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12-21-11: Robert Aickman 'Cold Hand in Mine'

From the Seedy to the Sublime

Human beings created science — which for some, undid our belief in our own creator. The recently discovered fact that we are hard-wired to believe in religion is rife with the sort of irony that neither science nor religion is particularly good at understanding. We are caught between the two poles of quantum belief, scientific and spiritual; the seedy and the sublime. The two parts of us often cross paths, and in those moments, we are likely to experience the stuff of Robert Aickman's "strange stories," ineffable instants that offer a particularly clear glimpse at our own dual natures.

'Cold Hand in Mine,' the latest volume of Aickman's stories to be meticulously reprinted by Tartarus Press, is yet another superb example of how fine literature and reading can help illuminate a dimly understood part of our everyday experience. Aickman's stories, which lay well outside the confines of any easily described genre, are powerful and entertaining explorations of the common life and the uncommon unconscious. Aickman was careful to call his work "strange stories" for a good reason. There's no way to pin down and little reason to limit these tales. They're superb example of written literature, doing something that can only be done with words extraordinarily well. They're enjoyable and unsettling.

'Cold Hand in Mine' is a particularly auspicious collection. The introduction to the Tartarus Press Edition, by Phil Baker, provides a suitable overview to the author's work in general and this collection in particular. He talks about the import of the stories and some of the symbolism, but doesn't dwell too much on the plot. He provides a work readers can read either before or after the stories themselves.

The stories here are among Aickman's best. In "The Swords," a young traveling salesman comes upon a circus-tent show featuring an alluring young woman, a sullen, all-male audience and a low-key, disturbingly symbolic illusion. When he learns that "private shows" are available, our narrator engages the services of the young woman. Aickman nails the gritty, uncouth setting to a tee and the naïve narrator's perception proves to be perfectly-suited for the revelations that follow.

"The Real Road to the Church" proves to be through the dwelling of a lonely woman, and those who follow that road offer the reader a sense of place that is chillingly beautiful. "Niemandswasser" is another story of a place that is too entrancing for the good of those who live there, a story of layered perceptions that add up to more than can be adequately explained by lakes so dark they seem to contain eternity beneath their surface. Aickman's evocation of the Freud's notion of the uncanny is unsettling and memorable.

"Pages from a Young Girl's Journal" shows what Aickman can do when he tackles a familiar trope, the vampire, with his peculiar "strange story" approach. A winner of the World Fantasy Award that is sometimes dismissed by Aickman purists, this story perfectly encapsulates the appeal of the vampire without succumbing to any of the clichés. It brings to mind Richard Matheson's gritty and intense "Blood Son," but Aickman's poetic voice is gorgeous, generous and utterly beguiling.

"The Hospice" finds Aickman in a slyly humorous mood, even as he creates a very disturbing, almost Kafkaesque vision or a traveler in need of rest who comes upon a most unrestful place. Suppressed sexuality, silly hi-jinks and sickening suggestions are combined in a rather prescient look at exurbia. A similar setting gets a very different schoolyard-romance treatment in "The Same Dog," which features superb descriptions and a knockout ending.

"Meeting Mr Millar" features a protagonist who is a writer of pornography, stuck in a third-floor apartment above some very odd tenants. It's the longest story in the book and is steeped in seediness and the surreal, with just a hint of something beyond the rational. Finishing the book is "The Clock Watcher," who is the narrator's Black Forest cuckoo clock-obsessed wife. Aickman's descriptions of sounds and the not-nice teller of the tale combine for a maximum creepiness. It's best not read in a room with a ticking clock.

Driving all of these stories is Aickman's superb prose. It's stripped bare and reads lightly but somehow manages to let in things from outside between the words. His compactness carries over to his characters, who come to life in the not-so brief spans of these stories, while his plots seem to encompass far more than one should be able to fit into the relatively tight space he uses.

Aickman's stories are surely worth owning and the Tartarus Press editions more than justify the space they take on the shelf. They are elegant and easy-to-read, austere in the perfect manner for Aickman's work. Tartarus is not making too many of the hardcovers, which will certainly sell out and reach an astronomical price point. Tartarus is doing readers a great favor by publishing these in their original collection format. Coming up, readers can look forward to 'We Are For the Dark,' an anthology edited by and including work by Aickman, and more Aickman collections; enough to satisfy both the seedy and the sublime among us.

12-20-11: David Blackbourn Visits 'Marpingen: Apparitions of the Virgin Mary in a Nineteenth-Century German Village'

Externalizing a Culture Clash

Editor's Note: I've been wanting to add this book back to the new index for a while. It's superb, involving, and an appropriately historical follow-up to 'Catherine the Great.'
Even in these days of saturated news coverage, where seemingly every event comes equipped with its own photographers and reporters, there's still a dearth of hard facts when it comes to the average apparition, be it of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Puerto Rican Goatsucker or the saucer crash at Roswell. Investigating an apparition of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Germany nearly a hundred and twenty years ago would seem to be a hopeless task.

