’52 Stitches 2′ edited by Aaron Polson

16 06 2011
52 Stitches 2

'52 Stitches 2' edited by Aaron Polson, Strange Publications, ISBN-13: 9780982026656, $8.99

[Reviewed by KV Taylor]

As was the first volume of 52 Stitches, this second installment is a series of dark flash tales, originally posted for free at the 52 Stitches website run by Strange Publications’ Aaron Polson, one a week for an entire year. Why, then would one pay for a paperback — apart from the marvelous cover?

One very good reason I came up with while reading it was that these sharp little stories, none of them more than three pages long, could easily bring the bedtime story back into fashion for grown-ups. Ideally one would read one a night and it’d last a few months, but the problem there is that it’s like candy. You finish one and think, “Oh, that was good — one more won’t hurt”, and pretty soon you’re stuffed.

Fans of dark fiction on the fence about the flash phenomenon might find this a good starting point as well. The theme is just that, short and dark, which covers a lot of territory. Sometimes that can be disorienting and ends up feeling slapdash in an anthology, but these stories have something deeper in common that makes it work on another level: it might be called 52 Sucker Punches for the way it operates on a reader. If the writer’s job is to evoke emotion, it’s pretty impressive to land a jab in 500 words. Particularly when so many of them still hurt the morning after, as in this collection.

A few stories fall flat, but with the minimal time investment there’s not much disappointment — and there’s enough to delight in that it’s easy not to dwell. There’s dark, delicious humor (Michael Stone’s “The Rise of Azaliel and Lorcas”, Jonathan Pinnock’s “The Wrong Thing to Say”); mini descriptive tour de force (K. Allen Wood’s “By the Firelight”, Joe Nazare’s “Beside Himself”); small town horror and silence (Doug Murano’s “Fireboomers”, Alan Davidson’s “Thor’s Hammer”, Kent Alyn’s “The Slough”); intense gut-wrenchers that run the gamut from childhood innocence (Michael Colangelo’s “The Chronicles of Blackbriar”) to dystopian futures (Cate Gardner’s “Edible Flowers Perched Above a Dying Landscape”). Madness, hunger, paranoia, loneliness, love, war, holidays, and, as the chilling cover might imply, even dolls with bad intent.

Familiar themes, but each reworked into something quick, clever, yet lasting. Some of the stories are almost poetry, they are so prettily but exactly written. It’s a bedside table book, for sure — though there’s always the issue of what dreams may come to deal with, after this one.

(As an important note, 52 Stitches 2 is dedicated to the memory of one of the contributors, Jamie Eyberg. All proceeds from its sale go to the Kennedy and Brendan Eyberg fund.)


‘The Turn of the Screw’ and ‘The Innocents’

6 10 2010

[written by writer and editor (and Ghost Appreciation Month team member), KV Taylor]

Right, to expand on the themes introduced in that review of The Innocents

The biggest and most important difference between book and film, to my mind, is the governess herself. I have to admit my bias, though I mentioned it before–I believe that Henry James was singularly interested in showing the effects of his society’s demands on the psyche, and in particular the way it stereotyped and repressed what it called feminine.* I’m definitely not claiming this as original scholarship, books and books have been written on the subject, but I am saying it** colors my reading of The Turn of the Screw.

In his novella, James casts doubt on his nameless governess’s reason right from the meeting with the careless uncle; she makes excuses for him, protests much too loudly that he has done everything for the children–and then James shows us how wrong she is repeatedly. He is the master of the unreliable narrator. (The movie is much more forthright; the uncle unabashedly selfish, if still way too charming.) The pattern continues throughout–the astounding leaps in logic she makes in only the last 1/3 of the movie exist from the very beginning of the book. She imagines hearing things–unrelated things!–in the house long before she ever sees a ghost. When she finally does see one, it’s while she’s taking a walk, obsessing about her charming employer and how she’s so glad and proud and lucky to make him happy by never speaking to him; she sees the specter, thinks it’s him at first, and then it’s not.

