Monday, 25 July 2011

Victorian Ghost Stories

Excellent selection of 35 ghost stories from the Victorian age, chronologically compiled here dating from 1852-1908. The stories included have been selected as much for aspects of innovation or for the part they played in influencing stylistic developments within the genre than their actual quality. Though there are some great ghost stories here and barring three or four stories are generally of very good quality.
Along with the stories are a comprehensive list of all ghost story collections published during the half century of years following 1840, full source details for the 35 stories and an introduction by editor Michael Cox.
Highlights for me include:
The Old Nurse's Story by Elizabeth Gaskell. It's probably the best written ghost story here with superb characterisation, lush prose and as a ghost story endlessly imitated even today.
An Account Of Some Strange Disturbances In Aungier Street by J.S.Le Fanu. One of his best and the veteran of countless anthologies.
The Open Door by Charlotte Riddell. Not particularly scary but a well written example of its type and introducing a rare detective element.
The Captain of the Pole-star by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Eery arctic tale coloured by Doyle's own experience of life on a steam-whaler.
The Kit-bag by Algernon Blackwood. Only Blackwood could imbue such an innocent inanimate object with such a deep sense of malevolent dread.
The only ones I'd have left out would be:
An Eddy On The Floor by Bernard Capes which although suitably macabre is also a shade too long compared to the other entries and probably the least accessible due to its convoluted syntax.
Miss Jeromette And The Clergyman
- a very weak effort by Wilkie Collins.
The Tomb of Sarah by F.G.Loring - Nice story but very much a vampire tale.
Reading these in order shows how the genre developed. It's a genre that in the Victorian era was very much designed to be read aloud at the fireside after dinner and ever associated with mid winter and Christmas. It goes through phases of doomed love triangles, vengeful victims, tragic victims of accident defeating mortality to see their loved ones a final time, portentous warnings, cursed objects and places, spiritualism, tragic reenactments etc.
There will probably never be a definitive collection of ghost stories. The editor could easily have selected 35 alternate stories and still pleased this reader as much. I wouldn't have it any other way.

Sunday, 24 July 2011

Little Manfred

In the Imperial War Museum there is a wooden Dachshund. It was carved by a German prisoner of war in the 1940s. This is its story. Well almost. It's a story that captures the spirit of the true story though.
In the summer of 1966, just after England's famous footballing victory against the Germans in the World Cup Final, a young girl, her brother and their dog encounter two men on the beach. One has a story to tell about the girl's mother from when she also was a little girl during the second World War. It's a story about friendship and kindness, both heart warming and tragic that begins with two German friends going to war on the fated German battleship Bismarck. Michael Morpurgo tells a moving and nostalgic story, deeply shadowed by the conflict of nations but brightened by the hope and peaceful humanity of ordinary people. He's aided by Michael Foreman's beautiful sketches, brought to bright summer life by water colour. I'd say this would be ideal for the 8-10 reading age group but really I don't see why this can't be enjoyed by ages of any number. It certainly would be a great starting point for summer projects, perhaps investigating the untold stories of parents from when they were children. As the cover states, "The past is all around us."
There is also an afterword about the history touched on in the story and a short chapter about Michael Foreman's memories of that World Cup... and another dog, this time named Pickles, who saved the day.

Friday, 22 July 2011

Blue tits abound

Camera Critters
It's been a bumper year for blue tits this year round my way. Fledge after fledge all spring and still going today are bumbling about in the nearby trees. This one is taking in the sunshine and showing its still obvious fledgling gape.

Acts of Nature

This is the 5th book featuring Max Freeman. An ex Philadelphia cop who has retired to a remote cabin in the Florida Everglades. Over the last 4 books Max has been getting his life back together after a fateful night when he shot a 12 year old kid at a convenience store hold-up and was badly injured himself. No longer on the force, he spends his days in solitude at his cabin or occasionally doing investigative work for his best friend Billy Manchester.
In this one Max is taking some time out to try to rescue his relationship with local cop Sherry Richards by spending some quality alone time with her out at his cabin. Unfortunately there's a storm coming. A Hurricane rips through the Glades, badly injuring one of the pair. Throw in a gang of opportunistic house-breaking Gladesmen, a couple of ex-military hired guns and an ornery alligator named Wally and you know this is going to all end in blood. By this time I've realised that this one has gone off track. No slow burning mystery with Max grinding away at the rough edges this time. Now I don't mind long running series breaking the formula, but this one just had set-up written all over it. Jonathon King writes great confrontation scenes it has to be said and Max v. the Gladesmen is as sparky as you would expect. I'm not keen on the split point of view though, establishing all the different characters so thoroughly could be described as padding. Contrary to the cover blurb, nobody is being stalked by persons unknown, as everyone's motivations are comprehensively explored with no stalking being part of the agenda. Ok, I can't speak for Wally. The plot is what it is: people coming together in the wrong place at the wrong time - a storm of consequences, you might say. It all being said, King's writing is good, going down like the first cold beer on a hot afternoon and I always enjoy Max's company. King's description of the Glades is, as ever, very good, mindful of the environmental issues and the conflicting forces of the natural world and the nature of mankind. It's just a shame the plot was so thin, considering how much the events in this one are going to impact on the series.

