“The Music on the Hill”

Saki penned this week’s weird story being discussed over at LibraryThing.

And that brings up the following story, courtesy of the Roads to the Great War blog:

Among the 73,000 names engraved on the memorial to the missing of the Somme at Thiepval is that of Lance Sergeant H. H. Munro of the 22nd Battalion Royal Fusiliers. H.H. Munro, aka Saki, had gained popularity before the Great War for his witty and off-beat stories. He could have avoided serving, but Munro was the son of a soldier and a child of the Empire. And so he found himself at the Somme in November 1916 during the battle’s final stages, when the high command decided that they damn well ought to capture the village of Beaumont Hamel, because they were supposed to take it on the first day of the fighting, July 1st. Munro’s company had been put out to guard the left flank in a night attack on the village. It was a foggy night, and the fighting had died down by the early hours. Munro and some other men had taken cover in a shell hole. An English officer called across to a friend. A man struck a match, Munro snapped, “Put that bloody cigarette out!” whereupon he was shot in the head by a single round from a sniper. As Saki, he always appreciated a telling punch line.

Review: “The Music on the Hill”, Saki, 1911. 

As you expect from Saki, this is a short, darkly humorous tale. It concerns one Sylvia (an obviously ironic name) Seltoun. She is “pugnacious by circumstance”, veteran of many small disputes which she has managed to win. Her latest concerns her husband Mortimer, dubbed “Dead Mortimer” by his enemies.

His family wasn’t pleased about their marriage, and Mortimer, before his marriage, was not known for liking women. Her newest struggle is to pry Mortimer “away from Town, and its group of satellite watering-places”. She wants to get him to go to his country home in Yessney.  His mother says he’ll never go, but, if he does, he won’t leave. It has some kind of hold on him. 

When Sylvia gets there, she isn’t real keen on Yessney. She’s town bred and not used to “the almost savage wildness about Yessney”. It seems a place where the joy of life is linked to the “terror of unseen things”. 

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“The Story of a Panic”

The years 1894 through 1912 saw English writers writing many stories using the god Pan. I’ve already covered The Great God Pan by Arthur Machen and Kenneth Grahme’s The Wind in the Willows.

We’re doing something unusual at the weird fiction discussion group, the Deep Ones, over at LibraryThing. We’re starting a look at a slew of other stories using Pan, and this is the first one.

Review: “The Story of a Panic”, E. M. Forester, 1912.

Our narrator, never given a name that I recall, starts out saying he is going to tell his story “with no pretensions to literary style”. He is going to give “an unbiased account” of something that happened eight years ago. The very first line mentions “Eustace’s career” and how it goes back to an incident one afternoon in Italy eight years ago.

At an Italian hotel are a party of Englanders. Besides the narrator and his wife and two daughters, there are the two Miss Robinson – two sisters, their nephew Eustace, the “would-be artist” Leyland, and the former curate Sandbach whose is there to prepare Eustace for public school. The narrator doesn’t like Leyland, and he especially does like the fourteen-year old Eustace. He thinks Eustace is “indescribably repellent”, a whiner, indolent, and incurious about anything. 

I suspect we are not to find the narrator very sympathetic, that he’s a satire of a certain type of Englishman Forester knew. The first indication of that are his constant remarks about how Eustace needs to be more sporting. 

One day, they all go on a picnic to a wooded and beautiful valley – the Vallone Fontana Caroso. It’s rather like an upside-down hand with finger-like ravines, wooded, radiating out from it. When they arrive, the narrator’s daughter Rose, an amateur photographer, notes the beauty of the valley and how it, its hills, and the sea in the background would make a beautiful picture. Sandbach agrees, but Leyland says it would make a very poor picture indeed. Rose asks why (with more charity than deserved notes the narrator). Because the top of the background hill is “intolerably straight”, the perspective is all wrong from their current position, and the colors dull and monotonous says Leyland. The narrator retorts he doesn’t know anything about art but the scene makes him content. One of the Miss Robinsons and Sandbach agree. Leyland replies that they “confuse the artistic view of nature with a photograph”. 

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“The White Wolf of the Hartz Mountains”

A look at the weird fiction work discussed last week over at LibraryThing.

Review: “The White Wolf of the Hartz Mountains”, Frederick Marryat, 1839.

This is something a bit different than the usual weird fiction I review. It’s an excerpt from Marryat’s novel The Phantom Ship which is about a man, seemingly Philip here, who is trying to remove a curse from his father – who is no less than the Flying Dutchman of legend. It’s a tale nested within a larger narrative.

Thus, the story opens with two men, Philip and Krantz, leaving a group of other men arguing over some gold just discovered on an island. They get into a boat and head west for Goa.

As they sail, their discussion turns to destiny. Some men, like the ones they left arguing over gold, are destined to misery and misfortune. 

Philip urges Krantz to talk about his past, which he has alluded to, when Philip told him some “mysterious tale”. 

