Victorian Horror Stories – Book Review

Title – Victorian Horror Stories

Editor – Mike Stocks

Genre – Horror, fiction

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The spook fest continues as our countdown to Halloween grows shorter. “Victorian Horror Stories” is an anthology of some of the scariest short stories from the nineteenth century, featuring a mix of British, French, and American short story writers. The stories range from tales of the supernatural to more explicitly horrific subjects. Some of the authors featured here include Guy de Maupassant, Samuel Savage, W.C. Morrow, Mary Cholmondely, as well as some stories whose writers were never identified. The tagline states that Mike Stocks has selected and retold these tales. In his introduction, Stocks mentions how this compilation targets young readers, while introducing them to the horror genre. The font size is fairly large and the book is peppered throughout with numerous sketches keeping in line with the stories. Stocks also explains the original context for each of the stories when they were written centuries ago, and the significance of their themes.

“Victorian Horror Stories” brings in the chills almost immediately by starting off with Mary Cholmondely’s “Let Loose” , loosely inspired by Guy de Maupassant’s “The Hand” – a horror classic from the greatest French short story writer. When an evil person dies, does evil itself die? What happens when severed body parts of a killer have a life of their own when the killer is killed? Samuel Savage’s “The Cat” is about a cat that might not really be a cat, as its fifteen-year old narrator is left to solve the mystery.

“In that room, at twelve o’clock, something unimaginable happened to me. The room was an ordinary room. The day had been ordinary, too. I went to bed without the slightest reason for thinking something extraordinary was about to happen.” Fitz-James O’Brien begins “The Beast From Nowhere” quite simply, and the narrative turns completely eerie in no time. How do you confront a beast you can’t see? If you can’t see it, does that make it a beast to begin with? A perfect analogy for the things we fear but can’t see, as O’Brien connects physical horror with psychological terrors.

W.C. Morrow ups the ante with “An Original Revenge“. Some of the scariest stories are those without a supernatural element. They prove that reality can be just as horrifying, or even more than fiction. A soldier tormented by a captain to such an extent that he takes his own life. A threatening suicide note left behind. The horrifying demise of Charles Gratmar and its aftermath stays with you much after the story has ended. This was one of my favorite tales from the book.

There are some stories by unknown writers as well, and it is commendable how Stocks dug them up for readers. “One Silver Bullet” , as the title suggests, is about werewolves. “It was the noise of everything that is horrible, a howl of evil, dying out slowly, lingering in the air like a foul stench.”  The narrative draws you in and keeps you guessing till the end, as a nightwatchman takes the onus of destroying a werewolf who might be more than what he believes it is. “The Head of Jean Cabet” is another one from the anthology that stood out for me with its brilliant portrayal of pure horror writing. “One spring evening in the middle of the eighteenth century, a group of villagers stood around a pond. High above, skylarks sang. It should have been a beautiful and tranquil scene. It wasn’t. In the middle of the pond, a body was floating, a dagger plunged into its back.” These haunting opening lines have nothing to do with Jean Cabet, and have everything to do with him. As you conclude reading, the head of Jean Cabet literally haunts you. Such is the atmospheric writing by the, unfortunately, unknown author.

I love anthologies because short stories have much lesser time and space to get to the point, unlike novels. It’s a hit or miss within a few pages. There’s a thin line between scratching the surface and providing depth. Too much too soon gets overwhelming for the reader, and rambling on for too long bores you till you get to the end. “Victorian Horror Stories” is a treat for fans of the horror genre. A brilliantly edited anthology which, in spite of its macabre theme, serves as an introduction for young readers into classic horror, and is equally enjoyable for adults as well. I was hoping to read more of them. Stocks, however, has gone a step ahead and listed down more authors and some of their works readers might be interested in looking up. Ambrose Bierce, Edgar Allen Poe, Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker, H.G. Wells, H.P. Lovecraft are some of the more familiar names. Shelley, Stoker and Wells are popularly known more for their novels, but their chilling short stories are worth reading as well. Those interested in art will love the sketches that accompany the writing. Give this one a go if you like the chill factor in reading and appreciate classic literature.

Rating – 5/5

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If A River – Book Review

Title – If A River

Author – Kula Saikia

Genre – Fiction, Short story collection

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The Birthday Bookathon progresses steadily. For the uninitiated, my reading goals for the year have been regional books from India – one (at least) from each of the twenty nine states and seven union territories. I started on my birthday in November last year and have three more months to go. I just finished one from the northeastern state of Assam. “If A River” is a collection of short stories by Kula Saikia originally written in Assamese and translated into Hindi, Bangla, Odia, Marathi and Telugu languages over the years. This is the first English translation which came out in February this year, comprising twenty short stories, translated into English by six writers.

