Sunday, September 25, 2011

R.I.P. Group Read: Fragile Things 3

Going Wodwo

Bitter Grounds

Other People

Keepsakes and Treasures

from: Gaiman, Neil. Fragile Things. New York: William Morrow, 2006.

(Before we get started, I just want to draw your attention to this. If you've got an hour to kill -- I listened to it on my Smartphone while out walking one day -- I highly recommend it. It's terrific, and you'll get to hear Neil talk.)

If you had told me last week that I was going to encounter stories in this collection (which I'm reading for the R.I.P. Group Read) that I wouldn't like, I don't think I would have believed you. I now know I should have -- I think. You see, my problem is I can't say definitively that I didn't like those stories that I didn't, but boy, if I thought Closing Time made me uneasy (and, to tell the truth, the more I've read everyone else's reaction to that one the less I feel that way -- or the less I feel that the uneasiness is necessarily a bad thing), I was in for a bit of a shock. "Uneasy" doesn't begin to describe how I felt a good deal of the time this week. "Dirty" or "repulsed" might be better descriptions.

Still, this is Neil Gaiman we're talking about, so even when I'm repulsed, I can find redeeming qualities. Of course, it's only logical, given Gaiman's knowledge and use of fairy tales, that I turn into Beauty when faced with the beasts of his writing. I do have to wonder, though, if I were to read one of these stories in The New Yorker, say, and Gaiman had written it under a pseudonym, if I would be patient enough to try to redeem it. We'll never know, but I have a sneaky suspicion I might, because, unlike so much garbage put out these days that's meant to do nothing but shock and repulse, everything Gaiman writes does make me think.

So, here we go, my thoughts on this week's 4:

Going Wodwo
So far, we've gotten one poem each week, and this was it for week three. This was my favorite of the four pieces we read this week. Being big on nature and the color green, the Green Man is one of my favorite mythological characters (and if anyone's looking for a really good R.I.P read, you can't go wrong with Kingsley Amis's The Green Man, which is funny and over-the-top, and still scared me to death when I was reading it alone one night). I like the way Gaiman blended the notion of the Wodwo (a wild man of mythology) with the Green Man (a god-like figure usually represented by carving a man's face that looks like it's made out of leaves and branches). Of course, I wouldn't have known he'd done that if I hadn't read the Introduction and found out that this poem was written for a collection called The Green Man (which I now must find and read). I love this line,
...I'll stumble through the green
back to my roots and leaves and thorns
and shiver. (p. 83)
You can just see the wild man's face, all leaves and thorns and buds.

This one was also fun, because I recently read Game of Thrones. That book features gods whose faces are found in trees. They brought to mind the Green Man while I was reading.

Bitter Grounds
This is a zombie tale. I was never quite sure who was and who wasn't a zombie. I loved the connections Gaiman made here, though, between those of us who are basically "walking dead," emotionally, and zombies. It's a story that's confusing in the same way Closing Time was, and so I was left feeling a little uneasy again. Overall, however, I really liked it. Gaiman seems to like to use conferences as settings (my favorite is the serial killers conference in The Sandman comics), and the fact that he had an academic conference for anthropologists set in New Orleans was perfect. I've never been to New Orleans, but I'm sure that if I were to go, it would be very much the way Gaiman portrays it in this story -- full of odd characters and tourists and a feeling that something bad could happen to you, if you're not very careful, all covered in a light, supernatural blanket. Despite its being "The Big Easy," it might make me feel quite uneasy. That, as I noted above, is not necessarily a bad thing.

I have a question, though, before I leave my discussion of this one. Did Zora Neale Hurston really know F. Scott Fitzgerald and have any influence on The Great Gatsby? Wouldn't they have run in completely different circles? I can't figure out if it's true, or if Gaiman is playing with us and showing us how urban legends get spread: sometimes we believe facts that come merely from someone getting a name wrong.

Other People
This is the story I so want to hate, but I can't. It's extremely disturbing, but extremely disturbing in the way the movie A Clockwork Orange is disturbing. I still happen to think it's a great movie. I'm not sure I would describe this story as "great," but it may be close.

