Anton Chekhov’s “The Bet”

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In the nearly four years that I’ve been doing my one short story per week reading project, a handful of authors have emerged who can always be counted on to deliver the goods. I would count Anton Chekhov (above) among these select few, so I was happy to see that, when I drew the three of clubs, I had assigned it to his famous story, “The Bet.” (My roster of stories may be found here ) I also found it amusing that, after blogging last week about the concept of “Chekhov’s Gun,” the author immediately presented himself as my next “luck of the draw” selection.

During a party at the house of a banker, in a drawing room conversation, a debate arises regarding capital punishment. One argues that it is immoral and has no place in a Christian Nation, the host disagrees, however, saying “…in my opinion capital punishment is more moral and more humane than imprisonment. Execution kills instantly, life-imprisonment kills by degree. Who is the more humane executioner, one who kills you in a few seconds or one who draws the life out of you incessantly for years?”

A brash young lawyer in attendance argues that life-imprisonment is by far more preferable, saying “Capital punishment and life-imprisonment are equally immoral; but if I were offered the choice between them, I would certainly choose the second. It’s better to live somehow than not to live at all.”

Much debate takes place, and an outrageous bet is the fallout. The banker puts up “two millions” against the young lawyer’s boast that he could stay willingly imprisoned for fifteen years. Terms and rules are set and the clock begins ticking on November 14, 1870…

The story is so short, I’ll leave it for you to read yourself if interested. It may be found online at http://www.eastoftheweb.com/short-stories/UBooks/Bet.shtml

The premise for this story may seem familiar to some readers. If so, it might be because of a “classic” episode of the TV series, “The Twilight Zone.” Rod Serling shifts the location and changes some of the characters, the purpose for the bet, and many of the details, but it’s still an effective treatment and does, I believe, capture the “spirit” of Chekhov’s story. It’s actually available on YouTube. Here’s a link to part 1:

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Dale at Mirror with Clouds has also posted about this story as part of Deal Me In 2014, making it the fourth “twin” our group has spawned this year. His post may be found here

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Have you heard “The Howling Man?”

As is the way with many of my generation, I’m an unapologetic fan of the classic tv series The Twilight Zone. I’ve even written about or referenced it a few times on this blog (here, here, and here). One of the short stories in my roster for this year was Charles Beaumont’s “The Howling Man” which was also adapted into a screenplay for Rod Serling’s program.

(below: Rod Serling, the host of “The Twilight Zone”)

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“A fever dream of forests full of two-headed beasts came, then the sound of screaming. I awoke, but the scream shrilled on – Klaxon-loud, high, cutting, like a cry for help.”

Beaumont takes a character, David Ellington, places him alone in an unfamiliar setting, heaps on a helping of fevered delirium, and only then allows him to tell us a story. The story of The Howling Man.

Ellington becomes ill on a “walking trip” through Europe and seeks refuge from a harsh storm at the Abbey of St. Wulfram’s. Expecting to be greeted with charitable hospitality, he is instead surprised to be seemingly unwelcome and discouraged from lingering. His physical condition does not permit them to deny him succor, however.

Days of delirium follow, extending into a fortnight, interspersed with his hearing the terrifying screams. “They were totally unlike any sounds in my experience. Impossible to believe they could be uttered and sustained by a human, yet they did not seem to be animal.”

Though he can hear the screams clearly, the monks of the abbey and their leader, Father Jerome, do not seem to hear them. Later we learn that “Sound had, in these years, reversed for (them): the screams had become silence, the sudden cessation of them, noise.”

When Ellington recovers a bit, he discovers the source of the screams, a man locked in another cell of the Abbey. As more is revealed by Father Jerome, the reader begins to suspect what a special prisoner this “man” really is. Ellington himself, however, is a bit slow on the uptake, demanding to know who the man is, and an exasperated Father Jerome finally asks him, “Are you such a fool, Mr. Ellington? That you must be told?” The prisoner is the antagonist in the most ancient of struggles.

I couldn’t find a free online copy of the story, but you tube (no longer) has a video of the Twilight Zone episode if you’d like to watch. The original Twilight Zone series is available on either Netflix or Amazon Prime Video (can’t remember which, but maybe both) as of 11/2017.

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One other note: I found this story interesting, too, in that it contained a hint of American isolationism, personified by Ellington’s father, who warns him about the potential perils of visiting Europe: “…Describing in detail, and with immense effect, the hideous consequences of profligacy, telling of men he knew who’d gone to Europe, innocently, and fallen into dissolution so profound they had not been heard from since…” Written after World War II, I found this opinion somewhat telling.

