Short Story – “Brimstone and Marmalade” by Aaron Corwin

 

ShortStoryMonth_150x150Today’s post is a spontaneous one. It features a short story about one’s girl wish for a pony which ends unexpectedly. Or maybe not. It is both funny and sad. It contains the unmistakable feeling of childhood nostalgia. But if you have children, they will also love it.

Firstly, I must admit something. Somebody forgot to write a blog post about short stories and May is Short Story Month. Yes, I’m guilty. I love short stories and I forgot about this celebration. And May is coming to an end.

 

Then, a revelation!

I can recommend a little lovely funny gem that I read a while ago, called “Brimstone and Marmalade”, written by Aaron Corwin. You can read it for free on Tor.com or buy for 0,99 $ here.

It starts as follows:

brimstone and marmalade illustration by chris buzelliMathilde didn’t want a demon. She wanted a pony.

“Ponies are expensive,” Mathilde’s mother said. “How about a nice little demon instead?”

“I don’t want a demon!” Mathilde stamped her foot. “Demons are ugly and creepy and they smell bad!”

(. . .)

Peter Voorhees brought his demon to school once. It was scaly and slobbery, not sleek and pretty like a pony. It got loose in the classroom and tried to eat Mathilde’s hair.

How could anyone think that a demon was better than a pony?

But of course Mathilde gets a demon. Not an ordinary one, but a Miniature Dark Lord. Or rather IX’THOR, MASTER OF THE VENOMOUS PITS OF KARTHOOM.

He is just as awesome as you imagine him to be.

I love fantasy that does not treat itself super seriously while at the same time tells something important about the real world (Terry Pratchett’s novels are great examples of this attitude). The use of grotesque is obvious, but clever.

I think that the scenario presented here is familiar to most of the readers, yet replacing boring pets by demons is a brilliant idea. And IX’THOR deserves a whole novel devoted to himself and his sayings. I really hope that Aaron Corwin will write more in this style in the future. His short story suggests that he already found his voice as an author.

“The Best of Saki” by Saki

best-of-saki coverImagine a younger version of Oscar Wilde’s spokesman, Lord Henry Wotton from “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” standing in the crowd of wealthy upper-class people who do not see their pomposity and silliness. Your witty narrator notices the cruelty and dark desires hidden just underneath the fancy surface. Starting the narrative in medias res he describes what he sees without showing great attachment to characters. And each short story manages to engage you and amuse you. You will not laugh hysterically, but you will chuckle a lot if you read Saki’s short stories.

I got my edition from the library. It belongs to Penguin Popular Classics series (my favorite) and is entitled simply “The Best of Saki” (link). As this is my first encounter with this writer (real name Hector Hugh Munro. Maybe he should have kept it, it attracts the Nobel Prize in Literature), I cannot judge if the selection of 38 stories from his five collections is adequate. As for now, “The Chronicles of Clovis” (1911) collection appears to be the best, though “Beasts and Super-Beasts” (1914) falls close.

The Edwardian period in literature is not a familiar one to me. That’s what I thought when I read the term on the cover. Quick checking proved me wrong! The Edwardian era in England produced many excellent writers, among them Joseph Conrad, E. M. Forster, Rudyard Kipling, George Bernard Shaw, H. G. Wells, Edith Wharton, and P. G. Wodehouse. But while most of these writers are widely read to this day (one of the reasons may lie in many film adaptations of their works), Saki is not one of them.

Saki 's photo
Young Saki’s photo portrait

He does not deserve to be forgotten. His short stories, or sketches as I prefer to call them, are funny, sophisticated, satirical and thought-provoking. To quote the cover of my edition, they are “wickedly amusing and as sharp and sparkling as cut glass.”

All stories are extremely short, 4-5 pages seems to be the norm. All people interested in writing short fiction should read Saki. The limits of length do not influence the style. Saki’s style is very elaborate in terms of vocabulary and grammar. The dialogues are especially cleverly crafted. The carefully composed sentences indeed sparkle with irony. Even if they may seem old-fashioned at times, they suggest a skillful writer who wrote with ease. Saki worked as a journalist and a foreign correspondent for many years before writing these stories.

