Tuesday 21 June 2011


English PEN is the UK branch of the International Writers Association
that supports freedom of speech and its proponents throughout the
World.  They are always on the lookout for new supporters, so why
not check them out.

Monday 20 June 2011

The Box: Uncanny Stories by Richard Matheson, Tor Books

We are in the territory of the white picket fence and the twitching curtain; specifically, post-war, Atomic America of the Fifties and Sixties, where the white-collar middle class believed it had much to fear from blue-collar make-doers.
  Time has emphasised the class demarcation as something worth fearing.
In ‘Button, Button,’ – the opening tale turned into a movie for which this release is its tie-in – a door-to-door salesman from a nameless, possibly disreputable, company offers a special offer to a well-to-do New Yorker couple in return for the ultimate sacrifice that may salve the conscience through anonymity.
  ‘Girl of My Dreams’ describes an insecure, psychotic, trailer-trash Bonnie-and-Clyde blackmailing a respectable married woman in her own home.
‘…he appraised the room.  Money was in evidence wherever he looked, in the carpeting and drapes, the period furniture, the accessories…this was it all right.’
  ‘Dying Room Only’ has nice Ford-owning Bob and Jean finding a downbeat roadside cafĂ© at summer’s unbearable height, that sells only ‘Hi-Li Orange and Dr Pepper,’ leaving Jean alone with the idling, downtrodden drinkers, while her husband’s non-return from the John makes each one culpable.
  ‘A Flourish of Strumpets’ returns us to door-to-door selling of the back-page variety as The Exchange tries soliciting a different kind of service to its not-in-our-backyard Republicans.
  To what extent was Matheson aware of this at the time?
The second half of the collection, penned subsequently, is more varied, but collectively revealing an umbrella theme all their own.
  ‘No Such Thing as a Vampire’ has a medical twist in its tale.  ‘Mute’ - the longest and best story here – describes a voiceless German boy, orphaned from a house fire, and his mysterious survival.  ‘Shock Wave’ is a more conventional horror tale where a church organ, due for removal, takes revenge against its fate on behalf of its covetous owner.
  The remaining four are message stories played for laughs.  ‘The Creeping Terror’ is a punning satire on the Cult Phenomena and the media’s relationship with ‘the facts,’ while ‘Clothes Make the Man,’ ‘The Jazz Machine’ and the very silly ‘’Tis the Season to Be Jelly,’ closing this collection, all deal with the question of man’s ability to hold onto his identity.
  Matheson fans will know too well most of the early tales here, having been anthologised to death over the past forty years.  Yet, for the newcomer, they have morphed into something else; a snapshot of the repressed fears in post-war conservative values faced with the, then, new cushioning appliances and their purveyors of domestic convenience.

Monday 6 June 2011

Tales of Hoffmann by E.T.A. Hoffmann, Penguin Classics

In the introduction to ‘The New Uncanny,’ Ra Page refers to Sigmund Freud’s seminal 1919 essay on the subject, and the eight irrational fears he defined as often deployed in such tales.
  The eighth is quoted as ‘confusions between reality and imagination (waking dreams, etc.).’  Not that the whole setting, from the outset, is confused, but, more crucially, the ambiguous perception of the main character or narrator and its depiction.  ‘The Sandman’ – used as Freud’s model – is easily Hoffmann’s most famous tale, having appeared as an actual character in everything from the opening of Roy Orbison’s 1963 hit single ‘In Dreams’ to a 1990s’ graphic novel series by Neil Gaiman.
  A mother’s friendly deadline to her bed-wary young son to beware the eye-dust sprinkling Sandman by 9 pm each night gains credence with the simultaneous arrival of Coppelius; his father’s domineering ‘mechanician’ and spectacle-selling hawker.  In hiding one night to discover his identity, the boy misinterprets the adults seemingly shared interest in mystical alchemy, played out in the front room.   Scaring the boy, a lifelong pathological hatred of the figure is triggered, particularly after the boy’s father suddenly dies.
  But - almost another century on - it’s clear something else is going on here.
The physical description of ‘Sandman’ Coppelius is rather less ambiguous than the tale.  The ‘large heavy nose drawn down over the upper lip’ and the seemingly delighted overcharging to a subsequent customer, point to the stereotypical, contemporary sketch of the avaricious Jew.
  Yet, you can’t help feeling the story is greater than this.  Since the whole tale is based upon the varying prejudicial assumptions of those who come into contact with Coppelius, it can also be read as a satire on that very prejudice.  Hoffmann himself is intriguingly wrought in R. J. Hollingdale’s introduction as an ‘anarchic humorist’ who, as a lawyer by day, shamelessly satirized those he’d been working with at night, getting himself, (despite or, perhaps, because of his contemporary literary success), into a lot of libellous trouble.  Such Jekyll / Hyde duality surely makes him as much of a choice character for the graphic novel as The Sandman himself.
  The rest of the book continues in the vein of characters either defying the narrators’ perceptions or justifying them in wholly unexpected ways, leaving each a victim psychologically scarred. .Hoffmann’s cynical wit pervades throughout, presaging that of American author Ambrose Bierce whom he most closely resembles.  Of the other ‘Tales’ worth recommending are ‘Councillor Krespel,’ ‘Doge and Dogaressa’ and ‘The Choosing of the Bride.’  Each, in their entrances and exits, as madly Gothic as the next.
  R.J. Hollingdale also translated this text.  By his own admission, he edited for increased pace more in keeping with our generation than Hoffmann’s, which, if its classic age and status had previously put you off, I’d seriously reconsider.