Friday, March 28, 2014

The Secret Journeys of Jack London, Book Two: The Sea Wolves by Christopher Golden and Tim Lebbon

A chilling, thrilling tribute to London’s Sea-Wolf
As a middle-aged reader, I don’t make a habit out of reading so-called “young adult” fiction, but how can I resist when it pays homage to one of my favorite authors? The Secret Journeys of Jack London series is a delightfully clever tribute to the great American storyteller. Ostensibly these are the writer’s most unbelievable adventures—stories so bizarre that London himself was too scared to tell them. Authors Christopher Golden and Tim Lebbon combine scenes, settings, and characters from London’s life and literature with fantasy and horror elements aimed at today’s young readers. The result could have been a nightmare, but surprisingly, this series really works. Book Two: The Sea Wolves, isn’t quite as smart and captivating as its predecessor, Book One: The Wild, but it’s still a great read for fans of London or anyone who appreciates a good adventure story.

Book Two picks up right where Book One left off. On his way back from the Yukon, London’s steamer is boarded by a brutal band of pirates hunting for gold. The invaders kill many of the ship’s passengers and take several others captive, among them young Jack London. While the rest of the prisoners are locked up in the pirate ship’s hold, London is given special treatment. The sadistic captain takes a special interest in young Jack, appoints him ship’s cook, and occasionally engages him in intellectual conversations about literature and ethics. The parallels between this book and London’s novel The Sea-Wolf are intentional and obvious. The tale that Golden and Lebbon present here purports to be the experience that inspired London to write that famous work. While Book One did a great job of alluding to London’s works while creating something entirely new, Book Two at times clings a little too closely to its source material. These books should encourage young readers to seek out works like The Sea-Wolf, not render them redundant.

Because this second installment makes frequent references to the series debut, you really must read Book One first in order to understand what’s going on here. London uses certain “powers” that he acquired in the first volume. If the authors had just let the past go and allowed this second volume to stand on its own two feet, the result would have been a stronger book. Instead the novel is somewhat overpowered by its series. The ending of Book Two feels partially unresolved, as it segues into book three, which was recently published under the title White Fangs.

The plot of the book is as exciting and action-packed as any Hollywood horror thriller, but also just as predictable. The novel’s only big surprise is given away by the title and the cover illustration. What really saves the book and elevates it above mediocre genre trash is its well-crafted prose. Golden and Lebbon don’t dumb down the vocabulary or syntax for their young audience. There are plenty of “grown-up” novelists who can’t put a paragraph together nearly as well as these guys can. They are also quite adept at creating situations fraught with edge-of-your-seat suspense, even when the outcome of such situations may be a foregone conclusion.

Despite the fact that this second installment is a step down from the first, it’s still quite entertaining and certainly worth its cover price. I look forward to seeing where the authors take London next. If only there were a big enough young audience interested in London and his works, the Secret Journeys would make a great TV series.

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Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The Chronic Argonauts by H. G. Wells

One giant leap for time travel fiction
With his first novel, The Time Machine, published in 1895, H. G. Wells not only staked his claim as one of the preeminent writers in the nascent genre of science fiction, he also firmly established the concept of time travel in the world of popular culture. His innovative novel would go on to spawn thousands of imitators, and still does to this day. Yet Wells had already broken this fertile ground earlier with his lesser-known short story of 1888, “The Chronic Argonauts.” This story was the first work of fiction in which an explorer traverses time through the use of a man-made device—a time machine—rather than through magic, divine intervention, or a natural phenomenon such as sleep. Though it deserves praise for its ground-breaking invention, “The Chronic Argonauts” is not in the same literary league as The Time Machine, and its value primarily lies in its influential role as a precursor to that later, greater work.

The Welsh town of Llyddwdd is roused from its bucolic slumber by the arrival of a strange, reclusive scientist named Dr. Nebogipfel. When the doctor takes up residence in the town’s requisite creepy old house, much speculation arises on the part of the local populace as to what nefarious projects he is engaged in there. Because of its fish-out-of-water-in-a-small-town plot and the tangential connection to unexplained phenomena, this story more closely resembles a mystery by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle than it does a science fiction tale. It is not so much about the direction of the scientist’s research as it is about the townspeople’s reaction to him. When the doctor explains his theory of time travel to an acquaintance, he gives a brief outline of the more thorough treatise on the subject that would appear in the first chapter of The Time Machine. Unlike Wells’ great novel, though, in “The Chronic Argonauts” we never actually get to see the past or the future. Time travel is only discussed, alluded to, and hinted at. This turns out to be the story’s biggest surprise: it ends without delivering the goods.

