Wednesday, July 26, 2017

“Read a Damn Book – 040: Carmilla”

I could be wrong on this, but it seems to me that most people believe Dracula was one of the first vampire stories, or that Stoker invented the vampire genre out of whole cloth, but Dracula wasn’t published until 1897. Before that there were a number of classic vampire stories that are still good today, including John Polidori’s The Vampyre (1819), Rymer & Prest’s Varney The Vampire, or The Feast of Blood (1847); and the novella that I’m looking at today, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla (1872), probably the best written and most entertaining of the lot!

Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu – Carmilla (1872)

Le Fanu, despite the French sounding name, was an Irish writer, known for telling ghost stories, and Carmilla COULD technically be placed in the ghost story category. Before Hollywood got a hold of the vampire genre, according to author’s like Paul Barber (who wrote the excellent book, Vampires, Burial, and Death), the rules of vampirism were less defined. But, most vampire beliefs throughout Europe and the Middle East cut the monster as more of a nighttime shade or ghostly visitor than as a solid creature. The flashy vamps from Twilight wouldn’t even be recognizable as vampires before the 1900s. Folklore vamps were not glamorous, not even physical, necessarily. A person would die, probably from tuberculosis or some other wasting disease, and then their family members would see the person, at night, in their rooms, and feel a pressure on their chest, and then become sick themselves. Someone would then suspect that the illness was caused by a vampire, open the coffin of the recently deceased, see the natural signs of decomposition (a ruddy complexion, sometimes blood on the lips or on the floor of the coffin, etc.), but not KNOW that these are the natural signs of decomposition, and perform a gruesome ritual on the corpse, in an attempt to stop the spread of the disease. It wasn’t particularly effective, but the stories stuck.

Anyway, so Carmilla was published over two decades before Dracula, but was already a fully formed, Hollywood-ready, vampire story. (In fact, the story HAS been filmed at least half a dozen times, and inspired a couple of really great Hammer films, including the absolute classic, The Vampire Lovers (1970) with Ingrid Pitt as Carmilla.) Le Fanu’s story has a subdued lesbian element to it (played up in the Hammer versions, of course), has a vampiric transformation into a cat-like monster when the vamp is attacking, has a “discovering the coffin” scene, and even a knowledgeable old doctor who knows what’s causing the young woman’s illness---the dreaded oupire! It’s a story that anyone who has watched a vampire movie in the last hundred years will instantly recognize, but with that said, Le Fanu is an excellent writer and his pacing and stylistic details make this a very enjoyable read. It’s quick, it’s not boring, and it’s got some fun, suspenseful moments in it.

One interesting bit, which makes this story a bit different from our modern Western vampire tales, is the inclusion of a rationale for how the vampire in the story came to be. For readers of Anne Rice or of novels like Salem’s Lot, we know that vampires are caused by someone being bitten by another vampire, dying, and then being reanimated as a blood drinker. In Carmilla, there’s really no indication that people who die from the vampire’s attack come back as vamps themselves. Instead, it is suggested that the original vampire was created when a woman, through rather tragic circumstances, committed suicide. Her unholy death corrupted her soul and changed her into a creature of darkness. It’s an interesting take on the vampire legend.

Overall, I’d say this book would be appreciated by people who like non-sparkly vampires, who appreciate a good, gothic setting and Victorian pacing, or who are just interested in the historical development of the vampire story. The descriptions of the transformed Carmilla attacking the young heroine for the first time are quite good, and the details of the “opening the coffin” scene are perfectly gruesome, and seem right out of a Hammer classic. Le Fanu, as I mentioned, is a spectacular writer, and he knows how to create mood and atmosphere. Despite the story being nearly 150 years old, it definitely still holds up!

