Friday, July 01, 2005

"Witchcraft" by Arthur Machen

The old woman may be odd but innocent... and then again maybe she's not. Mist from the moors pervades this small story of magic most black--or at least a convincing shade of gray. Read by Gerrit Lansing.

If Arthur Machen were alive today, he might be considered "transgressive," even censorable for his boldly sexual themes and unhealthy interest in paganism. In the post-Wildean world of fin-de-siecle England, he was considered dangerously decadent--and was therefore enormously popular, so much so that even today The Friends of Arthur Machen society is a going concern. "The Great God Pan," a tale of a woman who flirts a bit too openly with the goat-heeled god and produces his diabolic offspring, is only one of Machen's most famous works dealing with the occult and the lurid. (Aubrey Beardsley illustrated “Pan,” by the way.) An original member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn (most famous for spawning Aleister Crowley), Machen probably knew what he was talking about. One might even say that H. P. Lovecroft--don't worry, we'll get to him!--could not have existed if Machen hadn't come along first. Nor could have cult movie The Wicker Man. Why wait til Hallowe'en? On the next dark and stormy night we're going to settle down with Machen's novella “The White People” or novel The Hill of Dreams. And so should you!

Gerrit Lansing wins the Preakness of the "Stories to Go" derby, since this is his third contribution to our humble pages. Although he's primarily a poet of some decades' standing, Mr. Lansing enjoys arcane literature of all sorts and in fact once owned and operated Abraxas Books, a shop in Gloucester, Massachusetts that specialized in "magickal" texts of many sorts. As you read this he is probably working on poems both new and undergoing revision, possibly for a new edition of his renowned collection, Heavenly Tree/Soluble Forest.

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

"A Change of Owners" by Sacheverell Sitwell

Psychologically complex and deeply moving, this story of obsessive maternal love and the desire to escape such smothering may come as a surprise to those who thought they knew what the Sitwells were all about (such as us). Here we have a portrait of suburban English life from the early twentieth century that takes quite a turn from the light, drawing-room fare the narrative is first disguised as, before the mask is dropped. Read by Scoot.

Those marvelous literary beasts, the Sitwells, first terrorized the salons of greater London in the 1920s and flourished all the way to 1988, when the youngest and tamest of the menagerie, Sacheverell, finally succumbed to the ignobility of old age and death. While he is probably the least-known and least-read of the Triplets of Renishaw (the family estate), we find him to be a better prose-writer than his phantasmagoric sister, Edith. (She was the better poet. Osbert was somewhat the bore, wasn't he?) "Sachy" invented a new varient of an old form, the literary essay, instilling it with such poetry and erudition many of his descriptions of all kinds of subjects, both ancient and arcane, might cause one to feel a bit lightheaded. He was an expert in architecture, painting, dance, music, fashion, literature, gardening, travel, history... his knowledge seemed to know no bounds. We suggest you find one of his long out-of-print books under a mouldering pile of Horizons somewhere and get lost in Sacheverell Sitwell's illustrations of the bullfights in Seville or the gothic cathedrals of Saxony or the battles on the steppes during the last world war or Beau Brummel's influence on the Regency or South Seas conch-collectors or...

Monday, June 27, 2005

"A Good Man is Hard to Find" by Flannery O'Connor

Due to time constraints and the random "let's read the shortest thing in the nearest available book" nature of this website, it is not often that we get to present one of our absolute favorite short stories, but here is one today. This is a narrative, about a family of ugly Americans who meet Death in the form of an outlaw named The Misfit, which seems both years ahead of its time both in its violence and social critique, and as ancient as a medieval allegory of the Devil and divine redemption. Actually, it's a heck of a lot more fun than that sounds. Read by Elizabeth Leavell.

When she was a little girl, Mary (Flannery) O'Connor owned a chicken that could walk backwards; her pet got written up in the local papers and life was "all downhill from there," as she put it much later. Towards the end of her days, she raised peacocks (a few of which survived until the 1980s, when the last of them was eaten by foxes) and other exotic birds, as well as ducks, geese, and chickens. These are not the most important facts about her too-short life, but they do give some of the flavor of her self-aware eccentricity and comic take on the serious matters of life. She described herself as a "pigeon-toed only child with a receding chin and a you-leave-me-alone-or-I'll-bite-you complex," but of course she was one of the greatest American writers of the 20th century--normally we'd hesitate to put "American" there, but she is so homespun-American in accent and style, it seems appropriate. See our previous offering from O'Connor, "A Late Encounter with the Enemy" for furthur inconsequential details.

Not unlike her fellow Georgian, Elizabeth Farley Leavell has a love for birds and the quirky nature of mankind. She deals with its quirks every day as a teacher and writer and lives on a very old farm in rural New England, where she battles the mosquitos between long walks among the sand dunes of the nearby beach. People say she can tame a bucking bronco, hunt squirrels with her hound dog, plant rare orchids, and discover another great unknown folk artist, all before a hearty vegetarian breakfast. She also loves to read.