Saturday, 9 July 2011

Cleopatra: A life

In 2000 Stacy Schiff won a Pulitzer for her biography of Vera Nabokov, wife of Author Vladimir Nabokov. In this biography she casts her researching skills a little further back in time and tries to pierce the glare and glamour of mythology, push past the propaganda and traverse the abyss of 2000 years of history in search of Cleopatra VII. At hand she has a wealth of sources that might be as daunting as searching for truth buried by two millennia of hyperbole and obscurement. On ancient historians Schiff comments, "They are by modern standards polemicists, apologists, moralists, fabulists, recyclers, cut-and-pasters, hacks."
She sets out as her mission plan, in dealing with so many biased, unsafe testimonies and incomplete evidence, most of which written centuries after the event or destroyed by the censor of the victorious or the ravages of time and environment, to not add to the confusion with her own opinions and supposition but rather, as she puts it, to coral the probabilities. Considering that according to Schiff, Cleopatra VII, "Effectively ceases to exist without a Roman in the room." it is no surprise that this account pretty much begins with the young queen rolling out of that famous travelling sack at the feet of Caesar. History doesn't do childhoods apparently. In many ways the author seems to suggest that Cleopatra and Egypt at that time were synonymous, and in the absence of a clear account of the woman, a detailed portrait of Alexandria and Egyptian society would have to suffice, initially at least. It's with a note of indignation that Schiff bemoans that in an age of accomplished, realistic portraiture there is not a single authoritative bust of Cleopatra. The Romans general opinion of both the woman and her country was:
"A shame to lose,
a risk to conquer,
a headache to govern."
Portraiture aside there is some time spent in supposing why Cicero, that prolific Roman speaker and writer, (Schiff quotes him endlessly in the first half of the book) says so little of Cleopatra during her time in Rome. The second half of the book is dominated by Cleopatra's first meeting with Mark Antony. If there are an almost infinite number of things we don't know for sure about Cleopatra, one thing we do know is that the woman could throw one hell of a party. The lush dinners she held in Tarsus, primarily to court Antony were unimaginably opulent, though Plutarch, our primary source for these overblown nosh-ups, seems to have had a good attempt. So what is the truth behind one of histories most famous and notorious love affairs, Cleopatra and Mark Antony? Was it love? And to what degree? Or was it purely an association based on political and military machinations? Schiff presents the evidence but leaves the question unanswered. Ultimately it is a question that is unanswerable beyond mere opinion or preference. Too much time has passed. Too much Roman propaganda disseminated. Too many myths have accrued. And as history becomes entertainment, from Shakespeare to Elizabeth Taylor, the truth, even were it known, never draws the greatest crowd.
And so to perhaps one of the greatest death-bed scenes of history, though again as an end-game of such notoriety the truth is obscured by the grand stage. After Mark Antony's bloody demise the negotiations between Cleopatra and Octavian and her eventual end, as represented by history, are differentiated by Schiff by mise-en-scene; Plutarch is writing for Puccini; Dio for Wagner. "'The truth of the matter,' Plutarch announces, to centuries of deaf ears,'No one knows.'" Schiff declares that Octavian created the myth of the snake, a bit of propaganda that stuck to the event so indelibly it could never be separated, even in the face of so much contradictory evidence.
The book as a whole is a work of questions unanswered. But they are fascinating unanswered questions. Schiff does the hard and boring part for the reader in collating and presenting the clues, opinions, document and context, advising where necessary of bias, agenda or obscurement and if she doesn't explode all the popular myths, she at least points a spotlight at their unlikelihood.
This review was from an Advance Reading Copy

Common beauty

The closer you get to our insect life the more beautiful they are. This Dragonfly - a Common Darter (Sympetrum striolatum) is one of the most common dragonflies in the uk, but up close it is a wonder of intricacy.