Category Archives: Short stories

My name is Frances Hinton and I do not like to be called Fanny.

April roundup

This is hopefully the last of my roundup posts for a  while – after this I hope to go back to the more usual single-book posts. April saw me busy again at work with a closing while at the same time preparing to resign so that I could move on. That meant I focused on books that would help distract me. Here’s my April reading:

Tower, by Ken Bruen and RF Coleman

This is a classic cinematic tale of two friends who fall into a life of crime and find themselves on opposite sides. Nick is a hard-bitten hard-drinking Irish-American. His best friend Todd is colder, more calculating, and Jewish. Ethnicity matters in the New York criminal underworld (and in most underworlds for that matter) and while both of them end up working for Irish-American gangster Boyle it’s Nick that becomes Boyle’s favourite.

What follows is a twisted tale that opens with the killing of Boyle’s vicious ex-IRA right-hand man Griffin then backtracks to how everyone got there. We first see Nick’s view on events and then the same events from Todd’s very different perspective. Along the way you see their friendship stretched and tested.

Technically it’s very well done. You can’t see the joins between the two writers and the story rattles along at a hell of a clip. The problem for me was that there’s a thin line between classic and cliché and for me it fell a bit on the wrong side of the divide. Perhaps it’s because I don’t entirely understand this odd romanticising of Irish-Americans that seems so prevalent in the US (though the book to its credit does touch on the point that most of these proud Irish-Americans have never actually been to Ireland).

It’s fast moving, brutal and has solid if broad characterisation. I think a lot of readers would love it but it wasn’t quite me. Guy’s more positive review is here.

Laura, by Vera Caspary

Onto another Guy recommendation, but this time a much better match for me. Laura is an interesting noir tale about a detective investigating the murder of a New York ad executive and well-known party girl. As he does so it becomes apparent that he’s falling in love with her, or at least with his idea of who she was.

There’s a wonderful cast, many of whom get chapters from their point of view. Laura’s best friend, Lydecker, is a fat and rather effete newspaper columnist who prides himself on having taken the small-town girl Laura once was and making her the in-demand socialite she was when she died. He’s a fun character: arch, self-satisfied, prissy but always intelligent. The question is, does he have his own agenda?

The detective,  Mark McPherson, is straight from the hardboiled school of fiction. He’s a man’s man, straight-shooting and straight-talking, but he’s the only one in this world who is. Laura’s intended, Shelby, is good looking and ambitious but was he only with Laura for her money? Laura’s aunt, Susan Treadwell, is highly-strung and at first seems fragile but McPherson soon discovers that she’s absolute poison.

Motives multiply and the facts increasingly don’t add up. Laura’s movements on the night of her death don’t make sense and everyone seems to be lying. Just with that this would be a great mystery, but it’s also a great character study as Laura emerges from the confusion as a woman making her own way without children or husband or  compromise.

I’ve barely touched on the plot and that’s intentional – while I guessed the ending there was plenty I didn’t guess along the way and if you haven’t seen either of the films (I haven’t) it’s best to come to this unspoiled. Highly recommended.

Guy’s review is here. The cover above isn’t the one I have by the way, I just thought it very good and that it captured the book better than most I saw.

Black Wings has my Angel, by Elliot Chaze

This has got a lot of attention of late due to an NYRB release. I read it as part of a double-ebook edition with Chaze’s One is a Lonely Number, which I slightly preferred to Angel.

That’s not to say that Angel isn’t good. It’s absolutely solid noir with an escaped convict (Tim Sunblade) planning one last big job with a high-class hooker (Virginia) that he met on the road. They’re both deadly and while they may, maybe, come to love each other neither can trust the other an inch.

Chaze does something interesting here in having the whole novel written by Tim Sunblade with the benefit of hindsight. That allows Chaze from time to time to drop in ominous hints which make it quite clear in broad terms what happens to the characters, just not how or why. For most of the book they spend so much energy trying to rip each other off and even trying to kill each other that you start to wonder how anyone will make it to the end.

It’s a truly excellent noir with great characterisation and plotting. I only slightly prefer Lonely as this one depends a little on some bad luck, whereas in Lonely I felt everything that happened came clearly from the character’s choices. Still, that’s a quibble and both are excellent.

Jacqui’s rather good review from JacquiWine’s Blog is here.

Diamond Dogs, Turquoise Days, by Alastair Reynolds

Alastair Reynolds is one of the leading hard SF authors around. I used to be a massive fan but got out of the habit somehow. I picked this one up as it’s actually two separate novellas and shorter than his usual 400-page-plus megatomes (for all I love the genre, SF really does measure books by the yard).

Diamond Dogs is a story about an attempt by a team of mercenaries to explore a strange alien tower on a dead planet. The tower sets increasingly complex mathematical puzzles in each room – solve them and you get to go deeper into the tower; fail and the results are bloody and as time goes on lethal.

As setups go it’s not particularly original and Reynolds plainly knows that, but it is well done. The story is more about obsession and what the various characters are prepared to do to progress, even though the benefits of doing so are unclear at best and increasingly look like they may be non-existent. Here the SF element matters as it allows the mercenaries to adapt themselves as they go further into the tower – replacing lost limbs with cybernetic replacements; augmenting their brains by altering their cognition to boost mathematical ability at the expense of less immediately useful traits. As the story draws to its close it’s questionable whether those remaining are even meaningfully human anymore.

Diamond Dogs reminded me of why I used to like Reynolds so much. It’s solid high-concept SF and led me quickly onto Turqoise Days. Here scholars on a remote planet investigate a Solaris-like ocean/lifeform. Things get literally and figuratively stirred up when for the first time in over a hundred years a spaceship comes from another solar system. The question is, why has the ship come and do its passengers have ulterior motives for visiting such an out-of-the-way colony?

Reynolds tells his story through one particular character who’s lost her higher-achieving sister in an incident on the ocean surface, but who hopes/dreams that her sister may in some sense still be alive as part of the alien organism. Reynolds therefore mixes in issues of sibling rivalry with exploration of alien biomes and again questions of what it means to be human. It’s top stuff, though it’s also again proper hard SF so if you’re not already into the genre I think it would be a tough read.

The Rhesus Chart, by Charles Stross

By this point I was mid-closing so I tried another of Stross’s Laundry novels for light relief. This is actually one of the better regarded in the sequence as best I can tell (or at least is seen as a solid entry), but I didn’t hugely enjoy it.

The problem wasn’t so much the book as that I’d read another from the same series literally less than a month before. Stross doesn’t assume the reader has read that previous book so there’s summaries of what happened (which are annoying if you’ve just read it) and the humour is very similar which is fine if spaced out but a bit samey if taken too quickly in succession.

The story here focuses on a team of quantitative analysts who are infected with vampirism and used as tools in an ancient conflict between two much older vampires. It’s better and cleverer than it sounds when summarised like that, but I just shouldn’t have read it so soon after the previous one.

I do plan to continue with the series, but probably not until much later this year or more likely 2019 or so.

Look at Me, by Anita Brookner

April was arguably my Guy Savage reading month. After the Stross I wanted something a bit more purely literary and thought it time to try one of the Brookner’s Guy’s been recommending of late.

Look at Me is from the 1980s and features a slightly shy young woman Frances who works in a medical library. She falls in with one of the doctors who use the library, the effortlessly charming Nick Fraser, and with his wife Alix.

Nick and Alix are a golden couple and their life is one of endless meals out and high-spirited friends and drama and excitement. Frances, who Nick and Alix immediately start calling Fanny, is too inexperienced to see quite how shallow Nick is or quite how selfish Alix.

