Sunday, June 6, 2021


 


THE MAN


Bram Stoker (1847-1912)


Squire Norman of Normanstand estates desperately wanted an heir to carry on the Norman name and to govern the buildings and lands associated with the property in a manner which his holdings deserved.  Unfortunately for his future dreams, his wife passed away upon delivering his first child, a daughter, who he named Stephen.  She was raised as if she was a boy, and acquired many boyish habits, which somewhat warped her self-image.  Her best friend was Harold An Wolf, the rector of the local church's son.  Harold and Stephen grew up together, befriending each other and establishing an intimate friendship.  Harold went off to Cambridge at an early age while Stephen devoted herself to good works on behalf of the local citizenry.  She was deeply concerned about the well-being of "the submerged tenth", as she termed the lower classes.  The Squire was killed in a carriage accident along with Stephen's uncle Rowley, leaving Stephen the sole inheritor of the estates.  Mrs. Rowley, having little income, and being a long term replacement for Stephen's mother, moved into the castle with her.  Leonard Everard, a neighbor lad who spent time playing with Stephen and Harold while they were growing up, has developed into a characterless spendthrift, but Stephen, feeling the need of a partner in the absence of Harold, decides it would be a good idea to marry him.  So, with all the assumed prerogatives of a male landowner, she proposes to him.  But almost immediately she realizes that she's made a disastrous error, and Leonard, although not being in love with her, sees her as a solution to his debt problems so he makes plans to blackmail her over a letter she was foolish enough to send him revealing her matrimonial scheme.  Aunt Rowley comes to the rescue and pays off Leonard's debts, even though it puts a large dent in her "widow's mite".  

Harold returns from Trinity College and asks Stephen to marry him.  She, fresh from the contretemps with Leo, assumes he's making fun of her, and unleashes a formidable tirade on his head.  He, a loyal and loving suitor, is aghast and, not realizing that Stephen was just letting off steam, leaves England.  Onboard ship, he meets the Andrew Stonehouse family, a wealthy entrepreneur and his wife and six-year old daughter Pearl.  A storm brews up and Pearl is washed overboard but Harold dives in and saves her.  She loves him forever after, referring to him as "The Man".  Harold continues on to northern Alaska, where he looks for gold, and making a big strike, becomes rich.  After two years he decides to return to England

Meanwhile, Stephen has purchased another estate near the coast in northeast England.  She spends all her time helping the poor and indigent and makes friends with a Quaker lady known as the "Silver Lady".  She lives in a kind of watchtower overlooking the sea.  By this time, Stephen has realized why Harold left and she deeply regrets the last meeting with Harold that fractured their developing relationship.  She has acknowledged to herself her love for him.  

A huge storm arises and the ship in which Harold is a passenger is caught and driven aground adjacent to Stephen's castle.  Harold dives into the raging surf and manages to splice a line which he is carrying to one that has been shot from the shore, thereby enabling the rescue of the ship's passengers and crew.  But he's caught in a dangerous situation, outside of a jagged tier of rocks that prevents him from swimming ashore.  So he paddles around the point of land enclosing the beach and is rapidly tiring, when a local resident mounts his aquiferous horse, Hercules, and swims to the rescue.  Reaching Harold at the very last second, Hercules succeeds in saving the drowner and they all return safely to shore.

Harold and Stephen are glad to see each other but their memories keep them from resolving their feelings for one another.  Finally the Silver Lady intervenes and tells Stephen to get her act together and the two embrace and are happy.

Stoker wrote at least fifteen books in addition to "Dracula".  He was the manager of the Lyceum theater in London for 27 years, and the effects of that long exposure to the stage pretty definitely influenced his writing style.  In the works of his I've read, his prose is rather the opposite of flowery, but he has the gift of expressing emotional minutia very effectively.  Reading his prose is almost like observing the development of action on the stage, and, in the same way, the reader is, almost in spite of himself, pulled along by the drama whether he wants it that way or not.  The result is a riveting read, involving the peruser in almost a hypnotic relation to the developing plot.  I'm not sure whether I like that sort of thing or not, but it's certainly effective...

Tuesday, June 1, 2021



 


THE GATELESS BARRIER

Lucas Malet (Mary St. Leger Kingsley)


Laurence Rivers is an Englishman living in America, married to Virginia, an American lady born into the New England upper classes.  He's comfortable in his marriage, but two years after the wedding, he's informed that his rich uncle in England is dying.  Eccentric and reclusive, the uncle is the owner of extensive property and a large mansion full of servants, a large selection of horses and a commodious supply of gardens with cultivated pathways, white marble statues and dark cypress trees.  Laurence arrives after a sea voyage and finds his relation bed-ridden and wasting away.  They converse and the uncle  makes clear his aversion to religion, spiritualism and reality itself as it is usually regarded.  He says: "Reality as we know it, being the biggest illusion of all".  But he's generous in other ways, giving Laurence the freedom of the house and grounds.

Laurence explores the house and finds an old tapestry with sirens and unicorns woven into the fabric suspended at the end of a hallway.  Behind it is a locked door that he manages to open;  he discovers that it leads into a music room, with a piano, various sorts of guitars and lyres lying about and some odds and ends of sheet music.  And he sees a young lady with her back to him, looking through the window into the garden.  She is a sylph-like being and while he watches, she slowly, without looking at him, glides over to the escritoire and vanishes behind it.  Laurence examines the back of the piece of furniture but is startled to find no method of egress from the room.  It's love at first sight, though, as he can't get her image out of his mind.

The uncle passes away after a while and Laurence takes over the management of the property.  He becomes more and more friendly with the young lady (Agnes Rivers);  they walk in the garden and Laurence falls more in love.  She tells him her history:  during the Napoleonic Wars, her affianced sweetheart was killed and she died of grief and has haunted the music room ever since, waiting his return.  His name was Laurence also, and the present owner of Stoke Rivers (the inherited property) is the identical image of her former lover.  

Virginia sends an urgent telegram requiring Laurence's presence back in America and he is faced with making a decision that he doesn't want to deal with, but finally decides to ignore the cable and stay with Agnes.  But even though she has been acquiring more and more traits of reality, such as a shadow, she knows that there is no future on earth for her and Laurence.  One day she says farewell and slowly vanishes behind the escritoire for the last time.  But not until she affirms that they will be reunited in the hereafter.  Laurence pines away but ultimately realizes that his earthly future depends on him asserting himself as a property owner, so he attends to business and returns to America to his wife.

But the life she leads seems boring and repetitions with all the parties and inane conversation so he returns to Stoke Rivers.  But while he was absent, there was a fire in the music room that opened up a hidden chamber behind the escritoire, and (spoiler) in it they discovered an old charred coffin with the  body of a young lady in it.  So they bury it in the churchyard and Laurence finds some peace in the affirmation that he and Agnes will be reunited in heaven.

Lucas Malet was the pseudonym of Ms. Kingsley, who came from a family of authors.  Her cousin Mary explored parts of Africa and wrote a book about her experiences.  Her uncles, Henry and Geoffrey were famous authors and her father Charles was well-known also, principally for his novel, "Westward Ho" although he wrote many more.  The Kingsley's all were top-notch wordsmiths, and i've enjoyed reading their works a lot.  Mary was a friend of E.F. Benson and she was acquainted with Henry James.  This book is available on Gutenberg...   

P.S.  the picture at the top is me with an old bike i assembled out of odds and ends...

Sunday, May 23, 2021


 


THE ZAP GUN


Phillip K. Dick.  (1928-1982)


Lars Powderdry works for the government as a hypnogogic weapons designer.  This takes place in 2005 although the book was written in 1965, so an alternative future is predicated.  The idea is that the Wes-bloc and Peep-East (Russia, China, etc.)  are at continual odds with each other.  After a series of world wars, neither side is willing to initiate physical aggression, so, as a substitute, they both resort to designing weapons which are mocked up in a prototype, but never actually created.  The designer for Eastbloc is Lilo Topchev.  With the aid of specialized drugs, the two psychically sensitive operators enter a kind of drug-induced trance, in which they envision the proposed weapons and simultaneously draw the blueprints of said weapons on paper.  In the West, the plans are shipped to the Lanferman productions site which underlies all of California from San Francisco to Los Angeles.  It's buried, for secrecy and safety.  The Peep-East bloc has a similar facility.  

In addition the government of both sides is controlled by the Military.  In Washington D.C., below the Military "Festung" (fortress), lies the Kremlin, a secret chamber in which the civilian "concomody" meets to oversee the functions of the government.  There are six concomody members who hold the position for life and are only replaced upon the decease of one of them.  The collective members of the government as a whole are referred to as "cogs", after "cognoscenti" (experts);  cog is also another term for a cheat or a liar, as in dice play or the cup and pea game.

