TomahawkPoe.jpgIn Print (Book Reviews and Published Pieces)

 

Sunday
Oct262008

Notes on Democracy by HL Mencken

Notes on Democracy: a New Edition

by H.L. Mencken

Afterword by Anthony Lewis

Introduction and annotations by Marion Elizabeth Rodgers

Dissident Books, 206 pp

Reviewed by Edward Pettit

Swimming Against the Sea of Morons

Over the last couple years, I’ve become so dissatisfied with the American political system that I’ve almost stopped participating. Politicians who speak in nothing but a coded language, pundits who do nothing but speak in a code of their own and journalists who feed the obfuscating fire. Is it any wonder that so many people have turned to comedy programs, like the Daily Show, SNL and late-night talk shows, for their political news? Comedy has a way of cutting through the bullshit. 

So how refreshing it was to read Dissident Books’ reissue of H.L. Mencken’s Notes on Democracy, first published in 1926. Mencken was a world famous journalist and iconoclast of the highest order, so politically incorrect that it is highly unlikely he would survive in what passes for news-reportage today. 

Marion Elizabeth Rodgers provides some biographical and critical background for Mencken in an introduction that borders on hagiography. But I forgave the saint-like treatment when Rodgers provided this Mencken quotation: 

If I have accomplished anything in this world it is this: that I have made life measurably more bearable for the civilized minority in America. The individuals of this minority are often surrounded by dark, dense seas of morons and so they tend to become hopeless. I have reason to believe that my books and other writings have given a little comfort to many such persons and even inspired some of them to revolt. I am glad of the comfort but the revolt doesn’t interest me. 

The elitist in me feels a pang of Menckenian kinship, as I daily swim against that tide of morons. 

Mob rule was feared by many of the politicians who founded America and the role of the common man was heatedly debated for the first few decades of the Early American Empire. This is not surprising when you consider they watched the French Revolution, modeled after and inspired by the American one, succumb to riot and rampant bloodshed. America never went down this path. Our politicians, at least, have been relatively safe from violent overthrow. 

However, Mencken saw American Democracy in the same stark turns, as a conflict between the elite, educated citizens and the shrill, blunt mob. Watching the political parties ratchet up the class war terminology for the last few months has done nothing to dispel this view. Mencken watched successive administrations play the fear card to pursue their agenda, especially with The Great War. Make the people afraid and they’ll follow you anywhere. 

Mencken’s fear of demagoguery has become an even greater problem today because of the power of mass media. Political operatives have learned how to manipulate a system, to control certain small pockets of voters, just enough of them to supply victories at the polls. Mob rule is now so deftly manipulated that the mob doesn’t know they’re being led and the watchdogs, the journalists, don’t know they are playing a role in manipulating them.

You might wonder why I’m pontificating about politics in what is supposed to be a book review. Mencken made me do it. Every page of his Notes was a refreshing shot to my political brain. I felt as if I had finally found someone willing to lay bare the bones of our democratic system. I can’t help but read his book and think about our own time. Comfort indeed in a world of morons. 

Sunday
Oct052008

The Evil That Men Do and Savage Night

The Evil That Men Do

by Dave White

Three Rivers Press, 287 pp

Savage Night

by Allan Guthrie

Harcourt, 311 pp

Reviewed by Edward Pettit

Bloody Katanas and Battered Private Eyes

Dave White is a New Jersey writer of PI novels set in Jersey and Allan Guthrie is a Scottish writer of violent crime novels set in Scotland. You’d think they’d have little in common (except their boyish good looks). However, their two new books, White’s The Evil That Men Do and Guthrie’s Savage Night, both subscribe to a noir view of family and violence that is unforgiving and unrelenting. And very readable.

White’s novel is the second in his Jackson Donne private eye series, set in New Brunswick and the surrounding Jersey area. The first novel, When One Man Dies, introduced Donne as a burnt out former cop, trying to get his life back together, but haunted by his past connections to both the crooks and police. He’s the quintessential noir hero who can never catch a break. Tragedy follows mishap follows bad luck follows a fight for his own survival. We’ve been down this road before, but White balances nicely our expectations of the genre and his own contemporary take on the proceedings.

