Friday, September 21, 2012

This Week's Book: The King in Yellow

This entry is admittedly disjointed. Read this book - you'll see why.

September 16-22: The King in Yellow by Robert W. Chambers

Horror (1895 - 133 pp.) 

The King in Yellow is notorious for its place in the short and often obscure history of weird tales. The combination of hinted supernatural and overt grotesque make this a chilling read, often genuinely scary. The first four stories deal with "The King in Yellow", an almost all unseen play that plunges its readers into madness and despair; the middle of the book is concerned with non-play grotesqueness and quick bites; and the last half or so consists of stories about American students living in Paris. 

The part of the book concerned with the play I found gripping in same way I enjoyed Arthur Machen's "The Novel of the White Powder" from the same year. Themes of obsession and insanity mark both, with the play's impact on its readers having this ethereal drug-like quality that eventually ruins them. "The Repairer of Reputations" especially has an incredible concept, complete with billing for the repair, and the Yellow Sign is just about the creepiest thing in literature. The stories in the middle of the book lack the play and the Sign, yet they have elements like a seemingly dead man who is seen alternately in dreams and on the street. "The Green Room" is less than a page but probably has the highest ratio of impact to words of anything I have ever read. "The Love Test" is like something out of a 19th-century LSAT if those had existed. The way Chambers twists his situations to emphasize the dark nature and arbitrary actions of his characters make otherwise absurd situations seem all the more real. (It is safe to say the chat between a clown and a Grim Reaper set to a Snow White theme could not be cast as realism, for example.) Aside from Chambers's 'cross-the-pond contemporary in Machen, there is a great deal of influence from Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and even a little from The Picture of Dorian Gray. Within the drug-addled 1890s, the idea of external possession of the human body took form in supernatural horror like this. 

What I did not find quite as effective were Chambers's attempts at Henry James-style travel writing. The stories about the American students in Paris sometimes provided interesting background semi-related to the earlier stories. Indeed, Chambers is effective in his use of recurring characters. I found his students not all that interesting as people, though. Stories about American students in Paris seem like a cliché now, not so much then, so I can only hold so much against Chambers on that point. The first half or so of The King in Yellow is absolutely classic. 

"You have seized the throne and the empire. Woe! woe to you who are crowned with the crown of the King in Yellow!" 

Ease of Reading: 4 
Educational Content: 4

Friday, September 14, 2012

This Week's Book: A Tale of a Tub

Getting back to the old stuff. Apparently the 20th century is just too recent these days.

September 9-15: A Tale of a Tub by Jonathan Swift

Literature (1704 - 140 pp.) 

A Tale of a Tub is the first full-length book by Jonathan Swift I've ever read, "A Modest Proposal" having been the extent of my reading before this. I wanted to read something from relatively early in his career. I'm calling this fiction but it bleeds into non-fiction in that decidedly Swift way, satirizing the political events of the day so openly it becomes the treatise he describes rather than a novel. It centres on three brothers - Peter, Martin and Jack - who represent Catholicism, Lutheranism and Calvinism. Most of the treatise is a figurative telling of various historical events, especially from the Reformation up until its release, with occasional digressions into the general state of literary criticism. 

Much of A Tale of a Tub is identifiable now. Some of the more blatant ones are that no one cares about good writing anymore, that two of the three types of critics are insufferable, and that Catholic clergymen adorn themselves too ornately while Calvinist clergymen are too rigid in their rejection of said ornate adornment. Swift backs Luther more than the other religious figures, using Luther's personage to reflect the idea of balance between church wealth and humility. Swift's position in the Church of Ireland is evident throughout the treatise, but in a way that offers more insight into his perspective than into any particular hatred of the others. The association of Catholic doctrine with bodily filth, for example (and Swift's example here is the unnecessary, ritualistic and ultimately fatal cure for worms in the spleen), is at least as old as The Faerie Queene's depiction of the monster vomiting papers. The attacks on literary criticism are tougher to appraise, as religions have lasted far more solidly than specific schools of literary criticism, but the William Congreve quotation that "And how they're disappointed when they're pleased" (58) is one that should continue to be appreciated as it ages. 

A Tale of a Tub certainly has its place in the canon of early modern religious attack literature. It helps to have a background in early modern English history and/or literature, although I suppose this treatise could be useful background for reading Swift's contemporaries. Then, of course, "A Digression in Praise of Digressions" (83) is one of the best chapter titles I have ever seen. Swift's wit is present as always. 

NOTE: I have the Penn State ebook. That is where I've drawn the page references. 

Ease of Reading: 2 
Educational Content: 6

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

This Week's Book: The Satanic Bible

A friend told me he'd rather read a review of the book than the book itself. Wish granted.

September 2-8: The Satanic Bible by Anton Szandor LaVey

Philosophy (1969 - 146 pp.) 

My copy of The Satanic Bible, dubbed "The Underground Edition", contains the original text plus all four introductions that have been used for it over the years and some concluding essays. It was made available as an ebook, proving that Satanism indeed keeps up with technological trends in its efforts to reach the masses. My introduction to this text comes from wanting to read substantially different material over the course of this year (and if this is not different, what is?) and from reading about the Satanism of David Vincent, bassist/vocalist of Morbid Angel. I thought Vincent's lyrics had great atmosphere, especially in "Fall from Grace", so naturally, I read the book. 

