Two Great Novels or A Review of ORYX AND CRAKE by Margaret Atwood and PARABLE OF THE SOWER by Octavia E. Butler

When I finished Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, I knew I wanted to say a great deal about it.  I also knew I was incapable of expressing myself properly about it.  Now, over three years later, I’m still not sure I’m ready.  However, almost a year ago I read Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower.  While Butler’s novel is as overpowering as Atwood’s, reading it after Oryx and Crake enabled me to finally form some cohesive thoughts about both books.  While I’m far from certain I’m ready to write this review, I’ve decided it’s time to give it a try.  The reason is my initial jolt from reading Parable of the Sower has worn off enough for me to start making sense of the connection I first viscerally discerned between to two.  The rest of this piece will really just be attempts to elaborate one key point: Oryx and Crake and Parable of the Sower are both telling the same story.

Even though Butler’s book was published earlier, and I had been aware of it for many years, I read Atwood’s first and will discuss it first.  (There is, incidentally, some logic to that inherent in the focus of both books that may become apparent later on.)  Oryx and Crake is a remarkably easy book to read, considering two facts: first, it is a genuinely philosophical novel, asking questions one could spend a lifetime pondering and delving into them with clinical sharpness.  Second, its theme, the end of the human race, is as dark and grim as they come.  And yet Atwood’s narrative unfolds with a zesty joy, peppered with plenty of humor, one would associate more readily with an expertly crafted potboiler than an example of literary fiction.  Throughout the book, Atwood seamlessly integrates numerous bravura narrative flourishes that might look melodramatic (in the worst sense of the word) in the hands of a lesser writer.  Instead, they lead to the book becoming compulsively readable, almost narcotic in its effect.  To top all of this off, it is clear by the end of the novel that the pleasure Atwood gives by superimposing a colorful technique on top of a bleak and penetrating theme is actually a part of her overall plan.  In effect, it is a (devastatingly satirical) commentary on what Atwood herself is doing and the readers’ reactions to it.  (One warning: the ease with which all of this is accomplished and maintained is apt to cause feelings of despair in anyone who ever attempts to write.  Certainly the knowledge that I will NEVER be able to write anything like Atwood was probably the only downside of reading Oryx and Crake.)

Now that I’ve talked the book up enough what, more specifically than humanity’s fall, is it about?  Oryx and Crake begins some time after an apocalyptic event seems to have wiped out all but a few human beings.  The protagonist is the bedraggled Jimmy, one of the few survivors of the catastrophe.  Jimmy, who now calls himself “Snowman” when communicating with the new race poised to inherit the earth, is not just any sci-fi ‘last man.’  He has intimate knowledge of how the apocalypse came about.  However, he is not at all sure why it happened.  The novel chronicles his journey, both to find his way in the post-apocalyptic present and through his memories of the past to find a meaning for the horrific events he witnessed.

As Jimmy’s life story unfolds, we find out the society he lived in was already fairly grotesque before it was obliterated.  Government and civil society had become little more than jokes.  A clutch of powerful organizations (the word is too vague, but they are more than mere ‘corporations’) were sovereign in all but name, openly maintaining their own communities, schools, security forces and even systems of justice.  These organizations engaged in increasingly reckless scientific research, creating new species and toying with the very essence of life, without any supervision or regulation.  Their employees had become a new form of hereditary aristocracy (one Jimmy was born into), living in heavily guarded compounds and maintaining themselves as a higher order of being from those relegated to life in the filthy “pleeblands.”  Jimmy recalls his relationship with his parents, his growing friendship with Crake, a brilliant schoolmate who grows up to be a powerful geneticist, and his love for the enigmatic Oryx, a former prostitute who may or may not be two different people.

In Jack London’s dystopian novel The Iron Heel, the revolutionary protagonist speculates that when the ruling classes attained total control, their treatment of others would be reprehensible but their artistic achievements would be staggering.  To be sure, the character does not consider this any kind of excuse for cruelty, but simply a natural development for a culture freed from lower and middle class mores.  When I first read the London book as a teenager, that assertion seemed to make sense.  I’m not sure why I (or London, a staunch leftist) had such aesthetic faith in the rich and powerful.  Atwood’s depiction of the society Jimmy grows up in is a jolting rebuke to London’s notion, and it is ruthlessly convincing.  Art is presented as having largely ceased, replaced by crass indulgence of instincts.  Jimmy, who shows skill with language, is not drawn to literature, history, philosophy, etc. because such things are no longer really done in his world.  He discovers Shakespeare through an internet video of a woman reading from Macbeth on the toilet.  That is about as refined as the media available to him gets.  Most of the entertainment Jimmy and Crake partake of is ugly and decidedly un-erotic pornography, a good portion of it involving children.  There is also plenty of violence, much of it against animals.  Jimmy, Crake, and their class numbly gobble up such filth with the occasional burst of conscience quickly dying of neglect.

As an English teacher, one of the most painful sections of Oryx and Crake for me to read involved Jimmy’s time in college.  As a “word person,” there is no place for him at the most elite institutions.  He therefore ends up at the Martha Graham Academy.  Named for the forgotten (in the world of the novel) great dancer and choreographer, the school is depicted as a crumbling and neglected institution, pathetically attempting to justify its economic role by teaching advertising and propaganda.  Obviously, Oryx and Crake is a futuristic work.  However, anyone working in academia today who cares about art and language or believes in the importance of thought, will probably remember that sometimes the future is no further away than tomorrow.

The dystopian world Jimmy remembers is not one he has any illusions about, but growing up in such a ‘society,’ it is perhaps understandable that Jimmy lacks any meaningful perspective on his world.  Crake, on the other hand, is surprisingly clear-eyed.  I have sometimes read commentators describe Crake as a kind of mad scientist.  It’s perfectly acceptable as a quick description, but I don’t think it really holds up.  Crake is very far from mad.  His assessment of his world is honest and hard to dispute.  Despite being at the top of his society’s pyramid, he considers it an indefensible garbage dump.  His belief that such a world is not worth saving is arguable, but hardly incomprehensible or evidence of a disturbed mind.  Atwood piles on the horrors so skillfully that confronted with Crake’s ruthless judgement, the reader will probably have trouble coming up with even a muddled defense of human society.  It is right around this point that Atwood pulls the rug out from under us.  The scene goes by swiftly, but it’s an effective shock nonetheless.  Jimmy remembers when Crake took him on a trip into the pleeblands, the only time in the memory narrative that the characters venture outside the corporate compounds.  What Jimmy sees surprises him.  The passage deserves to be quoted in full:

“The pleebland inhabitants didn’t look like the mental deficients the Compounders were fond of depicting, or most of them didn’t.  After a while Jimmy began to relax, enjoy the experience.  There was so much to see – so much being hawked, so much being offered.  Neon slogans, billboards, ads everywhere.  And there were real tramps, real beggar women, just as in the old DVD musicals: Jimmy kept expecting them to kick up their battered bootsoles, break into song.  Real musicians on the street corners, real bands of street urchins.  Asymmetrics, deformities: the faces here were a far cry from the regularity of the Compounds.  There were even bad teeth.  He was gawking.”

While I was struck the first time I read this, it took me a while to realize the enormity of what Atwood was up to.  She is effectively invalidating her story.  The colorful, dramatic and satirically funny depiction of humanity’s pathetic decline, Jimmy’s baffled hand-wringing over it, Crake’s cold judgement of it, and our acceptance of at least some of those perceptions was built on a falsehood.  The whole time we were perceiving humanity through the lens of a tiny elite that considers its own members the only true humans.  The irony is they’ve so lost touch with any recognizable human feeling, it is they who ultimately became subhuman.  Life in the pleeblands is most certainly harsh and degrading, but it is still human life, in all its messy glory.  The people in the pleeblands never stopped living, working, or loving in the way human beings have since the very beginning.  The Compounders simply closed a curtain on this life and declared it contemptible, when it was they themselves who deserved contempt.  To bring this revelation to the reader by not portraying people, to establish the vitality of something through its absence, and to pull the whole thing off as a kind supreme practical joke is something I think only the greatest artists are capable of.