Krantz asks Philip if he’s ever heard of the Hartz Mountains. Philip says he’s heard it’s a strange place. It is a strange place, Krantz replies, but he believes the tales told of it.

Krantz wonders why “malevolent beings” are permitted to trouble “unoffending mortals”. But so they are. Philip says humans have free will and “Divine justice” to help in their struggle with their own passions and unseen enemies. Those are more than enough. Krantz agrees and then tells his story. 

His father was the serf of a Hungarian nobleman and married to a beautiful woman, so beautiful, the nobleman had an adulterous affair with her, and Krantz’s father killed them both and fled, taking Krantz’s elder brother, Caesar, him, and his sister Marcella. 

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“Origin Story”

We cast our nets wide in the Deep Ones discussion group over at LibraryThing. And, every once in a while, we dredge up something that, for me, is neither weird or interesting.

Review: “Origin Story”, T. Kingfisher, 2011.

I’m not going to spend a lot of time on this one. I’m not fond of fairy tales, and this is a modern one.

Our fairy in question works at a slaughterhouse. Through stitches and magic, she fashions various bizarre creatures of the offal and refuse of the place. This culminates in a horse-woman with material partly provided by a slaughterhouse worker who objects to her odd activities and whom she kills. 

I suppose some may like the detail and the divergences about how the story is not going to tell us the tale of Thomas, that man, or the supervisor of the slaughterhouse.

Immortal Life

This blog started out to review science fiction, but it’s been many months since I’ve reviewed a pure science fiction novel. No tinge of the weird, no Lovecraftian elements, no mixed genres in this one.

Review: Immortal Life (A Soon to Be True Story), Stanley Bing, 2017. 

The late Gil Schwartz aka Stanley Bing was a CBS executive who wrote many best-selling books with titles like 100 Bullshit Jobs . . . and How to Get Them, Sun Tzu Was a Sissy, and Executricks, or How to Retire While You’re Still Working. Prior to this he wrote a couple of non-science fiction novels. He was also was a reader of science fiction.

That corporate experience and knowledge of science fiction give this novel a breezy, knowing air without stylistically stumbling the way many non-genre novelists do when wandering into science fiction.

And this book is pure science fiction, a black satire on one of humanity’s oldest obsessions: the quest for immortality.

And Bing is right up front in his dedication about who his targets are:

To Craig Venter, Larry Ellison, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, Mark Zuckerberg, Marc Andreessen, Elon Musk, and all the visionary titans exploring the possibility of eternal life for those who can afford it. 

Arthur Vogel is definitely one of those who can afford it. At 127, he’s the world’s richest man. His day is a tedious regimen of drugs and supplements and no normal food, walking about on his cyborg legs. His only fun time comes after printing out a penis, popping some pills, and having sex with his hot wife Sallie.

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No Colours or Crest

I found the first installment of Peter Kemp’s autobiography, Mine Were of Trouble, a worthwhile look at the Spanish Civil War, especially since it was from the rare perspective of the Nationalist side. However, this blog is now more focused in the type of books it covers, so I didn’t review it.

This, the second installment, falls more within the penumbra of espionage history category.

Review: No Colours or Crest, Peter Kemp, 1958.

Yes, parachuting behind German lines into wartime Albania on a mission for the Special Operations Executive sounds exciting and the stuff of many a novel. And it was exciting for Kemp.

But it was also full of tedium, treachery, and frustration.

Kemp’s frustration started in September 1939 when war broke out. Kemp had only been back from his time in Franco’s Spanish Army for a month. Kemp had been severely wounded in the Spanish Civil War and admits his nerves were rather shot when he heard the air raid sirens now sounding in London.

Being patriotic, he wanted to go to war again, this time for his own country. His older brother had already been in the British Navy several years. But Kemp’s past worked against him:

Now the weight of Republican propaganda, backed by the formidable organization of European Communism, had dubbed Franco a Fascist, while many of my British friends regarded me as, at best, a Fascist fellow-traveller. Even those who sympathized with me feared that Spain would enter the war against us, although I had seen enough of the devastation and war-weariness there to believe that she would remain neutral.

The local draft board took a look at his recent wounds and told him to come back in six months.

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“Rebecka”

This week’s piece of weird fiction being discussed over at LibraryThing rather reminds me of one of my favorite movies, The Rapture, in that it takes a version of Christian theology seriously.

Review: “Rebecka”, Karin Tidbeck, 2012.

Cover by Jeremy Zerfoss

This story takes place in an alternate Stockholm where God, referred to variously as He or Him, seems to have literally returned to Earth and meets out divine punishments.

The story is narrated by Rebecka’s only friend, Sara.

The opens with a mystery:

The outline of Rebecka’s body is light against the scorched wall, arms outstretched as if to embrace someone. The floor is littered with white ashes. Everything else in the room looks like it did before. A kitchen table with a blue tablecloth, a kitchenette stacked with dirty dishes. A wrought iron bed, which I am strapped to.

We then get the explanation for this mystery. 

Rebecka tries to commit suicide frequently and with various methods, and Sara picks up after each event.

