The Seance, John Harwood

I read this book mostly in bed over several nights, while the weather outside was obligingly turning into fall.  Although there are things about the cold weather that are miserable (mainly miserable for my hands and feet, which get very poor circulation as my blood is too busy keeping the rest of me warm like a furnace), they are all outweighed by the snuggly loveliness of cuddling down into your bed when it’s cold outside.

(It’s not cold outside yet, by the way – just coolish and lovely – but I am anticipating the necessity of getting out my cache of spare blankets and piling them on top of me at night.  I enjoy doing this, you know, the two nights a year it’s really cold in Louisiana.)

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The Séance is a perfect book for the fall, and for the RIP Challenge.  Constance Langton inherits a state home from a distant relation, but the lawyer in charge of giving her the inheritance advises her to sell it straightaway and never go inside it.  As support for this bold claim (which would get me on the next train to see the place), he sends her a packet of papers relating to the house.  They tell the strange history of the house – riddled with tragedy and disappearances, the latest of which is the mysterious disappearance of an entire family from Wraxford Hall.

John Harwood succeeds brilliantly at creating the atmosphere of the spooky Gothic manor house.  The two characters, John Montague and Eleanor Unwin, who tell the history of Wraxford Hall, are initially outsiders to the Hall, looking in on it and wondering about its secrets.  As the story goes in, they (and we) are drawn more deeply into it and its frightening secrets.  It gets claustrophobic eventually, knowing all that you know about its past – you jump when the characters hear a noise.

The frame story, which follows Constance Langton as she tries to work out the secrets of the manor house, works less well.  It’s by far the least interesting thing about the book, but it takes up an unfortunate number of pages. I found Constance dull, and her backstory doesn’t play into the rest of the book, and all the time she was onscreen as it were with her half-hearted underdeveloped love interest subplot, I was going, Where’s Eleanor Unwin?  Why can’t she come back?  Less time with Constance would have meant more time with Eleanor Unwin and John Montague.  That would have been better.

I remember reading The Ghost Writer in England and thinking, Yes, okay, that was good, but think how much better it could have been.  And my response to The Séance is much the same.  They both had me on the edge of my seat while I was reading, but when they were done, the plots did not satisfy me.

Do you have this problem with very atmospheric books?  Too much build-up, and not enough pay-off, so you feel let-down when it’s all over?

On a slightly different note, when you read a ghost story, do you insist upon its being an actual ghost (ghost/poltergeist/other occult event), in the end?  Or do you prefer there to have been a human being orchestrating everything?

Palimpsest, Catherynne Valente

I love the word "palimpsest".  I like how it sounds and what it means.  When I read Nymeth’s review of this book, and she was all, It reminded me of MirrorMask!, I knew I had to get it.  Catherynne Valente‘s Palimpsest is about a city called Palimpsest, a sexually transmitted city – people have pieces of a map of Palimpsest, like tattoos, somewhere on their bodies, and when two people with the marks on them sleep together, they go to Palimpsest for the night.  Like a dream, except that it isn’t a dream.  The book is about four people who are bound together by their first visit to Palimpsest – November, Sei, Ludo, and Oleg – who want to leave the real world behind and go to Palimpsest forever.

Palimpsest gets off to a slow start, and the long, rather treacly descriptions of the different places in the city were a bit much.  It did remind me of the world in Mirrormask, or one of the weirder episodes of Doctor Who, but the kind of detailed strangeness that works in a visual medium can be too much when it’s described at great length.  Each of the Palimpsest chapters began with one of these long descriptions.  Some of them were interesting and cool, but some weren’t, and after a while my brain went on overload, and I started skipping them.  I think it would have worked better if these had been more character-centered.  Sei, November, Oleg, and Ludo are stand-ins for us, discovering the city as we do, and I would have liked to see more of their interactions with the city, with characters in the city, and with characters from the real world inside of Palimpsest.

I liked November best because she made lists – not dull lists but interesting lists.  Things which are gone in the morning: sleep, darkness, grief, the moon.  Women.  Dreams – and, Things that are left in the morning: memory, thought, snow.  Light.  Work.  Disease.  Dreams.  I like this.  Things that cannot long be kept secret: death in the family, the loss of a ring, corruption of the spirit, boredom, illicit love.  Sickness.  Addiction.  Pregnancy.  Lovely.  I love making lists.

