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


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, an 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


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 crawl space. [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


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


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.



Children of the Lorn

August 11 is Sons and Daughters Day. Which is ludicrous. Any parent can tell you that every minute of every day is Sons and Daughters Day. Even Mother’s and Father’s Days are for the children so that, when we’ve gone to our reward, they can remember all those sweet lanyards and ties they’ve given us and console themselves that they were good children.

That said, being the child of a famous author can be challenging. You’ll often hear authors respond to a question about which book is their favorite with a demurring, “That’s like asking me which child is my favorite!” The subtext being: Please don’t ask me that. I’m not entirely sure I’ll remember their names. Writers’ heads are haunted with the uncreated imaginary casts of their works; they can’t be expected to keep all the details of mundanity at their fingertips.

So, to celebrate the day and those who have borne this particular burden, I give you:

1. What? The Dickens?

Dickensjunior-1874Everything about this photo tells the tale. The way he’s seated on the chair, his back to whatever useless endeavor had recently held his attention; the toothbrush mustache, styled to disguise a permanent frown; the wistful waiting for it all to be over. Poor Charles Dickens, Jr.

The unfortunate soul, having inexplicably failed to make a living selling tea in Victorian England, cleverly set up shop as a printer. Son of bestselling-author-just-about-ever buys a printing press. Can’t fail, eh? It did. So, his old Pop took him on as editor. Yes, imagine those conversations.

Still, young Charley had some success “in his own right” (as our Olympic announcers are wont to say), especially with Dickens’s Dictionary of London, 1888: An Unconventional Handbook. Had he been anyone else’s son, his life might have been just fine. RIP, Little Boz.

2. Dumassery


Here we have the very portrait of surly resignation: Alexandre Dumas…fils. His father penned a few ha’penny pulps—The Count of Monte Cristo, The Three Musketeers, &c.—and still made time to cheat on his wife with such devotion that, of his 40 or so mistresses, four actually bore him children (clearly, all actually bored him). Being a stand-up guy (despite rarely standing up, as we have established) the elder Dumas “legitimized” his son at the age of 6 and provided for an excellent education. In doing so, he also effectively terminated the parental rights of the boy’s mother, causing her such emotional agony that it became a theme in wee Alex’s writing. [You’re thinking I’m being hyperbolic, aren’t you? In which case, I invite you to peruse his play The Illegitimate Son. Whatever might that be about?] {NB: My efforts to find this for you on Amazon returned only the result for The Man in the Iron Mask. Quelle surprise!}

Education did its task, though, and the younger Dumas turned out to have a good career. His most famous work is The Lady of the Camellias, built around a charming neighbor with whom he may well have been besotted. The novel was rewritten for the stage and sparked the imagination of an Italian gent by the name of Verdi who turned it into La Traviata. If you’re not an opera fan, you may know the plot from Rent (just replace “AIDS” with “tuberculosis”) and the aria from a Heineken commercial.

In true life’s own operatic twist, AD fils is buried in Montmatre, just a stone’s throw away from the grave of that charming neighbor. The monument is considerably more dazzling than famous denizen Mssr James Morrison’s, if somewhat less trafficked.

3. Kingsley and Martin Amis

Kingsley, with what passed for an excuse in his day.

This is a truly remarkable duo for many countable reasons:

  1. Sheer quality. Kingsley had Lucky Jim and The Old Devils (which won the Booker); Martin had Money and London Fields.
  2. Astonishing breadth. Kingsley wrote novels, but also essays, criticism, science fiction (including New Maps of Hell, whence comes the title of a truly excellent Bad Religion CD), poetry, humor, and, just maybe, a few James Bond riffs. Martin is often mentioned alongside some of the leading literary lights of the age, has been dubbed the champion of a style the NYTimes calls “the new unpleasantness,” and churns out shorts and reviews. His voice is like a massage for the psyche and he looks for all
  3. Unimaginable holiday dinners. True to type, Kingsley had rather a hard time keeping the old pen in the right
    The ruthlessly competent Martin.

    inkwell. His wife complained of this in a short note she wrote in lipstick on his back as he napped on a beach—which note was made famous in a photo of same. (You’ll have to Google it; it’s more than a bit rude.)  Less typically, in his dotage, his two sons persuaded their mother to let him move back in with her—and her husband—because the great mind was losing purchase and his public comments were devolving into very unflattering portraits of Americans, Jewish persons, and “hicks.”

Of terrifying note: In 2007, Martin took a post teaching creative writing at Manchester University. Look at that face. Now, here is his own prediction, from the Guardian, of how he thought he might relate to students:

“I may be acerbic in how I write but I’m not how I live. And I would find it very difficult to say cruel things to people in such a vulnerable position. I imagine I’ll be surprisingly sweet and gentle with them.”

It’s nice to see he’s gotten his father’s sense of humor.