Everyone here is well drawn and there are some tremendous set-piece scenes, from an early dinner out with Nick and Alix where Fanny is plunged breathlessly into the dazzle of their lives to much later in the book an absolutely devastating Christmas visit by Fanny to retired librarian Mrs Morpeth. It’s hardly a surprise to discover that Brookner can write, but all the same she definitely can.

I was less persuaded by Fanny as a character, mostly as I just didn’t believe her voice was that of a twenty-something year old. She felt middle aged to me, perhaps slightly older, and while there are good reasons in the book why she is so staid and so quiet it still didn’t quite ring true to me.

Similarly, while Fanny has her challenges it’s made clear that she’s independently wealthy, young, moderately pretty and highly intelligent. That’s not a bad combo to be getting on with, which made me slightly unpersuaded that her options in life were as few as the evidently thinks and thus her need for Nick and Alix as great as it seems.

So, while I respected this and was impressed by the craft, I didn’t love it. It reminded me of so much English literary fiction – a beautifully written account of the lives of highly privileged people who could as easily be living in the 1960s as the 1980s as the 2010s for all the outside world touches them.

For all that criticism, don’t be put off. It’s very well written and there’s an ocean of quiet but deep characterisation here. It’s one of Guy’s favourite Brookner’s and if you’ve any interest in her as a writer is probably worth your time. It’s also fair to say that it’s holding up well in memory – it’s one of those novels that continue to unpack after you’ve read them. Guy’s review is here.

Dark Lies the Island, by Kevin Barry

That leaves me with my final read of the month, which is a bit of a cheat as while I finished it in April I’d been reading it off and on for absolutely ages. It’s a Kevin Barry short story collection and it’s hugely impressive both in terms of range and Barry’s command of the form.

The stories here vary from the opener which is a micro-portrait of a young man building up the courage to kiss a girl after a party; to stories of tedious bar-patrons talking endlessly about the best route from one town to another while outside torrential rain threatens to flood the whole place; to a pair of elderly serial killers; to a romance which changes the fate of an IRA bomber; to a petty criminal on the run who decides to hole up with decidedly the wrong people; to, well, much more besides.

Barry is I think one of the better short story writers out there today and this is a top quality collection. The tales often feature elements of the grotesque and are often blackly funny, but Barry’s eye for character and phrase ground them. As soon as I finished it I bought his other collection, Little Kingdoms, because I wanted more Kevin Barry short stories in my life.

And that’s it! May started with Irmgard Keun’s Child of All Nations which was very good indeed. I’m now on China Miéville’s The City and the City (no, I haven’t seen the TV show yet, but just from the trailers the lead in the book now looks like David Morrissey to me. Funny how powerful TV imagery can be).

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Filed under Barry, Kevin, Brookner, Anita, Chaze, Elliot, Crime, Hardboiled, Noir, Novellas, Reynolds, Alastair, SF, Short stories

Six bullets and a gun to take me to Mexico. That’s all I’ve got now. And it’s a long, long way.

January roundup

It’s been a while since I’ve had a chance to post much – I’ve been busy at work and then looking to move jobs (which I’ll be doing in July). Between the two I’ve not been able to be online much.

So, by way of catch-up I thought I’d do a series of three posts summarising my reading in January through March. Today’s covers January.

If you read through this post I’m guessing it’ll be obvious which book I took the title quote for this roundup from…

Ancillary Sword, by Ann Leckie

My first book of the year was Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Sword, the second in her Ancillary trilogy (SF writers and trilogies…). It’s a direct sequel to her highly regarded Ancillary Justice and I enjoyed it tremendously although the general view that it’s not quite as strong as the original is probably fair. I wrote a bit about Ancillary Justice here.

Ancillary Sword is a much more contained novel than Justice. For a far future space opera it has an awful lot of dinner and tea parties and there’s much more focus on the culture of Leckie’s setting, all of which I liked but it does make it inevitably a little bit less thrilling than the original. I still definitely plan to read the third in the sequence.

The Duel, by Joseph Conrad

This was one that Guy recommended – his review is here. It’s a really nicely executed little novella about a duel between two Napoleonic officers which lasts over twenty years off and on. It inspired the film of the same name.

The Melville House edition, which is the one I read, comes with copious end notes and historical background material much of which is genuinely fascinating and if the concept interests you even slightly this is an absolute must read. It’s a lot of fun, if fun is the right word.

The Magic of Tidying Up, by Marie Kondo

I’d read a lot about it so had a look at the book. Sadly I remain rather untidy. To be fair I haven’t implemented any of Marie Kondo’s rules so this may not be entirely her fault.

Rain, by W. Somerset Maugham

This is quite a famous Maugham novella and but for being a little over 50 pages long would fit easily into one of the Far Eastern Tales collections. It features various colonial types trapped on a small island for several weeks when their sea journey is interrupted by extreme bad weather.

Tensions rise, particularly when a rather puritanical religious couple object to sharing the limited island accommodation with a fellow passenger they suspect of being a prostitute. It’s classic Maugham – powerfully written with strong characters and yet an extremely easy read. He’s famous for his short stories for good reason.

That’s not the cover I have by the way – mine is much plainer. I just thought that one rather good and it does actually capture part of the story (the racier part, but publishers do have to sell books…).

The Thirty-Nine Steps, by John Buchan

A man becomes accidentally involved in a deadly attempt to smuggle defence secrets to foreign powers. There’s some good passages particularly as the hero is tracked across the Scottish highlands, but by the end it depends heavily on extraordinary coincidence and the proper authorities continuing to keep the hero involved long after he should have been thanked and sent home.

The Hitchcock film is better and neatly sidesteps the various massive jumps of logic in the book. This is my second Buchan and I’ve not liked either, so while I wouldn’t argue with those who love him I think I can say at this point that I’m not the right reader for him.

Again that’s not the cover I had, but it’s great isn’t it?

King City, Lee Goldberg

This is a solidly efficient thriller by Lee Goldberg about an honest cop who irritates his less honest superiors so much that they despatch him to an inner-city hellhole without any useful backup or support.

Naturally he doesn’t just get killed on day one and the two very junior cops he’s given turn out to be more useful than they look. It’s Hollywood stuff done rather by the numbers and nothing in it will surprise you, but it’s well done Hollywood stuff done by the numbers.

So, while that might all sound a bit dismissive, I actually somewhat recommend it provided you want what Goldberg is selling. I preferred his Watch Me Die though which was a bit more fun so if you’ve never tried him I’d start with that.

The Steel Remains, by Richard Morgan

I’ve reviewed a lot of Richard Morgan here and I’m something of a fan. This marked a departure by him from pure SF to more traditional sword and sorcery fantasy. It’s full of traditional Morgan traits including hyper-violence and strong sexual content, but none of that was ever what I read him for and I thought the story here depended more on that material than his SF did.

Anyway, it’s (of course) part of a trilogy and I’ve picked up the second. There’s some linkages to his SF work so I suspect by the end I’ll discover it’s all set in the distant future and isn’t really fantasy at all, but I’m not sure how much I care. I trust him as a writer though so I’ll stick with the journey.

One is a Lonely Number, by Elliot Chaze

Chaze is famous for Black Wings has my Angel, which I read in April, but I actually preferred this. A con on the run comes to a small town where he finds himself caught between two women each crazy in their own special way. It’s full-on classic noir with an evidently doomed protagonist and a whole lot of bad choices.

