd said it is still a mystery and it was “an unhappy, unfortunate death to end an unhappy unfortunate life.” Last year I read The Poe Shadow by Matthew Pearl and I think Ackroyd’s biography should be an interesting and more factual account.

Louise, Kim and Diane recommended the following stories for someone who has never read any of Poe’s tales: Ligeia, William Wilson and The Fall of the House of Usher. Ligeia is unknown to me and I’ll try to start my reading of Poe again with that one. Louise Walsh said that it was about the dangerousness of learning.

The Owl Service by Alan Garner

This is an extraordinary book. Now I’ve finished reading The Owl Service it’s made me want to go back to Wales. I’ll begin this post with a photo taken from Wikimedia of Yr Wydffa (Snowdon) showing the beauty of Wales.

I read about the book on the Slaves of Galconda blog and remembered how much I had enjoyed Alan Garner’s book The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, about the wizard watching over the 140 enchanted knights sleeping in the caves at Alderley Edge (another beautiful place in Cheshire). The Slaves‘ reviews made me eager to read The Owl Service and luckily the next time I visited the library there was a copy on the shelves in the children’s section.

The Owl Service is not just a children’s book – it’s for anyone who likes a good story with a mixture of mystery, adventure and history. The setting is very important – it is in Wales, that beautiful Land of My Fathers (well, in my case my mother). It’s always a mysterious, magical place, and although the sun does shine it is usually shrouded in cloud and pouring rain whenever I visit. The basis of the story is the Welsh legend from The Mabinogion about Lleu and his wife Blodeuwedd who was made for him out of flowers. It’s a tragic story because Blodeuwedd and her lover Gronw murdered Lleu, who was then brought back to life by magic. Lleu then killed Gronw by throwing a spear, which went right through the stone behind which Gronw was hiding; Blodeuwedd was then turned into an owl.

As I’d read about the book on the Slaves blog I knew the story, but this was enhanced by the Postscript in which Alan Garner tells how he came to write it. In his words The Owl Service is ‘a kind of ghost story’ and the legend is ‘not just a magical tale, but a tragedy of three people who destroy each other through no fault of their own but just because they were forced together.’

The three people forced together, unable to get away from each other are Alison, her stepbrother Roger and Gwyn. They are all living in Wales in Alison’s house, which she inherited from her father, together with Clive, Roger’s father, Margaret, Alison’s mother and Nancy, Gwyn’s mother. Another important character is Huw Halfbacon, who lives in one of the stable rooms at the house. You are plunged into the mystery right at the beginning of the book, when Alison hears something scratching in the ceiling above her bedroom. When they find a dinner service in the loft this sets in motion a chain of events as the legend comes to life.

Alison appears to be enchanted by the pattern of flowers on the plates. She traces it and makes it into paper owls, which then disappear and so does the pattern on the plates. These events enrage Nancy and confuse everybody else, except Huw. Huw appears at first as the local half-wit, the butt of Roger who calls him all sorts of names, reflecting the antagonism between the Welsh and the English. But Huw is far from being stupid. He is the person who helps Gwyn to understand what is going on and prevents him from leaving the valley. Roger, obsessed by his discovery of the hole in the stone by the river, repeatedly takes photos of the view of the ridge above framed by the hole. He is also jealous of Alison’s friendship with Gwyn, who he reviles as ‘ intelligent: but he is not one of us and never will be. He’s a yob. An intelligent yob. That’s all there is to it.’

Then a life-size painting of a beautiful woman is discovered or rather makes its presence known in the billiard room, once the old dairy. Who painted it, who painted the design on the dinner service, why were they hidden and why have they been revived? As the tension builds around the three central characters the tragic story of Blodeuwedd is being re-enacted. Will it have the same tragic ending?

Within the story Alan Garner has also addressed various issues, such as class, racial and social distinctions, education and family relationships. The English owning houses in Wales are seen as interlopers by the Welsh. (I remember the time years ago when houses owned by English people using them as weekend cottages, were burnt in protest.) Huw says:

‘Oh their name is on the books of the law, but I own the ground, the mountain, the valley: I own the song of the cuckoo, the brambles, the berries: the dark cave is mine!’

