Deal Me In Challenge Story #42 & The Classics Club: The Great God Pan by Arthur Machen

deal me in smFor this week’s Deal Me In challenge story, I drew the 9 of Hearts – Arthur Machen’s The Great Click to learn about the Classics Club challenge.God Pan, first published in 1894.  I thought this a lucky draw, as it’s thematically appropriate for the season, it’s also on my Classics Club list, and I could include it in my Dewey’s Read-a-Thon stack, as well.  When I first included it on my Deal Me In list, I thought it was a short story, as it is often listed as such and has been frequently anthologized.  But no…it’s at least a novelette, perhaps a novella.  I’m uncertain of the word count, but it’s longer than what I would normally call a “short” story.

Specifics be damned!  It’s on my roster, and I’ve finished reading the darned thing…so here we go!

In theory, this story has many elements I usually adore – psychological mucking about, weird science, arcane mysteries, mythological connections, an atmosphere of dread… I am generally a fan of Gothics, especially the stranger and less predictable ones.  I’ve read other works by Machen that I enjoyed, so I expected this one would be no different.  I’ve also read many glowing reviews by authors who were inspired by this particular piece. Well, I hate to be a wet blanket, but my expectations have led me astray, and I don’t quite understand what so many others have seen in this story.

9 heartsA brief summary:  Dr. Raymond has long studied ways to allow a person to “lift back the veil”, to see the world of the uncanny behind our own.  He is bitter than others see him as a charlatan and a quack.  He has invited a friend who is fervently interested in proving the existence of “the devil” to his estate to bear witness to his ultimate experiment.  He intends, through the device of an extremely over-simplified and silly brain surgery, to enable Mary – his teenaged ward whom he rescued from certain death on the streets when she was a toddler and with whom his relationship has a creepy, pedo-vibe – to “see the great god Pan.”

“Consider the matter well, Raymond. It’s a great responsibility. Something might go wrong; you would be a miserable man
for the rest of your days.”
“No, I think not, even if the worst happened. As you know, I rescued Mary from the gutter, and from almost certain starvation, when she was a child; I think her life is mine, to use as I see fit. Come, it’s getting late; we had better go in.”

His experiment is of mixed success; Mary certainly “sees” something, but she is left a gibbering idiot.  Nearly two decades later, an “exotic” teenaged girl is connected to a series of odd occurrences.  There are terrors and rapes and murders and suicides, providing strange births and stranger deaths.  How do these things connect back to Mary and the experiments of the doctor?

Right off, one might suspect that this story is a bit goofy, and one one would be quite right.  But it is also meandering, messy, constructed piecemeal and lurching, ham-fistedly insensitive, racist in oddly specific ways and deeply misogynistic…even for the Victorians. Everyone is a one-dimensional, ridiculous stereotype.  Women are both somehow simultaneously fluffy, brainless idiots and over-sexed harlots itching to get it on with a devil. The men in the story are either completely cold and lacking in any ethics whatsoever or fetishy and obsessive.  Modern hindsight makes any given line unintentionally hilarious, and the whole thing drips with both anti-pagan hysteria and a strange fetishization of the allure of same, as well as the stupid, ingrained old-school masculine fear of women’s hidden “beastial” sexuality.  Feh.

Machen was adored by both Aleister Crowley and H. P. Lovecraft.  Personally, I was in danger of permanently damaging myself from rolling my eyes so hard.  I laughed out loud (and I assure you it’s not intended as a comedy) and shouted aloud at the text many times.  The story was widely panned as “perverse” upon publication, which seems a fair reaction from a pathologically prudish Victorian audience.  I don’t know that I agree, but I do have another “p” word for it:  preposterous.  There are so, so many far better Gothic Victorian works out there.

Dewey’s 24-Hour Read-a-Thon: Wrap-Up & Ending Meme (2014)

Deweys 24hr RATSo ends another edition of Dewey’s 24-Hour Read-a-Thon.  I’m definitely in zombie mode today, but I think it was worth it!  Here’s my brief wrap-up and answers to the end-of-event meme:

I finished three books:

The Great God Pan by Arthur Machen

The Harlem Hellfighters by Max Brooks

Memory of Water by Emmi Itäranta

I also read a few chapters in The Woman in the Dunes by Kōbō Abe and a few more chapters in Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore.  