Part of the reason it's so disturbing is that I like to think of myself as someone who shies away from vengeance. Yet, while reading this story about a man who has to confront a demon who makes him confront all his demons, I found myself thinking, "Oh, yes. This is the sort of fate Hitler or Karl Rove ought to suffer -- people who think they're right and have it made and think only of themselves, while causing great suffering to others. They need to be introduced to their own personal hells." That's a disturbing thought for someone who likes to think that she rarely seeks revenge. Then again, it's easier to take if you read it that way, because what's also disturbing is that, even if you don't believe in hell as a place, which I don't, it's a difficult story to read without thinking, "What if?" Asking that question leads to, "Could this happen to me?" which, in turn, leads to "Don't all humans, in some way, deserve this for all the hurt and destruction they cause?" These questions are far more disturbing than discovering a hidden desire for vengeance.

Gaiman certainly knows how to tap into primal fears. These are not the sorts of fears I like to unleash. I'll take ghosts in a creepy house over a demon with a wall full of torture implements, a knowledge of all my faults, and thousands of years alone with me, thank you.

Keepsakes and Treasures
This one was like reading The Talented Mr. Ripley. As with that book, I felt like I needed a bath after reading it. How could I find myself sympathizing with such a despicable character, which our narrator certainly was? And yet, I did. I could understand why he murdered the people he did (well, except for that poor professor). I almost felt like saying, "Good for him." It takes talent to make a reader sympathize with a murderer. Still, despite the fact that the story has this classic line, "Heavens protect us from the dress sense of American academics." (p. 110) and that Gaiman wove his legendary Shahinai into a tale that, up until that point, was more British hard-boiled than dark fantasy, I don't think I liked it. True, those are redeeming qualities, but just not quite redeeming enough to get me past the despicable character with whom I've been sympathizing who eventually informs us that "his cup of tea" is pre-pubescent girls. I didn't need to know that, and the story would have been fine without the information, especially since we can't even be sure whether or not he's lying.

That's it for week 3. Let's hope week 4 is a little less disturbing.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

R.I.P. Group Read: Fragile Things 2

The Hidden Chamber

Forbidden Brides of the Faceless Slaves in the Secret House of the Night of Dread Desire

The Flints of Memory Lane

Closing Time

from: Gaiman, Neil. Fragile Things: Short Fictions and Wonders. New York: William Morrow, 2006.

Here we are already, the second week of Carl's R.I.P. group read. This time, because, while listening to the audiobook the first week, I'd found that hidden story in the Introduction a bit confusing, I decided to read the print versions first and then listen to Gaiman read them himself. Although I have, many times, started a book in audio form and then switched to print, I've never done what I'm doing with this one (both listened to and read the whole book during the same time period, although there are quite a few books that I read years ago and that I've enjoyed "rereading" recently in audiobook form). I'd highly recommend it, especially with a short story/poetry collection such as this one if you, like me, are not someone who typically reads either short stories or poems.

I like reading first and then listening better than listening and then reading. I've toyed with the idea of reading and listening simultaneously, but that seems like a waste of time, since I read more quickly than audiobooks do (although yea to Audible for now giving us the option of speeding up the reading), and I like to spend the time I'm listening to books doing something else like working out or folding laundry. I can't put my finger on why, but listening to the stories after reading them makes them come more alive somehow, and it provides me with the opportunity to think more about them and to pick up on things I missed while reading. Of course, as I noted in my first group read post, it helps if Neil Gaiman is doing the reading.

I did go back to the Introduction and read the brief descriptions of this poem and three short stories before I read each one. There was no way I could remember everything Gaiman had said about them without doing so. Those introductions to each one also help me pick up on things. I'm so glad he included them. And now, on to my thoughts on each one:

The Hidden Chamber
We turned to the gothic in this week's readings, and Gaiman explains that he's always thought the story of Bluebeard to be the most gothic. I'd never thought of that, but he's right (is Gaiman ever wrong?). This poem is his own variant on that tale, full of the gothic and also the modern and contemporary. Yes, there are ghosts and secret chambers and mystery and lacy shifts, and there's love and physical pain and heartache. How does he do it in a mere five stanzas? This second poem of his makes me wish Gaiman would publish a whole collection of poems. That says something, because I'm one of those who typically shies away from poetry.

