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Arts & Culture

Sympathy for the Devil

October 29, 2015 | by

Melmoth the Wanderer and the bizarre appeal of gothic horror.

From the Penguin Classics edition of Melmoth.

I have long been a rather reluctant fan of gothic horror. The reluctance comes from never quite knowing if it’s a genre worth caring about. How well, really, do any of my favorite works hold up? Is The Castle of Otranto actually good, or just campy? Is The Monk great literature? Probably not—but as genres go, there’s none quite so pleasingly ridiculous as this one.

Gothic horror usually revolves around the sinister absence of God inside some religious framework. These are stories that couldn’t exist outside a culture obsessed with sin and hellfire, and yet they’re not morality tales: the only lesson to be drawn from most gothic romances is that the supernatural can be easily substituted for the divine. Any benefits to leading a religious life seem to be completely erased in these stories, with paranoia and persecution complexes to take their place. There seems barely time to contemplate the afterlife when everyone’s so busy trying to escape the traps laid for them on earth—traps set by heredity and fate. The “good” characters are, for the most part, idiots: foolish clergyman, one-dimensional lovers doomed to die horrible (sometimes cannibalistic) deaths, and so on. The only character with any power of personality happens, more often than not, to be the devil himself.

This is especially true of Charles Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer, a shapeless tale of transformation, loneliness, and evil as shown in complete isolation from good. Maturin, an Irish clergyman and great-uncle to Oscar Wilde, wrote the book in 1820, at the height of the vogue for gothic romance. By the end of the nineteenth century, the book had taken on cult status. Baudelaire adored it. Balzac wrote a sequel to it. Wilde himself, after being released in disgrace from Reading Gaol, based his entire identity around his uncle’s story, renaming himself after its hero, Sebastian Melmoth. What was it in the story that spoke to them so deeply? Read More »

A Cataract of Ruin

October 26, 2015 | by

Hawthorne’s scariest story.

Thomas Cole, A View of the Mountain Pass Called the Notch of the White Mountains, 1839.

“Even his bright gildings,” Herman Melville once wrote of Nathaniel Hawthorne, “play upon the edges of thunder-clouds.” This was in “Hawthorne and His Mosses,” an 1850 appreciation in which Melville reputed the notion that Hawthorne, fifteen years his senior, was merely “a sequestered, harmless man”:

this great power of blackness in him derives its force from its appeals to that Calvinistic sense of Innate Depravity and Original Sin, from whose visitations, in some shape or other, no deeply thinking mind is always and wholly free … At all events, perhaps no writer has ever wielded this terrific thought with greater terror than this same harmless Hawthorne … this black conceit pervades him, through and through.

In the reductive churn that comes with canonization, this “black conceit” seems to have washed off Hawthorne—Melville’s nickname for him, “the Man of Mosses,” hasn’t exactly stuck. We have better Moss People: your Poes, your Lovecrafts, your Shelleys and Stokers. Hawthorne, the thinking goes, is too puritanical to be truly spooky. (Imagine the groans you’d get from reading a bit of The Scarlet Letter around a late October campfire.) But his story “The Ambitious Guest” is scarier than anything in Poe, and its dark romanticism makes no recourse to haunted houses, death masques, black cats, supernaturally sustained heartbeats, or any other genre trope. It’s just about a weary traveler and a nice family who open their home to him. Read More »

Dancing in the Trenches, and Other News

October 26, 2015 | by

E. H. Shepard, Close of the Italian Season. Grand ‘Peace Ballet’ Finale, 1918–1919. Image via NYRB

  • Ask your standard-issue grammarian about further versus farther and he’ll trot out the conventional wisdom: farther should be used to refer to literal distances and further to metaphorical ones. But what if everything we’ve been taught is a lie? Caleb Crain investigates: “Further didn’t originally mean ‘more distant’ but something like ‘more ahead,’ or, as the contemporary O.E.D. puts it, ‘more forward, more onward’ … farther refers to a greater distance, literal or metaphorical, from a shared measuring point. Further refers to a greater progress in a shared direction.”
  • What did the literary world look like before the free market enveloped and swallowed it? Memories of that time are getting murkier every day: “It is almost impossible now to remember … that poetry was the literary genre to which the greatest prestige accrued until the mideighties; that one might have spent an afternoon talking with an acquaintance about the rhythm of a writer’s sentences … that we didn’t think of success in writing mainly in relation to the market, and in relation to a particular genre, the novel, and to a specific incarnation of that genre, the first novel, possibly until 1993, when A Suitable Boy was published, or maybe a year earlier, when Donna Tartt’s The Secret History appeared. It is now difficult to understand these examples as watershed occurrences in an emerging order, and difficult to experience again the moral implications of living … in an order that was superseded.”
  • NPR personalities used to position themselves as the genuine, warts-and-all alternative to the downy baritones on offer from traditional radio broadcasters—but today even the NPR voices have come to sound manufactured, their hesitant cadences and informality built into the script. “In addition to looser language, the speaker generously employs pauses and, particularly at the end of sentences, emphatic inflection … A result is the suggestion of spontaneous speech and unadulterated emotion. The irony is that such presentations are highly rehearsed, with each caesura calculated and every syllable stressed in advance … the preplanned responses of NPR personalities sound somewhat counterfeit when stacked against the largely, if not completely, unscripted monologues that open rawer podcasts … an even more forceful catalyst for speech patterns has been the modern Internet, the most powerful linguistic relaxant outside of alcohol.”
  • E. H. Shepard is best remembered as the illustrator behind the original Winnie-the-Pooh, but before that, during World War I, he ran a soldiers’ magazine from the trenches: “For months, his life, like all those on the front, was surrounded by slaughter. His sketchbook was full of pictures of crammed dugouts and rough shelters. He drew the chaotic rubble of no-man’s land, the plight of the wounded, and the tall roadside crucifix used as a lookout post by the Germans … But there’s still plenty of humor in Venti Quatro, the soldiers’ magazine he edited, satirizing the gung-ho coverage of the British press, so far from the bitter reality. His wit is not verbal, but visual—a quality hard to define—seen here in affectionate caricatures of fellow officers and in the wonderful, rhythmic dance of beak-nosed, moustachioed officers in swirling tutus.”
  • More and more literary magazines are charging a reading fee—is this blatant money-grabbing or the latest in a series of efforts to stanch the flow of submissions? “The major reason literary journals charge fees has less to do with money, and more to do with the enormous number of submissions they receive. Around the country, MFA programs are graduating people who want to be writers, so they submit creative writing to literary journals. The journals, with small staffs and minuscule budgets, are overwhelmed with submissions and take a long time—sometimes six months to a year—to reply. Most writers can’t wait that long for a single response, so they send their work to more journals. The whole thing snowballs … In some sense, then, writers are to blame for blanketing journals they haven’t even read with their work.”