Today’s readers may find difficulty with Wells’ thesaurus-wringing prose. He packs every hundred-dollar word he can think of into each successive sentence, including some like “zymotic” and “eyot” that even the Oxford dictionary has forgotten. This gives a tongue-in-cheek feeling to the narration that may or may not be intentional. Wells certainly does portray the consternation of the Welsh villagers in a humorous light, but when it comes to Nebogipfel’s research, he’s all business. This story won’t be remembered for its plot or its prose, but rather for its sheer visionary inventiveness. What have since become clichés of the time travel subgenre were brilliantly original when they sprung from Wells’ pen. The countless imitators who have sprung from the template of Nebogipfel are a testament to the endurance of Wells’ imaginative vision.

Fans of this story may also enjoy the tribute piece “Nebogipfel at the End of Time,” by Richard A. Lupoff, a short story included in the inexpensive Time Travel Megapack from Wildside Press.

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Friday, March 21, 2014

The Man in the Iron Mask: The True Story of the Most Famous Prisoner in History and the Four Musketeers by Roger Macdonald

Truth really is stranger than fiction
In his 2008 book The Man in the Iron Mask, Roger Macdonald delves deeply into the real history behind the Three Musketeers novels of Alexandre Dumas. Though the novels are clearly based on actual events in the history of France, Dumas claimed that his most legendary characters—the Musketeers Athos, Porthos, Aramis, and d’Artagnan—were concoctions of his fertile imagination. The historical record shows clearly, however, that although Dumas may have invented the unique personalities of each of these inimitable characters, the four famous Musketeers were in fact real people. Macdonald traces the true stories of these four daring adventurers and tells you just about everything you’d want to know about their lives and times. Along the way he reveals the alleged biological father of King Louis XIV and puts a name to a certain famous prisoner whose identity was forcibly concealed behind an iron mask.

Despite the obvious Dumas connection, one need not have read that author’s works to appreciate this book. In fact, Macdonald barely mentions Dumas. He concentrates solely on the history, and doesn’t stop to draw parallels between the novels and reality. Frankly, there is so much information packed between the covers of this book, there’s little room for any lit crit. Though it may be a cliché, Macdonald is a writer who truly never wastes a word. You’ll find few books that cram enough sheer facts into each sentence as this one does, yet the prose is still smooth and captivatingly readable throughout. Nevertheless, the barrage of data can be relentless. If your mind wanders for a second you’ll miss something important. The personages are all so interconnected with one another that there’s little that’s not important. Macdonald includes a list of “Principal Characters” at the front of the book, but the brief descriptions offer little guidance through this tangled web. I must confess that after the Musketeers died I did lose track of some of the plot threads. (That’s not a spoiler. This is history. Everyone dies.) But I managed to thoroughly enjoy the book nonetheless.

Having done no historical research into this topic, other than reading the trilogy of novels by Dumas, I’m in no position to argue with Macdonald’s hypothesis as to the identity of the Man in the Iron Mask. I realize that his theory is but one of many, and for me the veracity of his claim is not a prerequisite for enjoying this book. Regardless of whether he’s solved this great mystery or not, I did learn an awful lot about historical events in France during the reign of Louis XIV. As a fan of Dumas, it was a joy to experience this story from another angle, to see how closely the novelist stuck to the truth and where exactly he strayed. Macdonald’s theory of who wore the mask is a fascinating and provocative one, and how it unfolds over the course of the book is a great ride. Like a crafty mystery writer, he wisely chooses not to reveal his candidate until nearly the very end of the book.

The third novel in the Musketeers trilogy, Le Vicomte de Bragelonne, is often reprinted in English under the title of The Man in the Iron Mask. In my opinion, Macdonald’s book is even more interesting and exciting than its namesake. While I loved the first two books of Dumas’ trilogy, the finale—which occupies much of the historic ground that Macdonald covers here—is easily the weakest of the three. Macdonald shows us that the real story was even more fantastic than the great novelist envisioned. The lives of d’Artagnan, Louis XIV, and the Man in the Iron Mask were at times so outlandish and astonishing, you really couldn’t make this stuff up.

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Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The Comedienne by Wladyslaw Reymont

Off to a slow start
In his homeland of Poland, Wladyslaw Reymont is considered one of his country’s greatest authors. Though he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1924, very few of his works have been translated into English. His four-volume masterpiece The Peasants hasn’t been printed in English in almost a century, and has yet to show up in an ebook edition. The same is true for another highly acclaimed novel, Promised Land. The one work of Reymont’s that is readily available in a public domain English translation is his first novel, Komediantka (The Comedienne), originally published in 1896.