Forbidden Brides of the Faceless Slaves in the Secret House of the Night of Dread Desire
This was the perfect companion to The Castle of Otranto, which I'm also reading right now for the R.I.P. challenge. You can tell Gaiman was having such fun with this story, and it's very funny, although not in a laugh-out-loud sort of way. He takes the gothic and stands it on its head. Or does he take reality and stand it on its head? You'll have to read it and decide for yourself. Listening to it, for some reason, I appreciated the brilliance of it more than I did reading it.

The Flints of Memory Lane
He plays with reality and story-telling in this one. I think we're meant to believe it's a true story, his one "real life ghost story." But is it? With Neil Gaiman you can never quite be sure. Still, it's creepy. It's the sort of thing that happens to a kid that scares him to death and that is forever told again and again at parties and in bars and to children of his own when they ask for a "real life ghost story." He does a wonderful job of telling the story the way the mind works, which is to say that it's not always linear, skipping around, adding details almost as afterthoughts. I loved this one.

Closing Time
This was my least favorite of the four, which was kind of sad, because it had originally been meant to be "an M.R. James-style ghost story" (I worship James), but he says the finished work owes more to the strange tales of Robert Aickman. I've never read Aickman, so I wouldn't know, but I found this one had less of the dream-like quality I've come to associate with Gaiman. It was cruder, and the ending was confusing, not in his typical imaginative way but in a way that didn't work for me. I'm not quite sure why, because Gaiman often writes as if he wants the reader to draw her own conclusions, but I didn't want him to do that this time. Maybe I just didn't like my own conclusions. Still, even the worst of Gaiman is better than most people's best, so I can't say I didn't like it, just that it was different, quite Stephen King-ish, actually (without, of course, drawing the conclusions for the reader the way King usually does).

There you have it. Now I'm off to read what others had to say.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Things THIS Wife Hopes Never to Hear Again

It's completely hopeless, I know. Hoping so often leads to hopelessness. Still, it would be so wonderful to wake up one day in Emily's Fantasyland. Much goes on in this wonderful land (most of it involving books in some way), and Bob is definitely there with me, saying all the wonderful things he often says to me. However, to make it a truly magical place, there are just a few things that in E.F. I never have to hear come out of his mouth. Here they are:

1. "We don't need to call anyone. That's so easy to fix. I can do it." This means I will be 92 years old and still living with some hideous inconvenience. Perhaps it involves keeping buckets of water by the toilet in order to be able to flush it properly. Or maybe there is a window in my study that can't ever be opened, or a burner on my stove that I can never use. Whatever it is, you see, he still hasn't fixed it, even though it would be "so easy." Either that, or the "easy fix" means, say, we have some extraordinarily huge (why are such things always huge and indiscreet?) black (and why are they always black?) pipe that snakes out of the side of the house, constantly threatening to trip unsuspecting guests who venture out after dark (which almost all do, because no one ever uses the front door).

2. "Have you seen my (oh, I don't know, binoculars, say)?" This question is never asked when I'm wandering aimlessly around the house with nothing better to do than to drop everything and look for whatever is being sought. No, most often, it's asked when I'm on the phone with someone I haven't seen/spoken to in months, or I'm busy trying to figure out exactly how to phrase some sentence I'm composing, or I'm lying on the couch or in bed, having just reached the page in which I'm going to find out who killed Professor Plum. No matter how explicitly I describe the exact location of his binoculars (and why the hell does he suddenly need his binoculars at 9:30 p.m. on a rainy Tuesday anyway?), I will be forced to put my friend on hold, abandon my perfect phrase, or put off finding out whodunit, in order to retrieve them from the latitudinal and longitudinal degrees I gave him, because he claims, "They're not there."

3. "How much did that/those cost?" followed by "That's way too much!" Actually, in Emily's Fantasyland, it's perfectly okay to hear "That's way too much!" if I've gone out and bought something like a computer or a camera, or any other number of things that he obsessively researches online. However, if I happen to have gone and bought a new teapot or curtains for the kitchen, I don't want to hear it. Last time I checked, he was neither a teapot nor a curtains expert, and I'm sure he would lose every time if he ever found himself a contestant on "The Price is Right" trying to guess the prices of such items.

4. "What are we having for dinner tonight?" There's no answer I can give to this question that doesn't inspire a response that infuriates me, most especially when the question is asked at 8:30 a.m. Please enlighten me: is there a female on the planet, barring those who work in the food industry or are juggling multiple kids with multiple evening activities, who thinks about dinner at 8:30 a.m.? At that hour, I'm typically thinking about getting another cup of coffee.

