Wednesday, February 24, 2021

the IRL book group read: The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the True Hermit, by Michael Finkel


Vintage, 2018
203 pp


Truth be told, there is nowhere I'd rather be than in the woods.  We often make our way to a cabin in the Ocala Forest about four hours northwest from here, where there is no wifi, no television, lots of quiet, and at night sitting next to a  crackling fire outside, time for mezcal or bourbon shots, holding hands, laughing together and watching the flames.  Our stay generally consists of doing absolutely nothing except perhaps an occasional hike if it's not summer,  and lots of reading.  It's the place we go for mental battery recharging, reconnecting,  and it works wonders.  We go home and we're reset, ready to move on.  Chris Knight, the subject of this book, also enjoyed being in the woods. One day in 1986 he parked his car somewhere among the forests in Maine, left the keys and walked into the wildnerness.  Unlike us though, Chris never left.  He stayed there for twenty-seven years, and other than the impersonal "hi" to someone passing by his location, never spoke to another human being.  

And then came the day in 2013 when he came out of those woods, fully expecting to return to his solitude  but finding himself instead arrested for "almost certainly the biggest burglary case in the state of Maine," the number coming to 1,080 "to be exact."  

When I first decided that I wanted to read this book, I thought that it would be a story about a man with the sort of romantic notion of just dropping out of society, going off the grid.    Now after having finished it, my assumptions were completely wrong about this guy.  While he did indeed drop out, it wasn't a case of living off the land I had imagined -- in order to survive, Chris Knight became somewhat of a parasite --  helping himself to what belonged to others including  food, clothes, books, the occasional cash, watches, batteries, radios, and the list goes on.  But he had a "moral code" -- if an item looked valuable, he would leave it.  After he'd broken in and picked up whatever he needed, he returned to his camp until his supplies would run low and he'd do it all over again, likely never thinking of the people left feeling violated, frightened and angry; over the twenty-seven years in the woods, the so-called  "Mountain Man," "Hungry Man," the "North Pond Hermit," or whatever they'd labeled him had never been caught.    The last supply run he made was to a camp catering to kids and adults who had "physical and developmental disabilities," which he treated as his "own private Costco."   What drove him to do all of this?  Well, that's the maddening part -- we never really find out.  

That's not to say that the author didn't try -- in trying to understand the why, he ponders the possibilities of mental health/medical issues and family/personal background; he also delves into the world of hermits, historical and contemporary, contemplating what it is that has led many to leave the world behind and take up a solitary existence.  But as one psychologist notes about the North Pond Hermit, in the end
"Nothing makes complete sense... Knight is like a Rorschach card. He really is an object for everyone to project onto." 

Mr. Finkel notes at goodreads, under "Popular Answered Questions" about his book, that Knight "had a wildly unusual idea for how to live" and that "he has an awesome and daunting brain," with "insights into modern society and solitude and the meaning of life that you will find nowhere else."  That's all well and good, and over the course of the book you can see how the author feels himself getting closer to Knight, but the fact is that in the long run there really are no answers to be found here.   And Chris Knight isn't talking. Finkel's take on the matter is that Knight left "because the world is not made to accommodate people like him," while Knight says only that he'd found a place where he was "content."  He also wished that he "weren't so stupid to do illegal things to find contentment."  The truth is though that he did.  He also caused pain and anguish to his victims.   It seems to me to have been an impulsive decision to walk away from his car in 1986 and go into a life of self-imposed isolation; people who go off the grid generally have some long-term plan for how to do it.   Chris Knight obviously did not and ended up having to steal for his survival.  

The Stranger in the Woods makes for fascinating reading.  Aside from Chris Knight's story, what I locked onto really was the author's exploration of the natures of and differences between solitude and isolation.   My only issue with this book comes toward the ending  in the way that the author wouldn't let go, wouldn't respect the requested privacy of Chris or his family, and would not take no for answer.  That just seems wrong to me somehow.   However, the book as a whole is well worth reading, and as the title suggests, it is an "extraordinary story." 