While the effect of Atwood’s daring narrative decision is magnificent, I did feel a pang of regret that Oryx and Crake never really took us into the pleeblands.  Luckily, another great writer already had.  While I know Atwood has written two sequels to Oryx and Crake, it is remarkable, and rather eerie, that most of her themes in this novel had been anticipated, but described from a radically different angle, by Octavia E. Butler in Parable of the Sower…published in 1993, exactly ten years before Atwood’s book.

Almost as soon as I started reading Butler’s novel, I was struck by the uncanny feeling that I had returned to the world of Oryx and Crake.  There was the environmental devastation, the dangerous experiments, the retreat of the “elite” into guarded and autonomous communities, and the crumbling of civil society.  The two novels could easily be seen as existing within the same fictional universe.

Despite this, Parable of the Sower could not be more different from Oryx and Crake.  Gone is the ornate, dazzling prose.  Butler’s use of words is literary austerity.  Her sentences are sharply wrought, precise, cold, and chiseled with the care of an ice sculpture.  However, while it may be less immediately beguiling than Atwood’s, Butler’s prose is no less beautiful and moving.  It is also completely appropriate to her fictional milieu.  While Oryx and Crake shows us the lives of those at the top of a disintegrating society, Parable of the Sower takes us out of the compounds and into the pleeblands to follow the lives of those surviving at the bottom.  As such, reading it after Atwood’s novel can have a surprisingly refreshing effect.  While Atwood’s avoidance of the lower levels of her fictional world was part of a brilliant satirical strategy, there is no denying that it makes that world unpleasantly cloistered, like a hothouse full of decaying flesh.  Stepping into the world of Parable of the Sower, with its familiarly human characters, feels like stepping into the open air and taking a deep breath.  Still, this strategy has its own downside since that fresh air is a blast of bone-chilling wind.

Only a few fictional works are likely to start with the level of darkness and despair present at the beginning of Parable of the Sower.  Lauren Olamina is a teenager, living in what would have once been a middle-class community.  Due to slow but steady societal breakdown, Lauren, her family and her neighbors spend every day fighting for survival.  The government has largely disappeared from view; police and emergency personnel charge for their services, and sometimes won’t even act when paid.  The only authorities still functioning normally are those set up to tax people and evict them from their homes if they fall behind on mortgage payments.  Everyone lives in fear of roving gangs of criminals and the murderous pyromaniacs addicted to new forms of narcotics.

Lauren’s father, a minister, has become the unofficial leader of his community.  He fights to get the neighbors to help each other, band together and plan for the future but frequently suffers setbacks due to selfishness among the locals.  Some who possess valued skills have decided to leave, putting their faith in the now independently-operating corporations, despite Reverend Olamina’s warnings about trusting such organizations.  Meanwhile, despite loving and admiring her father, Lauren has begun to lose faith in the Christian religion.  She also struggles with, and tries to hide, a biological mutation causing her to physically experience whatever is happening to anyone in her proximity.

Eventually, Lauren loses her family and most of her neighbors.  She and a few survivors begin a desperate quest for some safer ground.  As they travel, they are joined by others, creating a multi-ethnic community (Lauren is African American) in defiance of the rampant bigotry and tribalism that surrounds them.  Gradually, Lauren assumes a position of primacy within the group.  She also starts to refine and share Earthseed, the new belief system she has been writing about in journals.  It is centered around one simple premise: “God is Change.”

Reading the back cover of Parable of the Sower, one would probably get the impression (as I did) that is about the building of a new society, painful but ultimately triumphant.  That’s an understandable way to blurb the book but it fails to capture the maturity of Butler’s story.  There is no sense of a guarantee that Lauren’s new faith will succeed.  The possibility that the new community she leads will collapse or be destroyed is presented as somewhat more than likely.  None of this, however, stops Butler’s novel from being powerfully affirming.  Its affirmation is not the false kind of a Hollywood ending, but rather the tougher variety of genuine faith in people.  Whether or not Lauren wins, Butler shows us how the very fact that she, and others like her, can still dream of hope and rebirth is a kind of victory.  (It should be noted that Butler wrote a sequel to Parable of the Sower, and was planning another before her untimely death in 2006.)

In keeping with the lean world Parable of the Sower takes place in, Butler does not have her characters indulge in elaborate philosophical discourses.  They would hardly have time.  Still, like all human beings, they do wonder about the meaning of their existence.  Their discussions of these matters are marked by the urgency of survival and often feel far more relevant to a discussion of life’s ultimate meaning than the more esoteric arguments of the comfortable.  This is most apparent in the tremendous voice of Lauren, both in her theological development of Earthseed and in her more general musings about what she sees happening around her.  One particular passage, after her brother is brutally murdered, has haunted me ever since I first read it:

“If hyperempathy syndrome were a more common complaint, people couldn’t do such things. They could kill if they had to, and bear the pain of it or be destroyed by it. But if everyone could feel everyone else’s pain, who would torture? Who would cause anyone unnecessary pain? I’ve never thought of my problem as something that might do some good before, but the way things are, I think it would help. I wish I could give it to people. Failing that, I wish I could find other people who have it, and live among them. A biological conscience is better than no conscience at all.”

There is a reasonable objection that a “biological conscience” would really just be a form of coercion.  Nevertheless, Lauren’s (Butler’s) proposition is not one that can be lightly dismissed.  The novel’s willingness to ask questions like this instead of falling into philosophical cliches is part of its greatness, but its first glory is Butler’s characterization of her protagonist.  Lauren, steady but aware of her own weaknesses, primarily concerned with staying alive but conscious of her exceptional intellect, open to the fact that she is deathly afraid but still determined to be courageous and daring, is one of the most fascinating and appealing characters I have ever encountered in a novel.  Leaving her behind when finishing the book was a painful process for me.  Without becoming too grand, Butler is able to suggest to readers that they are being granted a privileged glimpse of a figure like the Buddha, Christ, or Muhammad long before she is encrusted by mythology and worship.

Beyond the striking similarities in fictional world-building, what really unites Parable of the Sower and Oryx and Crake is their humanism.  Both books convincingly argue (Atwood’s through deceptive satire, Butler’s through painstaking demonstration) that there is always a way back for human beings…as long as enough human beings survive to start the race’s journey home.  None of this is to gloss over the agony people cause each other but simply an assertion that the human race will never give up the struggle for something transcendent, will never give up on life, as long as it continues to exist.

That’s the catch, of course.  Even though people, led by figures like Lauren Olamina, will always seek to plant and grow anew, what’s to stop an above-it-all genius like Crake from deciding that “zero hour” has arrived?  While a single destructive figure like that is unlikely (although hardly impossible) it remains a potent symbol for our ability to lose touch with what makes us all so special.  And it doesn’t take much imagination to envision humanity being destroyed by nuclear war or ecological meltdown.  Knowing I belong to a species that produced these two great novels gives me a lot of hope, however.  May it never be “time to go” and may there always be another “acorn”!



