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Tag Archives: 1890s

The Spoils of Poynton (1897): Wrong Tense, There

Henry James, The Spoils of Poynton (Dell, 1897)

[originally posted 6Dec2001]

Two women take tea on the book's cover.

Ye’ll find no pirates here, laddy.
photo credit: myporchblog.blogspot.com

The Spoils of Ponyton is the first novel James wrote in his “later style,” in other words, drawing-room satire that isn’t really about much of anything at all. For some odd reason, later-era James is what’s universally praised in lit classes around the globe, while the early stuff, which is actually worth reading, is largely ignored.

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La-Bas (1891): Much Ado About Nothing

J. K. Huysmans, La-Bas (Dover, 1891)

[originally posted 5Jun2001]

Death holds aloft a human skull on the cover of a trade paperback edition.

The cover is far more shocking than anything in the novel.
photo credit: eye-candy-for-bibliophiles.blogspot.com

Ah, Huysmans, the author who pioneered the novel of “two people spending a whole chapter talking about things that have absolutely nothing to do with the plot, theme, or story.” La-Bas (translated, Down There) is billed by the blurb-writer who did the back cover as “the classic of Satanism” thanks to a description (I warn you, it comes very, very late in the book; those seeking a quick fix of prurience should certainly look elsewhere) of a Black Mass. One thinks that perhaps the blurb writer has been living in a cave for fifty years; Huysmans’ black mass is about as scandalous today as a Jennifer Lopez dress. Even Ernest Borgnine got more sacrilegious in The Devil’s Rain. Sheesh.
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History of Grand-Pré (1989): Your Denial Is Bolstered by Your Dreams

 John Frederic Herbin, History of Grand-Pré (Herbin Jewellers, 1898)

 

photo credit: yours truly

All that’s left is a single cross, and that only thanks to Herbin.

The Acadian Disapora of 1755 is an oft-neglected point in North American history; I’ve discovered a few books about it, though aside from Herbin’s, all of them seem to have been written in 1990 or later. (The most recent as of this writing, Christopher Hodson’s 2012 study The Acadian Diaspora: An Eighteenth-Century History, looks especially interesting.) Herbin’s history came out a century before that. The introduction to the 7th edition, printed in 2003, is a bit sketchy, but I believe, reading between the lines, it has been in print more often than not in the ensuing hundred fifteen years. The idea that an event of this magnitude—think of it as a North American version of the Armenian genocide of 1915 or the Khmer Rouge’s ethnic cleansing policies in Cambodia—could have been represented for almost one hundred years with a single book is staggering to me, but that seems to have been the case. As far as the book itself, goes, to me, it seemed to raise more questions than it answered, but as a starting point for more research, it is indispensable; Herbin was the descendant of one of the few Acadians left in Nova Scotia at the time he penned this book, and that gives him a perspective on the events that, while obviously biased, is unique, and almost impossible for any nonfiction writer working today to emulate.

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The King in Yellow (1895): If I Had Not Caught a Glimpse of the Opening Words in the Second Act I Should Never Have Finished It…

Robert W. Chambers, The King in Yellow (Project Gutenberg, 1895)

 

photo credit: Adventures in Nerdliness

…but as I stooped to pick it up my eyes became riveted to the open page.

The King in Yellow is best-remembered these days for being one of the seminal works behind the formation of the style of H. P. Lovecraft. Well, part of it, anyway (more on that later); as such, it’s must-reading for Lovecraft fans, and its current public-domain status means it can be had for free from Gutenberg, not to mention the many, many companies who take Gutenberg tracts and repackage them (usually also for free, but be wary of paying for a Gutenberg file!) to circulate at Amazon, B&N, and other web outlets. Hey, free is a wonderful thing. And the unprepared Lovecraftian may appreciate that, given the dual nature of the book.

The King in Yellow is divided into two sections. The first is the one the shallower Lovecraft fans are going to want to read, a series of loosely-connected (sometimes very loosely-connected) stories centering around the titular tome, the first part of which, we are told, is deadly dull, but the second part of which is capable of either driving people mad or gifting them with unimaginable power. (Or, possibly, both.) At least, most of them are; the first clue you’ll find that the thing is not a thematic whole is “The Demoiselle d’Ys”, a (this is a minor spoiler, but only a minor one; most modern readers will pick up on it immediately, though readers in 1895 may not have) parallel-time story that has nothing at all to do with The King in Yellow. Then comes the second half of the book, which is entirely different. It, too, is a series of loosely-connected vignettes, this one concerning an artists’ enclave in Paris. The stories are much more realistic, slice-of-life pieces about young passion, artistry, and war (one might argue that Chambers—almost supernaturally, if one believes in that sort of thing…presaged the devastation of Paris twenty years later in “The Street of the First Shell”). There is a minor connection between the two parts, in that the protagonists of most of these stories are artists of some form or another, but one would do well to simply consider them separate cycles brought together for the purposes of coming up with a full-length, publishable manuscript.

This is not to say the Paris cycle is in any way inferior to the King in Yellow stories. In fact, as much as I liked those, and would be thrilled to find myself a package cruise that would swing by Carcosa and Lake Hastur, I have to say I ended up liking the Paris cycle better; perhaps because Chambers was striving for more realistic tales, his characters are somewhat better-drawn, and (oddly; one would think this true of the supernatural characters) quirkier, more individual. They sometimes do irrational things, but at no point does one equate “irrational” with “out of character”, and that’s a lesson any number of writers would do well to learn. This is good stuff indeed, and stands equal to any number of solid short story collections published since. Check it out (for free!). *** ½

 

It seems there is also a free audiobook version, and you can find it in two parts on Youtube!

Cultus Arborum (1890): Heh heh, he said “generative”!

Anonymous, Cultus Arborum: A Descriptive Account of Phallic Tree Worship (Self-published, 1890)

 

photo credit: archive.org

I don’t want a bibliography of works on my phallic cultus. I can barely manage to hold a single volume with it!

Oh, those horny Victorians. “Privately published” books in the last nineteenth and early twentieth century were often privately published because they were considered too prurient for the general public—or at least that’s what the marketing said. (As a benchmark of what was considered prurient in the 1890s, the contributor of this book to Project Gutenberg and the other public domain repositories where one can download a copy these days was Princeton Theological Seminary…) If you’re looking for prurient interest, well, the title is about it, plus a scattering of uses of the terms “phallic”, “lingam”, and “yoni”. I won’t sear to it, but I’m estimating each is used less than a dozen times in the narrative. This is not fap material, folks.

On the other hand, it’s an interesting survey of trees in religious ritual, though one can expect the kind of florid hyperbole one expects if one reads, shall we say, “fantastical nonfiction” from the era (A great example, also free for the taking: Walter Hubbell’s The Haunted House: A True Story), and the anonymous author seems to take a good deal of stuff at face value we would (and you likely will) laugh at in modern times.

Quick, fun read if one is into comparative religion, but heavy-breathers will probably want to ply their trade elsewhere. ***