That’s when things go downhill. She perpetually attributes her paranormal suspicions to intuition and inane “certitudes” in the manner of stereotypical Victorian women in a Sherlock Holmes mystery who “just know” their fiancé has had something dreadful happen to him. (My husband and I laugh about this all the time–there’s a particular Holmes mystery in which the woman says they have “a deep bond of sympathy” that ties them emotionally. I put that exact phrase into “The Horologist” to make him laugh, I kid you not.) Except that James, as usual, presents this with extreme sympathy.

Apart from our governess’s self-professed preoccupations with fantasy and her absent and careless employer, her alternating obsessive beliefs that Miles is angelic and that he must’ve done something horrible, her adoration of the children and desire to be adored in return, the governess is also out of her depth and knows it. The children entertain themselves and are noticeably more well-educated than she–they are polite, sweet-tempered, and obviously tolerating her out of affection more than respect or need. Her only other companion is Mrs. Grose, who is a different animal in the book: her lack of education and station make her far, far more malleable to the hysterical governess’s will and whim, and said governess takes full advantage of that–with a lot less scruple than her little charges show toward her. Mrs. Grose is also saddled very clearly by her own guilt at letting the children be badly treated by Quint and Jessel; it colors her character from the beginning.

And where in the film we see some things that might be construed as evidence of paranormal influence–Miles’s expulsion coming from words he claims just “came into his head” out of nowhere, Flora’s magically quick rowing to the other side of the lake, implied abilities to make wind blow, candles go out, or otherwise perform nerve-shaking parlor tricks–there are none in the novella. All of the children’s behavior is completely explained by their upbringing, precocity, and the strong implications that they were not only influenced, but abused by their last guardians. The events that set the governess off in the book would be easily dismissed by someone with a little more education and experience, or even just sense, and her logic is even more fallacious than in the film–Mrs. Grose’s going along with them only reinforces that idea.

The lone proof that can’t be refuted is that, in the novella, the governess describes Quint and Jessel’s specters perfectly enough that Mrs. Grose recognizes the descriptions and–though she has not shown any evidence of suspecting anything paranormal is going on previously–names them as the source of the governess’s visions. In the film we see the picture of Quint in the attic before his face becomes evident in her visions; oddly, then, the film turns the one piece of supposed evidence*** for the existence of the ghosts in the book on its head and uses it against that particular theory.

Maybe I just don’t want there to be ghosts because it’s a lot scarier if she’s really just going completely mad and dragging us with her–or because, as I said in that last post, the literary accomplishment seems dulled by it, and I like Henry James. Either way, it’s also much more strongly implied that the governess was directly responsible for Miles’s death. The final scene is similar and yet not… but it’s fair to say that for all these differences, in spirit and impact, the film and book stand up to each other. Favorites can only be decided by subjective means. Kind of like question of the existence of the ghosts, really.

And did I mention yet that I need a drink? Because my god, what a depressing story.

* Daisy Miller is misunderstood in her simplicity, to the eternal sadness of the narrator, in the end. The Jeffrey Aspern Papers are held by a widow and her tragic spinster daughter, forced by society into a position where they can be shamelessly manipulated by the rather awful “hero”. Portrait of a Lady is about a woman who had rather be safe from her own passions than live a free life for which she is in all ways equipped–and it is, as any other character in the book would tell you, a complete waste. It’s always a waste, when James writes it, though he never has to come out and say it. He’s just that good.

**That and the fact that his brother was William James. I mean, come on.

***”Supposed” because, as James has taken such pains to show us, she is as unreliable as unreliable narrators come, and these are her words we’re reading, by that time. Again, these aren’t my theories, wikipedia even has a little section on the war over whether or not this is a ghost story here .

[Tomorrow Sharon Kae Reamer, has a little look at The Haunting of Hill House.]

‘The Innocents’ review

6 10 2010

[written by writer and editor (and Ghost Appreciation Month team member), KV Taylor]

Oh, one of my favorite stories, so beautifully interpreted! Loved this one.

