Stuff and Nonsense: November 2011


Tales of Men and Ghosts by Edith Wharton

I began reading Tales of Men and Ghosts for the Gothic Challenge, but soon realized it just didn’t qualify -- the stories are packed with melodrama and some psychological horror, but there are no (inhuman) ghoulies, very few ghosties, and nothing I feel could be accurately labeled “Gothic.”

While I generally enjoy Edith Wharton’s short stories, this collection could not hold my attention. The first five stories were interesting and I do recommend them, but everything after “Full Circle” was a real struggle to get through as I found those stories consistently tedious and frequently anticlimactic.
  • “The Bolted Door” -- Suicidal playwright keeps telling people he’s a murderer, but no-one believes him. Eventually goes mad trying to prove his guilt. Or, was everyone else right? Was he always mad and never a murderer?
  • “His Father’s Son” -- A young man, raised to experience every pleasure and social nicety his father missed, deludes himself into believing he is not his father’s son. No, he is the son of the great pianist, Fortune Dolbrowski. He has the letters to prove it. Except, they aren’t his mother’s letters.
  • “The Daunt Diana” -- An impoverished art collector finds his heart’s desire, but cannot afford her. He eventually comes into money and acquires the collection in which she resides, but complete happiness eludes him. He sells the collection off. And buys it back, piece by piece.
  • “The Debt” -- Family of an esteemed scientist is outraged when his protégée starts dismantling their father’s theories and puts forth his own.
  • “Full Circle” -- Successful novelist hires a failed novelist to answer his fan mail. Out of guilt, successful novelist starts writing letters to himself to keep failed novelist employed, but he’s not the only one writing fake letters.
  • “The Legend” -- Family takes in a homeless man a friend thinks might be an intellectual genius who died years ago. Just so happens that family hosting homeless man is headed by scholar renowned for his interpretations of genius's work. Didn’t actually get to the end of this story, because all the talk of Pellerin and Pellerinism made me feel like I was back in college, trying to slog my way through Atlas Shrugged.
  • “The Eyes” -- (1st ghost story) Over cigars after dinner, a man tells his friends about having been haunted by a pair of eyes at various points in his life. Was he really haunted by eyes? Were they a Dorian Grey type motif, showing the man's depravity of soul? Or was the man, in a round-about-fashion, just trying to tell his newest protege he was no good and no longer wanted?
  • “The Blond Beast” -- Millner becomes secretary to a tycoon, befriends the son, becomes entangled in some immoral business shenanigans, possibly betrays the son for the father, refuses his thirty pieces of silver, quits his job. (It took me three attempts to get through this story and I hated every character in it).
  • “Afterward” – (2nd ghost story) American couple purchase an antiquated, atmospheric English country house which, they are told, is inhabited by a mysterious ghost they won’t know they’ve seen until well afterward. And that is precisely what happens.
  • “The Letters” -- Lizzie is swept up in a passionate (but chaste) affair with her pupil’s father. Then the wife dies, he goes away, and Lizzie sends him letters, but never hears from him. Then, one day, there he is. She marries him and learns a hard truth about marriage.

In a word: ehh.

Tales of Men and Ghosts by Edith Wharton (Amazon Digital Services, Kindle Edition)


The Banishment by Marion Chesney

“Like her sisters, the only passion she had ever known was for Mannerling.”

Isabella Beverley expected her first London Season to be her last. Surely, after a whirlwind of social occasions at which she was destined to be seen as a diamond of the first water, a suitable gentleman would propose to her and they would live happily ever after at her family estate, Mannerling. Unfortunately, Isabella received no offer as all her talk of Mannerling and nothing but Mannerling made her a bore. Returning home in shame and confusion, she finds not all is as it should be.

Dear Papa has gambled away Mannerling to that odious bachelor, Mr. Judd. The proud Beverleys – Papa, Mama, and all six daughters – must move into a cramped house with shared bedrooms, worn carpets, few servants, and a decided lack of Society. Their new life is a complete disaster and the only thing that improves it the friendship of their neighbor, Mrs. Kennedy, aunt of the Irish Viscount Fitzpatrick.

While Mrs. Kennedy teaches the girls much-needed housekeeping skills, Isabella learns something about simple civility and human kindness while enjoying the friendship of Viscount Fitzpatrick … but she still flirts with Mr. Judd in expectation she can snare him, marry him, and thus regain Mannerling for her family. There’s much humiliation and disgraceful behavior before Isabella accepts her heart lies no longer with Mannerling, but with Fitzpatrick.

