Friday 24 February 2023

Gimpel the Fool by Isaac Bashevis Singer

Gimpel, the archetypal schlemiel.

Gimpel the Fool is one of those heralded Jewish literary classics, so naturally I was curious to see what all the fuss was about. Suffice it to say, this was an excellent short story and I can see it growing on me with further readings. Translated into English by Saul Bellow, this is a weirdly comical and compelling read on the surface but also contains plenty of depth and complexity. It begins with one of my favorite opening lines in recently memory: 

"I am Gimpel the fool. I don't think myself a fool. On the contrary. But that's what folks call me. They gave me the name while I was in school. I had seven names in all: imbecile, donkey, flax-head, dope, glump, ninny, and fool. The last name stuck. What did my foolishness consist of? I was easy to take in.

It is clear from childhood that Gimpel is consciously aware that he is neither a complete dullard or pushover; rather, there is an element of choice in his naivety, maybe even a sense of morality. While this kind of self-deprecating humor is prevalent throughout the story, it is Gimpel's unassuming nature that makes him sympathetic even though he becomes an easy target for ridicule. He is treated like the village idiot and others take pride in playing practical jokes on him for their own amusement. Gimpel is perceived as a simpleton, a feeble-minded schlemiel by the small Jewish community in Frampol, Poland. 

Framed in a type of episodic narrative, the story follows Gimpel's life as he matures into a young man and eventually gets married to a boisterous shrew named Elka. She brazenly cheats on him with other men, denying it of course, and even has various children with them. Despite Gimpel's naïve personality and gullibility he accepts this betrayal for reasons that are not made entirely clear. Perhaps he feels a special bond with Elka because she is also an orphan or he wants to remain a family because of his loving attachment to her baby. He even names the child after his deceased father, keeping the family history alive. He seems willing to accept so much pain and abuse from Elka and others where it becomes easy for the reader to castigate Gimpel as a masochist. However, not everything so clear-cut, especially in relation to Gimpel's subjective reality. He can also be seen as a suffering martyr figure or a wise fool (yes, the irony is not lost on me). The ambiguity provides so much room for interpretation. Gimpel's transformation at the end from a schlemiel into the Wandering Jew is heartwarming, beautiful, cathartic. Regardless of the abuse and humiliation he experienced in Frampol, he still believes that people are inherently good in the world. A sanguine disposition? Maybe. 

I have barely scratched the surface of this text. Additionally, an examination of religion, morality and the supernatural would also make for an interesting analysis. The compact writing style is both humorous and philosophical. A must-read.

Thursday 23 February 2023

Now Die In It by Richard Matheson


I am glutton for punishment or maybe just an optimist. Perhaps both. Either way, I keep hoping to discover a hidden gem somewhere in this Richard Matheson collection of short-stories only to find myself continually disappointed. Dress of White Silk comes pretty darn close but is not without its flaws.

Now Die In It is a great title and one of the few positive takeaways from this story about a home invasion. Matheson does have a good ear for dialogue, which drives much of the narrative. 

A married couple receives a phone call from a stranger, looking to speak with someone named Don Tyler. At first they believe the caller is mistaken because the husband's has a different last name: Don Martin. The caller is convinced that he has the correct phone number and then threatens to kill the husband. After hanging up, the wife insists that they involve the police. Before they can take any immediate action the doorbell rings...oh no! The killer is on their doorstep! There is no tension or suspense at all. The meagre plot that unfolds is silly and the "twist ending" is pure stupidity. Another misfire from Matheson.

Haircut by Richard Matheson

The good ol' days when a haircut and shave cost $2.50.

Another paltry effort from Matheson. At least it was only six pages long and he does not drag out the weak premise, which tends to be a recurring pattern in his writing. 

A mysterious looking figure shows up at a barber shop for a haircut. That's it. Again, simple enough with plenty of creative potential only to quickly become a writing exercise in futility. Too much emphasis is placed upon the big reveal or "twist ending" that is obvious from the get-go. 

