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All that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream…

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Tales of Horror by Edgar Allan Poe

Image from plusquotes.com

Image from plusquotes.com

Today, as even someone barely conscious would realise, is Hallowe’en; that time of the year when we fall victim to rampant commercialism, encourage our children to dress up as the most gruesome creatures and go off to terrify local old people into giving them treats. I often think that the fact they give the little dears things that will rot their teeth and give them diabetes is a subtle form of revenge… But I digress. Behind all this commercial mayhem is a much older celebration, All Hallow’s Eve, when a three-day festival remembered the dead. So what more fitting to read than something a little spooky and gruesome!

tales-of-horror

I’ve been lucky enough to be have been provided with a review copy of the ideal book, “Tales of Horror” by Edgar Allan Poe, kindly sent by Alma Classics and I’ve been dipping into it over the past few days. The volume is a new addition to their excellent Evergreen range of reasonably price classics, all in lovely jackets, and this is no exception – the striking cover features suitably sombre design and of course Poe’s famous bird!

Short story collections are notoriously hard to review in a short blog post, so I thought instead I would pick out some favourites to share with you. And this really is an excellent selection, with all the stories you’d expect to see (“The Tell-Tale Heart”, “The Fall of the House of Usher”, “The Pit and the Pendulum”) as well as some lesser known titles which are just as good. In fact, trying to choose the best from here is really difficult, so I’ll just mention a few that really stood out for me.

First up are two of his stories featuring the amateur detective C. Auguste Dupin – “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and “The Purloined Letter” (there is a third, “The Mystery of Marie Roget”, which doesn’t feature here). The two stories were published in 1841 and 1844, predating Holmes by several decades, and it’s fascinating to see the template being set by Poe of the simple sidekick narrator and the enigmatic genius of a detective. Some of the exchanges, particularly one where Dupin explains how he’s followed the thought processes of his Watson and been able to come out with a comment that answers the question in his head, could have come straight out of Conan Doyle. And the mysteries are clever and satisfying. Interestingly, there is a quote from the creator of Holmes on the back of this book pretty much acknowledging his debt to Poe!

Then there’s one of the spooky ones I remember most from my initial reading of Poe, “Berenice”; this features many of Poe’s regular tropes, including catalepsy and epilepsy, premature burial and highly strung narrators. The latter in this case is prey to monomania; as a book obsessive, I can identify with that, though not with the man’s obsession with his beloved’s teeth, and the consequences…. “Eleanora” is set in the Valley of the Many-Coloured Grasses, and is full of highly wrought emotions and beautiful descriptions of the fantasy landscape. “The Man of the Crowd” is most unusual, with the narrator following a man making his way through an urban landscape but unable to fathom what motivates his movements; the conclusion is unexpected, to say the least. And “William Wilson” finds a narrator struggling with a doppelgänger who pursues him throughout his life.

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These are just some of the riches, and in fact calling the book “Tales of Horror” perhaps does it a slight disservice, as there’s such a wide variety of stories on view here, covering ghosts, mesmerism, crime, love, death, the supernatural in general and even reincarnation. Poe has a reputation for being a bit grim and dark and melodramatic, and certainly these are elements in many of the stories. However, what’s not often realised is that he can be quite funny, and in several of the tales seems to be sending up the whole genre. The wonderfully fantastical “The Devil in the Belfry”, set in the strange village of Vondervotteimittiss (try pronouncing it out loud carefully….) with its residents who are obsessed with cabbages and clocks is pure joy. It took me a second read to pick up all the clever little elements Poe had built into the story and it was an unexpected highlight of the book. Likewise, “Some Words with a Mummy” is very tongue-in-cheek, as is “Never Bet the Devil in your Head”.

Poe’s imagination knows no bounds, taking us all over the world to real places in Europe and America as well as fantastic landscapes that never existed, and this collection really showcases what a wonderful storyteller he was. “Tales of Horror” is a fabulous read, particularly for this time of year when the nights draw in, full of shivers, laughs and wild fancy. You could do not better than pick up this lovely Evergreen edition for a perfect Hallowe’en experience; me, I’m off to the Internet to listen to Basil Rathbone’s wonderful rendition of “The Raven”!

