Monday, October 18, 2010

Front List / Back List: Tales From The Crypt #9 "Wickeder" and Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark by Alvin Scwartz

You were hoping I'd embed this intro, weren't you?

Hello kiddies, the DA has an absolutely horrific pairing for this October embalming, er, installment. Back from the dead we have his Lowness, the Crypt Keeper himself, purveying putrid puns and making even the stiffest zombies giggle like a schoolghoul.

On the other hand, from way back in the darker depths of the back list we have Alvin Schwartz infamous Scary Stories series, replete with library banning and morbid illustration.

We're keeping it light, I mean dark, this week and you'll be all the worse for it.

From The Front List

Tales from The Crypt #9: Wickeder by Stefan Petrucha, David Gerrold, Jim Salicrup
Rick Parker, Mr. Exes. Graphic Novel/Horror. Papercutz. Trade paperback. 64 pp. ISBN: 9781597072151. $6.99.

Papercutz has done us all a disservice, okay enough with the Crypt Keeeper speak, service then, by resurrecting the lost goldmine of kitsch that is Tales From The Crypt. Most famous of course for the John Kassir voiced puppet that starred in HBO's decade running (1986-96) series by the same name, Papercutz has brought the series back to its a comic.

Originally published by EC Comics in the 1950's, Tales From The Crypt is now remembered more for its smuttier, albeit still very funny, TV version. The origins though were somewhat more innocent than HBO's rendering and the targeted audience much younger.

Existing in a half-light between out-and-out horror and the zany pun driven, current affairs slapstick satire of Mad Magazine, Tales From The Crypt has a special role in that it is designed to manufacture laughs as well as the occasional disgusted cringe. Whereas the HBO series was aligned more to the horror side of things, Papercutz comic is concerned more with getting snickering laughter.

The main attraction to the ninth installment of the Papercutz series is the return of their most successful character (aside from CK of course), the Diary Of A Wimpy Kid spoofing "Diary Of A Wimpy Dead Kid." See how that's done? He's not just wimpy. He's also dead. Hijinks ensue.

Beyond the story of a young zombie's struggle to fit in (with help from his witch mother and newly found pet skeleton dog) there is also the politically oriented spoof, "Kill Baby Kill", where an attractive politician (clearly Sarah Palin) flirts and flits her way around a new oil rig while pouring scorn on the environment and its protectors alike. This is the Crypt Keeper's tale mind you, and strangely no one has a keener sense of justice than him. It's a macabre justice of course and typically enforced with a ruthlessness that would make even Rudy Giuliani blush. In the case of our buxom would-be presidential candidate, her comeuppance is found at the bottom of a corpse filled sea.

The title story is of course a lurid take on Gregory Maguire's novel and theatrical darling, Wicked. "Wickeder" is rounded off by the misappropriation of words in a title, which has us reading "Sales Of A Death Man" instead of, well, you know...

The illustration is quickly done and what it lacks in detail it makes up for in the way it lends itself to the largely slapstick comedies being told. Tales From The Crypt is once again what it should be: a wonderfully campy comic that will garner snickers from adults and that developmentally important combination of laughter and fear that children are so susceptible to. Wait... Does that sound weird?

Wah ha ha ha ha ha!

From The Back List

Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark by Alvin Schwartz. Illustrated by Stephen Gammell. Children's Literature/Horror. Trade paperback. ISBN: 0064401707. 8vo. $5.99.

* Quick Note: I was unable to determine which of the Scwartz books contains the Tailypo story I mention in this post. I believe it was the first. In any case, they're all equally disturbing books.

When I first learned of the Papercutz reissues I instantly new what I would pair them with. Another Crypt Kepper of sorts, exists in Alvin Schwartz. I don't think it is a stretch for me to say that at least half of you reading this can remember one of his infamous anthology's stories that severely disturbed you in your formative years.

For one there is Gammell's illustrations, which are like Goya sketches from some darker place version of the world. The blood is always black and ample, regardless of how sanguine a story might actually be. The point is: Gammell's illustrations are perfect matches for Scwartz morbid tales. Extremely morbid tales, mind you.

So morbid in fact that Scary Stories in its various volumes and installments is one of the most banned books in US history. With stories where scarecrows end up tanning a farmer's hide on rooftops and evil forest entities (I have friends that can't sleep in a forest without fear of being flayed into an unrecognizable pulp by Tailypo) viciously murder unfortunate people who fail to engage in proper forest etiquette, the violence of the stories told by Schwartz is not exactly an inexplicable reason to warn children off of them.

