Thursday, October 26, 2006

The Tell-Tale Heart and Other Writings

by Edgar Allan Poe

"The Cask Of Amontillado.”  A man takes cold, calculated revenge on a noble whom he perceives has insults him, walling the poor guy up in a catacomb.  Very creepy, especially the part where he echoes the noble’s screams.  [read three times]

"The Tell-Tale Heart.”  A elderly man with a cloudy eye is murdered by (presumably) his caretaker.  This reading really brought home how bat-shit insane the murderer is: he takes a full hour to put his head in the door.  The themes of guilt and paranoia run deep here.  Deservedly a classic.  [read twice]

"The Fall of the House Of Usher.”  A new Poe story to me.  A man comes to visit a childhood friend, Roderick Usher, and finds him suffering from a possibly mental illness that makes him react in horror to most light and sounds.  His twin sister is also suffering from catalepsy.  She dies, and they entomb her in the house, but that’s when the really morbid stuff starts happening.  This story is just pure Gothic horror.  There doesn’t seem to be any kind of allegory or meaning here, just a portrait of supernatural fear (the house seems to be almost sentient).  It’s written in an extremely lofty style, making it rather inaccessible to the casual reader, so it lacks the emotional punch of the previous two stories.  Still, it’s a spooky tale.

"The Black Cat.”  A man, once known for his kind disposition, is corrupted by drink and kills one of his pets, a cat.  Disaster and murder follow, capped by an ending very similar to “The Tell-Tale Heart,” except with a  more gruesome twist.  Though this story isn’t narratively tight as the former, I found it just as compelling.  It talks of the overpowering spirit of perverseness, doing “wrong for the wrong's sake only,” in all people.  It mixture of the fantastic (the cat’s shadow on their burned house) and the mundane (drunken dissolution) is also appealing.  Terrific and creepy as hell.

"Berenice.”  Possibly the most pointlessly gory of Poe’s tales.  A man suffering from spells of obsession on minor details becomes fixated on the teeth of his cousin, Berenice, who, though once athletic and merry, has succumbed to a degenerative disease.  So he removes them while she’s still alive.  Apparently, Poe himself said this story crossed the line of good taste.

“The Man Who Was All Used Up.”  A rather humorous piece; the narrator meets a general famed for his bravery and is foiled at every turn when he tries to find out details.  Finally, he goes to the general himself, only to find that scalping and the removing of limbs was only the start of what those savages did to him.  Not brutally told, this is a light story, and it was amusing, thought he constant repetitions of the interlocutors grated after a bit.

four stars

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn

by Mark Twain

Rural wild child Huck escapes “sivilization,” fakes his death, and goes down the river with the escaped slave Jim, meeting all manner of folks, from feuding families to charlatans, on the route.  Man, what can I say about this, possibly the Greatest American Novel?  It has it all: adventure, dry humor, biting parody, an aw-shucks down-home tone that belies its sharp mockery, faked death, adventure, religion, freedom, irony, treasure, and of course adventure.  And it tackles the Great American Question, slavery, head-on.

One of the recurring motifs is Huck’s ironic discourse on morals, which of course are presented backwards: Huck realizes he’s of “no account” and a bad seed, so he chalks up his desire to help a slave get to freedom as just part and parcel of his bad character and one of the many things that will send him to Hell.  Of course, Twain means the opposite, and in fact Huck is one of the most compassionate characters in literature.  He feels sick at the sight of death and destruction, and even feels sorry for the Duke and the King, two frauds who planned to sell Jim but were tarred and feathered.  The interesting thing, to me, is how Tom Sawyer is presented.  Although I believe Tom Sawyer is considered to be, in the conventional wisdom, one of literature’s clever, ingenious characters, he comes off in this book as a complete chowderhead, insensitive to the needs of others and the  exigencies of the moment.  Yes, his ornate, ridiculous, quite misplaced plans are funny to the reader, but with Jim’s freedom and life at stake, Tom really does appear to be a fool.  Worse, it unfolds that Tom only agreed to help free Jim because he knew Jim had been freed by his “rightful” owner.  Perhaps here Twain was parodying the kind of fresh-faced lad, breathing my country right or wrong, and full of inefficient schemes, who swallow everything they’re told and will die for their government without question as Tom takes a bullet due to his stupid plan.  Tom Sawyer aside, what an incredible novel.  I stand amazed at Twain’s wit, prescience and noble spirit.

[read twice]

five stars