The Frozen Deep by Wilkie Collins

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A couple weekends ago, I found myself between “required” reads and thought I’d give this book a try. The Frozen Deep actually began its life as a play, co-written by Collins and his good friend Charles Dickens, but what I read was Collins’ later adaptation of the play into a novella. I haven’t read much Collins before, either, though his most famous work, The Lady in White, is sitting on my bookshelf. I did read his short story, “A Terribly Strange Bed” as part of the 2011 edition of my Deal Me In Short Story Reading Challenge, but I think that’s about it.

I chose this novella, honestly, because of its title. “The Frozen Deep” seemed to fit in perfectly with the winter we’ve been having here in the American Midwest, and I had also realized I’d been reading (not consciously) a lot of “winter” material. (George R.R. Martin’s song of fire and Ice to name just a couple thousand pages)

It’s loosely based on the real life events of the English “Franklin Expedition” of 1845, which was charged with finding the Northwest Passage and disappeared to an unknown fate. (Later, not wholly substantiated reports from native Inuit people gave some hints of a perhaps grisly fate of the expedition.)

So, how to make a popular stage drama from all this? Its a simple recipe: Take one rising young officer (who declares his love for a charming lady on the eve of the expedition’s departure), then add a last minute volunteer for the expedition (who also had once entertained hopes in regard to this same young lady – hopes that were crushed also on the eve of the expedition), add a dash of the gift of “the second sight” to the young lady. Mix these ingredients together and place them in a large, remote and harsh wilderness lined with privations and conflict and let simmer for about 100 pages. Presto! You have the story “The Frozen Deep!”

I enjoyed the book for the most part. The conflict between “the spurned” and “the chosen” lay beneath the surface for the greater part of the book but blossomed nicely toward the end. An easy read also – perhaps you should make a note of it for next winter in case you find yourself with a spare couple hours on a cold and blustery day.

Have you read anything by Wilkie Collins?  What were your favorites, or what do you recommend by him?

(below: From wikipedia, a portrait of Wilkie Collins. I think he wrote remarkably well for being just a disembodied head…)

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“The Queer Client” by Charles Dickens – and some other thoughts on revenge…

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My 43rd story of my annual “Deal Me In” short story project was the eight of spades, representing “The Queer Client” by Charles Dickens. I own this story in my anthology “Great Short Stories of the World” which I purchased at Half Price Books specifically to provide fodder for my project. 🙂

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It’s a rather straightforward tale of revenge, and was originally published within Dickens’ serialized The Pickwick Papers as “The Old Man’s Tale About the Queer Client.” The queer client is a newly rich man, Heyling, who suffered greatly from poverty when younger, losing his wife and son who literally die from poverty and hunger while he is in debtor’s prison, a victim of a ruthless, unforgiving old man. Providentially, Heyling unexpectedly comes into some money and begins to plot his revenge.

He surveils the old man and, during a day at the beach, in a chilling scene, Heyling reveals his identity and refuses to come to the aid of the old man’s drowning son.

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As if that weren’t revenge enough, later, he orchestrates the financial ruin of the old man who, rather than face the music (legally) for his bankruptcy, flees and goes into hiding. Heyling hires an attorney (thus becoming the titular “queer client”) to track the old man down so that he may exact additional vengeance.

I’ve read other, better works centering on the theme of revenge ( <ahem> “The Mysterious Mansion“) but this one got me thinking about incidents of revenge in literature and art. I was even reminded of the great lyric from Phil Collins’s 1980 release “In the Air Tonight.”

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“Well, if you told me you were drowning
I would not lend a hand
I’ve seen your face before my friend
But I don’t know if you know who I am…”

Then, coincidentally, someone posted this link on social media where Mandy Patinkin muses about his favorite line in The Princess Bride (not the one you might think, but one that deals with the revenge theme)

Then there’s the all-time #1 villain in the Star Trek franchise, Khan, whose lust for revenge powers “Star Trek II, The Wrath of Khan” (guess the title kind of gives that away too). He also speaks the memorable line about a “Klingon Proverb” that “Revenge is a dish that is best served cold,” adding that, “It is very cold… in space.”

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But what about revenge in literature? What are some of the best examples? There are many classics, but what are your favorites? (This would be a good topic for “The Broke and The Bookish’s” weekly Top Ten Tuesday meme if the haven’t explored it already.) Let’s see who can come up with the best literary tale of revenge…

(below: MY favorite scene from The Princess Bride is different)

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Shirley Jackson’s short story “Paranoia”

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Literary “resurrection-ists”

It’s a seemingly widespread phenomenon in the arts. Successful writers, musicians, etc., don’t let their own deaths stop “new” works of theirs from being released. Earlier this month, the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library’s book club read two just recently published works from that author, who died in 2007. This was not the first new, posthumous material of his we’ve read either. It happens often in popular music too. It seems every month we’re learning about the discovery of one “previously unreleased recording” or another. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised, then, when author Shirley Jackson, who died in 1965, had a “new” short story in the most recent issue of The New Yorker magazine.

I have mixed feelings about all this. If I’m a fan of the artist, of course I’m curious about these “unknown” works, but am also tempted to be skeptical as to their quality. For what reason were they never published? Did the author himself feel they needed more polish? Did he decide to abandon the idea of publishing or selling a finished story because it just didn’t turn out the way he wanted? There has to be at least a small percentage of posthumously posted works that are ready, though, and only haven’t been published due to the fickleness of fate. I’d like to think that this “new” Shirley Jackson story would be part of that small percentage.