Scwartz isn't just making up nasty tales to leave dark impressions on children. He is as much a folklorist as he is a children's book author. The stories that populate the Scary Stories franchise are culled from folk legends and lore. They might even be educational. The world isn't all sunshine and cool breeze, after all, and personally I think some desensitizing goes a long way in dealing with that fact. Especially if you're living in Tailypo's fetid grove.

If you haven't had a chance encounter with these books in a while then now is the perfect time to treat yourself. The stories are well-told and their brutal endings can still evoke fear, even in adults. If anything, you might learn something. Like don't cut off a strange animal's tale or tease a scarecrow. Otherwise you might end up in one of Alvin Schwartz's horrifying stories.

Plus if you read enough of them you might just know how to handle an enraged cat-creature looking for its tale. Oh, who am I kidding. Tailypo is going to carve you like Thanksgiving turkey.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Front List / Back List: The Castle In Transylvania by Jules Verne & The Invention Of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares

We’re officially all-spooky here for the month of October. My love of seasonal themes is well-documented on this blog and really, the fall is the best time for ghost stories.

Today we have a pair of spectral novels that are eerily similar tales of mad science, haunted love and shrewd investigation. Okay, so I added the “eerily” for the sake of being cute. Kind of like candycorn in a ghost shaped tin. They are truly spectral though.

On the front list we have the great French writer, Jules Verne, whose long unpublished novel has been brought “back from the dead” by Melville House Publishing. Then we’ll dive into the stacks to take a look at a wonderful Argentinian novel by Adolfo Bioy Casares, whose intricate plotting is comparable with that of Henry James, G.K. Chesterton and Casares' longtime friend and collaborator, Jorge Luis Borges.

From The Front List

The Castle In Transylvania by Jules Verne. Fiction. Melville House Publishing. Trade paperback. 8vo. 9781935554080. $14.95

One of the most interesting things to note about this edition of Verne is that it is complete. It is something that tends to go overlooked by academia and critics alike, but Jules Verne was often heavily edited in translation, particularly in English. Much of the rich exposition that is apparently a hallmark of Verne’s writing in French was edited out of his English translations. This of course left English readers with a stripped down, action oriented storyline that focused more on the pace of the story and its imaginative inventions than on the development of characters or description of location.

The shame of this practice is all the more evident after reading a “complete” translation. One of the most charming facets to The Castle In Transylvania is the lengthy descriptions of the Transylvanian countryside and its people. Writing his “ghost” story (Melville House calls it a zombie story, which is not really accurate) years before Stoker penned Dracula, Verne does not fall into the Stoker tradition of exoticising Transylvania. Nor does he overplay any spooky traditions, which are now hallmarks of popular conception of the region.

Instead Verne describes Transylvanian topography and customs, which of course includes some plot developing superstitions (one can’t completely avoid it apparently). These passages are actually quite engaging, if potentially antiquated or dubiously didactic.

Do not confuse what I’m saying: This is not a travelogue. It is tale of mystery and science, of desires perceived and deceived. Verne’s story is a somewhat uniquely fragmented affair that sets an extended, realistic stage and then quickly puts the bump in its night. That bump of course comes courtesy of that castle mentioned in the title.

Naturally it has been long abandoned and in somewhat abrupt and mysterious circumstances. Naturally it is in a craggy, somewhat inexplicably unassailable (getting stores there must have been some trouble in its heyday) position both in distance and height from the small village it neighbors. Unnaturally however, the castle appears to be inhabited.

What starts with an inexplicable issue of smoke from a chimney quickly turns to otherworldly lights and sounds. Threatening voices sound off in the village’s small inn and the first brave party to investigate the castle meets with a violent end. Even the most rational investigator, of course this would be a foreign man of noble birth, meets with the horror invoking reality of the castle when impossibly he spies on its ramparts the ghostly form of his lost love.

This is Verne mind you and I will naturally leave off on any further exposition of my own. It’s better to leave the exposition to the writer and pare the critic.

Not exactly a zombie story like it’s advertised to be it is yet a wonderfully spooky yarn that is cleverly plotted and assembled from a diverse (and very unique) set of parts. Perhaps because it is such an early arrival in the genre, let alone a first (as far as I know it is the first “horror” story set in Transylvania), The Castle In Transylvania should prove entertaining for even the most initiated of horror fans.