If Matheson was trying to create suspense and horror, none of it works. Instead, we get a silly answer to a well-known vampire joke: how do yo vampires shave if they can't see them themselves in the mirror? According to this story, they go to the local barbershop in broad daylight and leave without paying. Bunch of cheapstakes. 

Dress of White Silk by Richard Matheson

Quiet is here and all in me.

Finally, a short-story by Richard Matheson that isn't terrible and the first one to receive four-stars from yours truly. This is probably my favorite story in the collection so far, although that is not really saying much considering the majority of them have been disappointing or a complete waste of time.

Dress of White Silk makes for a great companion piece to Born of Man and Woman, both featuring a young unnamed first-person narrator and utilizing an experimental writing style with spelling mistakes and incorrect syntax. In both cases, the short staccato like sentences along with bad grammar and punctuation effectively evokes a sense of childlike innocence as well as the narrator's lack of schooling. The  limited point of view creates a wonderfully creepy atmosphere. 

This is a clever horror story full of ambiguity and part of the fun is trying to unravel the mystery surrounding the young girl's obsession with her deceased mother's white silk dress. Without giving too much away, there are enough clues to suggest that there might be elements of the supernatural at work here. Pay attention to any descriptions of the dress, the portrait of the mother and the final few lines. Once the potential truth has been discovered, the story comes full circle. Themes of grief, the loss of childhood innocence and loneliness take on greater meaning as they become more emotionally resonant within the context of the hidden narrative framework.

Clocking in at only five pages, Matheson's highly compressed plot finally delivers a satisfying ending that is more nuanced, ambiguous, complex. This was a fun ride and highly enjoyable. 

Wednesday 22 February 2023

Dying Room Only by Richard Matheson

Just keep driving if you see a sketchy looking restaurant in the middle of nowhere.

Awful. Just awful. Matheson duped me again with another slick title! I find it completely mind-boggling that the editor, Victor Lavelle, made a conscious decision to include this garbage in the Penguin Classics anthology entitled "The Best of Richard Matheson." Considering the large number of duds in this collection, "The Worst of Richard Matheson" seems more accurate. Dying Room Only is another pointless, dull and anticlimactic work by an author who has a knack for introducing a premise with potential that ends up falling flat. He teases the reader into believing that this will be a compelling story when it is all just smoke and mirrors.

Relying on a familiar horror genre trope, a couple is driving through the desert and decide it would be a great idea to stop at a dilapidated looking restaurant on the side of the road. The reader already knows that this couple is doomed the second they step out of their car. The patrons inside the restaurant are sketchy and give off serial killer vibes but husband and wife decide to stick around anyways because, why not? The turning point occurs when the husband needs to use the washroom and does not return. The wife is then left alone with these creepy men who claim ignorance about the husband's whereabouts when she starts questioning them. She soon realizes that something sinister might be going on here. Great detective work captain obvious. 

At one point she calls the police and a local sheriff quickly arrives on the scene. Now, this is where Matheson could use the Sheriff character in any number of interesting ways. Even if he decided to go down the predictable route and have the Sherriff be an accomplice with the other men in their nefarious scheme, this "twist ending" would still be more satisfying than what Matheson comes up with. It is so nonsensical, reducing everything up until this moment as completely superfluous. An utter waste of time and easily one of the worst stories in this collection.

Monday 20 February 2023

The Last Night of the World by Ray Bradbury

1950's living room décor.

Happy Family Day! We are back again with another Ray Bradbury short-story and this time the world is ending. However, this is not your typical apocalyptic tale of despair and survival. Instead, the author decides to focus on family life as a couple spends one final evening together with their children. There is an underlying sadness but also a joyful acceptance of their fate. The juxtaposition between the parents discussing the end of the world while watching their children play in the living room, completely oblivious to worldly events, is quite poignant. 

There is a great moment when the parents are getting ready for bed and the wife remembers that she forgot to turn off the water in the sink when they were washing dishes earlier after dinner. Of course, none of this matters but Bradbury is highlighting the irony of holding on to some kind of normalcy through domestic routine even though the world is on the brink of destruction. Only a few pages long, this is another  concise and well-crafted narrative by one of the best in the short-story business. 