But mainstream historian David Blackbourn is more than up to the challenge. In 'Marpingen: Apparitions of the Virgin Mary in a Nineteenth-Century German Village,' he offers a picture-perfect, completely documented investigation into a series of sightings of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the remote German village of Marpingen in July, 1876. He covers every aspect of village life before, during and after the sightings, all of them extensively documented by written village records. He recreates the atmosphere, the culture, explains the economic, political, and religious forces extant in the entire region surrounding the village, and covers other examples of BVM sightings nearby. It is a perfect Fortean investigation, dispassionate, complete, and never judgmental.

Something happened in Marpingen to three girls picking berries in a forest on a summer day. Blackbourn follows all of the consequences of this sighting, which was during the middle of a "Culture War" being waged by the German liberal party against the Catholic Church. The hope amongst the poor villagers was (and still is) that Marpingen might become "the German Lourdes". But a conspiracy of coincidences, incompetence, over-reaction on the part of the Liberal party and commercial greed resulted not in the creation of a new Catholic shrine, but rather in the trial of those who claimed to have seen the apparitions. The trial provides a mesmerizing denouement to this complicated series of events.

Blackbourn went through 120 years of village, church and state records to examine not only the events themselves, but the reactions of everyone to those events. It's a fascinating study, with resonances to present investigations of paranormal phenomena from Bigfoot to Roswell. From crass commercialization to sublime revelation, every band in the spectrum of human emotions was evoked in Marpingen.

Conflicts between Church and State, science and superstition, believers and debunkers are revealed in a complex tapestry that proves conclusively Fortean investigations can bear the weight of mainstream academic techniques. Moreover, these investigations shed light not just on the phenomena but most importantly, on the cultural environment in which they are reported. These sightings are an externalization of the conflicts within the society where they are reported, no matter what the provenance of the phenomena themselves.

'Marpingen' is a cultural page-turner, a combination of historical detection with strong characters whose manifold motivations are always clear. It's a dense work of authentic history that proves scholarship is not incompatible with investigations of the supernatural — and that the result can be a great reading experience, a non-fiction work that has the urgency of fiction.

12-19-11: Robert K. Massie Paints 'Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman'

Balancing a Life

Biographies are not just big books — they're big business. With a plethora of television channels dedicated to the form and an ever-growing slab of shelf space, finding the good biographies can be as difficult as finding the good books. And to a degree, it's a genre that allows readers to read without a lot of discrimination. Once you've found the pleasure of immersing yourself in the lives of others, how those lives are presented may seem a bit less important than whose life you happen to hold in your hands.

But the best biographers do much more than merely present the facts of a life. Biographers understand that we define ourselves with stories, that we see our own lives as if they were novels; and the best biographies allow us to become emotionally involved with the subjects. Robert K. Massie's 'Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman,' has at its heart a woman whose life was fascinating even in the barest outline; a minor German princess who became a great leader of Russia and lived a life that was filled with riches, adventure, lovers and wild extremes that are almost beyond our ability to imagine in the 21st century.

Massie's triumph is that he brings her down to a life we can comprehend and then takes us on a journey into a life and world he builds, one word at a time. As you read 'Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman,' you'll have to remind yourself that this is non-fiction. Massie's biography has the feel of a novel from the period in which it is set.

'Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman' is compelling from the first page, as Massie introduces Catherine's parents to one another and to the reader. There's a very Dickensian feel to his prose and his pacing. Massie's storytelling skill is to immerse us in three very different streams with the same words. On one hand, he's got to build characters we care about and whose emotional lives will involve us; but at the same time, he has got to create the world in which those lives unfold, because that world proves to be pretty remote from our world. And he has to create the historical context within that world which eventually leads to ours. He manages to do all three seamlessly and with such a deft, artistic feel, that the audience be reading biography but thinking and feeling novel.

His subject is both an advantage and a problem. Catherine is so colorful, her life so beyond-fairy-tale that there have been a lot of biographies before this and that there is a temptation to judge her behavior and words by today's standards. But again and again, Massie immerses in her vision and her life to the degree that we understand why she did what she did and why it made sense to her; her story becomes our story.

The key to Massie's success is that he has struck a balance between her life before she became the Empress and her life after. Massie skillfully gives us the full immersion in both her character and her world before her ascension to the Russian throne. By balancing and focusing on her early life with such a thorough, detail-oriented eye, Massie makes her decisions as Empress of Russia not merely comprehensible, but inevitable. As a reader, having the first half of the book, you're more than ready for the second half.