From The Back List

The Invention Of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares. Prologue by Jorge Luis Borges. Translated by Suzanne Jill Levine. Fiction. New York Review of Books. Trade paperback. 8vo. 1590170571. $12.95.

I have discussed with the author the details of his plot. I have reread it. To classify it as perfect is neither imprecision nor a hyperbole.

-Jorge Luis Borges, concluding his Prologue.

My persistent, deplorable preoccupation with Morel's relationship to Faustine keeps me from paying much attention to my own destruction; that is an unexpected and beneficent result.

-Adolfo Bioy Casares, The Invention of Morel

There is a relationship between these two books that is quite stunning. There is a unity of commentary on the self-deluding nature of unrequited love but more particularly there is a remarkable similarity in technological inventions that populate each novel. Unfortunately the description of this device, literally and figuratively, would render the plots transparent. So in some sense I must talk around it in order to avoid such a crime.

By way of brief bio, or "capsule biography" as Borges used to refer to the micro biographies he'd write, Adolfo Bioy Casares is often mentioned only in relation to his friend and mentor, the previously mentioned Borges. They collaborated on writing and both inspired each other in kind with their unique yet unified vision of literature. Both men were preoccupied with concise writing and champions of the evocative plot. More to the point, both believed that intricate plotting held a reader's attention and would help them (the reader) invest enough in the story to successfully arrive at any "points" the story might have.

In this sense The Invention of Morel is the perfection that Borges writes of in his Prologue to the novel. The book is at once cinematic in its setting, gripping in its lurid plot and upsetting in its implication. Rereading this book is an apocalyptic delight. Additional depth is revealed with further appreciations, which is certainly a hallmark of great literature.

The plot and back story are simple and purposefully obscured. Both reveal themselves slowly and while one maintains a bitingly ironic humor (the story of the protagonist himself) the other becomes increasingly full of dread. Both Borges and the translator compare the book to the works of Kafka, Chesterton and Henry James (in particular The Turn Of The Screw).

So what of that plot? A man has fled the law to a deserted and supposedly disease afflicted isle, which is one of the Pacific's Ellice Islands. There amongst strangely well-maintained buildings he makes his paranoid home. Instantly his memoir, for that is what we the reader are auspiciously reading, is called into doubt by its stodgy, short-sighted editor. For instance the island is populated by a verdure that no other Ellice island possesses.

Disbelief is easily suspended however, particularly because of conscientious, let alone confessional approach the narrator is taking. After weeks of barely surviving the hazardous, flood prone isle he discovers that there is a vast and still fully functional series of machines on the island that can, if nothing else at first, pump clean water.

Like that famously short story about the last man on earth not being alone so too is our narrator suddenly not alone. In fact the island is populated by a party of people, including a lovely young woman who so fully unmans our protagonist that we begin to question his sanity. These other inhabitants are instantly realized as somewhat lurid entities, in fact they seem mechanical at times and at others repetitive like a ghost repeating its former life. Indeed, you too will question sanity as the story becomes increasingly strange.

After hiding himself for weeks the young criminal becomes emboldened by the notion of companionship. In time he learns that the island belongs to a member of the party, a certain scientist by the name of Morel. So too do the attentions of the young woman, appropriately named Faustine, belong to Morel. Morel is of course of the "mad" variety of scientists and any phonic resemblance between Wells' Island of Dr. Moreau and The Invention Of Morel is not only purposeful but also important. It quickly becomes apparent that Dr. Morel has created the island with some sort of purpose.

One and one does not equal two on this island, that is until it is perhaps too late. Casares fashions an ingenious hell and replaces Dante with a gentlemanly yet criminal protagonist that lives in constant self-effacing anguish.It is in that sense a perfect situation for a dark comedy of unrequited love and maniacal idealism.

It truly is a treat to read these two as a pair. Better fit the tropical Argentinian novel in during these last days of sunlight. Save the Verne for those long, grey days soon to arrive.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Front List/ Back List: From Fatwa To Jihad by Kenan Malik and Blasphemy by Leonard W. Levy

THis is more or less a Banned Books Week post. In order to do this one I had to unearth my copy of Blasphemy from storage. Believe it or not, but the majority of my books are packed away and the process of going through box after box of cherished bound printed materials nearly broke my heart.

Luckily I found a copy of Epictetus and avoided any serious grief. Yuk yuk.