Anyway, the story opens with Lars complaining about not being able to go to Paris to see his girl friend. As well, he is trying to cope with his sense of guilt over his meaningless job whose sole purpose involves keeping the public misinformed about the country's armament status.  Some of the weapons he has dreamed up are the Garbage Can Banger, the Sheep Dip Isolator (very stinky), the Civic Notification Distorter (changes people into rugs) and the Evolution Gun, intended to displace the human race two billion years into the past.

Other characters are Surley G. Febbs, a library researcher from the middle west with an eidetic memory who has spent his life studying and remembering all conceivable data as regards military history and the operations of government.  He receives a notice in the mail informing him that he has been appointed a concomody replacement.  He spends the bulk of the novel trying to gain entrance to the Kremlin but is kept out by bureaucratic busy-bodies.  Also there is Vincent Klug, an itinerant toy maker who does manage to gain access to Lars' office.  He plays a significant role in the resolution of the upcoming quandary, which is:

The news travels across the globe:  a new satellite has appeared orbiting the earth.  A certain amount of hysteria occurs in the top levels of government, but things only come to a head when it's discovered that part of New Orleans has vanished.  According to reports, a dense mist was seen hovering around the city and soon after all the inhabitants disappeared.  And then another satellite arrives and more cities around the globe lose their populations.  Governmental Officialdom is in hysterics and they decide to hold a joint conference in Iceland, including Lars and Lilo in hopes that the two designers can discover a weapon that will handle the alien invasion.  It has become known that the satellites are from Riga and that they are turning Earth's citizens into slaves.  There's a lot of arm-waving and mutual accusations flung about with the end result being no solution to the problem.  

Back in D.C.,  an attempt is made to kidnap Lars, during which his girl-friend is killed.  But he's already fallen in love with Lilo, the sequel being that he feels even more guilty than he did earlier.  Meanwhile, Surley has managed to gain access to the Kremlin, but not much is achieved until Vincent Klug magically appears on the scene, with what turns out to be an unusual toy, that proves to be the key component in the resolution of the alien problem.

At this point, i'm going to quit describing the action and leave the balance of the novel and its truly inventive disentanglement of the alien problem to the pleasure of the book's readers.  

Dick was not a normal person.  He took a lot of drugs and they enhanced the instability of his already unstable personality.  But he was a genius at writing science fiction that included and dealt with some of the  philosophical difficulties common in the modern world:  what is reality, how do we cope with time, are there more than one universe, is there a God,  can we be in more than one place at a time, etc...  Although i'd read a lot of Dick's work in my early years, i hadn't read this book, and i was surprised at how cogent and rational and ingenious it was as compared with what i'd learned about his work in the past.  Dr. Bloodmoney or How We Lived After the Bomb was the first one i read and i recall being floored by it, although i don't even remember much about it now.  Dick's reputation has died in the ensuing years, and his books might be a bit recherche today, but he still has the ability to make the reader think outside his usual comfort zone.  I'd recommend his more popular novels to anyone interested in science fiction...

Sunday, May 16, 2021


 



A TRAMP'S WALLET


William Duthie  (?-?)


This is a peculiar book.  Duthie, a London goldsmith living in the mid-19th C., decided to take a tour of Europe on foot, partly to demonstrate that is was possible to do such a thing without extensive prior funding.  The first section, about a hundred or so pages, was used to detail the expenses of his trip, together with some ancillary comments about isolated individuals and incidents that he encountered:   how much he spent per day on food and so forth.  The second section was much longer and, repeating the itinerary of the first section, dealt with his experiences and accidents and some of the tourist attractions that he admired along the way.  Two categories of interest that he delved into had to do with work conditions; and the legal and political strictures governing the lives of the citizens of Germany, Austria and France.  Workers in all of these countries, in the jewelry trade anyway, had to work six to six and a half days a week, 72 hours being a normal figure for a week's employment.  Longer hours than that were not considered overtime.  Payment schedules were enough to enable very basic necessities.  Breakfast was normally bread and tea, lunch perhaps a piece of boiled meat and more bread, and dinner providing bread, soup and possibly a vegetable.  Living arrangements were commonly limited to six or more associates sleeping in one room, often in the house of the employer.  Days started at six AM and ran until six at night or longer, if there was a major project in hand.

Duthie found that, even when walking from town to town, the police kept stringent control of all transient movements.  He and his fellow travelers usually had to get a visa stamp when entering a town, or passports were confiscated during the period of employment until the worker left the city.  As part of the normal regime, there were many more official regulations governing social and business functions than Duthie had been used to in England, and many more policemen present than he had been used to in London.

Initially he landed in Hamburg, where he worked for an English jeweler.  He made several friends there some of whom accompanied him in his later peregrinations.  He took the road to Berlin after seven months, renting a seat on a wagon for several pence for the last sixty miles.  As in the other cities he visited, he first had to register with the police, then find the local guild hall.  Guilds were present all over Europe and there were systematic procedures for traveling workers to register, receive small amounts of money, and sometimes places to sleep, as well as, if lucky, the occasional dinner.  The guild halls varied enormously in quality, some dirty and bug-ridden, and some clean and well run.  Nonetheless, they were hubs from which to search for work, or from which to obtain clothing and other necessities.  

Duthie had a lot to say about the military monuments in Berlin, beginning with the Brandenburger Tor (the gate of the city), and ending with the opera house and the vast arsenal with munitions and gunpowder.  The memory of Frederick the Great permeated the cultural and artistic structures.  The Spree river runs through the city and a lime tree lined street followed it for miles.  There was no work to be found there, so William left after a week, taking the railroad to Leipzig, partly because the ground surface in that part of Prussia was so sandy that it made walking difficult.  (Madame LeBrun said the same thing in last week's post, even though she did walk a lot of the same route).  Almost at once, upon arriving in Leipzig, he returned to Berlin for six weeks work, but then caught the train back again for a brief stay before setting out to walk to Vienna.  He had several partners on this leg of the trip and they toured through Prague and Moravia.  Eighty miles from Vienna, he and his partner Alcibiade had only 4 shillings left between the two of them,  They survived on fruit, it being late spring, and water.  They had a lot of formalities and regulations to deal with when they got there.  Initially they were only permitted to stay 3 days, but using some of the guild connections, they gradually waded through the regulatory swamp and managed to land decent jobs.  However, during a slight altercation with a belligerent policeman, Duthie found himself in jail.  The policeman had knocked his hat off with his club and William took offense, with unhappy results.  He spent 9 days in prison before his friend could get him released.

Soon afterwards, Duthie and Alcibiade left the city, hoping to find friendlier receptions elsewhere.  Near Salzburg, they became curious about a large salt mine that presented certain intriguing elements.  Deciding to take a tour, they climbed up a mountain for four miles, to the Obersteinberghauptstollen, the name for the entrance to the mine, which occupied most of the inside of the mountain.  They walked down a sloping tunnel, led by a guide with a candle, for 3 kilometers, then used the "Rolle" to descend 200 feet to another ramp.  ("Rolle" describes a set of poles situated 12 inches apart, down which a person slides down on his backside through a small tunnel).  This was termed the Untersteinberghauptstulm.  Another Rolle, 600 feet long took them to another 2700 foot long ramp and yet another Rolle that led to the Soolerereugungsuerkkonhauser, an underground lake, across which they were rowed by Charon, noting the eery reflections of candlelight in the pitch-black ambiance.  On the far side, another Rolle 468 feet long to a freshwater spring, some of which they drank, and then boarded a small gauge railway pulled by two boys to the exit at the bottom of the mountain.

They continued walking through Carlsruhe, Bavaria and Munich, and then took the train to Paris.  Duthie lived with Alcibiade and the family of one of his friends, the PanPans.  He lived there for 17 months and then returned to London.

Not much is known about Duthie;  i couldn't find a picture of him, and his book seemed to sell for around $30.00 even though it can be downloaded free from Gutenberg.  The book, as i indicated above, was erratically assembled and i found out later that it was compiled from letters Duthie had written home and to a newspaper while he was traveling en route.  It was interesting to see such a different slant on European civilization of the time;  references and information were included about recent wars and revolutions in Prussia and Paris that seemed to substantiate what i had previously believed about that era;  that a relatively small segment of the population was responsible for major social upsets such as wars and starvation and destruction.  Most people just want to be left alone to live their lives, regardless of the insane convictions of their leaders, even though they may be frequently led into throwing away their lives and possessions in some sudden struggle for what they've been told is "justice".  Delusion is indeed one of the more amoral tools of the political elite, seemingly...

Sunday, May 9, 2021




 MEMOIRS OF MADAME VIGE'E LEBRUN

Marie Louise Elizabeth Vigee LeBrun (1755-1842)

Translated by Lionel Strachey

Her dad was a painter and he supported her devotion to drawing from an early age.  She was sent to a boarding school at six and was often in trouble for disobedience:  she spent all her time drawing things and not doing her school work.  But she evidenced a talent and a fierce love of painting which lasted all through her teenage years.  Her father died an early death, partly because of the dinners he attended in the presence of d'Alembert, Helvetius and Diderot, who enjoyed rambling on about the hopelessness of life and the pointlessness of actually trying to do anything.  Diderot, of course, was the man who devoted his life to compiling the first French encyclopedia.  It was banned by the church and government both, maybe for including long sections on the mechanical arts.