End of Event Meme:

  1. Which hour was most daunting for you? – Actually, the first hours were the worst this time.  Getting a really late start sapped my motivation a bit, and multiple family distractions and detours got me even more off-track.
  2. Could you list a few high-interest books that you think could keep a Reader engaged for next year? – Last time, I included short stories.  I was very silly not to do so this time.  I highly recommend them for RaTs, as well as graphic novels.
  3. Do you have any suggestions for how to improve the Read-a-thon next year? – Nothing comes to mind, honestly.  As for suggestions for myself, not for the team:  Try audiobooks.
  4. What do you think worked really well in this year’s Read-a-thon? – The cheerleaders were great!  Even though they were short-handed, they were enthusiastic and on-the-ball.
  5. How many books did you read? – I finished 3 and read parts of 2 others.
  6. What were the names of the books you read? – see above
  7. Which book did you enjoy most? – Memory of Water
  8. Which did you enjoy least? – The Great God Pan
  9. If you were a Cheerleader, do you have any advice for next year’s Cheerleaders? – n/a
  10. How likely are you to participate in the Read-a-thon again? What role would you be likely to take next time? – I will almost certainly participate again, as a reader.  I don’t have the moxie to be a cheerleader right now!

Next read-a-thon on the docket:  Bout of Books 12, January 5-11, 2015!  I imagine the next edition of Dewey’s 24-Hour RaT will be around April.

Dewey’s 24-Hour Read-a-Thon: Base Camp & Opening Meme (October 2014)

Deweys 24hr RATThis is a sticky post for my periodic read-a-thon updates.

The event started at 5am my time, but I had Things to attend to this morning, so I’ll be starting reading at 11am PST, which is officially Hour 7 of the read-a-thon.

I think I’ll start with Woman in the Dunes first, while my brain is fresh, leaving the YA and graphic novel choices for later when I need a boost in the afternoon.  And of course, Machen’s old-school Gothic horror must be read at night.


My progress:

  • 11:00 am PST:  Start reading.  Ha!  Forget that.  My mother called long-distance, and I had unexpected company.  It’s now 12:45 pm, and I’m just reading my first page.
  • 1:30 pm PST:  I got in about 40 pages between 12:45 and 1:30pm, spread across all the books in my stack.  (I was trying to decide which one was going to hook me first.)  Now it’s time to eat some lunch, stretch a bit, check in with the community and chop some things and toss them into the slow cooker for a late meal when the fella gets home around 10pm.  After lunch and etc., I’m going to continue on with Memory of Water, as it is both swift-moving and peppered with such pretty, descriptive language.
  • 3:30 pm PST – Lunch is eaten, things are chopped and slow-cooking and household puttering is accomplished.  Back to the books! I want to try to read straight until 5:30 or so.  Then I’ll break for stretching, snacking and community stalking.
  • 5:30 pm PST:  Snack and stretch break!  I’m having some popcorn and am about to take a look-see at the current minigames.  I read right around 100 pages in Memory of Water.  I’m not sure if I want to finish it up when I return to my reading spot or if I want to skip over into another book for a bit.  Hmm…  I’ll decide in a bit, but right now my most urgent task is too put the kettle on.  I am in dire need of some strong black tea!
  • 7:00 pm PST:  Tea seems to have had the reverse of its intended effect.  I took a bit of a cat nap – with the cat! – and now I’m going to try for an hour-long reading sprint.
  • 8:15 pm PST:  I finished The Harlem Hellfighers – 257 pages.
  • 2:00 am PST (hour 22):  Since my last update, I read and finished Machen’s The Great God Pan, a couple of chapters in The Woman in the Dunes and another 50 pages in Memory of Water, played in a couple of minigames, visited some blogs and had dinner/family time with the fella.  I’m going to brew some more tea and try to keep going.

Opening meme:

1) What fine part of the world are you reading from today? – I’m in the Puget Sound region of Washington State, United States.  (outside Seattle)

2) Which book in your stack are you most looking forward to? – Woman in the Dunes

3) Which snack are you most looking forward to? – I’m not looking forward to any snack in particular.  I don’t gather snacks especially for the event;  I just eat the snacks I normally might – black tea, plain seltzer, hummus with veggies, maybe some popcorn or nuts or dark chocolate or a granola bar.

4) Tell us a little something about yourself! – I’m perhaps a bit too pleased at the moment that we’ve launched into the stereotypical gray-and-rainy season here in the Pacific NW.  The chill and the sound of rain has set up a perfect reading feel for me – cozy and cocoony.

5) If you participated in the last read-a-thon, what’s one thing you’ll do different today? If this is your first read-a-thon, what are you most looking forward to? – This is my second read-a-thon.  This time I will not push myself to stay awake all the time but will nap and will acknowledge my body’s signs that it’s time to stop and go to bed later.  I have a chronic autoimmune syndrome, yet I am stubborn and want to push like I used to when I was younger.  This time, I will remember that I’m not 20 and in full health and will take a saner approach so that I don’t pay for it tomorrow and all next week.