5. "Don't throw that away." Good God, why not? It's a friggin' crushed toothpaste box! I know. I know. There is some good, sound, economic and environmental reason not to toss it in the garbage, but I really, really don't want to hear it. I'm not about to collect 500 of them so we can get $1.00 off our next one and so that they can be used to make car engines.

6. "Tom said I'm (fill in the blank). Do you think I'm (fill in the blank)?" You know the proverbial female-to-male question, "Does this dress make me look fat?" This is the male-to-female version. It's a question that makes me wish I owned Harry Potter's invisibility cloak. My husband is far more self-aware than many people I know. Still, he's human, which means others sometimes see traits in him that he denies, and I do not want to be the one verifying what others see.

Stating the obvious here, but in Emily's Fantasyland, here's what I hear instead:

1. "Don't worry about that. I've called the plumber/electrician/contractor, etc., and he/she will be here tomorrow to fix it.

2. (After I've given the exact location of the missing item.) "Found it/them! You're right. That's exactly where it was/they were. Thanks!"

3. "Wow! You got those curtains and that teapot, and that's all you paid for them? You're a genius! I would've thought they'd cost much more than that."

4. Silence at 8:30 a.m. Around 5:30 p.m. or so, "Let's just have canned tomato soup, grilled cheese sandwiches, and banana splits for dinner tonight."

5. "Let's call one of those junk companies and have them haul away most of what's in the attic and the basement."

6. "Tom said I'm (fill in the blank). You know, now that I think about it, he may be right."

What about you? Are there things you wish you'd never hear your husband/wife say again?

Sunday, September 11, 2011

R.I.P. Group Read: Fragile Things

A Study in Emerald
The Fairy Reel
October in the Chair

from: Gaiman, Neil. Fragile Things: Short Fictions and Wonders. New York: William Morrow, 2006.

Plans are such fragile things, always ready to go up in smoke at the mere mention of a match strike. You see, I'd planned to pick up this book at the library Thursday evening when I was working. I thought things at work might even be slow enough that I'd get a chance to start reading the first four pieces in the book for Carl's R.I.P. group read before I even got it home. Mother Nature had other plans (and hers are almost always less fragile than mere human plans). She proceeded to drench Lancaster County, PA last week with so much rain that we had extensive flooding all around us. The library was closed. I couldn't pick up my book. I couldn't even be sure the library would be open on Friday in order for me to pick up the book (it was, but at the time, the forecast was for the rain and flood warnings to continue well into Friday).

Sometimes, however, when a fragile thing breaks, something even better comes of it. (The heart often breaks and then gets glued back together by something far better than the thing that broke it.) I didn't want to miss this weekend of reading and posting my thoughts, and yet, with all the flooding, I had no real hope of getting out and getting a copy of the book. Then, I remembered that I'd seen the audio version of it while re-shelving materials at the library and also that I have two unused credits sitting in my Audible account. I searched for it, discovered it was only one credit, and soon had it downloaded onto my phone.

Not only was the day saved, but it was saved in a beautiful way. You see, Neil Gaiman himself reads the audio version of this collection of stories and poems. If I didn't already have a huge reader's crush on Gaiman, this would certainly guarantee its birth. He reads it beautifully: dramatic without being overly so, inflection everywhere it should be and nowhere it shouldn't, perfect pacing, and, of course, he has a lovely accent (to an American ear, anyway). You may be thinking, "Well, of course he reads it perfectly. He wrote it." But, believe me, I've listened to plenty of audiobooks read by their authors, and nothing has ever come close to this. I highly recommend your getting a copy and listening, which is not to say that I didn't, once the flooding was all over, still pick up the print copy from the library. I'm such a reader, and Gaiman is such a writer, that, as much of a joy as it was to listen to him tell his tales, I wanted to "reread," so to speak, parts of it to make sure I hadn't missed anything.

