Claimed – Francis Stevens, 1920

I just stumbled across Stevens a few weeks ago while reading up on A. Merritt, one of my favorite pulp writers (years ago I purchased the rare Seven Steps to Satan for a Norwegian friend, read it before sending to him, and had to get my own copy). Merritt is said to have been influenced by both Lovecraft (I like, but a little goes a long way) and this Stevens, who as it turns out was Gertrude Barrows Bennett, US fantasy pioneer who essentially created “dark fantasy.” This is one of her most well-known works, and after reading this I’ll look out for more. A mysterious blue-green box, inscribed with characters in an unknown tongue which always flow back to the bottom no matter which way the box is turned, passes from hand to hand and brings a curse with it. J. J. Robinson, tenacious man of business (Uncle Jesse to the inevitable love interest, Leilah), won’t give up the box, though the sea itself comes to claim it. Dr. John Vanaman is the protagonist who traces the box’s origins and protects Leilah and Uncle Jesse to the best of his ability. The pace and tension pick up when they leave land. The Nagaina, a stout sea-going vessel, chases the spectral Red Dolphin across the ocean to a lost blood-red city… It’s great classic pulp, very atmospheric and eerie even when it doesn’t entirely make sense.

In Connection with the De Willoughby Claim – Frances Hodgson Burnett, 1899

I’d seen this referenced on many FHB title pages (in the “author of” list), but knew nothing about it–I would have guessed it was one of her few European historicals like A Lady of Quality, and would have been wrong. It’s actually set in the U.S., and the title refers to a claim for damages from the Civil War. The protagonists have to move from North Carolina to D.C. for almost a year to pursue the claim with the government, and the depiction of the city back then is fascinating–Dupont Circle is referred to as a residential backwater–but that’s not the core of the book. It’s primarily about lazy, carefree Big Tom, postmaster and general store keeper in a tiny town, and the changes he undergoes after adopting an orphaned infant girl. Her mysterious origins are eventually revealed along with Tom’s, and everything resolves very satisfactorily. It’s one of Burnett’s sprawling, ambitious works, bringing together many plot threads and third-person perspectives, and I enjoyed it thoroughly. The subplot about two out-of-wedlock pregnancies isn’t at all psychologically believable, but Burnett’s liberal-for-her-times views are interesting.

Vagabondia – Frances Hodgson Burnett, 1884

Plowing through new-to-me FHB paid off with this book, which I stayed up late reading, crying through the last few chapters. Why was this a successful tear-jerker when the other heroines dying for love left me cold? Because Dolly and Grif, the star-crossed lovers, are so believably specific, people with strengths, weaknesses, and quirks. The misunderstandings that separate them are neither ridiculously trivial nor engineered by a villain. None of the other characters–the foolish sister, the rich suitor, snooty Lady Augusta–are cardboard. The cultural camps of Philistines and Bohemians are distinct but neither all-good nor all-bad. A new favorite.

Frances Hodgson Burnett kick – minor works

Now that Project Gutenberg offers epub format, and the Sony Reader is switching over to it, I’m downloading stuff like crazy. One click from Google Books, too! I have both a PRS-505 (thanks, Boyce!), which I’m using now, and a PRS-500, which is off at the Sony factory being updated to use epub (500 owners, don’t miss your chance!).

My first catch-up has been Frances Hodgson Burnett, one of my favorite authors. I picked up everything in PG and Google Books, finding some stories, novels, and novellas I’ve never read. Here are some not-very-good ones:

The White People – 1920. Burnett did write some great stuff late in life (Robin, one of my favorites, is 1922), but this is almost dreck. A little girl sees ghosts but doesn’t know that’s what they are until she grows up. Burnett’s indulging her woo-woo leanings but not providing any compensating character development. I can read T. Tembarom every year but I’d never pick this up again.

Theo: A Sprightly Love Story – 1877. Not close to dreck but not good either, from the other end of her career (yet I loved 1873’s Vagabondia, which I’ll cover in a separate post). A poor girl is brought to London by a wealthy aunt, falls in love with a man who’s engaged to be married, pines away until everyone is noble & self-sacrificing. Burnett sure knows how to work the cliched situations, but at least these characters have a little more dimension.

Lodusky – 1877. Burnett’s narrative bag o’ tricks includes having two protagonists, an unreflective “uncouth” character (rural or blue collar/spontaneous and natural) and a sophisticated observer (citified and cultured/buttoned up and inhibited). Here there are three: the title character, a backwoods siren; a middle-aged female writer; and the writer’s love interest, an artist who’s fatally fascinated by the beautiful-but-evil temptress. Crossing class lines never works out in FHB stories. Lots of bad southern dialect, although not as incomprehensible as some 19th-century attempts can be.

In the Closed Room – 1904. Another mystical the-afterlife-is-wonderful story with a live child playing with a ghost child, but more fleshed out than The White People. Like that one, it’s full of italics (late Burnett lurvs italics) which the early PG texts unfortunately rendered in CAPS, which leaves a very WEIRD impression.

Esmeralda – 1877. This time it’s a sophisticated couple (French, teacher and artist) who are observers of an uncouth American couple: “Esmeraldy” and Wash, North Carolinians separated by E’s social climbing nouveau-riche mother. Mother has her heart set on a “Markis” for her daughter. Double pining–Wash follows the family to Paris and almost dies of starvation before the French couple operate the mechane.

“Le Monsieur de la Petite Dame” – 1877. A noble husband tries to sacrifice himself for his young American wife, pining for another. Set in Pari, sprinkled with “Pouf!” and “Mon Dieu!” in lieu of dialect.

The Guinea Pig Diaries: My Life as an Experiment – A.J. Jacobs, 2009

Jacobs’ books are catnip for me, and Guinea Pig Diaries is the funniest yet – a cross between Malcolm Gladwell and Dave Barry. Instead of focusing on a year-long project, as The Know-it-All and The Year of Living Biblically did, this one collects nine shorter stunts. Some (outsourcing all his activities) are inherently more promising than others (posing for a nude photo), but AJ milks them all for maximum laughs, interspersed with personal insights. But what completely blew my mind was discovering that his outsourcing experience, which first appeared as an article in Esquire (9/05), is what inspired legendary asshole Tim Ferris to write The 4-Hour Workweek, whose siren song (not unlike Amway) drew millions of gullible buyers. (It’s “been sold into 35 languages!”) You can’t blame Jacobs, whose humane and fundamentally sensible outlook underpins everything he writes. Don’t miss the priceless book trailer.

Heart-Shaped Box – Joe Hill, 2007

Gushing reviews led me to order this for the library, and I finally got around to reading it. Joe Hill is Stephen King’s son, and the buzz was that he’d matched his dad’s horror ability in a totally different voice. True, and it’s a satisfactory novel, though not one I’d re-read. The premise–a rock star who collects the macabre buys a haunted suit on the Internet and can’t get rid of the ghost–is good, the characters believable, and the plot ties up nicely. Hill writes well and doesn’t display any of King’s faults, but he lacks a little bit of King’s compelling narrative drive.

I’d completely forgotten the title is drawn from a Nirvana song–it’s a very evocative phrase on its own.