(below: author Charles Beaumont)

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Time Enough at Last

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Growing up, I was a big fan of the television series “The Twilight Zone” – and of course I mean the ORIGINAL series. I believe (I hope so, anyway, since its run lasted from 1959-1964) that it was in syndication (re-runs) when it made its impression on me. I can clearly remember many a night in college watching with friends at 11pm on WGN out of Chicago. I’ve alluded to the show briefly in a couple prior posts here at Bibliophilopolis, but Wednesday I was “inspired” to write a post about one famous episode in particular…

On federal holidays and weekends, one thing you can count on cable tv’s sci-fi (nka “SyFy”) channel for is a “Twilight Zone Marathon.” I stumbled upon one in the evening on Independence Day. Like many of us, I have my own favorite episodes (and the series was famous for both good AND bad episodes) and a “marathon” guarantees you’ll catch at least some of your favorites. After joining the fray about 7:40 pm, I struck it rich with just the second episode I saw.

(***MAJOR Spoilers Alert!***)
Like many other episodes it has become almost iconic in entertainment history. It’s titled “Time Enough at Last” and features Burgess Meredith as “Mr. Bemis,” a coke bottle lensed glasses-wearing bank teller who is also a persecuted bibliophile. Persecuted by his wife (she vandalized a poetry book of his, first by crossing out the printing and then by tearing out the pages! – yep, she sounds like a keeper…) and also by his boss (who doesn’t like the fact that Bemis spends his lunch hours at the bank reading). In spite of this, he is not deterred from taking the next opportunity to get comfortable in the downstairs vault, ensconced with his brown bag lunch and a newspaper. The headline of the newspaper features some brute force foreshadowing as it mentions “H-BOMB CAPABLE OF TOTAL DESTRUCTION.” Naturally, soon thereafter the vault is rocked with a tremendous explosion (the “special-effects requirements” of which are clearly beyond the budget of the half-hour show).

A stunned and dazed Bemis staggers up the stairs from his unintentional bomb shelter to discover the world “destroyed.” Scenes of blood and gore of the thousands of victims are mysteriously absent (well, I guess this was television of the late ’50s so maybe that’s not a surprise), but Bemis is nonetheless distraught and wonders what he can do now. There is plenty of food left in the city’s remnants, so that’s not a problem. He is concerned about loneliness and how to fill the days ahead even contemplates suicide. It is just about then that he realizes that, amidst the ruins in which he is standing is part of the structure of the public library. Now his post-apocalyptic life can have a purpose! Reading! Now he has all the time he needs to read anything he has ever wanted.

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Some time elapses, and we next join Mr. Bemis after he has arranged his reading for the next year in towering stacks. “January, February…” he revels as he descends the steps of the ruins on which he has piled his “to be read” list. Of course, this IS “The Twilight Zone,” and the viewer knows it’s not over. Upon espying a book just out of reach, Bemis grabs for it greedily, causing his glasses slip off his face and fall onto the concrete steps, accompanied with the sickening sound of breaking glass. He desperately picks them up and the remaining glass crumbles from the frames. “Oh, that’s not fair,” he moans. “There was TIME now…”

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Rod Serling’s closing narration:

“The best laid plans of mice and men…and Henry Bemis…the small man in the glasses who wanted nothing but time. Henry Bemis, now just a part of a smashed landscape, just a piece of the rubble, just a fragment of what man has deeded to himself. Mr. Henry Bemis…in the Twilight Zone.”

I love it. It does concern me a bit, however, in that it makes me wonder how those who love to read are viewed by “society at large.” I think there is less of a social stigma for us readers in today’s world than there used to be, but I’m not sure if “we’ve come a long way, baby” or not. Indeed, Serling’s intro to this episode feels at best condescending (“bookish little man”) to those of us who are book lovers.

“Witness Mr. Henry Bemis, a charter member in the fraternity of dreamers. A bookish little man whose passion is the printed page, but who is conspired against by a bank president and a wife and a world full of tongue-cluckers and the unrelenting hands of a clock. But in just a moment, Mr. Bemis will enter a world without bank presidents or wives or clocks or anything else. He’ll have a world all to himself…without anyone.”

What do you think? Have you faced “discrimination” or social ostracism because you’d just as rather read a good book in a comfortable chair as “go boating on the lake” or “hang out at a noisy bar” with friends? Even more importantly, 🙂 what are your favorite episodes of TheTwilight Zone?