Janina is the daughter of a railroad stationmaster in the rural town of Bukowiec. Though she is a beautiful young woman pursued by many suitors, she has no interest in marriage and wishes to remain independent, unfettered by the shackles of matrimony. She daydreams about escaping the confines of her hometown and becoming an actress. When she refuses a marriage proposal which had been arranged by her father, he becomes furious and casts her out, disowning her forever. Motivated by the loss of home and family, Janina is finally determined to make her theatrical dreams a reality.

She joins the company of a minor theatre on the outskirts of Warsaw, far removed from the prestigious theatre that bears the city’s name. This Polish equivalent of an “off-off-Broadway” company is a ramshackle operation, constantly in financial dire straits. In fact, the personnel of the company are so unprofessional it’s a wonder they make any money at all. The various players are constantly peppering each other with insults and squabbling over petty matters, not only behind the curtain but even on the very stage itself during public performances. Reymont pays a lot of attention to the malicious banter that’s hurled back and forth between the thespians—too much attention, in fact. For the first two-thirds of the book, this is all that happens. It’s as if the entire purpose of the novel is merely to describe this unpleasant environment and the aural combat that takes place there.

It isn’t until at least chapter eight (out of eleven) when things finally start happening and Janina begins to make any kind of progress either positive or negative. Her lofty notions of the artist’s life come into conflict with the reality of this theatre, in which the actresses are so underpaid they have to prostitute themselves to survive. While she may be able to resist the immorality, she can’t avoid the poverty. Before becoming a novelist Reymont worked in the theatre, and he clearly has a love for the stage. As the characters in the book debate the future of the dramatic arts, Reymont simultaneously glorifies the high ideals of the theatre while lamenting its poverty-stricken reality. There is some really profound stuff in chapter ten. Janina receives some advice from a stranger who represents a stoic philosophy of life diametrically opposed to her overly emotional nature. If only the rest of the book were this good! In the final three chapters one begins to see in Reymont’s writing some resemblance to the unflinching realism and social consciousness of the works of Emile Zola. In this debut novel, however, his potential is still unrealized.

It’s a shame that the only work by Reymont that’s readily available to English language readers is one that doesn’t adequately reflect his prodigious literary talent. Seek out and find The Peasants if you can. Meanwhile, I’ll be hunting for Promised Land.

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Monday, March 17, 2014

The Green Rust by Edgar Wallace

Too cute for its own good
In the period between the two World Wars, Edgar Wallace was one of the most popular and prolific writers in England, though American audiences probably remember him best as the co-creator of King Kong. Upon reading his 1919 novel The Green Rust, it’s easy to understand why Wallace was so popular in his day, yet today’s readers are unlikely to find this book as satisfying as their counterparts of almost a century ago.

The novel opens with the murder of a millionaire, the ramifications of which will be felt throughout the book. So far so good. In chapter two, we meet the heroine of the tale, Oliva Cresswell. She lives in a London apartment building, sandwiched between two mysterious floormates, one an American drunkard, Mr. Beale, the other an unconvincingly Dutch physician, Dr. Van Heerden. It becomes obvious very quickly that Van Heerden is more Deutsch than Dutch. Given that this book was written shortly after the end of World War I, who do you think the bad guy will be, the “Yank” or the “Hun”? The book is anything but subtle with its German stereotypes and anti-Kaiser rhetoric.

The story revolves around a terrorist plot—which is admirably prescient of Wallace—but the book is oddly devoid of terror. The best thing that can be said about The Green Rust is that it is clever, but its very cleverness undermines any possible suspense. It’s like a collection of all the cheesy, dated flirting that goes on in between the important scenes of an Alfred Hitchcock movie. The three principles and the ensemble cast of supporting characters are intertwined in a web as tangled as The Count of Monte Cristo. They are always being brought together by incredible coincidences and showing up on each other’s doorsteps at just the right moment. All these fortuitous encounters are necessary to move the plot forward, but believability is at a minimum. The heroes don’t demonstrate a great deal of competence at crimefighting, and the villains are frequent bunglers. At the beginning of the novel, it seems that Ms. Cresswell sees her two neighbors as potential suitors, even though they are both obviously stalking her. A silly plot device that involves forcing a woman to get married hardly seems possible. An evil mastermind is wanted for various crimes, yet he still returns to his own apartment almost every night. At least two-thirds of the book goes by before anyone explains what the Green Rust is, though the reader has already figured it out long before. The hero uncovers a plot for world domination that will kill millions and likely start World War 1.5, yet he keeps it to himself rather than inform his friends in law enforcement, simply so he can maintain his air of mystery.