The story is graceful and gradual and mysterious.  The history of Palimpsest unfolds slowly, with the stories coming to us from many different characters.  I like how it begins to fit together carefully, like puzzle pieces – the city’s past and present, while the four central characters come together to determine its future.  They all four have to find each other in the real world, in order to move to Palimpsest permanently, which is their most desperate desire.  Palimpsest wants them as much as they want it, offering them their heart’s desires in the city.

Actually that is sort of creepy.  It is like that Barbara Michaels book where the house wants to make the people happy, and it makes them be happy using its creepy powers.  Palimpsest shapes things for November and Sei and Ludo and Oleg.  They want to move there, of course, but the book leaves you to wonder whether this is what’s best for them.

Is it just me?  Is it not more creepy for a place to make people happy?  Than to make them miserable or insane like in The Haunting of Hill House?  I don’t know why I find this so creepy!

Other reviews: things mean a lot (thanks for the recommendation!), BSC Review, Reading the Leaves, Stage and Canvas, Scooter Chronicles, and let me know if I missed yours!

We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Shirley Jackson

Creeeepy.  I read The Haunting of Hill House and liked it a lot, but when I read We Have Always Lived in the Castle, I thought, “Oh, yes, there’s the lady who wrote ‘The Lottery’.”  There are some of the same themes here, particularly towards the end, that mob mentality and the fear of things being different.  My review’s going to contain spoilers, because I don’t know how to talk about the book without any spoilers at all.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle is about two sisters, Merricat and Constance, who live with their uncle Julian, the three of them all that survived an arsenic poisoning that killed the rest of their family.  Constance, in her twenties at the time of the event, fell under suspicion, and twelve-year-old Merricat went into an orphanage while Constance was on trial.  Now Merricat is a slightly odd eighteen-year-old dedicated to creating spells and protections to keep strangers away from her family.

I have no idea why I took against this book with such a passion when I read it for the first time in England.  It’s really good!  I love how the first half of the book builds towards the revelation of what happened to make Constance and Merricat and Uncle Julian such outsiders.  Shirley Jackson does a great job of writing Merricat, her efforts to keep her family safe from the outside world, how she needs Constance, particularly, to stay with her, how she dreams of them both getting away from everything (“going to the moon”).

Shirley Jackson can build an atmosphere, I have to say. In this as well as in The Haunting of Hill House (and her short stories), there’s a pervasive feeling of wrongness about what’s going on.  You can’t always put your finger on what’s wrong exactly, and when you can you can’t explain why it’s so ominous, but it always makes you a smidge uncomfortable.  I loved the fixation on Constance’s cooking, for instance, in the first parts of the book.  It’s a mundane detail except that there’s such an emphasis on it, and then every time it’s mentioned you start feeling jittery.

England Jenny was a cranky face.  We Have Always Lived in the Castle is great.  Thanks to my lovely blog commenters for repeatedly insisting that it was worth a read and was even better than The Haunting of Hill House.  I am not sure I agree, because I like haunted house stories, but it is definitely very very good.

Other people’s thoughts: Hey Lady! Whatcha Reading?, things mean a lot, Asylum, A Striped Armchair, Bart’s Bookshelf, Book Addiction, So Many Books, BooksPlease, The Bookling, Save Ophelia, Bending Bookshelf, book-a-holic, Bibliolatry, Bold. Blue. Adventure, Booknotes by Lisa, books i done read, Books and Cooks

Let me know if I missed yours!

The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson

At last I have finished a novel by Shirley Jackson!  I liked the short stories I read of hers in eighth grade (“The Lottery”, predictably, and “The Possibility of Evil”), but ignored her novels for years, and then I tried to read We Have Always Lived in the Castle when I got it out of the library at my university in Colchester, and hated it.  I got about ten pages in and couldn’t imagine how it would be possible to go another page.

I have to try it again, because I loved The Haunting of Hill House.  I reluctantly bought it for 50 cents at the book fair in March, and on a whim decided to bring it with me on this trip.  Absolutely loved it.  It’s all about a Doctor Montague who decides to rent out a supposedly haunted house, hire some assistants who have had experiences with psychic phenomena, and spend some time there recording the paranormal experiences that occur.  By reading through old accounts of inexplicable things that have happened, he finds Theodora, a rather dashing cheerful clever woman, and Eleanor, an early-thirties spinster who has spent the better years of her life caring for her sick, demanding mother.  They, along with the house’s current owner Luke, come to the house to join Dr. Montague.

Eleanor is the third-person narrator of the story.  It is clear from the first that she has been kept down and treated like a child by her family, but it seems that she will be able to break free from this.  She takes her first steps towards independence when she takes her sister’s car and goes to Hill House on her own; she makes friends with Theodora and Luke and Dr. Montague, easily, straight away.  Things could be looking up for our Eleanor.