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Completing the set….

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I blame Lady Fancifull! Not only was it her comment on an earlier post that got me sharing my George Orwell collection on the Ramblings, she then had to mention that she’d seen reasonably priced copies of his Essays online. Of course, I had said that I was missing volume 4 in the Penguins (even though I have a lovely hardback edition) and the completist in me would have liked to have this too – well, now I have!

orwell-essays-coversTo the left are my three original volumes, and on the right the missing Vol 4 – a slightly more modern edition and a little bigger, but nevertheless the set is now complete!

orwell-essay-spines

I was pretty impressed at how good the condition of the book was, particularly as I’ve had such bad experiences with Amazon sellers in the past – however, I’ll know to go to this one again, as the book arrived beautifully packed and in an amazingly good state.

orwell-essays-4Unfortunately, it does make my originals look a little battered, but I don’t really mind. I’d forgotten what a history they have until I looked inside to check the publication dates, and found that I’d picked them all up in 1983 as ex-library stock:

orwell-essays-insideAll three have the same internal markings, and each one cost me 10p (yes, 10p!) – I was living in Hampshire at the time and no doubt these turned up either a library sale or in a local charity shop or on the book stall of my local market. If I had the time and energy to dig out my old journals, I could no doubt find out….

So my Penguin Orwell Essays collection is complete and the floorboards are groaning even more – thanks Lady F! :)))

Darkness beneath the surface of village life…

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Death of a Busybody by George Bellairs

Lately, I’ve been finding myself turning regularly to the British Library Crime Classics when I want a satisfying, Golden Age murder mystery – my favourite kind of reading when I don’t quite know what I want to pick up next, or I need a kind of mental palate cleanser. Every one I’ve read so far has been a real treat, but some stand out more than others, and occasionally my reaction has been WHY HAVE I NEVER HEARD OF THIS WONDERFUL AUTHOR BEFORE? Which was how I felt after reading “Death of a Busybody” by George Bellairs, which was pure joy!

Another gorgeous cover from the BL!

Another gorgeous cover from the BL!

The book, just released by the BL, features Bellairs’ regular detective Inspector Littlejohn. The book opens with the delightfully named Reverend Ethelred Claplady, vicar of Hilary Magna (a little village in the middle of English in the environs of Leicester). He’s in the process of having his cesspool cleared out by local yokel, Gormley, and he and the whole village are stunned when local busybody Miss Tither is found lying face down dead in the pool. Miss Tither was loved by nobody: a nasty, nosy, interfering woman of the type often seen in Golden Age crime, she excels in ferreting out people’s secrets and bullying them with religious tracts. There are few in Hilary Magna (or its nearby sister village Hilary Parva) untouched by her interference, and so there are plenty of people with motives. But who could have carried out the murder in broad daylight without being seen? Obviously this is a job that’s too much for the local Police force, and so Inspector Littlejohn of Scotland Yard is called in.

Enter a marvellous array of supporting characters, from Miss Tither’s cousin and heir, the somewhat dubious Rev. Athelstan Wynyard; local man Lorrimar, a piano fancier and cynic; Haxley the agnostic, one of the last people to see the victim alive; the Weekeses, a local couple of intense religious beliefs; and the portentous Walter Thornbush, leader of a local sect of Emmanuel’s Witnesses, who hopes to marry the dead woman’s maid.

On the side of the angels (or the police!) are the local Inspector Oldfield, the village bobby Harriwinckle (a comic figure who nevertheless is allowed some glory here) and Cromwell of the Yard, a wonderfully entertaining character who gets a whole chapter of investigation on his own. This latter was one of my favourite parts of the book, as we follow Cromwell taking on disguises, interrogating shady charities and having a meeting that will change his life but which is simply dropped into the narrative in passing – brilliant!