Nancy too has her prejudices and wants Gwyn to speak in English: ‘You know I won’t have you speaking Welsh. I’ve not struggled all these years in Aber to have you talk like a labourer. I could have stayed in the valley if I’d wanted that.’ Gwyn has bought an elocution course to help with his pronunciation and when Roger finds out he mocks him. I didn’t like Roger much and Alison irritated me a bit with her docile acceptance of her mother’s ban on her contact with Gwyn. We never actually meet her mother, but I didn’t take to her either – she sounds such a snob.

Although much of the story and tension is revealed through the conversations between the characters Alan Garner’s descriptions of the countryside make me feel as though I was there:

‘Roger splashed through the shallows to the bank, A slab of rock stood out of the ground close by him, and he sprawled backwards into the foam of meadowsweet that grew thickly round its base. He gathered the stems in his arms and pulled the milky heads down over his face to shield him from the sun.’

Through the flowers he could see a jet trail moving across the sky, but the only sounds were the river and a farmer calling sheep somewhere up the valley.

The mountains were gentle in the heat. The ridge above the house, crowned with a grove of fir trees, looked black against the summer light. He breathed the cool sweet air of the flowers. He felt the sun drag deep in his limbs.’

However, the weather changes as the tension and panic build up. The heat intensifies:

‘There were no clouds, and the sky was drained white towards the sun. The air throbbed, flashed like blue lightning, sometimes dark, sometimes pale, and the pulse of the throbbing grew, and now the shades followed one another so quickly that Gwyn could see no more than a trembling which became a play of light on the sheen of a wing, but when he looked about him he felt that the trees and the rocks had never held such depth, and the line of the mountains made his heart shake.’

Then the weather changes over night and the valley is ‘sealed by cloud.’ Gwyn in trying to get away goes up into the mountains and this description expresses to me Wales at its bleakest, and its most beautiful:

‘He saw mountains wherever he looked: nothing but mountains away and away and away, their tops hidden sometimes, but mountains with mountains behind them in desolation for ever. There was nowhere in the world to go.’

At the climax of the story the storm breaks, the rain falls ‘in solid rods of water.’ When it rains in Wales – it rains! ‘The mountains showed him rain a mile wide and a thousand feet high.’

May I Introduce – Booking Through Thursday

Sometimes I find the Booking Through Thursday questions so easy to answer – but not today’s.
How did you come across your favourite author(s)? Recommended by a friend? Stumbled across at a bookstore? A book given to you as a gift?
Was it love at first sight? Or did the love affair evolve over a long acquaintance?

Not easy, because first of all I have to decide who are my favourite author(s). On a different day and in a different mood I’d tell you different authors from the ones I’m going to write about now.

In no particular order of preference these authors come to my mind today:

  • Jane Austen – I first saw Pride and Prejudice serialised many years ago (in black and white – Alan Badel was Mr Darcy) and loved it. My mother had a copy and so I read it for the first time. I’ve read it many times since then and writing about it now I think I’m due to read it again soon.
  • Louisa May Alcott – a childhood favourite. I was given Little Women either for Christmas or a birthday present and went on to read Good Wives, Jo’s Boys and Little Men.
  • Robert Louis Stevenson – another present – Treasure Island and then I read Kidnapped a set book for school.
  • Thomas Hardy – I didn’t think much of Hardy on first reading – that was The Trumpet Major another set book for school, but later I read The Mayor of Casterbridge and was hooked.
  • Leo Tolstoy – I can’t really remember how I came across Tolstoy. He’s one of those authors that I’ve always known about and never read, that is until a few years ago when I bought a cheap edition of Anna Karenina and wondered why I hadn’t read it before. I followed this with War and Peace and was bowled over.
  • Carol Shields – I remember this distinctly. I’d never heard of her and picked up Happenstance at Gatwick Airport, whilst waiting for a plane to Tunisia, read it in the departure lounge, on the plane and round the hotel pool, then passed it on to my husband. If you don’t know it, it’s written in two halves – one by the wife, then turn the book round and upside down and there is the second half by the husband. Both tell their stories of a certain period in their lives from their own point of view. I read the wife’s side first. I didn’t talk about it to my husband just gave him the book and he read the husband’s side first. Then we discussed it and of course we both had different views on it.
  • Barbara KingsolverThe Poisonwood Bible another airport buy and another book we’ve both read. This is about an evangelical Baptist missionary who takes his family to the Belgian Congo. I started reading it on the plane and collapsed at the thought of wearing many layers of clothes on the plane like the family have to as they are over the luggage allowance. This is a great book.
  • Margaret Atwood – this one is thanks to my son and daughter-in-law who gave me Cat’s Eye. I read as many of hers as I can find.
  • Ian McEwan – the first one was Enduring Love. I bought it because I liked the cover and the title, which is not normally how I choose books, but I’m glad I did. I think it’s still my favourite of his books.
  • Penelope Lively – I can’t remember, I think I must have seen one of her books in the library. The last one I’ve just read is The Photograph – loved it. I’ll write more about it soon.