The Banishment was a pleasing, if predictable, romp. Isabella was a pretty well-fleshed character and I enjoyed watching her struggle to transform from a haughty and proud Miss into a good-hearted woman. I also liked how Chesney treated Mannerling as if it were an actual character in the novel and I visualized it as kind of malevolently self-interested Pemberley.

There are five more novels in the series -- one for each sister -- but I think I’ll stop here. I presume the other books follow a similar story -- snobby, Mannerling-obsessed girl realizes there is more to life and finds love where she didn’t expect to -- and that’s a good story, but I don’t think I need to read five versions of it.

The Banishment (Daughters of Mannerling: Book One) by Marion Chesney (St. Martin’s Press, 1995)


Scandal Broth by Marian Devon

Recently arrived from Belgium, Miss Antonia Thorpe is astonished when a madman bursts into her uncle's library and unhappily demands her hand in marriage. Understandably, Antonia rejects his suit only to discover the gentlemen had been meant to propose to her cousin, Rosamund. Blamed by her uncle for destroying his family's future happiness, Antonia runs away to her grandmother in London ... and smack into that bedlamite, the Honorable Fitzhugh Denholm.

Scandal Broth is a quick bit of fun. The characters are amusing, if not always well-fleshed, and the story gallops along from one near-disaster to the next. Toplofty Lady Thirkell was my favorite character and I kept visualizing her as a very feisty Barbara Flynn (among other roles, she played the Honourable Mrs Jamieson in Cranford and Emily Forsyte in the Forsyte Saga) in a purple silk turban with ostrich plumes.

Scandal Broth by Marian Devon (Ballantine, 1987)


The Earl and the Heiress by Barbara Metzger

The Earl and the Heiress by Barbara Metzger (Walker and Company, 1982)

Having recently inherited a house in Mayfair, Noelle Armstrong has brought her siblings to London to give them a bit of polish and, maybe, help them find suitable spouses. Being poor and countrified, they work hard to fit seamlessly into Society. They are aided in this both by the skillful sale of several highly-desirable puppies to the “right sort” of people and by an unexpected friendship with the Earl of Wrenthe.

Ostensibly, the Earl assists the Armstrongs’s entrance into polite society out of respect for their late father, but it quickly becomes clear he has an eye for one of the Armstrong girls. Noelle is sure he is interested in her beautiful younger sister, Ferne, and encourages the match, but it is not Ferne he is smitten with.
   “Pretty?” The Earl put the letter down and thought about it a moment. “No, I wouldn’t say she was pretty at all. Too milk-and-water a phrase. Stunning, I’d say, or radiant, certainly prickly and exasperating, but definitely not pretty.”
   “Miss Fern?” James asked in disbelief.
   “Ferne? Who was talking about Ferne? She’s pretty enough, I suppose, if you like beautiful widgeons.”
Before reading The Earl and The Heiress, I read Metzger’s The Diamond Key and let me just say there is a huge difference in quality between the two novels. The Earl and The Heiress, her second novel, is much better -- less frothy and contrived; more Heyer-esque overall. And I enjoyed The Diamond Key (her 30th novel?!), you know, but The Earl and The Heiress is something I would actually buy to re-read if it were still in print.

The Earl and the Heiress by Barbara Metzger (Walker and Company, 1982)


Winter Moon by Mercedes Lackey, Tanith Lee, & C.E. Murphy

A collection of three romantic fantasies --“Winter Moon” (Lackey), “The Heart of the Moon” (Lee), and “Banshee Cries” (Murphy) -- all linked by the moon. I picked this collection up for Lackey’s story, which I had heard was linked with her Five Hundred Kingdoms series. While, yes, the story is set in the same world as the Five Hundred Kingdoms it bears none of the trappings -- no Tradition, no Fairy Godmothers.

Summoned back to her family’s Sea Keep after years in fosterage with the King's sister, Moira supposes her father plans to use her in a marriage alliance. Instead, she finds herself neck deep skulduggery and must make some hard decisions. Duty to her father and treason to her king? Duty to her King and betrayal of her father? Duty to her lands and hang the rest? In trying times such as these, a lady might heed the advice of a fool ...

My feelings toward this story are mixed. Our protagonists are sympathetic, the setting is certainly interesting, and Lackey writes with a very engaging style. However, the romance seems shoehorned in merely to make a significant plot twist palatable. Also, the enemy is so clearly Fantasy Arab Bad Guy that I was embarrassed for Lackey.