If you have any fondness for slightly pulpy noir it’s one of the good ones. Worth checking out. Here’s an early quote:

It was stinking hot, Chicago hot, tenement hot, whore house hot. The dribble of sweat combining on both their bodies was slimy. He rolled away from her, not that he thought it would be any cooler because the whole bed was steaming, but because he always needed a cigaret desperately, afterwards.

January summary

My January reading reflects the fact I was absolutely flat-out at work. It’s heavy on genre reads and shorter reads, and I don’t think any of them will make my end of year list (except maybe the Chaze). February however was much stronger – I’ll post on that tomorrow.

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Filed under Conrad, Joseph, Crime, Goldberg, Lee, Leckie, Ann, Maugham, W Somerset, Morand, Paul, SF, Short stories

man has always found it easier to sacrifice his life than to learn the multiplication table.

Ashenden: Or the British Agent, by W. Somerset Maugham

Some books grow in memory, some diminish. I read Ashenden in chunks over a couple of months towards the back of 2016, and it’s fair to say that it’s one of the growers. Writing this now at the end of January 2017 I’m slightly puzzled that I didn’t include it in my end of year list.

Ashenden is an early piece of spy fiction based on Somerset Maugham’s own brief career as a spy in World War 1. The real author and the fictional character track pretty closely: both are recruited by a senior intelligence officer known as “R”; both are initially stationed in Switzerland; both are later sent on an urgent mission to Russia to help prevent the Russian revolution. Ashenden isn’t quite Maugham and this is fiction rather than autobiography, but at the same time Maugham lived what he writes.

ashenden

I love these Vintage covers for Maugham.

Ashenden is half-way between novel and short story collection. Many of the stories here can be read by themselves (and I did just that). Several are paired so that the first sets up a situation and the second resolves it. Taken together they create a chronology of Ashenden’s career as a spy.

Ashenden himself is a dryly humorous sort; intelligent but emotionally distant. He’s well suited to his role. Here he’s just accepted the job from R:

The last words that R. said to him, with a casualness that made them impressive, were:

‘There’s just one thing I think you ought to know before you take on this job. And don’t forget it. If you do well you’ll get no thanks and if you get into trouble you’ll get no help. Does that suit you?’

‘Perfectly.’

‘Then I’ll wish you good afternoon.’

The stories vary in quality as you’d expect. Some are closer to being interesting anecdotes than anything more substantial. Others are very good and there’s a definite cumulative effect. Neutral Switzerland is crammed with spies, most aware of each other and all of them constantly scheming and trying to win each other over to their side. Maugham captures the sense of time and place marvellously:

At that time Geneva was a hot-bed of intrigue and its home was the hotel at which Ashenden was staying. There were Frenchmen there, Italians and Russians, Turks, Rumanians, Greeks and Egyptians. Some had fled their country, some doubtless represented it. There was a Bulgarian, an agent of Ashenden’s, whom for greater safety he had never even spoken to in Geneva; he was dining that night with two fellow-countrymen and in a day or so, if he was not killed in the interval, might have a very interesting communication to make. Then there was a little German prostitute, with china-blue eyes and a doll-like face, who made frequent journeys along the lake and up to Berne, and in the exercise of her profession got little titbits of information over which doubtless they pondered with deliberation in Berlin.

It’s easy at times amidst the black-tie dinners and hotel conversations for the reader to forget that there’s a war on, but Maugham never quite lets you do so and the real cost of Ashenden’s work is never too far away. More than once Ashenden lures enemy assets over the French border so that they can be captured by the British and shot. Sometimes he sympathises with those he manipulates, admires them even, but that doesn’t prevent him doing his duty and he doesn’t wash his hands of his responsibility for their deaths.

Clear victories and defeats happen, but they’re in the minority. Mostly it’s bland routine coupled with uncertainty as to whether he’s won, or lost, or made any difference to anything at all.

Ashenden’s official existence was as orderly and monotonous as a city clerk’s. He saw his spies at stated intervals and paid them their wages; when he could get hold of a new one he engaged him, gave him his instructions and sent him off to Germany; he waited for the information that came through and dispatched it; he went into France once a week to confer with his colleague over the frontier and to receive his orders from London; he visited the market-place on market-day to get any message the old butter-woman had brought him from the other side of the lake; he kept his eyes and ears open; and he wrote long reports which he was convinced no one read, till having inadvertently slipped a jest into one of them he received a sharp reproof for his levity.

The stories have a nicely judged dry sense of humour running through them. I particularly enjoyed this exchange with R which is possibly the most British thing I’ve read in years:

‘I’m expecting a fellow to come and see me to-night,’ he said at last. ‘His train gets in about ten.’ He gave his wrist-watch a glance. ‘He’s known as the Hairless Mexican.’

‘Why?’

‘Because he’s hairless and because he’s a Mexican.’

‘The explanation seems perfectly satisfactory,’ said Ashenden.

The Hairless Mexican is a paid killer that Ashenden has to guide to a target (it’s not all Swiss hotel conversations and rote administration). Like many of those Ashenden encounters he’s a larger than life sort. The Mexican boasts to R that he doesn’t know ‘the meaning of the word failure.’ R dryly replies that ‘It has a good many synonyms’. So it does, and Ashenden’s mix of competence and fallibility is part of what makes this so enjoyable.

There are the occasional odd notes. Fairly early on there’s a piece of descriptive text which has aged very badly (“A scudding rain, just turning into sleet, swept the deck in angry gusts, like a nagging woman who cannot leave a subject alone.”) Mercifully it’s something of a one-off and I mention it mainly so that if you do try this you’re not put off by it.

R also uses some very ugly racist language at one point, but it’s pretty clearly in character and the individual he’s speaking of (an Indian rebelling against British rule) is shown in the narrative to be sympathetic, intelligent and honourable. Again, I mention it only in case a reader might have an issue with it but racist attitudes in upper-middle class Englishmen of the early 20th Century are hardly surprising, particularly in a colonialist context.

I mentioned in my review of Far Eastern Tales that my grandfather, Jim, was a big Maugham fan. Reading this I can see why. Maugham really is very good. He’s absolutely in command of his material, and while his style is arguably a little old fashioned that’s only because he was writing between 70 and a 100 years ago. He deserves his reputation.

One last note. While I think the book itself has held up well to the passing of time, the Preface hasn’t aged quite so successfully. Maugham complains about the inadequacies of Modernist fiction (without using that term) for no particularly obvious reason and in passing criticises the Impressionists, commenting of them that “it is strange how empty their paintings look now”. As of today he looks comically wrong, but in another 90 years majority opinion may be with him again. Who knows? Prediction is hard, particularly about the future.

Other reviews

None that I know of, but I’d be delighted to be told of any in the comments.

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Filed under Maugham, W Somerset, Short stories, Spy Fiction

Nothing moved across the moor except the rain, which appeared as suddenly and soundlessly as a face pressed against a window.

Diving Belles, by Lucy Wood

I took a bit of convincing to read this one. It’s a series of short stories that take Cornish folklore and place it into a contemporary setting: a woman transforming into a standing stone; a wife whose husband was kidnapped by mermaids; giants and ghosts and spirits. It all sounded a bit urban fantasy to me – a genre I’ve never taken to.

Diving Belles though is a superb short story collection; genuinely original and exciting. It’s warm and well written and firmly rooted in a very physical sense of place. Wood has subsequently written a novel, Weathering, and I’ll absolutely be picking it up once I’ve finished my #TBR20.