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Ghostland: In Search of a Haunted Country, by Edward Parnell


William Collins, 2020
468 pp


Given that I have an intense passion for old ghost stories and weird fiction, it's surprising that I hadn't heard of Ghostland  until I started seeing a number of reader reviews of it on Goodreads.   It was so highly regarded that I knew I had to read it, and once picked up it was not put down.  That's how very good it is.  It is all at once a book of psychogeography, a  chronicle of family, memories, travel, and nature;  and at its very heart, a beautiful, moving memoir of  grief.  And if that isn't enough to whet anyone's appetite, in Ghostland  Parnell also treads the ground walked by some of Britain's most famous writers of ghost stories and the weird.  

In an interview at Folk Horror Revival, the author explains how he had gone to the childhood home of M.R.  James, Great Livemere, and wrote about it on his website, after which he was contacted by a managing editor from Harper Collins.  He was asked if he'd ever considered writing a book about James and "other writers of the weird and eerie."  The idea appealed, especially a book that would be "concerned with ghost stories and films and the places around Britain that fed into them."  In Ghostland , as he notes, since childhood he'd been "obsessed" with the supernatural and horror; as a four year-old, as his story goes, while on holiday in Wales at Caernarfon Castle, he'd asked the tour guide if there might be a chance they would see "the Spectral lady."  He was also, as he puts it "part of what The Fortean Times has come to term the 'haunted generation'." More to the point though, he says that he "only wanted to write about the subject if I could bring something of myself to the narrative," and after doing 
"some proper thinking and research into who and where I'd want to explore, I realised that the locations I was considering were connected to my own family -- a story which itself could be said to be somewhat haunted." 

Leaving Livemere, as he says in the book, "the final words of James' last published story, 'A Vignette' resonate: 

Are there here and there sequestered places which some curious creatures still frequent, whom once upon a time anybody could see and speak to as they went about on their daily occasions, whereas now only at rare intervals in a series of years does one cross their paths and become aware of them?" 
 And in finding these "sequestered places," as he notes in the interview, 
"the writing of the book became a way of reclaiming something that had been lost to me. A way of trying to give form to those half-glimpsed figures that otherwise languish in shadow on my father's old Kodachrome slides."

As he makes his way around to explore the locations from the books, movies, television shows and short stories that he enjoyed so much, he discusses these works and writes about the authors themselves, recalls childhood memories, and slowly reveals the story of his "phantom family -- a host of lives lived, then unlived" in an attempt to help him "reconcile the real and the half-remembered."  

While I won't go into very much here, one of the key ideas that runs through Ghostland is the link between landscape and the work of the writers he's chosen to explore here -- and how awareness of their environment seemed to have been embedded within themselves as much as it has been embedded in their writing.    There are more than mere traces  to be found in, as the back-cover blurb notes, "the ancient stones, stark shores and folkloric woodlands of Britain's spectered isle," as well as the inland waterways (and I'm so happy he mentioned Elizabeth Jane Howard's "Three Miles Up" which is one of the most frightening stories I've ever read -- and beware, the film version is not quite the same), graveyards, and more, including the stone rings, hills, and other features found in Arthur Machen's work, or Ithell Colquhoun's Cornwall, to mention only a few of the many places he visits. But landscape, nature and place  also have personal connections for Mr. Parnell -- they evoke memories of family, which he can now remember not in terms of "disquiet" but rather as  "reassuring." His journey is related here much along the same lines as W.G. Sebald's  Suffolk journey chronicled in The Rings of Saturn (another recent, excellent read) down to the photos embedded within the text. 

It is one of the most beautiful books I've read, a poignant way in which the author finds a way to try to express "what is haunting him," as well as a way in which to try to "lay to rest the ghosts" of his "own sequestered past."  I cannot recommend this one highly enough ... I'm sure I will go through it again many times.  An absolute no-miss for readers (like me) who thoroughly enjoy old ghost stories, and especially for readers who (also like me) are lovers of weird fiction.  

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Court Number One: The Trials and Scandals That Shocked Modern Britain, by Thomas Grant


John Murray, 2020
440 pp


I don't remember quite how I stumbled upon this book but I had picked it up in August  and sadly let it sit on my shelves for the next four months.  I'd actually forgotten about it until as part of my end-of-year cleanout I rediscovered it, making it almost like a belated Christmas gift to myself.   It took me about five days to read but I was completely engrossed throughout, since out of the eleven cases covered here, I was familiar with only three, and even  among those I'd had little to no clue about the courtroom side of things.  