Despite lots of historical and personal detail, Massie knows how to marshal his impressive scholarship into something much more enjoyable to read than a textbook. 'Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman' manages to live up to and beyond its title. It is a portrait of Catherine, but Massie also recreates both the world that gave birth to her and the world she gave birth to with the power of her own life. Yes, you'll find it all here; the wild costume balls, the magnificent palaces, the assassinations, the assignations, war and peace and love and revenge. There's a reason she gets written about often; actually, there are lots of reasons.

But Massie knows the true secret of powerful biography; he's telling us a story that is very much like the story we tell ourselves about ourselves. We like to think our lives are like good novels; reading the life of another written as it if were a good novel takes us neatly out of our own head, and when we climb back in we look upon our own stories, our own lives, with a fresh set of eyes. As Catherine ruled her world, so we too, are ready to rule ours.

New to the Agony Column

09-05-15: Commentary : Susan Casey Listens to 'Voices in the Ocean' : Science, Empathy and Self

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Susan Casey : "...the reporting for this book was emotionally difficult at times..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 213: Susan Casey : Voices in the Ocean: A Journey into the Wild and Haunting World of Dolphins

08-24-15: Commentary : Felicia Day Knows 'You're Never Weird on the Internet (Almost)' : Transformative Technology

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Felicia Day : "I think you have to be attention curators for audience in every way."

08-22-15: Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 212: Felicia Day : You're Never Weird on the Internet (Almost)

08-21-15: Agony Column Podcast News Report : Senator Claire McCaskill is 'Plenty Ladylike' : Internalizing Determination to Overcome Sexism [Incudes Time to Read EP 211: Claire McCaskill, Plenty Ladylike, plus A 2015 Interview with Senator Claire McCaskill]

Agony Column Podcast News Report : Emily Schultz Unleashes 'The Blondes' : A Cure by Color [Incudes Time to Read EP 210: Emily Schultz, The Blondes, plus A 2015 Interview with Emily Schultz]

08-10-15:Agony Column Podcast News Report : In Memory of Alan Cheuse : Thank you Alan, and Your Family, for Everything

07-11-15: Commentary : Robert Repino Morphs 'Mort(e)' : Housecat to Harbinger of the Apocalypse

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Robert Repino : " even bigger threat. which is us, the humans..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 208: Robert Repino : Mort(e)

07-05-15: Commentary : Dr. Michael Gazzaniga Tells Tales from Both Sides of the Brain : A Life in Neuroscience Reveals the Life of Science

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Michael Gazzaniga : "We made the first observation and BAM there was the disconnection effect..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 208: Michael Gazzaniga : Tales from Both Sides of the Brain: A Life in Neuroscience

06-26-15: Commentary : Neal Stephenson Crafts an Eden for 'Seveneves' : Blow It Up and Start All Over Again

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Neal Stephenson : "...and know that you're never going to se a tree again..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 207: Neal Stephenson : Seveneves

06-03-15: Commentary : Dan Simmons Opens 'The Fifth Heart' : Having it Every Way

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Dan Simmons : "...yes, they really did bring those bombs..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 206: Dan Simmons : The Fifth Heart

05-23-15: Commentary : John Waters Gets 'Carsick' : Going His Way

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with John Waters : " change how you would be in real life...”

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 205: John Waters : Carsick

05-09-15: Commentary : Jeffrey A. Lieberman, MD and 'Shrinks' : A Most Fashionable Take on the Human Mind

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Jeffrey A. Lieberman, MD : "..its influence to be as hegemonic as it was..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 204: Jeffrey A. Lieberman, MD : Shrinks: The Untold Story of Psychiatry

04-29-15: Commentary : Barney Frank is 'Frank' : Interpersonally Ours

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Barney Frank : "...while you're trying to change it, don't ignore it..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 203: Barney Frank : Frank: A Life in Politics from the Great Society to Same-Sex Marriage

04-21-15: Commentary : Kazuo Ishiguro Unearths 'The Buried Giant' : The Mist of Myth and Memory

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Kazuo Ishiguro : ".... by the time I was writing this novel, the lines between what was fantasy and what was real had blurred for me..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 202: Kazuo Ishiguro : The Buried Giant

04-17-15: Commentary : Erik Larson Follows a 'Dead Wake' : Countdown to Destiny

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Erik Larson : "...said to have been found in the arms of a dead German sailor..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 201: Erik Larson : Dead Wake

04-15-15: Commentary : Peter Bell Reflects 'A Certain Slant of Light' : Strange Stories of Modern Scholars

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2014 Interview with Peter Bell : "...I looked up some of the old books..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 200: Peter Bell : Strange Epiphanies and A Certain Slant of Light

03-14-15: Commentary : Marc Goodman Foresees 'Future Crimes' : Exponential Potential

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Marc Goodman : "...every physical object around us is being transformed, one way or another, into an information technology..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 199: Marc Goodman : Future Crimes: Everything Is Connected, Everyone Is Vulnerable and What We Can Do About It

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