Sunday, October 31, 2021



Wilkie Collins. (1824-1889)

This is a Cornish romance set mostly in coastal Cornwall, the critical action taking place in Porthgenna Tower, a very large mansion with wings, North, South, East and West.  In the beginning Sarah Leeson is tending to the wants of the dying mistress of the house, carrying and fetching and other last rite things.  Mrs. Treverton's husband is a Captain of commercial ships and is absent on a voyage, so Sarah is being seriously attentive to her boss.  Before dying she writes a letter to the Captain revealing a large secret that is burdening her.  Giving it to her maid Sarah, she emphasizes the urgency with which the communication needs to be given to her husband.  But Sarah, knowing the contents of the letter and being intimately involved with same, is aghast.  She feels impelled to do her mistresses' bidding nevertheless.  So as the lady is about to expire, she makes the maid swear that she'll not destroy or let the letter leave the building, but she passes just as she's about to add the most important part:  to give the letter to the Captain when he returns.  Sarah is out of her mind with worry and since she was not verbally instructed to deliver the letter, just to keep it, she decides to hide it.  Which she does, in the Myrtle Room situated in the North wing of the house.  Then she packs up a few possessions and leaves the house, never to return.

Fifteen years pass and the plot moves to a nearby town where Rosamund Treverton is about to marry Leonard Frankland.  Leonard has recently become blind because of over-straining his eyesight while repairing watches.  Captain Treverton is off on a ship somewhere, so the local curate gives Rosamund away.  The Captain has a brother, Andrew, who doesn't take any responsibility for his niece's activities, as he's a miser and a human-hater.  About a year after the ceremony, the couple receives a letter saying her father, the Captain, has been drowned and that she has inherited the Porthgenna establishment.  The two decide to move there and hire a nurse for their new baby.  They travel to Cornwall from London and at one of the last rest stops, the nurse becomes ill and they hire another named Mrs. Jazeph.  The Jazeph lady acts peculiarly and whispers odd things to Rosamund so they dismiss her.  She's actually Sarah under an alias that she acquired in the previous fifteen years through marrying a drunken and violent person who is now deceased.  Something she says alarms the Franklands and they fire her.  She travels to her uncle, her last living relative, who is a little old music box maker named Joseph;  a merry old soul with a fixation on Mozart.  He carries a portable music box with him everywhere that plays "Batti Batti", a nursery tune composed by Mozart in his youth.  After revealing her troubles to her uncle, they decide to travel to Cornwall as well, hoping to reclaim the letter that was hidden in the Myrtle room.  Once at the house, they are faced with a suspicious housekeeper and a bumbling overseer named Mumber.  Both staff members try to frustrate the intentions of Sarah and her uncle, but they evade them and she races upstairs to the Myrtle room door.  But since a window is broken inside, a passing breeze rips off a piece of decrepit wall paper and blows it across the door, causing Sarah to faint, convinced a ghost inside bears evil intentions toward her.  They escape and elude pursuit, returning to London.

Meanwhile, Andrew the brother of the Captain and his valet Schrowl receive a letter from Rosamund's lawyer interested in whatever they might know about the Myrtle room.  They know that that room is where the Secret is hidden but they don't know where in the North wing it is.  Andrew rips up the letter but Schrowl pieces it together and wants to sell his information about Porthgenna for five pounds.  The Franklands reach the Tower and move in and begin to search the dilapidated and abandoned section of the house for the right room.  They finally discover it and force an entrance and start poking about in the bits of furniture that are left.  In an old escritoire, Rosamund discovers a folded up sheet of paper and, opening and reading it, is SHOCKED!

I'll leave the ending to be unveiled to such readers that might be driven through sheer overwhelming curiosity to read the novel.  Suffice it to say everything is wound up more or less satisfactorily, thereby resolving the driving force that has been augmented throughout the narration.

I was curious about the book's popularity until i started thinking about the social conditions and limited lives led by the tech-free inhabitants of Victorian England.  This book and others like it must have been regarded as absolute treasures to those readers who had very little opportunity or ability to enjoy their lives in such a regimented and class-bound society.  Even today, with TV, movies, stereo, computers and all the ancillary gizmos open to the average person, i found myself caught up in Collins' world and eagerly turning the pages until i found out what the SECRET actually was...  it was a fun read and i'll probably investigate more of his lesser-known works...