Marie studied with various well-known artists, Gabriel Doyen in particular, and was supported by other artists and friends of her father.  She spent a good portion of her time studying in the Parisian museums.  She said:  "the difference between well or poorly lighted pictures is the same as between well or poorly played pieces of music."  She began earning money for her portraits, but her stepfather (her mom remarried a businessman) appropriated her money.  Counts Orloff and Schouraloff introduced her to the upper classes and arranged sittings with some of the ladies of the court, one of them being Marie Antoinette with whom she became quite friendly.  She painted her several times.   Walks in the various parks and attendance at public festivals of one sort or another provided her with social experience and helped broaden her horizons.  She liked fireworks.  When invited out to dinners or the theater, she sometimes sang while accompanying herself on the guitar.  Once, absent-mindedly, she sat down on her palette which she'd laid on a chair.  She got to know LeBrun through her stepfather.  He wanted her to marry him because he thought he was rich.  After a period of contention she did, only to discover that her new husband was an addicted gambler and was in debt up to his eyebrows.  She was twenty when she married and for the length of their marriage, he took all the money she earned from painting and wasted it in card rooms.  Marie later estimated that he'd managed to get rid of a million francs, more or less.  Finally he died and she was able to command her own resources.

Taking advantage of a trip to Flanders, Marie was stunned by the work of the Flemish and Dutch painters.  She thought the work depicting an assembly of alderman by Van Loo was the best painting she'd ever seen, because of their life-like appearances.  After returning to Paris, she was nominated to the Royal Academy, a prestigious organization established for the furtherance of excellence in Art.  Marie made many friends among the elite and painted some of them.  She did three pictures of Madame du Barry;  the Count d'Artois and his family as well.  But nemesis was approaching:  the social atmosphere was becoming more and more intense, with popular uprisings unsettling and alarming the upper classes.  Finally, Marie escaped to Italy, as France was thralled in the grips of revolution, with Jacobin agents permeating every nook and cranny of the country.

In Rome, she was astounded by the wealth of art surrounding her:  the statuary, ancient buildings, and the collections in the many museums and palaces.  The palaces even when privately owned, were customarily open to visitors and tourists, and Marie spent lots of time studying the work of Italian artists.  And she began to be accepted and admired by the nobility as well, resulting in new friends and portrait work.  In particular, she came to know some Russian emigres who later paved her way into St. Petersburg society when she journeyed there.  Life in Rome became intense so for a break she moved to Naples for a while, where she painted various royal figures among whom was the Queen of Naples, the sister of Marie Antoinette.

After touring through Venice and Turin, Vienna beckoned and Marie followed.  Court life there involved lots of dances and parties and she came to know important individuals:  Counts Metternich and Rasumovsky  among others.  News of Jacobin violence caused her much unhappiness and she tried to avoid hearing about the victims of Madame La Guillotine.  She spent 28 months in Vienna, then moved to Prague briefly, visited Dresden, and then ventured over terrible roads to St. Petersburg, where she lived for seven and a half years.  She got to know Catharine the Great well and liked her a lot.  She described the Empress as short and stocky, decisive and intelligent, pleasant but with a whim of iron. Catharine built the Hermitage, one of the largest museums on the planet, and intitiated the practice of vaccination.  She rebuilt towns and added to the merchant fleet, encouraging the growth of trade.  Some of Marie's friends were Princess Dolgoruki, Count Stroganov and General Potemkin.  The society of course was divided between the nobility and the peasantry, with the latter being capable and clever, honest and gentle, mainly because of their adherence to the Russian Orthodox Church.  They seemed to live on potatoes, garlic, bread and corn brandy.  

After a 34 year reign, Catharine died and her son Paul was coronated.  He was unpopular with everybody, being capricious and unpredictably violent.  He hated the Russian upper classes and was probably a bit mad.  Perhaps coincidentally, Marie moved to Moscow in 1800.  She did more paintings and met more Counts and Generals:  Prince Bezborodko owned 30,000 kulaks (peasants were property at this time), Count Buturlin was a multi-lingual polymath and was the possessor of a huge library in all languages.  Marie wasn't terribly happy during this period, because her daughter whom she dearly loved had married poorly, against her mother's wishes.  So after only five months in Moscow she returned to St. Petersburg to find that the Emperor Paul had been assassinated.  The next Emperor was Alexander I, who promised Marie he'd fix the roads.  Even so, she left the city partly because of her thorough dislike of her son-in-law and partly because she was not feeling well.

She traveled through Prussia, walking part of the way because the carriage driver smoked evil-smelling tobacco, and arrived after a tedious journey in Berlin, where she lost her voice from yelling at customs officials.  Following a brief tour of the museums, she returned to Paris after being absent for 12 years.  Renting a house, she was joined soon afterwards by her brother and sister-in-law, and her daughter who'd left her husband.  Marie now saw a Paris that seemed cramped and dark.  She attended a military review, where she had a lot of difficulty believing that "that tiny man" was Napolean Bonaparte.  She was restless and took ship to London, where she lived for three years, off and on, taking frequent excursions in the countryside to escape the fogs and damp of the city.  She visited William and Caroline Hershel, the astronomers, and walked on the beach at Brighton.  Painting still occupied much of her time;  she approved of the work of Joshua Reynolds and did a number of portraits of French emigres.  But growing discontented, she returned to Paris to see her daughter and ended up in Switzerland and subsequently in Louveciennes, where she rented another house.  One night she woke up to see four soldiers ransacking her room, stealing all her jewelry and clothes.  Fortunately they paid no attention to her.

After Waterloo, things gradually returned to normal, with King Louis 18th re-assuming the throne for a brief period, being succeeded by the Duke de Berri his brother.  Marie retired for good soon after that, establishing herself in Louveciennes, where she lived out the balance of her life painting and taking walks.  Her daughter and son-in-law died in 1819, and her brother in 1820.  One of her nieces, Tripier la Franc, became a portraitist and did well.

This was a curious book to read;  rather like exploring an unknown country through a keyhole.  Marie's style, in translation, was warm and familiar and sort of like reading a letter from a favorite aunt.  Her prejudices and social opinions were clues to the type of person she was, friendly and perhaps a bit naive, habitually regarding her world with a cheerful and accepting point of view.  I quite liked it.


Sunday, May 2, 2021



 


PEDAL AND PATH:  ACROSS THE CONTINENT AWHEEL AND AFOOT

George B.Thayer  (1853-1928)

George was already an experienced cyclist in 1887, having made trips through New England of 500 and 1200 miles, the former in 3 weeks and the latter in six.  By the time April arrived, he was eager for something new and challenging so he determined on riding to San Francisco for the pleasure of it.  He was not out to set any records, he just wanted to see what was out there.  Also, since he was a sometime journalist, he planned on keeping the newspapers in Hartford, Connecticut informed as to his discoveries and adventures via his letters.  His vehicle was an "Expert Columbia", 46" in height and he carried a 15 lb. pack for clothes and bicycle stuff.  The tires were solid rubber.  The first day was tiring, as he hadn't ridden in three months, and the initial destination of New Haven was only arrived at after a full day's arduous toil over sandy and rutted roads.  He stayed there for three days, touring the city and visiting the Peabody Museum which was renowned for its fossil collections.  George had some interest and knowledge in geology and described some of the local formations and the origins of the Appalachian and Adirondack mountain chains.  The latter, composed of basement rocks from the billion year old Laurentian orogeny, are some of the oldest mountains in the world.

He was pedaling away near Tarrytown, after visiting the Sleepy Hollow graveyard, when he was almost knocked off his bike by explosions.  Investigating, he located the headquarters of the project-in-progress of the aqueduct extension designed and in the process of being excavated to provide water to the city of New York.  Talking to one of the supervisors, he was offered a chance to descend a vertical shaft 360 and to examine the operating procedures of the miners who were digging the tunnel.  The plan was to push the tunnel under towns, rivers and mountains forty miles all the way to the city.  George didn't go because of some of the horror stories told him by some miners lolling about the entrance.  Eventually the tunnel was completed in spite of the dangerous working conditions.

For the most part, cycling over the mountains was a non-pedaling event, as George usually had to push the bike up the steep parts and often over not-so-steep ones.  But he loved coasting down the other sides.  His technique was to extend his legs over the handle bars and steer with them while hanging on to the seat at the same time.  His progress, once across the mountain ranges, was often difficult, dealing with rutted roads covered with sand and/or mud that meandered back and forth over the Hudson and other rivers.  Sometimes even horses got stuck and had to be pulled out using boards as levers and fulcrums.  Dogs were common and most of them had developed a taste for shoes. He usually stayed  overnight with farmers, but sometimes in hotels.

