The Blind Woman Who Sees Rain

I had full intentions of writing about some lovely flash fiction today, but then, last night, I watched this video that accompanied an NPR story about a Scottish woman who became blind at the age of 29 due to a stroke and sometime afterward started to realize she could see movement. She could see rain tumbling down and the swish of her daughter’s ponytail, but faces, they stay in the shadows. The video is a fascinating artistic rendering of what the blind woman can see. To complete this post, after the video, I’ve included a rain themed poem by Shelley.

 

The Fitful Alternations Of The Rain 
by Percy Bysshe Shelley

The fitful alternations of the rain,
When the chill wind, languid as with pain
Of its own heavy moisture, here and there
Drives through the gray and beamless atmosphere

“Coral-red” by Helen McClory

I’m not sure how popular flash fiction is (or micro fiction, short shorts, or whatever we’re calling them these days), but I’ve always been a fan along with vignettes. Small impressions can be quite powerful. Many writers find the constraint difficult, but often with these miniature stories, stronger tone and detail crafting come across with starker strokes than longer stories. I find the best flash fiction pieces try to unsettle the reader or take an idea, mix it up like puzzle pieces, and reassembles itself all within the span of about 500 words (I’m one of those who tend to not consider anything of 1000 words or more flash fiction).

dreamy building

I have always enjoyed the selections of Helen McClory’s work that I’ve been steered towards over the past few years. She has a new piece up on Literary Orphans, which I’ve read three times! I think with each new reading, I find something new or my focus is captivated with a different section of the story.

In “Coral-red,” we are introduced to Miriam’s house, which is often featured in stylish home magazines that reach readers all over the world. Yet, at the present moment the house is haunted. The children haunting the house are raucous and ever-present as they sing songs and walk between the walls.

Of course, when houses–especially, the haunted sort–are featured in fiction, there is usually a reason. What had once been introduced as a stylish home worthy enough to be photographed for magazines, has a deeper, more disturbing core. Houses in literature are structured to hold characters’ hidden histories, they are built to elicit fears and anxieties, and sometimes, they are crafted to hold the characters in from the rest of the world, leading them to brew inside without the infiltration of foreign touches. The house in “Coral-red” is not what we expect, nor, is Miriam.

“[S]he rarely leaves the house. In fact, she never leaves unless compelled. There is something terribly wrong with Miriam, and there has been for a long time, but she has no friends to gently tell her this, and the housekeeper Ofelia doesn’t see it’s any business of hers.”

McClory’s language is layered and pays special attention to the senses. She is able to entrance the surroundings by offering a mist of lulling prose to only lay out blunt more horrifying moments.

Lately, Helen has been writing about her consumption of horror shows and films, which no doubt are influencing her current writing. I hope to see more, because she is keenly able to capture gossamer places that keep the menacing tightly wound into it.

The  journal, Literary Orphans, has the story available for free. Besides, this story, take a look at the whole site. I’m pretty impressed by the entire scheme.

 

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Can we talk about how I lost 27 minutes of my life watching the new Rosemary’s Baby?

rosemary's baby

So, perhaps the title is a bit overly dramatic, but the newest adaptation of Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby is a total bore. I didn’t read any reviews of the mini-series beforehand, because I wanted to go in with a clear palette. I had heard that they relocated the story to Paris from New York, which I didn’t understand, but I gave the filmmaker the benefit of the doubt that she wanted to isolate Rosemary even more by moving her to a foreign country where she knows practically no one nor is fluent in the language (although, she seems to encounter only impeccably bilingual Parisians).

There was no subtly to this adaptation. Back in September, I reviewed the book. Although, I already knew the twists and turns from being a fan of Roman Polanski’s 1968 adaptation, Levin’s book still held a creepiness that made Rosemary and the reader increasingly more uncomfortable. On a small island of so many, Rosemary Woodhouse is still alone. At first, she is trusting of her friendly, elderly neighbors, but slowly the thread grows longer and Rosemary can’t seem to trust anyone, including her own husband. Polanski was immensely loyal to the novel and the movie is an accurate adaptation (he didn’t realize that directors stray from the original source material).