Saikia’s storytelling is thought provoking, his writing simplistic, with stories inspired from day-to-day life. He transports the reader into the minds of his characters, whereby one feels one isn’t merely reading, but thinking and feeling like his characters do. Some of the stories end with a twist, some twist your thinking throughout, but every one of them causes you to reflect on seemingly mundane issues. From the pathos in ‘Well-wishers‘, to the charming ‘Gift‘, the child-like exuberance of ‘If A River‘, to the horror of ‘Birthmark‘, every story invokes myriad emotions that go beyond the actual story and make you live the character’s life, and experience like he does.

Saikia touches on prosaic themes – waiting at a bus stop, attending a school reunion, going for a run, preparing a will, wanting to play a game of football, making new friends. His narrative, however, leaves a deep impact – causing you to reflect long after each story has ended. I read at the rate of two or three stories a day – in spite of being short reads, the author has the knack of making you read and reflect, and take your time through them. Some of my favorites were, ‘In The Rain‘ – about an elderly couple waiting for the rain on noticing their flower bed wilting, ‘Whispers‘ – set at a funeral, where the death of a house owner results in a maid losing the job she was dependent on for her dying child, ‘The Game‘ – featuring a sports coach and his emphasis on the importance of sports, ‘The Final Hour‘ – the difference between what is thought, what is said, and what is done when doomsday arrives, ‘The Will‘ – about a man with dementia pondering over preparing a will, before he forgets the things he owns, and the people he knows.

I loved Saikia’s usage of figures of speech, and was astounded at his seamless weaving of alliterations, metaphors and personifications in a work of prose, which makes it seem almost poetic. Some beautiful lines:

~”Look at this candle. We simply look at its flame that gives light, the molten wax remains unseen to the eyes. The burning candle does not weep for the molten wax.”

~”Tell me about your long journey. Was it the same old countries, same old oceans, same old mountains, or something new? Did you notice any new clusters of stars to show you the way?” (A bedridden old man talking to birds at his window.)

~”Sometimes poems, as yet unwritten, are created in a hidden, secret chamber of the mind.”

~”An annoying boredom gnaws at her in the silence. Noise could become her friend now.”

~”The doors of his mind are open for the winds of knowledge to enter from all directions.”

~”The pleasure of a journey encompasses much more than the mere satisfaction of arriving at your destination. You may assume that the journey always continues, and it will continue till the last step.”

~”Memories stay with us. They cannot be bequeathed through a will.”

~”Every object has a specific use, and is created for a definite purpose. Yet the significance of that purpose may vary from person to person.”

~”Smiles sweep across their faces like barges on a river, and he stands on its side, unmoved as a rock.”

I marked a lot of quotes and excerpts throughout the book, and this collection will stay cherished among my shelves to flip through occasionally. A mention needs to be made of the translators who have done a fabulous job in bringing Saikia’s works to a wider audience of readers worldwide. The “painting” on the cover is beautiful – simplistic and connects with the reader, just like a river connects its banks. The first page of the book is also printed in the Assamese language – providing a connect with the original writer and his writings – something I have not seen in many translated books. I attempted the script on the origami paper boat I crafted to go with the picture. The words are the title of the book, followed by the name of the author. If you like books that make you think, give this one a read. “If A River” is the only collection of Kula Saikia’s works available for English readers.

Rating – 5/5

 

Weekend Reading Plans

These are the books that will keep my weekend occupied – a novel, a collection of short stories, and a non-fiction book. The first two are English translations of Czech and Assamese language works. Has anyone read these? Feedback is always appreciated. What are your bookish plans for the weekend?

weekend

Under The Jaguar Sun – Book Review

Title – Under The Jaguar Sun

Author – Italo Calvino (translation by William Weaver)

Genre – Fiction

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“I climbed into the light of the jaguar sun – into the sea of the green sap of the leaves.”

Under The Jaguar Sun” is a collection of intoxicating stories revolving around the senses, with Italo Calvino attempting to create a story for each sense organ. We begin with “taste” amid the flavors of Mexico’s fiery spices in the titular story, as a couple embarks on a holiday to experience the food and culture of a new country. From one locality to the next, the self-proclaimed “somnambulists in the dining room”  find themselves in varying gastronomic lexicon – new terms to be recorded, new sensations to be defined. “Guacamole to be scooped with crisp tortillas that snap into many shards and dip like spoons into the thick cream” – the couple imagines entire lives devoted to the search for new blends of ingredients, new variations in measurements, alert and patient mixing, and handing down of intricate and precise lore. What starts off as a gustatory exploration, takes on darker hues as the narrator ponders, “The most appetizingly flavored human flesh belongs to the eater of human flesh” , and the reader is questioned what exactly comprises “food”? Archaeological wanderings raise many queries by the couple, which their guide seems unable to satisfactorily answer – Who are the messenger of the gods? Are they demons sent to earth by the gods to collect the sacrificial offerings? Or do emissaries from human beings take the food to the gods? When vultures clear the altars, do they physically carry the offerings to the heavens?” A thought-provoking take on how “taste” comes to define the couple’s relationship.