Once I started writing this it was easy after all and I could go on and on. Looking back, it was love at first sight for all these authors, apart from Thomas Hardy, but he’s a firm favourite now.

The Good Thief’s Guide to Amsterdam by Chris Ewan

This is the 2007 winner of Long Barn Books First Novel Award. From the back cover of A Good Thief’s Guide to Amsterdam: Charlie Howard writes caper novels about a career thief. He also happens to be one.
It’s set in Amsterdam, conveying its atmosphere, canals and buildings well for some one like me, who has never been there. He is asked by an American to steal two little monkey figurines to make up the set, ‘See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil‘. They don’t appear to have any value and he has to steal them from two different people on the same night. Then the American is found murdered and at first Charlie is suspected of being the murderer.

From that point on the book moves at a fast pace through all the ins and outs of the mystery – who did murder the American, why, and what is the significance of the monkeys? At the same time he has a problem with a book he is writing and spends time on the phone discussing the difficulties of sorting out the plot with Victoria, his agent in London.

It kept me guessing and amused. The only problem I had reading it was that I raced through it to find out what happens. The three monkeys have always interested me, ever since I was given a small ‘speak no evil’ monkey. It is valuable to me as it was given to me by my favourite aunty. I don’t know where it came from or why there is only one. I always wondered where the other two were. Maybe there is some mystery surrounding this set as well.

There are more Charlie Howard mysteries to come. At the end of the book he leaves Amsterdam for Paris and A Good Thief’s Guide to Paris will be the next book in a series of Charlie Howard mysteries, so I’m looking forward to reading more from Chris Ewan.

 

The Spoilt City by Olivia Manning

The Spoilt City was first published in 1962, published by Arrow Books in 2004. 295 pages.

It is the second in Olivia Manning’s Balkan Trilogy. (I wrote about the first book The Great Fortune here.) It continues the story of Guy and Harriet Pringle’s life in Bucharest during 1940. The ‘Phoney War’ is now over and the invasion by the Germans is ominously threatened causing much unrest and uncertainty.

Harriet and Guy’s ideas clash; with Harriet longing to return to England and Guy determined to stay in Bucharest. The difference in their characters is also developed. Harriet is more critical of people than Guy, who prefers to like people, knowing this is the basis of his influence over them. Her criticism troubles him, but he recognises that she is stronger than him in some ways and he is influenced by her. Harriet takes a more general view than Guy and has ‘rejected the faith which gave his own life purpose.’

Guy is however, pragmatic and sees religion as ‘part of the conspiracy to keep the rich powerful and the poor docile’. He is not interested in ‘fantasy’ but in‘practical improvement in mankind’s condition.’ Harriet is not so practical, but she comes to appreciate that Guy is right: ‘Wonders were born of ignorance and superstition. Do away with ignorance and superstition and there would be no more wonders, only a universe of unresponsive matter in which Guy was at home, though she was not. Even if she could not accept this diminution of her horizon, she had to feel a bleak appreciation of Guy, who was often proved right.’

Guy’s generosity to everyone frustrates Harriet in her attempts to survive and indeed to leave the country. They are ordered to leave but he persists in staying put as the escape routes were being blocked. As Guy argues the case for staying ‘we represent all that is left of western culture and democratic ideas”, Harriet begins to think that even though they have only been married for one year that the bonds between them are loosening.