Diving Belles

The title story here gives a good sense of how the collection works. Iris’s sailor husband was lost decades ago, enchanted away by mermaids. Now a woman in her village has set up a business that can reunite wives for a while with their stolen husbands, perhaps even bringing them back to land. It involves lowering the wife down to sea in a diving bell, and a friend has bought Iris a voucher entitling her to three attempts.

It sounds twee, or it did to me anyway, but it isn’t. Instead, it’s a wonderful mix of the pragmatic and the mythic. Mermaids and gift vouchers. Of course it’s also all terribly metaphorical: when Iris sees her husband he’s not aged a day while she’s now an old woman, just as all those we lose remain forever young in our memories because they can no longer age.

What sells it all is the prose:

Closer to the seabed, the water seemed to clear. Then, suddenly, there was the shipwreck, looming upwards like an unlit bonfire, all splints and beams and slumped funnels. The rusting mainframe arched and jutted. Collapsed sheets of iron were strewn across the sand. The diving bell moved between girders and cables before stopping just above the engine. The Queen Mary’s sign, corroded and nibbled, gazed up at Iris. Empty cupboards were scattered to her left. The cargo ship had been transporting train carriages and they were lying all over the seabed, marooned and broken, like bodies that had been weighed down with stones and buried at sea. Orange rust bloomed all over them. Green and purple seaweed drifted out through the windows. Red man’s fingers and dead man’s fingers pushed up from the wheel arches.

Diving Belles is a strong opener to the collection, and it’s immediately followed by Countless Stones which is just as solid. Here Rita has woken up to find that she’s transforming into a standing stone, as has happened to her before and as happens to others from time to time in her part of the country.

Rita knows she has a few hours before the transformation is complete, but she doesn’t know how long she’ll stay transformed for. She therefore prepares to make arrangements: to contact work to let them know she’ll be absent; to empty the fridge of perishables; to make sure she hasn’t left any washing up on the side. As she does so the particularities of transformation are closely described: the feeling of her toe joints hardening; a craving for salt; visions of the other stones she’ll stand among:

Rita filled up the kettle and put it on. There was a cold breeze from nowhere and suddenly she was up on the cliffs with the other standing stones, watching a buzzard rising and circling on its huge spread of wings. Then she was back in front of the kettle again and it had boiled.

Unfortunately, before she can make much by way of preparation Rita gets a call from her ex who needs her help driving him to a house he’s viewing. She dutifully heads out to take care of him even though she knows the weather is worsening and the detour will mean she’ll have to leave some of her own tasks undone.

Again, the metaphor isn’t particularly subtle. Rita is fixed in place, literally unable to move either from her place by the cliffs post-transformation or her relationship with her ex. The story works though because while on the symbolic level it’s pretty straightforward the prose makes it convincingly real. Rita’s particular problem may be magical in nature, but there’s nothing supernatural about a woman who puts someone else’s needs ahead of her own even when her own are more pressing.

Each of the stories combines elements of the prosaic and the fantastic, commingling them so that the extraordinary becomes more a highlighting of the ordinary than something separate to it:

  • an adolescent boy feels awkward about his body, as I once did myself, but here it’s because his father was a giant and he’s still short (he looks up his concerns on the NHS website);
  • a woman unable to let go of her past finds the ghost of a wrecker (the Cornish equivalent of this) in her spare bedroom rifling through her unopened moving boxes, assessing them for salvage value;
  • a woman tries on an eye-cream in her mother’s bathroom, and through its magic realises that her mother isn’t the lonely old lady she thought she was but has a faerie lover and a whole life she was unaware of, separate to her relationship with her daughter.

Not every story is as memorable as those, but most are and I could easily keep picking examples (the old folk’s home for retired witches springs to mind, a more melancholy tale than it at first appears). Another standout that I can’t resist mentioning is Notes from the House Spirits, where nature spirits inhabiting a house consider its various occupants over the years, the humans they don’t understand and can’t really tell apart. It’s a melancholic tale with the reader able to fill in the gaps the spirits can’t, and with the occasional wry stab of humour:

When she can’t find her watch, we find it for her, and put it in the pocket of her coat, but then she shouts that she has already looked in the pocket of her coat. We were only trying to help. It is not our job to find things.

Diving Belles is like little else I’ve read this year, or indeed any year. It stands an excellent chance of being on my end-of-year roundup list, and I can easily imagine returning in future to read it again. For me, this is a future classic, and one we’re lucky enough to get to read while it’s fresh.

Other reviews

David Hebblethwaite first put me on to this one, his blog post about it is here and links to a review he did for Strange Horizons here. Gemma of The Perfectionist Pen also wrote an excellent review of it here.

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Filed under Fantasy, Short stories, Wood, Lucy

You’re old enough to know that the fact that your statement is true only makes it more offensive

Far Eastern Tales, by W. Somerset Maugham

When I was a kid, Maugham was often held out as the model of a great short story writer, almost the definition of one. Along with Saki he was as good as it got. My paternal grandfather, Jim, was a huge fan, as were many of his generation.

Literary reputations though are fragile things, and what seems timeless mastery can for no obvious reason just fall into obscurity. Maugham hasn’t suffered quite that fate, he’s still widely in print after all, but his star has definitely waned.

Perhaps in Maugham’s case it’s because the world he describes so well is no longer one contemporary readers recognise. He was primarily a writer of Britain between the wars, of the declining days of Empire and of a Britain yet to experience post-war Austerity and loss of influence.

Jim was born in 1920. He lived and worked in South Africa for a while, raised his family there, and while as a self-educated proudly working class Glaswegian he wasn’t anything like Maugham’s characters he’d certainly have recognised his world. Perhaps it’s as simple as that. Maugham was and is a great writer, but he’s a great writer of a world that’s no longer with us. He writes expertly of a country with few remaining inhabitants.

FarEasternMaugham

Far Eastern Tales is a collection of ten Maugham short stories, all of them set in the British far Eastern colonies. They vary in length and style, from shaggy-dog stories like Mabel to tales of isolation and murder like Footprints in the Jungle. Two of them, Mabel and the End of the Flight, are basically the same story once told as comedy and once as horror (both involve a man mysteriously and relentlessly pursued, in Mabel by a prospective wife and in The End of the Flight by a wronged Sumatran native intent on revenge).

Maugham’s Asia is a lonely place. The British are few and thinly stretched across a vast territory. Issues of race and class bar them from real friendships with the locals, making for intensely parochial ex-pat communities and pockets of men left alone too long in out-of-the-way stations deep in the jungle.

Their ambition was to be like everybody else. Their highest praise was to say that a man was a damned good sort.

As the quote suggests, these aren’t the best and the brightest as a rule. The servants of Empire tend to be bluff and unimaginative sorts. An excess of imagination isn’t an asset when you’re two days from your nearest neighbour, and an unquestioning assumption of your own entitlement and authority can carry a lot of weight when facing down locals with machetes and a grievance.

Nowhere is this made more explicit than in the rather marvellous fourth story, The Door of Opportunity. It features a particularly brilliant young administrator and his adoring wife. They are cultured, intelligent, a cut above what they see as the generality of Colonial mediocrity. He learns the local languages, they dream of championing indigenous arts and combining the best of the world they left with the best of the world they now find themselves in.

Maugham understands, as the couple in The Door of Opportunity do not, that colonialism is an exercise in economic exploitation backed by military might. The British aren’t in Asia to appreciate fine teak-work. They’re there to extract resources and money.

It was with The Door of Opportunity that this collection really started to shine for me. The first tale was much as I expected, featuring a club where people drank gin and played bridge, and an unfolding tale of murder in distant places. The second, Mabel, was easily the weakest, and the third featured a man dying from what he believed to be a native curse. So far it seemed, so as expected.