Dewey’s 24-hour Read-a-thon: Sign-up Post (October 2014)

dewey-300x300My “now I can get back to reading and hopefully posting” time is finally here! And what better way to kick my tail back into gear than with the latest iteration of the wonderful Dewey’s 24-hour Read-a-Thon coming up on Saturday, October 18?  Each time we do this, I am amazed by both how much more reading I get in than on a usual day and by the awesome and supportive Dewey’s community.  (And by how utterly loopy and zombie-like I am by the end of the event…but like a happy zombie…shambling through the stacks, groaning a demand for “booo~ooo~ooks”…)

The official site has posted a lot of helpful advice and tips about how to succeed, how to stay awake, remembering to keep oneself fed and hydrated, book ideas, etc.  Their Warm Up: Advice for Newbies has a tidbit especially important for me, as it is something I often forget: “Don’t measure your readathon success by how others participate.” I have a big problem remembering this – not just at read-a-thon time, but regarding everything book-and-blog-related.  I am always feeling guilty that I don’t read more and review more/post more on this blog, and when read-a-thons roll around, that feeling extends to guilting out over not finishing enough books, not participating in enough minigames, not chatting enough, and not reviewing enough afterward.  I have to get my head out of this mindset.  I didn’t start this blog with the intention of being a heavy reviewer or a pro blogger.  I started it for fun, for me, and as a place from which to participate in challenges and reading events.  I’m not in competition with other readers, bloggers or event participants, and that includes read-a-thons.  Thanks, Dewey’s crew, for posting much-needed reminders of such basic and important things. I really appreciate the readerly wisdom and support!

I think I have my read-a-thon book stack finalized.  Here’s what I have on deck:

  • A season-appropriate classic Gothic novella: The Great God Pan by Arthur Machen
  • A compact Japanese classic:  The Woman in the Dunes by Kōbō Abe
  • A page-turning recent young adult:  Memory of Water by Emmi Itäranta
  • A graphic novel on a very serious theme:  The Harlem Hellfighters by Max Brooks
  • I am currently in the middle of Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore, so I have that to dip into, as well.
  • All these books except the Machen are in physical form, but I have a ton of short stories and novellas and public domain classics on my Kindle if I need a change or find none of my plans suit my mood enough to keep me awake and reading. Prime candidates include Margaret Oliphant’s 1896 chiller The Library Window, The Machine Stops (a very ahead-of-its-time and prescient 1909 science fiction piece by E. M. Forster!) and the recent Unlocked by John Scalzi, a prequel to his Locked In, which I recently read and loved.
  • If my eyes give out and I simply can’t focus on the page any longer, I may grab an audio book via my library’s download service.  I don’t generally enjoy audio books, but I have had good luck with funny books, especially memoirs read by the author himself or herself.

Deal Me In Challenge: Stories #39 & #40 – An Unexpected Relationship Between Chekhov and Le Guin

deal me in smI had originally planned to post a stand-alone review of last week’s Deal Me In story, Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.”  But then I read this week’s story – Anton Chekhov’s “Gooseberries” – and was immediately struck by the similarity of underlying theme shared between the two.  I decided I needed to talk about this related strand of thought explored in very different ways by authors from such different times and places.

Story #39, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” - represented on my challenge roster by the 7 of Hearts – was first published in 1973 in the multi-author anthology New Dimensions 3 and in soon-after in Le Guin’s collection The Winds Twelve Quarters.  The story was awarded the Hugo Award for Best Short Story in 1974.  This fact would seem to suggest that the story is science fiction, but it isn’t.  There is nothing especially science fictional or fantastical in this work, which is more of a philosophical musing than a story with plot and named characters. I suppose one might best label the work “speculative,” as it posits a “What if…” question to the reader and suggests a thought exercise based on that question.

7 heartsThe titular Omelas is a city of fortunate, happy people who enjoy lives free of pain or poverty.  They have much to celebrate and do so with gusto.  But there is a dark side to this prosperity which each citizen must confront during adolescence.  (I will be vague so as not to spoil the impact of the piece.)  For the people of Omelas to continue to enjoy their utopian way of life, one individual must suffer, scorned and living in isolation and deprivation.  The rest of the populace, however horrified to learn the truth of this, must agree to ignore or actively participate in the maltreatment of this individual.  Although some may want to attempt a rescue or at least lessen the suffering, the consequences of this for the rest of the citizens would change their way of life for the worse.  So they look the other way, pretending the atrocity does not occur or convincing themselves that the prosperity of the many is worth the misery of one.  There is one other option, undertaken by a relative very few: They can choose to walk away.