ROB ROY by Sir Walter Scott


This review fulfills a very long-held desire of mine.  It has been my intention to become familiar with a work of Walter Scott since I was in high school.  As an opera and classical music fan since the age of twelve, I could hardly help colliding with Scott’s name, since his novels and poems were inspirations for many composers throughout the nineteenth century.  Literature being my first love, my interest was peaked.  I tried reading Scott’s novel The Bride of Lammermoor (the basis for Gaetano Donizetti’s opera Lucia di Lammermoor) and, as I recall, was actually enjoying it when I got sidetracked.  Until quite recently, I had a terrible habit of not finishing books.  It was even worse in my teens, so it doesn’t surprise me that this happened with The Bride of Lammermoor, Scott’s novels tending to be long and wordy.  My interest lay dormant, but never totally vanished.  In the last few years, I’ve become a fan of historical fiction and this rekindled my curiosity about Scott, who is regarded as one of the founders of the modern historical novel.  My original intention was to pick up The Bride of Lammermoor again, something I absolutely intend to do before long.  However, since I know Donizetti’s opera, I was already familiar with certain key plot points.  Salvatore Cammarano’s libretto is only loosely connected to Scott’s novel, but I still wanted my first full encounter with this author to be totally fresh.  When I came across a used copy of Rob Roy, it struck me as an ideal opportunity.  I know this has been a rather long preface, and I apologize for that.  It was intended as a slightly humorous tribute to Sir Walter, whose nearly endless introductions (often more than one for a single novel) are famous or infamous, depending on one’s point of view.  Just be thankful there is not, as there sometimes is in his work an “appendix to introduction”!  Now let us begin the review proper.  I am dividing it into two parts.  First, my thoughts on Rob Roy.  Second, my views on the fact that Sir Walter Scott, once hailed as one of the greatest authors in the English language, was practically banished from cultural memory, only to precariously return to its margins in recent years.


Rob Roy is often said to be two novels, somewhat awkwardly linked.  To be totally accurate, it is probably three or four stories, but there is one dividing line clearer than the others.  I enjoyed them both, although they each had their problems.  Both halves star Scott’s protagonist Francis Osbaldistone.  Francis promises to be an endearing figure but, despite narrating the action, he too often fades into the background.  There were times I wondered if Scott didn’t regret employing first person narration for some reason and sort of forgot it.  In the first half, Francis disobeys his merchant father and is essentially exiled to the north of England to live with his uncle.  Unlike Francis, the northern wing of the family is Catholic and Francis develops a complicated friendship with his distant relative, Diana Vernon.  Many critics and readers seem to fall in love with Diana.  She is appealingly drawn, especially for a female character in an 1817 novel.  She makes her own decisions, speaks her mind, and, far from being a damsel in distress, frequently seems to be more of an assertive rescuer.  However, I had trouble becoming attached to her since she is barely in the book!  Scott sketches her out well, then banishes her.  Eventually, she reappears but it struck me as too little, too late.  Many have faulted Scott’s characterizations as being rough and sloppy.  Francis and Diana confirm that idea all too well.

The second half shows Francis traveling even farther north into Walter Scott’s native Scotland to try and save his father’s imperiled business.  He ends up embroiled in the intrigue surrounding the 1715 Jacobite Rebellion, which attempted to restore the Catholic Stuart dynasty to the throne of Great Britain.  Throughout both halves, the outlaw Rob Roy MacGregor is a crucial but elusive presence in Francis’s adventures.  In contrast to the problems with Francis and Diana, I found Rob Roy himself to be very well-handled.  Apparently, it is often complained that he is a marginal figure in his own novel, but I thought Scott used Rob Roy’s remoteness brilliantly to emphasize the foreignness of Scotland.  In 1715, Scotland had not been fully Anglicized, and English visitors really were in a different country.  This is cleverly embodied by Rob Roy who, while largely benign and certainly supportive of Francis, remains someone the protagonist never fully understands.  A negative corollary is Rob Roy’s terrifying wife Helen MacGregor.  Her final appearance in the narrative is particularly chilling, despite being her least violent.  In it we see a woman, at the request of her husband, barely holding her contempt and rage in check.  Despite Helen’s evil, part of the problem lies with the well-meaning Francis’s inability to comprehend the damage English rule caused to many in Scotland.  Scott thus manages to explain the legitimate source of Helen’s anger without excusing her horrible actions.  As such, I found her a much more intriguing and formidable antagonist than the primary villain, Francis’s cartoonish cousin Rashleigh.

By some distance, however, the strongest character in the novel is Nicol Jarvie, a Glasgow merchant and distant relative of Rob Roy.  In outline, Jarvie would probably not sound very interesting to most readers, myself included.  A somewhat stuffy businessman, Jarvie is a respectable, law-abiding, pillar of his community.  While largely a comic figure, his sense of responsibility gives certain scenes a poignant quality.  Cleverly, Scott makes many of his actions at odds with his pompous speeches.  A good example is when he risks his life to accompany Francis into the Highlands, ostensibly for business reasons, but really because it is simply the right thing to do.  In his complex relationship with Rob Roy, the characterization of Jarvie demonstrates that, even when morality is tricky, it is always important.  Jarvie genuinely abhors his kinsman’s criminality, but understands that Rob is also a victim and doesn’t steal out of greed.  In his tenacious decency, Jarvie reminds me of Hank Hill from King of the Hill, one of my favorite TV shows.  For a while, you laugh at these characters’ Boy Scout do-gooding.  Eventually, you come to regret that there aren’t more people like them.

Like the characterizations, other aspects of Rob Roy have their ups and downs.  On the plus side, Scott evokes places like London, Glasgow, and the Highlands wonderfully.  The Glasgow scenes are as riveting as a spy thriller.  Of particular interest to modern readers are Scott’s comments on religion.  While a devout Protestant, Scott believed that people should be judged by their actions, not by their professions of faith.  (I understand these enlightened views are even more central in other Scott novels, particularly Ivanhoe and Old Mortality.)  Catholic and Protestant characters in Rob Roy are capable of both heroism and villainy.  Several months ago, I got into an online argument with someone who said that if any Muslims wanted to be exempted from what he chillingly called “judgement,” they would have to act fast.  In this political climate, Scott’s message from another time when people “just knew” that all members of certain faiths were dangerous, could not be more timely.

On the downside, this book is interminable!  I understand that traveling took quite a while in pre-industrial times, but the journey to Scotland just seems to go on and on.  You genuinely feel every last step.  Similarly, even when the dialogue is interesting enough, it frequently stretches to epic lengths.  There were times when a conversation ended that I had forgotten how the whole thing had started.  To make matters worse, there is a great deal of Scottish dialect.  I really don’t like the use of dialect in fiction.  It just usually seems to make things needlessly hard to follow.  With Scott, it comes off as less shticky than usual.  This is, after all, speech Scott knew well.  All the same, I could have done without most of it.


So should Sir Walter Scott, once a colossus of literature, be returned to his perch, or did he deserve his fall?  It’s a complex matter, and issues of personal taste will obviously be involved.  Some time ago, mimetic realism in literary fiction became a matter of paramount importance.  Fantasy, epic qualities, and theatricality became associated with popular fiction, or rebranded as avant-garde if the work was too good to ignore.  Scott himself foresaw this.  He admired his then little known contemporary Jane Austen, and famously lauded her Emma as embodying the future of the novel.  No egotist, he would probably shrug off his displacement, and perhaps that’s the best response.  There are obvious reasons why his work is no longer widely known, some of which I discussed earlier.  Still, I think something more might be said.  Just because realism became central to the literary establishment does not mean all readers agree.  I recall a conversation with a high school acquaintance about English class.  He thought all the books we read should be replaced with Stephen King novels.  I didn’t (and don’t) agree, but his feelings shouldn’t be waved away.  What did he find in King that he was not finding in the required reading?  There are obvious answers, of course, but I’m not sure we should stop there.  I fear sometimes that, by banishing certain techniques from the acceptable arsenal of literary authors, we have created a regrettable narrowness in fiction.  This drives certain readers away from anything they think might be “literary.”  It is worth remembering that it is possible for an author to want to fulfill higher ambitions with different kinds of tools.  It is even more important to recall that our reluctance to admit this is a relatively recent state of affairs.  Scott’s works and his reputation are fantastic reminders that literary views change, and that they are made by people, not etched in stone by aesthetic deities.  As for how I feel about Scott, based on Rob Roy, I’m not exactly a convert, but I definitely intend to read more.






