The Classics: The Hand of Ethelberta, by Thomas Hardy

Ethelberta Chickering grew up determined to raise her status in the world, and when the son of the house where she served as governess proposed marriage, she agreed with alacrity. Her mother-in-law is snooty, but when Ethelberta is suddenly widowed while on her honeymoon, she takes the young woman under her wing. When the old lady dies, Ethelberta’s sole means of support is gone, and, frantic about losing her social position, she determines to marry as soon as possible. Granted the use of the family townhouse in London, Berta recruits her entire family, bumpkins all, to pose as her servants until she can snag herself as husband.  She is young, beautiful, and conniving, and has no trouble attracting suitors. The plot thickens.

This is far from Thomas Hardy’s typical moralistic, tragic tale of woe. Subtitled “A Comedy in Chapters”, the novel is not funny in the modern sense of the word,  there are some remarkably droll moments. Rather, it lacks his signature tragic ending. But one of the themes prevalent in most of his work concerns problems of sexuality and marriage, and that is the case in Ethelberta. It also focuses upon Victorian restrictions upon women, and social inequalities, and some critics characterize him as an early feminist in his leanings, which seems to be the case here. Ethelberta is not a vacuous woman, but one torn between her dread of returning to her humble origins and her genuine concerns for the welfare of all the members of her family.  While she does have her flighty side, so do her male acquaintances, and she is determinedly singleminded. Romantic love is a notion that she rejects;  although she is powerfully attracted to Christopher Julian, an impoverished music teacher, she never considers him an acceptable match. In her pursuit of what she views as happiness, she is not unlike many of her modern contemporaries.

Hardy, of course, writes in a 19th century style, with 19th century sensibilities, which in places becomes tedious. But his books revolve around timeless themes, and Ethelberta is no exception. As for the ending, for Hardy, it’s a surprisingly happy one.

 

Thriller: The Boy in the Suitcase, by Lene Kaaberbol and Agnete Friis

Human trafficking has been much in the news lately, and this crime is rampant in Eastern and Northern Europe since the demise of the USSR left such a vacuum in its wake. In The Boy in the Suitcase, it’s a three year old who’s been kidnapped. His mother fears that he will be sexually abused, but, if possible, the fate planned by the kidnappers is even worse. Red Cross nurse and humanitarian Nina Borg discovers the child stashed in a locker at the train station, and begins a quest to rescue him and return him to his home, wherever that may be. He speaks no Danish, which compounds the difficulties inherent in the situation, and it isn’t long before some terrifying events take place.

Nina is characterized as a social activist with a mission to save the world. Her long suffering family wishes she’d direct some of that energy to them. She seems to be very intelligent and resourceful, but it’s hard to fathom why she undertakes this burden on her own, not notifying authorities or even her own husband. If you manage to table that question, The Boy in the Suitcase is one of the best thrillers published in recent years. The book fits snugly into the Scandinavian noir genre, but the authors are able to build incredible tension without the gory horrors that seem so prevalent in those novels. Nina is vividly presented as a compassionate woman who has never managed to develop the professional’s ability to keep a lid on her emotions. Certainly her family relationships are problematic; paradoxically, she chooses to distance herself emotionally from husband and children. I hope the authors address this conundrum in any sequels they write. As for the denouement, it is truly unanticipated, and ultimately chilling.

Not bad for a pair of writers whose backgrounds are in fantasy (Ms. Kaaberbol) and children’s books (Ms. Friis)!

Constitution Island, West Point, NY

The staff of the Webb Deane Stevens museum in Wethersfield, CT, gathered together a while back for a rare, and most enjoyable, field trip to the scenic Hudson River Valley, a region of outstanding natural beauty and historic significance. Our first stop was Constitution Island, located on the river within view of West Point and part of the military academy itself. The Island is most famous for the Great Chain that was placed across the Hudson during the Revolutionary War, to prevent British ships from navigating this strategically vital stretch of the river. No military action was to take place on the fortified island, which was the first fort built by the newly-declared independent Americans. Interestingly, it was named “Constitution” to remind the British that America was due the same rights as England under the English constitution. The US Constitution had yet to be written. The 230-year-old house that stands on the island today began as military barracks. In 1836, it became the residence of the Warner family. Susan and Anna Warner were well-known authors in the nineteenth century, producing over 100 books between them. Susan wrote The Wide, Wide World in 1850 which became a best seller of its day. Anna is best known for writing the words to the hymn Jesus Loves Me. The sisters taught Bible classes to West Point cadets for forty years, entertaining such well-known soldiers as Dwight D. Eisenhower and Omar Bradley. The house was enlarged by the Warners, and contains a large collection of their furnishings and other belongings, including albums full of photos of handsome young cadets. Now a museum, it is maintained as closely as possible to its appearance at the time of the death in 1915 of Anna. A slide album of highlights is presented below.