White’s PI is an isolated outsider, helping those also on the fringes of society. His jobs usually start out for a paycheck, but end up finished out of sheer compulsion. As resistance meets him at every turn, Donne just goes on. Like the noir hero he is, Donne battles the fates aligned against him because to stop would be to admit defeat. Unlike his namesake, he IS an island and still every death affects him.

So far so noir. Nothing new here. But while in classic noir and hard-boiled stories, the private detective reaches out into society and finds corruption that ultimately eats away at his own self, White’s PI delves into his own family, retreating from a society that has already rejected him. And what he finds isn’t solace or peace. What he finds is explosive hate and violent love, in those around him and in himself.

The Evil That Men Do also differs from the classic Raymond Chandler world in another respect: action. Like may contemporary crime writers, film has had as much influence on their work as other novels have (often more so). Sometimes Jackson Donne reminded me more of John McClain, the hero cop of the “Die Hard” movies, than he did of any traditional PI in a fedora. And that’s a good thing. The action in this novel crackles. Donne gets beaten up so often that you’d think he’d break, but he still manages to claw his way to his feet and throw one more punch. However, White handles his plot so well that it doesn’t seem hackneyed or clichéd. Not only is Donne compelled to go on, so is the reader.

Guthrie’s Savage Night could never be called hackneyed. But there is plenty of hacking involved. The book opens with Fraser Savage and his girlfriend returning from a night of drinking to find a headless corpse in Fraser’s apartment. What follows is a tale of two families who will stop at nothing as they pursue their respective vengeances. This is the Hatfields and the McCoys with katanas. For Guthrie the blood of family is not just a metaphor. These families, the Savages and the Parks, share blood because it gets splattered all over themselves.

The novel takes place over only six hours in Edinburgh, but Guthrie flashes back and forth in time, revealing only just enough to compel the reader forward in suspense. I think this is the best thing that Guthrie has written to date. Savage Night works on all cylinders. I know these characters better than I’ve known any of the ones in his previous novels, Kiss Her Goodbye, Two-Way Split and Hard Man. In the last one, Hard Man, although I enjoyed it, I thought that the violence had begun to take over the plot, leaving me with characters just doing things, not characters living. But the Parks and the Savages seem like real brothers and sisters and fathers and wives and husbands. Not that I’d want to meet any of them in person. But I love reading about their lives.

Like White, Guthrie explores a noir sensibility of Family. The ever tightening bonds of union, whether genetic or by marriage, that normally threaten to crush, must here remain close so the family can stop from being crushed by others. The family that kills together stays together. Or at least stays in as many pieces as possible. The twisted dysfunction of these families works to help them stay together. Guthrie always writes with a deft ironic touch. But this one is his best.

Monday
Apr282008

Varney the Vampire by James Malcolm Rymer

Years ago I discovered Varney the Vampire, or the Feast of Blood, a penny dreadful from the Victorian age, the first full-length vampire novel in English (I've never discovered whether there were any vampire novels in other languages that predate it). My discovery was a three volume Arno Press edition, a facsimile of the original 1847 edition with a plethora of illustrations throughout the text. The tiny print layed out in double columns on each page seemed daunting at first, but what the hell, I was game. Somewhere around volume 2, I just couldn't bear it any longer. The text was just illegible in places and the print-size was giving me a headache. Reading Varney in this way became a chore. Later I discovered the novel online and was able to finish it, but I still missed the pleasure of the book form, still the best way to read any long text.

Happily Zittaw Press has published a new complete edition of Varney, edited by Curt Herr.  And Zittaw has a podcast about it here. I wrote this review for the Phila Inq back in December, but in their change of book review editors (and by the looks of their new review policies), it never ran and it is unlikely it will at this point. So here it is.