I should add that Collins has a great gift for depicting odd characters.  In addition to the ebullient uncle Joseph, his description of the attitude and thoughts of the lumpkin Munder are hilarious.  And the designing and slavering Schrowl, after his five pound note,  seems taken from the life.  Andrew himself would be unbelievable if similar personalities had not been known to exist in reality.  Earlier in the book, Mr. Phippen and his delicate digestion equal any description i've read concerning gastric tribulations and the overall debilitating effect on the sufferer thereof...  Read it you'll like it!

Sunday, October 24, 2021



Algernon Blackwood. (1869-1951)

Five incorporeal adventures in the life of Dr. Silence are included in this volume.  As well as being a trained medical doctor, Silence has deeply explored the remote regions of human mentality, both in England and in little-known spiritual enclaves of the far East.  After receiving his degree in England, he disappeared for five years while pursuing those studies, and now runs a kind of psychic detective agency.  People with problems of a non-material nature seek his advice and assistance.


Felix Pender, successful novelist, is having trouble writing.  He is being followed around inside his house by something or someone with evil intent.  Dr. Silence suspects a vengeful ghost is causing difficulties, so he arranges for Felix to stay at his house while the Dr. spends the night in Felix's lodging.  He gets to the house later the same day, accompanied by two pets, a cat and a dog.  He trusts animal instincts as being keener than his own insofar as detecting malignant spirits is concerned.  Silence is dozing off in the library when all of a sudden he smells smoke, and wakes to a dark and threatening glamour that has settled over the room.  The cat sees something eery in a corner and the dog begins barking at an invisible intruder.  But gradually through the haze, a shadowy figure looms;  an old lady, haggard and staring, glares at him with murder in her heart.  The Dr. summons up his powerful psychic knowledge and counter-attacks the apparition which gradually dissipates.  Back in his office, he relates the story to Mr Pender and after further investigation, they discover that the house was formerly the residence of an old lady hung for multiple murders.  Silence recommends the house be torn down and the location turned into a garden.


Arthur Vezin is traveling by train in northern France.  On impulse, triggered by loud-mouth fellow travelers, he gets off at a remote station located in the mountains and is so charmed by the idyllic ambiance that he decides to stay for a night.  He takes a room in an old inn and walks around the small village.  He becomes nervous when he notices that all the villagers seem to be watching him.  At dinner, the inn-keeper's daughter becomes very friendly and tries to make him fall in love with her.  Suspicious, he retires early only to be awoken in the night by loud cat cries and noises of yowling and fighting.  He sneaks outside and sees that some of the citizens have turned into cats.   The daughter accosts him and tries to get him to accompany her.  There is a parade of sorts leading out of town and lots of dancing and sinister merry-making.  As Vezin tries to escape, she grabs him by the neck, but he breaks away and runs off.  At the train station cafe, he meets Dr. Silence who explains to him that the village was formerly the habitation of witches who were burned at the stake, and that their ghosts invaded the townspeople on certain nights, causing them to engage in devil-worship.


Horace Wragge needs help.  He's a retired Colonel and he and his sister live in an old farmhouse near the ocean in northern Yorkshire.  The house is located near a 12 acre wood that has an ancient mound at the center.  Spot fires are erupting with alarming frequency all around the manse and in the fields and the house itself it is uncomfortably warm, with a kind of sultry heat that seems to carry a lingering menace with it.  Dr. Silence and his assistant Hubbard arrive and immediately search the woods.  They find burned places and a pond but not much else.  But the same night, one of the rooms catches on fire and they are barely able to extinguish it.  Doing some research, Silence believes that there's an Egyptian connection.  The Colonel's brother had spent time in that country and was known to be an aficionado of ancient Egyptian culture.  A full moon is expected the same night and the Dr. gets ready:  he gathers some picks and shovels and a long rod.  After dark, he pokes the rod into the soil surrounding the building until he finds a hidden tunnel.  With the help of the Colonel and Hubbard, he digs out an entranceway and all three enter it and crawl toward the woods.  They come upon a large room under the mound and discover a mummy case buried just below the surface.  Just as they open the coffin, a fire Elemental comes to life and things heat up.  At that moment the sister crawls into the chamber with an ancient scarabeus and places it inside the coffin with the mummy and the Elemental vanishes.  Her explanation is that she had thought it was attractive when the brother brought it back from Egypt and kept it in her room.


