Saturday, July 25, 2015

In Search of Harper Lee - A Curious Visit to Monroeville, Alabama


Signs Outside Courthouse
With the ink still wet on the first edition printing of Harper Lee's first book -- Go Set a Watchman -- I set out myself to the historic town of Monroeville, which is billed as "The literary capital of Alabama." So many great writers have come from the little town (Nelle Harper Lee, Truman Capote, Mark Childress, etc), it is impossible to dispute its self-given title. As I strolled its Southern-baked streets, I felt as though I was living history.

Monroeville, Alabama Courthouse
The Monroeville courthouse took my breath away as I turned the corner. The film of To Kill a Mockingbird was not filmed there, but a nearly exact replica was used for the Hollywood soundstage of the film. I expected to find the place jam packed with visitors, but there were only a few. This meant I was able to get great shots of the interior of the courthouse. If only those pews could speak!

Center Aisle of Monroeville Courthouse
I was also surprise that the town was not charging for admittance into the courthouse. I gladly would have paid $20 or more for the chance to get inside. In the gift shop I overheard a guy saying that his grandfather knew Harper Lee. It seemed that everyone I met in Alabama had a connection to Harper or Monroeville.

What is Left of Truman Capote's Childhood Home

The remains of Truman Capote's house were also cool to see. To me he was the best writer to come from the little town. Next to the stones of Capote's house is an ice cream shop that sits on the grounds of Lee's childhood home. On the day I visited it appeared out of place, foreign, a sugary intruder of literary heritage. How both homes were not preserved is a tragedy.

Ice Cream Shop Where Harper Lee's Home Used to Sit

I never did run across Harper Lee. She is in a rest home in Monroeville. But I felt her presence there just the same as if she was standing next to me. She will always be there.

#HarperLee #GoSetaWatchman #TrumanCapote








Saturday, July 11, 2015

First Use of "hell's bells" in Literature

Thomas Moore (1779-1852)

On a rainy day last weekend I was sitting around with nothing much to do and I started thinking about the origins of a now common term--hell's bells--thanks to a ringtone I heard go off. I began wondering from whence it came. And having the sometimes curse of a quizzical nature, and much time on my hands, I set about to find out.

For the risk of sounding like the title of an Ayn Rand novel, we the living have heard the popular AC/DC rock tune "Hell's Bells." Surely AC/DC was not the first to use the phrase. Like many classic terms and phraseologies, I knew it had to come from literature. But when?

The Bible tells us hell is a place of eternal damnation where the worm does not die and the fire is never quenched. That doesn't sound like a place that has chiming bells. I also knew that I did not uncover the first use in my research on Dante's The Divine Comedy for The Divine Dantes trilogy.

My guess was that it came out of nineteenth century literature; perhaps by Edgar Allan Poe. I reread his poem "The Bells" and it was nowhere to be found. I finally found it used in an unexpected place. I was right about it being in the nineteenth century, but I expected it from a horror author.

Instead, I found it used by Thomas Moore (a very un-horror writer) in his "Tom Crib's Memorial to Congress," published in March 1819. Tom Crib was a well-known pseudonym of Thomas Moore, who was an Irish entertainer and poet. His memorial poked fun at an inept congress and included the following great lines:

Seeing as how, I say, these Swells
  Are soon to meet, by special summons,
To chime together like “hell's bells"

And there you have it. The first use of "hell's bells" in literature was not by Edgar Allan Poe or H.P. Lovecraft. It was by an Irish poet named Thomas Moore.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Middle Unearthed: The Best Fantasy Short Stories 1800-1849 Interview by Andrew Barger



Interview with Andrew Barger (June 22, 2015)

Q: As one of the ten best fantasy short stories for this period you picked one by Elizabeth Ellet, yet none by Edgar Allan Poe who did not hold her in high regard. Do you think Poe is rolling over in his grave?
A: Rolling? More like doing back flips against the lid of his coffin. I just like Ellet's witch story. It's a tight little thing and although Poe has more literary props in his little finger, Ellet seems to have beaten him in this genre for only this one fantasy story. She does admit that the general story idea, however, was based off fantasy legend.

Q: Fantasy has a broad meaning today. What types of stories did you exclude from consideration?
A: I have already edited the best horror, ghost, vampire, werewolf and science fiction short stories from 1800-1849, which can be found at AndrewBarger.com. It is those genres--or sub-genres--that I excluded.