I have no doubt this book was immensely entertaining to the 1920s audience for which it was written. Given the residual animosity toward Germany from the recent Great War, British audiences would have eaten this stuff up. To the 21st century reader, however, the book is predictable and cliché-ridden. Nevertheless, it’s obvious that Wallace is not a bad writer. To his credit, his prose is effortless, his dialogue is snappy, and it does take some skill to weave so many far-fetched plot threads into some semblance of coherence. Wallace wrote almost 200 novels and almost 1,000 short stories. I’m sure there’s a good book in there somewhere, but this isn’t it.

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Friday, March 14, 2014

Setting the Standard: Comics by Alex Toth 1952–1954. Edited by Greg Sadowski

What a great artist can do with mediocre material
Setting the Standard is a collection of graphic short stories illustrated by Alex Toth, a master of comic art who chronologically and stylistically bridged the gap between the classic newspaper strips of the World War II era and the Silver Age of comic books. From 1952 to 1954 Toth worked for Standard Comics, where he drew stories for magazines like Intimate Love, Fantastic Worlds, New Romances, and Out of the Shadows. This book collects Toth’s complete body of work for Standard during that two-year period. The stories range in length from one to ten pages. Altogether there’s about 400 pages of comics, all reproduced to faithfully represent the original full-color printings, complete with garish colors, muddy blacks, and blatant dot patterns. A few examples of Toth’s original black and white layouts are also photographically reproduced.

Editor Greg Sadowski has done a fine job compiling this volume. In addition to the graphic content, there’s also an extensive interview with Toth from Graphic Story Magazine, a brief biography, and a section with notes about each story. In the interview Toth comes across as an extreme perfectionist totally devoted to his craft, and a bit of a prima donna. He acknowledges the influence of a few old masters like Noel Sickles, but he brutally critiques many more, including Milton Caniff and Alex Raymond.

Toth’s art often resembles the cinematography of a film noir thriller. His layouts are a symphony of blacks punctuated by judicious silhouettes. His style lends itself well to crime stories, but there’s only a couple examples of that genre included here. There are several war stories, all set in the Korean War. Toth proves himself extremely adept at rendering airplanes, tanks, guns, and the like, but the writing offers little excitement. Mostly there are a lot of combat clichés and anti-Asian racial slurs. The few science fiction stories are also conceptually pedestrian, but Toth does a visionary job drawing the necessary lizard men and flying saucers. The best stuff in the book are the horror stories. Toth’s art really shines in this genre, and the writing is generally pretty good. These stories aren’t as gratuitously gory as the more famous EC Comics of the mid-1950s, but Toth doesn’t shy away from the dark and spooky imagery.

More than half of the book—perhaps as much as two-thirds—consists of romance comics. For the most part these are serious love stories aimed at an adult female audience. It’s unbelievable how many variations the Standard writers could come up with on the familiar scenario of boy-meets-girl. Though some of the best writing in the book occurs in these tales of the heart, the sheer quantity that’s contained in the book is mind-numbing. The effect is similar to a soap opera marathon. Nevertheless, Toth manages to enliven even these predictable love stories with innovative and inspired graphic solutions.

Toth was a real genius at visual storytelling, and in this chronologically arranged body of work one can witness his talents developing and improving over the course of the book. The writing of the stories, on the other hand, is nothing to get excited about. In most cases, the author’s name isn’t even mentioned in the accompanying notes, though the inker’s always is. Clearly Toth’s art is the main attraction here, and today’s comic art enthusiasts can surely find much to appreciate in his historic body of work. Beyond their importance in comic art history, however, can these stories really be enjoyed on their own merits? That all depends on how nostalgic you are for ‘50s romance.

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Wednesday, March 12, 2014

A Zola Dictionary: The Characters of the Rougon-Macquart Novels of Emile Zola by J. G. Patterson

A valuable reference for Zola aficionados
Emile Zola
Emile Zola’s Rougon-Macquart cycle is one of the greatest literary achievements of all time. According to J. G. Patterson, author of A Zola Dictionary, “It occupied nearly twenty-five years in writing, consists of twenty volumes containing over twelve hundred characters, and a number of words estimated . . . at two million five hundred thousand.” Small wonder then, that some readers might feel the need to seek out a guide to help them get their bearings amid this epic series of novels.