Harris, a silk merchant, visits his old theological school near Strasbourg.  It's located in a remote valley, isolated and unpopulated.  He's welcomed by the Priests even though it's been thirty years since he was a student there.  They become more and more friendly, demanding that he spend the night.  The head of the school, Asmodelius, is about to arrive and they want to introduce him.  Things get weirder and Harris gets scared and starts yelling but the brothers show no reaction, which really freaks him out.  He runs but the monks catch him and begin to strangle him and he faints.  Next day he wakes up on a pile of old bricks and while walking back to the depot meets Dr Silence who had followed him to the school and later rescued him from the glamour that had captured him.  Silence tells Harris that the school had burned down and the village abandoned because the fathers were devil-worshippers.


Hubbard with some friends is on a camping trip in the northern Baltic Sea.  They're traveling by canoe and stop at one of the islands to build a more permanent encampment.  The Reverend Tim Maloney, Mrs. Maloney and their daughter Joan as well as the family friend Pete Sangree compose the party in addition to Hubbard.  They are having a wonderful time fishing, swimming and story-telling for a while, until their evenings begin to be disturbed by a wolf invading their camp.  One night it tears a hole in the wall of Joan's tent.  Hubbard tracks it but loses the trail until he happens to look into Pete's tent and sees the wolf merge into Pete's body.  Luckily, Dr. Silence arrives soon after Hubbard sends him an urgent message, and he verifies that Pete is indeed inhabited by a "fluidic body", i.e., a werewolf.  The good Dr. knows all about lycanthropy of course, so he manages things such that the incipient love between Pete and Joan becomes a reality.  This puts a halt to the form-changing and the two live happily ever after.

Blackwood led a checkered life, pursuing a number of different careers, but writing ghost stories and novels between  and during his various employments.  He even taught violin lessons upon occasion.  But he also worked for a number of newspapers and came to know some of the movers and shakers of that world.  He was a past master at word-smithery, and his descriptions of eerie and spine-chilling events has never been exceeded, imo...  The resemblance between Silence and Sherlock is pretty evident, even so far as the mysterious absence in the East was concerned.  That's where Sherlock was supposed to have gone after his fight with Moriarty at Reichbach Falls when he was presumed, erroneously, to have died.  Anyway, HAPPY HALLOWEEN!!

Sunday, October 17, 2021



Sir Walter Scott (attrib.)

G.W.H Haering  (pseud. Willibald Alexis, 1798-1871)

Thomas de Quincy  (1785-1859)

The good ship Halcyon, inbound from France, was just entering the harbor when the crew espied smoke pouring out of the forward hold.  Since the cargo was gunpowder, they became berserk, dashing about and desperately breaking into the liquor cabinets in the mad attempt to make themselves jolly before meeting their maker.  The master knocks Bertram overboard with one punch.  He flounders around until a barrel drifts within reach, then straddles it to save himself at just about the same time that the ship disintegrates in a giant explosion.  Something jerks the barrel out from under him and he sees another survivor of approximately his own age disputing his possession of the barrel.  They disagree, physically, for a bit and then decide to share, turn and turn about, the barrel between them.  The top to the barrel falls off and the new arrival discerns a bottle inside of it.  He grabs it and pulls the cork, drinks a goodly amount of it, then sinks out of sight.  Bertram hangs on until a passing ship under the command of Monsieur de Harnois rescues him.  A short, stocky figure, de Harnois is also a master seaman, a drunk, and avaricious.  He lands Bertram on Anglesea Island, charging him 60 francs for the passage.