Sunday 19 February 2023

Witch War by Richard Matheson


I am glad to be wrapping up Richard Matheson week on this blog. Considering his enormous influence on 20th century genre fiction, perhaps my expectations were too high for this author. Indeed, he should be acknowledged for setting the groundwork for his successors although I must diagree with Steven Spielberg's blurb on the back cover of The Best of Richard Matheson (Penguin Classics): "He is in the same category as Bradbury and Asmiov." No. Just no. I respect Steven Spielberg as a director and one of his first movies was an adaptation of "Duel" found in this collection but this feels like an overstatement to me. Bradbury and Asimov are towering literary figures, especially within the science-fiction genre.  Granted, "I am Legend" is a wonderful horror/post-apocalyptic novel but if we are comparing the complete body of work, Matheson does not even come close to matching the greatness of either author. 

Since we are focusing on short-stories, Bradbury and Asimov are in a league of their own. In contrast, Matheson's short stories mostly come across as underwhelming or half-baked thought experiments, which often feel dated. Nonetheless, there are a few hidden gems in this collection, Witch War being one of them. Matheson is at his best when he embraces his darkly humorous side and not constrained by genre conventions. 

For those familiar with the Netflix show "Stranger Things," let me know if this sounds somewhat familiar. A group young girls with special powers are being used as weapons of war by a secret government agency to defeat their enemies. Much of the humor derives from the personalities of the girls remaining apathetic amidst all the violence and carnage they cause. This is a slight, if not amusing little story that does not waste any time getting right into the action. If Matheson had written more fun and polished stories like this one, I might hold him in higher esteem.

Fifth Story by Clarice Lispector

Did you know a cockroach can live up to a week without it's head? 

At only two-and-a-half pages, Fifth Story by Clarice Lispector is well, quite short in length but a tightly woven narrative. It cleverly sets up a metaphorical conceit to contrast the death of cockroaches to the narrator's own philosophical meditations on life and mortality. The focus here is on narrative technique and imagery. 

The use of repetition and playfulness in telling the same story from different angles creates a cohesive unity to the different stories. Most people have an aversion to cockroaches as vile pests and yet they become humanized in this story by the narrator's poetic reflections on their cruel death. No small feat. This is my first introduction to Clarice Lispector's work and consider me intrigued to discover what other literary tricks she has up her sleeve.

Saturday 18 February 2023

Shipshape Home by Richard Matheson

Beware of the creepy janitor.

Continuing with "The Best of Richard Matheson" (Penguin Classics), Shipshape Home is another story in the collection that starts off strong before stumbling towards an obvious and lackluster ending. The premise is intriguing enough: a couple has moved into a large apartment in New York city and the wife thinks there is something odd about their whole living situation since the rent is so cheap. The janitor also gives her the heebie-jeebies and she believes he might hiding something sinister in the basement. Queue up the horror clichés. 

On a more positive note, the narrative is driven mostly through dialogue and the story clips along at a steady pace. The ending? Well, the big reveal is silly and doesn't justify all the pages of lead-up. I had high hopes for this collection and it has proven to be mostly hit and miss--the latter being more common. Moreover, it has become apparent that the author is quite fond of using puns in the title for his stories, which I suppose is slightly amusing. 

Friday 17 February 2023

Nightmare at 20,000 Feet by Richard Matheson

Hey-Diddly-Ho Bart!!

This is probably one of Matheson's most popular works, which was adapted as a Twilight Zone episode starring William Shatner and The Simpsons even did an excellent parody in Tree House of Horror IV. Personally, the Simpsons episode is better than the original source material and does a great job of not only paying homage but elevates it through clever parody. The mischievous gremlin that only Bart can see is a hilarious creation. The show was in its prime during the early 90's and it has been downhill ever since. 