The Cup of the Ptolemies, Part 8: SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES by Ray Bradbury

As the years pile on, I am sad to find myself less and less of a holiday person.  Independence Day is just a chance for everyone to get drunk.  Mother’s Day and Father’s Day just feel like inconvenient distractions.  Thanksgiving serves to emphasize one’s loneliness.  Christmas pushes that a bit further and adds a glum reminder of the joy one used to take in the end of the year, and how fresh and real that vanished joy feels compared to the murky complaints and regrets that have replaced it.  Don’t even get me started on New Year’s.  Everything I dislike about all the other holidays is present in that, magnified times ten.  My process is to barricade myself in my bedroom till it’s out of the way.  I say none of this with satisfied cynicism.  The holidays should be wonderful.  Yes, they have become far too materialistic and over-hyped, but I think they serve a vital role in society and in people’s lives, and I want to enjoy them.  I just can’t.

The one big exception to this for me is Halloween.  I have always loved Halloween and my affection never stops growing.  Of course, it’s not a real holiday and I think that’s part of its magic.  It really is more of an anti-holiday, not designed to celebrate some worthy (and therefore potentially cloying, hypocritical, or tedious) principle, but to fly in the face of decorum and order.  It is a day that encourages us to play tricks, to eat food that’s bad for us, to frighten each other.  It is reviled by many religious leaders and school officials.  While parents usually tolerate it, they are naturally uneasy about a day that seems to contradict much of what they fight to instill in their children.  For crying out loud, one of the pillars of Halloween is to stay out after dark!  So yes, I adore Halloween.  No disappointments in life can shake my love for this day of sanctioned heresy and madness.  I have often wondered if my passion for the horror genre came from my enjoyment of Halloween as a child, or if it was the other way round.  Either way, Halloween holds a very special place in my heart, as it did in the heart of Ray Bradbury.

I’m not sure why I’ve come to Bradbury’s work so late.  Growing up, I certainly knew of him, and immensely enjoyed one or two of his short stories.  However, it is only since graduate school that I have to come to really get into his work in depth.  I’m definitely overdue.  One of the reasons I’m coming to feel that Bradbury will remain a very important author for me is how central October and Halloween were to his work.  He associated them with some of the things he valued most: magic, wonder, and youth.  As such, they apparently turn up constantly in his works, sometimes in unexpected ways.  His seminal short story collection was titled The October Country.  The Martian Chronicles, one of my favorites, ends in October.  There are probably numerous other examples I am not familiar with yet.  Bradbury also wrote two major works focused closely on Halloween.  One is a young adult novel called The Halloween Tree, which I have not had the chance to read yet.  Then there is Something Wicked This Way Comes, which I acquired earlier in the year, and held  in reserve to make it my October read for 2015.

If one knows any of Bradbury’s work, there are certain things one will come to expect.  They are mostly present in Something Wicked This Way Comes.  First off, we have the lilting, almost bewitching prose style, the result (if I recall correctly) Bradbury said of reading poetry almost every day.  Next up, there is the feeling of nostalgia for times gone by, charmingly punctuated by moments of wry humor.  Finally, the reader gets plenty of warm celebrations of small towns (often represented, as in this novel, by the fictional Green Town), and affection for the young people growing up in them.  All of these virtues can be found in this story about a mysterious carnival that arrives in Green Town just in time for Halloween, bringing genuine mischief with it.

One familiar Bradbury trait not present in this novel is a fragmentary structure.  Bradbury often pieced together books slowly from short stories.  Many of his most famous works began life in this disconnected way.  Something Wicked This Way Comes, on the contrary, is a single, unified narrative.  Surprisingly, I think this works to its disadvantage at times.  Unusually for Bradbury, there are some passages that drag.  Much as it might infuriate creative writing teachers, I think the haphazard way Bradbury often brought his works together aided him as a writer.  It seemed to enable him to zero in on key moments of the story he wanted to tell in ways that endowed those moments with incredible power.  Walking through a traditional novel structure, Bradbury sometimes seems in a hurry to move on, and confused about where to place the emphasis.

None of this should imply that Something Wicked This Way Comes is a poor book.  It is easy to see why it is so beloved among Bradbury’s works.  I just feel it may not show him at his ABSOLUTE best.  That being said, there are passages that rank with his best.  My favorite is his description Green Town’s public library.  Bradbury was a great believer in libraries, and his passion makes a relatively brief chapter stand out beautifully.  It is also a great example of his ability to evoke things in just a few, almost casual lines of prose.  There are many writers that would (and probably even more that should) give anything for that power.  I should add, however, that Bradbury’s vision of libraries as places of quiet mystery and beautiful decay, places where much is left forgotten, only to be rediscovered and brought to wonderful new life by random seekers, is totally out of step with the present day’s lust for noise, efficiency, and convenience.  I have long been of the opinion that these fixations (along with money) constitute the only real religion of the modern age.  If you are such a devotee, you may be offended by Bradbury’s heathenism.  It just makes me love him all the more.

Another major plus is the character of Charles Halloway, father of one of the young protagonists.  Charles is a good reminder that, for all Bradbury’s nostalgia for youth, his worldview was more complex than a simple yearning for the past.  Charles copes with the aging he dreads in some appealing and fascinating ways.  Honestly, I think he would have made a better central character, but there is plenty of him throughout the novel.

At the risk of sounding disrespectful to a writer I’ve come to admire so much, I must record one last gripe.  While Halloween does form the background to the story (and there are some stunning descriptions of October weather), it is not really dwelt on that much in the story.  That’s not Bradbury’s fault.  It’s my fault for reading with too rigid an expectation.  All the same, I was disappointed.  I’ll absolutely have to read The Halloween Tree at some point soon.  Halloween is actually in the title of that one!





This mess develops when the economy is more important than starvation.  When childhood is dangling from a noose, and you are marching under the shadow, a machine.  What would you do with your life if you took money out of the equation?

In all likelihood, many readers will shrug their shoulders and smile cynically reading those lines (which come from the early part of this book) especially the last part.  More and more, I notice people (including many who really should know better) proudly declaring their lack of faith in any attempt at societal change.  Even worse, quite a few are outright contemptuous of the idea.  So be it, I suppose.  I just don’t want to hear any of them whining when their children don’t have enough to eat.  (That kind of vengeful bitterness is understood but rightly condemned in this poem, but I can’t help it coming out sometimes.)

Every day I tell myself I’m being foolish.  I remind myself of history, of all the disillusioned people who were proven wrong in the end.  But I can’t help myself.  I see moments that should be the start of a new era come and go, rushed out of view as fast as possible by the establishment and their servants in the media.  It feels to me like a door is slowly but surely closing, and we don’t have much time to get through it.  It might well take a revolution to get us through that door.  I don’t mean the ugly, violent events that characterized many of the revolutions of the past, but a new kind.  Perhaps the kind hinted at in this book.

Over the past few years, I’ve read and loved three other books of poetry by Jeremiah Walton.  The curious can find reviews on this blog.  #RuntRaccoonRevolution is very different, however.  It is not a collection but a single, powerful song of fear, love, and hope.  Building on personal experiences, Walton climbs to chilling insights:

The first sentient robot begs to be turned off

watching small graves dug for small coffins

his pleas are buried under the weight of development.

The ideas in this poem, like those in the above lines, are so compelling I sat down and read the whole thing in one sitting.  Anyone who knows me knows that is exceedingly rare.  A large number of passages captured things that have been floating around in my head for years:

peaceful protests waltzing within the permitted box for

change, love and heartache

Probably there are some readers who will find some of this overly harsh on modern life.  I would strongly disagree, but even if the thoughts are cutting at times, there is compassion all throughout:

we hamsters in balls are terrified.

mouths shaped like body bags

As all my quotes should show, the verse itself is beautiful, and as full of power as the ideas it carries.  Returning to my dark thoughts at the start of this review, I don’t know if we’re going to go through that door.  Walton seems to think so, but I feel more and more pessimistic with every missed opportunity.  If we do go through, it will be because millions of people start to feel the feelings, and think the thoughts expressed in #RuntRaccoonRevolution.  That would be really great.