Once again Yakimov comes to the fore, providing some comic relief. He is one of the people that Guy tries to help. He visits Von Flugel, a Nazi and an old friend in Cluj. Von Flugel thinks Yaki is a British spy, but even so he gives him 25,000 lei to return to Bucharest to buy an Ottoman rug for him. When he gets to Bucharest he finds everything has changed for the worse, the army has been called out and an attack on the palace is expected. He quickly packs up and leaves on the Orient Express for Istanbul using the money from Von Flugel.

As the blitz on London begins Harriet increases her efforts to leave the country but Guy still wants to stay. They go for a short ‘holiday’ in Predeal in the mountains and Harriet becomes increasingly critical of Guy and feels bored in his company. As both their relationship and the situation in Rumania deteriorate Guy persuades Harriet to leave without him after their flat is raided and ransacked.

This is a bleak story and as I was reading it I thought it was not as good as the first book in the trilogy, The Great Fortune, but thinking about it now, that maybe because it is set in such an adverse situation set against the backdrop of war. I became increasingly critical of Guy and impatient for him to agree with Harriet. Perhaps that is the measure by which I should consider the book – it certainly seemed real to me and conveyed the tension and fears of living in Rumania at that time as well as chronicling the Pringles’ marriage. As with The Great Fortune there is a great deal of information about the political situation, which was new to me and at times I did find that difficult to follow, which didn’t help with my enjoyment of the book. What I did enjoy was the character development and their relationships. I also enjoyed Olivia Manning’s descriptive writing eg:

‘The air was furred with heat. On the pavement the Guardist youths with their banners and pamphlets, were still trying to rouse revolt. Although a sense of revolt agitated the nerves like an electric storm that would not break, the city was lethargic, the palace dormant, its white blinds drawn down against the tedium of the afternoon. … The height of summer was past. The dahlias were ablaze in the Cismigiu. Up the Chaussee, the trees were parched, their few leaves dangling like burnt paper, as they had been the first time she saw them. The brilliant months had gone down in fear and expectation of departure.’

The story is continued in Friends and Heroes, the third book in the trilogy. The Outmoded Authors Challenge finishes at the end of this month and it’s not looking as though I’ll read the third book before then, but I will definitely read it before long.

All Passion Spent

All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West (originally published in 1931, my copy is published by the Virago Press in 1983. 297 pages).

It’™s about time that I wrote about this book. I read it in December as part of Cornflower’™s book group, but only made a brief comment at the time. I was pleased to find it’™s one of those books that you wish you’™d read before. You can read what everyone else thought about it here.

This is what I wrote:

‘œI wasn’t sure what to expect as this is the first book by Vita Sackville-West that I’ve read and I was surprised that she could pack so much in to the story.

I think it’s a novel of opposites: male/female, achievement opposed to desires, wealth or poverty in both material and spiritual matters, passive/aggressive, extroverts/introverts, marriage or independence.

I enjoyed it very much and would like to reread it some time. The names interest me: “Lady Slane”, suggests she was, well “killed” or maybe stifled in her life by marriage and family life etc.

Someone else has commented on the parallel between Edith and her mother and I wish it had been developed more as well – Edith’s character seems to have been partly defined and then abandoned.’

There’™s not a lot of plot: Lady Slane is an aging British aristocrat. Her husband has recently died at the age of 94, leaving his family with the problem of ‘œWhat was to be done about Mother?’ The family are four sons and two daughters; the oldest is Herbert, then there are Charles, William, Kay, and the two sisters Carrie and Edith. Lady Slane at 88 is still a beautiful woman and quickly but quietly asserts her independence. She ignores her children and decides to live, with her maid Genoux, in a house in Hampstead that she had first seen thirty years previously.

She reflects on her life ‘“ she followed Henry, her husband ‘˜ ‘¦ like the sun, but every now and then moving into a cloud of butterflies which were her own irreverent thoughts, darting and dancing ‘¦’™

She thinks back to her youth when she was full of hopes, she had determined to become a painter, but lived life within herself, not showing outwardly her intensity and longings. She was ‘˜slain’™ by her marriage and family life, although it becomes clear that her ambitions were never more than dreams. As you would expect there are many reflections on the nature of old age and the contrast with youth; Lady Slane prefers to “wallow in old age. No grandchildren. They are too young. Not one of them has reached forty-five. No great grandchildren either; that would be worse. I want no strenuous young people, who are not content with doing a thing, but must needs know why they do it.”