Here's what I thought of the actual pieces:

I don't typically read Introductions before I've read a book, because I've learned the hard way that they can include spoilers. Sometimes what they include might not be considered spoilers to most, but are to me, because, basically, I like to come to a book for the first time knowing almost nothing about it, if I can. "Oh, it's about a woman who lives in New York," is the sort of description I want. But, we were assigned the Introduction, so, even though Gaiman tells us we should read these pieces in any order we choose, I decided to start with it (especially since it's much easier to "read" an audiobook straight through like that).

Like everything else he writes, Gaiman certainly knows what he's doing when it comes to writing an Introduction. First, he gives us a little bit of background for the collection, where he got the idea for it and how it evolved, even how the title changed and why. Then he addresses each piece with brief annotations of how they came to be. There isn't a single spoiler. What there is is plenty of enticement. As I listened, I found myself over and over thinking, "Ooo, that sounds great. I can't wait to read it." If I ever find myself having to write an Introduction to something, I'm going to use this as a model.

A Study in Emerald
Well, really, how can you go wrong with a story of Sherlock Holmes meets the world of H.P. Lovecraft as put together by Neil Gaiman? Need I say more? Well, I can say one more thing, which is that I really ought to reread Lovecraft some day.

The Fairy Reel
This is the first poem by Neil Gaiman I've ever read (barring any poetry that has crept its way into Sandman comics. I can't remember any off the top of my head, but I'm quite sure it's there, especially in the third collection Dream Country). I'll (hope to) entice you to read it with these first four lines,
If I were young, as I once was, and dreams
and death more distant then,
I wouldn't split my soul in two, and keep
half in the world of men. p.28

Gaiman basically tells us, when describing a different poem in the book, that he understands some of his readers don't like poetry, that we can skip the poems in his book. Then he produces a poem that's so perfect that he could probably convert a million high school students who insist they hate poetry, and he claims it's "not much of a poem, really, but enormous fun to read aloud."(xiii) To make it even better, let Gaiman read it aloud to you. I, for one, am eager to read all his poetry now.

October in the Chair
This was my favorite of what we read for this week's post. It was the jumping off point for what would eventually become The Graveyard Book, a book I loved, so it was fun for me to see how the short story evolved into the novel. I absolutely loved the way Gaiman characterizes the months of the year, was disappointed to leave them in order to "hear the story," but was just as enthralled with the story-within-the-story the minute it got going as I was with them. (That may not make sense, but I'm trying hard not to spoil it, knowing full well that I may already have said too much. Sorry, those of you for whom I should've just said, "It's a story about October sitting in a chair.") This story beautifully highlights Gaiman's unique imagination and the wonderful way he views the world (or other worlds, as the case may be). Gaiman dedicates this one to Ray Bradbury, and I can see why.

And now, on to next week's readings...

Thursday, September 08, 2011

R.I.P. Challenge Book One: The Expendable Man

Hughes, Dorothy. The Expendable Man. London: Persephone Books, 2006.

(This book was originally published in 1963. If you're unfamiliar with Persephone and are wondering what that odd design I've thrown in here up above is, Persephone covers all look exactly the same. The books are defined by the end papers, chosen to match the date and mood of each book, so I've put up the end paper here.)

It seems almost impossible to write about this book without giving spoilers, but I'm going to do my damnest to do so, because I know I won't read reviews that include spoilers, and I want you to read this review in the hopes that (more important than my review) it will inspire you to read the book. I want everyone to read it. Yes, it is that good. Even if you don't read mysteries/thrillers, you ought to read this one. The book is a prime example of why genre fiction shouldn't be "pooh-poohed" the way it so often is (not by you, I know, but by all those psuedo-intellectuals out there who take themselves so very seriously). Some pooh-poohing is okay (Mary Higgins Clark springs to mind, and maybe I'm being -- psuedointellectually -- unfair to her, but I read two of her books years ago and found them to be some of the most sloppily written and plotted works I've ever read), but please don't, as my sister Forsyth would say, throw the baby out and study the bath water.

I'd love to give you all the details that prove this book is much more than a mere thriller. Yet, if I give you too many, it will spoil an element of surprise that shouldn't be revealed to anyone until he or she has fallen into the book with no hope of escape before reaching the last page. Persephone, Class Act Publisher that it is, managed to provide enticing cover copy without any of those giveaway details, and so I (despite being anything but classy) will attempt to follow in Persphone's footsteps.