I was immediately reminded of real-world examples of a very similar attitude.  People may well know that their favorite brand of athletic shoes is created by children in horrible sweat-shop conditions.  They may be fully aware that their smartphone is both full of conflict minerals the acquisition of which actively supports the violence and bloodshed in some nebulous region on the other side of the world and fashioned by factory workers whose daily pay is a mere pittance compared to an hour of their own.  The beauty of their wedding ring outshines the meaning of the term “blood diamonds.” They may understand that their coffee beans or quinoa is picked by indigenous peoples who see no actual benefit for their work and can no longer afford to eat their ancestral food due to the demand from elsewhere in the world.  They may even realize that the votes of the majority often stifle the needs, desires and rights of the minority.  But they want a smartphone. They love their coffee.  They need good quality shoes.  They don’t personally support the aims of the warlord who profits from the diamond mines, and their wedding ring is an enduring symbol of love.  So they look the other way.

Le Guin doesn’t preach to the reader.  (And neither is it my aim to do so, despite what the harshness of my previous paragraph might suggest.)  She doesn’t point her authorial finger and accuse anyone or fling hard truths in the reader’s face. (She is far more subtle than I, which is but one of hundreds of excellent reasons why, of the two of us, she is the revered author.)  She presents her fictional city with its hypothetical ethical quandary and leaves the door open for the reader to connect the dots to issues in the real world.  One might interpret this story through any number of lenses and continue the lines of thought to many different situations in one’s life, each of which seems to present a complex and knotted collection of un-makeable ethical choices.  But looked at through perhaps the clearest and least-complicated lens, there is only one core choice at the heart of these matters:  either A. to opt in – to agree, to decline to object, or B. to refuse to participate, to reject the benefits no matter how pleasing, how “necessary”… to leave the crowd and walk away.

jack diamondsStory #40, Gooseberries(Gutenberg, public domain) was brought to me by the Jack of Diamonds.  This story, published in 1898 and frequently anthologized, walks a very different path to arrive at territory very much akin to that explored by Le Guin.

Seeking shelter from the rain, two men present themselves at the home of a third.  Ivan Ivanich tells a tale to the other two men, detailing the progression of the life of his two-years-younger brother, Nicholai.  The brothers have a title of nobility handed down from their father, although his estate was sold to pay his debts.  Nicholai has long nurtured an obsession with owning land and having a farmstead.  He draws up diagrams and plans (always including gooseberry bushes, which he seems to see as symbolic of prosperity), scours ads of land for sale and saves every penny he earns. Despite his lucrative job, he lives much like a beggar, starving himself so that all his wages can be saved toward his dream.  This dream obsesses him so that he sleeps poorly, and for many years his life is empty except for these fantasies.

After many years apart, Ivan hears that his brother has married.  Nicholai’s new wife is an elderly widow whom he cares nothing for, but he very much adores her money.  He makes her live like a pauper, with not even enough bread to eat, and soon she withers and dies.  He channels all her money into purchasing the land for which he has so long pined, which includes a small farmstead and covers 300 acres.  There are many peasants in residence as tenant farmers across this land, and although it does contain a river (brown from the run-off of a brickyard and a gelatin factory) it does not contain gooseberry bushes. Nicholai plants 20 bushes and settles down to enjoy his dream.

The next season, Ivan visits his brother to see how he is getting along.  He learns that Nicholai is dismissive at best of the peasants and that upon attaining prosperity, he has developed an attitude of feeling he knows best how others should run their lives. Once a year on his birthday, he provides the peasantry with vodka, and they celebrate and praise his name for his generosity, forgetting how poorly he treats them the rest of the year.  At dinner, Nicholai displays a huge platter of the first crop of his estate’s gooseberries.  He insists they taste sweet and wonderful, but to Ivan they seem hard and sour.  Nicholai convinces himself that his life and this symbol of his prosperity are perfect and without blemish, while Ivan knows they are bitter and but mere hollow status symbols.

Later that night, Nicholai is again plagued by insomnia, as he is drawn again and again to eat more from the platter of sour gooseberries, metaphorically counting his gold, lying to himself again and again by convincing himself of the goodness and the sweetness of his life.

I immediately felt that Chekhov is using a different writing technique – more of a parable than Le Guin’s philosophical what-iffery – to steer the reader to some of the same intellectual territory.  Again we have someone who benefits at the expense of others – his miserable wife, his miserable tenant farmers, as well as his miserable self whose years have been spent living a life of self-imposed deprivation, devoid of companionship, healthy food or pleasure – a life devoid of Life – and who has managed to convince himself it is all worth it in the end.  The ends justify the means, no matter who suffers and how much.

Both Le Guin and Chekhov seem to me to be saying that if a person is to enjoy those ends, he or she must make themselves aware of the means.  He or she must decide if the desirable outcome is indeed “worth” the costs and if our own convenience or happiness is worth actively allowing or turning a blind eye to suffering.  Two authors a century apart, on opposite sides of the world address here very similar, perhaps universal questions that we all must face in our own lives.  We must make informed choices, be aware of how our own success may affect others.  We should also live our lives, not deprive ourselves in the extreme and thus cause ourselves needless suffering in the name of prosperity to be achieved “someday”.

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