(below: Shirley Jackson – photo from shirleyjackson.org)

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“It had been an exceptionally good day, altogether, and Mr. Beresford walked along swiftly, humming to himself.”

The story, “Paranoia,” documents an ordinary man’s extraordinary commute home from work. Mr. Beresford is smugly pleased with himself, having remembered his wife’s birthday for instance, and also to pickup her favorite candy as a gift before heading home. Sadly, this lunch-pail variety “hubris” will not be tolerated by the unexplained evil forces at large in his world. His paranoia begins with the discovery that he is being followed by “a man with a light hat and a thin mustache.” Afterward, no matter what path he takes, or what mode of transportation (bus, cab, subway, walking) he chooses, he sees the same man or others who appear to be his operatives. (It reminded me of the old joke about the guy who says, “It’s not that I’m paranoid, it’s just that everyone is out to get me!”) Will he make it home safely, and what will he find when he gets there? These are the questions that propel the reader forward in the short story.

I haven’t read much Shirley Jackson, though her classic short story “The Lottery” is one of my favorites – and perhaps without that story, the world may never have known the literary and cinematic pleasures of The Hunger Games trilogy, which had to find some inspiration from “The Lottery.” Her book “We Have Always Lived in the Castle” had been on my TBR list for far too long. Perhaps it’s finally time to read that one… What do you think of Shirley Jackson? Which of her works have you read? How do you feel about literary resurrection-ists? Do you read The New Yorker? I’m a relatively recent e-subscriber (it was the unlimited access to their vast archive that got me, admittedly mostly for the short stories).

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There was an interesting interview with Jackson’s son regarding the discovery of this – and other – unknown works. It may be found here. A good summarizing quotation about this story from the piece was: 

“The story explores one of her common themes, the gradual realization of no escape, where the horror is that there is no help coming, no way out, no relief from any direction.”

(Below: that great literary/cinematic resurrection-ist from Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities,” Jerry Cruncher <on the left> played by Billy Bevan in the1935 movie adaptation)

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August Reading – The Month Ahead

It’s August already, and time to think about what reading I might be able to accomplish in the new month. Strangely, for the first time in a long time, I don’t really have much of an idea which direction I’m going in an upcoming month. The one exception is Kurt Vonnegut’s “Armageddon in Retrospect,” a posthumously published collection of essays on war and peace that is being read by the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library’s book club for August. Worth noting is that this book, I think, is the ONLY Vonnegut book I haven’t read yet, so this will be the last ’first read’ I’ll be able to do of one of his books. I’m both proud of and sad about this.

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What else, hmm… Well, I’ll have four or five short stories as part of my annual project, but I won’t know what they are until I draw a card from those remaining in the deck each Saturday morning. By the way, I was thinking about making my annual short story “Deal Me In” project a public Reading Challenge next year. Do you think many (any) people would be interested? I’ve never hosted a challenge at Bibliophilopolis, so I’m apprehensive.

What other books might I read? I have started Claire Tomalin’s biography of Charles Dickens, which would count toward my “author biography” project that I’ve been neglecting. I’m also very interested in the new bio of the Bronte sisters that I think has just come out, or is about to. It weighs in at a staggering 1,000+ pages, though.

Maybe I’ll finally get around to Panther in the Sky by James Alexander Thom too, as I’ve been promising for some time.

Another possibility is Marilynne Robinson’s “Gilead,” which got my attention a while ago, and of which Dale at Mirror with Clouds has reminded me of recently.

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Geez, I have 20 books on my “to read” shelf on Goodreads.com. Seems like I ought to be able to come up with something, right? Or… perhaps you could help guide me. What do YOU suggest I read in August?

“The Signal-Man” (and The Mothman) – thoughts on a short story by Charles Dickens

One of my favorite supernatural story themes is that of the premonition, or the forewarning of disaster. The legend of the “Mothman” as told in the great movie, The Mothman Prophecies” is one example. In fact, that legend was of great personal interest to me since it involved the “Silver Bridge” collapse at Point Pleasant, West Virginia; a regular crossing of the Ohio River at this location was done by my family on our twice-yearly trips to visit my Mom’s family in the interior of West Virginia. I was just old enough to remember hearing the news of the bridge collapse and our subsequent crossing of the river via a ferry during the interim period when a new bridge was being built. (below: the mothman statue in Point Pleasant)

I was reminded of “The Mothman” by the Charles Dickens short story “The Signal-Man” wherein a lonely railroad employee, whose forlorn outpost is located in a dank, dark cut along a railroad line, is repeatedly visited by a supposed phantom, and each time an accident of some sort follows his encounter. Our narrator startles the signal-man by coincidentally calling out to him in the same words that the phantom used once to address him. He spends some time with the signal-man and learns of his troubled visions. Sometimes the warning spectre only gestures to him, once with a pose of mourning upon which he remarks that he has “seen such an attitude depicted on stone tombs.”

Is the signal-man not of sound mind (as our narrator may suspect)? Or is he the only sentinel for a forthcoming new disaster (as he himself believes)? Read this short story and find out. In fact, reading a short story by Dickens is something of a pleasant “revenge” for those of us who have slogged through many of his longish novels… 🙂

Read this story online at http://www.eastoftheweb.com/short-stories/Ubooks/Branline/shtml

Dickens once narrowly missed being involved in a rail disaster in his own life, The Staplehurst Train Crash of 1866… Several cars of a train which he was on (but not his own car) tumbled into a river and several passengers died. Many think this experience was something of an inspiration for this short story, which I was unaware of until I “discovered” it as part of my 2011 short story reading project, “deal me in.”

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