Yet the subject of these sketches is rarely political. They focus on English aristocracy and its mixture of self-importance, ignorance and affluence. The events are often absurd and frequently switch from apparently normal to full-blown grotesque.

Consider the beginning of the short story “The Reticence of Lady Anne”:

Egbert came into the large, dimly lit drawing-room with the air of a man who is not certain whether he is entering a dovecote or a bomb factory, and is prepared for either eventuality.  The little domestic quarrel over the luncheon-table had not been fought to a definite finish, and the question was how far Lady Anne was in a mood to renew or forgo hostilities.  Her pose in the arm-chair by the tea-table was rather elaborately rigid; in the gloom of a December afternoon Egbert’s pince-nez did not materially help him to discern the expression of her face.

Egbert then engages in the often mocked scenario of trying to apologize for non-existent faults. The wife ignores him. Only the Persian cat, Don Tarquinio, watches him from the rug. Even Egbert’s statement: “I dare say (. . .) I may have been to blame.  I am willing, if I can thereby restore things to a happier standpoint, to undertake to lead a better life” does not improve the situation. He finally leaves the room to change for dinner, asking “Aren’t we being very silly?” as he walks off. Lady Anne is not impressed. The cat answers him “mentally”, thinking “A fool” as he proceeds to attack the cage with a bullfinch inside it.

It was the first time he had seemed to notice the bird’s existence, but he was carrying out a long-formed theory of action with the precision of mature deliberation.  The bullfinch, who had fancied himself something of a despot, depressed himself of a sudden into a third of his normal displacement; then he fell to a helpless wing-beating and shrill cheeping.  He had cost twenty-seven shillings without the cage, but Lady Anne made no sign of interfering.  She had been dead for two hours.

The end of the story. We do not know what Egbert and Lady Anne do (probably not much) and learn only some details about their artistic preferences. Their life together appears to be both safe and dull. Yet we get the whole absurdity of the picture when two married persons are so distant to one another that the husband does not touch his wife to check if she is all right. The pettiness of their concern over some minor details, like an unfortunate remark during lunch, is contrasted with the grave and inevitable mystery of death. And, of course, the result of the story could be predicted from the fact that a truly English Lady did not taste her tea at all. Only death could stop her from doing that!

paul-iribe-1905-elegant-parisienne-art-nouveau-style
This is how I imagine Saki’s characters to look like. (image by Paul Iribe)

The satirical and darkly comic anecdotes about high society are intermingled with stories containing fantastic elements. In “Gabriel-Ernest” the protagonist, Van Cheele, learns that there is a wild beast in his woods. He later meets a wild-looking naked sixteen-year-old boy. The boy, named by Van Cheele’s aunt Gabriel Ernest, is a werewolf whose favorite meal is children’s flesh.

The macabre accompanies the fanciness. Saki’s characters may joke a lot, but they are disillusioned and their feelings often drive them to the edge.

After the laugh comes the reflection that the world described in the stories ceased to exist after World War I. Many movies and books described this crucial change not only in life conditions and economy, but mainly in the people’s minds. There was no going back to the state before the war.

The Edwardian period writers dealt with the world that was coming to an end quickly. People tried to act honorably even if their deeds turned out silly or useless. This juxtaposition of high ideals and prosaic reality persists in Saki’s writing. It comes to me as no surprise that Saki, despite his apparent mocking tone and the age of 44, enlisted as a Private in 1914. He refused to take the commission he was offered. He was shot in the head while in the shallow trench by a German sniper in 1916.

My favorite recurring character in Saki’s stories is Clovis: extremely eloquent, cynical, wealthy young man who seems to be interested only in excellent food and tricking others.

You needn’t tell me that a man who doesn’t love oysters and asparagus and good wines has got a soul, or a stomach either. He’s simply got the instinct for being unhappy highly developed.

(Clovis in “The Match-Maker”)

Lizzy’s Literary Life blog describes Clovis in the following way: “Clovis spends his time visiting the higher classes, lounging around the lawns, sipping the cocktails and amusing himself at the expense of his hosts.  Injecting wicked, if not downright malicious comments at (in)appropriate intervals.” He goes away with that thanks to his position, intelligence and the wit that none of his interlocutors can successfully match. He reduces each problem to absurdity. Clovis can also easily adapt to changing circumstances.

