Saturday, December 11, 2021

Pan: The Great God's Modern Return, by Paul Robichaud


Reaktion Books, 2021
344 pp


I am a huge fan of Arthur Machen's novella The Great God Pan (which I've recently reread),  and I've been saying for some time now that some enterprising person would be doing readers like me a huge favor by collecting and compiling every story ever written about Pan and publishing them all together in book form.  Since that's unlikely to be in the works for the near future, spending more time reading about the great god seemed to me to be a good idea, so I was beyond excited when I first heard about the publication of this book. It is one I've been looking forward to for a very long time, and without hesitation I can say that I was not at all disappointed. Historian Paul Robichaud has written this volume for readers "interested in learning more about the goat-footed god and how he has been imagined through the centuries."  That would be me. For sure.

"Through the centuries" is not an understatement in this case.  Robichaud traces the various ways that Pan has been envisioned from antiquity up to our own time, using "individual texts, works of art and musical compositions," introducing them and "relating them where possible to the larger tradition of which they form a part."     As he notes, 
"Surveying Pan's role in mythology, art, literature, music, spirituality and popular culture ... shows how portrayals of the god reveal shifting anxiety about our own animality and our relationship to the natural world, whether this is understood as the wilderness beyond civilization or the cosmos as a whole. "

 He begins with "Mythic Pan," exploring Pan's origins in the Arcadia region of Greece long before any written records appeared.  Earliest representations of Pan consisted of bronze statues revealing the great god as an object of veneration by shepherds in the area.  From there "the cult of Pan" made its way from Arcadia spreading across Greece, inspiring not only myth, but also poetry in the "pastoral" form as captured by Theocritus and Virgil (whose work, in turn, would also inspire others later through the centuries).   

These "classical visions of Pan" ended when Constantine decreed that Christianity would become the Roman Empire's official religion, sending paganism into a "kind of half-life" until Pan and other pagan gods "disappeared from public view" up to the time of the Renaissance as discussed in "Medieval and Early Modern Pan."  He reappears in different forms during this time, usually allegorically, so as to avoid controversy with the church.  Signorelli's The School of Pan (1490) is just one example; as the author reveals,  art historian Michael Levey has described the figures in the painting as "banished creatures of mythology, who had always existed and who have now crept back into the welcoming Renaissance air." 

from Pinterest

A few of Pan's appearances in literature come by way of Rabelais, Francis Bacon, Spenser and Milton; in popular culture he becomes the figure of  Robin Good-fellow and even stands as symbol for James II, who was banished in 1688, serving as a code for Jacobites when it was dangerous to be known as loyal to the Stuarts.  

I won't go through each and every chapter in any depth, but  after the Renaissance, Pan re-emerges during the late eighteenth century and the Romantic period, which 

"valued wild nature, passion and imagination -- all of which were conducive to a rebirth of enthusiasm for the god, as was a revival of interest in all things Greek, including the irrational mysteries of Greek religion" 

  taking his readers into the late nineteenth century before moving onto the twentieth.   Noteworthy among the many and various works discussed in this section, the author offers queer representations of Pan in literature, including Forrest Reid's novel The Garden God from 1905 (which is now sitting on my shelf ready to be read thanks to a reprint by Valancourt Books) and E.F. Benson's short story "The Man Who Went Too Far," a chilling story which I recently read in John Miller's collection Weird Woods, published by the British Library.  

Two more chapters bring us to the end.  First, "Pan as Occult Power" first examines Pan's more esoteric appearances in the work of Eliphas Levi; it's then on to fiction where he examines Machen's Great God Pan in some depth as well as the writings of Aleister Crowley, Victor Neuberg, Algernon Blackwood, and Dion Fortune before taking on Pan's association with modern witchcraft and the figure of the Horned God.    Chapter six then delves into "Contemporary Pan" which for me held a number of surprising connections to ponder.  