---Richard F. Yates
(Commander in Cheap of The Primitive Entertainment Workshop)

Saturday, July 22, 2017

“Read a Damn Book – 039: Principia Discordia”

I am ashamed to say, this was my first time reading one of the most famous, most influential, most hilarious works of alternative religion ever created, the Principia Discordia, the “holy book” for a religion based on the worship of chaos, disorder, and pranks…

Malaclypse The Younger / Rev. Timothy Edward Bowen – Principia Discordia (1965/2014)

Discordianism is either a parody of religion or a very silly religion based around the worship of the Greek goddess of chaos and disorder, Eris. It was (probably) started in the late 1950s or early 1960s by Greg Hill and Kerry Thornley, (I say “probably” because Hill admits that his memory might be wrong on the dates.) Hill and Thornley claim to have received a revelation from the goddess, in the form of a mystical vision, while drinking late one night at a bowling alley. From this humble beginning, the Discordian faith went on to inspired novels (like Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson’s Illuminatus trilogy), plays, music groups (like The KLF---see my review of the book, KLF: Chaos Magic Music Money, for more on THAT fascinating story), and a seemingly endless list of pranksters and antisocial types who continue to proclaim faith in the goddess to this day.

Hill and Thornley, after communing with the goddess (through their pineal glands) created the Discordian Bible, the Principia Discordia. The history of the book is complex, having gone through a number of different “editions” from a hand Xeroxed first edition to various reprintings with content being added and removed with the various editions. Hill, in an interview included with my edition of the book, calls the Principia a “collage,” and you can see this in both the visual style as well as in the way ideas from a number of sources are smashed and jammed together to create a unique, though chaotic, whole (just as Eris would have wanted it!)

Much of the text in the book is credited to “Malacylpse The Younger,” supposedly the son of a wandering Discordian Saint (the Elder Malaclypse), and a host of interesting characters, such as saints, popes, and philosophers. There’s even an evil deity, Grey Face, responsible for turning the world against Eris, who is really just trying to have a good time. In-between odd theological musings, thinly veiled social and religious critiques, and outright absurdity, you’ll find some genuinely fulfilling belly laughs. (My favorite bit: “Remember: KING KONG Died For Your Sins.”) There are interconnecting stories, modified Greek mythology, Discordian religious procedures, sections of fake “Holy Books” (like the Book of Uterus,) biographical bits from Thornley and Hill’s lives (although their names are never mentioned in this work,) and quotes and quips from pop culture figures, like Neils Bohr, John Lennon, and General George Custer. The tone is hip, 60s/70s underground comedy, possibly comparable to things like Monty Python, Firesign Theatre, or National Lampoons. It’s very funny, very silly, and (for someone like me) very inspirational.

I’m impressed that such a thin book (the original text seems to run a mere 75 pages) could have such a long-lasting cultural impact. There are still Discordian Societies active today, and as we’ve learned from the KLF book, the Erisian, chaotic principle seems to have struck a solid chord with a number of creative individuals over the last several decades. There are certainly things about this book that more up-tight humans (particularly religious individuals) will find offensive, but it doesn’t seem any more morally corrupt than your average television show (not counting the news, which is so sick and disgusting anymore, that I just can’t watch it.) For those who want the TRULY over-the-top, offensive, Discordian craziness, that can be found in the Illuminatus books, which follow the Discordian principles to several logical extremes. (I’ll have to review those books soon.) Meanwhile, this edition of the Principia Discordia is easily available through online booksellers, and it’s well worth the price of admission for the rollicking good time the reader will find inside. Maybe it won’t convert you into an Eris worshiper, but if nothing else, it’s a fun, clever read. If all goes WELL, however, it just might inspire you to start your own religion. (I’ve already started writing a new Holy Book…again…)

---Richard F. Yates
(Commander in Cheap of The Primitive Entertainment Workshop)

Thursday, July 20, 2017

“Read a Damn Book – 038: The Dot and The Line”

I have cool friends, and sometimes those cool friends give me cool things. I recently became older (than I ever was), and on the day we celebrated my surviving for this long, two friends of mine, Mark Counts and Mary Counts, handed me a few books! (ALWAYS a cool thing.) One of those books, which Mark described as one of his favorites, was The Dot and The Line by Norton Juster. I had read the classic kids’ book, The Phantom Tollbooth, (also by Juster) but I’d never even heard of THIS one! How does it hold up, you ask? Let’s find out…