Let's get on with this red letter post. Since I discuss The Satanic Verses so much in the Front List post I have included its publication information within that section.

From The Front List

From Fatwa To Jihad: The Rushdie Affair and Its Aftermath by Kenan Malik. Melville House Publishing. Politics/Current Affairs. Hardcover. 8vo. ISBN: 9781935554004. 266 pps. $25.

The Satanic Verses
by Salman Rushdie. Fiction. Random House Publishing. Trade paperback. 8vo. 561 pps. ISBN: 9780812976717. $16.

So he was sentenced to be beheaded, within the hour, and as soldiers manhandled him out of the tent towards the killing ground, he shouted over his shoulder: 'Whores and writers, Mahound. We are the people you can't forgive.'

Mahound replied, 'Writers and whores. I see no differences here.'

-Salman Rushdie, The Satanic Verses

In the name of God the Almighty. We belong to God and to Him we shall return. I would like to inform all intrepid Muslims in the world that the author of the book Satanic Verses, which has been compiled, printed, and published in opposition to Islam, the Prophet, and the Qur'an, and those publishers who were aware of its contents, are sentenced to death. I call on all zealous Muslims to execute them quickly, where they find them, so that no one will dare to insult the Islamic sanctity. Whoever is killed on this path will be regarded as a martyr, God-willing.

-Ayatollah Khomeini

I don't want to sensationalize this too much but...

Okay, so that was a lame attempt at levity. There is only sensationalism in the above quotes. Certainly on the part of Rushdie and doubly so on the part of Khomeini. Both had much to gain from the scandal that ensued but only one had a lot to lose.

That of course would be Salman.

I can remember The Satanic Verses being one of the topics for my third grade (or was it second?) current affairs team. At the time the book seemed magical to me. The cool name alone piqued my interest (truly, I am not a Satanist). I even remember supplying the name of the author at a cookout my parents were having and wowing all the adults there. Thus you now know my approximate age and that Rushdie's book is somewhat special to me.

The first time I read The Satanic Verses was much later however. In fact I read it early in 2002. I was reading Midnight's Children when 9/11 occurred and having just inherited a run of Rushdie titles from my recently deceased grandmother (a revelation about her as well) I naturally continued on.

I was both alarmed and impressed by Rushdie's prescience. As the events of 9/11 and its aftermath unfolded I kind of held onto Rushdie's writing as a guide. Rushdie was my Virgil, as it were.

Not everyone can speak so fondly of Rushdie, of course, but perhaps no one can speak as knowledgeably about the effect his most infamous book has had on the world as Kenan Malik.

From Fatwa To Jihad is an amazing book and not in the hyperbolic sense of the "amazing" cliche. It is sincerely amazing because it reveals something that is both hard to conceive of and important to understand. Namely that The Satanic Verses was a world-changing novel.

Despite our somewhat universal awareness of the scandal caused by controversial novel we are somewhat prone to generalizing it by placing it rank and file among a list of "Great Moments In Radical Islam." Malik would have us change this. He would have us realize it as the great moment of radical Islam.

Appropriately the fulcrum from which Kenan Malik lifts his book is one that is already evident in The Satanic Verses itself. The impetus for the creation of a globally realized radical Islam begins in 1970's England. In particular via white racism and institutionalized stigma heaped upon "blacks" in the UK.

This brings us back to Rushdie's book. The Satanic Verses is as much a virulent criticism of racist policies in Margaret Thatcher's England as it is an aggressively secular imagining of the foundation of Islam. Rushdie is careful to note the seeds of discontent being sown daily as police and hooligans alike harass and commit violence against anyone too dark for their liking. It might be something of a slippery slope but without skinheads and Margaret Thatcher we might not have arrived at the events of 9/11. Then again all of this, from the Rushdie affair to the war in Afghanistan is about a western propensity to underestimate the counter reaction to segregation and degradation.

Rushdie's harsh criticism and satirical barb is lost on the book's detractors. Simply put: They don't care about secular political commentary because it too can be leveled against their own methods.

One of the fascinating asides in Malik's book comes toward the beginning. He describes the early reactions of Muslims during the height of the violence they endured. Many young Muslim men were prone to take up with communists and other leftist parties in response to the institutionalized inequalities they saw in their daily lives. Increasingly secular, these young men saw in Marx and Trotsky methodical thinkers whose ideas they could implement in their self-defense and pursuit of equality.