In “Tobermory” the title cat is taught how to speak English. It proves disastrous as the upper-class ladies and gentlemen realize he knows everything about them, as he has been spying on them when hunting pigeons behind their windows.

The panic had indeed become general. A narrow ornamental balustrade ran in front of most of the bedroom windows at the Towers, and it was recalled with dismay that this had formed a favourite promenade for Tobermory at all hours, whence he could watch the pigeons—and heaven knew what else besides. If he intended to become reminiscent in his present outspoken strain the effect would be something more than disconcerting. Mrs. Cornett, who spent much time at her toilet table, and whose complexion was reputed to be of a nomadic though punctual disposition, looked as ill at ease as the Major. Miss Scrawen, who wrote fiercely sensuous poetry and led a blameless life, merely displayed irritation; if you are methodical and virtuous in private you don’t necessarily want every one to know it. Bertie van Tahn, who was so depraved at seventeen that he had long ago given up trying to be any worse, turned a dull shade of gardenia white, but he did not commit the error of dashing out of the room like Odo Finsberry, a young gentleman who was understood to be reading for the Church and who was possibly disturbed at the thought of scandals he might hear concerning other people. Clovis had the presence of mind to maintain a composed exterior; privately he was calculating how long it would take to procure a box of fancy mice through the agency of the EXCHANGE AND MART as a species of hush-money.

tobermory--kocomour-od-sakiho by Markéta Vydrová
“Tobermory” by Markéta Vydrová (link)

This attitude of cynical indifference and successful activity in both realistic and fantastic circumstances make Clovis a perfect guide in the grotesque world of Saki’s fiction. Clovis also fits the Trickster archetype when he tricks people into wild schemes just for his (and the readers’) amusement (“The She-Wolf” or “The Unrest-Cure”).

High-brow English humor may seem dated at times, but the true cruelty and macabre that lie beneath it are still striking today, one hundred years later.

You can read all of Saki’s short stories online as they are in the public domain and see for yourself if you like them. I recommend Project Gutenberg site http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/author/152 which provides simple html text, epub and Kindle format. For PDF format try Feedbooks http://www.feedbooks.com/book/3399/beasts-and-super-beasts.

To encourage you even more, I will quote Roxploration: “Many of the stories in this collection feature vicious beasts – a hyaena, a werewolf, a ferret, and a boar among others – and a powerful recurring theme is the perceived battle between the refinements of gentrified society and the raw power of nature – although, at times, it is the duchesses, dowagers and débutantes who can seem the more beastly in their behaviour.” The whole great review of “The Best of Saki” by Roxploration can be found here.

downton_abbey_poster season 1
The best show on TV.

And if you want to experience more Edwardian era feelings and learn more about the transition that WWI brought, I recommend “Downton Abbey” which is one of the best TV series that I ever watched. (I am finishing second season now, so no spoilers, please.) It concerns the aristocratic Crawley family and their servants who both live in the title country estate.

Please comment and do not hesitate to share your favorite Edwardian writers.

“Classics of the Macabre” by Daphne du Maurier

RomanaC - Hipster Guys Owls
This image fits the book perfectly.

A collection of six best short stories by Daphne du Maurier is a must-read for any horror and grotesque fan. This book will bring you nightmares. Alfred Hitchcock and Nicolas Roeg felt compelled to adapt two of these stories to the big screen. After reading them, you won’t wonder why.

Daphne du Maurier's "Classics of the Macabre" book coverAs you might have noticed in my first post about Edgar Allan Poe’s “King Pest,” I love reading short stories. And I mostly agree with canonical rules that Poe established in his “The Philosophy of Composition” in 1846. Especially the one about “a distinct limit… to all works of literary art – the limit of a single sitting.” Simply put, a short story should be short! The number of characters should be limited and the whole story should have singular focus. However, there are some short stories that are more complex but are still able to captivate me in their worlds. Daphne du Maurier’ stories do it with ease.