That third though, P.&O., turned out not to be quite what I thought it would be. Maugham it turns out is an expert at the mid-story swerve, where you discover that the story you thought you were reading isn’t the real story at all.

In P.&O. a middle-aged woman encounters a fellow passenger who slowly declines as the voyage continues, having been promised he’ll never live to see land. That’s fine, but what’s interesting isn’t the supposed curse but the lessons the woman takes from her encounter with another’s mortality.

P.&.O., like many of the stories here, is also a neat study in hypocrisy. Here the first-class passengers on an ocean-liner plan a Christmas party, but don’t wish to appear stand-offish by not inviting those in second-class:

The scheme was at last devised to invite the second-class passengers, but to go to the captain privily and point out to him the advisability of withholding his consent to their coming into the first-class saloon.

After The Door of Opportunity comes The Hidden Talent, a cautionary tale of why sometimes old acquaintances are best left in the past. By this point the collection is seriously on a roll. The Hidden Talent is heartbreaking, probably my favourite of the collection and it shows Maugham’s tremendous insight as a writer. Maugham gets people, and that of course is why he was so highly regarded.

From there we’re off to the races. Before the Party is a deliciously horrifying tale of the gap between public and private lives, brilliantly exposing the acceptance of ugly realities as long as they’re far away and decently covered up. It’s followed by Mr. Know-All, which would be spoiled if I said anything more about it at all but which shows again a nice grasp of complexity of character.

Then comes Neil MacAdam, another candidate for best in the bunch,  featuring a handsome new assistant to a remote museum who is too innocent to recognise the danger the curator’s wife’s interest in him represents. He finds himself in a situation any noir-writer would be proud of, and like any good noir the situation soon takes a deadly momentum of its own as the heat and isolation act as a pressure cooker to deadly effect.

The End of the Flight, which I mentioned above, is a dip in quality again. I admit that I don’t find stories in which natives have apparently supernatural powers terribly exciting, but the real issue is that the reliance on plot leaves less room for Maugham’s gift for motive.

The collection ends though on a high, with The Force of Circumstance in which a new wife  joins her husband on a distant Malay plantation and comes to learn the compromises he made in order to survive the long years before her arrival. Maugham understands hypocrisy, and why unpleasant as it may be it’s sometimes the best option available.

A classic Maugham theme here is the clash of expediency and idealism, romance even. More than one character sees Empire as advertised, as a civilising mission, as a chance to bring culture and order to places sorely in need of it. Maugham however is always aware of the gulf between appearance and reality, never forgetting that our presence is both uninvited and unwanted.

To thrive in Maugham’s Far East you have to be a hypocrite. To be otherwise is either to invite disaster or to embrace brutality. You have to be able to lie to yourself, at least a little, about the realities of what is ultimately an armed occupation. That perhaps was what most surprised me here. I knew Maugham as a writer of Empire, I had no idea however that he saw so clearly the contradictions inherent in it.

Maugham doesn’t condemn his characters or their world, he isn’t that facile and these aren’t polemics (and I have no idea as to his personal politics). Maugham describes, and he doesn’t look away as he does so. That’s probably why, out of fashion as he is, he’s still in print.

Other reviews

None I know of, but if I’ve missed some please let me know in the comments. If you are interested at all in Maugham though, Guy Savage has reviewed him extensively over at His Futile Preoccupations, here.

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Filed under Maugham, W Somerset, Short stories

There is such a thing as letting one’s æsthetic sense override one’s moral sense

Improper Stories, by Saki

Saki (real name HH Munro) was an Edwardian writer famed for his short stories – icy little satires that skewered hypocrisy and social convention. He’s an immediate precursor to Wodehouse, drawing on a similar cast of characters from the leisured classes, and I suspect a strong influence on Roald Dahl.

Improper Stories is a 2010 collection featuring 18 of Saki’s stories, taken from (I believe) three different collections published in his lifetime. Saki’s work is out of copyright now, and therefore largely free on kindle, which raises the question why anybody would pay for a new collection. Probably the second best answer to that is that this is a near-perfect introduction to his work and so perfect for readers like me who don’t know where to start. The best answer though is the cover, which is gorgeous:

Saki

Isn’t that just absolutely lovely? It also somehow captures some of the spirit of the book; a sense of decorous misrule.

Saki’s world is the world of Wodehouse, Waugh, more recently Downton Abbey. His protagonists tend to have better manners than morals. They sit at an ironic distance to the world, observing it with coldly comic detachment.

You can read the opening story here, it’s far from the best in the collection but it is a wonderful scene-setter. Characters in Saki meet fates that are fitting, but not ones that are necessarily entirely deserved. In one of my favourite tales a mother and daughter keenly wish to attend a garden party to which they were not invited. Considering it better to sneak in than to later explain their absence and risk it being generally known they were left off the guest list, they attempt to enter via the back garden.

Mrs Stossen and her daughter, suitably arrayed for a county garden party function with an infusion of Almanack de Gotha, sailed through the narrow grass paddock and the ensuing gooseberry garden with the air of state barges making an unofficial progress along a rural trout stream. There was a certain amount of furtive haste mingled with the stateliness of their advance as though hostile searchlights might be turned on them at any moment; and, as a matter of fact, they were not unobserved.

The observer is 13-year-old Matilda, exiled to the garden in punishment for her earlier misdeeds involving an excess of raspberry trifle. Unfortunately for the Stossens the gate between the paddock and the gooseberry garden is firmly locked, utterly foiling their plans. Even more unfortunately, Matilda doesn’t consider it quite right that they should try to sneak in, nor that her family’s great Yorkshire boar-pig is locked up in his sty and so not getting to enjoy any of the fun of the party.  Matilda, being of an economical turn of mind, resolves both problems with a single action: she lets out the pig.

The boar-pig had drawn nearer to the gate for a closer inspection of the human intruders, and stood champing his jaws and blinking his small red eyes in a manner that was doubtless intended to be disconcerting, and, as far as the Stossens were concerned, thoroughly achieved that result.

[Matilda reveals herself to the stranded ladies, whose only exit lies past the irate swine.]

‘Do you think you could go and get someone who would drive the pig away?’ asked Miss Stossen. ‘I promised my aunt I would stay here till five o’clock; it’s not four yet.’ ‘I am sure, under the circumstances, your aunt would permit—’ ‘My conscience would not permit,’ said Matilda with cold dignity.

What follows is a wonderful negotiation between the stranded Stossens and Matilda, who is always polite but rarely helpful. I’m not sure there is a moral, other perhaps than that it’s best not to find oneself in a story by Saki.

Here children wreak revenge on overly punitive aunts and guardians; boring guests are driven off in terror or made victim to elaborate practical jokes; the small-minded are made to pay dearly for their petty sins. In another of my many favourites, The Quest, a recurring character named Clovis is staying at a villa when a young woman realises her child is missing:

‘We’ve lost Baby,’ she screamed.

‘Do you mean that it’s dead, or stampeded, or that you staked it at cards and lost it that way?’ asked Clovis lazily.

‘He was toddling about quite happily on the lawn,’ said Mrs Momeby tearfully, ‘ and Arnold had just come in, and I was asking him what sort of sauce he would like with the asparagus-‘

‘I hope he said hollandaise,’ interrupted Clovis, with a show of quickened interest, ‘because if there’s anything I hate-‘

Soon Clovis, a young man possessed more of wit than moral character, is helpfully speculating that perhaps an eagle or hyena might have escaped from some private zoo and devoured the child. Mrs Momeby fails to take comfort from this, and what’s worse “With the selfish absorption of young motherhood she entirely disregarded Clovis’s obvious anxiety about the asparagus sauce.”