The plot is complex and involving and really well put together; although I guessed one small element, I was still caught out by the ending, and the resolution was clever and satisfying, spreading much further afield than just a simple case of local murder. There’s plenty of humour in the book, with the local rustics perhaps a little clichéd, but the author has fun sending up most of his characters – even Littlejohn is usually seen to be looking forward to his next meal, and happy to have a pint wherever the opportunity presents itself. And Cromwell is gently satirised for his obsession with sharing the name of a famous historical figure. The humour is often broad and he’s happy to puncture pomposity and extremism, as well as poking fun at silly English habits. His description of a local tea room is priceless:

The place was overwhelmingly “olde Englyshe”. Large, open, brick fireplace, carefully laid with logs, and a spinning wheel by the hearth. Brass of all kinds. Bed-warmers, hot water cans, trays, candlesticks of all shapes and sizes, splattered on the walls and standing on every available ledge and shelf. Copper cans and jugs; gongs, bells, three grandfather clocks, framed samplers, toby jugs, pot dogs, witch balls, and a hundred-and-one odd antiques, bogus or real, scattered all over the shop.

(Bellairs often uses this kind of staccato method when describing people and places for the first time, and it’s very effective)

But where Bellairs excels in is capturing the essence of English country life. The book was published in 1943, and there are references to the War and the blackouts etc; however, this part of the country is relatively untouched by the conflict and the rhythms of rural life carry on as they ever did. The use of the old English names is no doubt significant, and the book reflects a way of life now long lost, where the daily routine was dictated by the changing of the seasons.

george-bellairs2-140x215

Lest this all seems a little gentle and bucolic, it’s worth noting that there are many darker elements at play here. Murder in Golden Age times was usually an affair of killing off a deserving victim, and certainly Miss Tither elicits no sympathy. But her prying behaviour is seen to have damaging effects, and Bellairs’ portrayal of the Weekes couple is particularly stark. An ill-matched pair who married late, the wife is a religious zealot and the husband a man fighting what you might call his natural appetites and his attraction to a local girl. The couple appear to have married for convenience and finance, and there’s no love or warmth or companionship in the relationship, as Littlejohn finds when he calls at their farmhouse one night. The bleak atmosphere of hate, in which the wife is allowing the husband to drink himself to death, is chilling; and events in this cold household come to a dramatic climax.

In fact, the more I think about it, the more Bellairs seems to be exercising a voice of reason. He has no time for fanatics of any sort, whether religious, political or financial; it is the ordinary people leading ordinary lives and getting what joy they can out of everyday existence who seem to be the happiest and most favoured in his story, and that may be a reaction to the madness that was going on in the world around him as he wrote. However, putting that aside, “Death of a Busybody” is a most successful book, balancing lighter elements with dark, and I absolutely loved it. I’m so happy to have made the acquaintance of Inspector Littlejohn, and I’m quite sure my first Bellairs will not be my last!

(George Bellairs was the pseudonym of Harold Blundell; a banker and philanthropist, he published his detective stories for over 40 years and on the strength of this book it’s a mystery to me why he’s not better known. Fortunately, his books seem to be coming back into circulation, and there’s a website with loads of info about him here: http://www.georgebellairs.com/)

Review copy kindly provided by the British Library, for which many thanks!

An intriguing read for Shiny….

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SNB-logo-small-e1393871908245The second book I covered in the most recent edition of Shiny New Books was interesting, if a little problematic…

beyond-the-robot

“Beyond the Robot” is a new biography of the cult author Colin Wilson, best known for his groundbreaking work “The Outsider”. I approached it willing to be convinced, as I’ve not yet read any Wilson, but although intriguing, the book failed for me in a couple of ways. In particular, I found the hagiographic tone of the work a little too much in places. To read my thoughts in full, pop over to Shiny New Books and have a look here!