I am going to discuss the stories from the oldest to the newest one and encourage you to read them without giving away any spoilers (as there are spectacular twists in some of them!).

The Apple Tree (1952)

An old man feels at last alive after his forever nagging wife died. But the twisted apple tree in the garden starts to make him uneasy as it hides the sun from a sweet young apple tree… The story concerns topics like guilt, love and appearances. Is the long-lasting marriage a really happy one? What does it mean to care for someone?

It is not my favorite, but I‘ve got a feeling I may appreciate this story more as I grow older.

The Birds (1952)

Hitchcock's "Birds" - birds waiting
Still from the movie “Birds” (1963)

An epic short story which will always be read thanks to a classic Hitchcock’s adaptation. Nevertheless, it must be said that the movie and the short story have only one thing in common: the title birds and their violent behavior. The protagonist in the short story is a WWII veteran who tries to save himself and his family from an invasion that no one is prepared for. The style is simple but full of gripping details: “He felt the thud of bodies, heard the fluttering of wings, but they were not yet defeated, for again and again they returned to the assault, jabbing his hands, his head, the little stabbing beaks sharp as pointed forks.” The story has a more political overtone than the movie, but remains universal at the same time. How is one to protect oneself from the enemy that can be anywhere?

The Blue Lenses (1959)

Daphne du Maurier "The Blue Lenses" book coverMy favorite one and the most grotesque of the six. A woman is a patient of the expensive clinic after the eye surgery. The nurses and doctors take good care of her, everything seems fine. But after she has bandages removed, she sees other people heavily distorted…or not?

Basically, she sees everyone with a head of some animal in spite of a human head. Her nurses are a cow, a cat and a <spoiler removed>. Her doctor is a terrier. But her visiting husband turns out to be…

The mixture of human and animal features constitutes a basic element of grotesque imagery. It frightens and disturbs us. It goes back to ancient mythologies. Various cultures believed in creatures (or gods) of both humanoid and animal characteristics (centaur, manticore, Horus, etc.). However, when the mix is unexpected, it is a source of horror (think “The Island of Doctor Moreau” which I will certainly review some day). Animal heads in this short story possess mainly a symbolic meaning, giving away the true nature of each person.

It is a very ambiguous story, as the explanations for apparent sight malfunction may vary. It bases on psychological fear rather than physical repulsion, though a few disgusting elements also appear. I wonder why it isn’t more well-known. It certainly deserves it.

The Alibi (1959)

A seemingly normal middle-class man decides to murder somebody, it does not matter whom. He meets a desperate single mother in a desolate tenement house and decides she will be his victim. He begins to rent the room in her apartment. He pretends to be a painter, considering it the best alibi. But he cannot foresee everything…

Sometimes we may get a wrong impression that the end of the 20th century invented cold-blooded, perverse murderers and psychopaths as main characters. But literature always described sick individuals and their misdoings. I think that a sick human mind is one of the main focuses of art in general.

“The Alibi” remains shocking, even if we read similar stories, not only in literature, but also in the news.

Don’t Look Now (1970)

A married couple starts to recover after their small daughter’s death. They are on vacation in Venice. They meet a pair of strange-looking twin sisters. One of them is a blind prophetess who says that Christine, their daughter, worries about them and wants them to leave Venice immediately. They intend to leave but the skeptic man keeps seeing a figure of small girl in a red raincoat who seems to be in danger…

"Don't Look Now" the girl
Still from the movie “Don’t Look Now” (1973)

The movie by Nicolas Roeg is one of my favorite horrors, yet I enjoyed the short story. The adaptation differs in some details from the story, and the husband, played by Donald Sutherland, is in Venice because of his job. Also there is an infamous, rather explicit, sex scene which is only referred to in two sentences in the short story. Aw, the cinema of the 1970s!

The story is more ironic than the movie. I suggest you check both.

Not After Midnight (1971)

The weakest one in my opinion, still captures the sense of uneasiness in a strange land. The land is Crete, an island in Greece, where a lonely teacher decides to spend his holidays. He meets an odd American couple. The wife invites him to their house but “not after midnight.” The myth of Dionysus takes an important part in the story as the teacher discovers that the previous inhabitant of his house drowned. And he visited the couple beforehand.Theatrical masks. Roman mosaic from the 100s BC.All of du Maurier’s stories in this volume feature ordinary characters in the ordinary setting (home, garden, hospital, holiday resort) who face extraordinary, or even surreal, challenges.