Robichaud, as he explains at the beginning, has no assumptions that readers of this book might have "any prior knowledge of the material explored here," and he has written this volume in a highly-approachable fashion making it beyond reader friendly.   I have barely skimmed the surface in this post, but trust me -- if anyone wants to know anything at all about the Great God Pan, it's very likely found here in this wide-ranging exploration of the goat-footed god.   Beware though -- I came up with a list of twenty-five books I wanted to read from the author's source material.  

Most definitely and very highly recommended; an excellent book that will have a place of honor on my shelves.  

Saturday, November 13, 2021

Truffle Hound: On the Trail of the World's Most Seductive Scent, With Dreamers, Schemers and Some Extraordinary Dogs, by Rowan Jacobsen


Bloomsbury, 2021
283 pp

hardcover (my copy from the publisher, thanks!)

Just prior to the Covid outbreak of 2020, a new restaurant opened nearby and everyone I know who went there raved about the truffle fries.  I asked one of my friends if she knew that there was nothing truffle about the fries, and she looked at me like I was out of my mind and told me about the delicious and rich truffle oil that gives them their flavor.    So now that I've finished this book, I'll be handing it over to her so that she can see for herself that her beloved truffles frites are covered in olive oil containing 2,4-dithiapentane, a synthetic chemical that offers up a "heavy-handed impression of truffleness."  Anthony Bourdain once said about truffle oil that it was "about as edible as Astroglide, and made from the same stuff."  This book, however, isn't about dispelling myths about the stuff poured over french fries to push them into the double-digit dollar zone -- it is an examination of the "dreamers, schemers, and sensualists" who in the presence of the fungi itself become "quivering puddles."  Of the real stuff, there are a variety out there -- chef and author Rowan Jacobsen mentions at the outset that "about a dozen species play prominent roles in this tale" -- of those, 
"two have starring roles: Tuber magnatum, Italy's celebrated white truffle, which is often called the Alba; and Tuber melanosporum, the queen of black truffles.."

Describing his first olfactory encounter with the white truffle , Jacobsen notes that 

"It was hardly a food scent at all.  It was more like catching a glimpse of a satyr prancing across the dining room floor while playing its flute and flashing its hindquarters at you. You think, What the hell was that? And then you think, I have to know. "

I not only love that description but I also understand  -- I've never had the pleasure to have tried the white variety but the black, well, there's this little Italian deli that carries them and they have more than once (very sparingly) graced my papardelle in shaved form.   Anyway, after that first experience with the white truffle's heavenly scent,  the author went looking to discover what he could about these prized fungi, and  found himself on a "quest" to discover what it is about truffles that has the power to turn people into the above-mentioned "quivering puddles."  Traveling throughout Europe, the UK, Canada, and various places here in the US, Jacobsen spent time with truffle hunters, their specially-trained dogs, hopeful truffle farmers and entrepreneurs looking toward the future, truffle sellers and scientists to learn all he could about these prized fungi, of which the white variety is, as he says, "the world's most expensive food."   The more he becomes involved in his quest, the more he finds himself "starting to think of truffles as the street artists of the forest, splashing smells across an airy canvas, blowing the minds of passersby." 

In Hungary:  Grand Master of the Saint Ladislaus Order of Truffle Knights, Zoltan Bratek (from my copy)

This is my first book by Jacobsen; I love his casual yet knowledgeable style of writing enough that on the strength of this one I just bought his A Geography of Oysters even though I despise them.  Even if you don't like food writing (or truffles for that matter),  there is much to enjoy in Truffle Hound, especially the stories of the people Jacobsen meets and of course, the awesome dogs who are part and parcel of the experience.  This is a good book, and I can most certainly recommend it.  

With apologies to Nicole at Bloomsbury for taking forever to finish this book, I offer my sincere thanks for the lovely, finished copy.  

Sunday, August 15, 2021

My Dark Places, by James Ellroy

 "Dead women owned me." 