They quickly locate a crying baby, a seeming miraculous recovery made with the help of a Christian Scientist neighbour armed with great powers of faith if not of perception. Regrettably the child found isn’t the child lost, so that when their own baby reappears they find themselves with an excess infant. Clovis cheerfully notes that they need only keep the bonus baby until it hits the age of 13, at which time they may put it into the navy.

The stories featuring Clovis are a particular delight simply because Clovis himself is so much fun. He is mischief made flesh, then sent to a good school and tailored in Saville Row. In a sense he is an animal in human form, a fox perhaps or a particularly sly cat, with those around him mere dull dogs in comparison or worse yet geese or sheep.

One story which at first seems to stick out in the collection is The Music on the Hill, which unlike the others is much more a horror tale in the vein of Machen or MR James. A young woman marries and moves from town to country, where she finds that worship of the old gods remains very real as may the old gods themselves. I found it an effective little chiller, with the woman isolated on a gloomy farm with a distant husband and unfriendly animals. When she sees “a boy’s face … scowling at her, brown and beautiful, with unutterably evil eyes” after interfering with an offering she finds on a small altar in the woods, you know the tale won’t end happily for her.

On reflection though, the tale did fit, because it explores an encounter between urbane modernity and older, more primeval, forces. Where Pan amused himself in ancient Greece (and perhaps the more remote parts of Edwardian England) by terrifying travelers in his woods, Clovis instead spreads dismay and confusion in drawing rooms and country houses. Clovis is a child of Pan, a manifestation of him and of all the Puckish spirits who have afflicted the overly self-assured through the ages. We need order if we are to flourish, to build lives and homes and carve out a place for ourselves in the world; but we need chaos too or nothing would ever change, and we would drown in our own comfort.

Saki though makes no point so serious as that, or not so obviously anyway. Instead he laughs at the vanities of the world around him, the people in it. The world has changed since Saki’s day, but the people haven’t, and that’s why these tales remain as fresh and funny as when he wrote them.

Here‘s a wonderful piece by Chris Power in the Guardian about Saki, and here‘s a review by Guy Savage of another Saki collection which comes with the added bonus of Edward Gorey artwork.

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… the impotent air-raid siren of 400,000 human voices

The Quickening, by Michael Bishop

I’ve done a guest post for Joachim Boaz, who has a rather marvellous SF blog here.

It’s a review of Michael Bishop’s award winning novelette, The Quickening. Novelette’s a new term for me, it seems to mean a long short story published outside of a short story collection context. I’m not surprised the term didn’t catch on, but the story’s good.

Here’s the cover:

THQCKNNGVW1991

The review is at Joachim’s, as are a great many well-written reviews of classic SF novels and covers. It’s a fun site, and even if you don’t find SF interesting his book-cover discussions may well still grab you.

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Filed under Bishop, Michael, Novellas, SF, Short stories

This is my real life. All the rest is fiction.

The Bathtub Spy, by Tom Rachman

I wanted to like this one. I enjoyed Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists (though with some reservations), and as soon as I saw he had a standalone short story out on kindle I snapped it up. Unfortunately, I’m left writing a review of a story that I didn’t hate but didn’t much like either.

Bathtub Spy

The narrator in this short story, Mr Tregwynt, is a reader. That’s true too of course of pretty much everyone who follows my blog. As we all know though, there are different species of readers. Tregwynt’s the sort who reads to escape. His days are frustrating, lonely and dull. In the evening he settles in a tub, opens a book and escapes into a better world:

Already, by the first sentence, I land on the galloping carriage of the story, and the drab locations I inhabit – this ramshackle house with Connie, the subway to the office, my bare cubicle there – dissolve, only black letters cantering across white pages now. This is my real life. All the rest is fiction.

The irony is what Tregwynt does in his office, his bare cubicle. He’s a translator in the intelligence community. He is, in a particularly unsexy way, a spy.

My work is mostly transcription. Wayne provides digital audio files and I render them into English. As such, I am privy to chatter that few others hear. And it is strikingly dull. Terror suspects, on wiretaps around the world, spend much of their time grumbling: their Internet connections are down again, their fellow cell member forgot to buy yogurt. If this is the enemy, he is cheeringly inept. Doubtless, they have their masterminds stuffed in a cave somewhere, just as we have ours in this concrete complex. Still, I’m starting to wonder if this War on Terror is waged partly between nitwits, theirs hostile to every book in the world but one, while ours – I glimpse Wayne typing a search into the classified military Internet for “awesome videos stuff blowing up” – are only slightly more formidable.

Wayne is the narrator’s team leader. Wayne is a petty workplace bully; a player of minor power games who sends the narrator on demeaning errands then keeps him waiting on his return while Wayne taps out an unimportant email or chooses to take a call. I’ve worked with people like that. I suspect most of us have. There is something peculiarly humiliating about hovering not sure whether to stay or go while someone shows their importance by carrying on as if you weren’t present.

Those days are behind me now since I’ve become more senior over time, and anyway I don’t work with people like that any more. Tregwynt’s not so lucky. He’s fifty-three years old, reporting to a man much younger than him and who he doesn’t respect at all. Wayne is vulgar and witless and so clueless he uses the name Iceman when ordering in pizza because he’s more in love with the idea of being a spy than actually doing a decent job as one.

Then, one day, Wayne notices Tregwynt reading a book, worse yet a book in French. Wayne is incredulous, dismissive, then he forces his own book by some Russian named Krapotnik onto Tregwynt and orders him to read it. Tregwynt is too mild-mannered not to comply , but how bad will a book read by Wayne be? He fears the worst, but what happens next is more terrible than anything he’d dreamt. Wayne’s choice of book is brilliant.

How could Wayne have read a book like this? How could someone have appreciated a work this fine, yet remained so foul? I don’t want to share anything with him. Not musical tastes. Not preferences in food. How could he like Krapotnik?

I won’t say more about what happens. The story follows Tregwynt and Wayne’s bizarre one-way book club and how it impacts their relationship. It’s well written, as the quotes above hopefully show, and much of it is funny.

So, why didn’t I like it then? The ingredients are all here. There’s that ironic contrast between the mundanity of Tregwynt’s existence and job and what we popularly imagine spies to be like (actually, this is exactly what I imagine a spy to be like, but that doesn’t diminish the irony any). There’s that question of how we reconcile discovering that people we despise like things we like (every time David Cameron names another band he likes a legion of left-wing music fans cry – how can he like The Smiths, The Jam, the Manics? Hell, how dare he?).

The problem for me was that it never really went anywhere. Rachman’s a natural at the short story form as he showed in The Imperfectionists, but for me this story was all setup and no payoff. I didn’t mind that I didn’t believe in Wayne, he’s meant to be a caricature after all. I did mind that I didn’t care about him or his relationship with Tregwynt. 

The Imperfectionists was funny (mostly), had great and well drawn characters and lovely little story arcs that intertwined with each other. I thought it had flaws, but I liked it and it’s held up well in memory. Here, well, it’s funny early on but the story has no real arc and the characters weren’t particularly interesting, or rather they were potentially interesting but they didn’t really do anything interesting.