The bulk of A Zola Dictionary consists of an alphabetical listing of characters explaining who each individual is and what roles they play in each novel. Even the most insignificant members of the supporting cast—horses, dogs, and cows included—are given brief listings, while the main characters get detailed mini-biographies that often span the plots of more than one novel. Patterson pays particular attention to each family member’s place in Zola’s overall evolutionary vision of the series and the specific personality traits handed down from generation to generation. He also provides helpful context for how the plots relate to the actual events of French history. At the back of the book there is also an alphabetical list of places where the novels are set, but this section is tiny in comparison to the much deeper study of the myriad characters.

In addition to the book’s encyclopedic content, the introduction provides a brief biography of Zola, along with an overview of his works and the critical reception they received. Because A Zola Dictionary was published in 1912, Patterson’s take on Zola’s writing is a bit antiquated and prudish. While he praises Zola for his development of Naturalism, he nevertheless heralds the author’s most Romantic works, like The Sin of Father Mouret and The Dream, as his best, while the far more Naturalistic novel The Earth, one of Zola’s true masterpieces, he regards as offensive. While 21st century readers probably won’t see eye-to-eye with Patterson’s critical views, the introduction is valuable nonetheless as a biographical overview. Patterson also includes a Rougon-Macquart genealogical tree, in which brief descriptions of the family members are arranged in generational order. In addition, Patterson provides short synopses of all twenty novels. These are not arranged in order of publication, but rather in the order in which Zola revisits them in the final novel, Doctor Pascal, which corresponds more closely to the order of the family tree.

If you’re new to Zola, it’s probably best if you stay away from this dictionary, because it will spoil the endings of all the novels for you. The best audience for this book are avid readers of Zola with some degree of familiarity with at least his major novels. For such readers this work will not only serve as a helpful field guide for keeping everyone straight but also as an awesome tribute to the genius of Zola and the impressive scale and depth of his monumental undertaking.

The only magnum opus that really compares to Zola’s Rougon-Macquart cycle is Honoré de Balzac’s Comédie Humaine. Fans of the latter author will enjoy Repertory of the Comédie Humaine by Anatole Cerfberr and Jules François Christophe, a reference work very similar in style and structure to A Zola Dictionary. My guess is that Patterson patterned his encyclopedic volume after this earlier book.

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Monday, March 10, 2014

Jack London: The Unpublished and Uncollected Articles and Essays. Edited by Daniel J. Wichlan

A tasty serving of leftovers
Jack London: The Unpublished and Uncollected Articles and Essays collects 26 pieces of short nonfiction that have never before appeared between the covers of a book. In his introduction to this 2007 collection, editor Daniel J. Wichlan claims that these are likely the final pieces of Jack London’s complete works to be uncovered. Most of these writings were penned for various magazines and newspapers, and are journalistic in tone. A couple essays were written as contest entries, and at least one began as a public speech. In the past I’ve been less than impressed with London’s essays. His two collections The Human Drift and Revolution are both chock full of mediocrity. Since the writings in Wichlan’s collection had never been reprinted before, I assumed they would prove worthy of their obscurity. Thankfully, I was wrong. I was very pleasantly surprised by how good many of these pieces are. The articles are arranged chronologically in order of original publication, which allows one to see the development of London’s thought and writing from clumsy and vague to mature and eloquent. They’re not all winners, but even the more poorly written pieces are valuable for the insights they provide into the author’s personal philosophy.

Wichlan deserves to be commended for digging up these buried treasures. In the brief introductions he writes for each essay, however, he’s shamefully guilty of hero worship. He sees every bit of London’s writing in the best light, and to hear him tell it you’d think London never wrote a racist word in his life. London, like many authors of his time, did have some racist inclinations, though scholars argue over how far they went. While a few of his books make him out to be a white supremacist (The Mutiny of the Elsinore comes to mind), this is not one of them. In the most controversial piece, “The Salt of the Earth,” London outlines his idea of how the process of evolution is still at work in the social, political, and economic forces of the present day. While London has often sung the praises of his Anglo-Saxon race, in this essay he clarifies that white people who speak English are merely winning the game right now (in 1902), and won’t be on top forever. London’s obsession with evolution forces him to see the various peoples of the world as little more than giant colonies of bacteria fighting over sustenance in a giant petri dish. In another article he looks at womankind through the same unflattering Darwinian lens. Rather than racist or sexist, London’s opinions come across as brutally blunt, deliberately provocative, and generally misanthropic. Yet at the same he was a firm believer in the power of the human spirit and preached multicultural brotherhood in pieces like “The Language of the Tribe.”

Several political essays are included, in which London takes an unapologetically Socialist stance on various issues. In general these aren’t as good as the essays that make up his book War of the Classes, but they still help to clarify his personal political views. Overall he comes across not as a textbook Socialist but rather simply an anti-Capitalist. Beyond race and politics, a range of lighter topics are covered as well, from Klondike sled dogs to a night out at a burlesque show to the filming of the 1913 movie of The Sea-Wolf.