I don’t know why I remained her friend. It’s not like I got anything out of it. It was the worst kind of friendship, held together by pity.

The story’s first exchange between them is over the phone. Rebecka seeks confirmation that He punishes people. Rebecka then says she did something worthy of punishment. She spit in the baptismal font of the Katarina Church.

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Sallust

After reading Tom Holland’s Rubicon, I decided I really needed to read more primary sources (in translation) of Roman history. Oh, I’ve read lots of excerpts from various Roman historians, but the only works I’ve read completely are Caesar’s Gallic Wars and Tacitus’ Annals of Rome.

Coincidentally, I recently discovered Quintus Curtius’ excellent blog and decided to pick up his translation of Sallust, a source drawn on in Holland’s book.

Review: Sallust: The Conspiracy of Catiline and The War of Jugurtha, trans. Quintus Curtius, 2017.

What makes a Roman patrician turn against the Roman Republic? Why does a foreign prince, a friend of Rome, risk its wrath? These are the questions addressed by Sallust.

He is the first historian of Rome with works that have come down to us complete though not all of them survived.

Living from 86 to 34 BC, he was well enough thought of that his house was preserved with its destruction in the 410 AD sack of Rome being noted by Procopius.

Sallust came from a family of modest means. From the beginning, Curtius’ notes he possessed a “seething hostility” toward the patrician class. And his attitude certainly didn’t change when he was expelled from the Senate in 50 BC on a charge of “moral turpitude”. The details of his crime and punishment (once source says he was publicly flogged) aren’t clear, but, as Curtius’ introduction notes, political prosecutions and loose morals were certainly a product of the time, and Sallust probably wasn’t worse than his contemporaries.

Sallust’s populism made him a member of Caesar’s faction, and he accompanied Caesar to Numidia in 46 BC where he served as a governor, a post that was useful in gathering information for his work on Jugurtha.

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“Feeders and Eaters”

This week’s piece of weird fiction being discussed over at LibraryThing:

Review: “Feeders and Eaters”, Neil Gaiman, 2002.

This is not quite what Darrell Schweitzer would call an old-school-chum story, but it does feature an anonymous man meeting a work acquaintance from years ago. It seems to be implied he may be a celebrity who has fallen on hard times and then made it back but doesn’t want all the details of this incident made public. 

The story seems set in some anonymous city in the UK (or, at least, a Commonwealth country given we have a Prince Regent Street) given some of the terms and the importance of passenger trains.

The narrator goes into a dive one night to get some toast and “greasy tea” until the next train comes that night. 

He is suddenly accosted by someone he knew ten years ago when they worked together on a construction site, Eddie Barrow. 

The years have not been kind to Barrow. Once large and handsome, a ladies’ man, Barrow is now thin and hunched over and has definitely aged. His right arm hangs limply by his side.

He starts to tell the narrator a story – and the narrator doesn’t encourage this thinking it’s going to be another tale of drink or drugs or disease bringing a man low – and that he’s going to be asked for money and he has just enough for a train ticket. 

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Dynasty

Having found Tom Holland’s Rubicon a worthwhile book, I picked up this one.

Review: Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar, Tom Holland, 2015.

In the follow up to his Rubicon, Holland takes up the story of the legendary Julio-Claudian emperors. With 419 pages of text, he covers all the stories of treachery, torture, matricide, fratricide, sexual depravity, assassinations, mutinies, and excess you’ve heard. To that, he explains how Roman sexual mores, religious festivals, family relations, and the plebians’ continued fascination with the dynasty that started with Julius Caesar played a part in everything.

And Holland, particularly in the chapter on Tiberius, “The Last Roman”, approaches his emperors in an empathetic if not sympathetic way.

The prose is stylish with Holland sometimes using very modern terms to give us the flavor of the strange and also familiar Roman imperial culture. He deftly shows how Rome’s own myths reveal something of their character. Specifically, Romans held their race started with a rape, and its resulting issue was suckled by wolves.

In the book’s pages, you find an emperor who tearfully and theatrically threw himself on the mercy of the Roman public (Augusta), an emperor who never wanted the job and descended into an old age of watching aristocratic children recruit mythological sex scenes (Tiberius), an emperor always ready for a very malicious and deadly joke on an aristocrat (Caligula), an emperor incestuously besotted with his niece (Claudius), and an emperor under the domineering thumb of his mother (Nero). But Holland doesn’t skimp on covering the other power players at this time, particularly the eventually divine wife of Augusta, Livia. She may have been married to Augustus, but her primary interest was always furthering the glory of her own family, the Claudians.

But Holland isn’t just writing an update of Suetonius’ salacious Twelve Caesars. He shows the change in Roman politics, how the Roman people and Senate were tamed, first by smooth talk, legal legerdemain, flattery and then open terror into accepting what they long despised – a king. It is a story dependent on the magical place the dynasty of Caesar had in the mind of the Roman public and “the exhaustion of cruelty” after decades of civil war.

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