In both the book and the original film, there is a creep to the horror with a dash of the claustrophobic. The doers of evil are not what we all expect and, instead, as I earlier wrote, Ira Levin created a “real world that is so average and filled with evil represented in the most mundane and unsuspecting of people” and Polanski did the same. This new iteration of Rosemary’s Baby was so far away from this whole premise. About twenty-seven minutes into the mini-series, I finally gave up. I am not a fickle viewer and I try to give most things a go. Yet, this was so lukewarm.

There is no mystery to the underlying premise. Right off the bat, we know that Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse’s new benefactors/landlords/make-out buddies? are up to something more sinister. Heavy-handed would be an understatement. Zoe Saldana–the actress portraying Rosemary–keeps awkwardly oscillating between naive ingénue and the gung-ho type of woman who will chase after a purse snatcher in the middle of the Paris streets. She also has minor rumblings of discomfort over her new posh friends who gift her a wardrobe full of couture clothes, a hatbox filled with a wailing black cat, and after a quick massage to help relieve a headache, gives her a lingering kiss on the lips while lying in bed…all in the first 27 minutes! (oh, yeah, and Guy has a meeting with his colleague at a bar that could double for the set of Eyes Wide Shut). I am a fan of the ridiculous, but this falls more toward the dreadful.

There was absolutely no tension, no subtly, no mystery. We know that Satan is lurking right from the beginning. There is no Ruth Gordon to offer a glass of some questionable milky concoction, all the while, reassuring Rosemary that it’s perfectly healthy. When I turned the series off, I eventually made it to the internet where some cursory Googling confirmed by opinion. The only positive review I read was in the New York Times, but once I saw the byline, I immediately knew that the reviewer probably didn’t even watch the mini-series (my favorite article about NYT tv critic Alessandra Stanley is from the Columbia Journalism Review and is titled,“Wrong, Wrong, Wrong, Wrong, Wrong, Wrong”; she is known for her gratuitous errors and the fact that she sometimes doesn’t even watch the program).

Okay, so I shall stop complaining now. Skip this mini-series and just read the book and watch the 1968 film. Did anyone sit through this in its entirety?

 

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Autobiography of a Corpse by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky

I first came across Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky in 2011 when The Letter Killers Club  was released by NYRB. It had a promising premise, but I think it came up short. But I still wanted to give Krzhizhanovsky’s short story collection a go when it was released this past fall.

autobiography of a corpse

It has taken me quite a while to write about this book, my copy always just right out of my side view. Based on the two books I’ve read of Krzhizhanovsky’s, I’ve concluded that I like his writing 50% of the time. For all of the weird and wonderful he has to offer, there is a whole mass of stodgy pseudo-philosophy and ruminations that exhausts me when trying to penetrate it (let me assure you that I do enjoy philosophical literature–I’m a big fan of Maurice Blanchot, for Pete’s sake). When I could get past this latter 50%, I enjoyed the strange tales that Krzhizhanovsky offers, which include the fingers of a concert pianist making their escape during a performance, a series of lovers who end up living in a young woman’s pupil, to the story I shall detail below about a man who is intent on biting his own elbow.

In the book’s introduction, Adam Thirwell details that there were three different efforts to have Krzhizhanovsky’s work published during his lifetime, which also shared years with the Soviet regime. He was not published until 1989 and now only recently translated into English. The stories that I was drawn to were the more fantastical and were crafted, as Thirwell writes, “based on the fact that language makes things possible that are not possible in reality.” In one of the stories, the narration concedes that “these jottings will work like that: sandwich — metaphysics — sandwich — metaphysics.” Krzhizhanovsky seems quite aware that he has a 50/50 split, yet, the metaphysics, as he puts it, doesn’t need to be so thick and unmoving. I’m curious if this is the translation or Krzhizhanovsky original language manifesting in this way.

The story that most stood out was “The Unbitten Elbow.” When the Weekly Review sends out a questionnaire to all of their subscribers, they are perplexed by only one form amongst the thousands. The person, when asked what their Goal in Life is, wrote in “clear round letters, ‘To bite my elbow.’”  The form is forwarded to many departments within the Weekly Review before it is finally brought to the public’s attention. The man and his unbitten albow become a cause célèbre as he is recruited by a circus as their closing act where a “professional philosopher” sees the performance and catches “the elbow-eater’s metaphysical meaning right off the bat.” What ensues is an article titled, “The Principles of Unbitability” and a philosophy known as elbowism. Elbow biting even becomes so popular that clothing styles have changed to incorporate detachable elbow patches and the like.