Since Rachman is a writer of wit and character rather than of finely wrought artistic prose, not caring about the characters doesn’t leave much else to care about. I don’t necessarily want to put someone off reading this because Rachman has talent and there’s a risk of making it sound terrible when it’s merely not great. Still, if the quotes or the situation grab you then you could certainly do a lot worse, and as it’s a kindle single it’s both short and cheap. I just think he’s written better.

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Filed under Ebooks, Novellas, Rachman, Tom, Short stories, Spy Fiction

The whole universe was idiotic.

Anticopernicus, by Adam Roberts

Of all the great philosophers and religious figures, it was Copernicus who was the greatest, for he alone had preached the truth to humankind: you are not special.

But what if Copernicus was wrong?

Adam Roberts is one of those writers I’ve long meant to read, but haven’t got round to. Enter Kindle Singles, which are a great way to try out new writers for less than half the price of a cup of coffee (not that cups of coffee are particularly cheap these days, I admit). 

There’s a grand tradition in SF of using short stories as a means to explore ideas which are interesting, but not substantial enough to support an entire book. Anticopernicus fits squarely in that tradition. Centuries ago we used to believe that the universe literally revolved around us. We were special. We were the most important thing in existence.

Over time that idea got discredited, slowly and at great personal cost to many of those who fought against it. Well, I say discredited, but of course while nobody really thinks the universe literally revolves around us anymore billions do still think it was created precisely for our benefit.

Among scientists though, among those who seek a material rather than theological explanation for our existence, everything we’ve learned suggests that we have no privileged position. We are not special. We are not central to the universe. We appear to live on an average planet in an average solar system in an average galaxy.

The only wrinkle in all that is that in one particular respect we seem very far from average, and that’s that we are here at all. Everywhere we look in the universe we see no signs of intelligent life beyond our own. We see no grand galactic building projects, we hear no radio signals, nobody comes to visit us. We listen to the universe and all we hear is a great and empty silence.

The working assumption right now is that there likely is other intelligent life, but that the universe is a bit more hostile to it than we initially thought so it’s rare and spread out. If that’s true then we’re still not special, just not that common, and the silence is just because our neighbours are very far away.

In Anticopernicus the aliens finally do come to visit us, but when they do it doesn’t turn out quite as we expected…

The extrasolar intelligence, or intelligences, or—who knew what they were, or what they wanted—they had approached as close as the Oort cloud, and there they waited, patiently as far as anybody could see, for the Leibniz to trawl slowly, slowly, slowly out to the rendezvous. Communication had been intermittent, although the aliens’ command of English was fluent and idiomatic. But most of the questions beamed out at them had been returned with non sequiturs. What do you look like? Where are you from? By what political system do you organise your society? Are you an ancient race of beings? How do you travel faster than light? Do you come in peace? How did you find out about us? Where are you from? What do you look like? Fingers are a mode of madness—and toes! Toes? Toes! What do you mean? Do you mean you don’t possess fingers and toes? That the sight of them distresses you? Do you have flippers, or tentacles, or do you manipulate your environment with forcefields directly manoeuvred by your minds? We can wear mittens, if you like. If it distresses you. We can wear shoes on our feet and boxing-gloves on our hands! Not that we wish to box with you … we have no belligerent feelings towards you at all! We love your fingers and toes! They are adorable! Adorable! But mad.

Ange is one of the astronauts sent out to the Oort cloud to greet our visitors, and to find out why they’ve come. She’s an introverted sort, someone who prefers her own company to that of others and is more afraid of the idea of an afterlife full of countless dead people chatting away than she is of simply ceasing to exist when she dies.

As Ange and the rest of the small crew of astronauts head out though something strange happens. The alien ship, massive, detectable even from Earth, vanishes. Why? What could bring them all that distance and then just make them leave?

Ange didn’t say anything, but it seemed to her more than likely that the departure was as random and inexplicable thing as the arrival. She believed (and this belief was as close to religion as she came) that the universe was not structured according to the logic of the human mind, despite the fact—ironically enough, perhaps—that the human mind is unavoidably part of the cosmos. The billions of buzzing homo sapiens brains craved pattern, structure and resolution; they saw the beauty of a story arc in every rainbow’s bend. The cosmos liked structure too, of course; but of a much less complicated, or perhaps it would be truer to say a much more monotonously replicated, kind. Hydrogen and helium everywhere in varying alternated clumps; the inverse-square-law everywhere in every direction. Everything existent, nothing mattering. And above all the cosmos had no sense of story whatsoever. If aliens arrive in a human story and set up a meeting, why, then there must be a pay-off of some kind! But neither set-up nor pay-off was not the logic of the cosmos; and most assuredly the latter was never intrinsically folded neatly inside the former, waiting to germinate. If the aliens had randomly vanished, as they seemed to have done, then that was (Ange thought) just one more unharmonious broken-off piece of the infinitely unharmonious piecemeal cosmos.

The answer, and there is one, is that Ange’s belief is utterly, utterly wrong. We do in fact matter to the universe. We matter a great deal.

I won’t say more since it would spoil the story, but I really enjoyed this. It’s not a meaty piece, it’s a fun little SF tale which takes an idea and runs with it. It’s not really credible, but then not all SF has to be. Back in the 1970s SF short story anthologies would routinely have a few tales in them that were just intended to be plain old entertaining, not to be taken too seriously, and this is firmly in that camp. In fact, if it weren’t for the fact that some of the scientific elements it (very lightly) references are modern concerns it could easily have been written in the 1970s.

All that said, I wouldn’t remotely recommend this to non-SF fans. If you do already like the genre though it’s definitely worth checking out (and if you don’t like it at least it’s short and cheap).

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Filed under Novellas, Roberts, Adam, SF, Short stories

Some strange tales from Pu Songling

More strange tales from Pu Songling

By way of followup to my post discussing Pu Songling’s Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio here’s three examples of the tales, with the accompanying commentaries set out at the bottom of the post. If you like these I really do suggest buying the entire collection, which is excellent.

42

THE DEVOTED MOUSE

Yang Tianyi told this story.
Once he saw two mice come out into his room. One of them was swallowed by a snake. The other mouse glared angrily from a safe distance, its little eyes like two round peppercorns. The snake, its belly full of mouse, went slithering back to its hole and was more than halfway in when the second mouse dashed forward and bit it hard on the tail. Furiously the snake backed out of the hole, and the mouse darted once more to safety. The snake gave chase but was unable to catch the mouse, and returned to its hole. As it entered the hole a second time, the mouse seized it by the tail again, exactly as before. Each time the snake went crawling in, the mouse struck; and each time it emerged, the mouse ran for cover. And so it continued for quite some time, until finally the snake came right out and spat the dead mouse on to the ground. The second mouse approached, sniffed at the corpse and began crying over its friend. Then, squeaking dolefully, it picked it up in its mouth and left.
My friend Mr Zhang Duqing wrote a poem on this subject, entitled ‘The Ballad of the Devoted Mouse’.

 83

THE GIRL IN GREEN

In Yidu County, there lived a young man by the name of Yu Jing. He had taken his books with him to lodgings at the Temple of Sweet Springs, and one night he was sitting there chanting a text when he heard a woman’s voice at his window.

‘Oh Mr Yu, what a very serious student you are!’

He was still wondering what a woman could possibly be doing up there in the hills, when in she came, pushing the door open with a disarming smile.

‘So very serious!’

He jumped up in alarm, and found himself standing before a young lady of the most incomparable delicacy and the most exquisite beauty, clad in a green tunic and a long skirt. He knew at once that this was no ordinary mortal and asked her, perhaps a trifle emphatically, where she was from.

