Frankenstein Day

Given the sad news of Gene Wilder’s passing, I’m sure some of you are pronouncing the above in a non-traditional manner: Good for you. However, in a *spooky* coincidence, August 30 has been designated Frankenstein Day because it is the birthday of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, who penned the classic over a weekend on a dare (more or less) to the undoubted chagrin of her cottage-mates: husband Percy and King of Jerks Byron. So full marks to the lady for that.

Here’s a nod to some of the best monsters in the literary landscape:

1. Dracula

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Lugosi and Karloff are forever linked in my mind for their contemporaneous and masterful portrayals of the two biggest baddies ever. Bram Stoker’s Dracula built upon the legends of Vlad the Impaler, and all-around unpleasant fellow from Wallachia, who did win the admiration of many civic leaders and even the pope for stemming the onrush of Ottomans into Europe, thus keeping it some sort of Christian. (Authorities vary on how Christian you can call a man who likes to impale 30,000 people on the lawn while he breakfasts. In fairness, he did not partake of the roasted children, saving that dish instead for their mothers, whom he then had killed.)

But savvy historians may observe a modern-day note of rebellion in Stoker’s work. A villainous foreigner’s bloodlust devastates a countryside, making people despair of both life and afterlife? Any bells? Does it help to recall that Stoker was Irish and writing at the turn of the 20th century? Could he be brought up on terrorism charges for suggesting that the only remedy was a stake through the heart (much the technique favored by the Fenian Dynamite Campaign)? Read and tremble anew.

2. It

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The master of horror really phoned this one in. He made a teenage girl terrifying in Carrie, a car haunted in Christine, and a lovable mutt the town terror in Cujo. Scary clowns? Why not just tell us a story about the homicidal maniac who escaped from the federal pen and now has hostages in the chainsaw store? Fish in a barrel, tsk.

Like just about anyone who disguises themselves, clowns have been scary since before they dug up John Wayne Gacy’s crawlspace. [Fun fact: Gacy’s Wikipedia page has a subhead “Businessman and community volunteer.” This is horrifying. It’s “businessperson,” people. Get with it.] I’m not sure why so many cultures feel the need to frighten their children in this way (there are never stories about men in vans or diptheria, but clowns, dolls, houses [anything otherwise like to make a  young child feel safe] abound), but it’s near the top of the list of human hobbies.

Also, Mr. King, we’re all still waiting for the followup, Poundfoolish. I’m imagining a Brit afraid of weight gain and money loss…ah! you’re too right, the Times has that well managed.

3. Grendel

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Not wishing to cast aspersions on what I’m sure is a fine and horrible monster, the scariest part of Beowulf for me was the Old English. But you can get Seamus Heaney‘s translation these days (Be careful: There are a lot of mismatched products linked here.) and even some excerpts read by himself on audio. Who likes to fall asleep listening to monster stories? This girl.

I found it interesting as an undergrad that we used so many details of this poem to illuminate the Anglo-Saxon life. We know that the Heroic Code was a pillar of social relationships and that wirgild was a culturally appropriate way to compensate for having killed someone. Hrothgar’s hall was emblematic of the times and Beowulf was the ideal warrior. If it was in the poem, we could be sure there was some correlative in the culture. I regret that I did not think to ask: So, were there monsters?

I hear there was a movie, too, with Angelina Jolie, presumably as Grendel’s mother. I did not watch the film, but if I had small children—particularly if they were ethnically varied—I would find that very scary indeed. Unfairly, perhaps, I imagine it lacks some of the poetry of the original.

4. Nyarlathotep

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Somewhere in adolescence, where two roads diverge, one to conventional thinking and social success, the other to the rarer perks of geekdom, there is a signpost made entirely of the works of H.P. Lovecraft.

Unknown in life, he has posthumously become the godfather of horror. If you have never heard of him, you have a nerdy friend who has.

Among his many creepy creations, my favorite is the Crawling Chaos, Nyarlathotep (also a pet name for the hall closet). While the Old Ones—the ancient gods of the Lovecraftverse—are sleeping (while yet remaining extremely frightening), Nyarlathotep roams the world, taking many guises. He is sort of the waking caretaker of the Old Ones, but no scrivener he. He is too terrifying to describe precisely, but Lovecraft describes how those who encounter him feel, and that does the trick. Having met this beast, can you imagine the unfathomable, next-level horror of Cthulhu? Yes. Yes, you can. Keep the lights on.

That’s my off-the-cuff report of what’s frightful in fiction. Noticeable for its absence is the truly scary way an observant reader can scry to the page when John Grisham’s editor called and reminded him of his deadline or the far scarier parts of the world where people do not read at all. We’ll leave such imaginings to braver souls.

 

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A Great Escape

I don’t know what the news is like in your corner of the world, but the headlines in my area are pretty bleak—violence, hatred, and little too much reality TV creeping into my reality. While Plan A for today was to celebrate National Chocolate Day, I’m going with Plan B: Books so engrossing that you can momentarily forget whatever is currently on your mind. I hope one of your old favorites (or, even better, a new one) is in the mix.