The writing is quite funny and vivid, and this story alone puts Krzhizhanovsky right up there with the other Slavic and central European writers who flourish with this sort of writing. The absurdity reminded me so much of how we regard celebrity. If you flip through the television at any part of the day, there are people there yelling at each other and giving insincere “confessions” to cameras (why are these people on TV?!). The snowballing effect of the elbow biter is also so poignant when it comes to how news is delivered to us today and how we react to it. Regardless of all that, however, this story can still be enjoyed for what it is. In this instance, the above-mentioned incorporation of philosophical tendencies served Krzhizhanovsky well; often, as elbowism flourishes, new thinkers are trying to sort the endeavor and have “concluded that the elbow was, in theory, bitable.” I feel very much the same way about this collection. There was a lot of teeth gnashing on my part, but some of the struggle, although not completely pain-free, led to a few peculiar delights.

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Added to The International Reading List

Among the Thorns by Veronica Schanoes

among the thorns

A couple of months ago, I reviewed Veronica Schanoes’ novella, Burning Girls. She has a knack for reinventing folktales, giving them a fresh note while still retaining their centuries’ old roots. She does it again in her new short story, Among the Thorns. The story is a clear rebuttal to the Brothers Grimm’s most overwhelmingly antisemitic story, “The Jew in the Thorn” (Der Jude im Dorn).

As a child, Itte’s father never returns home. The family finds out that he has been murdered in the German village of Dornburg (this name literally means thorn castle in DE).

“They made my father dance in thorns before they killed him. I used to think that this was a metaphor, that they beat him with thorny vines, perhaps. But I was wrong about that. They made him dance.”

Itte, her family, and the rest of the Jews are persecuted now in their seventeenth century village just as the Jews have been in the past centuries as well. Ten years pass and with her mother dead and her brothers off, Itte decides to take revenge on Herr Geiger, the man who is responsible for her father’s death. Herr Geiger, like his name suggests, is a fiddler, whose instrument when played will make anyone dance, even until they are worn out; he also has the extraordinary ability to make people do what he wants. Itte’s father was made to dance in the thorns until he was bloodied. As Itte sets off on her quest, she is accompanied by the disembodied presence of Matronit to assist her with her travels and, finally, to “watch the fiddler’s last breath.”

Although rooted in sadness, I do love a good revenge tale. Itte is determined and plain-spoken. Her narration is direct, which I think works quite well for Schanoes, who is portraying both a developed character and a reference to an older story. She is reinterpreting the straightforward voice that is often used in old Märchen.* The imagery is strong in this story. An especially vivid moment is when Itte’s braided hair unravels, stretching out into giant thorn vines (see cover image above). It takes her whole body to exact revenge on Herr Geiger, something that Itte imagined would be the case, albeit, not entirely as she expected before she set out on her journey. We can read the Grimms’ tale in its historical context, but Schanoes’ new story is one to be relished in as each spiky thorn grows from Itte’s head.

Like Burning Girls, I found this story to be wholly gripping. Once you start, you better clear your schedule, because you’ll want to finish it in one sitting and then probably read it again for any details missed the first go around. I don’t know what Veronica Schanoes is up to, but I hope her plans include writing a fabulous collection of tales with stellar illustrations by Anna & Elena Balbusso.

Among the Thorns is available as a .99 cent ebook (with beautiful cover included) and at the publisher’s website. In honor of Burning Girls being nominated for a Nebula Award this year, the publisher has made the ebook available for free.

 

*I always find it hard to reference stories like the ones from the Brothers Grimm as “fairy tales.” They are often quite beastly and not at all whimsical like I imagine fairies to be.

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Penny Dreadful

penny dreadful

This weekend saw the premiere of Showtime’s new series, Penny Dreadful. The show brings together some classic characters from literature: Dracula, Dorian Gray, Victor Frankenstein, and his monster. The show is filled with dark creatures, hidden mysteries, and a dark and scrubby London.  The show is richly layered and for fans like myself who like Gothic fiction, the weaving in of these characters and their lore is delightful.