Norton Juster – The Dot and The Line (1963)

The Dot and The Line is a kids’ book, in the sense that it is a short book full of illustrations (you know, like most of Edward Gorey’s work.) The story centers on the obsessive infatuation that a straight line has for a dot, but the consummation of the line’s interest is thwarted when the dot reveals that she prefers a free-spirited squiggle to the straight-laced, commonplace line. The story is witty and humorous, and full of interesting, mostly adult-leaning inside jokes, which I found to be pretty clever. For instance, when the line’s friends (all the other lines) suggest that he finds “a nice straight line and settle down,” the hero of the story ignores them, and thinks about how perfect the dot is. He says she’s “36-36-36,” no matter what direction you look at her from: top, side, or straight on. (This is, of course, a clever nod to the 36-24-36 that are supposed to be the “perfect” dimensions for a female, but this is nonsensical for a dot because, in mathematics, a dot is a single point, 1-1-1, from any vantage point. What kid is going to get THAT joke?) There are several clever jokes like this one in the book.

Moving on with the story, eventually, after brooding and daydreaming for several pages, the line decides to take drastic measures, and figures out how to BEND himself, forming an angle. Once this skill is mastered, he learns to form himself into a multitude of shapes and patterns of remarkable complexity---and then he returns to the dot and wins her away from the anarchic squiggle, who is too uncontrolled and chaotic to compete with the line’s subtle, rhythmic constructions.

It’s a fun story, and the illustrations are interesting and very clever. There are also a number of nods to adult sensibilities, but nothing outright NAUGHTY. I’d say this would be a fun book for people who like math and/or sly humor OR who are able to read between the lines! (Ha! Had to do it!)

But here’s where things get weird. I’ve read a lot of conspiracy materials and listened to tons of podcasts about secret societies and hidden symbols, and I have to say this: There are a number things about this book that suggest it could be a Masonic / Illuminati / Conspiracy text. (Come along with me for a few seconds on this one…) First, the book jacket says that Norton Juster is a 33 year old architect, at the time of publication, living in Brooklyn. In the Scottish Rites of Freemasonry, the 33rd degree is the highest level of initiation that a member of the craft can reach. (Interestingly, Burl Ives was a 33rd degree mason!) Next, architects design buildings, and masons construct buildings. (Is Juster DESIGNING young masons' minds through this text?) Also, Brooklyn is in New York, and New York was known as the “Empire State,” which is thought by many conspiracy theorists to be the Home Base from which Masons will take over the world. There are also a number of drawings in the book that (before computers) would have required the use of a compass and protractor to create, and the compass and protractor (or at least a square) are frequently used as symbols for freemasonry. Last, the line character wins over the dot with his show of controlled complexity, convincing the dot to give up on chaos in favor of order, and one of the primary concepts that Freemasons believe in (if my conspiracy literature is correct) is “ORDER OUT OF CHAOS.” When the world is about to go up in flames because of political, economic, and military strife, the citizens will reach out to the Freemasons and gladly take the ORDER that they offer in exchange for personal freedom. New World Order!

So---was Norton Juster attempting to sway young minds towards acceptance of the Illuminati Masters by conditioning them through the use of a clever children’s story? OR have I just read too many pages of Robert Anton Wilson, and I’m now seeing conspiracies and symbols even when they aren’t actually there??? Either way, The Dot and The Line is a fun book, witty enough to keep adults interested, but simple enough to entertain even young readers. I recommend giving it a read, (if you can find it,) if you want something quick and fun to chew on (and if you don’t mind having your brain pushed just a tiny bit closer to acceptance of the New World Order!) Personally, I’m rooting for the anarchic squiggle. If all it takes for that flighty dot to leave you is a quick show of FLASH, let her walk… There’s always another dot out there waiting!