As a psychological character study of fear and paranoia, Nightmare at 20,000 Feet gradually builds up tension towards a shocking finale that is far more violent than in the aforementioned Simpsons episode. On a flight back home, a man looks out the seat window and thinks he sees a figure or some kind of sub-human species tampering with the wing, deliberately trying to crash the plane. As someone with a fear of flying, the protagonist's increasing anxiety felt very palpable. Additionally, airport security was clearly non-existent back in the 1950's because the protagonist is able to bring a gun in his carry-on bag without any consequences. It was a different time back then and you could even smoke cigarettes after take-off. The story does get more and more ridiculous as the story progresses, quickly becoming redundant. Cutting out several of the hallucinogenic sequences might have made for a tighter and more frightening narrative.

Thursday 16 February 2023

The Prisoner by Richard Matheson

"They won't let me out, they won't let me out, (I'm locked up)" - Akon

Well, this was disappointing. The story starts off with so much promise and then fizzles into meaningless drivel. A man wakes up in a prison with no memory of how he got there and will soon be executed. I was actually hooked from the start and thought the author presented an intriguing premise with lots of potential. Unfortunately, Matheson has no idea where to go from here and the story ends up being this drawn-out Abbot and Costello routine. The prisoner keeps asking the guards and priest the same questions without getting a straight answer from either of them. 

The story seems to suggest that the prisoner is stuck in purgatory and being punished for causing mass death as a nuclear physicist. Regardless, any kind of exegesis of this text would be a waste of time. I just saved you 10 minutes of your life--use it wisely. You're welcome. 

Wednesday 15 February 2023

Counterfeit Bills by Richard Matheson

Cloning yourself rarely ends well.

Remember this 90's comedy starring Michael Keaton and Andie MacDowell? Feeling overwhelmed with the lack of time in his day due to a demanding job, family obligations and spending quality time with his wife, the Keaton character decides it would be a good idea to make multiple clones of himself to alleviate these responsibilities. Thus, he will have more personal time to spend at his leisure. Of course, not everything goes according to plan and the clones become increasingly difficult to control with comedic results. As far as I know, this film is not a direct adaptation of Counterfeit Bills by Richard Matheson but I would not be surprised if it was at least inspired by this short-story, which follows a very similar plot. As I continue making my way through this anthology, I am beginning to notice Matheson's influence cropping up more and more in other literary works, television shows and movies.

Tangent aside, this story is a silly farce and my least favorite so far by the author. The narrative is primarily concerned with setting up the joke for a punchline that has no payoff. Instead, the ending comes across as one of those really embarrassing dad jokes that makes you cringe. Luckily, the story is only a few pages and you don't need to suffer too long. Considering my soft-spot for puns, the only positive takeaway for me is the clever title.  

Tuesday 14 February 2023

Born of Man and Woman by Richard Matheson

Welcome to the macabre and bizzaro world of Richard Matheson.

First off, how cool is this cover art? The Penguin Classics really know how to do it right. 

Born of Man and Woman is the first story to appear in this collection of Ricard Matheson short stories. Incredibly dark and disturbing, the reader is presented with a series of fragmented diary entries by an unnamed narrator being tortured and locked up in a basement by his abusive parents. Think "Flowers of Algernon" if it was a horror revenge story. The first-person narrative view brings the reader directly into the mindset of our psychologically wounded storyteller. The stream-of-consciousness, spelling mistakes and bad grammar effectively captures the interior thoughts of a developmentally challenged individual. For instance, his mother is verbally abusive and calls him "reteched" but he does not understand the meaning. He is a prisoner, chained up and completely void of any human contact other than his cruel parents who come downstairs to beat him or hurl insults. 

We get the sense that he might be physically deformed or abnormal in some way but such details are never made clear. Due the narrator's limited point of view, the story is full of ambiguity and the reader must fill in the blanks. His only glimpse of the outside world is a small window in the basement and his observations are akin to a child's imagination. His innocence and resilient nature makes him sympathetic, inviting the reader to root for his escape and enact revenge on the cruel parents. Whether you are an optimist or a cynic, the ending is purposefully ambiguous. Since this story is only a few pages long, this is a very quick read and totally engrossing from start to finish. 

Monday 13 February 2023

Third from the Sun by Richard Matheson

Home sweet home.