Vintage, 1997
424 pp


Last year I read Ellroy's LA Quartet, the opening novel of which is The Black Dahlia In that book, as the author noted in his afterword, a "personal story attends the Black Dahlia," inextricably linking him to "two women savaged eleven years apart."   One of these women was his mother, Geneva (Jean) Hilliker, who was killed in 1958, her murderer unknown and her case never solved.  The other, of course, was the real-life Black Dahlia herself, Elizabeth Short, whose story Ellroy had read as a boy in Jack Webb's The Badge "a hundred times" and who not only became his "obsession," but also a "symbiotic stand-in" for his mother. My Dark Places tells that "personal story," which began when the author was ten and arrived home to discover that his mother was dead; it also explores his own unique relationship to her memory and how it changed over time.   It was her murder that shaped who he ultimately became; here he lays his demons bare for all to see.   Completely misquoting Bette Davis in All About Eve, fasten your seatbelts -- you're in for a bumpy ride.   

The body of Jean Hilliker Ellroy was found on Sunday, June 22, 1958 in a small strip of ivy at King's Row and Tyler Avenue in El Monte, California.  The first part of the book details the crime from that point,  using a third-person point of view to tell the story, recreated from the records of the original investigation.   After the victim had been discovered, her car had been found behind a local bar where she'd spent time with two other people, a blonde woman with a ponytail and a man who came to be known as "the Swarthy Man," both unidentified.  From there her whereabouts were traced (sans the blonde) to a local drive-in, where a carhop put her with the Swarthy Man in his car twice that night.  After that, despite tracking any and every lead they had and interviewing a number of witnesses and possible suspects,  law enforcement lost their trail and the case went cold, or as Ellroy puts it, "moved into limbo."   In Part Two, Ellroy delves into his past, detailing his somewhat complicated relationship with his mother and after her death, his life with his father.  As a kid, he knew his mother drank and brought men home, and even before her death was told by his father in no uncertain terms that she was a whore.  After she died, he went to live with his father where he was left largely unsupervised and subject to his father's rants on race and women.  Ellroy's life began to spiral downward during this time -- school left him feeling like he didn't fit in, he started using drugs, broke into houses, shoplifted, stalked girls and did some pretty horrific things for attention; as he got older and his dad's health deteriorated so too did Ellroy's mental state.   As he noted when young, "My mother's death was a gift -- and I knew I had to pay for it."  While very likely the most difficult to read because of the racism and misogyny, it is staggeringly honest, and for me the strongest section in the book.  As I said to one of my goodreads friends, while reading this part I said out loud that this man was an effing pig, but after learning about his life with his father, it came as absolutely no suprise.  It was also at this point in his life that his obsession with Elizabeth Short began, and as he said in Black Dahlia, the time when "Jean Hilliker and Betty Short" became "one in transmogrification." 

Part three introduces Bill Stoner, a homicide detective with the LA County Sheriff's Department, the man who in Part four helps Ellroy to tackle his mother's case, beginning in 1994.  Stoner was no stranger to murdered women as Ellroy discovered; their cases are offered here in mesmerizing detail as well as Stoner's own obsessions in trying to solve them and put their killers behind bars.  As was the case with Ellroy who at thirteen knew that "dead women owned me," the same might be said for this man over the course of his career.    It was Stoner who first showed Ellroy his mother's file, then stayed with him as they re-interviewed old witnesses and tracked down possible new ones, solicited new leads, and put out as much publicity as possible in the hope that anyone from 1958 might come forward.  

I won't say I threw myself into this book; as was the case when I read his LA Quartet, it's more like I fell down the rabbit hole after getting sucked into it. It was impossible not to, actually -- even though this book is a work of nonfiction, reading My Dark Places had much the same effect on me as those four novels did.  It is real, it is raw, and while as I said earlier it is beyond difficult to read, it is yet another fine piece of work by one of my favorite writers.  Overall, though, it is, as the back-cover blurb so rightly describes, the story of a man who spent some three decades running from his mother's ghost, trying to "exorcize it through crime fiction," and a man hoping for some sort of redemption.  

Definitely not for the faint of heart, but to Ellroy fans, a book not to be missed.  