A young woman takes her first governess job from a charming jerk of an uncle who wants her–without ever referring to him for decisions, complaints, or any child or house related business–to take charge of his young niece and nephew. She’s charmed into the situation by said uncle, in spite of trepidation about the last governess’s untimely death and the oddities of his expectation. When she gets to the country house, called Bly, she’s again charmed by both the house and the children–first little Flora, than the elder Miles, who is mysteriously expelled from school.

Other than the housekeeper Mrs. Grose and a few servants, there is no other company at Bly. The children are lovely–and extraordinarily precocious. Miss Giddens seems to enjoy the life, though she obviously wants to see her employer again, until she begins seeing people that should not be there. Through a series of tense and well-timed events, we discover she’s seeing the ghosts of the last governess Miss Jessel and the uncle’s valet, Quint. Said valet and governess, as it turns out, carried on an unsavory, often abusive affair, and conducted their business–pretty much all of it–in front of the kids, and this before their violent and unpleasant deaths. All this while Mrs. Grose effectively watched, powerless to save the children from the awful effects.

Here comes the leap in logic–and this is the point up to which the viewer has no doubt that a genuine ghost story is unfolding: Miss Giddens decides that Quint and Jessel’s specters haunt the children in order to possess them, and that the only thing that will save Miles and Flora is absolute confession on their parts. We’re not actually given an explanation for either supposition–except that the little girl has a penchant for music and dance like her old governess, and the little boy is rather more world-wise than his years should allow. But Miss Giddens sees the children laughing together and assumes they’re plotting and “talking horrors”, and sure, their behavior is sometimes creepy–but for all that we never really get confirmation that there are real specters. No one else ever admits to seeing them–Flora even screams at her that she does not, and that Miss Giddens is insane. Mrs. Grose seems to share this opinion. So do we, though we’re not sure where to imply causality, by then.

After Flora tells her she’s mad (and goes rather mad herself, though we’re not told if it’s fever or a mental breakdown), Miss Giddens sends the little girl away with Mrs. Grose. In one of the saddest scenes ever, Miss Giddens confronts Miles alone, hoping he’ll save himself with a confession. She presses him about Quint’s specter, freaking the boy out more and more, until she pretty much induces a panic attack in him. She follows him out into the night, Quint’s specter appears to her, the boy obviously can’t see it though she shakes him and yells–and the poor little guy, whose been looking weaker and weaker as the scene goes on, may or may not actually see the ghost in the end. Either way, he drops dead.

What an ending, huh? I need a drink after that.

It’s a great movie. The acting is excellent, the script is pure James–even the bits he didn’t write!–and there’s a stunning use of imagery. In particular animals are used to good effect–Flora’s interest in a spider eating a butterfly, a striking moment where a large insect drops sickly from the mouth of a decaying statue, it all sets your teeth on edge. Sound is used to similar effect, which is even more impressive–her first glimpse of the specter of Quint is preceded by animal and garden sounds, and then it all goes perfectly silent as the sun washes out her vision, and then his dark figure appears on top of the tower. It’s the only moment of its kind in the whole film, and signifies a huge change. Flora’s tortoise and Miles’s pigeons are ever-present themes that feel a lot more Steinbeck than James. And they work.

And there’s still that ambiguity about the whole thing–was there ever a ghost or is this a story about a woman going mad? It doesn’t come in until nearly halfway through the film, but like The Turn of the Screw, The Innocents would lose something without it. The ambiguity is presented very differently in the film, however, and those differences are some of what make The Turn of the Screw itself one of the most horrific stories I’ve ever read.

Just not for the reasons you’d think. You can interpret The Turn of the Screw as an obvious ghost story or a story that is solely and completely about a woman going so mad that she in the end kills one of her charges. I opt for the latter. Partly because if it is a straight ghost story, it loses a lot of its genius–the masterful use of the unreliable narrator pales, and James’s lifetime interest in presenting the damages society does to the psyche–feminine in particular–feels wasted. But I could talk all day about that, so I’ll spare you (though I’ll probably rant about it on my own blog, because I can’t resist)–and ask for your opinion:

Are there any ghosts? Was she mad? Which came first, if both are true? Is it different in the movie than in the book?

And man, what a story that still has us asking these questions all those years later.