Except, of course, they aren’t.  As the book goes on, Eleanor becomes extremely susceptible to the house’s particular brand of evil, which – to be fair – is targeting her from early on.  The reader comes to trust Eleanor’s perceptions of what is happening less and less – is Theodora actually acting from the motives Eleanor ascribes to her?  Is Luke interested in Eleanor, or is he not?  Eleanor seems very sure at times, but the reader often is not.

The Haunting of Hill House is all spooky and subtle.  Very Shirley Jackson, from what I can remember of her short stories.  I am a sucker for a story about a haunted house, and this is a particularly good one.  Thanks to Nymeth for the nudge to bump this up on my reading list!

Other views:

Nymeth at Things Mean a Lot
A Striped Armchair

So Many Books

Booknotes by Lisa

Books for Breakfast, Drinks for Dinner
Sadie-Jean
Stuck in a Book
Bibliolatry
Melody’s Reading Corner

Let me know if I missed yours – so many of these say that We Have Always Lived in the Castle is better, so I really must remember to try it again when I get home.

Baltimore, or, The Steadfast Tin Soldier and the Vampire, Mike Mignola and Christopher Golden

I read about Baltimore on Jenclair’s blog untold ages ago, and I put it on my list, but I didn’t leave myself a little note explaining what it was about.  This is something I do now, but I didn’t always, and so when I would be at the library looking at my list of books, I never checked out Baltimore because I had forgotten anything I ever read about its plot.  Fortunately I was incredibly bored recently and took the time to go back through my book list, look up the reviews, and leave myself teeny little plot synopses.

Baltimore is set in and around the first World War – soldier Henry Baltimore, the only survivor of a Hessian massacre, sees strange dark creatures feeding on his dead soldiers, and he wounds one of them.  This small act unleashes a plague of vampirism upon the world, so devastating that even the War pales into insignificance in comparison.  Some time later, three friends of Baltimore are summoned by Baltimore to meet him at a particular inn on a particular day.  They each tell their stories of Henry Baltimore, and of the dark, supernatural things they have encountered in their own lives.  The story goes on, circling closer and closer to the final confrontation between Henry Baltimore and the vampire he wounded, the vampire that started the plague.

If you like Victorian fairy tales, you’ll like this book.  At the end, Mike Mignola acknowledges his debt to those stories, and I realized that’s what this book exactly reminded me of – that slightly unreal, thoroughly creepy way of writing, with lavish, lingering descriptions of the evil the protagonists are encountering.  It reminded me of things like Oscar Wilde’s fairy tales, and Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market”, and of course Bram Stoker’s Dracula.  I loved the illustrations.  They were small, simple, black-and-white drawings, very understated, often just little pieces of pictures (a chimney of the house, a close-up on one cross in the cemetery), and they provided a beautiful contrast to the lush prose.

If I could have made a change, it would have been to take out the excerpts from Baltimore’s diary that describe how he saved a small Romanian town from vampires.  I recently read Trish’s book review of a book called Serena, in which she talked about the creation of negative space around a character; and I thought that this book did that to great effect with Baltimore’s character.  Baltimore’s story starts off the book, but then the reader doesn’t hear from him directly for quite a while; instead, the three characters talk about their encounters with Baltimore, which provides a lot of insight into what he’s been through since the vampire-wounding incident.  I think it would have been great to continue it until the climactic scene (which, I have to say, is a little disappointing), only then giving us Baltimore’s point of view again.  The Romanian vampires incident would have been fine if Baltimore hadn’t been narrating it himself, but as it was, it messed up a literary device that was working nicely.

A creepy, atmospheric book.  Other reviews (if I missed yours, let me know):

Jenclair at A Garden Carried in the Pocket
Carl at Stainless Steel Droppings
Little Willow

I don’t mean to go on and on

But I just read this and threw up in my mouth a little.  I can’t help feeling like this person has to be being sarcastic.  Because nobody could say these things seriously, right?  I mean everyone has noticed that Bella is a cipher, right?  Even if you have overlooked Edward’s tendency to stalk and make decisions for Bella and you think he’s the perfect man, you’ve noticed that Bella has no personality.  I mean, right?

Twilight centers on a boy who loves a girl so much that he refuses to defile her, and on a girl who loves him so dearly that she is desperate for him to do just that, even if the wages of the act are expulsion from her family and from everything she has ever known. We haven’t seen that tale in a girls’ book in a very long time. And it’s selling through the roof.