 

Exploring my Library – George Orwell

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During the 1947 Club week there was some talk of George Orwell, most often mention of “Keep the Aspidistra Flying” in relation to “Of Love and Hunger”. After exchanging some comments with Lady Fancifull, where we both confessed our love of Eric Blair, I thought it might be nice to share my George Orwell collection with you.

orwell-shelf

And here it is in its glory. Orwell has a shelf to himself – he’s that important! My first encounter with his work was when I was at school; I went to a Grammar School in the 1970s and we had a pretty enlightened education, studying “Animal Farm”, “Nineteen Eighty Four” and “Down and Out in Paris and London”. The fact that they survived intense analysis in English lessons and I still love them is testament to their brilliance.

school-reads

I didn’t have my own copies at the time, but picked these up subsequently (when I was a teenager we had little spare money for books and tended to use the library). Interestingly, OH’s copy of “Nineteen Eighty Four” looks just like the one I read at school, and I covet it….

other-works

However, in the 1980s when I was working I started to collect the books I’d always wanted to own, and many of these Orwells come from that time – picked up in charity shops and jumble sales, which is where I often found my books. Yes, I have two copies of “Homage to Catalonia” in paperback, and another in the hardback boxed set. It’s necessary, because there are differences in the old and new Penguins, with the later one being edited to reflect Orwell’s preferred order of chapters.

essays-and-poetry

Alas, I only ever found three volumes of the Collected Essays etc – I have the fourth in the hardbacks, but the OCD side of me would like the Penguin paperback to match these as well… The poems are a recent arrival, appealing to the completist in me, even if poetry is not necessarily Orwell’s strength.

pamphlets-etc

And here are some bits and bobs – a couple of little pamphlets, some Penguin Great Ideas volumes and a notebook that’s too precious to use!

box-set

And finally, the box set of hardbacks – a beautiful gift from OH some years ago. It’s a wonderful set, with quality paper and so lovely I’m sometimes scared to read it in case I mess them up (though OH made me a paper cover to put over the books when I’m reading them, and I *did* therefore use this version of “Homage to Catalonia” when I re-read it.) One of my most precious sets of books.

So that’s my Orwell collection – and I’m rather feeling in the mood to read him now! 🙂

Incoming – and planning what to read next…

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Now that things have calmed down a little after the excitement of reading for the 1947 Club, I’ve been thinking about what to read next and the answer is not obvious! I’m of course behind on the challenges I’m involved in this year – reading Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage and HeavenAli’s Woolfalong, though I may well be able to catch up a bit over half term.

There *have* been new arrivals recently in the form of a large pile of review books (which are obviously like buses, not coming for ages and then arriving all at once…). Some of these will be for Shiny New Books but I’m not sure which yet. However, I did bring home a couple of volumes at the weekend:

iceland-sebald

“Letters from Iceland” is from the library so theoretically I should try to read it soon. The Sebald was from a charity shop because I really do want to give him another try (I read him years ago but didn’t quite get him….)

I also felt the need to revamp the “interested-in-reading-soon” shelves as they were so crowded that things were getting out of hand and I really couldn’t see what was what. So now the big shelf looks like this:

big-shelf

There is a *lot* of poetry on those shelves, which I’m not likely to get to soon, plus a lot of Russians. We shall see…

There’s also a small shelf area with potential reads which looks like this:

small-shelf

More poetry in the form of Edith Sitwell (and I have a lovely big biography of her that Liz kindly sent me on the other shelf). The Beverley is calling as I haven’t read any of his books for a while. Decisions, decisions…

#1947 Club – phew, what a week it’s been!

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Indeed it has! It’s been a wonderful week of reading, and not only have I enjoyed what I chose to read very much, I’ve also loved hearing about what everyone else has been reading.

When I started to think about what books I would choose for the club, I actually had a pile of volumes chosen from my shelves, which was a bit of an achievement. I did eventually buy one title that intrigued me and which I considered trying to squeeze in, so this was the final stack.

1947-titles

The Steinbeck was the book I bought, and I will read it eventually I’m sure! And I ran out of time and energy so didn’t make it to re-reading Nabokov’s “Bend Sinister”, alas (it’s been a bit of a week at work and home). But I’m pleased that I did get to all the other titles on the pile, and a wonderful bunch they were. I don’t think I could pick one out as a favourite, but I will say that my revisit to “The Plague” was very special!

So thanks to my co-host Simon and to everyone else who took part.  I have a load of links on my 1947 Club page and I will try to keep updating this with people’s posts, but if I’ve missed yours, please be sure to leave a comment so I can include you. Here’s to the next Club*! 🙂

*Adding in here, now that Simon has done the Big Reveal, that next time we will be focusing on 1951 – so get planning! :))

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