February 26, 2018

Book Review: The King in Yellow by Robert W. Chambers

Source: Vine

Publication date for this edition: February 18, 2018

If you are like me then the only reason you’ve heard of The King in Yellow is because of HBO’s first season of True Detective. Otherwise, you’re probably a fan of H.P. Lovecraft, who cited Chambers’s collection of stories as “One of the greatest weird tales ever written,” and a strong influence in his own work. Until True Detective, The King in Yellow was a rather obscure work that enjoyed a cult following. The strange, supernatural show’s repeated allusions and references led to a new and more mainstream appreciation.

The King in Yellow is a play whose second act reveals such terrible truths that all who read it descend into madness. If that doesn’t arouse one’s rabid curiosity, nothing will.

Robert Chambers wrote a collection of stories, first published in 1895, also called The King in Yellow, which are connected by the same-titled play.

This particular edition is indeed “deluxe,” as it is quite handsome, with a beautiful abstract cover in black and gold and mustard yellow endpapers. This is a gift for the weird fiction aficionado in your life.  HOWEVER, it only contains four of the original published stories in the following order: "The Repairer of Reputations," "The Mask," "In the Court of the Dragon," and "The Yellow Sign". The collection’s renewed popularity is acknowledged in the jacket, which mentions True Detective.

Keeping in mind that this was written and published in the turn of the last, last century, I had a bit of struggle trying to comprehend the world I was thrown into in the opening story, "The Repairer of Reputations." It read as a dystopian novel as imagined in the 1800s. The characters live in 1920s America, which is now a military state. Suicide has been legalized  and government Lethal Chambers have been built for those who wish to commit that final act. You would think in the first few pages that the story will revolve around that – but it doesn’t. Our narrator is in fact obsessed about the play, The King in Yellow, which he first read as he was convalescing after a fall from his horse.

…I cannot forget Carcosa where black stars hang in the heavens; where the shadows of men’s thoughts lengthen in the afternoon, when the twin suns sink into the lake of Hali; and my mind will bear for ever the memory of the Pallid Mask.  I pray God will curse the writer, as the writer has cursed the world with this beautiful, stupendous creation, terrible in its simplicity, irresistible in its truth- a world which now trembles before the King in Yellow… It is well known how the book spread like an infectious disease, from city to city, from continent to continent, barred out here, confiscated there … It could not be judged by any known standard, yet, although it was acknowledged that the supreme note of art had been struck in The King in Yellow, all felt that human nature could not bear the strain, nor thrive on words in which the essence of purest poison lurked. The very banality and innocence of the first act only allowed the blow to fall afterward with more awful effect.

After this tantalizing description, one of course now wants to read this infamous play. But although the main character in each of the four stories either mention or discuss it – the actual play is an elusive cipher. The reader, perhaps fortunately, never gets to read it for herself. Instead our horrified curiosity grows with each short story – Mystery is The King in Yellow’s secret power.

"The Repairer of Reputations" needs to be read multiple times – at least I needed to. Like the best weird fiction, the story is fully in the world within its pages. The first-person narrator’s point of view is slowly revealed to be twisted, and the reader comes to the shocking conclusion of just how unreliable he is.

The second story, "The Mask," is a more straightforward speculative tale, about eternal life in creativity . The King in Yellow again shows up in the plot – but it is not as central as in "The Repairer of Reputations." "The and Mask and "The Yellow Sign" are actually more connected than any of the other stories, both featuring artists, one of which shows up in both stories.  I suggest reading them in that order.

There are threads running throughout all four stories: madness, creativity and death. The King in Yellow – the play and the fictional character - hovers as a frightening, enigmatic shadow in the background. Because the actual text of the play is only revealed in snatches, the reader comes away never fully satisfied. What can be so terrifying yet beautiful that will strike me with “lunatic despair” upon revelation? One’s imagination runs rampant. I want to see the terrible truth for myself -which is perhaps madness after all.

February 19, 2018

Book Review: Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit

In her comic, scathing essay, "Men Explain Things to Me," Rebecca Solnit took on what often goes wrong in conversations between men and women. She wrote about men who wrongly assume they know things and wrongly assume women don't, about why this arises, and how this aspect of the gender wars works, airing some of her own hilariously awful encounters.

This updated edition with two new essays of this national bestseller book features that now-classic essay as well as "#YesAllWomen," an essay written in response to 2014 Isla Vista killings and the grassroots movement that arose with it to end violence against women and misogyny, and the essay "Cassandra Syndrome." This book is also available in hardcover.

Writer, historian, and activist Rebecca Solnit is the author of eighteen or so books on feminism, western and indigenous history, popular power, social change and insurrection, wandering and walking, hope and disaster, including the books Men Explain Things to Me and Hope in the Dark, both also with Haymarket; a trilogy of atlases of American cities; The Faraway Nearby; A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in DisasterA Field Guide to Getting LostWanderlust: A History of Walking; and River of Shadows, Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West (for which she received a Guggenheim, the National Book Critics Circle Award in criticism, and the Lannan Literary Award). A product of the California public education system from kindergarten to graduate school, she is a columnist at Harper's and a regular contributor to the Guardian.

When I was at dinner recently with my family, my niece and I started talking about books we’re currently reading, as we usually do. I briefly talked about this book and she said, “You mean mansplaining?”  And she proceeded to tell me how a boy in her class, unprovoked, tried to explain an assignment to her which she already understood.

She’s 12 years old.

