Sunday, February 24, 2013

Rashmi bookmarks “Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde”

Now known by slight variations of the above title, this is the original title of Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella, which created such a powerful impact as to make ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ a universal synonym for split personality!

The story of the London lawyer Gabriel John Utterson who investigates the weird events involving his friend Dr Henry Jekyll and the evil Mr Edward Hyde is, of course, known to all - and on that count there was no element of surprise (what a thrill it would have been for a first time reader!) But this is where the brilliance of the tale and its telling comes in: as the story progresses from a sensational murder mystery to the shocking revelation of a dual personality, each event and every unravelling got me into it deeper and deeper - despite the fact that I knew what the big twist was!

At the heart of this story is a brutal murder and the subsequent investigation, which brings to light the mysterious relation between Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. I found the investigation to be very interesting. Small incidents took the story to very exciting levels, example, when Jekyll gives a note to Utterson, claiming it was “hand-delivered from Hyde” - and Utterson asks Poole to describe the messenger, only to be told that there had been none, and Jekyll’s subsequent conversation with handwriting expert Mr. Guest!

Another feature that I found really interesting was the fact that the decent Dr Jekyll was very tall and well built, whereas the evil Mr Hyde was a small man, almost drowning in Jekyll’s clothes! Normally (and I’m thinking mainly of the Hulk when I say this) any time a normal person transforms into a raging monster, he becomes a giant - he doesn’t shrink into a small, and worse, deformed man.

A disturbing trampling death of a young girl. A brutal beating death of renowned MP Sir Danvers Carew. The sudden and unexplained death of Dr Hastie Lanyon. Seemingly unrelated philanthropic acts by Jekyll … This story follows such an extraordinary arc as it tracks Dr Jekyll’s mind: from a logical desire to separate the two consciousnesses that all humans are made up of (what a fantastic theory!) - to a slow loss of control - to an attempt at undoing some of the damage done by Hyde - to being completely overwhelmed by the power of evil - to the very tragic end of this sad and horrific tale.

“I incline to Cain’s heresy, I let my brother go to the devil in his own way.”

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Rashmi bookmarks “The Lilac Bush”

Big words. Big themes. Large plots. Larger than life characters… There are extraordinary works that make us undeniably awestruck by their sheer grandeur.

And every now and then, along comes a story which is simple in its idea, simple in its telling; yet manages to reach such depths of your heart, you wonder how the writer did it.

I recently read author Ian Stout’s short story, The Lilac Bush, as it appeared on the site ‘CommuterLit’ and that is exactly what the story did to me.

The Lilac Bush is the story of Bill and Mary - one, a car salesman and the other, a clerk in a drug store (yes, ordinary people with ordinary names and ordinary jobs). It is the story of how they met and how they lived through all the tough times that financial scarcity brings. It is the story of how their love blossomed - not through grand gestures or exotic escapades, but rather through a drive in the country or a stroll through an antique store. It is the story of how an annual trip to a full bloom of Lilac trees on an abandoned farm became the foundation of their immortal love and commitment to each other.

No one climbed any mountains. No one broke off stars from the sky. A common thread just became an unbreakable bond. And a simple gesture became a monumental symbol of everlasting love.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Rashmi bookmarks “Bleak House”

It is easy to see why Charles Dickens has been universally acknowledged as one of, if not, the greatest writers of all time. From the tragedy of “Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes - gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun”, to the comedy of “ … at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if this day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest”, to the drama of “Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon and hanging in the misty clouds”, Bleak House is a powerful story worded in powerful poetry. It was that, that became one of the more moving aspects of this book for me, as we move between the aristocratic Dedlock estate of Chesney Wold, and the fog and filth laden Tom-All-Alone’s, and Bleak House itself.

A very unique feature of this story was its dual narrative - recounted in flashback by one of the central characters, Esther Summerson, and in present tense by the third-person narrator; I can’t recollect another Dickens book that employs this style of writing; the juxtaposition of the two very different tones and timelines made it an interesting read.

The story revolves around, and is a scathing comment on, the epic failure of the Court of Chancery, epitomized in its central litigation of Jarndyce v Jarndyce, at the core of which rests a testator who made several wills. Adding to a long history of countless years, immeasurable sums of money, and a growing list of people who have waited in vain for a verdict, are Richard Carstone and Ada Clare, and - in conflicting wills - John Jarndyce and Lady Dedlock. In the incident where, in a courtroom bursting with official procedures and official terms, the jury gives the verdict of “accidental death” of Nemo, the great farce that is the legal system takes on a tragic hue as the testimony of the one person who knew him and could have shed some light on the matter, is dismissed, as it comes from a homeless boy who doesn’t even know his own last name.

This book goes beyond the legal system to become a strong commentary on the condition of most of the so-called pillars of society. It showcases the rot that has reached all areas from Charity to Religion to Government - not once becoming in any way didactic. So-called charity work is denounced in the great irony of Mrs. Pardiggle going about her “good works” for the poor in such a demeaning manner as to have counter-productive results. At the brick maker’s hut, where the wife - with clear marks of physical abuse on her face - nurses her baby even as it dies before their eyes, Mrs. Pardiggle focuses on teaching them the merits of reading and nursing dolls and doing work. And then there is Mrs. Jellyby, the philanthropist obsessed with a faraway African tribe, but shockingly unaware of her own children, be it even a son missing or a daughter getting married.

Religious fervour is satirized in the portrayal of such characters as Mr. Chadband, the preacher whose outrageous statements combined with his poor treatment of the less fortunate make him, and all he supposedly stands for, not at all likeable.