The "twist" ending really isn't much of a twist at all since the clue is in the title. Being only a few pages long, Matheson subscribes to the less-is-more technique of short-story writing. The highly condensed narrative consisting mostly of dialogue, makes for a very quick read. There are certainly some Ray Bradbury vibes going on here although it lacks a certain ingenuity and poetic flair in comparison. The simplicity and lapidary style often associated with the short-story form does not always provide enough depth. Hence, this makes for an enjoyable read in the moment but not worth revisiting.  

Richard Matheson's influence on the horror, fantasy and science fiction genre is undeniable, with authors like Stephen King and Neil Gaiman being huge proponents of his work. He is probably most famous for the horror classic "I am Legend" and also wrote many episodes of "The Twilight Zone"adapted from his short-stories. Several of them can be found in this excellent anthology released by Penguin Classics entitled "The Best of Richard Matheson" and much of this week will be devoted to reviewing his work. 

Saturday 11 February 2023

The Great Wide World Over There by Ray Bradbury

Cabin in the woods but not a horror story.

Here is another disappointing Ray Bradbury short-story saved by Levar Burton's excellent dramatic reading. He imbues such delicate care to Bradbury's words, highlighting the cadence and rhythm of his prose. Bradbury's technique and command of language rivals the very best writers. Stylistically, his syntax and choice of words are so precise. His writing is rarely an issue; rather, this story was too slight, leaving me indifferent. 

The Great Wide World Over There establishes a sense of nostalgia and sentimentalism for a bygone era when letter writing was still the preferred method for long-distance communication. Cora and her husband are an elderly couple living in the mountains, isolated from society. Both of them are also illiterate and therefore have no access to any news about the outside world via mail. Hence, the title of the story. Their nephew visits them one summer and ends up helping Cora to correspond with various mail subscriptions. Her world turns upside down and this becomes the most exciting thing to ever happen in her entire life. Ironically, she gets so wrapped up in the excitement of sending and receiving mail that she does not take the opportunity to learn how to read or write. The nephew eventually leaves and she goes back to living her old life. The ending is bittersweet but there is not enough depth or substance here for me to recommend it. Skip.

Wednesday 8 February 2023

A Scandal in Bohemia by Arthur Conan Doyle

There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact.

Sherlock Holmes requires no introduction and describing the plot of A Scandal in Bohemia would be an exercise in futility. Come on, this is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and the iconic Sherlock Holmes so you already know it's going to be a doozy. 

I was first introduced to Sherlock Holmes middle school when my homeroom teacher read us "The Hound of the Baskervilles" and it instantly became my favorite book of all time. Looking back, I am not sure my eight-year old self fully appreciated the author's clever wit, sophisticated prose and ingenious plots as much as I thought Sherlock Holmes was the coolest character ever. Also, I don't recall him using cocaine to sharpen his mind although the drug was obviously viewed differently back in the 1880's. I just thought this was an amusing side note worth mentioning.  

Quick, fun and highly entertaining, this story is quintessential Sherlock Holmes. It hooks the reader immediately from the very first sentence and doesn't let go: "To Sherlock Holmes, she is always the woman." Love it. So much intrigue built around such a simple statement that perfectly sets up the mystery. If you do end up reading this story, please let me know in the comments below if you successfully deduced the twist ending. I must confess that I did not.

Flying Carpets by Steven Millhauser

A whole new world...

Whimsical childhood reflections, magical realism and flying carpets sounds like an excellent recipe for a great short-story. Unfortunately, I found the overall result to be a mixed bag. Had it not been for Levar Burton's enthusiastic reading of this story, I probably would have liked it less. 

Essentially, we are presented with a coming-of-age story, with the first person narrator looking back on their childhood when every kid on the block wanted a flying carpet. You see, in this alternative world, flying carpets exist. They are the latest popular trend and the young narrator is totally over the moon when his father brings one home for him as a gift. Similar to learning how to ride a bike for the first time, flying a carpet requires practice. We follow the young protagonist as he develops his skills, building up the confidence to soar higher and higher up in the sky. The young boy's sense of freedom and pure joy while flying his carpet evokes those strong feelings of childhood innocence and optimism where anything seems possible. In the tradition of magical realism, the story presents fantastic events in the most commonplace surroundings and matter-of-fact tone. Millhauser emphasizes the power of the imagination, inextricably linked to childlike wonder and curiosity. Capturing this essence is the story's main strength despite the narrative falling flat. 