I doubt there is a woman who would read this book and not start nodding along in the first chapter when Solnit is at a dinner party and a prominent, wealthy man asks her what she does, then cuts her off mid-sentence to start telling her about a very important book she should read, which her friend tries and fails 3 times to tell him is a book Solnit wrote. The man pales when he at last realizes his gaffe but stumbles along in conversation, unwilling to admit his mistake.

I have had “men explain things to me,” and like Solnit, I politely listened and bit back retorts so that I wouldn’t embarrass whomever it was who was lecturing me. I have no fear of asking about a subject I’m genuinely curious and/or unfamiliar with, but like others, I hate having to endure an unwanted explanation just so a man can feel powerful and smart.

Solnit draws a connection from “mansplaining” to misogyny to violence against women in subsequent essays in the book. There are additional essays that are not as strong. The Virginia Woolf one basically made my eyes glaze over, as I started feeling like it was a reading assignment for one of my college English classes.

I told my 12-year-old niece that when she’s older she should read this book. Some of it is scary – scary enough to me anyway. Harassment, violence – all goes hand in hand with roots of “mansplaining.” At 12, she’s already been subjected to its more benign scenarios but I don’t want her to have fear of living her life boldly and asserting herself.

“There are other things I’d rather write about, but this affects everything else. The lives of half of humanity are still dogged by, drained by, and sometimes ended by this pervasive variety of violence.  Think of how much more time and energy we would have to focus on other things that matter if we weren’t so busy surviving. Look at it this way: one of the best journalists I know is afraid to walk home at night in our neighborhood. Should she stop working late?  How many women have had to stop doing their work, or been stopped from doing it, for similar reasons?”

February 12, 2018

Book Review: Bellamy and the Brute by Alicia Michaels

When Bellamy McGuire is offered a summer job babysitting for the wealthy Baldwin family, she’s reluctant to accept. After all, everyone in town knows about the mysterious happenings at the mansion on the hill—including the sudden disappearance of the Baldwin’s eldest son, Tate. The former football star and Golden Boy of Wellhollow Springs became a hermit at the age of sixteen, and no one has seen or heard from him since. Rumors abound as to why, with whisperings about a strange illness that has caused deformity…turned him into a real-life monster. Bellamy wants to dismiss these rumors as gossip, but when she’s told that if she takes the job she must promise to never, ever visit the 3rd floor of the mansion, she begins to wonder if there really is some dark truth being hidden there.

Tate’s condition may not be the only secret being kept at Baldwin House. There are gaps in the family’s financial history that don’t add up, and surprising connections with unscrupulous characters. At night there are strange noises, unexplained cold drafts, and the electricity cuts out. And then there are the rose petals on the staircase. The rose petals that no one but Bellamy seems to be able to see. The rose petals that form a trail leading right up to the 3rd floor, past the portrait of a handsome young man, and down a dark hallway where she promised she would never, ever go…

As Bellamy works to unravel the mysteries of Baldwin House and uncover the truth about Tate, she realizes that she is in way over her head, in more ways than one. Can her bravery and determination help to right the wrongs of the past and free the young man whose story has captured her heart?

Bellamy and the Brute is the first book I read in 2018, which is a promising sign for the rest of the year. I have read my fair share of Beauty and the Beast retellings and this novel brings some refreshing elements to the genre. Firstly and most importantly – I adore Bellamy. She is such a strong and no-nonsense yet relatable heroine. When Tate seesaws between being nice then being rude, Bellamy puts him in his place – not willing to ride the rollercoaster of his emotions at her expense. She knows her own worth and will not suffer his inconsistent treatment. She demands that he treat her with courtesy. I love seeing heroines who love themselves.

“Don’t touch me and stop saying my name. You don’t get to say my name… my name is too awesome for you! And you know what? I’m awesome too. I am a nice person. I didn’t do anything to deserve any of this. So do me a favor and leave me alone.”

“I am fully aware of how incredible I am.”

Having an admirable protagonist aside, the story has more to it than the developing relationship between Bellamy and Tate. We all know this tale as old as time and yet the author finds a way to add suspense. There is a genuinely disturbing supernatural plot entwined with a thrilling mystery. Bellamy and Tate do smart research and detective work to unravel the connection between his illness and the wrongs of the past. Conspiracies, corruption, unexplained deaths and … vengeful ghosts.

Lastly – I must mention another reason that I love this book so much – Bellamy is a heroine of color. Foremost, the story is well-done but representation does matter as well.

February 5, 2018

Book Review: Through the Woods by Emily Carroll

Discover a terrifying world in the woods in this collection of five hauntingly beautiful graphic stories that includes the online webcomic sensation “His Face All Red,” in print for the first time.

Journey through the woods in this sinister, compellingly spooky collection that features four brand-new stories and one phenomenally popular tale in print for the first time. These are fairy tales gone seriously wrong, where you can travel to “Our Neighbor’s House”—though coming back might be a problem. Or find yourself a young bride in a house that holds a terrible secret in “A Lady’s Hands Are Cold.” You might try to figure out what is haunting “My Friend Janna,” or discover that your brother’s fiancĂ©e may not be what she seems in “The Nesting Place.” And of course you must revisit the horror of “His Face All Red,” the breakout webcomic hit that has been gorgeously translated to the printed page.

Through the Woods reminds me of Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber, about twisted fairy tales. Even the black, white and red cover is reminiscent of it. But Through the Woods stands on its own, apart from the comparison. I read it all in one winter’s night. 

The graphics are spectacular – creepy and beautiful at the same time. The accompanying narratives are perfectly spare – simple but memorable. Some stories I read several times. There are themes of envy, grief and secrets lurking beneath the striking illustrations.

If you want to go down the rabbit hole of her stories, check out her website, where many of them are posted, complete with graphics.