Bertram wakes up in a brush-made hut in which an old lady with wild grey hair, ragged clothes and a piercing stare is cooking an obnoxious mixture on a wood stove.  Her name is Mother Gillie Godber and she's deranged through having lost a son, hung for a misdemeanor charge by Sir Morgan Walladmor, the local noble who lives in a castle of the same name constructed at the end of a local peninsula.  Leaving the old lady, Bert gets to the mainland and walks to Machynleth town.  Stepping into the first tavern he saw, he found himself in the company of a troupe of actors who had just finished performing "Venus Preserved", a popular work by Thomas Otway.  Other personalities are on the scene:  Dulberry the lawyer, a spouting fountain of radicalism directed against any speck of prejudicial attitude toward the lower classes.  He talks a lot, but is not listened to very much.  The owner/bartender tries to maintain a modicum of civilized behavior, but the crowd becomes rowdy,  especially while mourning the death of Edward Nicholas, a local smuggler, who supposedly was blown up along with the Halcyon.  Bert sees the latter upstairs, standing in a corner, when he is going to bed.

The next day is St. David's Day and a huge parade is scheduled with 120 Snowdon archers, decorated carriages, uniformed militias of various identities, and a carriage with Sir Morgan himself.  After a church service, Dulberry and Bertram walk over to the town hall where they find out that Captain de Harnois is going to be buried the next day.  A bit surprised, Bert agrees to go along with the entourage accompanying the cortege to the cemetery.  He's told to bring a big club.

Next day, as the funeral gets under way, Miss Walladmor's carriage almost careens over a cliff, but a figure that suspiciously resembles Edward Nicholas saves her at the last minute.  Reaching a toll gate, the line of mourners is stopped for inspection.  The officers want to inspect the inside of the coffin, but a mighty uproar at the very idea causes a riot.  In the ensuing melee, the carriage with the coffin aboard disappears.  Bert receives a note from an anonymous personage instructing him to come to the ruins of Ap Gauvon for a meeting at the Abbey.  Gillie Godber leads him in that direction and they see a lot of piratic appearing individuals trundling barrels and demijohns into the Abbey cellar.  The revenuers show up and Bert is arrested.  They think he's Edward Nicholas, the notorious smuggler, whom he apparently resembles .  The real Edward rescues him and Bert runs off but gets lost in a snow storm.  He finds a barn to sleep in at the last moment before freezing and the next morning is accused by the farmer of killing his dog who has died in the night.  Bert wanders off but is recaptured and taken to Walladmor Castle and ensconced in a perilous tower looming over a sheer cliff with wild waves crashing against the rocks below.  His trial takes place in a few days.  Things look bad for Bert until Edward, mainly due to his hopeless love for Sir Morgan's daughter, and unwilling to live any longer without her, surrenders himself to the authorities and Bert is freed.  There's a relationship between Ed and Bert which is revealed in the ensuing text, but at this point i'm going to not spoil the ending, which is not a very cheerful one, in light of the unlikely event that some other person might read the book.  Suffice it to say that Mother Godber has had a lot to do with what happens.

In Leipzig, in the early years of the nineteenth century, there was a book fair held twice a year.  One of the highlights of the festival was the publication of humorous or clever pastiches of famous books or authors.  Mr. Haering was inspired to participate one year, and produced a three volume set entitled "Walladmor", supposedly written by Sir Walter Scott.  Haering claimed that it was a translation from the original English.  Thomas de Quincy apparently obtained a copy of the book and, having time on his hands, translated the German text which had ostensibly been written in English, back into English again, only this time leaving out what he regarded as philosophical piffle, codswallopian claptrap.  The result was two volumes instead of the more classical three.  Anyway, Quincy's version in addition to being considerably shorter, also has some continuity to it, which the original probably lacked.  Not that it bore any resemblance to any book Scott might have written, but at least it was comprehensible, couched in the reasonably fluent English characteristic of the time.  I can't say the book was comparable to any of Scott's work, but it was entertaining and quite funny some of the time.  The ending was not what i expected, but was in some sense logical.  I guess i liked it, i'm still not quite sure...