Varney the Vampire: or, the Feast of Blood 878004-1524177-thumbnail.jpg
Zittaw Press

By James Malcolm Rymer

Edited with an introduction by Curt Herr

Zittaw Press, 828 pp

Reviewed by Edward Pettit

Before Dracula, there was another Victorian gentleman vampire, preying upon the rosy-cheeked young women of England. James Malcolm Rymer’s Varney the Vampire: or, the Feast of Blood was published in serial installments in 1845, more than half a century before Bram Stoker wrote his most famous vampire novel. There had been fictional vampires before Rymer’s, most notably John Polidori’s Lord Ruthven in his short story, “The Vampyre,” modeled on Polidori’s sometime traveling companion, the poet Lord Byron. While both Dracula and Ruthven have been acknowledged as major influences on the development of the vampire in literature, film and other popular culture manifestations, Rymer’s Sir Frances Varney has been underappreciated by scholars and virtually unknown to the reading public.

Zittaw Press, a small company devoted to republishing neglected gothic classics in affordable paperback editions, has just released a new edition of Varney the Vampire. At over 800 pages, with an introduction and several appendices (the book weighs 4 pounds), this is the definitive version of Rymer’s book. Varney was originally published as a “penny dreadful,” a fictional serial printed on cheap paper in weekly installments with subjects that ranged from the prurient to the grotesque. With murder, mayhem and sensationalism galore, the penny dreadfuls were one of the forerunners of our popular literature.

The penny dreadful Varney ran to 237 chapters (over 700 pages in the Zittaw edition) and was so successful that original copies are extraordinarily rare. According to one scholar, Varney was “read literally into dust.” Two previous editions have been mere photocopies of the penny dreadful edition, which was barely edited itself. Double columned with typographical errors and faded text, some words are printed upside down and occasionally sentences are even incomplete.

878004-1527947-thumbnail.jpg
"A Romance of Exciting Interest" Front Wrapper from 1853 edition
Years ago, I had tried to read one of these previous editions and could barely decipher the tiny, cramped print. So Zittaw’s clean text is a welcome improvement. Although it is a pity that they only reprint a few of the illustrations. Each penny dreadful installment had lavish pictures and ornamental letters. But to include them all would have ballooned this volume to gargantuan size. My fantasy text of Varney would include the clean text as done by Zittaw, but also reproductions of all the illustrations within the text as they originally appeared. This could only be achieved in a multivolume edition or even a facsimile series of the 237 parts of the original penny dreadful (and the price for such a version would limit it to collectors). Wishful thinking indeed.

 

To call it a novel is a bit of a misnomer, as well, for these kinds of serials do not adhere to the trim, inherently concise ways of the novel. Dreadfuls were written so quickly and by diverse hands (it is suspected that Rymer, although the primary author, was not the only author of Varney) that it was impossible to keep out inconsistencies of plot or characterization. In Varney, the time period of the story shifts and even names sometimes change. But this kind of small chaos in form is perfectly apt for the story. As the vampire wreaks havoc on women, families and the class system of staid, refined Victorian society, the tumult of the plot bleeds into the very structure of the book with storylines careening into all sorts of unknown territories. Varney takes on various disguises. He is nearly destroyed more than once, but always revivified by the power of moonlight (and fresh blood). Rymer pulls out all the gothic conventions and his vampire revels in their gruesome glory.

The book, as a whole, is picaresque in nature, containing several storylines that the new editor, Curt Herr, helpfully breaks down into “sagas” in a table of contents. Varney walks among the living as a refined aristocrat and over the course of the book begins to regret his “malignant destiny,” finding no solace in his power. He is not the static evil incarnate that Stoker later imagined in his Dracula. Varney has a richly detailed history (not all of it consistent) that helps flesh out his character. Nor is he quite like the manifestations of more recent vampires (Lestat and Buffy's friends and foes), although he does undergo something akin to a modern existential crisis. He is tormented by his bestial condition. Unlike the passionately romantic scenes of Dracula in which the vampire passionately bites his victims’ necks, or lets them feed from his own bosom, Varney is violently erotic, attacking his prey with a wolf-like fury, tearing into their flesh with his enormous fangs.