The Cup of the Ptolemies, Part 7: THE OLD ENGLISH BARON by Clara Reeve

From a look at some criticism of this novel, amateur and professional, current and historical, many readers might dispute my including it as part of my series of horror reviews.  There seems to be a general sense of disappointment that this early Gothic novel skimps on the atmosphere that is generally expected in a work of that description.  I say, give it a break!  The form was still in its infancy and Reeve was trying something new.  Maybe what she tried isn’t to everyone’s taste, but it deserves to be judged on its own terms.

Personally, I found it a very compelling read.  Sure, there was a pang of disappointment when I noticed the lack of dark trappings to be found in Shelley’s Frankenstein or Lewis’s The Monk, but The Old English Baron goes its own way quite successfully.  Reeve’s plot is a page-turner (although the love story is a bit pallid), and her characters are interesting and fully fleshed out people, not just types.  Perhaps most intriguingly, the book functions as a genuine historical novel.  When I was reading The Monk (which I loved, don’t get me wrong), I frequently forgot it was set earlier than when it was written.  The historical setting was just window dressing.  Reeve manages to make her narrative truly live in the medieval era.

On a related note, The Old English Baron illuminated for me some links between genres that had previously been rather confusing.  Over the years, I’ve come across references to the Gothic form that seemed to connect it to the mystery genre.  As recently as the 1930s, you can find references to the Tod Browning directed version of Dracula that refer to it as a “mystery.”  I had always found all this somewhat puzzling.  Reading Reeve’s novel started to clear things up.  With just a few changes, The Old English Baron could function as a tightly constructed detective story.  It’s a shame Reeve did not live into the era of early mysteries.  She could easily have been one of the first giants of the form.

I suppose my connecting this book to mysteries and historical fiction will cause some groans from fellow horror fans.  There are ghost scenes in The Old English Baron, however.  No, there are not enough of them by our standards, and they’re a little low-key.  That being said, I still found them pretty darned spooky in their own way!

The Old English Baron has major historical interest for anyone who cares about the development of the Gothic.  On its own, it’s a fine novel.  At times, I found it slender, but only in the sense that I wanted more.  That’s pretty good for a novel over 200 years old.  As always, my advice is to read books for themselves, not for what they’re “supposed” to do.  The Old English Baron is more than worth reading for itself.

EROTICA by Brian Centrone

I’m going to be honest up front here. Books about sex are not really my thing. By that, I don’t mean that I don’t like it when sex and sexuality figure significantly in a story. They’re pretty major aspects of the human experience, after all. However, my interest tends to wane when there is little else going on. If you look at some previous reviews of mine, you’ll see that I’m not really into sex personally.  I even went on a rant of a review, defending Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey.  My thesis was that the book’s current critical neglect is due to the fact that Wilder was not an author concerned primarily with sexuality, and that this fact confused and irritated the sex-addled literary establishment.  I confess to being rather grouchy in that piece (it was a bad few weeks), but I still stand by much of it.  Therefore, you can imagine that a book titled Erotica would not be my cup of tea, and I avoided reading it for a while, despite my friendship with the author.  That was a mistake.  This is a stellar collection.

Readers should know that this is a book of gay, male erotica.  As a gay man, I suppose I am part of the target audience.  Despite this, I would argue Erotica is worth anyone’s time.  Centrone’s introduction, “Oops, I Didn’t Know I Couldn’t Write About Sex,” is worth it even if you have zero interest in erotica, gay or straight.  It is a magnificent essay, one of the best defenses of writing within a certain “genre” that I have ever read.  When I started writing this review, I wanted to include one quote from the introduction, but it’s awfully tough to pick just one part.  I’ll go with this, but be aware it was a painful choice: “There is more than one way to tell a story, and there is more than one type of story to tell.  If that story happens to get you off while reading it, well, then, good.”  I’ve been arguing, in conversation and writing, for years that the type of story should matter less than whether or not it’s a good story, worth telling.  In my humble opinion, Centrone has the last word on that subject.

By now, many readers are probably wondering if I’m going to talk at all about the stories (by which they mean the sex) or just babble about the intro.  Fair enough.  You don’t open a book of erotic stories primarily for the preface.  Since I don’t know much erotica, it would be wrong of me to claim it is better than your average erotic writing.  However, I’d bet good money that it is.  Remember, I’m not drawn to this type of writing and I could rarely put the book down.  Favorite pieces would have to include “Mates,” a bittersweet student reminiscence with masterful, sometimes heartbreaking dialogue.  I also loved the almost dreamlike mystery of “Boracay,” which contains some of the most sensuous writing in the book.  Perhaps even better is the quirky comic uplift of “Chubstr,” which will bring a smile to the face of anyone who has ever tried to navigate online dating and hookups.  Erotica is also a finely designed book, with a beautiful cover, frontispiece, and great artwork throughout by four artists.  I particularly admired the cartoons of Terry Blas, but all the art is top-notch.

The book does have its flaws.  “Getting What He Wants” is a bit of a by the numbers jock wet dream, albeit a very pleasant one indeed.  However, my chief complaint is more of a nitpick than a criticism.  By far my favorite story is “Lost.”  This piece will challenge what most readers expect of erotica by being a genuine period drama, set inside a tantalizing frame device.  One of the few erotic works I had read previously was Anais Nin’s novel Collages.  “Lost” more than matches Nin’s glittery off-kilter prose and puzzle box atmosphere, while adding humor and a touch of sadness which are all Centrone’s own.  So what’s my problem?  I felt the historical moments were just slightly short of period details.  One or two additions might have ramped up the deliriously wonderful fantasy.  That being said, these are minor issues with a story I found brimming with great characterizations, truly alluring sex, and a really arresting style that make it a full-blown masterpiece.

Unfortunately, the prejudices Centrone tries to dispel in his introduction are still strong.  Most readers who don’t take erotica seriously probably won’t read this.  Straight readers will think they have nothing to gain from a bunch of stories concerning gay sex.  Both assumptions are dead wrong, stupidly wrong, but likely to be prevalent.  Maybe, just maybe, my little review has intrigued a couple of reluctant readers.  If so, take it from me: read Erotica.  It might not make you love gay erotica in general, but this book and these stories are worth the attention of anyone who appreciates a well-told story with something real to say.

Let’s Hear a Play!, Part 4: A Review of LUCIUS JUNIUS BRUTUS by Nathaniel Lee

For quite a long time now, writers have been unable to stay away from Rome. I don’t necessarily mean the actual city (although it’s pretty enticing itself) but the Roman State, whether in its royal, republican, or imperial phases just seems irresistible to the human imagination. This goes beyond art. When the last shred of the Empire fell to the Ottoman Turks, Sultan Mehmed II added “Emperor of Rome” to his titles. The actual city of Rome would never be in Turkish hands and had not been part of the “Roman” Empire for ages. Obviously, the title was just too good for the Sultan to pass up. To this day, Russia uses the heraldry it took from the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) Empire, a symbol of now only dimly remembered claims that Orthodox Christian Moscow was the third Rome. The first had fallen into (Catholic) heresy, while the second, Constantinople, had been conquered by the Muslim Turks. Few people ever saw Russia as a continuation of Ancient Rome, but the claim was clearly the ultimate geopolitical ego booster. Well over 500 years since the last true emperor died fighting in Constantinople, the influence of Rome continues to be felt in numerous ways.