Sunday, October 10, 2021


Sir Walter Scott  (1771 - 1832)

Near the Cairntable mountains in southern Scotland lies the Castle Dangerous, so-called because of its proximity to the border with England.  In the early 14th century this was important because of the ongoing wars for dominance between the two countries.  The castle had been conquered and reconquered several times in the recent history of this tale.  At the time the action opens, it's held by the English who had recently taken it away from the Douglas clan, its historical owners.

On a pleasant spring day in Douglas Dale, Bertram the minstrel and his son Augustine were slowly making their way on horseback toward the castle, enjoying the flowers and musical tinkle of a small brook on its way down to join the Douglas river lower in the valley.  They're on the way to visit Sir John de Walton at the castle but as the hour was growing late, they decided to stay overnight at Hazelside at the home of Tom Dickson, a local farmer and sheep herder.  They are heartily welcomed by Tom and after a substantial meal they're preparing for the night when a couple of soldiers from the castle arrive.  They have queries as regards the intent and purposes of the travelers and to avoid trouble Bertram agrees to accompany them back to the castle.  But he doesn't want Augustine to go along so he tells them that he's recovering from the plague and might be contagious.  So Augustine is conveyed to nearby St. Bride's Abbey where he's domiciled overnight.

Bertram's excuse for being there is that he wants to search for old manuscripts in the castle's small library, so he's embroiled in dusty tomes when the Commander of the Guard, Aymer de Valence has questions about his real purpose.  Valence suspects Bertram of secret motivations, so he has him imprisoned.  But Bert has discovered a copy of Thomas the Rhymer's last book, so he's delightedly reading about fairies and goblins while incarcerated in durance vile.  He's in jail because Fabian, Aymer's squire, has told old Gilbert Greenleaf, the head guard, that Bertram is there to spy out the weaknesses of the place for the clan Douglas and Gilbert has in turn related his suspicions to Aymer.  Aymer plans on arresting Augustine also and the next day rides over to the convent only to find that his intentions have been foiled by the escape of the presumed villain's son.

At this point the reader discovers that Augustine is actually a girl, Augusta, who is traveling to the castle because her father has tried to wed her with an odious count and she wants none of it.  In fact, she has said, in company, that she will marry Sir John de Walton instead if he manages to keep the castle from being recaptured by the Douglas forces for a year and a day.  That time is approaching, so, to escape her parent and to meet Walton, she's enlisted Bertram to help her travel to the Castle.

Augusta wanders through the forest, meeting various and assorted wizards and ghosts en route.  One of the latter is a tall skinny knight dressed head to foot in black armor that has been painted like a skeleton.  This is revealed to be James Douglas, who is plotting to take back his Castle.  James takes Augusta in tow and they ride to an old decayed church, where they meet Aymer and Walton.  The idea is that James wants to trade Augusta for his castle.  There's a certain amount of sword play and a climax builds until a messenger arrives who tells Walton that the Duke of Pembroke has ordered him to surrender the castle to James Douglas.  So Walton clears out and takes Augusta with him and they marry.

There's some interesting psychological byplay between Fabian and his superiors when the former is manipulating the latter persons, with his stories of spies and traitors, in order to advance himself in the chivalrous hierarchy.  And the duality of the Augustine/Augusta split together with the overlying Scottish/English struggle for dominance is reinforced by that.  Scott does occasionally include in his work subtle threads and themes that one might not expect in novels of adventure and these add a lot to the interest of the books and to one's impressions of the author.

This is a simpler tale than some of Scott's books that i've read, but that might be because Scott himself was not too well.  In fact, he was on his way to Italy to try to heal himself when he was writing this last book.  He hurried with the last few chapters, and that is evident to the discerning reader.  Scott was seriously ill and he didn't live too long afterwards.  He had been desperately trying to write himself out of debt for years as a result of a financial mesalliance with his friend Ballantine, that he felt honor-bound to repay, and those efforts were undoubtedly harmful to his health.  I'm not aware that he ever succeeded, but he certainly gifted the planet with a timeless and marvelous series of adventure novels in the process.