At Niagara Falls he rode out onto Goat Island to get a better view and an old lingerer told him a story about an argument between the American and Canadian authorities that ended up with a steamship being pushed over the Falls while on fire.  Ohio was a rather depressed countryside, with dilapidated houses and seas of mud.  There were lots of sheep and pigs on the road.  The soft coal that was commonly used for heating and cooking coated all the buildings and people with black dusty tar.  He got tired of fighting the grueling conditions and took the train for the last 120 miles into Chicago.  Leaving that city, he pedaled on toward the confluence of the Missouri river.  One local resident told him about the fierce cyclones common in that area.  One recent one had destroyed two stone buildings in five minutes and killed 58 people.  Coasting down a hill in Iowa the bike hit a chuck hole and George flew over the handlebars and landed on all fours and his pack hit him in the back of the head.  Soon afterward he caught a freight train to Omaha and liked it so he continued on to Denver.

He met a friend in that city and they biked together for quite a while.  They traveled south to Pike's Peak and climbed it.  George got altitude sickness but toughed it through to the top at 14,000 feet.  They stayed several nights in the mountain chalet there and saw fantastic sunrises 150 miles away.  Like a true geologist, he and his friend spent some time rolling rocks off the top.  They visited the Garden of the Gods and continued north, stopping in Ft. Collins, where George noticed that water was scarce at that locality.  Citizens had to pay for it there, whereas in the more eastern states people had to pay to get rid of it because of the seasonal flooding.  The two cyclists took the northern wagon train thoroughfare through Laramie and Rawlins.  They got tired of fighting the constant headwind, a constant presence on that route, and took the train to Green River where they admired the red cliffs in Echo Canyon, then continued on to Salt Lake City.  George took a swim in the Great Salt Lake and was amazed at the floatational qualities of the fluid.  He admired the city and some of its inhabitants, but criticized some of the Mormon churches for their sleazy atmosphere.  Crossing the desert seemed counter-productive so they entrained to Lake Tahoe where they stayed for a week.  Liking that mode of transportation they continued on the railroad over the Sierras to Sacramento.  Bicycling through the Valley by himself, George toured the Calaveras Big Tree monument and then did a lot of hiking in Yosemite Valley before taking the train to San Francisco.  

After several weeks partying and visiting he caught the train to Monterey and stayed for awhile.  Back in San Francisco he boarded a ship for Portland, Oregon and was seasick much of the way, along with most of the other passengers.  They were cooped up in a smallish cabin with insufficient traveler's aids so he spent most of the time sleeping on the deck.  He left Portland on the train but got out at the Snake River so he could ride to Shoshone Falls.  He noted the extensive areas of flood basalts and speculated on their origin.  On the train once again to Pocatello, Idaho, he left that city on his bicycle and headed toward Yellowstone National Park where he visited many of its 71 geysers.  One of the handlebars stripped out on the bicycle, so he had to find a blacksmith to fix it.  He found the shop but the smith was absent, so George found a tap and die set in one of the drawers and hacksawed off the stub of the bar, threaded it, and screwed it back together.

On the return to Connecticut, he went further south, through Kentucky where he was feted and celebrated by some but chastised by others for violating the Sabbath.  He ended up entraining through Ohio again but rode a long section along the Potomac River until he reached Baltimore, then took the railroad home to Hartford.

This was an impressive feat for that era.  The book was attractively written and easily comprehensible.  George faced the trip's dangers and pleasures with equanimity, maintaining his psychic balance in difficult and occasionally provocative situations.  He seemed to take the bad with the good in quite a philosophical manner, and consequently achieved a kind of objectivity not often found in descriptions of personal endeavors...  i liked it, and probably most readers would also...  The book is listed in the files of the Gutenberg Project.

Sunday, April 25, 2021



 


CURIOSITIES OF LITERATURE, VOL I


Isaac Disraeli  (1766-1848)


Mr. Disraeli's father had emigrated from Italy early in the century, disgruntled and oppressed by business failures in that country.  His son Isaac took the new country to heart and converted to the Protestant religion at an early age.  He was left a considerable amount of money when his father passed on and used it to support his family while pursuing his fascination with history and literature.  The "Curiosities" in three volumes was a product of his maturity, although it occupied some twenty years of research and authorship before it was published in 1791 by John Murray, a long-time friend and dinner companion.  (My copy was published in three volumes in 1824 by Murray).

The book is constructed quite like an encyclopedia, consisting of short essays on subjects that Disraeli found interesting:  they range from the ancient Greeks, through the Roman and French civilizations, up to recent historical events in the 16th century.  This first volume has 97 entries;  a few samples are characterized below:

Libraries:  Pisistratus in ancient Egypt is recorded as regarding libraries to be "medicine for the mind".  Caesar Augustus apparently compiled the first Imperial library, borrowing and stealing works liberally from the collections accumulated by ancient Greece.  Nicholas Nicoli established the first public library in Italy.  Later it was augmented through the efforts of Cosmo d'Medici.  In 1364 the Royal French Library had 20 books, but they acquired a sufficient number by the next century to sell 900 of them to England.  Early English collectors were Robert Cotton whose collections were the base of the Bodley Library, and Robert Burton, author of "Anatomy of Melancholy".  By the Elizabethan age, books were popular enough that the Queen occupied her idle hours by sewing her own book covers.

Recovery of Manuscripts:  Cotton was in a position to do the developing society a great favor.  He happened to be passing a tailor's shop in London shortly after the signing of the Magna Carta and noticed the tailor with scissors in hand about to slice up an old piece of parchment to make a pattern.  Cotton was able to rescue one of the few remaining copies of the document in existence through his abrupt entrance into the shop.  John Aurispe spent years investigating the cellars and attics of old monasteries for old manuscripts and found hundreds of forgotten Greek and Roman works moldering away in solitude.  Even Dr. Dee, Queen Elizabeth's astrologer, had a small hoard of arcane editions, although his treasures were disbursed after his decease.

Sketches of Criticism:  Homer was accused of plagiarism.  He was accused of stealing the works of former poets from the Vulcan Temple in Memphis, as well as from locales in Syragus and Suidas.  Plato's children said he was a lunatic.  Plato was caught in the act of trying to burn Democrites' works.  Plutarch wrote a treatise on the malignity of Herodotus.  Xenephon wrote novels and Horace was only known because Virgil and Varus popularized his work.

Amusements of the Learned:  Tycho Brahe relaxed by constructing mathematical instruments.  Richelieu amused himself by trying to jump over walls;  Samuel Clarke liked to jump over tables.

Patrons:  When the Cardinal d'Estes first read Ariosto's Orlando, his reaction was "Where the devil have you found all this nonsense?"  

Poets, Philosophers, and Artists made by Accident:  Cowley was inspired to write through admiration of Spenser's "Fairy Queen".  Vaucanson, the early roboticist, was galvanized into making his first clock by watching a pendulum for hours;  later he created a flute-playing robot.  LaFontaine, a large, ugly, awkward person, was motivated into writing his charming little tales by reciting poetry in the forest.  Benjamin Franklin got interested in inventing things from reading "Essays on Projects" by De Foe.

The Progress of Old Age in New Studies:  Socrates took up music in his later years.  Cato at 80 studied Greek and Plutarch took up Latin.Dr. Johnson learned Dutch at 70 and Dryden held the record for the most poetry written by one person in English by the time he passed on.

Men of Genius Deficient in Conversation:  Corneille, Descartes, and Addison were all known for their non-participation in general conversation.  ID:  "the Countess of Pembroke said Chaucer's silence was more agreeable than his conversation".

Singularities Observed by Various nations in their Repasts:  Inhabitants of the Maldive Islands eat by themselves.  The ancient French Kings were served by waiters on horseback.

Joan of Arc:  Rumors of the time indicated that she escaped the flames but the ceremony was carried through to appease certain officials.  Also that she was actually a man in disguise.

Spanish Etiquette:  Phillip III died of heat stroke in 1621 at the age of 24 because his fireplace could only be attended to by a servant who wasn't available at the time.  His sister was caught in a house fire and rescued by a common soldier who was condemned to death for touching royalty, but later forgiven.  Don Carlos, son to Phillip II, made a book with empty pages to contain the voyages of his father.  The latter's trips consisted of traveling from Madrid to the Escurial and back.  The son later lost his life through his father's agency as a reward for his sense of humor.

A Senate of Jesuits:  King Sigismund of Sweden spent years as king of Poland.  During the interim, Jesuits were honored to take over the government in Stockholm.  When they arrived at the capitol aboard their ship, the reigning governors bombarded it to pieces and subsequently expelled all the Jesuit citizens from the city.  The Swedes had been mostly Catholic, but soon after they converted en masse to Lutheranism.

Gloves:  Xenophon said Persians wore them (he thought they were effeminate).  Homer implied the same of Laertes, who he said wore them while gardening.  Glove giving was associated with seating of an individual in office.  Later they were used in knightly challenges.  Gloves were meant to be removed, during the middle ages, when working with horses and their effluent.