Sunday, June 20, 2021

How the Word is Passed: A Reckoning With the History of Slavery Across America, by Clint Smith

Little, Brown and Company, 2021
336 pp

In September of this year the longlist for the National Book Awards will be released, and I wouldn't be at all surprised to see this book there.   I also wouldn't be at all surprised if it wins -- it more than deserves this accolade and any other that comes its way.   

Clint Smith was born and raised in the city of New Orleans, and yet, as he says, he "knew relatively little" about the city's "relationship to the centuries of bondage" rooted in its
"soft earth, in the statues I had walked past daily, the names of the streets I had lived on, the schools I had attended, and the building that had once been nothing more to me than the remnants of colonial architecture."
He quotes historian Walter Johnson as saying that "the whole city is a memorial to slavery," and realizes that "it was all right in front of me, even when I didn't know how to look for it."  After the statue of Robert E. Lee was taken down in May, 2017, Smith notes that he had become "obsessed with how slavery is remembered and reckoned with," and with "teaching myself all of things I wish someone had taught me long ago."  In an interview with Publisher's Weekly he notes that as he watched the "architecture of [his] childhood coming down," he  thought about how
 "these statues were not just statues, but memorialized the lives of slave owners and how history was reflected in different places."

He also states in his book that  right now America is at an "inflection point," 

"in which there is a willingness to more fully grapple with the legacy of slavery and how it shaped the world we live in today"
 but that while some places have "more purposefully ... attempted to tell the truth about their proximity to slavery and its aftermath,"  there are others which have "more staunchly" refused.   From this beginning, as Ibram X. Kendi, author of Stamped from the Beginning notes in his blurb for How the Word Is Passed,   Smith visited several "historical sites that are truth-telling or deceiving visitors about slavery."  Each chapter, as Smith describes in his prologue is a 
"portrait of a place, but also of the people in that place -- those who live there, work there, and are the descendants of the land and of the families who once lived on it.  They are people who have tasked themselves with telling the story of that place outside traditional classrooms and beyond the pages of textbooks."

They are also, as he says, "public historians who carry with them a piece of this country's collective memories," who have "dedicated their lives to sharing this history with others."  

Using a wide variety of scholarship discussing the actual history of these locations,  personal interviews, as well as his own experiences and insights, he begins this "necessary journey" (as W. Caleb McDaniel calls it in his blurb)  to discover how each place has come to address its dark and painful past, or how in some cases they "worked not to have a discussion about slavery."   He stops first at Monticello Plantation before moving on to the Whitney Plantation in Wallace, Louisiana  where people are "confronted with the reality of slavery."    Angola Prison is the next stop, where he discovers that the one thing not on the tour he took was the fact that the prison was built on top of a plantation. In fact, he recalls that after the guide spoke about "Indigenous communities and French exploration of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries," he moved directly to post-Civil War America, failing to mention the time that Angola had been a plantation where enslaved black people were responsible for a cotton yield "higher than most other plantations of the South."  And while the guide did mention convict leasing, he failed to talk about it as an "explicit tool of economic and racial subjugation."  In Virginia, Smith visited the Blandford Cemetery where 30,000 Confederate soldiers found their final resting place, later returning there with a friend for a Memorial Day Sons of Confederate Veterans commemoration ceremony; in Galveston, Texas he celebrates Juneteenth.  Then it's up north to New York City where he discovers its "untold history" unraveling all around him, after which he's off to GorĂ©e Island in Senegal, Dakar to the Slave House and  Door of No Return, a "place that still holds the ghosts of thousands and remains a symbol for the plight of millions. " That is not his final stop though -- he visits the National Museum of African American History which stirs up the memories of his maternal grandparents who had accompanied him and who will go on to share their stories with him.

 As Smith notes at the end of his book,  "he history of slavery is the history of the United States."   It is neither "peripheral to our founding," nor is it "irrelevant to our contemporary society."  It is "in our soil, it is in our policies, and it must, too, be in our memories."  

 I have become an staunch advocate for this book -- it's one everybody should read, not just for the history within, but also for Clint Smith's writing here, which is not only knowledgeable but truly  insightful and inspiring, coming straight from his heart and his soul.   

so very very very very highly recommended.  

