Sunday, February 19, 2012

Kobra Kid Reviews: Letters to a Young Contrarian

Letters to a Young Contrarian
Letters to a Young Contrarian by Christopher Hitchens

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I wish I could figure out how to explain how I feel about this book. Alas, I fear it defies explanation. Reading Letters is a very personal experience. I won't say it's a spiritual one--that, of course, is the sort of nonsense up with which Hitchens would not have put. However, it is a singular experience, unique to the individual, I think, and either you feel it or you don't. But I hope that everyone comes away with something, at least, some new perspective on the world, some insight into themselves, and if nothing else, I hope everyone, when they're done, will remember this:

Everybody can do something...the role of dissident is not, and should not be, a claim of membership in a communion of saints.

Kobra Kid, signing off.
[You can't stop the signal.]

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Saturday, February 18, 2012

Kobra Kid Reviews: Ghostly Tales and Eerie Poems

Ghostly Tales and Eerie Poems
Ghostly Tales and Eerie Poems by Edgar Allan Poe

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book is a collection of fourteen short stories and nine poems. Rather than trying to write a condensed review judging the entire book by its constituent parts, I instead jotted down my thoughts about each story individually. Hopefully this helps give a better idea of what this collection has to offer.

MS. Found in a Bottle -- What a terrible choice to start off the book. I know this story won Poe a $50 prize way back in the Wayback, but frankly I think it's lame, and I would personally never have chosen it to lead off this collection. I mean, maybe it was really awesome and edgy and fear-inspiring back when Poe wrote it, and I, as a jaded modern reader, simply don't have the capacity to appreciate it, but I just don't think it's very good. It's kind of pointless, it's a little absurd, and it's decidedly not scary, though it tries very hard to convince you that it is.

Morella -- This is a bit of an unsettling story, though I wonder if it's for the reasons Poe intended. I suppose to know that, we would first have to decide what he was really saying here. Is this just a story meant to prey on Victorian fears, about a woman who dies in childbirth and lays a curse on the husband who never returned her affections? Or is it a story about a sort of vampire; a woman who, in her dying moments, figures out how to transfer her consciousness, her soul, into the body of her infant daughter and, in essence, become her? Or perhaps the child was already dead, and by passing into the empty vessel, Morella enabled a self-fulfilling prophecy. I think maybe the possibilities are creepier to think about than the story itself was.

Ligeia -- I'm not entirely sure what happened here. Perhaps it's because I read this story while in a stupor caused by my monthly battle with parasomnia, but I just couldn't figure out whether Ligeia was some kind of vampire, or if this was a case of ghostly possession, or what. Maybe dude was just balls-out insane and hallucinating, I don't know. At any rate, I thought it was a stupid choice for this story to be placed directly after Morella, considering how similar the two stories are. I would really like to know who got paid to put this thing together, and whether I can have his (or her) job. I could do better than this, apparently, after four days of no sleep.

The Fall of the House of Incest: or, Don't Fuck Your Sister Because You'll Go Crazy and Die -- Yep. That's basically it. Typical Victorian fare about the joys of premature burial. While I wouldn't necessarily say it's still relevant--after all, by the time you get put in a tomb or a coffin these days, there is a 0% chance you're still alive--it is absolutely still horrifying to think about.

William Wilson -- Called it. I'm not sure if it's another possible example of my privileged modern viewpoint--I've seen all these tropes before--or if it's that Poe was, well, a hack. I've heard the accusation before, and I can kind of see why. Poe had a tendency to be a bit cliched, a little purple, but then, maybe it was just the time period. Maybe to him, modern writers would seem like a bunch of barely literate plebeians vomiting words onto paper or mashing violently at our keyboards. But at any rate, the story itself is decent. It's interesting to think about--a man dogged and tormented by his own conscience. And if a man could kill his own conscience, as if it were a separate entity from him, would he indeed die as well? After all, sociopaths exist, however unfortunately, and one of the hallmarks of sociopathy is lack of conscience. Perhaps the fate of Wilson is meant to be taken figuratively, as an indictment on the quality of life if one had no conscience. In that respect, could a person truly live? Food for thought.

The Murders in the Rue Morgue -- Oh hey, a murder mystery. I'm down with that. I really enjoyed this story, though perhaps much of that enjoyment was because it's one of the few where the answer is, as Tim Minchin would say, decidedly not magic. It's a little bit exposition-y, true, but I can deal with that. I'm a sucker for a good old-fashioned denouement of this variety--probably because I'm so very bad at them myself. I always wanted to write a murder mystery, or a detective novel, that sort of thing, but I just don't have the mind for it, alas. Apparently I'm more of a "several thousand words of introspective angst" sort of writer. Oy. At any rate, my only problem with this story is that I'm not sure whether it offers an accurate portrayal of orangutan behavior. I know that they do have amazing strength, and I know that they can become violent if agitated, like chimpanzees, one of which ripped a lady's face off here in Ohio a few years ago. (No, seriously. It ripped her face off.) However, I'm just not sure that an orangutan would do much of what Poe claimed his fictional orangutan did. Probably Poe had never even seen an orangutan, except perhaps in drawings, and I don't think he knew very much about them at all. But then again, neither do I, so--pot, kettle.