The change? From Fatwa To Jihad argues that the publication and condemnation of The Satanic Verses was the momment that transformed radical Islam from a inconsequential and highly localized phenomena to a global force capable of terrorizing nearly anyone, anywhere.

So something born in rational and legitimate criticism combines perversely with the most irrational form of ideological bullying around.

How can we explain this paradox? Terror is an expression of the impotence of Islamism; unable to win for themselves a mass following jihadists have become impresarios of death, forced into spectacular displays of violence to gain the attention they cannot win through political means. Nothing reveals the moral squalor of radical Islam better than its celebration of the suicide bomber. Traditional political and military movements nurtured as their greatest asset the people who supported them. For jihadists people are like firecrackers to be lit and tossed away.

-Kenan Malik, From Fatwa To Jihad pg. 94

The Satanic Verses
served as a lightning rod and kindling all at once. Literally in the latter case. It gave Islam a global, let alone national stage and distilled a communal sense of outrage for disenfranchised Muslims in the UK and throughout the world. Stir in the notion that western imperialistic nations like the UK and US were protecting this supreme blasphemy and you have the beginning of what we now call "The Global War On Terror."

In this sense The Satanic Verses is a self-fulfilling prophesy. All one need do is look to the scene where essentially Rushdie has Khomeini harnessing and steering the newly pious (and seraphic) character Gibreel Farishta and flying him into the infidel's buildings to see that the future was not hidden to Rushdie.

Salman Rushdie certainly foresaw the foundations for a globally realized Islamic extremism. Unfortunately his warnings became the spark needed to set a near-defunct philosophy ablaze.

From The Back List

Blasphemy: Verbal Offense Against The Sacred, From Moses To Salman Rushdie by Leonard W. Levy. The University Of North Carolina Press. History/Law. Trade paperback. 4to. ISBN: 0807845159. 688 pps. Out-Of-Print. Prices vary.

First published in 1995, Levy's massive history of blasphemy approaches the subject from the standpoint of the law. Elementally the notion of blasphemy is one of formal definitions, decrees and condemnations. It is perhaps purely a matter for jurisprudence and yet is at its most influential when it is dealt with off the scales. That is perhaps most evident in the "Rushdie affair."

Basically the point is that whether right or wrong, the blasphemer is viewed as having gone against the law.

Thing is, as you encounter over and over again in Blasphemy, the offender is often a harbinger of a new norm for the sacred he is supposedly profaning. I should be careful to note that Levy does not make this argument, it is something evidenced by a parallel line of historical investigation or awareness. Jesus. Martin Luther. John Calvin. George Fox. William Sloane Coffin. Those are a handful of the biggest blasphemers in Christian history. They are also some of that religion's greatest innovators/inventors.

Well, Coffin might not rank with those others but I wanted a contemporary parallel and had to grasp a little.

Blasphemy is a very detailed history and it seeks to make no "points" along its sprawling way. Instead Levy is careful to let the incidents themselves do the damage. Let's face it: The cries of the righteous against the blaspheme have rarely echoed well down history's corridor.

One thing truly praiseworthy is Levy's writing. He is a clear thinker and while he is diligent to maintain neutrality he allows himself the liberty of creating and enjoying the occasional irony. It is a history rife with situational humor despite the often sanguineous events on stage.

Levy devotes an entire chapter to the "Rushdie affair" and as is the nature of the book Levy is allowed to focus more on the potentiality of the laws proposed or created from it rather than the fireworks of reaction. The Christian establishment in London rallied to support the Muslim outrage against the book, partly because they spied a slippery slope of sanctioned blasphemy that could eventually protect heretics of their own faith. They also did so because as people of faith they understood the anger Muslims felt.

Levy is also able to give us a slightly more chilling account of sacred violence against the profane. It is a reversal that happens throughout the history of blasphemy, but when we read of translators being slain in their driveways we suddenly have an image totally identifiable with our world.

I first read Blasphemy in 2004 and at the time the inclusion of Rushdie seemed to me both appropriate and important. Kenan Malik's From Fatwa To Jihad has only served to deepen that understanding and foster a certain awe of such an event springing from a novel.

In many ways, The Satanic Verses has become not just a novel but a major historical event whose history is yet playing out.

Blasphemy might not be terribly easy to get your hands on but it, like From Fatwa To Jihad, is certainly a very important book to read.

Plus you'll be able to speak about the Anabaptists with authority. That's something to keep you warm at night.