Michel Faber’s “Under the Skin”

Return of the Kanamits…?

It will be very hard to write about this book without giving away too much.  So the “hint” above goes only to those among my readers who are Twilight Zone fans…

I learned of this book through Alex’s blog, The Literary Nomad.  This book blog has a great concept: the blogger roams the world by reading books set in different countries and each post is about the book, but also has background about the country it’s set in.  What a cool idea.  I wish I’d thought of it first…   Alex’s post about this novel may be found here

Under the Skin is a rather disturbing novel.  Set in Scotland, but not one Sir Walter Scott’s Waverly or Mannering would recognize.  The action takes place in the present day, revolving around a woman driver who drives up and down the A9 highway looking for hitchhikers. Specifically, very fit male hitchhikers.  The unique thing about this book is how slowly (and tantalizingly) what is really going on is revealed to the reader.  It seems that the main character, Isserly, is clearly an alien.  But if so, why does she refer to herself and her fellow aliens so often as “human beings?”

We also learn that Isserly has been surgically altered to appear as she does.  We do not learn quickly what her former form looked like.  We do not know why she is picking up these men and what is being done with them.  (We can probably guess, though, can’t we?)

Apparently a film version of the novel is also in the works, starring none other than Scarlett Johansson as the main character (pant, pant).  That will be something to look forward to…

I’m not sure how or for whom to recommend this book.  It’s probably closer to science fiction than anything but rather defies categorization.  I think it is also part social commentary.  It’s short and can be read in a couple days.  Faber’s writing style is haunting and exciting at the same time.  I enjoyed it, but I also don’t have a weak stomach… 😉

“EPICAC” (no, not “ipecac”)

This is the title of yet another of Kurt Vonnegut’s short story collection, Welcome to the Monkey House. It’s the story of an operator for some behemoth-ic government-owned computer called EPICAC. I’m sure this name is intentionally similar to both “UNIVAC” (an actual early generation computing machine) and ipecac – as in the well known emetic, “syrup of ipecac.” The computer operator apparently has the hots for one of his co-workers (described as a “crackerjack mathematician”) who won’t give him the time of day because he’s unromantic and boring. Imagine that – not too different from a current stereotype, huh?

By the way, If this story sounds somewhat familiar to you, it may be because it was in part appropriated by Rod Serling and Bernard Schoenfeld for a 1964 episode of the tv series “The Twilight Zone” titled “From Agnes – with Love.” (***Spoiler Alert***) In that story, however, the computer actually falls for the operator, not the girl.

In the Vonnegut story, however, the computer innocently asks of the operator (never named in the story) “what’s the trouble?” and the hapless guy explains about the girl, Pat. After getting some background information (“what’s girl?”, “what’s love?”) EPICAC helps the operator by writing a long, wonderful poem which the operator passes off to her as his own. Pat is predictably impressed and begins to see the operator in a new light. They share a kiss and later he asks the computer to write another poem about the kiss. This time it’s a short and beautiful, “immaculate sonnet”

“Love is a hawk with velvet claws
Love is a rock with heart and veins;
Love is a lion with satin jaws,
Love is a storm with silken reins.”

I have to say that’s pretty good for a computer, eh? I wonder what Ray Kurzweil’s cyber poet would think of that? Would it give up and unplug itself?

Anyway, things proceed swimmingly and the operator begins to think about marriage. After talking with EPICAC and explaining the situation (“what’s marriage?”), the machine agrees that Pat is a worthy candidate for matrimony and says “I’m ready whenever she is.” The operator is taken aback and tries to explain to the computer the impossibility of such a marriage (sprinkling in a few lies to make his case more palatable to his “friend” the machine – he says he is made out of protoplasm and will last forever, and says a woman cannot love a machine – that it’s fate, which he also has to define) In the end, the machine “can’t go on” (“I don’t want to be a machine. I don’t want to think about war.” – the latter is his primary function) and sort of burns itself out when “left on” overnight by the operator (nothing like that tight government security, huh?). The operator is fired from his job for his neglect, but also cleans up many rolls of printed tape (this is how EPICAC communicated with its users) from the room. He discovers that it contains a going away present from the computer: 500 years of anniversary poems for him to give his wife. How sad. I felt a pity for the machine not too dissimilar to that which I felt for Frankenstein’s monster when reading that classic a couple months ago.

Have you read this story? Do you remember the “classic” Twilight Zone episode?

(below: actor Wally Cox in “From Agnes – with Love” 1964)