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Sphinxes and Obelisks, by Mark Valentine

Tartarus Press, 2021
266 pp


The other day I received an email notifying me that Tartarus has published a two-volume set of the Collected Ghost Stories of Oliver Onions, which I quickly bought.  I received a "notification of payment" email from Ray Russell, saying that the books would be posted next week.  I emailed back to thank him and happened to mention how very much I was enjoying this book, and he made the most spot-on comment ever:

"Mark has a way of making you feel that you need just a few more shelves..."

A "few more shelves" indeed: this time around the final tally is fourteen books bought out of the list of 36 I noted as "want to read," with  three more already on my shelves thanks to Valancourt. Where I'm going to put all of these I don't know, but that's what happens when I read Valentine's essays.  I know from experience that before I even open one of his books I'm going to need a pen and paper to write down the titles he discusses, and I also know that I will not escape unscathed as far as the bank account goes. And I don't care.  

Sphinxes and Obelisks is (as are many of Valentine's essay collections) a book lover's paradise, with the  dustjacket blurb mentioning books that have been "overlooked," offering examples of such "recondite reading" material as 
"an interplanetary fantasy by a Welsh squire; a timeslip into a mysterious England by a priest once called the original Dorian Gray; an avant-garde novel about a tea-party and the Holy Grail."

I mean, seriously, who could resist?  At the same time, this book is also a fascinating collection of odd miscellany of rather out-there topics including the Sphinx Illusion performed in 1865 at the Egyptian Hall, a "strange head of myth speaking" to an audience "from out of a casket, uttering its omens and riddles;" an essay on what ghosts wear, and the game "Cat-at-the-Window" as recalled by Edward Marsh  in his memoirs,  which ends in speculation as to whether Algernon Blackwood's story "Ancient Sorceries" "may have been inspired by a too fevered indulgence in the cat game" (read the story, you'll understand) and the possibility of a  more "pedestrian and peregrinatory version of the game" having been known to Arthur Machen, "the eminent historian of Dog and Duck, an old bowling game," and "admirer of cats."   As a matter of fact (and unsurprisingly)  many of these essays contain various literary roads leading to Machen, as well as various examples of one of my own newly-discovered reading passions, psychogeography (especially in "Apocalypse and Marrow Jam: Pilgrim from Paddington") which also happens to stem from my reading of  Machen's Hill of Dreams last year.  

Colonel Stodare (with the Sphinx)  as he appears in the book; this photo is from Travelanche

Beginning and ending with treks through bookstores (never new books, by the way), in dreams and with  writer John Howard, Sphinxes and Obelisks is another must-read collection  for fellow travelers who are easily led down the rabbit hole to dally in the realm of the obscure.  I have to say that Mark Valentine is one of the few writers whose fiction and nonfiction works consistently attain the level of near perfection; this book has the feel of listening to an old friend whose love of literature knows no bounds.  

Very, very highly recommended; one of my favorite books so far this year. 

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Tales from the Haunted South: Dark Tourism and Memories of Slavery from the Civil War Era, by Tiya Miles

University of North Carolina Press, 2015
154 pp


"... let our ghosts be real, let our ghosts be true, let our ghosts carry on the integrity of our ancestors." 

I seriously do not remember why I bought this book in the first place, but some nights ago I chose it from my history shelves completely at random and started to read.  I was instantly blown away and have recommended this book to any number of people.  It's that good. It's that necessary.  