As I wrote in my comments above this is a novel of contrasts, beautifully written, and expressing so many emotions in a quiet unassuming manner. A gentle book, but highly critical of the way society inhibits the individual and women in particular. There is the contrast between the different attitudes towards men and women. A woman was to be “the wife of a man to whose career she might be a help and an ornament”. A man would continue with his career with the addition of a wife, whereas a woman had to forego “the whole of her separate existence”.

Another theme in the novel that interested me is that of the nature of the “self”. Lady Slane asks herself:

“Who was the she, the “I”, that had loved? And Henry who and what was he? A physical presence, threatened by time and death,, and therefore dearer for that factual menace? Or was his physical presence merely the palpable projection, the symbol, of something which might justly be called himself? … But that self was hard to get at; obscured by the too familiar trappings of voice, name, appearance, occupation, circumstance, even the fleeting perception of self became blunted or confused. And there were many selves.”

How true!

Murder Mysteries

When I wrote about the choices for the free book from newbooks magazine Nan asked if the Oscar Wilde book is a mystery, and if so is it the first in a series? She also asked about The Oxford Murders – is that a mystery or a true account?

Oscar Wilde and The Candlelight Murders by Gyles Brandreth features, as you would expect, Oscar Wilde, the celebrated playwright, poet and wit. It’™s set in London, Paris and Edinburgh at the end of the nineteenth century. When a series of brutal murders takes place Wilde is determined to solve the murders. Newbooks reports that it is ‘œthe first in a series of classic English murder mysteries in the tradition of Conan Doyle and Dorothy L Sayers. The reviewer writes: ‘œThis book is fun; it is a literary confection with a chewy centre.’ That makes it sound like a sweet ‘“ a caramel maybe. Well, the first chapter is inviting enough for me to decide this is the one I want to read first.

The Oxford Murders is by Guillermo Martinez. This is also a mystery novel set in Oxford concerning the murder first of an old lady who once helped to decipher the Enigma Code, then of other seemingly unconnected murders, accompanied by cryptic notes and coded messages. They are investigated by Arthur Seldom, a leading mathematician, who has written a best seller about serial killers and the parallels between investigation into their crimes and certain mathematical theorems. This sounds complicated but intriguing. It’™s my second choice and one I’™ll look at in future.

As Nan said The Coroner’s Lunch is an intriguing title. She wonders how do those folks face a meal after doing their work? I can’™t imagine it despite watching so many post mortems on TV shows like ‘˜Silent Witness’™ and ‘˜Waking the Dead’™. I certainly don’t have the stomach for the job! Well, The Coroner’™s Lunch by Colin Cotterill is also a crime mystery novel. It is set in Laos in 1976 when the Communists have just taken over. Dr Siri Paiboun, a Paris-trained doctor remains in the country after others have fled and he is appointed state coroner, even though he has no training, experience, and equipment and doesn’™t want the job. The wife of a party leader is found dead and then the bodies of tortured Vietnamese soldiers start coming to the surface of a lake. Siri has to investigate. The reviewer in newbooks writes: ‘œthe doctor enlists old friends, village shamans, forest spirits, dream visits from the dead ‘“ and even the occasional bit of medical deduction – to solve the crimes.’ I can’™t see why it’™s called The Coroner’™s Lunch from the extract in the magazine, but it did make me want to read more; another book to add to the list of books to read, based on what I’™ve read so far, for example this is part of the conversation between the Judge and the Coroner:

‘œ’And what do you put the loss of blood down to?’™ Judge Haeng asked.

Siri wondered more than once whether he was deliberately being asked trick questions to establish the state of his mind. ‘˜Well.’™ He considered it for a moment. ‘˜The body’™s inability to keep it in?’™ The little judge hemmed and looked back down at the report. He wasn’™t bright enough for sarcasm. ‘˜Of course, the fact that the poor man’™s legs had been cut off above the knees might have had something to do with it. It’™s all in the report.’