Relics of Saints:  From the Ninth to the Twelfth Century and beyond, they were made, purchased, sold and stolen with religious fervor.  Stealing a relic was termed "translation" so as to avoid accusations of criminality.  Monks in despair for one reason or another frequently beat up their relics with rods to get what they wanted.  Prince Radziwill's Keeper of Relics accidentally lost some of his master's holy items and in fear of reprisal, made some to replace them.  When the Prince discovered the bogus artifacts, he pardoned the Keeper and turned Lutheran.  The bottom fell out of the relic market during the destruction of English monasteries during the reign of Henry VIII.


The other volumes were about the same size as this one, so that would amount to about 300 essays altogether.  Isaac had a great sense of humor, as many of the ones i read were really funny, bordering on sarcastic.  And the prose was very readable;  it could well have been produced in the 19th C. without much revision.  I don't know why the books aren't better known;  they're a pleasure and a great distraction from our over-populated and tediously busy "civilization", haha...  anyway i had a lot of fun reading Disraeli's wry and revealing selections from human affairs as they evidenced themselves through history...  that's not to say that he was one hundred percent accurate in all the information he proffered, but he certainly managed to convey a striking impression of himself:  intelligent, resourceful, industrious and loving in spite of his somewhat jaundiced attitude toward human activities.  He had five children and it must have been a wonderful ambiance for his son Benjamin to grow up in.




Saturday, April 17, 2021



 


THE SUNLESS CITY


 James Edward Preston Muddock (1843-1934)


Josiah Flintabbaty Flonatin was a physical scientist and a member in great standing with the Society for the Exploration of Unknown Regions.  He was a short person with a large bald head and prehensile arms and skinny legs and a pipestem body.  At one of the meetings of the Society he heard about a bottomless tarn recently discovered in the Rocky Mountains.  Another explorer had gone to great efforts to determine its depth and had dropped 1200 feet of rope into the water and not touched rock or anything else.  He named the lake Avernus.  Flonatin (familiarly known as Flin Flon), after a little research, gave a lecture to his fellow members outlining his intention to explore the depths of the mysterious body of water.  He had decided to build a submarine equipped with all the modern tools and conveniences with which to conduct an extensive survey of the lake.  Once constructed, the sub was shipped to the location in pieces and assembled on the shore.  With Flon at the helm (he was alone except for a goat, 2 hens, 6 rabbits, a cat and a dog) he pointed the nose of the 34 foot long vehicle downwards and started pedaling.  Motive power was supplied via weight-assisted cranking as on a bicycle.  At two miles down Flon observed goggle-eyed pipefish stating at him.  After four hours the sub was precipitated over a waterfall and caught in a strong current that carried it along at 20 knots an hour until it ran into a rock.  Igniting some magnesium wire he'd brought along for the purpose, Flon saw that he was in an immense cavern lined with monstrous calcite crystals, some of them resembling plants or animals in their stalactitic or stalagmatic accretions.  After some difficulty encountered in the forms of obtrusive rocks, the sub was sucked into a huge smooth-sided tunnel and carried along until the river split into numerous deltaic branches and lost much of its forward momentum.  Flon took the opportunity to do a bit of exploration, finding depositions of plutonic strata, interbedded with granite, quartz monzonite, porphyritic assemblages and some gneiss and schist inclusions.  He described the area as a "myriorama" of formations and determined that it must be the base of an extinct volcano.  Returning to his vessel, he discovered it missing;  apparently he'd not moored it correctly.  He walked downstream for a long time until he saw before him two large eyes glowing in the dark that turned out to be the headlights of the sub.  It was undamaged and Flon continued on downstream to another large open space, where noted that the air was sparkling with tiny blue flashes of light which he attributed to errant electrical discharges from differing potentials in the local mineral bodies.  Blue flames and lightning bolts occasionally lit up the atmosphere.

Proceeding at 25 knots per hour, the sub raced downward into another vast cavern where Flon noticed rainbow-colored clouds produced by static electricity and lots of plants and trees alongside the river.  He saw birds and animals flickering through the jungly overgrowth and saw that instead of being green, the foliage was all bronze-colored.  A little further down he stopped the sub to investigate a sighting of a yellow colored mineral and realized that the countryside was literally covered with gold.  There was millions of tons of the stuff.  Flon went a bit nuts and began grabbing up all he could hold and stuffing it into the sub.  Later, after meeting the local inhabitants, he was chagrined to find out that gold was not valued except as a construction material;  it was used for buildings and houses.  The really valuable mineral there was tin which was very scarce.

The sub soon floated into the outskirts of a local city where the citizenry viewed him and his boat with alarm.  He was laughed at by the denizens because he didn't have a tail.  The presence of a tail indicated that the owner was a true human being at the ultimate peak of development, as opposed to those without caudal appendages who were considered to be inferior.  As he later found out, the city had been there about two million years and was founded initially on top of another one that had disintegrated over time. Flon was taken in hand by the local authorities and conducted to the court of the king.  He had difficulty communicating  until an ancient scholar taught him the language.  He realized that with a slight change of intellectual apprehension the language was quite easy to comprehend.  For instance, the court doctor's name was Yrekcauq and the vizier was Ytidrusba.  The name of the country was Esnesnon.  The government was a matriarchy in spite of having a king and one of the principal functionaries was entitled Ms. Sregdorpittemmocaig.

After familiarizing himself with the political situation and the  customs and cultural amenities, and after a period of incarceration during which the authorities had time to get him used to local deportment and legal strictures, and after the King's daughter (Princess Yobmot) became interested in him, Flon was permitted to wander at large in society and to study its members.  He found that there was a lot of unrest, principally having to do with social status, and that the citizenry spent a lot of time quarreling with each other.  At one point Flon is arrested for treason for interviewing Mrs. Ytidrusba and implying that women were not the most ideal persons to run a government. By this time Yobmot had fallen love with Flon and she was pivotal in lining up the city's best legal counsel who managed to get the charges dismissed.  

Yobmot told Flon about a nearby mountain that she had attempted to ascend that seemed to have a large cave on its peak.  Being tired of the city and its argumentative residents, he arranged with the King to finance an expedition to investigate the curiousity.  Coincidentally a revolution began in the city, mainly between two members of the upper classes who disagreed about the efficacy of cab-drivers.  One of them wanted to kill them all and the other didn't, all due to the drivers' penchant for sassiness and over-charging.  The  palace was assaulted by hordes of raging citizens and Yobmot and Flon barely had time to escape with their provisions and assistant climbers, but they successfully climbed the mountain and entered the mammoth cave at the top.  Yobmot was in love with Flon and wanted to go with him to the surface.  The others followed, but grew disconcerted and either  died or left.  After weeks of trudging through volcanic conduits, lava tubes and magma chambers they reached a large lake, presumably formed at the base of another volcano.  Yobmot laid down and expired, having given her all for love.  Flon by this point had fallen in love with Yobmot as well, but in spite of his sorrow, he forged ahead, climbing lava cliffs and clambering up endless series of rough passages and lava galleries.  Eventually he saw daylight and emerged in an amorphous mountainous region.  He stumbled along until he ran into two gold miners who guided him to safety, in the town of San Francisco.  After recovery, he returned to his home in New York and made arrangements to give a talk at the SEUR society.  But he found, after speaking for quite a while, that none of the other members believed him;  they thought he'd lost his marbles.  So Flon retired and stayed home reading and tending his garden until he passed away at the age of 100.

It was hard to not recognize Jules Verne's influence in this book.  The language was similar, using a kind of upper class Anglo-Scientific jargon with elegant phrasing.  Even the names resembled Verne's:  Flin Flon, for example.  The commonalities with "Around the World in Eighty Days" or "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" were pretty obvious, not solely in the plots, but in the descriptions and the timing as well.  But i enjoyed it a lot because of the geology and because of ...  well, because of the geology, haha...  but it was imaginative and exciting and intellectually challenging:  vis a vi the language.  (If you spelled your name backwards, what would it sound like?)...  and lots of fun.  The book is listed in Gutenberg if you're at all curious...

Sunday, April 11, 2021






 THE HIGH HISTORY OF THE HOLY GRAAL

Unknown in part and continued by Chretien de Troyes c. 1200 A.D.
Trans. by Sebastian Evans

Flavius Josephus was the name of the guard that removed the body of Jesus from the cross, kept the spear he was stabbed with, as well as the cup with a bit of his blood.  Instead of flinging the body into the street like Herod told him to, he carried it away from the city and privately entombed it, where it was later revived by Mary.  Joseph was fired for disobedience and moved to Britain where he founded a dynasty comprised, eventually, of knights and ladies representing the upper classes.  This account describes the adventures and disasters relating to King Arthur and his courtly supporters, Gawain, Lancelot, and Perceval.  These three, as well as many of their associates, are all descendants of Joseph, hence are all related to each other.  The knights do a lot of wandering around in the woods and forests of Britain and elsewhere, rescuing damsels and punishing evil-doers, all in the name of Christianity.  King Fisherman lives on an island in which the Holy Grail is ensconced along with the lance Joseph brought from Palestine.  The Grail (Graal) is a holy object of veneration, capable of banishing evil and replacing it with good, all in the name of God, the superior being.  The only knight (Gawain) to have actually seen the Graal forgot the magic words that needed to be uttered in order for it to perform its enlightening function and he spends most of his time worrying about it while slaying bad knights and righting wrongs.  King Fisherman is permanently depressed because of Gawain's (his nephew) forgetfulness. 