Let's begin this elusive discussion, then, with a quote from a friend of mine, who also just read the book: Promise me you'll NEVER PICK UP A HITCHHIKER. How appropriate it is to be reading a thriller for the R.I.P. challenge that involves a hitchhiker. After all, we ALL, even those who didn't, at age eleven, stay up all night telling hitchhiker ghost stories at slumber parties, know not to pick up hitchhikers. Dr. Hugh Densmore, intern at UCLA, certainly knows not to pick up hitchhikers. Nonetheless, the one he spots when he's driving from L.A. to Phoenix for his niece's wedding attracts his attention. He doesn't want to pick her up, knows he shouldn't, but she's so young. She reminds him of his own younger sisters, of how he wouldn't want them picked up by the wrong sort of driver, so he stops.

He stops, and his nightmare begins. I can't tell you why (put this book on your T.B.R. list, wait ten months, and maybe you'll forget why it's there and what I'm about to say), but this fateful "good deed" of his produces a brilliant commentary on race relations, class distinctions, and abortion rights. I'm not sure whether or not Hughes intended the latter, but it's there, and because she was writing in the U.S. in the 1960s, the punch she provides is more powerful than the one writers might provide after the fact (think John Irving and The Cider House Rules, especially since the abortionist in this book would make a great freshman English compare and contrast subject with Irving's Wilbur Larch).

I can tell you that Hugh's nightmare is typical of many a mystery (The Fugitive springs to mind here) when he finds himself accused of a murder he didn't commit. He makes many, many mistakes in trying to prove he's been framed, and I'm not quite sure why he makes some of the choices he does, but I suppose there wouldn't be much of a plot if he didn't. You could accuse Hughes of creating characters who suffer from being one dimensional, especially her cops, but no more so than many other brilliant authors of the genre. The point of these thrillers is plot, not knowing that the cops and bad guys go home and lovingly care for children or sick parents, thus proving how human and complicated they really are. What's important is how they are interacting with our protagonist and victim(s) to move the plot along. Hughes had a fine grasp of how that should work. One-dimensional characters are also useful when trying to make political points, which Hughes was clearly doing.

Although this book, on many levels, has a very masculine feel to it, one thing I liked about it that clearly distinguishes it from the male likes of Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and Ross Macdonald was the obligatory "beat up the protagonist" scene. If you're familiar with Chandler, Hammett, or Macdonald, you know perfectly well that Marlowe, Spade, and Archer can be beaten to a pulp (one eye swollen shut, a couple of fractured ribs, even be shot in the ankle or something) and still run 57 blocks, climbing a chain link fence to escape (or to catch) a bad guy. Here, we have a protagonist who gets beaten to a pulp and winds up in bed for a few days. When he does decide to pursue someone he thinks is a murderer, he needs drugs to pump himself up, and we are still reminded, throughout, that he's practically a cripple, wincing in pain with every opportunity. I call that a (feminine) realistic touch.

My one real gripe with the book is one that I often feel like writing a whole blog post about. When one of the Black characters wants to disguise the woman he's with and himself as shiftless and poor, he changes his own accent and asks her "Can you talk southern?" As if you have to be Southern in order to be shiftless and poor, and as if articulate, educated Blacks couldn't be found in the South. Yes, even in 1963, there were articulate, educated Blacks in the South (also articulate, educated Whites). Martin Luther King, Jr., after all, was Southern. The female character's response is even more absurd,

She shrugged. 'I've been told not too well, northern comes through. If I have to speak I'll stay with "Yes, suh: and "No, suh."' (p. 310)
As if some drunk white guy in Phoenix will be able to hear "northern coming through." Judging from what often passes as a Southern accent in Hollywood, I'd say most who aren't born and raised in the South can't hear that.

It's a testament to the book that this Southern stereotyping didn't annoy me as much as it often does. In fact, if you're not Southern, my guess is you won't even notice it when you read the book, and if you are, you may still be like me, ready to read more Hughes. And that's all I'm going to say. You'll have to read the book to find out whether or not he gets The Girl (yes, of course there's a Girl) and goes free to live happily ever after, or the Girl dumps him to go off with the lawyer who can't keep him from being thrown in jail.