---Richard F. Yates
(Commander in Cheap of The Primitive Entertainment Workshop)

Monday, July 10, 2017

“Read a Damn Book - 037a: Fear and Loathing (Revisited!)” by Shane Grove

[Read a Damn Book gets its first GUEST REVIEW, thanks to Northwest educator, Shane Grove! Hopefully, this will be the first of many guest reviews on RaDB, and interestingly, Mr. Grove decided for his initial review to tackle Hunter S. Thompson. He assures me that he finished the book and wrote his piece BEFORE looking at my review, so he wasn’t corrupted by my petty opinions! Thanks for playing, Mr. Grove! Maybe you’ll have time to review a few more books before you get back to molding young minds in the fall!? ---RFY]

My first interaction with anything Hunter S. Thompson related came in my late teens in the form of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, the “classic” Johnny Depp cinematic effort.  I’d heard from a number of different people about the quality of the movie and the quality of Depp’s performance.

I can’t remember if I rented the movie from Blockbuster (was that still a thing?) or if I was locked into the crippling movie pirating addiction that I continue to suffer, but either way it was a short lived experience.  I recall thinking to myself how ridiculously-all-over-the-place the movie was.  I didn’t care for the acting.  I didn’t care for the cinematography.  I didn’t care for much of anything and turned the movie off before the completion of the Circus-Circus Merry-Go-Round scene.  And that was the end of it for me.

Some 15 years later, I fell into a discussion with Rick Yates about quality this and that, as we sometimes do, and Fear and Loathing came up as a literary effort.  Rick and I have, in the past, ran pretty closely to one another regarding the quality of cinema and literature, but he was baffled when I told him F&L was one of my least favorite movies of all time.

So, because of my respect for Rick’s opinion of literature, I decided to give Fear and Loathing a shot as a novel, rather than a movie, producing a rather different outcome.  I sat down and read it in about 5 hours spread out over two days (thinly veiled brag).  At only 200ish pages, I was willing to give it a power-read and get a quick impression.

First, I told myself I wasn’t going to view this book as a political statement.  Thompson spends a good amount of the book’s commentary on his ideals of righteousness and how the world has moved on from the world he may still want to live (being the 1960’s and the time when ‘uppers’ were still in instead of ‘downers’ brought on by Nixon).  And he is a master of this viewpoint.  But I wanted to view the book from strictly a literary standpoint.  Because I’d had such a visceral reaction to the material so many years ago, I wanted to just ask myself when I’d finished, did I enjoy this book?

30 or 40 pages into the novel, I could already tell that I wasn’t going to have the same experience I’d had a decade before.  The writing was well structured.  I don’t know if that was because I’m 15 years older than I was or because I’d just finished the classically unstructured and confusing Neuromancer.  But either way, I was pleasantly surprised.

Thompson was much easier to follow and his characters were gripping and showed surprising depth.  Despite the fact that he jumped in and out of different narratives, it was rather easy to follow, which is something I’ve come to value in literature as I age.  I was continually baffled at how much of the story was actually true.  Some of the work-arounds they use to get out of situations are so incredibly clever (such as the scene near the end with Alice the maid or the disposal of the teenage artist, Lucy), that my knee-jerk reaction is claims of falsehood.

Once I looked back and got over this outrage, I realized it didn’t matter.  Either it was a true retelling of just an outrageous series of interactions, or a brilliant piece of fictional journalism.  Either way, bravo, I thought.  His ability to put me in that area of unknowing, I realized, is the backbone of Gonzo Journalism.  How much is real?  How much is made up?  I found myself caring less what was non-fiction or fiction the more I read.  I was simply enjoying the story.

My favorite parts of the book dealt with how casual Thompson was with such serious situations interspersed with almost unimportant details to wash out the brutalness of the stories.  Raul Duke and his Attorney sit at a restaurant where Thompson writes:

“We wound up at a place called The Big Flip about halfway downtown.  I had a ‘New York Steak’ for $1.88.  My attorney ordered the ‘Coyote Bush Basket’ for $2.09 . . . and after that we drank off a pot of watery ‘Golden West’ coffee and watched four boozed-up cowboy types dick a faggot half to death between the pinball machines.”

I mean, just brutal, but so casually stated, between how much his steak was and their conversation as they shuffled back to the car.