If you’re a casual fan of The Call of the Wild, don’t read this book. The audience for this collection is London scholars and aficionados of his work. For anyone who falls under either of these categories, this book is a must-read. Perhaps more than any other nonfiction collection in the London canon, this book broadens our understanding of the role London played as a public intellectual of his time.

Essays and articles in this collection
The Principles of the Republican Party 
Telic Action and Collective Stupidity 
What Socialism Is 
Direct Legislation Through the Initiative and Referendum 
What Are We to Say? 
The Economics of the Klondike 
Husky—The Wolf Dog of the North 
Washoe Indians Resolve to Be White Men 
Girl Who Crossed Swords with a Burglar 
Finds Presumed Descendants of Sir John Franklin’s Party 
The Salt of the Earth 
The Stampede to Thunder Mountain 
What Shall Be Done with this Boy? 
Rising Tide of Revolution 
Things Alive 
Denied Admittance to the U.S. Because He Loves Liberty 

First Impressions 

Saved—and Lost! The Sobraon Boys 

Running a Newspaper 

The Yankee Myth 

Jack London Sees Movies Made of His “Sea Wolf” 

Jack London Goes to a Burlesque Show 
In Extravagance of Adornment the Modern Woman is Still a Savage 
The Message of Motion Pictures 
The Language of the Tribe 
Pressure of Population and Preparedness 

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Friday, March 7, 2014

The Time Machine by H. G. Wells

Accept no adaptations
The science fiction creations of H. G. Wells have become such an indelible part of popular culture that his stories may seem quite familiar even to those who haven’t read them. Whether they realize it or not, everyone’s probably seen at least one movie based either directly or indirectly on his 1895 novel The Time Machine, and pretty much every piece of time travel fiction written since this book’s publication bears the mark of its influence. Nevertheless, no matter what you think you may know about Wells from the various adaptations of this work, you are doing yourself a disservice if you haven’t read the original source material.

The Time Machine opens with a group of English gentlemen gathering for food, drink, cigars, and intellectual discourse at the home of their friend. The narrator, one of the guests at this dinner, never names his host, but only refers to him as the Time Traveller. The Time Traveller explains to his guests that he is working on a mode of transportation through the fourth dimension. He even demonstrates a miniature prototype of his time machine, which allegedly vanishes into the future. His guests are incredulous, but depart having been amused by this baffling parlor trick. When his colleagues return the following week, they find the Time Traveller in a terrible state—dirty, dishevelled, bloodied, and haggard. When questioned by his friends, he reveals that he has just returned from a perilous voyage to the year AD 802,701. As his audience listens in a mixture of shock and disbelief, he relates the story of his epic journey into mankind’s distant future.

Although written over a century ago, this book shows little signs of age. There’s nothing antiquated about the prose that would hinder the 21st century reader from enjoying this wonderful novel. The story is still remarkably fresh, engaging, and thought-provoking. The opening dinner party starts out lighthearted enough, but once Wells moves into the scientific subject matter, it soon becomes apparent that this is going to be more than just an entertaining adventure. Some deep thinking will be required. As Wells’ conception of Earth’s future begins to take shape, each layer of his visionary world is built upon a sound philosophical or scientific foundation. To delve too deeply into Wells’ thought in this review would be to spoil too much of the story. Suffice it to say that since the story concerns mankind’s descendants, Darwinian evolution obviously plays a large part. Wells depicts the state of affairs in the 800th millennium as the result of the natural, social, political, and economic forces he saw at work in his own time. Though the reader may not agree with the author that this is the way the future of humanity is going to pan out, one can’t help but admire how ingeniously and thoroughly Wells has thought out every last detail. Despite what you might have seen in the movies, there’s not a trace of campiness in this book, and no special effects could do justice to Wells’ visionary imagination. Beyond the thrill ride the plot provides, there is a stunning depth and breadth to Wells’ thought that clearly elevates this work above typical genre fiction to the level of literature.

I was so pleasantly surprised by The Time Machine, I’m now eager to read many of Wells’ other works. My guess is The War of the Worlds, The Invisible Man, and The Island of Doctor Moreau are all worlds better than their inadequate adaptations and, like this novel, contain hidden treasures just waiting to be discovered.