Good stuff. Four stars.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Musings on Terror Reading

As I mentioned in my last post, Susan at You Can Never Have Too Many Books, asked some good questions recently about why those of us who read horror stories do so. I liked the questions and thought they'd be fun to answer, especially now that I've embarked on the R.I.P. Challenge, so I reached out a bony, skeletal hand over to her site and stole them to post on my own (with answers, of course). Here you go:

1. Why do I read horror/ghost stories?

I suppose one of the obvious answers to this question is that I'm a masochist? I mean, people like my mother and sisters have asked me since I was a teenager, "How can you read that stuff?" Obviously, many people don't enjoy being scared out of their wits, and to tell you the truth, I wouldn't paint myself out to be someone who does, because I'm such a chicken when it comes to so many things, but I can't remember a time when I didn't enjoy stories, books, television shows, and movies that sent shivers up and down my spine.

One of my favorite books when I was a kid was an old Scholastic Paperback called Strange But True. Most of the stories in it were quite forgettable, but there were two that really stood out for me. One was about a ghost ship that was sailing around with a frozen crew. The other was about a frightful man lugging a coffin on his back who later showed up on an elevator that the narrator chose not to take because "Coffin Man" was on it. The elevator malfunctioned, killing everyone on it. (That's how I remember it, anyway. That may not be what really happened. I haven't read the book since I was twelve or so, although I'd like to reread it).

About the same time I discovered that book, I also discovered Alfred Hitchcock's Three Investigators mystery series (which hardly anyone else has ever heard of). That series was to me what Nancy Drew was to almost every other girl I knew. I think I preferred it, because, like Scooby Doo (speaking of cartoons. I loved cartoons when they took on spooky themes. Anyone remember The Flintstones episode when that Addams Family type family moved in next door? That was my favorite!), these books tended to focus on mysteries that at first seemed to be supernatural in nature. Something ghoul-y-and-ghost-y-ish always spawned the three boys' investigations.

When I got older, I remember scaring myself to death reading The Amityville Horror, and then, of course, moving on to Stephen King. I always found the books scarier than the movies, because, as I'd say after seeing the movie, "That wasn't as scary as I imagined it when I read the book." In other words, I guess my imagination ran wilder while reading than it did while being presented with someone else's interpretation of events. The only exceptions here were the movies The Exorcist and The Shining, both of which pay excellent homage to the books and still scare the crap out of me.

Back in those days, it was very easy to send a chill up my spine while reading. These days, it's much much harder to do so. I read these books and stories now for two reasons: 1. I'm always hoping to come across something that does terrify me, that makes me feel the way I did when I was a kid reading Strange But True and 2. I like to write ghost stories myself, so I read them to see what others have written and for inspiration.

2. Do I like being thrilled?

Yes, I love to be thrilled. I'm a new-adventure-and-roller-coaster kind of gal. Or, at least, I like to think I am. Reality is that I love to be thrilled, unless I'm home all alone, it's late, and I've made the mistake of reading something like a collection of essays about serial killers. I hear a "thump" somewhere in the house (or was it on the front porch?), and then, well, I'm not too keen on being thrilled.

3. Do I like being scared, safely in the comfort of my own home?

Yes, but not when I'm alone. This is a bit of a problem for the sort of thrill-seeker I am, because I rarely ever get scared if I'm not alone. I might have a brief moment of chills up my spine while reading something macabre or thrilling, but all I have to do is go find someone else in another room (someone who's supposed to be there, I mean, not an intruder with a wicked grin and an ax raised above his skeletal face), and I'm fine. If I'm alone? Well, let's just say I've been known to lock doors and dive under covers hoping no one finds me.

4. Do I like the eerie frisson of chill running over my skin when I read a particularly scary line or scene?

Yes, I do like that sort of chill, as long as it doesn't last too long, and as long as it's only being inspired by reading/watching something and not by strange noises echoing throughout my house.

There you have it: I love to be scared out of my wits... maybe... sort of. Are any of the rest of you who read horror/thrillers as ambivalent as I apparently am?