The Satanic Bible is predicated upon the Left Hand Path. Whereas the Right Hand Path contains principles like self-sacrifice for greater good, emphasis on light, and denial of temptation, the Left Hand Path is the exact opposite. Almost all major world religions belong to the Right Hand Path, as do Druids and practitioners of White Magic. Satanism, as one of the major branches of the Left Hand Path, defines itself in opposition to all of these. As a follower of the Right Hand Path (i.e. a Christian), I am inherently opposed to the broad conclusions LaVey draws. I can appreciate a compelling argument regardless of perspective, though. 

One of The Satanic Bible's charms is just how meticulously detailed it is. Truly everything about being a Satanist is explained clearly, whether it is how to embrace each of the Seven Deadly Sins or how to properly set up a room for a Satanic ritual. The book is divided very nicely into four parts - Satan (Fire), Lucifer (Air), Belial (Earth), and Leviathan (Water). Each draws on a different aspect of the Satanic faith while reiterating the initial theme of godlessness, that man is supreme yet animal. The occult bits LaVey includes throughout are educational in the sense that it is an entire body of literature he embraced more than I ever have or likely will. The field guide presentation of the last two parts makes the book seem more interactive, even to those of us who have no intention of actually carrying out any of the rituals. 

My problems with The Satanic Bible beyond my ideological opposition to Satanism more generally lie in the substantive details. LaVey is not one to cite his sources. The way in which he portrays Christian beliefs, for example his mention that gluttony is eating more than is absolutely needed for survival, is unconvincing. In light of his pillory of how Christians supposedly describe black masses, a little more understanding from LaVey would be welcome in displaying what he hates so much. The lackadaisical way in which he describes some aspects of rituals, like the desirability of a silver chalice but the admission that a wooden or ceramic (just not golden) one will serve fine in the absence of a silver one, contrasts sharply with the detail of the ceremonial setup. Then much of the book consists of blind acceptance of various occult sources, alleged plagiarism of works like Arthur Desmond's "Might Is Right", and tangential rants. The encouragement to make drawings, or to write stories or plays, directed at a desired or hated one feels like it could too easily lead to some art that LaVey even admits will not be of the highest calibre. 

The premise is incredible. That Satan has endured centuries of slander from Right Hand Path adherents yet has held his tongue makes him the benevolent one to LaVey. That Satan finally decides to speak back, and to rather unsurprisingly preach the Left Hand Path, is a concept that can perk up a reader's eyebrows if nothing else. The execution of The Satanic Bible is mixed. I was not expecting I would be convinced by its message but I needed something that presented more coherence. Besides, for all LaVey says about Satan keeping the church in business, so much of LaVeyan Satanism is derived directly from defiance of Christian practice that Satanism is likely the more indebted system of beliefs. 

Ease of Reading: 7 
Educational Content: 4

Monday, September 3, 2012

Last Week's Book: The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún by J.R.R. Tolkien

This was a fun one. Nice to get back to some fiction, as heavy on historiography as it is.

August 26-September 1: The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún by J.R.R. Tolkien

Mythology (2009 - 371 pp.) 

An important note: The date and page count given are for the 2009 edition by Christopher Tolkien. It's a good edition - I'd recommend it. 

The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún consists of two stories in verse, "The Lay of Sigurd" and "The Lay of Gudrún". Each ends with the death of the titular character. One nice aspect of writing entries on centuries-old poems is that spoilers are irrelevant. Christopher Tolkien offers up these and more with regularity in the book's lengthy introduction. The former is a Norse epic involving rarefied lineage, a specially forged sword, a clash of good and evil without a whole lot of explanation as to why the good and evil characters act those ways, and a general understanding that our hero is someone incredibly special. The link to Beowulf is evident, although The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún lacks the additive style that madeBeowulf less exciting to me. (The greatest hero in all the land rode across the field and then he smote a troll and then he captured a maiden and then he rose a flag, and so on.) The latter story concerns Attila the Hun, whose presentation in Norse legend is as cruel as one would expect. Gudrún's compelled marriage to him following the death of her beloved Sigurd leads to the alienation of Gudrún as a character much as Brynhild, Sigurd's Valkyrie betrothed, was in the first story. The storyline is exciting, especially in light of the post-Lord of the Rings interest in Norse mythology in Western culture. 

J.R.R. Tolkien's extensive Old English/Norse scholarship, and his son's antiquarian-style editors' notes, make this a really interesting read. It's not much of an airport read, but a long plane ride and/or a day off will polish this one off nicely. It adds a little poetic perspective to times we know so little about (the late Antiquity/early Medieval period in Northern Europe). What does it say that I enjoyed this more than Lord of the Rings

Thanks to a non-RYM friend for the recommendation. This one had been sitting in my collection since summer 2009. It's a gift well appreciated, if with a short delay. 

Ease of Reading: 4 
Educational Content: 7