I must admit to being a wee bit confused over the actual title of this book, which in 2019 was published as Court Number One: The Old Bailey Trials That Defined  Modern Britain

leaving off the words "scandals that shocked"  of this later edition.  I  would hate to think that the title change might have been an enticement based on those three words to garner a larger reading audience,  because this is much more than just a tell-all for titillation.  As the back blurb says, "Court Number One recorded the changing face of British society, providing a window on to the thrills, fears and foibles of the modern age."  As the author puts it, 
"This is a book about this courtroom, about some of the people who have appeared in it, whether as defendant, counsel or judge, and about the practice of criminal law. It is also intended to be about British sensibilities and preoccupations over the last hundred years. It is one of the contentions of this book that through the criminal trials that have occurred in Britain's foremost court there can be traced at least one version of social and moral change over the last century." 
The author takes his readers through eleven cases ranging datewise from 1907 to 2003, some familiar, others less so.   What remains constant throughout is the idea that, as Grant says, "the court is not a hermetically sealed space, divorced from the values and prejudices outside."  Setting each of these cases within its contemporary social, cultural and political contexts, it soon becomes clear that the "language of the courtroom is as much saturated in ideology as any other medium."   These words come directly from his coverage of the trial of Marguerite Fahmy, but they are appropriate in each and every case in this book -- as  times and cultural attitudes change, contemporary popular prejudices are also reflected in how the case plays out in court.   

The story of Marguerite Fahmy, as a matter of fact, is one of the best exemplars of this idea, and quite frankly, it makes for appalling reading.   In 1922, Marguerite Alibert married "Egyptian playboy" Ali Fahmy Bey in France, sealing the deal after converting to Islam and having an Islamic wedding in February 1923. It was a terrible marriage  in which Fahmy had expectations of "obedience" from his wife and she, "a hard-nosed adventuress" thought otherwise.  Violent quarrels between the two were commonplace as they traveled "around the finer cities of Europe."   On July 10 of that year, the couple were staying at London's Savoy hotel where at 2:30 in the morning a hotel porter coming out of the elevator and carrying luggage saw Fahmy Bey in the corridor, who demanded to see the night manager.  The porter, continuing on his way, heard three shots, turned back in time to see Marguerite throwing a gun to the floor. By 3:30, he was dead.  Marguerite was arrested for her husband's death, and what would seem to be an  open-and-shut case made its way to a trial that lasted for six days.  When it came time for the verdict, she was found not guilty.  How could this happen, one might ask, when she was caught dead to rights? It seems that her defense attorney had hit upon a defense that would not only acquit Marguerite but also cause "the whole of Court Number One" to break out into "thunderous stamping and applause" by conjuring in the mind's eye  "the abominations and cruelty of the Orient and the plight of a Western woman caught it in its maw."   The author calls her defense a "carefully constructed piece of rhetoric" drawing on "prevalent literary and cultural motifs" in which the "image of the Eastern man, cruel and sexually masterful," was the stuff of  "fiction and cinema of the time" that both fascinated and horrified. One need only turn to the "poisonously salacious"  story of Diana Mayo in E.M. Hull's The Sheik to understand why.  

As the author takes his readers through this century via the eleven cases tried in Court Number One, it is almost like having a front-row seat in the courtroom from which to watch every act of each drama unfold.  Murder, sex, "deviancy," espionage, prison escapes and more fill this book, as do serious miscarriages of justice.  I don't use the term "front-row seat" loosely here -- as the author also states, "the metaphor of the theatre is constantly employed in accounts of trials in the twentieth century," a theme that resonates throughout this book.   

Court Number One is likely not for a reader who wants just a quick look at these cases, because it takes time for the author to establish the current cultural/social/political scene, to examine past cases that reflect directly or indirectly on the ones under study here, and most importantly, to try to offer a window on  the changes from one period to another over the century that also had a bearing on the action in the courtroom.  In that sense, it does seem to meander a bit, but with purpose.  It is a job well done,  an extremely interesting and informative book that made for fascinating (and at times, spellbinding) reading.   

very, very highly recommended