The creators set the show in 1891. Only three years after Jack the Ripper, the city is still on high alert when a gruesome murder has been discovered. Vanessa Ives (played by Eva Green, who I’ve loved since The Dreamers) ropes American Wild West Show shooter, Ethan Chandler, in to helping her and Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton) find the latter’s daughter, amongst other not yet said endeavors. Chandler is immediately thrown into an underground world with dastardly blood sucking beasts with very sharp teeth and Egyptian hieroglyphs etched into their skin. Oh, yeah, there is also a tortured young doctor who spends his days autopsying bodies along with his more clandestine nighttime behavior of keeping a corpse on ice connected to an electric generator.

Vampires are wicked in the first episode, but we’ve yet to see Dracula himself and I’m quite looking forward to Dorian Gray, as it is a favorite of mine. Something I particularly like about the series thus far is that they return to the more grotesque and sensational beginnings of the novels. Over the past decades and especially more recently, these characters (particularly the creatures) have been rendered so much away from their original iterations, that they lost some of their more frightening composition. Just look at what vampires have become in present day fiction and movies.

The creators of Penny Dreadful have also taken the route of foregoing heavy CGI in favor of makeup and prosthetics, which are stellar and not at all hokey. They give a reality to the fantastical storytelling and too much CGI, well, that can look too crisp and clear. Also, setting the series in 1891 was ideal. I’m sure they will take advantage of the era when modern medicine and science were evolving (but still stuck, no doubt; Doctor Frankenstein was putting his bare hands inside of corpses leaving him soaked in blood and what better way to clean your hands than to wipe them on a dirty rag). Also, this was a time that was the beginning of the end for the British Empire, so I’m sure all sorts of angst will run wild on the show.

Only episode one has aired, but there are eight in the series. For the weak of stomach, don’t fret. The gore is not obscene and fits well so far with the show. If you can watch an episode of [insert title of any banal cop or doctor show], you can easily watch this without succumbing to upchuck. The grotesque is impressive and just enough mystery was withheld to keep the momentum going. Lovers of both sensational literature and intriguing tales will enjoy Penny Dreadful.

The first episode is available for free with or without a subscription on Showtime’s website. For UK and Ireland viewers, Sky Atlantic co-produced, so I am sure it will air on your side of the pond as well.

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“Doppel” by Lindsay Smith

doppel“Doppel” is one of those short stories where everything at first appears very much on the surface, but really, that’s not the case. Lindsay Smith’s story is told in a series of exchanges between a British spy embedded in Nazi occupied France, his “nanny” (the Special Executive Office, which he reports to), and his handler.

Posing as a German businessman who has been living in the UK for a number of years, Agent Keystone is tasked with getting close to the mysterious SS-Oberführer Albrecht, who wears a Totenkopf ring on his finger (Totenkopf being the word for skull in German; it literally translates as death head). 

Agent Keystone finds the Nazis despicable, but he must hobnob and be amicable with Albrecht, which leads him to feel like there are two versions of himself.

As I lay awakened, I felt—as I have been feeling since this operation began—as if there was another presence inside of me, stretching at my skin, tugging me, trying to subsume the me that remains.”

As he carries on a friendly relationship with Albrecht, Agent Keystone begins to see something completely different from what he had initially anticipated. The SS-Oberführer is up to something, but honestly, knowing many of the strange and horrifying things the Nazis did in real life, I’m really not surprised my any of their notions. 

The story was written in a really engaging way. The correspondence voice between each British player is wholly its own and when Agent Keystone goes missing, the messages between the SEO and his handler point to the worst. Lindsay Smith mixes history, thriller, and mythology to pen a fun tale filled with suspense. The story is very approachable for any reader, but I advise you to pay close attention to what’s going on, even if it seems odd, because otherwise you might just miss the fantastical outcome.

This story is available by the publisher as an e-book for .99 cents and online.

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Pynchon in Public 2014

gravitys rainbow

In honor of author Thomas Pynchon’s birthday, it’s Pynchon in Public Day, a day described as a “culture jamming festival to be herein evidenced by photographic, textual, cartographic and video documentation. To prove it really happened, that our world was not projected.” Vintage Classic is also offering a free Gravity’s Rainbow background for download. I own two copies of Gravity’s Rainbow, but have yet to finish it. However, I strongly recommend The Crying of Lot 49, which I’ve read twice. For those who are new to Thomas Pynchon, the latter book might be an easier introduction. Pynchon is known for his big tomes and complicated plots.