“Heart of the Moon”
Clirando, a warrior wounded by betrayal, suffers under a terrible curse. When she's sent to the Isle of the Moon for the celebration of Moon Month she finds herself on a very personal, spiritual journey with a stranger. As they travel to the heart of the Isle, they work through their issues and fall in love.

Not a bad read -- the nod to Odysseus and the island of Circe was quite welcome -- but the use of symbolism and metaphor felt heavy-handed.

I can’t talk about Murphy’s “Banshee Cries” as I did not read it. (Nothing against Murphy, of course. I just wasn’t in the mood).

Winter Moon by Mercedes Lackey, Tanith Lee, and C.E. Murphy (Luna, 2005)


Gothic Challenge: The Lord of the Far Island by Victoria Holt

I could hear the whispering voices and my eyes were fixed on the door. It was slowly opening and there came to me the terrible realization that doom was just on the other side of the door.

Ellen Kellaway, orphaned at young age and sent to live with wealthy distant cousins, has reached adulthood and knows that her future will be vastly different from her young cousin’s. No teas, no balls, no opera for Ellen. No, soon Ellen will be sent into service as a governess or companion. Or, perhaps not ...

To her astonishment, her childhood friend, the handsome younger son of a very rich family, asks for Ellen’s hand in marriage. Oh, the bliss! The joy! The sense of triumph! The relief! And then tragedy strikes ... six days before their wedding, her fiancé commits suicide.

Overwhelmed by disbelief and grief, Ellen accepts an invitation from her hitherto unknown guardian to visit her father’s estate, Kellaways Island, off the coast of Cornwall. There Ellen begins to fall in love with her guardian despite suspecting he is up to no good. Long buried family secrets come to light, murder is attempted, and bad dreams come true.

Lord of the Far Island is a delicious Gothic romance. The plot twists work well, Ellen is a sympathetic heroine -- although, I must admit I wished she could have fallen in love with someone less creepy and manipulative. Jago is the classic dark, brooding, mesmerizing, antihero all Gothic romances need, but he just wasn't my cup of tea.

Regardless, I still had so much fun reading Lord of the Far Island that it made me feel a little less cranky about being without power, phone, and Internet for five days. This is the first Victoria Holt novel I’ve ever read and I look forward to reading many more.

The Lord of the Far Island by Victoria Holt (Doubleday, 1975)


Gothic Challenge: Closed on Account of Rabies

Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before;

I enjoyed Stories of the Macabre so much that I went looking through my library consortium’s catalog to see what other recordings might be available to me. As soon as I saw the title, Closed on Account of Rabies, I knew I had to give it a listen. I mean, doesn’t it look deliciously disturbing?

The audiobook collects fourteen of Poe’s stories and poems. Some have been set to song and all have accompanying atmospheric background music/sounds. I found the background music distracting as it frequently overwhelmed the performer -- too loud and/or too pronounced. Iggy Pop, Christopher Walken, and Gabriel Byrne performed excellent renditions of Poe's most famous horror stories, but I enjoyed them less than Ralph Cosham's on Stories of the Macabre, because the background music was so darn distracting.

That said, oh, you haven’t heard "The Raven" until you’ve heard it performed by Christopher Walken! (Just ignore the guitar).

Closed on Account of Rabies: Poems & Tales of Edgar Allan Poe written by Edgar Allan Poe & read by various (Mercury Records, 1997)


Snowdrops and Scandalbroth by Barbara Metzger

Handsome Courtney Choate, Viscount Chase, cannot find a wife. Oh, Courtney almost had a wife – but she turned out not to be nearly as virtuous (or virginal) as he and he broke it off with her. Outraged, his jilted love let it be known around Town that Courtney Choate is “somewhat wanting as a man.” Now all the fine misses and their mamas cut him. How will he find a bride?

Fake a mistress! He hires Miss Kathlyn Partland, an impoverished gentlewoman, to pose as Kitty Parke, his beautiful bit o’ muslin. Paraded around town on his arm, Kitty is a sensation and all the men of London vie for her attentions.

Which annoys Courtney quite a bit as he’s falling in love with Kathlyn.

To them it was all a game. Well, Kitty was no pawn. She was under contract to him, by Jupiter. And when Courtney was done playacting his rake’s role, she was not going to be handed around from man to man like a horse on the block at Tattersall’s. He wasn’t sacrificing her virtue to protect his own.
On the other hand, a chap didn’t call out a close friend for staring at his mistress’s bosom. Hell and damnation!

A frothy bit of fun perfect for a dreary autumn afternoon.

Snowdrops and Scandalbroth by Barbara Metzger (Fawcett, 1997)