Friday, January 11, 2013

Great Tales of Terror & the Supernatural (1994 edition)

I have crappy retention for short stories. Almost none. Assign me a short story, quiz me about it a year later, I'll flunk. Sometimes I can remember a critical detail (there's a terrible motorcycle accident in the middle; giant ants are on the rampage; yellow wallpaper is involved) but usually nothing specific about the plot. I will often remember if I enjoyed the story, and maybe some of the mood of it; other times even the titles will be totally unfamiliar. It's maddening in its own way.

Then again, silver lining: This peculiar form of Literary Alzheimer's disease means my enjoyment doesn't necessarily decrease with repeat readings. Sure, I've read Edward Bulwer-Lytton's "The Haunted and the Haunters" enough times to have memorized every ridiculous trope, but it feels like a mint ride each time. I am afforded a pleasant, bookish kind of deja-vu. Events unfold off the page, but I don't remember them until after I've reread them -- like waking up from a dream you know you've had before. It's kind of nice. I get to experience something quasi-new while also satisfying the basic human desire for hearing a story retold over and again.

Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural is a textbook of uneasy numina. Over fifty genre classics from the likes of Hawthorne, Lovecraft, Faulkner, Bierce, Wells, James (M.R., that is). Tiny print covers all 1000 pages. Given my apparent propensity of my brain to jettison short fiction, plus the time it usually takes me to traverse this book from cover to cover, I've joked that this volume would be the only one I'd need for that proverbial Desert Island to which one may only take a handful of favorite things: upon finishing, I could just flip back to the beginning, and start fresh...

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

The Silmarillion (1977)

This book is a cornerstone of my library. It's a first American printing, a gift from my brother-in-law Pete, what must have been Christmas 1978, based on the inscription. It looked in better shape as an original gift, but it's always been a treasure to me.

I read both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings while in 6th grade, consuming them slowly over a period of nearly a year -- I lived inside each chapter for as long as I could, often reading them two or three times before finally moving forward in the story. While I always had a rich imagination, Tolkien's saga was a turning point for me in realizing that escapism for "grown folks" could be just as immersive and entertaining as the ghost stories and comic books consumed during my first decade or so on the planet. (I'd previously held a dim view of the Harold Robbins and James Michener slogs favored by my father; their titles and covers looked common and dull.)

The Silmarillion was an equal turning point. As a 7th grader, I struggled with the cold, alien structure of this "Middle-earth bible," as well as with the linguistic, and of course mythological, aims of Professor Tolkien, all of which were over my head. I was plenty game, but might have understood more had I simply used the book to smash myself in the face a few times. Still, I finished. I couldn't have explained half of what I'd just read, but I finished all the same.

I did realize two things, even then. First, that even the most fantastical genre tales can have roots in serious intention and theme -- and that is an awesome and wonderful thing. Second, that my duty as a reader isn't always to understand absolutely everything; it's to take away from difficult material what I am capable, at that moment in time, of taking away. Something will be learned, and no work, as Gurdjieff would say, will be wasted.

Thank you, Pete.

See Also:
The Lord of the Rings (1954)