The Oval Portrait -- Probably the shortest of Poe's short stories, but effectively so. Is this a story about a man whose obsession spurs him to paint the life of his young bride into a portrait? Or is it a warning not to succumb to our obsessions and lose sight of what's truly important, lest we lose the things that are dearest to us? You decide.

The Masque of the Red Death -- Nero fiddled while Rome burned. The old saying always creeps into my head whenever I think of this story, about a prince and his courtiers who hold a great masked ball while the rest of the country sickens and dies of a mysterious plague. But where Nero was a blundering, ineffectual narcissist who didn't know, at least at first, that Rome was burning, Prince Prospero is far more sinister. He deliberately shuts himself up in the abbey with his lords and ladies, intending to wait out the terrible plague, and leaves his subjects to their own devices--meaning, of course, he leaves them to suffer and die. But you cannot hide from death. Even the rich and the privileged are not immune. Darkness and decay and the Red Death hold dominion over all.

The Pit and the Pendulum -- Is there anybody who doesn't know this story? Even people who have never read it know about it, and with good reason. This scenario is one that really sticks with you, as it must have stuck in the minds of generations of readers, until it became a part of the greater American consciousness, this idea of such prolonged horror, the maddening, interminable wait as the specter of a gruesome and seemingly inescapable death looms over you. Honestly, I don't know that anyone could keep their head in such a situation, especially not enough to devise and implement a plan like the one our anonymous narrator does. But somehow it works--the exigence makes your awareness of the gradual, unalterable decent of the pendulum that much sharper. About the very end of the story, however, I'm not so forgiving. I guess Mr. Poe never heard the phrase deus ex machina.

The Tell-Tale Heart -- Nothing is more terrifying than a madman who thinks he's sane. In this story, the narrator is so tormented by an old man's pale blue eye that he's driven to murder, yet the most chilling part of the story is his repeated insistence in his own sanity. Each example he gives, however, proves him more insane than the one before. In the end, it's nothing more or less than his own madness--the same madness that drove him to kill an innocent man--that causes his downfall.

The Black Cat -- In this tale, a formerly kind and sensitive man takes to drink and becomes a monster who mistreats his wife and his pets. When he lets his irrational anger get the better of him and lashes out at his once-beloved cat, a specter of the wronged animal proceeds to torment the narrator. But is it really his murdered pet seeking vengeance, or is it only his own conscience that drives him to madness and ruin?

The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar -- Hypnotism can suspend the laws of nature, apparently. Good to know. I'll be sure to remember that when I'm creating my zombie army in a final push for world domination. In all seriousness, though, I think Poe really missed the boat on this one. He took what could have been a really interesting concept and reduced it to its lowest common denominator, intending only to horrify and, failing that, to gross out the reader, rather than exploring the truly chilling conundrum of such a scenario--was Valdemar truly caught in that mysterious moment between life and death, or was it only his physical body that was suspended, serving as a prison for an echo of the consciousness that once lived there, a ghost in the shell?

The Cask of Amontillado -- For me, the most chilling, most terrifying stories are not the ones about the supernatural, but rather the ones that highlight the very worst of humanity. As in this tale, wherein Montresor is so offended by some perceived slight from Fortunato that he leads the drunk and ailing man into the catacombs beneath his house and walls him up there. Montresor leaves Fortunato to languish and suffer and die, alone, in the dark, and not once does he demonstrate even a glimmer of doubt whether he has any right to condemn the man, nor does he seem, even for a moment, to consider whether anyone truly deserves such a horrible end, regardless of his trespasses. And how many people like that are out there, in the real world? The answer is what makes this one of Poe's most effective stories, in my opinion, because the truth is that, for every mature and rational person who realizes that they don't have the right to take the life of another human being, there is another person who honestly believes so strongly in their own supremacy, that their own sense of ego is so sacrosanct, that they feel no compunction about harming or killing someone in cold blood. In reality, madmen and cutthroats lurk around every corner, and that is far scarier than any story about ghosts or ghouls.

Hop-Frog -- Nobody tosses a dwarf! Am I the only one who thinks Poe intended this as a thinly-veiled allusion to people who mistreated their slaves? Hop-Frog and Trippetta are abducted from their homes, shipped off to a foreign country, and are under complete control of the king and at the mercy of his every whim. Sounds familiar. The king, despite being a "joker", is also a cruel tyrant who forces Hop-Frog to drink even though he knows how it affects the dwarf, and who abuses poor Trippetta when she dares beg the king to spare her friend. In the end, it's this last offense that invokes the wrath of Hop-Frog and leads to the gruesome demise of the king and his sycophantic ministers, but what is the message here? Don't be cruel to those under your dominion or else this may happen to you? Or, people who abuse those at their mercy will get what's coming to them in the end? Perhaps both.

The Poems -- I'm not generally much of a poetry person, to be honest, and when I do enjoy it, it tends to be of the post-modern variety. Or maybe that's post-post-modern. Or post-post-post--you know what? Basically, if your poem rhymes, I probably think it sucks. Let's just put it that way. So, needless to say, Poe's poems aren't really my cup of tea. However, For Annie is actually pretty good; it's a total creepfest, and I do recommend that you read that one. And then you should read Lenore, The Raven, Annabel Lee, and The Bells, if only because they're classics.

Kobra Kid, signing off.
[You can't stop the signal.]

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