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Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Frank Norris: An Overview

The King of American Naturalism
Frank Norris. Photo by Arnold Genthe
Today, March 5th, is the birthday of Frank Norris (1870-1902), one of the greatest American novelists at the turn of the last century. His brilliant career was sadly cut short by a fatal case of appendicitis at the age of 32, but in his all-too-brief tenure as a man of letters, Norris was able to produce seven quality novels and a numerous and wide assortment of short stories, essays, and journalistic nonfiction.

Norris was born in Chicago, studied art in Paris, and attended Harvard University, but he lived most of his adult life in San Francisco, and almost all of his fiction is set in California. In his formative years as a writer, he worked as a war correspondent in South Africa and Cuba, published short stories in periodicals like The Overland Monthly and Everybody’s Magazine, and served as editor and staff writer for The San Francisco WaveHis earliest works exhibit the influence of Sir Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson, Bret Harte, and William Dean Howells, but by the time he got around to writing novels he had already developed a mature style based largely on the literary Naturalism of French writer Emile Zola. 

Naturalism was a literary movement that sprang out of the scientific developments of the 19th century, most notably Darwin’s theory of evolution. While Romantic literature often depicted a hero as master of his own destiny, the protagonist of the Naturalist novel is often the victim and product of exterior natural forces. His character and behavior are molded by heredity, environment, and social conditions. Naturalist writers use detailed descriptive prose to create a vividly realistic setting, then populate this world with characters that are ostensibly guinea pigs in an experiment, acting out the scientific and philosophical concepts the author wishes to explore. Naturalism, as exemplified by the works of Zola and Norris, occupies a sort of middle ground between Romanticism and Realism. While a Naturalist novel often depicts people and places that are remarkably true-to-life, the plot often features extraordinary events happening to ordinary people. Naturalist writers were frequently chastised by critics for being too brutally realistic and focusing on the grittier, uglier, baser sides of humanity’s existence. Thus when critics bestowed upon Norris the nickname of “the American Zola,” it was probably meant to be just as much an insult as a compliment.

So far no one has put together an e-book file of Norris’s complete works. All of his novels are in the public domain and can be downloaded for free from Amazon and Project Gutenberg. The short stories, essays, and such are harder to find, but most are available either at Google Books or Open Library. Another good source is the Frank Norris page at the web site of The William Dean Howells Society. I’ve read and reviewed everything available ever written by Norris—enough to say that I’ve tackled his “complete works,” though in truth there’s probably a handful of uncollected short stories out there that I’ve missed. Below is a list of books by or about Norris that have been featured at Old Books by Dead Guys. Click on the title of any book to read its complete review.


Vandover and the Brute (written 1894, published 1914)
Written while Norris was in college, this novel chronicles a young man’s gradual descent into a life of vice. Intended as a gritty portrayal of the effects of alcohol, sex, and gambling, today’s audience may find it a bit tame. Nevertheless, it’s an auspicious debut effort. (3.5 stars)

Moran of the Lady Letty (1898)
A wealthy young gentleman of San Francisco is shanghaied into service aboard a shark-fishing vessel and meets up with a lady pirate. Although the subject matter has the absurdity of pulp fiction, Norris treats the tale with vivid realism. (4 stars)

McTeague (1899)
Many critics consider this to be Norris’s greatest work (though for me, that would be The Octopus). The title character is a simple-minded dentist with a practice in a lower-middle-class neighborhood in San Francisco. This novel is a startling examination of the poisonous effects of greed on the human psyche. (4.5 stars)

Blix (1899)
A light-hearted romance about two young people falling in love in San Francisco. Despite the fluffy subject matter, Norris approaches the story from his trademark Naturalist perspective. It’s not profound or earth-shattering, but good for what it is. (4 stars)

A Man’s Woman (1900)
This is Norris’s worst novel, but still not terrible. It details the troubled romance between two strong-willed and career-driven individuals: a polar explorer and a nurse. The first two chapters are absolutely excellent, and well worth reading on their own. (2.5 stars)

The Octopus (1901)
Wheat farmers in California are driven to desperate measures when a railroad attempts to steal their land. This is Norris’s greatest work—a masterpiece of American literature that should be read by all. (5 stars)

The Pit (1903)
A sequel of sorts to The Octopus, Norris’s final novel focuses on the world of wheat trading in the Chicago Board of Trade. When one trader tries to corner the market in wheat, the lives of an ensemble cast of characters are altered irrevocably. (4 stars)


Yvernelle (1892)
Norris’s first published book was not a novel, but this tale of medieval chivalry, heavily influenced by Sir Walter Scott, which is written entirely in verse. It’s like nothing else he ever wrote. (2 stars)

Short Stories, Essays, and Journalism (most collections published posthumously)