This is what I left Fear and Loathing with, the feeling that little details were as important as the big details.  Everything had to be carefully deconstructed by the reader to get the full effect from this novel, which I feel, especially comparative to my experience with the film 10 years earlier, I have.  I, surprisingly, and I’m sure to Rick’s delight, loved the book.

---Shane Grove

Saturday, July 8, 2017

“Read a Damn Book – 037: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”

As I packed my bags in preparation for a 20 hour drive from southern Washington State to Las Vegas, I thought to myself, “Why don’t I reread Hunter S. Thompson?” I figured it would put me in the proper frame of mind for the week I was about to spend in Sin City, and to be honest, I think it worked quite well. The first day of the drive, I and my three passengers made it to Reno, Nevada, and they all decided to hit the casino when we landed. I, however, hadn’t slept much during the drive (being the driver and all) and decided to stay in the hotel room and read until I crashed for the night. And while they were out losing money and drinking, I was having a great time laughing and reading the exploits of Thompson and his “attorney,” Oscar Acosta, in the decadence capital of the U.S.A.!

Hunter S. Thompson – Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1971/1989)

For those who haven’t read this book or seen the film version (1998---directed by Terry Gilliam and starring Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro) the premise is pretty straight-forward: a reporter, on assignment to cover a motorcycle race in Las Vegas, takes massive amounts of drugs and terrorizes around the city with his partner, who claims to be his attorney (and in real life, Oscar Acosta WAS a lawyer and political activist.) The events described in the book are outrageous and offensive and frightening and unbelievable and hilarious---and might have even been partially true (in some respects.) Thompson was well known for his journalistic style (often called “Gonzo” journalism) in which he would paint himself as a primary character in the story he was covering, barely touch on the issue he was sent to investigate, make scathing observations about society, commit any number of atrocities, and then flee the scene. And this book is the gold standard by which this type of journalism should be judged. We never learn who won the motorcycle race---because it doesn’t matter. What Thompson eventually decides he’s actually covering is a deeper topic: What happened to the American Dream?

One of the dangers of suggesting that this book is nothing but complete, drug-soaked craziness, is the danger of discounting Thompson as a writer of little substance, and I think that would be a massive a mistake. Thompson was a brilliant observer, and keen intellect, and a relentless fighter for the rights of individuals over the horrifying forces of oppression and authoritarianism. He was also one of the best, most poetic, most intense writers of the last 100 years, and if you think I’m full of hyperbole, check these passages out, from page 68 of my copy of this book, as Thompson considers the counter-culture movement of the 1960s, which had high ideals and a sense that they were on the verge of initiating a new age of love and peace and understanding:

“There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning….

“…We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave….

“So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark---that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.”

By 1971 when this book was written, Thompson had already realized that the idealism of the 1960s was dead, that the tide of progress was reversing and rolling away. And it kept right on rolling. And here we are now, in 2017, and we’ve almost boomeranged back to 1925 (the year the Scopes Trial decided that teaching children proper science was more important than pandering to the whims of religious fanatics who wanted their fictions taught in schools instead of reality…)

In my view, Thompson is essential reading. This book will definitely be too visceral for some, too many drugs, too many body fluids, too many anti-authoritarian acts, too many lies, but his sentiment is sincere. Thompson was a crusader, an explorer. He delved into realms (of the mind AND of society) that would be too dangerous for most of us to risk, but the wisdom he brought back from these journeys can be extremely illuminating. Beyond the “party,” beyond the felonies and fraud, beyond the laugh-out-loud terror, what this book does is show us who we are in our bones. Every ideology is challenged and every motivation that we have MUST be reexamined after reading an author like this (and Pynchon and Twain and Alan Moore.) When a concept is taken to its extreme---as with the Large Hadron Collider---it explodes, and we can then look at the debris and see for ourselves what is true and real. Thompson, who committed suicide in 2005, is greatly missed, and we could sure use his keen observations and cutting wisdom today… At the VERY least, we still have his books.

---Richard F. Yates

P.S. – Hunter S. Thompson and I were both born on July 18th. It doesn’t really mean anything, but at least I have that little bit of connection to smile about!