Q: Modern readers may be surprised that Charles Dickens wrote a fantasy short story.
A: "The Story of the Goblins Who Stole a Sexton" is thought by many to be a precursor to A Christmas Carol because the goblins meet a certain grouchy sexton on Christmas Eve. Dickens's movements through time are unique for this time period. It was also surprising that Dickens had a story that rose to the level of those found in 6a66le: The Best Horror Short Stories 1800-1849.

Q: What is the oldest fantasy story in the collection?
A: "Rip Van Winkle". Washington Irving published it in 1819 and in it he gives the American Revolution special treatment. It is not a pure time travel story, but close to it.

Q: Was there any fantasy story you had never read that surprised you because of how good it was?
A: That's an easy one. Without question "Lilian of the Vale" by George Darley surprised me at how well it was written. Edgar Allan Poe even referenced it. Given its depth of character and storyline, to me it is the cornerstone of all modern fairy stories.

Q: No collection of fantasy stories from 1800-1850 would be complete without one by Mary Shelley.
A: You know, I am not a big fan of Mary Shelley stories and while I think Frankenstein was groundbreaking, it is not my favorite Gothic novel. Dracula far outshines it on every level and still puts chills sprinting down my spine. Bram Stoker, of course, had Frankenstein as a stepping stone, but it was a small one. I did include "Transformation" by Mary Shelley. It is her best fantasy short story, though her writing can be a little too dramatic. 

Q: Were any other fantasy stories based on legend?
A: Many of them started as legend and tradition seeds. They grew like kudzu from there. "The Doom of Soulis" by John MacKay Wilson, recounts a haunting legend of a wizard, much like Elizabeth Ellet did in retelling "The Witch Caprusche."

Q: Do any of the fantasy stories pull from the work of other authors in the collection?
A: "The Kelpie Rock," by Joseph Holt Ingraham, draws on the prior writings of Washington Irving in the Hudson River Valley while giving the world one of the best fantasy stories by an American during the first half of the nineteenth century.

Q: What is your favorite fantasy short story in the collection and why?
A: If I have to pick among my babies, I would have to say that "The Dwarf Nose" by Wilhelm Hauff is my favorite. There are better written stories in the collection from the perspective of big words, but this enchanting tale by Hauff excels in character generation like no other. In Germany it is a popular children's story to this day, but limiting it to a mere children's tale is selling the short story . . . well . . . short. The underlying meaning behind the story, which is set forth in the footnotes, is genius. 

#BestFantasyStories #BestFantasyShortStories #BestFantasyBook

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Review of Once a Runner by John L. Parker, Jr.



In Once a Runner, John Parker, Jr. has gifted us the quintessential short distance (1 mile) running novel. As the publication story goes, he self-published it in the 1970s and many years later it got picked up by a major publisher and became a smash hit. Now, in 2015, with "can you run a 5 minute mile" on every serious runner's bucket list, the novel is experiencing something of a resurgence.

Parker does a fine job capturing the drama that unfolds in races of the serious running-kind. Words can never do it full justice, but Parker comes pretty darn close. I am, however, more interested in the literary merits of the novel, which no great novel can be without.

From the opening chapter with the title Once . . . to the closing chapter with the title A Runner, and all the pages in between, Parker creates excellent characters and shiny prose. The novel sets the stage even before the first chapter with its literary title. It's one thing to tell a straight up running story and quite another to put it on the page in a literary way. That's what sets Once a Runner apart.

If there is any fault in this novel it is from the dictionary words the author frequently uses in the first half of the book. Parker is not the only first time novelist to err in this direction. He is also an attorney and perhaps the BIG WORDS are in his natural vocabulary. Who knows and who cares?

Once a Runner is not a book about running. It is a literary novel of very high regard that just happens to include runners among its pages. People who never get off the sofa will love it just as much as the googley-eyed beanpole runner (of which I count myself). That is why Once a Runner has withstood 4-5 decades and is likely to withstand that many more.


Sunday, May 10, 2015

A Lost Ray Bradbury Interview Set to Motion by Blank & Blank



In a lost 1972 road trip interview, Ray Bradbury told a couple of college journalists his thoughts on like minded friends, never driving a car, and why his science fiction stories were frequently set on Mars.

In the first half of the nineteenth century, however, the moon was all the rage for science fiction short stories. Check out "A Visit to the Lunar Sphere" of 1820 to learn about an interesting Lunarian named Zuloc that's found in Mesaerion: The Best Science Fiction Short Stories 1800-1849.


