Dec 27 2009

A Christmas Carol

Jacob Marley's GhostToday, I finished Charles Dickens’ 1843 novella “A Christmas Carol“. I was familiar with the story before picking up the book (you’d be hard-pressed finding a Christmas-celebrant who wasn’t familiar with the tale of Ebenezer Scrooge). The story is as much a part of the holiday as Christmas trees, exchanging gifts, and vain attempts at skirting family drama for 24 hours. The holiday was also a time to find myself parked in front of the television, wrapped in a robe and blanket, flipping through UHF channels looking for something to watch. If it wasn’t “A Christmas Carol” (1938), it was often “Miracle on 34th Street” (1947); for some reason, I never saw “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946) until much, much later. I could have gone out and enjoyed the snow but I never liked it much. The snow  always ended up melting in my boots or (if my brother was around) getting stuffed into my hood and down the back of my coat. None of which has anything to do with the book. In later years, I discovered the Richard Donner adaptation “Scrooged” (starring Bill Murray). Who couldn’t like the thought of stapling antlers to the heads of mice in spirit of Christmas?!

For those who are not familiar with the tale (how is that possible?) the story revolves around an old miser who after several visitations from the spirit-world (or possibly just a restless night?), is imbued with the Christmas Spirit.  What is the Christmas Spirit? Well, to Dickens at least, it’s having mercy on his readers and writing a story that comes in under 150 pages. Other than that, old Ebenezer is forced to remember what people used to mean to him and how he let that all slip away. Even if you’re a bit of a humbug about the whole Christmas thing, this story has a great deal to offer about choices, consequences, and redemption. Who wouldn’t be changed and/or humbled by the sight of their own weed-choked grave?

So, what message did I take from my first reading of this story? Never let life stray far from the reason that life is worth living, friends and family. It’s a sentiment that makes me gag on the one hand (that would be the 12 year old boy inside me) and makes me sit in silent agony on the other, as my imagination conjures the graves of all I have ever loved: past, present, and future.

“You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!” – Ebenezer Scrooge to Jacob Marley’s Ghost, Charles Dickens

5 out of 5


Oct 9 2009

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

Ichabod CraneBook reading sex-fecta (sounds dirty) for the week? Maybe. Many of the stories I’ve read this past week have been short. Today’s was very short. With the approach of Hallowe’en (I like that spelling), I thought it appropriate to read (possibly for the second time, can’t be sure) Washngton Irving‘s 1820 tale “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow“.

The story of poor preceptor Ichabod Crane, never gets old. I think most people are familiar with the Disney adaptation (1949) which tells Irving’s tale pretty faithfully. One difference I did notice however, is that the Headless Horseman in the story doesn’t have a jack-o-lantern head, but instead rides with his severed head mounted on the saddle’s pommel. Too macabre for Disney, or just not as theatrical? I also liked the way that Irving weaves the ghost story, finishing the tale with a healthy helping of doubt as to the events which actually occurred, but then admitting that he (the narrator) prefers the version told by “old country wives”. I enjoy ghost stories a great deal, but I think they’re made better when the truth of these events are left to the shadows of the reader’s imagination… that is where they are born and where they belong.

“The pedagogue’s mouth watered as he looked upon this sumptuous promise of luxurious winter fare. In his devouring mind’s eye, he pictured to himself every roasting-pig running about with a pudding in his belly, and an apple in his mouth; the pigeons were snugly put to bed in a comfortable pie, and tucked in with a coverlet of crust; the geese were swimming in their own gravy; and the ducks pairing cosily in dishes, like snug married couples, with a decent competency of onion sauce. In the porkers he saw carved out the future sleek side of bacon, and juicy relishing ham; not a turkey but he beheld daintily trussed up, with its gizzard under its wing, and, peradventure, a necklace of savory sausages; and even bright chanticleer himself lay sprawling on his back, in a side dish, with uplifted claws, as if craving that quarter which his chivalrous spirit disdained to ask while living.”

4 out of 5


Oct 8 2009

The Castle of Otranto

Horace WalpoleFirst things first… Before today, I was completely unaware of  Horace Walpole‘s 1764 novel “The Castle of Otranto“. I encountered the title by chance on LibraryThing and proceeded to download a copy from the Gutenberg repository. I was intrigued (that word keeps popping up!) about a story described as the first Gothic novel (i.e., a story containing horror and romance). I was also interested to see how an 18th century author dealt with fantasy elements, e.g., apparitions, damsels in distress, knights in shining armor, hereditary curses, superstition, etc. The book does not disappoint (though it is very “over the top”).

“The Castle of Otranto” was originally published under a pseudonym, and marketed as a translation of a 15th century Italian manuscript of a Crusades-era (11th to 13th centuries) tale. *deep breath* The “translation” was well-received originally, until Walpole finally admitted that it was a work of pure fiction… at which point the praises turned sour. Think: 18th century “Blair Witch Project“. The movie was MUCH better if you believed the uncredited early screenings were real, than it was after you’d seen the “doomed” actors final hurrah on the MTV Awards.

So did I like this chance find? Yes, I did! The story rolled along quickly and kept my interest throughout. It is packed with turns and twists and intrigues (hmmm…) and a healthy dose of the supernatural. Maybe it’s just me, but my only advice is to keep your dictionary handy, the book is a vocabulist’s wet-dream.

“The fellow made no answer, but continued pointing towards the courtyard; and at last, after repeated questions put to him, cried out, ‘Oh! the helmet! the helmet!'”

3.5 out of 5