1.  My Man Jeeves

jeevesWondering how a story of a privileged dimwit and his personal gentleman can possibly be relevant to today’s world? It may not be, and that may be what I like best about it.

I thought P.G. Wodehouse would be too stiff for even my starchy taste, but when a surfeit of Audible credits, a penchant for English inflection, and a severe bout of insomnia conspired against me, I feel into the sweet trap of these delightful stories.

Wodehouse is laugh-out-loud funny and can turn a phrase so fresh that a lingering scent of salt sea air caresses your permanent smile. Even as disaster falls, which it inevitably must when a certain Bertie Wooster is about, Wodehouse discusses it with a dab hand, making you feel a sense of recognition, perhaps even nostalgia, for the perpetual shadow of impending mayhem:

“Unseen in the background, Fate was quietly slipping lead into the boxing-glove.”

Ah, P.G.! Even thoughtful enough to craft your nom de plume after the world’s best teabags.

These are books which I can heartily recommend in audio as well as print. There’s also a delightful BBC version starring a very young Stephen Fry (Jeeves, of course) and an impossibly young Hugh Laurie, available on Acorn.

2. Les Miserables

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I will stipulate that, rip-roaring as his jingles are, a certain Broadway type makes it quite difficult to see the number 9430 and not wonder what happened to 24601. C’est la vie.

This is a masterwork of a caliber that helps you understand where the word masterwork came from. It is utterly great. Leo Tolstoy described it as among the greatest—if not the greatest—work in literature. That’s a heck of a blurb even if he did not have the foresight to anticipate the work of Stephanie Meyer. (No hate here; I read them.)

Victor Hugo‘s works are not satisfied with merely describing the best of humanity; they elevate the reader. You are a better person after you read this. They ought to have prisoners read this instead of making license plates. (Although, given Valjean’s talent for avoiding capture, I can see why that idea might have been nixed.)

Personal story: When taking my vast gaggle to the library (But Mom, there’s nothing to read in our house [Criminey!]), my oldest, then in his early teens, plucked this off the shelf, walked up to my harried self and said, “Can I get this one?” “My son!” I cried, through misty eyes, spooking the browsers. He did, in fact, read it and does not currently lead a life of crime. My eternal gratitude, M. Hugo.

3. The Beekeeper’s Apprentice

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I used to look upon genre fiction with the same sort of disdain that most American women have for my housekeeping. “Sure it’s fine for all and sundry, but I have a degree in reading. I should set my sights higher,” thought ignorant I.

Predictably, like all those who forget why they do a thing in the first place, I began to [true confesh alert] lose my passion for reading. I would dutifully plod through the “suitable” bestsellers and try to get interested in Silas Marner (I’m sorry, Mary Ann). But that flickering box in the corner was starting to catch my eye. “Maybe if I watched Dynasty, I’d be able to keep up with the office chit-chat,” thought criminally ignorant I.

Smart Friend to the rescue. (If you don’t have one, get a Smart Friend. Get as many as you can find. They are just amazingly useful and delightful ways to populate those parts of your life that cannot hold books or are not amenable to dusting.) She must have tried to sell me on Laurie R. King (and Dorothy Sayers! Yes, I thought myself too highbrow for Sayers!) a half-dozen times before I relented.

“It’s Sherlock Holmes.” (Meh. [NB: Mr. Cumberbatch was in nappies.])

“There’s a young woman.” (Whatevs. Not waving the feminist flag in my imaginary worlds.)

“She’s really smart.” (Mild interest, smart people having recently become an interest of mine.)

“She’s Jewish and she studies theology at Oxford.” (Hello.)

“In the Victorian era?”

“Yep.”

“And the writing?”

“Really good.”

Thus did my Smart Friend set me on a course of devouring the twenty or so books in the series (I have a signed copy of the latest, The Murder of Mary Russell) and, by encouraging me to read things just because they were interesting (an entirely new idea to me), may well have saved me as a reader. Eternal gratitude, Smart Friend.

Beekeeper is the first book in the series, and this is one where it’s best to go in order.

4. Still Life

still life

Another Audible discovery, this series by Louise Penny is utterly delicious. Most of the audios were voiced by the incomparable Ralph Cosham and get this listener’s highest praise.

Still Life (again, take this series in order) is the perfect cozy: Small community (you will fall in love with this town), well-crafted characters (ditto), classic detective (double ditto). It is gentle. There are pine breezes and fresh-baked croissants and homespun people who, as Canadians, are not so rural as to offend.

Penny spoke at BEA in May and she was as charming, as deep, and as human as her work. A person could cry listening to her talk about the reason she writes. A person may, in fact, have done so.

Penny is also wickedly smart and drops in plenty of wit. A favorite line comes later in the series when a woman is searching for her son who, for reasons not briefly related, is named Havoc.

“‘Havoc!’ his mother cried, letting the dogs slip out as she called into the woods.”

Yes, please. More of this. Whenever this old world starts getting you down, make a cup of tea and settle down for a braincation in Three Pines.

When you’re wondering what to read next, here’s wishing you many breaks from reality of the non-psychotic kind.