In 2012 Professor Tiya Miles had gone to Savannah to work on her novel; after lunch one day, on her way back to her hotel, her attention was drawn to a woman waving at her.  The woman asked if she would like to take "a historic tour" of the local Sorrel-Weed house, and Miles was "intrigued" enough by the idea of "being beckoned into history"  to buy a ticket.  As she was guided through the house, she learned the story of its owner, Francis Sorrel, a "cotton tycoon" of Haitian heritage, passing for white. Sorrel had lost his first wife to typhoid and then married her sister Matilda afterward.  As the story goes, Matilda had committed suicide "by jumping off the second-floor balcony," because she had caught  her husband and his "mistress," a "slave girl" by the named of Molly, in flagrante.   A week later, Molly herself had been found "strangled, dangling from the ceiling rafters of the carriage house," and while Francis moved to a nextdoor townhouse, Molly and Matilda remained  as resident ghosts.  The author was told that if she wanted to visit the scene of Molly's death, she could come back that evening for the "Haunted Ghost Tour,"  which she did.  In the "stillness of  that night" Miles writes that she cannot say if she "felt Molly's presence," but she did feel a "kind of call," to 
"search for evidence of Molly's life in the archival rubble of urban slavery, to tell her story and redeem her spirit from the commericialized spectacle of bondage I had witnessed"
along with a pledge to "restore her memory and her dignity."  Afterwards, going through historical records, she discovered nothing at all to indicate that a woman named Molly had been owned by Sorrel; as she notes,  
"Although many young women like her surely existed in antebellum Savannah and the torturous rice plantations of the surrounding countryside, this Molly was not among them. Someone had concocted her story of racial and sexual exploitation as a titillating tourist attraction."
And now, she writes, she wanted to know why Molly was "invisible in the historical record and hypervisible on the Savanna ghost-tourism scene. " She also was left with a number of questions she felt needed answering: 
Why were ghost stories about African American slaves becoming popular in the region at all? And why were so many of these ghosts women? What themes prevailed in slave ghost stories, and what social and cultural meanings can we make of them? What 'product' was being bought and sold, enjoyed and consumed, in the contemporary commerical phenomenon of southern ghost tourism?"

Very briefly, because there is so much to this short but extremely complex study that I could never hope to capture here, the book begins with a look at the growth in popularity of the ghost tour, examining how haunted history has come to captivate audiences everywhere.  We live in an age in which "ghost lore has moved into myriad cultural forms" widely available on television and online; she quotes the editors of the book Popular Ghosts  who note that "we appear to live in an era that has reintroduced the vocabulary of ghosts and haunting into everyday life."    In the American South, as Miles notes, the "surge in haunting tales has taken on a particular cast, and often features spirits who are said to have been slaves."   

In her journey to find the answers to the questions posed above, the  author took part in several ghost tours in the South, and the book takes us through her experiences at three of these -- the Sorrel-Weed House in Savannah,  the New Orleans home of Delphine Lalaurie,  and The Myrtles Plantation in St. Francisville.      As the back-cover blurb reveals,  the guides of these tours, "frequently promoted and experienced at plantations, urban manor homes, and cemeteries throughout the South"  often rely on "stories of enslaved black specters,"  in which their
"haunted tales routinely appropriate and skew African American history to produce representations of slavery for commercial gain."
Professor Miles'  work highlights the commonalities which she discovers in each tour, discerning a particular, overall pattern while examining and analyzing the ways in which this industry appropriates a number of elements of African American culture.  These tours  borrow the experiences of enslaved people which are  "boiled down to an exotic essence, and sold for a price," while the "black history material" Miles encountered was  "romanticized or decontextualized."  While violence is part and parcel of the "signature tales" of these places, what is presented is done in such a way as to trivialize the actual brutality endured by enslaved peoples, especially women;  the tourists are offered "narratives that temper the history of slavery and race relations, assuage guilt, and feed fascination with the racialized other."  In this way history becomes sanitized, kept at a "safe" distance from the ghost-touring public.  The reality is though that far from a means of entertainment, the ghosts of enslaved peoples are "deadly serious messengers from another time that compel us to wrestle with the past,"  one that is "chained to colonialism, slavery, and patriarchy but a past that can nevertheless challenge and commission us to fight for justice in the present." 

 It is impossible to miss the author's passion for her subject;  writing it in the first person not only  highlighted that particular aspect of this book, but also made the reading less daunting than a regular textbook and more like I was actually along for the ride as she made her journey. Tales of the Haunted South is not only an important, interdisciplinary study,  it should be required reading for our time and absolutely should not be missed.  

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