I must admit, while Ancient Greece is usually seen as the richer civilization, I’ve always been an Ancient Rome junky.  Something about its bravado and grandeur almost always captivates me.  Be it a play, opera, novel or film, if it takes me back to Rome I’m usually up for it.  However, I’m a bit less familiar with the semi-mythical foundation of the Roman Republic.  The only specific work about that event I had previously read was Shakespeare’s narrative poem The Rape of Lucrece, which I’ve reviewed elsewhere on this blog.  I am a devout Shakespearean, but not a blind one.  When I tell people I’d have to be paid to read that poem again, they often assume I’m joking.  I am not.  Unlike his great play Julius Caesar and its even greater sequel Antony and Cleopatra, The Rape of Lucrece struck me as dull and interminable.  Still, the story of the expulsion of the Tarquins is a powerful one.  It’s too bad Shakespeare didn’t use it as the basis for a stage work.  Still, while this tragedy by Restoration dramatist Nathaniel Lee doesn’t rise to Shakespearean heights, it is a startlingly fine piece.

Nathaniel Lee is largely forgotten today.  Over the years, I’ve come across several mentions of him in literary reference books.  He is usually considered an interesting but unfulfilled artist.  If Lucius Junius Brutus is the work of an unfulfilled talent, world drama really missed out.  I saw no sign of flawed structure or unrestrained emotionalism, flaws often attributed to Lee.  I wonder if critics and commentators were overly influenced by his apparent struggles with mental illness.  The word “frantic” frequently seems to be applied to Lee’s writing.  To be sure, Lucius Junius Brutus is one of the more intense old plays I have ever read.  The blood definitely runs hot all throughout, but it always feels under Lee’s control, subservient to his purposes.

Those purposes, as scholar John Loftis lucidly explains in his Regents Restoration Drama series edition, were explicitly political.  Lee’s tragedy was actually banned from the London stage as a result.  One might reasonably imagine that this would limit the modern appeal of Lucius Junius Brutus.  On the contrary, while the sense that this story has deeper meanings pervades the play, Lee wisely makes the issues more timeless.  Audiences and readers today could easily catch the themes of faith versus justice, family versus country, and love versus loyalty without knowing anything about the conflict between Whigs and Torries that preoccupied Lee and his contemporaries.

In aesthetic terms, anyone familiar with Shakespeare’s mature tragedies will recognize them as Lee’s models.  Saying that he doesn’t measure up is true but rather beside the point.  By following Shakespeare’s blueprint, Lee guarantees a vital drama full of vivid characters.  The only real flaw is not that Lee does anything particularly wrong, but that he only does one thing.  Loftis states, with total accuracy: “His characters are often at the top of their voices.”  Lucius Junius Brutus often feels like a collection of Shakespeare’s heavier scenes.  By “heavier” I mean the big dramatic moments in the tragedies when the plot is moved forward.  Shakespeare did these superbly, and Lee is no slouch himself.  What’s missing in Lee are the quirkier moments, the scenes of philosophical depth and incongruous tragicomedy.  These are the moments that only a writer of the highest level would risk.

That being said, on his own terms Lee succeeds wonderfully.  The lovers Titus and Teraminta are genuinely sympathetic and Titus, one of Brutus’ sons, grows into a movingly tragic figure. Another of Brutus’ sons, Tiberius, is an effectively snarling villain.  The wicked Roman priests, in league with the tyrannical royal family, feel more than a little like figures of proto-gothic horror.  Lee provides them with a chilling showpiece, full of sinister incantations and blood-curdling sacrifices, that could be a real knockout if done well today.  (The scenes with the priests have an anti-catholic purpose, but that could be easily muted by modern performances.)  While the play is mostly dead serious, there are some solid moments of comedy provided by the roguish Vinditius.  It’s a shame Lee hurries through these parts.  All throughout, the action is supported by Lee’s evocative and memorable verse.

It is in the finale that Lee attains his most notable achievements.  The full title of the play is Lucius Junius Brutus; Father of His Country.  The price Brutus pays for that subtitle is a terrible one.  To his enormous credit as an artist, Lee sidesteps telling us what he thinks of the swap, although the celebratory last lines ring conspicuously hollow.  Some will find the price worth it.  I felt sick to my stomach.  Lee raised questions that must be answered, but left finding the answers to us.  That’s a big part of what makes a true tragedy.



THE FIFTH BEATLE: THE BRIAN EPSTEIN STORY Written by Vivek J. Tiwary, Art by Andrew C. Robinson with Kyle Baker

Plenty of people are into art.  A good many adore artists.  Occasionally, tribute is paid to someone (frequently a spouse or lover) who inspires an artist, the “muse” figure.  So far, so chic.  But does anyone ever celebrate the people who brought the artists coffee, or the ones who kept the house livable?  Not significant enough?  Fair enough, even if I disagree.  But it would be hard to say that about someone who paid the bills, or someone who took care of the daily logistics, making it possible for the artist to focus on creation.  Unfortunately, most people are happy to enjoy finished artistic products without sparing so much as a thought for those who devote their lives to aiding and encouraging the often difficult creators of those products.  When it comes to collaborative forms like cinema, music, and theater, this attitude becomes fairly preposterous.  A theater buff I know once scoffed at the idea that theaters needed money to stay afloat when a beloved local troupe asked for donations.  Another time, I told a movie lover something I’d read about the agent and producer Paul Kohner, a man who quietly helped guide and shape numerous brilliant careers in Hollywood.  Kohner’s decades of work on behalf of filmmakers was sneeringly dismissed as “business stuff.”

To some extent, this makes a brutal kind of sense.  Most of these unsung figures are genuinely passionate about the art they support, so they accept anonymity, and even abuse, with good enough grace.  In the early twentieth century, the music loving banker Otto Kahn helped push the Metropolitan Opera to new heights as chairman of its board.  Despite his achievements, Kahn, being a Jew, was forbidden from owning a boxed seat in the opera house he loved and led.  Kahn was content, fulfilled by his work and cheerfully enjoying the show with the rest of the audience in the orchestra seats.  I guess I’m not as big a man because I find this kind of thing, and the attitude I described earlier, nauseating.  It may be inevitable that people like Kahn and Kohner are ignored but that doesn’t mean it’s right.  That is why I was so taken by The Fifth Beatle, despite my lack of any particular interest in the Fab Four.  This fascinating (and often gorgeous) graphic novel attempts to shine a light on one of these shadowy artist’s aides, the Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein.

Whatever one thinks of their music, it cannot be denied that the Beatles were extraordinarily talented and a cultural phenomenon, changing the face of music forever.  It could be argued that ever since the Beatles, pop culture has been engaged in a futile attempt to replicate the band’s glory.  For better or worse, that’s really something.  And a good deal of that might never have been without Epstein.  The Beatles were local celebrities in Liverpool where Epstein managed his family’s chain of music stores.  After seeing them perform, he was captivated and determined to help them get where he believed they were destined to go.  Many of the iconic moments in the band’s early years of global fame were orchestrated by Epstein and the Beatles did not long survive his sudden death in 1967.  One of the intriguing things about behind the scenes figures like Epstein is that they often lived lives as dramatic as the artists they served.  Epstein was no exception and, unfortunately, his life was a tragedy.  He was a deeply closeted gay man and, like far too many LGBT people of his day, ended up emotionally crippled.  To make matters worse, Epstein’s family was Jewish and he constantly faced the ingrained anti-semitism of British society.  All of this ultimately broke him, and he self-medicated to keep his pain at bay, dying of an overdose at the shockingly young age of 32.