There are other cross-currents.  Various and sundry rulers in other parts of the country, greedy for land and riches, are continually invading Arthur's kingdom and the three knights are more or less permanently occupied in squelching the interlopers' ambitions.  A kind of literary tapestry is woven throughout the long tale, with the same major and minor characters assuming different roles as time passes.  It is very much like watching a long soap opera series on television, and i suppose the stories performed the same sort of role in the medieval period.  

Perceval is the principle character in the book, as he is regarded as the Perfect Knight, the one most likely to fulfill the attainment of the Holy Graal.  Lancelot is always sad because of his love for Arthur's wife, Guinevere.  Gawain is kept pretty busy running around keeping his relatives out of trouble.

There's a lot of decapitation in the book, such that the reader begins to wonder if that was a reflection of every day life in the 13th century.  For instance, Arthur's son, Lohot, is killed by Sir Kay, Arthur's seneschal, either by accident or on purpose.  Lohot had slain a giant that was oppressing the peasants and, being weary, for some reason took a nap while lying on top of him.  Kay happens along and sees the two and for some reason cuts off Lohot's head as well as the giant's.  He tries to keep it secret for awhile but Arthur finds out and Kay flees the country.  He returns later, though, in company with Briant of the Isles, as they plan on decimating and occupying part of the Kingdom.  There is a lot of ecological destruction in the book, as the thought of preserving the land for their own uses apparently never occurred to them.

The start of most of the action begins, like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight does, with a feast at court being interrupted by, in this case, a bald damsel with her arm tucked under her chin, riding in a cart followed by two other servant ladies.  She cries for assistance  and gets it immediately, which starts a whole series of rescues, jousts, tournaments, battles, carnivals, sea voyages, and extensive traveling, even to foreign countries.  Magic is not absent, and mysterious forces aid the heroes in their difficulties, illuminating dark dungeons, strengthening failing sword arms, moving sailboats in preferred directions and the like.
 
Perceval retires at the end of the book, married and happily living the latter part of his life as an agricultural overseer.  His wife passes on and he gently fades away.  But also at the end, Britain is about to be invaded once again and things look dire for Arthur, Lancelot and Gawain.  According to some sources there was in existence a second volume in the series called the "Quest of the Holy Grail" but i haven't found a copy of that yet.

This was a very interesting book in some ways in spite of being rather gory and repetitive.  When i was very young i loved reading about King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table and i suppose this book was in some way a continuation of that.  I can't say it was an easy read, because it was couched in more or less Elizabethan argot, but, as i've found with other old books like Chaucer, Langland and Lydgate, it gets easier the more you read it.  I'd love to read Arcadia (Sir Phillip Sydney) next, but I don't know if i have the energy;  i'll give it a try, i think, in which case it will be several weeks before i post on it as it's quite lengthy...

Sunday, April 4, 2021



 


WHEN  ELEPHANTS LAST IN THE DOORYARD BLOOMED

 Ray Bradbury (1920-2012)


When elephants last in the dooryard bloomed

Brought forth from dusts and airing attics where they

roomed

For many a year and faded out the roses on their flanks

And sucked the dust and trod the ancient grass in ranks

Beyond our seeing, deep in jungles on our parlor floor,

These old familiar beasts we led into the light

And beat upon their pelts and hung them in the sight

of sun

Which glorious made the panoplies of thread.

What grandeur here!

What pomp of Hannibal and Rome and Alps,

Egyptian cerements and tombs, Troy's ruins, Delphic

glooms-

Across such arabesques as these once walked Victoria.

Now in the lost great animal boneyard these lively skins

are stretched,

Unravel, fall to pollen and to rust.  Sic transit gloria.

All this has passed, is dim as ill-recalled rococo

But in my youth I stomped out cinnamons from these

God-awful paths and raised up such a flour of scents

As would reel down kings and make rise up to kingship

Lunatic lepers and foul penitents.


Old creatures, slung upon a wire in wind and light

And years' ebbtide

I beat you gently with my howdah wire-racket beater,

Search tigers in the shade of your deep hills

And stand, a monarch made, along your blind impatient old

And slumbrous side,

And know that modern carpetings and rugs, so bland, 

so broad

So nothing, and so shallow

Were made for snails

And men who breakfast, lunch, and dine

Upon the safe, sure, ever-recurring marshmallow.


Still somewhere in this world 

Do elephants graze yards?

In far towns toward the East and North toward Michigan

Do grandmothers and boys go forth to lawns,

And lines strummed there 'twixt oak or elm and porch,

And tie thereon great beasts of Indian grace

Loomed taller than their heads?

Still on such days do heartbeats throng the town

Whee elderwitch and tads,

Where toms and great-grand-crones gone feverish with

sweat

Goad Time out of the warp and weave,

The tapestry of treaded hearthwarm woolen flesh,

Beat Time into the breeze and watch the billion footfalls

Sift clouds into the greening insufferable beauty of

young trees?

Do old and young still tend a common ground?

Vast panoply and firewalk spread of God's most patient

brute

Whose firecoal eyes observe and well-worn hide

Now feels the woman tire, so Boy takes up the beat:

Where one thump dies, another heart begins.

Along the cliff of dusty hide

From either end, with centuries between as well

as miles,

Old looks to young, young looks to old

And, pausing with their wands, 

Trade similar smiles.


This is from Bradbury's book of the same name, 143 pages of poems in the Knopf edition.  It's quite suggestive to me even though i don't follow all of it.  Ray was fascinated from and early age by carnivals and circuses and that sort of imagery weaves a thread through much of his writing.  He began his career writing horror stories, copying Poe and Lovecraft, and that sense of lurking doom never quite disappeared even in his science fiction.  Always something unseen, something just out of touch...  


NB:  my posting will be more irregular in the future due to time constraints, weariness with the computer ordering my life, and the feeling that darkness is becoming more visible around the edges of my life.  Still, look for me from time to time, i may be here, or, ghost-like, hiding in the desk-top corner watching you, haha...

Sunday, March 28, 2021



 

THE GREATEST ADVENTURE

John Taine (Eric Temple Bell)  1883-1960)


Dr. Eric Lane is an ichthyologist and paleontologist living in San Francisco with his daughter Edith and his lab assistant Drake.  The latter is interested in ancient Bolivian texts and inscriptions.  A captain Anderson and his first mate Ole Hansen pay a visit to show the Dr. a specimen that they found in the south Atlantic ocean:  a smallish creature with wings, beak, armored skin and feathers.  The captain's story has to do with a vast explosion that almost wrecked their ship about 120 miles from the Antarctic coast.  It occurred at night and in the morning they saw that all the ocean as far as they could see was covered with crude oil.  Carcasses of dinosaur-like beasts littered the surface and polluted the surrounding atmosphere with the noxious fumes of rotting meat.  The first mate was a camera fiend and had 144 photos of the ocean and its dead denizens.  The Lanes were fascinated and decided to fund an expedition to the region to investigate the phenomena and to find the source of the oil.  They equip the captain's ship with supplies for a year and sleds and dogs and even a small airplane and embark from Rio, intent on reaching Antarctica.

When they arrived, they saw what seemed like an active volcano in the southern distance as well as a convenient fjord that might possibly provide access to the area.  For five weeks they examined a rocky beach which was covered with the bodies of thousands of dead dinosaurians.  Many of them had plates like triceratops and long necks like brontosauruses.  They sailed up the inlet as far as they could, then  took to the dogsleds for the rest of the way, about 200 miles.  The snow was covered with shards of basalt-like rocks that had pictographs incised in them, apparently originating from the distant volcano.  On the third day they reached a wide sort of trough about 30 miles across, filled with circular holes 30 to 50 feet in diameter.  While trying to negotiate this maze of holes, the mist disappeared suddenly with a violent suction action that swallowed up their sleds as well.  Immediately afterwards, giant cones of ice were ejected like a missile from a silo.  They shot into the air with a scream and ignited.  Rather alarmed, the party trekked back to the ship and spent a lot of time arguing about the causes of the violent upheavals.  The conclusion seemed to be that an enormous pool of oil underlaid the continent and that there was a cushion of methane resting on it that periodically ignited from friction with the sides of the wells, as it pushed the ice plugs into the air.  