Monday, October 4, 2021



Charles Dickens  (1812-1870)

This last novel of Mr. Dickens was considerably more complicated in terms of number of characters and ancillary plot structures than any of his works i've read (I haven't read them all...).  The basic plot is a murder mystery but the many persons winding in and out of the action creates a sort of kaleidoscopic image, kind of like one of those hand-knitted blankets with lots of imagery woven into the fabric.  Gaffer Hexam is trolling the Thames river for dead bodies when he finds the supposedly drowned corpse of John Harmon, although the reader doesn't know the body's identity for another several hundred pages.  One of the principle characters is Lizzie Hexam, his daughter who rows the boat while Gaffer deals with the dead.  She is a young sensitive soul caught in a brutal society but she soon manages to escape London to work in a mill upstream of the city.  Noddy Boffin lives in a house located on the city dump.  Due to confusion over John Harmon's will, he inherits a lot of money and is able to move into a higher rent district.  But before that, he is depicted as a merry old soul who exudes benevolence toward his fellow man.  An itinerant street corner merchant named Silas Wegg has been hired to read him the complete eight volumes of Gibbon's History of Rome, which he does.  There's a mystery lurking in the dump.  Somehow Harmon's will is supposed to be hidden somewhere in the huge piles of "dust" (as the Brits call garbage) surrounding the house.  Wegg and an associate find the will later on in the book and use it as the basis of intimidation directed toward Boffin in hopes of appropriating all his personal possessions and valuables.

Jenny Wren is perhaps the most lovable person in the book.  She makes her living by sewing clothes for dolls.  She is crippled to a certain extent and walks with a cane.  Later on she is instrumental in helping Lizzie hide from various evil-doers.  Eugene Wrayburn and Mortimer Lightwood are wannabe lawyers who don't seem to ever get any cases;  they sit in their office and consume potables, mainly.  Eugene later falls in love with Lizzie with the expected result.  Mortimer and Eugene serve as foils to highlight the absurdities of the Veneering family, who are recent arrivals in the London upper classes and fearless about throwing expensive dinner parties.  It's said of Father Veneering that he never met an invitee that wasn't a long admired friend, whether he knew them or not.

Roger (called "Rogue") Riderhood is a former associate of Gaffer's and is perhaps responsible for his death earlier in the book.  He perpetrates evil deeds throughout and after winning a treasured position as an assistant lock attendant outside of the city, he is influential in setting up the fate of Bradley Headstone, a private teacher in a boy's school who falls in love with Lizzie and drives himself crazy through his single-minded pursuit of her.  Another lady who is pursued is Bella Wilfer, the daughter of a minor clerk who's married to a tight-lipped and stern wife with unfulfilled ambitions.  She is the love object of John Rokesmith, a man of business hired by the Boffins to oversee his newly inherited wealth.  She is initially a flighty, self-centered young lady, but after several shocks she alters her attitude and realizes the importance of basic human virtues.  There is a secret about Rokesmith which is not revealed until the plot has matured a bit more.  It has a lot to do with the ultimate fate of both those personalities.

The action takes place mainly in London, near the docks and to some extent in the more well-to-do neighborhoods.  Toward the end, some of the personalities migrate upriver to where Lizzie and Riderhood are working.  Suffice it to say that the villains get their suitable rewards and some of the rest live happily ever after.

There's a lot of character development in the book.  At one point Boffin becomes entranced with books about misers and collects as many as he can find.  Apparently he has turned into one himself, but the denouement is surprisingly different than the reader would expect.  Altogether there were about 35 characters to follow while reading and it was sometimes a challenge to remember the pertinent traits of each in order to keep up with the multiplexed action.  It was quite contorted on occasion, but i have to say that after four or five hundred pages it became quite interesting.  Looking up at what i've described, i see that i've left out a lot of threads, but i hope i've included enough to create interest in the book.  From what i've read, there are lots of conflicting opinions about whether it was a successful effort or not, but there was pretty much a consensus that it was a work of genius.  I particularly liked some of the metaphorical references made in connection with some of the characters.  They were illuminating and inspired.  Naturally i forgot to write any down, so i guess they'll remain a bit of serendipity for the next reader, lol...