From here, we move on to “sound” with “A King Listens” – bringing attention to the menacing echoes within us and outside ourselves. The gripping portrait of a king’s thoughts, as he believes a coup is being planned to destroy him, just as he had done to his predecessor, resulting in a frenzied mind trying to salvage the throne by being acutely aware of every single sound inside the palace walls and outside in the city. He pursues every breath, rustle, grumble and gurgle, moves through clangs and curses, and is guided by echoes and creaks – the palace is a construction of sounds expanding and contracting. Distinct or imperceptible, he can distinguish them all as they reach his tympanum – the palace itself being his ear and the walls listening for him. Where does one draw the line between alertness and paranoia? A city awakens with a slamming, a hammering, a creaking, a rumble, a roar. Every space is occupied, all sighs absorbed. Listen to the breathing of a city – it can be labored and gasping or calm and deep. If you listen to the whorls of a shell, how do you know what is ocean, ear, shell? Where is the sound? What significance does sound play in our lives? “Are your ears deafened by unusual sounds? Are you no longer able to tell the uproar outside from that inside? Perhaps there is no longer an inside and an outside” , the author seemingly questioning the king, provides food for thought for the reader as well. There is a wondrous segment on “voice” as an entity. A voice is not a person, though it comes from a person. It is suspended in the air, detached from the solidity of things. Voice and person are different from each other, but a voice means there is a person, with his throat, chest, feelings, very much alive, who sends into the air this voice unlike voices emanating from other persons. Does this mean you and your voice are one? Or two separate entities?

We then move on to “smell” with “The Name, The Nose” on the streets of Paris – a network of assonances, dissonances, counterpoints, modulations, cadenzas. Musk from verbena, amber and mignonette, bergamot and bitter almond – the olfactory alphabet is made up of so many words in a precious lexicon, without which perfumes would be speechless, inarticulate, illegible. Monsieur de Saint-Caliste visits a parfumerie not to buy perfume for a person, but seeking their help in identifying an unknown woman from her perfume. “Martine was tickling the tip of my ear with patchouli, Charlotte was extending her arm perfumed with orris for me to sniff, Sidonie put a drop of eglantine on my hand” – the staff try to help him out in various ways. Madame Odile, the owner of the parfumerie, is much sought after  for her experience is “giving a name to an olfactory sensation”. The reader is led through enchanting aromas  across space and time. “There is no information more precise than what the nose receives.” We are taken through prehistoric times when man relied on the nose rather than the eyes – the mammoth, drought, rain, food, cave, danger, the world was perceived through the nose. Will Monsieur Caliste ever identify his elusive scents?

Under The Jaguar Sun” was written over a period of time. Calvino started in 1972 with “The Name, The Nose” , followed by “Under The Jaguar Sun” in 1982 – both written in Paris, and wrote “A King Listens” in 1984 in Rome. The author sadly passed away in 1985 when only the three stories on “taste”, “hearing” and “smell” were completed – “touch” and “sight” never got written. Calvino was working on a frame to connect the senses in a way that would amount to another novel – kind of like a book within a book. His wife Esther decided to salvage the ones written from being lost in literary oblivion by releasing the trio of senses in 1986, and Weaver’s English translation came out in 1988.

The beauty of Calvino’s writing is his ability to make the reader think. His books are not quick or light reads; every sentence needs to be absorbed and savored. On it’s surface, this is a simple collection of three stories, but the lines take you beyond the senses as we know them. “There is no night darker than a night of fires. There is no man more alone than one running in the midst of a howling mob.” Do not look at “Under The Jaguar Sun” as an unfinished work of literature. Readers familiar with Calvino’s masterpieces like “If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller” , “Cosmicomics” and other works will no doubt be disappointed about missing out on where he might have taken this book had he lived long enough to complete the remaining two senses. Use this, however, as an opportunity to marvel at some more of his pieces. As his wife Esther writes in the epilogue, “We consider poetic a production in which each individual experience acquires prominence through its detachment from the general continuum, while it retains a kind of glint of that unlimited vastness.” Read this off-beat trio of tales for what they are, and still bask in awe of the brilliance of this writer. And maybe you will find yourself questioning the way your sense organs work. That is the effect of Calvino’s writing – makes one ponder while reading and long after one is done.

My rating – 5/5