Readers of this book should be aware that, as my summary above indicates, Epstein is the focus, not his legendary clients.  Anyone looking for Beatles trivia is going to be sorely disappointed.  In a gutsy move, the authors of The Fifth Beatle make some of the most famous musicians of all time background figures in the narrative.  John Lennon could be called a major supporting player, and Paul McCartney has some important moments but, otherwise, the focus is squarely on Brian Epstein.  And yet even that does not adequately explain the strange, at times perplexing, choices made in this book.  The focus is not just on Epstein, but on his inner life.  Numerous events he was involved in, and even central to, are ignored or barely touched upon.  For example, Epstein was responsible for the (in)famous firing of Pete Best, but that is not even covered in The Fifth Beatle.  Ringo Starr simply appears at one point.  I can only assume that, while he cared about these moments, Epstein was not emotionally entangled in them.  While some readers might be baffled, I felt this made the book far fresher than a standard bio could ever hope to be.  Tiwary’s pared down but eloquent text, Robinson’s evocative paintings, and Baker’s eye-popping cartoons (the trip to the Philippines is quite a treat) combine to put us inside Epstein’s gifted, troubled mind.  It took real courage to go this (potentially less accessible) route, and the authors pull it off wonderfully.

Another great aspect of The Fifth Beatle is that it is emphatically not the story of the martyr Brian Epstein and the ungrateful Beatles.  Epstein, the Beatles’ self-described number one fan, would probably cringe at such a thought.  The Beatles are shown as loving and appreciative of “Eppy.”  A charming moment early on suggests the group took up his offer to manage them to get their hands on free records from the Epstein store.  The final, almost wordless image, of the band in India being informed of their manager’s death is heartbreaking.  A cursory internet search will reveal far more negative things about the Beatles (especially Lennon) than what is found in this book.  Also, while it not dwelt upon, Epstein’s unethical business practices are not whitewashed.  It seems likely that Epstein was quite decent, especially by the standards of the music industry he moved in, but he was no angel.  The Fifth Beatle is dedicated to illuminating and even celebrating his life, but there is no deification going on here.  Again, I find this a commendably mature decision.  It would have been easy to turn Epstein into some sort of pure knight in shining armor.  That would probably have been more commercially viable.  The fact that Tiwary, Robinson, and Baker refused to do so earns them tremendous credit in my book.

All the same, there are some things in this book that left me scratching my head in confusion and, sometimes, outright annoyance.  While I respect the decision to limit the focus to Epstein’s emotional life, that does mean we miss out on others’ views of him.  Some quick research revealed the fact that much of the band went through a period of mixed feelings about him.  George Harrison and Paul McCartney would make sharply critical comments on Epstein.  Both, especially McCartney, would later strongly reassert their affection for him.  Lennon issued several statements, alternately glowing and dismissive.  Understandable when one reads that Lennon also compared his friendship with Epstein to an unconsummated love affair!  I was fascinated to find out that the one Beatle who has never had anything bad to say about Epstein is the frequently mocked Ringo Starr.  The unkind might say that is because Starr was not intimately involved in the group’s inner workings.  Others might wonder if Starr is just less arrogant than his former colleagues.  (If I sounded catty there, I should explain that I have as much patience for “the one band member everyone hates” narratives as I have for ferocious sports rivalries: none.)  Bottom line, all of this could have had a place in The Fifth Beatle but we get none of it.  Starr barely has any dialogue and Harrison doesn’t have much more.  At times this made the book just a bit too elliptical for its own good.  In fact, a number of points needed further elaboration.  In an afterward, Tiwary states that everything in the book is true, then cheekily implies otherwise.  I found this most infuriating when it came to Epstein’s loyal secretary Moxie.  Some online sources state that she is only partially based on a real person.  Tiwary seems to hint at a deeper purpose in her presence, imagining that readers might wonder “who, or what” she is.  Considering how central Moxie is to the narrative, how movingly her love for Epstein is depicted, this is a questionable place to be so ambiguous.  Perhaps I’m just a little dense, but I wanted more detail.  Epstein’s encounters with Ed Sullivan and Colonel Tom Parker (Elvis Presley’s manager), were also sections that left me cold, to varying degrees.  Parker (whose actual relationship with Epstein seems to be a matter of some dispute) is caricatured as some kind of bloodthirsty demon.  From what I’ve read, Parker was a pretty dark figure, but the characterization seemed a bit simplistic.  Sullivan is shown using a ventriloquist’s dummy to represent TV network executives during negotiations with Epstein, which Tiwary insists really happened in the afterward, only to undercut that statement in a footnote.  To be frank, I didn’t get it.  Are we to assume that Sullivan was incredibly influential?  If so, that’s hardly a revelation, and it could have been established in a more subtle way.  The authors also clearly see this meeting as sinister, but I couldn’t see what was so creepy about the network’s skepticism of the then untested Beatles.  Smaller quibbles I had included the depiction of Epstein’s supportive family.  They were lovingly portrayed early in the book, then largely vanished, despite Epstein having remained close to them to the end of his life.  On that note, The Fifth Beatle begins just before Epstein first met the Beatles.  A few pages about growing up Jewish and gay in Liverpool in the 1930s and 1940s might well have made powerful, albeit depressing, reading.

Honestly, while I really liked The Fifth Beatle, I often wished I could have the same enthusiasm for the music Epstein loved so much.  But, as an avowed classical music fan who finds much of pop culture an annoying blight, I could only drum up so much excitement for the objects of Epstein’s affection.  However, what makes this book so great is that it isn’t really about the objects, it’s about the affection.  That was something I had no problem being enthralled by.  The look on Brian Epstein’s face when he first sees the Beatles perform is something any lover of art should recognize and honor.  That he managed to go beyond that look and, despite his tragically short life, put his love to work in service of the music that inspired him and gave him such joy, is simply miraculous.  For this, in spite of the great pain he suffered, I found myself envying him.  He’ll never be as big as the Beatles, nor should he be.  He does, however, deserve a brief but hearty curtain call.  Whatever its flaws (which are easily outweighed by its virtues), The Fifth Beatle goes a long way towards providing that.  And for that, and on behalf of all those who ever faithfully waited backstage, I say “Bravo!”



The Cup of the Ptolemies, Part 6: THE KING IN YELLOW by Robert W. Chambers

Just for the record, I’ve known about this book for a long time.  I say that as a snobbish attempt to make readers believe that I was not inspired to read The King in Yellow by its recent surge to prominence via True Detective, which I haven’t seen but would like to.  As a matter of fact, I almost bought this book in 2009 or 2010 at a used book sale in Brooklyn.  Had I done that, I might have a better shot at convincing people my interest in Chambers’ puzzling little volume had nothing to do with True Detective since that show did not exist till 2014!  Truth be told, while I have indeed known about The King in Yellow and its influence on weird fiction since I was a teenager, I probably wouldn’t have read it recently were it not for True Detective.  Yes, I jumped on a current trend.  Happy now?

In any event, I have read the book and, frankly, I found little in it.  As a matter of fact, I think that much of its influence is more of a testament to the creativity of the influenced than it is a credit to Mr. Chambers.  H. P. Lovecraft may have been inspired by aspects of The King in Yellow but only in the sense that Shakespeare drew fire from Arthur Brooke.  Intriguingly, the mythological elements of The King in Yellow that have captivated many do not even originate with Chambers.  He borrowed them from the great Ambrose Bierce.  Of the three Bierce stories Chambers used, I’ve only read “An Inhabitant of Carcosa.”  It is of a stature Chambers never even comes close to scaling.  Also, horror fans should be aware that only the first half this book is part of that genre.