Saturday, September 03, 2011

R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril Challenge VI

This blog seems to be dead, I post so rarely on it these days, so why not bring it back from the dead with this very appropriate challenge? I've been reading about Carl's R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril Challenge every year since I started this blog (2006. God. Can you believe it? No wonder it's dead. How old is too old for a blog?), but I've never bothered to join it. I didn't feel I needed to, because every October and November, I fill my reading time with tales of mystery, suspense, and the supernatural, and the R.I.P. challenge runs from September 1 through Halloween. September, when we've still got bright sunshiny days with highs in the 80s has always seemed a little too soon for me to focus my reading on the weird and spooky. This year, however, I've changed my mind for three reasons:

1. I joined Carl's Once Upon a Time Challenge for the first time this past spring and enjoyed it immensely. Even more impressive, it's a challenge I started and actually managed to finish.

2. Although I used to save all my supernatural reading for October and November, recently I've begun reading throughout the year, which has made me enjoy it more, somehow. Thus, reading ghost stories when it's 84 degrees and sunny outside doesn't seem as odd as it used to. Besides, this time of year, we still get thunderstorms, and everyone knows ghosts and demons abound when the skies are streaked with lightning and the house shakes with thunderous reverberations.

3. Last weekend, we had a hurricane here on the east coast of the U.S. It knocked out our power for 48 hours. You don't realize how very, very dark it is at night until all the power in your neighborhood is gone, you have to take the dog out before going to bed, and there's a cemetery behind your house. It made me realize why Victorians wrote such good ghost stories. When you have very little light, all kinds of sights (and sounds) could easily be mistaken for ghosts. All these thoughts, of course, made me want to pull out some ghost stories and read them.

Carl always kindly provides us with varying levels for his challenges, and I'm going to take on Peril the First, reading these four books (plus one to grow on, because I couldn't resist):

Dark Fantasy: Murder of Angels by Caitlin R. Kiernan. This is one that's been sitting on my shelves forever, bought on a trip to the Delaware shore the first summer we lived in Pennsylvania. It's actually the second in the Silk series, and I haven't read the first (Silk), but I'm hoping that won't matter, because I'm trying to read from my own shelves rather than buying anything new for this challenge. Thanks to Ms. Musings, I discovered Kiernan's Threshold about four years ago, I think, and I've been meaning to read something else by her ever since.

Gothic: The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole. I've read it, but it was so many, many years ago that I don't remember a thing about it, and I've been meaning to reread it, oh, for about five years now. If I'm going to read something Gothic for the challenge, why not read "the earliest and most influential of the Gothic novels." At least, that's what the back cover copy says. I have an old, old copy of this somewhere, but a few years ago, a friend of mine gave me a nice, shiny, new version published by O.U.P., so I'm going to read it.

Mystery: The Expendable Man by Dorothy B. Hughes, because not all horror has to be supernatural, and this one promises to be full of human horror. It's a Persephone book that's remained on my shelves unread for ages (Persephone books are so expensive for Americans that when one buys them, she has to save them for special occasions). It's another one that came highly recommended to me by Ms. Musings, so here it is.

Supernatural: The Penguin Book of Ghost Stories: From Elizabeth Gaskell to Ambrose Pierce edited by Michael Newton. My brother-in-law kindly picked this one up for me at Book Expo America back in 2010. I meant to read it last fall but never got around to it.

(One to Grow On) A Little Bit of Everything: A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness. I've been listening to the audiobook version of this one. It's a very, very long audiobook (3 parts at, and I've been listening to it for over a month now, because I basically only listen when I'm walking or doing house work, neither of which I've done in abundance since I started it. I'm dying for an excuse to write my thoughts on it, but I didn't want to give up reading other titles for the R.I.P. challenge, and, well, you know, I never get around to writing about the books I read unless I have a reason like the mystery book club or a challenge, so I just decided to tack it onto this challenge. I've got something like five more hours of listening, which means I'll probably be done with it this week.

I will also be joining Carl's group read of Neil Gaiman's Fragile Things, because I've been meaning to read Fragile Things practically since it was published. I don't own it but can easily get it from the library, so I won't have to buy it.

And I'll probably spend a good deal of November reading other spooky fare. It's a month that tends to have superb weather for such reading, and nothing much else to recommend it except my brother's birthday and my second favorite holiday (Halloween, of course, being my favorite) Thanksgiving. I've got tons and tons more on my shelves that I can read. That reminds me that Susan, over at You Can Never Have Too Many Books, recently asked some really interesting questions regarding reading for terror. Since this blog has only just come back to life, I need to keep feeding it, so I plan to address those in my next blog post. Until then, it looks like I've got some reading to do.