Sunday 5 February 2023

The Skull by Philip K. Dick

Smoke if you got em!

Philip K Dick's strong suit is story ideas, not characterization. If you are looking for complex characters and emotional or psychological depth, you are bound to be disappointed. Some of his early sci-fi pulp adventure narratives like The Skull are supposed to be fast-paced entertainments, nothing more. Personally, I see nothing wrong with this narrative approach and not every literary work needs to be some kind of profound intellectual exercise. Give me a good story well-told and I'm one happy camper. The pulps are often labeled as "trash" by literary pundits but I never subscribed to this elitist attitude. Sure, in this story, the characters are flat, driven by basic desires or they fall into various archetypes. The narrative can often feel disjointed and haphazard, moving frenetically towards the dénouement. Yet, despite these flaws, somehow the story is still an enjoyable read. It would not be until much later in his writing career when PKD is able to develop well-rounded characters and the prose becomes much more compelling as he transcends the limitations of genre fiction. 

Nonetheless, The Skull succeeds as an entertaining story about a time-traveling assassin. He is sent back to the early 20th century to kill an important figure whose pacifist views have serious repercussions on future society because according to pro-military officials, there can be no human progress without war. Similar to other stories by Philip K Dick, expect some clever surprises along the way. The protagonist is not provided much information from his superiors about the target or where to find him, only the general location and time period. He must rely on his wits and unique hunting skillset to track him down before time runs out. Much of the suspense and intrigue is created by keeping the protagonist in the dark about his mission and by extension, the reader. Entertaining stuff.

Friday 3 February 2023

The Shawl by Cynthia Ozick

The grey zone.

I have been putting off writing this review for several weeks now because it feels like such a daunting task to unpack this remarkable work that continues to leave a lasting impression. The Shawl by Cynthia Ozick is the newest addition to my Short Story Hall of Fame for its technique, raw power and absolutely devastating depiction of the Holocaust. This masterpiece is easily one of the most heartbreaking pieces of literature that I have ever encountered in my life and some of the haunting imagery will forever be ensconced in my brain.

I am beginning to develop a certain affinity for authors capable of blending lyricism with realism. Even though language is inadequate to fully capture the horrors of the Holocaust, there is still value in telling these stories. Moreover, the paradox of history and truth is further complicated since so many victims in the concentration camps did not survive to describe what happened to them. Art has the difficult task of filling in the gaps of this erasure, expressing the inexpressible, conveying the silence of trauma. Writers of Holocaust fiction seek an artistic reconstruction of history in a meaningful way.

On the surface, this story is about motherhood, human suffering and survival under the most dire circumstances. The resilience and fortitude of Rosa to keep her baby alive even when facing death, is a testament to the human spirit. She only lives to protect the child and the reader becomes fully immersed in her harrowing plight. This 'silence' becomes an important metaphor loaded with meaning: the silence of trauma, the silence of history, the silence of unspeakable horrors. There is also Stella but she exists on the periphery, a shadowy figure only seen through Rosa's perspective. In fact, the entire narrative construction is full of shadowy fragments. Ozick's elliptical, impressionistic and sparse prose further contributes to this ambiguity. This aesthetic creates a disorienting effect, a hallucinatory style to reflect Rosa's intense trauma. Another salient feature includes vague descriptions and a bare minimum of information, forcing the reader to infer through context. The poetic lyricism and metaphors might seem inappropriate for the subject matter (finding beauty in horror) but this narrative technique paradoxically serves to represent the un-representable. For example, pay attention to the animal metaphors in relation to survival, hunger, starvation. Ozick also utilizes ironic contrasts for dramatic effect: flowers and fecal matter; butterflies and electric fences. 

There are so many rich layers of complexity packed into a few pages, which, for me, is usually indicative of a great short-story. The Shawl is an important and unforgettable artistic achievement.