‘I’m hardly going to bite you!’ she replied. ‘Why the inquisition?’

He was instantly captivated, and they shared his bed that very night. When he came to loosen her silken tunic, it revealed a waist so slender that his hands could encircle it with ease.

The last watch sounded and she slipped away, returning to him the following, and every subsequent, night. On one such night, they were drinking together when she made a remark which betrayed an unusual understanding of music.

‘I love the sound of your voice,’ he said. ‘It is so fine and soft. Sing me a song. I am sure it will quite carry my soul away…’

‘I’d rather not,’ she replied, smiling as ever. ‘I wouldn’t want to carry you too far away…’

He pleaded with her all the more.

‘I am not trying to be unkind,’ she said. ‘It is just that I do not want others to hear. Oh, if you really insist, I’ll sing a song. But quietly, just for you.’

She tapped her ‘Golden Lotuses’, her tiny bound feet, lightly on the edge of the bed and began to sing:

Jackdaw singing in the tree
Tricks me away before the light;
I’ll gladly wet my pretty shoes,
If I can stay with you tonight.

Her voice was light as silk, and barely audible. Yu Jing listened intently, and his whole being vibrated to the haunting, lilting melody.

The song ended. She opened the door and peeped outside.

‘I must make sure there is no one at the window.’

She searched the whole length of the building.

‘You seem so frightened. What is the matter?’ asked Yu Jing, when she returned.

‘There is an old saying,’ replied the girl, with her ever-present smile. ‘A ghost that steals life must forever live in fear. Such is my fate.’

She lay down to sleep, but she seemed restless and ill at ease.

‘This idyll of ours is fated to end,’ she finally said to Yu Jing. He begged her to explain.

‘My heart beats strangely. I know my end is close at hand.’

‘Strange movements of the heart, flutterings of the eyes, such things happen to us all from time to time,’ he protested. ‘You must not be so gloomy!’

She seemed a little comforted by this, and they united once more in tender passion. As the last watch of the night came to an end, she threw on her dress, descended from the bed, and walked as far as the door. There, instead of undoing the bolt, she began pacing back and forth.

‘I do not know why, but something fills me with dread. Come outside with me, I beseech you.’

Yu rose and went out with her.

‘Stay there and watch me,’ she said. ‘Do not go in again until I am beyond that wall.’ ‘Very well,’ said Yu, and he watched her walk silently down the outer wall of the cloister and round the corner, until she was out of sight. He had already turned and was on his way back to bed, when he heard a desperate cry for help. It was her voice. He hurried out again, but though he gazed all around him he could see no trace of her. The voice was still audible and seemed to be coming from up above him, from the eaves over the door. Looking up he saw a huge spider, like a big black bolus, holding in its clutches a little creature that was making the most pitiful noise: it was a green hornet, in the throes of death. He carefully disentangled it and carried it back to his room, where he placed it on the table. Soon it recovered sufficient strength to move, crawled slowly up on to his inkstone and down into the ink. Presently it emerged again, clambered down from the inkstone and began dragging itself across the table, tracing the words

thank you

on the wooden surface. Then it shook its wings several times and flew out of the window. He never saw it again.

88
LUST PUNISHED BY FOXES
A certain man bought a new house, only to discover that it was haunted by fox-spirits, who constantly spoiled his clothes and other belongings and dropped dirt into his noodles.

One day, one of this gentleman’s friends dropped by to visit him. Unfortunately he was not at home, and that evening, since her husband had still not returned, his wife prepared dinner for the guest, before eating separately with her maid.

Now, her husband was a somewhat dissolute character who made a hobby of collecting aphrodisiacs of one sort or another. At some time or other that day the resident fox-spirits had secretly slipped one of the drugs from his collection into the congee. While the wife was eating her dinner she noticed a strange taste that resembled camphor and musk and asked her maid what it might be, but the maid said she knew of nothing. After dinner, the wife began to experience an overwhelming feeling of sexual arousal, and the more she tried to suppress it, the stronger and the more urgent it became. There was no available man in the house other than the guest, her husband’s friend, and so she made her way to the guest-room and knocked at the door.

The guest asked who it was, and the woman gave her name. He asked her what she wanted, and when she remained silent, he guessed her intentions.

‘Your husband and I are friends and treat one another decently. I could never behave in such a bestial manner with my friend’s wife.’

The wife remained there standing at the door and refused to leave. ‘Your husband,’ he protested angrily, ‘is a man with a reputation in the community! Are you determined to destroy it?’

With these words he spat at her through the window-lattice, and finally in great embarrassment she left. As she went she began asking herself how she could have done such a thing. Then she recalled the strange taste in her congee bowl at dinner. It entered her mind that it might have been caused by one of the aphrodisiacs from her husband’s collection, and when she went to look, she found that one of the packages had indeed been tampered with, and the contents scattered all over the cups and bowls on the kitchen table. She remembered having once heard that cold water acted as an antidote in such cases, so she drank some water immediately and soon came round. She awoke from her state of drugged confusion to a feeling of intense remorse and shame. All that night she lay there brooding restlessly, and as dawn was almost breaking, unable to face the world, she threw her sash over a beam and hanged herself. Her maid found her and untied her in the nick of time. Although by this time she was all but dead, she gradually recovered consciousness.

The guest meanwhile had left during the night. The following day at dawn, the master of the house returned to find his wife in bed and plainly unwell. No matter how many times he asked her what the matter was, she lay there in complete silence and would do nothing but weep. When the maid informed her master that her mistress had tried to hang herself in the early hours, he pressed his wife with more and more questions, and finally she sent her maid away and told him the whole story.

The husband heaved a sigh. ‘It is my lust that is being punished! This is no fault of yours. Fortunately, this friend of mine is a good man, or I would never be able to hold my head up in the world again.’

After this experience, he became a reformed character, and the foxes disappeared completely.

Commentaries (not all tales come with commentaries, but the majority do):

42 THE DEVOTED MOUSE Zhang Duqing: (1642–?1716), a poet-friend of Pu Songling’s, who like Pu was never appointed to an official position. His ballad, a poem in thirty-six lines, is extant. The contemporary poet and novelist Vikram Seth has retold this tale in verse in his collection Beastly Tales from Here and There (London, 1992).

83 THE GIRL IN GREEN light as silk: Some texts have ‘light as a fly’.

88 LUST PUNISHED BY FOXES The Chronicler of the Strange points out that whereas most people are aware of the danger involved in storing ordinary poisons (such as arsenic) in the house, few appreciate the havoc that can be caused by leaving aphrodisiacs lying around the place. Men have a healthy fear of the dangers of the military battlefield, but are blissfully unaware of the far greater dangers lurking in the bedchamber. For a glimpse of the type of thing our gentleman may have been collecting, the reader is directed to Robert van Gulik’s excellent study Sexual Life in Ancient China (Leiden, 1961), especially pp. 133–4, where the author describes various potions listed in the ancient sex handbook of Master Dong Xuan, such as ‘Bald Chicken Potion’ (‘if taken for sixty days one will be able to copulate with forty women’ – this drug was apparently so named after an unfortunate cock who ate it by mistake when it had been thrown out in the courtyard, and copulated with a single hen for several days without dismounting, pecking her head bald); ‘Deer Horn Potion’ (to cure impotence and involuntary emission); a potion for enlargement of the penis (a mixture of broomrape and seaweed); and a potion for shrinking the vagina (made up of four ingredients, including sulphur and birthwort root). The same text is translated by Douglas Wile in Art of the Bedchamber, pp. 112–13.

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