Varney is an immensely enjoyable novel, packed with action and doomed romance. Rymer’s prose is furious and lurid. For the uninitiated reader, the prose style may take a little getting used to. The short, choppy sentences, ripe with clichéd imagery, seemed silly at first, but after a few pages, I was sucked into Rymer’s penny dreadful realm and found myself racing along its pages, the pace quick and suspenseful. Varney the Vampire is a feast.

Sunday
Apr202008

Sharp Teeth by Toby Barlow

Duane Swierczynski recently spoke to the class I teach at La Salle University and shared a new book that he had recently discovered: Sharp Teeth by Toby Barlow. Since then, the book has been reviewed all over the place (Ed Champion in the LA Times, Sam Anderson in New York Magazine) and even featured on NPR. Sharp Teeth is a werewolf novel written in free verse. Both Duane and I recognized the similarities to a forgotten writer, Joseph Moncure March, a Robert Frost disciple who wrote verse novels in the 1920s (the similarity is with the verse, not the werewolves). Two of March's novels achieved some fame as movie adaptations, The Set-Up (one of my favorite noirs) and The Wild Party. But while I loved the staccato verse-slang of March's The Set-Up (I've never read The Wild Party), I wasn't very impressed with the way Barlow handled his verse in Sharp Teeth. I got the feeling that this would have been a much better book if it was just written in prose. However, I do like the very clever official website. Click on the Public Service Announcement. Anyway here's my review:

Werewolves in love

878004-1506890-thumbnail.jpgSharp Teeth

by Toby Barlow

Harper, 320 pp

Reviewed by Edward Pettit

 

“Poetry is a way of taking life by the throat.” Robert Frost

Toby Barlow uses this quotation as the epigraph to his new free verse novel about werewolves. But really, he’s written a romance with some crime story elements. The werewolf thing is always there to add new dimensions to the proceedings, but this is a story of love, love lost and the affection of dogs.

I wasn’t very impressed with the verse, but I’ll admit I’m not a lover of contemporary free verse. It’s a very tricky game to play. There’s another Robert Frost line about how writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down. I’m not as disdainful as that, but I do think it’s hard to recognize the difference between free verse and just a bunch of unfinished sentences. The key is the internal rhythm. In good free verse, the words flow on some wave of their own, while relentlessly pulling the reader into the current. You can’t help but feel the undulations of the poet’s power. Barlow’s waters were choppy with too many calm spots. Sometimes I’d be pulled along, only to find myself stopped dead. Granted, it’s tough to maintain a rhythm with no regular meter and if Barlow’s verse didn’t thrill me, there were still some enjoyable stretches. You can read the opening here with its epic-like invocation of one of its main characters, Anthony.

What I find most strange about Sharp Teeth is that the werewolf story-line seems contrived. Barlow has written a contemporary novel about love and familial relationships of wounded people. The characters do not struggle with their monstrous identities. Indeed, they all accept the werewolf curse with either enthusiasm or indifference. What troubles them are their insecurities, their jobs and dare I say, the meaning of life. What’s a wolfman (or wolfwoman) to do in the noir-like city of Los Angeles? It wouldn’t take much to transform this book into a literary novel concerning regular ol’ people (nor would it take much to transform it into a first rate hard-boiled crime novel) And while this may seem like a strength, that Barlow has taken one of the classic monster stories and emphasized its non-horror traits, it didn’t work for me.

I want a little horror in my werewolf tales. Okay, I want a lot of horror. And Barlow’s werewolves aren’t really wolf-like at all. Nor are they some kind of monstrous half-human/half-wolf. Barlow’s werewolves look like ordinary big dogs. And often act like them. They’re so cute that people adopt them at first sight. Yes, I know that a pack of feral dogs would be scary to face on a dark night, but, come on, there should be a big difference between a Werewolf and a dog. Here’s Barlow:

Dog or wolf? More like the one than the other

but neither exactly. Standing on four legs in her fur,

she is her own brand of beast.