Saturday, May 2, 2015

Middle Unearthed: The Best Fantasy Short Stories 1800-1849 Anthology is Published!



There has been amazing news in the book publishing world in 2015. It seems that every month we learn of another new book by a famous author, which has been discovered and will be published for all the world to read. First we heard about the great J.D. Salinger and his rumored five novels that he wrote for so many decades in obscurity at his modest home in Cornish, New Hampshire.

Next, a prequel of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird titled Go Set a Watchman was announced. How the book was found and whether Lee wanted it to be published are the source of a Southern-fried controversy. Then it was announced that a new book by none other than the long deceased Dr. Seuss is on its way to children everywhere. It’s being called What Pet Should I Get. “But wait, there’s more!” the chintzy infomercial’s tell us.

If these announcements weren’t enough to titillate the interest of bibliophiles everywhere, we find out that more than 100 years after Queen Victoria’s death that stories she wrote as a child will be published. There is no end to the literary surprises popping up in 2015.

What’s next, a new horror story from Edgar Allan Poe? A forgotten werewolf story by Alexander Dumas? A lost fantasy story by Mary Shelley? Well . . . in a way, yes!

Legion are the people who have read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, but few have read her short stories. I have opined that they fall (ahem) short of storyline and characters of her most famous novel, but she did pen an excellent fantasy story called the “Transformation.” It is just one of the Top 10 fantasy short stories I uncovered from the first half of the nineteenth century:

2015 Middle Unearthed, an Introduction — Andrew Barger

1836 “The Story of the Goblins Who Stole a Sexton” — Charles Dickens

1839 “The Kelpie Rock” — Joseph Holt Ingraham

1831 “Transformation” — Mary Shelley

1819 “Rip Van Winkle” — Washington Irving

1824 “Lilian of the Vale” — George Darley

1835 “The Doom of Soulis” — John MacKay Wilson

1827 “The Dwarf Nose” — Wilhelm Hauff

1829 “Seddik Ben Saad the Magician” — D.C.

1845 “The Witch Caprusche” — Elizabeth F. Ellet

1837 “The Pale Lady” — George Soane

They are included in my new classic anthology, Middle Unearthed: The Best Fantasy Short Stories 1800-1849. Before there were lovable ogres named Shrek and a quizzical boy wizard named Harry Potter, there were these groundbreaking fantasy stories that laid the foundation of so many great works to come. This annotated collection is on sale now at $12.99 for the book and $3.99 for the ebook. Read these stories from Middle Earth of fantasy writing today.

Buy the Book
Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Books-A-Million | Waterstones

Buy the E-book
Apple iBookstore | Kindle | Google Books | Nook


Sunday, February 22, 2015

On Self-Destructing Books and the Permanency of Art



Recently, James Patterson announced the sale of his new book that would self-destruct within 24 hours. The details were scant as to how, exactly, it would destroy itself, but the joke remains: "Don't we wish all James Patterson's books would self-destruct?"

The real issue here is the permanency of art. How long should it be around? How many times should the public be able to enjoy it before it returns to dust? If a sculptor creates a bronze bust of Edgar Allan Poe, they want the sculpture to last as long as possible and be enjoyed by everyone. If a sculptor enters a sandcastle competition on Siesta Key Beach, they know the public will only enjoy it for a weekend, tops. The same goes for sidewalk chalk artists. They have a few days or until the next hard rain or flock of loose-boweled birds fly overhead to have the world enjoy their art. No one could reasonably argue that the sculptor of bronze is more of an artist than the sandcastle sculptor or sidewalk chalk artists just because her art is more permanent.

Being a fiction writer and editor, I feel that books should be less permanent. Somewhere between 24 hour, self-destructing books and those we have with us from 2000 years ago, books should vanish back into dust. The ideas in the books and their characters should not go on living in the minds of readers, but the physical copy of the book should vanish sooner than later.

Of course many people see a painting or a bronze sculpture. But what about live art; performance art from playwrights and ballerinas? The consumers of this art buy a ticket, see the play and the art lives on only in the consumers' minds.

The businessperson inside me doesn't like selling one copy of a book that can be passed around for the next decade or two, falling in and out of the hands of hundreds of readers who have never paid me a penny for the entertainment they are about to enjoy. The money, these days, goes to Amazon and Ebay and a host of other online etailers that resell books--not the artist.

I wish (selfishly) that books were the same. If only an ebook could erase after one read and a physical book should self-destruct after one read, too. James Patterson should get to work on that issue. Meanwhile, I will keep slugging away at the keyboard.