How I Got Millayed

October 22, 2015 | by

A day in Edna St. Vincent Millay’s gardens at Steepletop.

Millay at Mitchell Kennerly’s house in Mamaroneck, New York, 1914.

In high school, I had a simple assignment to write a report on a poet. I searched aimlessly for the right one: more than a poet of some specific literary achievement, I wanted one who had died by suicide. Not to say I was a morbid teen—I was just fascinated by the arresting drama of that narrative. Strangely, my search led me to the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, which was poor research: she didn’t kill herself. She fell down the stairs of her home at Steepletop very early on the morning of October 19, 1950, sixty-five years ago this week. And if you believe the coroners, she suffered a heart attack first. I chose her anyway.

I read as many of her poems as I could find, printing out my favorites—like “Afternoon on a Hill,” “Witch-Wife,” and “The Little Ghost”—in colorful, elaborate fonts and hanging them on my bedroom wall alongside photos of Millay. Poetry had never spoken to me before. It had always left me feeling like an outsider—an especially undesirable experience for an adolescent. But reading Millay was a new kind of encounter. Her work was understandable, relatable: melodic, even. When other kids were putting up posters of shirtless pop stars, I was taping up photos of Millay with tousled hair, laying in a grassy field, her arms and legs tangled with her companions’. This is what I thought life should look like. It was, as Michael Minchak put it, how I got “Millayed.” Read More »

Moebius and the Key of Dreams

October 21, 2015 | by

Jean Giraud at the exhibition “Moebius-Transe-Forme,” in 2001. Courtesy Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain.

Jean Giraud, aka Moebius, at the exhibition “Moebius-Transe-Forme,” in 2001. Courtesy Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain.

“Even when you reach a certain level of success,” Jean Giraud once said, “there’s still this desire to break the established rules and be a bit of a delinquent.” The cheerfully libertine Frenchman spoke those words in his early seventies, just two years before his death in 2012, but he had voiced similar sentiments throughout most of his adult life. He was already established as an extraordinarily gifted comic-strip artist in his twenties, having created, with writer Jean-Michel Charlier, the immensely popular Western series Blueberry, which he signed as “Gir”; he nonetheless found himself intermittently beset by that restless desire to be “a bit of a delinquent.” A decade later, partly inspired by his infatuation with American underground comics and their countercultural freedom, that restlessness produced a creative eruption, a second artistic identity, and a second pseudonym: Moebius.

Blueberry remained Giraud’s most bankable project in Europe, but from the seventies onward he used its success to underwrite his more outré impulses as solo auteur Moebius. With virtuoso line work, relentless experimentation, and radical shifts of style, his fantastical works proffered a bouquet that could include the dark, the erotic, the whimsical, the intellectual, the bawdy, the scathing, the humorous, and the philosophical in countless, often chance, combinations. Characteristically, he did not leave a neatly ordered oeuvre; instead of a manicured garden of civilized delights, we find a multiverse of astonishing impulses. Read More »

No Judgment, No Message, No Mercy

October 16, 2015 | by

At ninety-five, Maria Beig remains deeply underread in America.

Maria Beig in her garden, sometime in the 1980s. Photo: Rupert Leser

No one captures the brutality and pragmatism of rural life like Maria Beig, who turned ninety-five last week. One of thirteen children, she was born in 1920 on a farm in Swabia, a few miles from Lake Constance, a landscape that informs her startling fiction. She didn’t publish her first novel until she was sixty-two, after a lifetime of teaching knitting and home economics in provincial schools. (Young writers, take note—there is another path, if an unglamorous one.)

Her debut, Rabenkrächzen (Raven’s Croak), has never been published in America, but it unleashed a good bit of venom in Germany: Beig’s treatment of Swabia was an arrow that struck the bone, jolting the skeletal structure of a closed society. Those who know Beig’s work like to mention the crowd at an early reading in Ravensburg, not far from her home village, who shouted her down with cries of “liar!” and “nestbeschmutzer!”, which translates roughly to “spoiler of the nest.” She took herself out of the reading business after that. Jaimy Gordon, who has translated two of her novels into English, writes that “as a result, the brother who had inherited the family property forbade Beig not only his house but even the small village where she had grown up.” Read More »