She could play in your yard, but

you would not want to find her

crossing your trail in the twilight.

And were you cornered by her,

eye to eye,

you would see that

there are still some watchful creatures

whose essence lies unbound by words.

There is still a wilderness.

At times Sharp Teeth seemed like the werewolf story as written by John Grogan. Dogs just want to be loved you know. And they can be the most fulfilling of companions. Well, werewolves can be fun and inspiring, too:

These creatures may be among

the most superior predators in the world

but in the end,

as any toothless soul will tell you,

it’s a dog’s life.

No matter how big or how mean the dog, it’s just not that scary (for more on this, please see Stephen King’s Cujo).

There may not have been enough horror for me, but Barlow doesn’t skimp on the violence. When the dogs attack, there’s lots of flesh-ripping, blood-flowing gore. And one Barlovian difference between a dog and werewolf is that werewolves can eat an entire man and lick the crime scene clean of blood in less than a half-hour. After selling me on how ordinary these monsters can be, I just couldn’t believe they could even fit an entire man in their stomach, let alone the logistics of masticating an entire body, bones and all.

However, all was not lost in Barlow’s werewolf world. I did enjoy reading it. The verse waters may have been choppy, but there were enough moments of good phrasing, interesting plot twists and compelling characters to keep it from falling flat. And occasionally, there was some good horror, like when a prostitute witnesses a werewolf transformation:

This one, this particular whore, she accidentally saw something,

stumbling upon a change in progress in the warehouse,

one of the boys turning with

his flesh glistening moist, fur protruding from the swollen skin.

The shock sent her screaming.

Who can blame her, thinks Baron.

It’s a sight that can drive men mad,

one only the initiated should ever witness.

She went running and

would have been torn to bits for seeing things she shouldn’t

but had escaped by shutting herself in one of the meat lockers

and has been wailing loud and high in there ever since.

Her shrill cries move through the whole bunker

like the haunting of a ship.

Barlow doesn’t give too much here, leaving enough room for the imagination to conjure the scene, but he does provide the key words that will punctuate the picture: glistening, protruding, swollen. Just gruesome enough. And there’s a little coda to the prostitute’s fate that sharpens the image:

For the next two years she will tell anyone who will listen,

bored bartenders, other tired girls, half naked and impatient johns

about how she once saw

boiling flesh churn into fur and muscle and

teeth that grew sharp and eyes that blazed like a furnace.

They all look at her like she’s crazy.

Until she finally falls from a tall story,

quite high and

completely mad.

I wanted more of this and less of the lovelorn Anthony and his bitch (sorry, I couldn’t resist).

Sunday
Apr202008

the book reviewing biz

Now that the Phila Inq is running very few reviews (since Frank Wilson stepped down as their Books editor), I'm not sure how often I'll receive any review assignments from them.  The Inq is running only four-five reviews every Sunday (buried in the back of the Arts and Entertainment section) and occasionally one during the week.  The pattern so far has been a couple staffers review books, their book critic Carlin Romano does one, one is reprinted from another paper and then maybe one will be commissioned.  That's pretty sad for what was once a prestigious newspaper.  But book reviews are doomed all over in the print media (what are there, just two stand alone book sections left in the nation's newspapers?).  So, my publishing status is, to say the least, very uncertain right now.  I'll keep plugging away, hoping to get some reviews published, but mostly I'll be working on my Edgar Allan Poe books and speaking engagements.  Hopefully that work will pan out with some book deals. 

In the meantime, there's no need to deprive Bibliothecary readers of my book reviewing insights, so I'll try to keep up my reading and post reviews here from time to time.  Coming this week, I have two new reviews that I'll be posting.  More to come.

Thanks for reading.