This paragraph encapsulates the essential thing about this series that I find so creepy and upsetting.  Defile her?  Are we really still in the mindset that sex (premarital sex particularly) is defiling a girl?  Defile.  Jesus.

Oh, yeah, and here’s the other thing about this damn book that makes me angry.  Stephenie Meyer says she sort of based Edward on Mr. Rochester, and named him after Mr. Rochester.  I mean you do realize that means that Stephenie Meyer thinks that Edward is like Mr. Rochester?  Half of my favorite literary couple ever?  Anyway, this article has also totally failed to get why Jane and Mr. Rochester are so good:

In short, Edward treats Bella not as Count Dracula treated the objects of his desire, but as Mr. Rochester treated Jane Eyre. He evinces the most profound disdain and distaste for this girl. Even after they have confessed their love for each other, he will still occasionally glare at and speak sharply to her.

What.  Ev.  Er.  Mr. Rochester does not evince profound disdain and distaste for Jane.  He teases her and she plays up to him.  That is why I love them.  They share a sense of humor.  I love that scene where Mrs. Fairfax is telling Mr. Rochester how good Jane is, and he’s all “Whatever, I’ll decide for myself.  She began by felling my horse,” and Mrs. Fairfax has no idea what he’s on about.   Profound disdain and distaste indeed.  Makes you wonder whether this person has actually read Jane Eyre.

Oh, society, please stop it with the creepy attitudes towards sex.  You are giving me a headache.

The Stress of Her Regard, Tim Powers

Sheesh, what is wrong with me?  This is the second book in the past week I haven’t been able to finish.  And honestly, not finishing books is pretty rare with me.  I swear!  If I make it past the first few pages, I tend to plow through to the end, because I want to know what happens, and because I am a completist.  To give you a comparison, I read like four of Anne Rice’s vampire books, which I never liked in the first place, before realizing I’d rather gouge my eyes out than read any more of them.  I don’t care if she is from Louisiana!  And I don’t care if Faulkner is either!  I like Tony Kushner and THAT IS ENOUGH FOR ME.

Anyway, I just really want to tell The Stress of Her Regard that it’s probably not you; it’s probably me.  I really think it might just be me.  I may not have given you a fair chance.  I was comparing you with Lonely Werewolf Girl, which I was reading at the same time I was reading you, and no new book could stand up against Lonely Werewolf Girl.  I was reading you and thinking of another book.  It was unfair to you.  You deserved better.

I read about The Stress of Her Regard on Nymeth’s blog, and I thought there could be no problem with it whatsoever at all.  It had Romantic poets, aaaaaaand vampires!  All the Romantic poets are being pestered by pestery vampires!  I don’t care enough about the Romantic poets to get cranky about their being portrayed “wrong”, which is something that would bother me if the characters were, like, Oscar Wilde and his lot.  And vampires!   And Nymeth said the mythology was a trifle complex, but I was all, Whatever, I will be able to follow it.  But damn, seriously, it was mighty complex.  And I was reading it like ten pages at a time, while brushing my teeth, and then a chapter or two before I went to sleep.  And sometimes I would skip a few nights and read Lonely Werewolf Girl instead.  So I think that screwed me up in terms of keeping track of who was doing what, and why.

All this to say that by the time I got to the bit where Shelley disguised his dead infant as a marionette, I was kinda ready to quit reading it anyway.  The bit where he disguised his dead infant as a marionette was mighty disturbing and creepy, and it gave me a nightmare.  So even though I think I was unfair to this book, I will probably not try reading it again because it will remind me of my terrifying puppet nightmare.

(I really did like the part where Crawford put his ring on the statue’s finger and then when he came back for it the statue’s hand had closed over the ring.  That was cool.)

I will just leave you with this thought, which is the only thing I can ever think of when I read about Byron or Shelley or Keats and consequently prevents me from taking them one bit seriously, ever:

Byron and Shelley and Keats
Were a trio of lyrical treats
The forehead of Shelley was cluttered with curls,
And Keats never was a descendant of earls,
And Byron walked out with a number of girls,
But it didn’t impair the poetical feats
Of Byron and Shelley,
Of Byron and Shelley,
Of Byron and Shelley and Keats.

Dear darling Dorothy Parker.  (Though Black Adder‘s portrayal of the Romantic poets has just put the nail in the coffin.  I can never, ever, ever, ever take those men seriously.  Ever.  Never ever never.  But I often like Coleridge.)