To be fair, there is good stuff in The King in Yellow.  The first four stories (which are firmly connected to each other despite being stand-alone narratives) are worth reading.  “The Repairer of Reputations” and, especially, “The Yellow Sign” are the most famous.  They’re quite good but I preferred the beautiful creepiness of “The Mask” and the mysterious mounting dread of “In the Court of the Dragon.”  (That last story is probably my favorite in the book.  Curiously, the prestigious weird fiction scholar S. T. Joshi never mentions it in his comprehensive introduction to the Barnes & Noble edition I read.  Otherwise, Joshi’s introduction is great and quite enlightening, although I often felt he was straining to endow Chambers with significance.)  Still, while these stories are decent, I would class them as solid “Bs” of horror fiction, nothing more.  And after the first four, things are hit and miss, with an emphasis on miss.  “The Demoiselle D’Ys,” which is loosely related to the earlier tales, is a romantic ghost story.  It’s charming in some ways, but is damaged by being several pages too long, something Chambers clearly had a serious problem with.  “The Prophet’s Paradise” is a collection of unremarkable prose poems.  My interest perked up with “The Street of the Four Winds,” a (refreshingly short) love story containing a startlingly grim twist.  Unfortunately, I then had to plow through “The Street of the First Shell,” “The Street of Our Lady of the Fields,” and “Rue Barree.”  All three are romances, and “The Street of the First Shell” doubles as a war story.  I like to be a charitable reviewer, but I found these three pieces to be dull, hackneyed, and agonizingly long.

The King in Yellow has many attributes that should have captivated me.  Chambers provides a decadent, fin de siecle atmosphere.  Also, much of the book is fragmented but with some of the parts connected to each other.  However, while I love these things, I only love them when they’re done well.  Chambers sometimes does them passably.  The rest of the time he does average or worse.  Bottom line, The King in Yellow is worth it for horror fans, mainly because of its historically important borrowings from Bierce and influence on Lovecraft and others.  The book itself might strike another reader’s fancy more than it did mine.  But I’m sticking with Bierce and Lovecraft.  Especially Lovecraft.


For some reason, I have a strong attraction to the novel that’s not quite a novel.  No offense is meant to the regular kind, but I get especially giddy when I read something described as “kind of a novel, kind of a collection of short stories, etc.”  It just seems to me that writers are often liberated by going this route.  The sustained narrative, for all of its virtues, can be something of a brick tied around the ankle.

However, in this book Ray Bradbury may have taken things to the extreme!  The Martian Chronicles is a work that is so scattered it’s hard to argue with critic Robert Plank’s judgement that it “is not a book.”  Famously inspired by Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, Bradbury would later use the French term “pensees” to describe The Martian Chronicles.  He was probably thinking of the philosopher Blaise Pascal’s famous work with that word as its title.  The word means “thoughts” and Bradbury seems to have thought of the chronicles as just that.  It provided a loose framework he could use when he had certain feelings and ideas he wanted to explore.  While the book was first published in 1950, several of the tales had already appeared in pulp magazines.  In fact, the work’s origins go back even further, to an uncollected story in Bradbury’s 1939 self-published “zine” Futuria Fantasia.  Several other Martian tales were never collected in any edition of the book.  Some appear in other books by Bradbury, most notably The Illustrated Man.  A good number remain unpublished.  Bradbury would fiddle incessantly with the book version, adding and subtracting stories, changing the chronology, until 1997.  Even this final version did not have the feel of a “deathbed edition.”  It seemed more like Bradbury simply felt he’d finally fiddled enough.

While all of this can drive even the casual scholar to tears, it might also convey a false impression of disconnectedness.  The Martian Chronicles may not be a book, in the traditional sense of the word, but it is a unified work.  What holds it together is Bradbury’s clear-eyed but glowing faith in humanity and its potential. To return to the Pascal term, it is my understanding that the philosopher’s work was largely a defense of the Christian religion.  It is quite telling that Bradbury would use a word with religious connotations to describe the chronicles.  Essentially, this book is a defense of the human race, and an expression of faith in it.  It is crucial to understand, however that Bradbury’s faith is in humanity; it is emphatically not in human civilization.

A participant in a group discussion I led about The Martian Chronicles stated that she felt Bradbury was, more than anything else, a moralist.  I think that is completely accurate, and it is what lies behind Bradbury’s lack of interest in civilization.  Civilization, and all its accomplishments, is built by humanity.  It must serve humanity.  The moment the situation reverses itself, civilization becomes an empty shell and humanity is imperiled.  To that end, Bradbury made The Martian Chronicles a post-apocalyptic work.  In pieces like “The Taxpayer” and “There Will Come Soft Rains,” he depicts human constructs speeding towards oblivion.  Yet he does so with a kind of serene calm.  These constructs are not the human spirit.  As long as intelligent life survives, that spirit will endure and, one day, rebuild.  I used the term “intelligent life” in the last sentence because Bradbury’s definition of “humanity” is a broad one.  “The Long Years” shows the transformation of artificial life into true humanity.  Nothing miraculous happens.  It is simply the power of love and the ability to connect.  The native Martians, while they make a limited number of appearances, are as “human” as those who come from earth.  They help remind clergymen of the true essence of Christianity in “The Fire Balloons,” a story notable for the touching sincerity of its religious belief and its subtle critique of dogmatism.  On a darker note, in “The Off Season,” the Martians regally gloat over the foolishness of the decimated human race that had once imperiously displaced them.

The sharpness present in “The Off Season” is part of why The Martian Chronicles is such a masterful work.  Bradbury’s exaltation of humanity is all well and good, but any intelligent person should know there is plenty in humanity not worth celebrating.  Bradbury knew this too, confronted it head on, and emerged with his faith all the stronger for the challenge.  A major clue that Bradbury’s vision is not as sweet as it might seem at first, comes in “-And The Moon Be Still As Bright.”  The astronaut Spender finds himself horrified at the thought of colonizing Mars, and ruining it as Earth has been ruined.  Spender’s speeches come pretty close to authorial voice, as he rails against artificial civilization and its menacing of eternal human values.  Bradbury is stringing us along, however.  There is a major catch and, through Spender’s descent, we see the dangers of ideology over humanity.  While he is largely (and seductively) correct, Spender puts his beliefs above the humanity he shares with his fellow astronauts.  This is close to what he condemns others for.  Humanistic views are useless if they are used to destroy actual humans.  Thus, Spender misses the entire point of his faith.

Humans missing the point are all over The Martian Chronicles.  Sometimes this is depicted with incredible poignancy, as in “Way In The Middle Of The Air.”  Bradbury removed this piece from the 1997 edition.  In my view, that was a grievous error.  In the story, southern African-Americans emigrate en masse to Mars, escaping centuries of racist oppression.  The reaction of their white tormentors as they face up far too late to what the artificial construct of prejudice has cost them, is a remarkable evocation of societal catastrophe.  Yet it also has a satirical edge to it.  A colleague of mine pointed out that it is a wonderfully accurate jab at the old lie of the racist establishment that the inferior black race needed their masters to protect them.

Satire takes center stage in the amazing “Usher II.”  This is probably my favorite part of the chronicles.  All lovers and practitioners of fantasy, horror, and science fiction get used to living with condescension and even contempt.  Bradbury’s story of a horror fan’s revenge against the society that has tried to abolish the dreams that give him so much pleasure, is balm to the soul of anyone who has ever had to endure sneers when they talk about how much they love vampire movies.  However, as usual Bradbury’s gleeful fun has more to it than meets the eye.  Daydreams and fantasies are part of the human experience.  To denigrate and deny them is yet another false barrier, erected by those with a lust for control, to keep us from finding meaning in ourselves as human beings.

Yet despite all this, Bradbury would clearly rather be with the people he likes least than with no people at all.  Perhaps the ultimate key to The Martian Chronicles is the very short story “The Musicians,” which depicts earth children using dead Martians as toys, and their resting place as a playground.  Bradbury’s disapproval is palpable.  But it is also gentle.  The boys are innocent, as most people always are, whatever their failings.  The boys, and by extension all of us, deserve a great deal of scorn.  Yet most of us do not deserve hatred.  What Spender, and so many others miss, is that ultimately we only have ourselves.  We might as well embrace that fact, with as much joy and love as we can muster, because nothing can change it.  Bradbury stubbornly insists, in the face of all naysayers, on celebrating humanity and declaring it more important than any of the wonders the universe has to offer.  That is why, despite all the disasters, he leaves humanity alive, battered and bereft, but with everything it needs to start all over again.