And of course there is constant humour directed at the Government and its functioning! - “He perceives with astonishment that supposing the present government to be overthrown, the limited choice of the Crown, in the formation of a new ministry, would lie between Lord Coodle and Sir Thomas Doodle - supposing it to be impossible for the Duke of Foodle to act with Goodle, which may be assumed to be the case in consequence of the breach arising out of that affair with Hoodle.” Quite obviously, it is always a choice between the lesser of two evils!

One of my favourite things about reading a Dickens novel is the way the characters are placed. All characters are introduced to us one incident at a time, but as we slowly discover, all of them are linked together and eventually come together in a cohesive story.

Other than the central protagonists, some of my more memorable characters (both good and bad) include Harold Skimpole, the self-proclaimed “child” who is not above living a remorseless life based on money handed out to him; the despicable Mr. Vholes, forever professing extreme professionalism and morality, yet - in a manner that reminded me of Uriah Heep - crafty and self-serving to the last; Jo, the young boy who lived on the streets and even there was forever asked to “move along” and whose life was wrought with so much pain and sorrow; and Mr. William Guppy who, along with Mr. Tulkinghorn, played a part in revealing the mystery that surrounds Esther and Lady Dedlock. Grandfather and Mrs. Smallweed sat “ … in their two porter's chairs, like a couple of sentinels long forgotten on their post by the Black Serjeant, Death” - Dickens does characters so well! But not just in the creation of their mannerisms, but also in their voices and even accents - from the cockney to the Scottish, all the voices come alive, and after a point you feel you are not reading a great book, you are watching an epic movie!

Like the strong themes and strong characterizations, there were also some sections that especially left a very powerful impact on my mind. One of them was any section dealing with Tom-All-Alone’s - be it a description of the wretched place, or of its miserable inhabitants. The other was the section dealing with The Ghost’s Walk at Chesney Wold; carrying with it, a tale that was as sad as it was eerie!

If there was one thing that I found to be an annoyance in an otherwise perfect story, it was the relationship of Esther and Ada, as narrated by Esther. Although they were obviously not intended to be lovers (in which case I would have had no issue at all), it seemed to me that Esther did a lot of hugging and kissing and crying for and spying on Ada. She only calls her “my pet” or “my darling”; every time she goes to sleep, she steals into her room to kiss her; and once when she was to meet her after a considerable gap in time, she ran about everywhere nervously, finally hiding behind the door, “trembling” with excitement… it was all just a bit peculiar!

One last comment before I end this blog. Dickens can seem a little slow at times, but this is a product of a very different time. It was a time when reading was cherished and neither writers nor readers were by-products of a time-bound ‘drive-through’ culture. Slowly, but surely, Dickens’ world reveals so much - life and death, love and betrayal, marriage and affairs - and it is always such a gratifying experience!

Sunday, February 03, 2013

Rashmi bookmarks “The Wendigo”

Generally acknowledged as one of Algernon Blackwood’s best-known short stories, The Wendigo is the story of Dr. Cathcart, Hank Davis, Simpson, Joseph Défago, and their cook Punk. Set in the Canadian backwoods of Rat Portage, this is the tale of how a moose-hunting party quickly turned into an unspeakable yet indelible experience when the party decided to split into two, in hopes of a more successful hunt.

What struck me most about this story was the brilliance of atmosphere that the writer has created. As I may have mentioned in a previous blog, I am not a big fan of exhibitionistic gore in the name of horror. But the eerie terror that is borne of a nameless, faceless haunting; that, I find brilliant! “The forest pressed round them with its encircling wall; the nearer tree stems gleamed like bronze in the firelight; beyond that, blackness, and, so far as he could tell, a silence of death.” - Absolutely fantastic!

When Défago and Simpson split from the group and go across the lake into Fifty Island Water, Défago becomes a victim of that horror that Punk had first experienced back at the camp. And what was initially described as just “a backwoods superstition” by Simpson turns into a nightmare that no one could quite describe, yet no one could ever forget.

The brilliance of the story is of course that beyond a few clues, a few remnants, a few stolen glimpses, nothing is conclusively said. We know something is out there. We just don’t know what. And that is always very, very terrifying! “The grey light of dawn that dropped, cold and glimmering, between the trees revealed the scene tolerably well. There stood the tent behind him, soaked with dew; the dark ashes of the fire, still warm; the lake, white beneath a coating of mist, the islands rising darkly out of it like objects packed in wool; and patches of snow beyond among the clearer spaces of the Bush... everything cold, still, waiting for the sun.”

In the end, all we are left with are bits of memory that peep through the pale gleam of the dawn: a violent movement, a foot dragged outside the tent, an uncontrollable quaking, a windy, crying voice overhead, burning feet of fire, the odour of lions, deep marks in the snow with a mysterious, reddish tinge, and a “Shadow cast by the strange Fear, never wholly exorcised”. It is never ever specified what the terrifying creature is. As to what happened to Défago, all we know is - as Punk put it - he had “seen the Wendigo”.

I must mention one small issue that I sometimes face when reading works dating back some 100 years - and that is characterization or imagery, which we instinctively deplore as ‘racist’. The book features the stereotyped Indian who is more mystic than man, sharing traits with wild beasts with his acute sense of smell and hearing that the white man lacks; there is the reference to the “mad African in a New York n----- saloon”. I do realize of course that the writing was not intentionally derogatory - it was just a manner of speaking; it still is a bit of a hindrance in an otherwise seamless reading experience.

That apart, this was a great read; it is for good reason that Blackwood is considered a master of Weird Fiction.