Writings for The Overland Monthly (1892-1894)
Not a book, but a category. The eight stories Norris published in this San Francisco literary magazine are all available online for free. This includes “Lauth,” perhaps his best short story ever, and the “Outward and Visible Signs” series. (4 stars)

A Deal in Wheat and Other Stories of the New and Old West (1903)
This is probably Norris’s best-known collection of short stories, but it’s basically just an assortment of mediocre adventure tales, similar to those of Jack London but not as good. “Two Hearts that Beat as One” and “The Passing of Cock-Eye Blacklock” are pretty good. (3 stars)

The Responsibilities of the Novelist (1903)
25 essays in which Norris expresses his views on literature and the art of writing. Within these essays he defines his conception of Naturalism. (4 stars)

The Third Circle (1909)
A great collection of short stories from his early days, covering a wide variety of settings and subject matter. Among the best are “A Reversion to Type,” “A Caged Lion,” “The Guest of Honour,” and the title piece. (4.5 stars)

The Surrender of Santiago (1917)
This odd little publication contains just one article Norris wrote about the Spanish-American War. It was republished as a booklet during World War I to inspire patriotic feeling. (3 stars)

The Apprenticeship Writings of Frank Norris, 1896-1898, Volume 1 (1996)
A wide variety of short fiction and nonfiction from his days as a staff writer for the weekly periodical the San Francisco Wave. Mostly nonfiction, including a lot of football reporting. Among the fiction included here, the “Man Proposes” series is the best. (4 stars)

The Apprenticeship Writings of Frank Norris, 1896-1898, Volume 2 (1996)
More from Norris’s days at the San Francisco Wave. There’s more fiction in the second volume. Among the best pieces here are “Miracle Joyeux,” “Perverted Tales,” “Fantaisie Printanière,” and “The Drowned Who Do Not Die.” (4 stars)


Norris: Novels and Essays (Library of America) (1986)
Includes Vandover and the Brute, McTeague, The Octopus, and 22 well-selected essays. (5 stars)


Frank Norris: A Life by Joseph R. McElrath and Jesse S. Crisler (2006)
An in-depth biography of Norris and a critical examination of his works. This book will tell you everything you wanted to know about Norris and more. It does give away the endings of his books, so only diehard fans should read it. (4 stars)

Monday, March 3, 2014

Maître Cornélius by Honoré de Balzac

The miser’s mystery
Honoré de Balzac
Maître Cornélius, a novella by Honoré de Balzac, was originally published in 1831. The story takes place in 1479 in the city of Tours. A young nobleman visits the cathedral on All Saints’ Day for purposes of love rather than prayer. There he meets the beautiful young countess he is attempting to woo. Unfortunately, she’s married to an aged and abusive count. Finding such stolen rendezvous insufficient to satiate his lovestruck heart, the young man comes up with a plan to get closer to his loved one by establishing himself as an apprentice in the household adjacent to hers, that of the silversmith Maître Cornélius. The plan is more dangerous than it sounds, because this mysterious metalsmith from Flanders has an evil reputation and is even suspected of practicing black magic. Shunned by the citizens of Tours, his only friend is King Louis XI, who resides in the nearby chateau of Plessis-lez-Tours. Though Maître Cornélius may not be as terrible as rumors suggest, he is indeed a surly misanthrope and an incurable miser. And when he feels his riches are threatened, no one is safe from his relentless pursuit of fatal justice.

Despite all the dark subject matter, Maître Cornélius is a lot of fun. Balzac layers on the spooky atmosphere, irresistibly drawing the reader into the mystery of the title character. Louis XI is another intriguing personage, a dying old man with a gleam in his eye and a sly and spritely soul. Eventually the book turns into a mystery story, and the king, of all people, gets to play detective. Through most of the story the reader really doesn’t know what’s going to happen next, but towards the end things do get a little predictable. While the concluding revelation was probably a shock to the audience of Balzac’s day, the attentive reader of today will likely fail to be surprised. That’s a small mark against this otherwise highly entertaining story, however. The best thing about Maître Cornélius is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously. Like every story involving a miser, there’s a moral about the perils of greed, but here it’s more of an afterthought than a pervasive theme.

In the first few years of his writing career, Balzac’s output was all over the map in terms of subject matter and quality. In his earlier, shorter works he often expends all his energy and ink building exquisite atmosphere and suspense, then raps everything up with a hasty and unsatisfying conclusion. That criticism also applies to this story, somewhat, but overall Maître Cornélius is one of the best of Balzac’s earlier works. Those who enjoy his better-known novels will certainly appreciate this gem of a novella.

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