They decide to explore by air, using the airplane, and Edith and Ole volunteer to operate the machine, both of them having the requisite skill.  Flying south, they observe that no volcano can be seen, but passing the trough area they fly over about five miles of extremely broken up country, on the other side of which they discover a sort of giant caldera seemingly concealed by a layer of inky black clouds about 90 miles in diameter.  Ole and Edith decide to fly west and in about an hour find another depression 50 or so miles across.  They fly down into it and realize that it's around 15,000 feet deep and that it has grass and trees and a small river.  And a cavern in the side of it about 3,000 feet high.  They enter it with the plane and run into geysers of fire and lots of live prehistoric beasts, so they retreat precipitously and land on a beach.  Ole is notorious for having an opinion about everything and he shares his ideas with Edith;  he thinks the whole area is underlain with interlacing tunnels full of animals and gas and that the periodic fires derive from tidal effects caused by the orbiting moon.  The plane is charged by a belligerent triceratops so they fly out and land on the ice where a giant ostrich chases them away.  

Back at the ship more philosophizing takes place.  The doctor believes that an ancient civilization created life in the form of a basic molecule that was the beginning of an entirely new line of evolution, the results of which were to be seen in the monstrous forms, neither saurian or ornithian, that they saw all over the area.  He also thinks that the pictographic fragments on the rock shards were some sort of warning about the dangers of ungoverned proliferation.  He wants to dig further into the mystery, so they trek back to the trough area.  They rig a long hose from one of the blow holes so that they can discourage the attacking monsters with the gas (partly CO) by spraying carbon monoxide at them.  Then they drill holes in the side of the caldera wall so that they can use dynamite to shear away the outer layer of rock (which they had discovered was artificial:  actually a form of cement invented by the ancient race) to gain access to whatever the pictographic message was in its original form.  They set off the dynamite which raises a huge cloud of dust and spores that the scientist collects in specimen jars.  After examining the dust Dr. Lane realizes that the spores were the original invention of the ancients and that they were the source of the evolved monsters.  Also one of the jars leaks and they wake up in the morning finding that their clothes and all the area around them was covered with a kind of green fuzz.  They are afraid that the planet will be destroyed by the fast growing green stuff so they blast another hole into the lake of oil and set it on fire.  They race to the plane and take off, leaving behind them a titanic explosion that blows up the continent of Antarctica, or most of it anyway.  The ship's crew had walked to the edge of the ice and were later picked up by a passing whaler.  The plane full of scientists flew to the nearest whaling station and eventually made their way back to SF.

This was a pretty exciting book.  It had a sort of dry, joking tone that seemed a little manic at times, as if Taine was chortling to himself over the explosions and the preternatural biological disasters that he'd dreamed up.  In real life he was a mathematician with some original work to his credit.  He had quite a few stories published in the SF mags as well as a number of novels.  It was pretty obvious he had a lot of fun writing them, although, for the reader, his sense of continuity was sometimes pretty much at risk, with the action progressing in a sort of random illogical fashion, so that it was often a matter of doubt as to which part of the continent the heroes were actually at.  It was fun, though and certainly a different kind of book.

Saturday, March 20, 2021



 


COLONEL QUARITCH, VC

H. Rider Haggard  (1856-1925)


Colonel Quaritch had led a strenuous life in the British army and at the age of 43 decided to retire.  He found a nice little cottage in the south of England on the land belonging to the de la Molle family, of whom only Ida and her father the Squire remained to represent the long history of the de la Molle family.  One of the more famous ones was James de la Molle, who was executed by Cromwell in the Civil War, but not before he'd hid his fabulous wealth and left a clue to its whereabouts in the family bible.  The Squire had made unsuccessful attempts to locate the treasure, as he was seriously in debt and had over-mortgaged his land and castle, but to date had had no luck finding it.  To make things worse his largest tenant farmer had given notice to surrender his rental of the largest farm on the property and was about to move out, thus removing the owner's largest source of income.  Lawyer Quest held the position of intermediary between the bankers (Cossey ltd.) and the Squire.  The Cosseys were notorious greedy penny-pinchers and were hankering to get their hands on the rich property.  The older Cossey was in poor health and expected to die in the next few months.  Eagerly anticipating the event was his son, Edward, who was a selfish rake and the lover of Quest's wife Belle, who he doesn't really like but who is madly in love with him.  Edward is madly in love with Ida, but she finds him repulsive.  However she agrees to marry him if he will use his influence to vacate the mortgages on the castle and land.  

Meanwhile Harold Quaritch and Ida have fallen in love also and the former is aghast at Ida's decision, but being a quiet sort, doesn't have a whole lot to say about it.  Lawyer Quest also has designs against the Castle, being a social climber of the worst sort who will do anything to raise himself in society.  George, the overseer of the de la Molle agricultural interests is a slightly comic, but crucial character in the plot who has adventures in London related to Quest's past matrimonial history with an alcoholic chanteuse named Edith, also known as "Tiger".

Cross-currents abound as the plot progresses.  At one point Quest tries to blackmail Edward with some love letters he's stolen from Belle.  Edward is in a tizzy, waiting for his sick father to die so he can pay off the mortgage on the castle himself and marry Ida.  Opportunities arise to save Ida and the farm several times, but are constantly thwarted by the conniving lawyer and young Cossey.  Belle is sick at heart with her love for the amoral Edward and during a garden party shoots him with a shotgun, imperiling his life.  Quest has been blackmailed for years by the Tiger for being a bigamist and is perennially anxious that his secret past will out.  So affairs progress and seem to reach a point of no return on Christmas Eve, when the mortgage is due and Ida has to finally decide.

Harold is naturally upset with all the goings-on that he has pretty much stayed out of, but when it seems that he is about to lose the love of his life, he remembers the family bible.  There's a hand-written dedication in the front of the book which has been supposed to present a clue to the treasure's location, but nobody has ever been able to decipher it.  Agonizing in his helplessness, he holds the book (spoilers ahead) up to the firelight and sees that some letters stand out more than others.  He puts them together and they apparently indicate that the gold is buried inside the hill that his cottage rests on.  He runs out to get a shovel and starts digging up the dirt inside the tool shed behind the house and finds it to be mostly unconsolidated sediments.  Up to his neck in the hole he's dug, he's about to give up when he remembers a crow bar that he had seen leaning up against the wall.  He jams the bar down in the bottom and it hits a hard surface after a couple of feet, so Harold resumes digging.  By this time he's enlisted George to help him.  Between the two of them they pry up several old tiles and reveal an empty space beneath.  George, being taller and younger, descends on a rope they've rigged up;  Harold hands him a lantern and George emits a blood curdling screams and swarms back up the rope babbling about ghosts.  So Harold goes down himself and sees....

Well, i said "spoilers", so i guess...  There are skeletons laying all around in various conditions of decay.  One with a coronet falling off its head is situated on what appears to be a large coffin.  Harold reassures George and the two of them investigate, discovering a secret compartment below the coffin that is filled with gold coins from the 18th C. and before.  All sorts of vintages from multiple countries, and priceless rarities pour out of the broken casket when they lift it away from the coffin.  Speechless with delight, Harold runs to the castle where Ida is about to once more agree to sell herself to Edward, and informs them that they are now the possessors of great wealth.  Chagrined, Edward slinks away, trapped inside his overwhelming lust and greed.  Harold and Ida marry and live happily ever after.

I should have mentioned that Quest, traveling to London to get revenge on the Tiger, meets her on the train and they rage at each other, crashing around inside the passenger compartment and accidentally falling out the door, over a bridge railing and into a river which the train happens to be crossing over at that particular moment.  Their bodies are found later, clutching one another, lying on a mud bank.  

Those readers who have trod Africa on the way to King Solomon's Mines, will find the language in this novel quite familiar.  Haggard's prose is elegant and comprehensible, and distinctive from almost every other author i've read except perhaps that of Disraeli.  The plot seemed a bit repetitive, with a sort of pinball effect as regards the will-she or won't-she phase of the plot.  I think Haggard could have done more with Harold than he did, but it was still a fun and interesting series of character studies associated with the engaging plot evolvements.  

Sunday, March 14, 2021


 


A.D. 2000


Alvarado Mortimer Fuller  (1851-1924)


It's a dark and stormy night in the garrison.  Three subalterns are having a convivial evening;  Junius Cobb, Lester Hathaway and Hugh Craft are soldiers in the Army, based in the Presidio, San Francisco (located on a hill above the Golden Gate).  The conversation has drifted to the scientific researches of Junius, who claims to have invented a way to place a human body in suspended animation for an indefinite length of time.  The other two officers ridicule the idea at first, but later are convinced to the point that they agree to help Junius with his plan to use himself as an experimental subject.  The process involves sealing the victim in a glass coffin and filling it with ozone crystals, trusting that the said crystals will seep oxygen into the body through its pores.  They plan to use the base of the 25 foot high replication of the Statue of Liberty that Adolph Sutro (a famous entrepreneur in San Francisco's history) had had erected some years previously.  They sneak up to the top of the hill on which the statue is built and cut a hole in the bottom, fitting a solid door for access.  They carry in the casket and some buckets of crystallized ozone and Junius lies down in it.  After securing him inside, they leave and seal the door behind them.  The intention is to have the door opened in one hundred years (1987).  A letter to that effect has been left with the authorities in the Treasury department.  Jean Colchis had been a fellow researcher of Junius, and was familiar with his theories.  His daughter, Marie, had acted as lab assistant to the scientists and Junius had fallen in love with her.