Are there any Pynchon books you recommend? I hear that Inherent Vice is being adapted into a film by Paul Thomas Anderson.

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“Metzengerstein” by Edgar Allan Poe

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Time for a throwback to a classic short story by Edgar Allan Poe. “Metzengerstein” was Poe’s very first published short story. He sent it as his entry for a contest held by the Saturday Courier magazine in Philadelphia. It wasn’t chosen as the winner, but the magazine still published it a few months later. It might not be as well-read as his other stories we are more used to these days, but it still has the foundations of many of his later Gothic tales of death beyond the grave and noble families with old roots whose lives are crumbling.

The Metzengerstein and the Berlifitzings are two rival families in Hungary. They have been bitter enemies for longer than anyone can tell. Of course, the story starts off with a doomed prophecy,

“A lofty name shall have a fearful fall when, as the rider over his horse, the mortality of Metzengerstein shall triumph over the immortality of Berlifitzing.”

The prose that Poe employs is in the style of its Gothic predecessors, mostly notably German tales, which inspired him to give it the often removed subtitle: A Tale In Imitation of the German. The language is of course quite adorned, but this is the feel Poe was going for.

The tale is filled with mystery, but an astute reader will see where Poe is giving a knowing wink. The final surviving Metzengerstein, upon receiving the family fortune, begins to become a grotesque character. He is possibly a villain who has killed a rival Berlifitzing, whose spirit returns in the form of a mysterious white horse (a horse, who perhaps might have only just been on a large tapestry in the Metzengerstein house). Demon horses and castles catching fire are par for the course in “Metzengerstein” (the above illustration was included in a 1909 edition).

poe book

I think readers who are familiar with Gothic fiction and appreciate a good Poe story will enjoy this one. I read it in an edition I own with gilded page edges, which I keep close to my bed in case of a night-time Edgar Allan Poe urge (we all get them, right?). The collection features many of his lesser known works, but I proffer the idea that many of them are known, yet, are not as widely read as others are these days.

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“Woman Fish” by Dorothy Tse

woman fish

Hong Kong writer Dorothy Tse’s stories are always a mixture of the surreal and magical realism. There is something dreamy yet frightening about them. A threat or unbelievable angst is always hiding behind her words, sometimes coming out onto the page and other times, being hidden away again.

“Woman Fish” is the first story in her recent collection Snow and Shadow (translated by Nicky Harman)–a collection I urge you to seek out. This story is only a small example of the strange you will find within the collection. Many stories deal with body parts mysteriously vanishing, a pregnant empress liquefying into the snow after giving birth, and an apartment building where the tenants can’t find their own front doors when they return home.

In “Woman Fish,” a sort of Gregor Samsa metamorphosis is happening,

“One morning he realised his wife’s sleek, pale head was completely without hair. Her mouth was huge, protruding like a ship cleaving the still waters of the sea. Her eyes had slipped to the sides of her face. Her breasts were two melting glaciers, slowly sinking into her body. When she walked naked towards him, all that was left of the woman were her smooth, muscular legs. Apart from that, she had transformed completely into a fish.”

The woman’s husband, whose point of view the story takes, is often in an inky dream state. The events are mostly at night, in dreams, or waking up. When he is awake, his wife is usually working at her computer making collages out of the husband’s “watery dreams.” There is constant mention of water and water that flows giving the story’s imagery an obscured view.

The frightening element of the story comes when they visit a Japanese restaurant and the husband notices the sharp knife the sushi chef uses to cut the fish filets. He can’t help but get anxious over the idea of his wife being sold at auction to a restaurant, an idea that floats around during his sleep. It doesn’t matter if the husband is awake or sleeping, the entire story feels like a waking dream and it would be foolish to try to distinguish the two. Just let the imagery of the story flood over you like the oft-referenced waters.

I highly encourage you to check out the collection where this story is found: Snow and Shadow. More info: amazon |  the book depository. The Guardian newspaper has also printed “Woman Fish” in its entirety with the accompanying fish eye photo above. Because this story is translated, it’s also being added to the International Reading List.

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