Writing may well have a genetic component, for there are many others. Joe Hill (NOS4A2) calls Stephen King “Dad,” for which some medal ought to be forged. (“Tell us a scary story, Daddy…”). I’ve already related (somewhat unsympathetically) the tale of Christopher Robin Milne. William F. spawned Christopher Buckley, John Updike’s son David writes some outstanding short stories, and John Steinbeck’s son (John IV) went to Vietnam to get some street cred. You can still find copies of his In Touch, but check out the author bio: Yep, it’s dad’s.

Good books allow an avid reader to live many lives. Often the price of this gift is the writer’s own life—not just the long and lonely hours of writing and rewriting, but the collateral damage of a well-honed sense of human motivation. So many of the daily courtesies that make human society civilized show false to the writer’s eye. We are reluctant to take “Good morning” and “Have a nice day” at face value and are loath to insult others with facile and farcical expressions. We try so hard to respect the truth in others that we invariably insult them. And then we have children, who have no hope of withstanding such treatment.

Spare a thought for the poor, toiling, well-meaning author next time you ask yourself “What should I read next?”


La Fête Nationale (aka Bastille Day)

Congratulations, France! You are well entitled to the high esteem in which many of the world’s denizens hold you. I always start this day with the first few lines of La Marseillaise. Then we get to the bit about letting impure blood soak our fields and the enthusiasm ebbs ever so slightly. Lest my efforts to promote your culture succeed only in insulting you (which, alas, can be too easy to do), today we will feature books about…prison.

1. Darkness at Noon

darknessDue to the haphazard way in which my childhood library was formed (i.e., books that came with the house), selections were few and disparate. I, being of few years and desperate, picked this up when I was 10 or so. Someone really ought to have been supervising me.

The exciting adventures of Rubashov are informed by Arthur Koestler‘s own experience of arrest and imprisonment under Franco. Impending death seems to impart a great clarity (though that’s a steep price), and Koestler presents this story with a gray sense of the powerlessness of the individual and the inevitability of the state’s agenda. It is not a good book for young people, nor for those condemned. It is good for the vapid or self-absorbed, and I’m sure you know someone like that. (Don’t bother, I already have a copy.)


2. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

onedayNot usually remembered with nostalgia, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn‘s first book left two lasting impressions on my life:

  1. I named my eldest after Solzhenitsyn (the first name, not the last). I wanted him to grow up to be thoughtful, politically informed, and courageous. He did.
  2. Despite hailing from a long line of smokers, I never got the habit. You may have to spend ten years in a Siberian labor camp, thought I, and tobacco will be really hard to get and that will be the single worst part of the experience. Best not to start. Eternal gratitude, Solzhenitsyn.

These were likely not among the goals the author had in mind when setting pen to paper, but good books, I contend, have a way of creating their own good in the world. This one is great for getting out of your own skin and seeing the world from another perspective. It’s also a terrific way to put a chill on a hot summer day.

Bobby Sands reprised it, to powerful effect, during the Blanket Rebellion at Long Kesh in the ’80s. He wrote his version on toilet paper (hey, he wasn’t using it) and stored it well out of the guards’ reach. His book is just brutal. I can’t recommend you read it yourself (just to avoid damage to your soul), but it would be a thoughtful gift for that Irish Republican or Ancient Hibernian in your life. Or someone British you really dislike.

3. Different Seasons


Tucked in this Stephen King collection of three excellent short stories (and one vile tale/literary virus that should be contained and used only in the event of alien invasion) is “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption.”

As prison stories go, this one is a charmer, featuring an unjustly convicted man who uses his talents to improve the lives of everyone in the prison and manages some fairly astonishing feats. If you need a prison story that’s short (maybe you’re just waiting to plead guilty to that speeding charge) and has a happy ending, here’s your ticket.

Do not, under any circumstances, read “Apt Pupil.” Do not. Also, make sure your basement floor is properly paved and sealed.


4. Native Son


This might be the best time to read Richard Wright‘s masterpiece about crime and race. It is always encouraging to see gifted writers tackling difficult subjects. It is less encouraging to recognize that, with very few revisions, this story could take place today.

I read a host of reviews before posting this and the conflict there tells its own tale. Those who like the book tend to be literary types, social activist types, and students. Those who don’t? I can’t be sure, but they seem to be some angry, privileged people.

“This book would be OK if Wright didn’t have such an agenda.”
“Maybe good for understanding a time when black people were not treated the same as white people.”
“The school board needs to rethink what students should read.”

I can agree with that last comment, both on general principles and on the basis that rape and murder are not easy to read about. But when should our children find out about crime, or inequality, or addiction, or genocide? When is someone old enough to read Night? (NB: No one is ever old enough to read Night.)

I’ll absolve you if you choose to read the abridged version and by all means feel free to skip the author’s long intro if it doesn’t work for you. But give the 250 or so pages in the middle a try. Whatever your race or politics, you’ll learn something.

For those of you who have found this just too depressing, here’s a cheery note: Today is also the birthday of British comedian David Mitchell. If you don’t know him, allow me to make an introduction: He has written books, too (not those books, that’s another David Mitchell), about which more in a future installment.