1987 passed without any notice being taken of the experimenter's fate until the letter was accidentally found in one of the Treasury's files thirteen years later, in the year 2000.  Curiosity leads to a party breaking into the chamber with crowbars and the discovery of the glass coffin.  Junius is rescued and found to be still alive, although on the verge of extinction because the ozone crystals were almost used up.  After a period of recuperation, he's introduced to the new United States.  Inventions abound.  Transportation is by electric car or subterranean train.  Tunnels have been dug all over the country that are designed for pneumatic trains.  Giant engines are used to create a vacuum at the destination points of each train so that the cars are sucked along by the difference in pressure.  Engines at embarkation points are also used to push the trains along the tracks which are located in slots below the base of the tunnels.  Long thin metal slats connect the rails with the trains.  Top speed is 240 MPH.  The fuel for the engines is lipthalite, a gaseous form of lipthalene, a combination of nitrogen, carbonic acid and other elements.

In 16 hours, the train reached Cairo, Illinois, where the passengers had to transfer to a submarine to get to Washington DC.  The Central Sea was created by the accidental ignition of gas wells situated along the Mississippi river valley.  So many well had been drilled and there was so much gas, that the whole valley unzipped like a string of firecrackers, splitting the crust and allowing the influx of 90,000,000,000,000 gallons of water that inundated the midwest and created the new ocean.

Junius received a hearty welcome in Washington, with thousands of colored lights and banging of gongs all along his ride to the White House, where he was interviewed by President Craft, the great great grandson of Hugh Craft, his old army buddy.  Some of the statistics pertinent to the United States as it now existed:  population 500 million people, 68 states (the borders reached from Panama to the Arctic), and 9 territories.  There was one daily newspaper, the Daily American which was published by the American Press in America, a city in Kentucky on the eastern edge of the Central Sea.  England was now a republic, Siberia was a nation, France was a monarchy, China had an Emperor, and the national sport was baseball.  The Code of Justice had been shortened and improved:  there was now a Universal Federal Code that eliminated juries.  Corruption carried a life sentence.  There were limits on corporate profits;  there were no billionaires or millionaires, as people, not capitalists, ran the country.  Locally, communication was by pneumatic tubes (like the ones department stores used to have) that ran all over the urban areas.  Long distance messages were delivered by sympathetic needles.  These "quantum" needles were found to be in sychronicity with each other regardless of physical distance, so a mechanical system was invented to use the movements of paired needles, separated to various locations of the nation or world, to convey messages.They visit Niagara Falls, but it's not there when they arrive.  Junius is informed that the whole river has been converted to an electrical generating plant that supplies power to the entire east coast.

Meanwhile, some new friends have become aware that Junius is lonely.  He's told them of his former girl-friend, Marie Colchis and how much he misses her, so two of them, the daughters of Craft and Hathaway, decide to search for her.  After adventures, they locate what is supposedly her tomb on the island of Guadalupe.  Enlisting the help of a ship's doctor, they find a cave in the middle of the island and discover Marie in the same condition that Junius had been when he was found in San Francisco.  They revive her and they all return to Washington DC only to be informed that Junius and two others have borrowed a blimp to fly to the North Pole, which no one has ever visited before.  The blimp is driven by lipthalene and is 377 feet long.  Named the "Orion", it has a car suspended below it of 1500 square feet.  It's driven by a 46 foot propeller and is fully equipped for long distance travel.  Seven attempts have been made to reach the Pole but none have succeeded.  But the Orion, after traveling the length of Greenland and over the Arctic Ocean, arrives and lands at 90 degrees longitude and sinks a monument in the bare earth.

They successfully journey back to Washington, where Junius meets Marie.  They marry along with other characters ancillary to his adventures and they all live happily ever after.  And they're rich as well, as a lot of jewels were discovered on Guadalupe Island.

This book was a lot of fun.  It was the only one written by Fuller, and, although it was not a professional production, it was inventive and original.  Fuller spent most of his life in the Army where he was a bookkeeper.  He used to refer to himself as an "Indian Fighter" even though most of his experience probably had to do with numbers rather than hostiles.  But he had a vivid imagination, which makes up for a lot.  I thought it was astonishing that he referred to the quantum world and that he was well aware of the dangers of capitalism even though the book was published in 1887.  He rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel before his retirement.  The book is listed in the Gutenberg files if you're interested...

Sunday, March 7, 2021



 


THE LAST MAN

Alfred Noyes  (1880-1958)


The time is about one hundred years in the future.  The earth has been plagued by war and famine, the result of a recurrent series of belligerent and aggressive tyrants in charge of governing most of the nations on the planet.  Finally, as a result of the sinking of a neutral passenger liner, the final engagement takes place.  A mad scientist has discovered a radio frequency that will stop the human heart.  In a short period of time, knowledge of how to create this wave has spread to most of the countries and one of them has utilized the beam to attack her enemies.  And is imitated by most of the larger governments.

Mark Adams, a member of the Royal Navy, was aboard a submarine which was lying on the bottom of the sea adjacent to the Isle of Wight.  The boat had suffered an engine failure and most of the crew had escaped, but Mark was unconscious due to a scrabble with a pugnacious fellow submariner who had a bad case of the me-firsties.  When he woke up, he utilized the escape mechanism to reach the surface and swam to shore.  He noticed a number of sea-bathers lying about, apparently asleep.  But when he tried to rouse one of them he noticed they were all dead.  He hot-wired a car and drove to Cowes, the major city on the island, but couldn't find any live people.  He tried visiting his uncle Andrew who lived nearby but nobody was home.  So he commandeered a small boat and sailed to the mainland.  He thought if he could use the powerful radio located at the nearby yacht club he might be able to find out what was going on.  But the radio seemed dead also:  no static and no response.  He laughed hysterically for a bit after understanding that in all likelihood he was the only person left on the planet.

Appropriating food and clothing as needed, he made his way to London where he found a lot more bodies.  They were all sort of dried out with chalky faces, looking a lot like mummies.  Finding an abandoned limousine, he equipped it with food and  necessities and set forth on a road trip, taking in all the major cities of England and Scotland.  He didn't find a single soul alive, so he made a plan to try Europe.  Arriving in Paris he didn't find anyone either, but while sitting disconsolate in the Louvre, he found a lady's purse stuck behind a seat cushion.  Inside was a watch that had just been wound, so he knew there was at least one other person alive beside himself.  Outside, he saw that his car had been stolen.  Various indications suggested that whoever it was, was originally from Rome, so he got another auto and drove there.  Touring around the classical/tourist sites, her heard a scream while he was checking out the House of the Borgias in the Vatican.  He ran, but couldn't find the lady, but through some rather clever deduction, he managed to trace her to Ravello, on the Amalfi coast.  They got together at last and she (Evelyn) shared her survival story.

She had been on the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea in a diving bell, looking for unusual fauna with a man named Mardok.  Unknown to her, this person, being a kind of future-day Trump, had been largely responsible for the death of the human race.  But he was a scientist as well as being a maniacal psychopath, and was interested in ruling the post-human world with Evelyn as his help-mate.  Of course she's horrified at the idea and manages to elude his clutches once they were back on the surface.  She and Mark lead a settled life for a while in Ravello until Mardok (who'd been searching all over Europe for Evelyn) discovered their whereabouts.  The two flee back to Rome, but Evelyn falls into the clutches (i like that word:  i used to be a mechanic) of the evil Mardok and agrees to marry him.  She convinces him to take a boat to Capri for a marriage ceremony, but cleverly manages to trap him in the Blue Grotto when the tide arose, escaping back to Naples where she and Mark flee once more.  Their new plan is to take refuge in Assissi, where they hope there are still some monks left.  But they soon realize that Mardok is close behind them.  Their car breaks down and they find two horses with which they ride cross-country to Balneum Regis, a castle on the edge of a cliff at the end of a dead-end road.  Mardok catches up to them but in the mist drives over the cliff edge and crashes at the bottom, killing himself.  

Mark and Evelyn travel on to Assissi, where they find peace and tranquillity at the Monastery of St. Francis, and also a number of monks who have survived the crisis.  When asked how they did it, the querulee replied only that it had something to do with the local rocks.

Noyes was a well-recognized and popular figure as a poet.  "The Highwayman" might have been his most popular work.  He was certainly an accomplished describer of scenery of all sorts, and inventive insofar as the plot was concerned.  There was a lot of religious philosophizing that interrupted the action from time to time, and provided a reason for a certain amount of vague haranguing.  In my view, it was a bit narrow-minded, but others might feel differently.  Anyway, it was entertaining and thought provoking even though i wouldn't rate it as high as the other work of the same name by Mary Shelley.