I get the notion du Maurier says that while you fear the unknown, you should fear the known more. It may surprise you.

Edgar Allan Poe’s “King Pest” – Introduction to the Grotesque

Social status vs. death

A few years ago I bought a beautiful edition of Poe’s complete short stories and devoured it with great pleasure. To my pleasant surprise, Poe rewards his faithful followers. Sure, all of us heard about the infamous “The Black Cat” or “The Fall of the House of the Usher.” Poe is talked about at school to the point that we want to say “Nevermore!” However, it is the author that will reward you with wonderful, little-known gems when you read more that the canon.

“King Pest” is such a precious short story. It was very appropriately included in the collection “Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque” in 1840. I think it can illustrate perfectly what the term grotesque means.

The plot is simple, yet the descriptions of places and people create an atmosphere that is rich with meaning. The style is extremely flowery on purpose. It contrasts with the horrific reality. The same with the events: they are treated humorously while remaining scary and disgusting. Add a bit of profanation and sexual exploitation and you have an ambiguous story that critics don’t know how to approach. The ambiguity haunts the grotesque. The bewildered audience is a preferable result.

Image inspired by the Black Death.

“King Pest” is like “The Hangover” if it happened in the 14th century London during the Black Death pandemic. Before the hangover part. It relates the adventure of two drunk sailors who venture into a deserted part of the city, escaping without payment from the local pub. They come across a strange meeting in the house that was previously inhabited by an undertaker. Six people sit around the table, four men, two women. Each of them is grotesque to the point that he or she stops resembling a human being.

It’s hard to choose my favorite. A lady with “a soft smile played about her mouth; but her nose, extremely long, thin, sinuous, flexible and pimpled, hung down far below her under lip, and in spite of the delicate manner in which she now and then moved it to one side or the other with her tongue”? Or a paralyzed man, “habited, somewhat uniquely, in a new and handsome mahogany coffin”?

Each of them calls himself a part of nobility and each of them is dying.

And the setting is so bizarre that it deserves a mention:

“Before each of the party lay a portion of a skull, which was used as a drinking cup. Overhead was suspended a human skeleton, by means of a rope tied round one of the legs and fastened to a ring in the ceiling. The other limb, confined by no such fetter, stuck off from the body at right angles, causing the whole loose and rattling frame to dangle and twirl about at the caprice of every occasional puff of wind which found its way into the apartment. In the cranium of this hideous thing lay quantity of ignited charcoal, which threw a fitful but vivid light over the entire scene; while coffins, and other wares appertaining to the shop of an undertaker, were piled high up around the room, and against the windows, preventing any ray from escaping into the street.”

I think it is every horror fan’s dream come true movie setting. The characters are not familiar but fascinating. The title character is a ruler of this place and he orders our two sailors to drink “a gallon of Black Strap.” If not, they shall be “duly drowned as rebels in yon hogshead of October beer.” The two men disagree and expose King Pest to be Tim Hurlygurly, the stage-player. The result is a brawl which ends up in the whole place being flooded by liquor. Two sailors escape, each kidnapping one lady.

The whole short story can be read here: http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/King_Pest

Arthur Rackham – Legs and Hugh Tarpaulin escape from King Pest’s court (a fragment)

Atmosphere of prevailing death dominates the story, though the pompous speeches are genuinely funny. I really like this story because it says something about human behavior during hard times. If you knew you were to die (and the whole world you had known with you), would you moan and pray? Or would you gather in a blasphemous setting, with people doomed like you, enjoying drinking, sex, luxury, and imaginary honors? Each reaction is probable, but the second one is  somehow less obvious. It can evoke pity, horror, disgust, laughter. Such mixed feelings are part of the genre called the grotesque.

I hope you enjoyed this opening post and I will see you here again. I plan to write about movies and books that belong to the grotesque genre. You will see what I mean in the next posts. Feel free to comment, like and subscribe. I am here to stay. :)