Following our visit, we were treated to an elegant catered lunch and a cruise on the beautiful Hudson River upon the personal yacht of the Superintendent of West Point Military Academy. Then, back on the van for the short drive to Boscobel, which is discussed in the following post:

Paranormal Fiction: Thores-Cross, by Karen Perkins

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Historical fiction meets paranormal in Thores-Cross, a novel set on the outskirts of a Yorkshire village that was submerged to create a reservoir. Emma Moorcroft is an author with writer’s block following a miscarriage. She and her husband have resbuilt their dream home along the shores of Thruscross Reservoir, where Emma spent many happy childhood summers. Their closest neighbors , descendants of the family that owned the village in the 18th century, tell Emma a story about Jennet, the young village wise woman who becomes known as a witch.  Soon Emma starts having strange nightmares, and it isn’t long before she begins writing again, compulsively, day and night.

Thores-Cross is less a ghost story than a haunting. Although no ghost ever appears,  Emma soon realizes that it’s the spirit of Jennet emerging through her writing. Each of the women narrates her own experiences from their own place in time, and of the two, Jennet’s is by far the most compelling. Ms. Perkins knows her Yorkshire folklore and traditions, and does a superb job of capturing rural life and customs in the moors of the 1700’s. Jennet seems real, and it’s possible to feel a strong sense of rapport with her. On the other hand, Emma and her husband and neighbors come across as vapid, her experiences, although they drive the story, mere melodrama.

While nothing especially scary ever happens,  Jennet’s tale is realistic and engrossing and gives pause for thought. A work of straight historical fiction with her at its center might have been even more effective. Emma’s ends in a predictable, rather hurried fashion.

 

Paranormal Fiction: Inamorata, by Megan Chance

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

 

Megan Chance creates a twist on the currently popular vampire theme in Inamorata. Struggling American artist Joseph Hannigan and twin sister Sophie travel to Venice, where they hope to find a patron interested in supporting  and championing his work. Everyone who sees it thinks it’s quite extraordinary, and are equally entranced by the beauty and inter-connectedness of the twins. At the same time,  failed poet Nicholas Dane has arrived, bent on tracing the whereabouts of Odile Leon, the enchanting seductress who left him deep in despair. Odile, it seems, possesses the powers of a muse, and while her amorous conquests produce beautiful work during their relationship, the men lose their inspiration when they part. As the Hannigans penetrate the inner circle of artists and patrons, young men begin to die in suspicious circumstances, and Nicholas suspects that Odile may be involved. The Venice of this novel, set in the late 19th century, is a dark, labyrinthine one, damp and menacing. Its plot revolves on the myth of the succubus, a creature with the upper body of an irresistible woman and the lower body of a serpent. Succubi leach away the creativity and life force from their lovers, in order to maintain their immortality. Slowly paced,the story unfolds in a fairly predictable way, but the ending brings about an unforeseen set of circumstances. It also leaves unresolved a question about the true nature of the twins’ relationship.

Considering the topic, Inamorata elicits less a sense of horror than one of desolation.

Paranormal Fiction: NOS4A2, by Joe Hill

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Victoria McQueen  has access to “the shorter way” , a bridge that was removed years ago but that she can still locate when she wants to find something. She discovered her gift as a child, when looking for her mom’s lost bracelet. Now, as a troubled adult, she must use it to find and  destroy a monster who preys on children. NOS4A2 is the story of her quest, which will turn into the most harrowing nightmare in a life filled with nightmares. Charles Manx is the monster’s name, and he cruises around at will in a vintage Rolls Wraith that sports the license plate NOS4A2 in honor of the vampire in an equally vintage horror movie. Manx’s current assistant is Bing Partridge, who speaks in rhyme and views himself as nice and normal despite having murdered his parents with a hammer. These two make up one of creepiest duos in modern literature. Over 500 pages of this lengthy novel lead up to an ultimate showdown in Manx’s “children’s paradise”, which he calls Christmas Land.

Joe Hill has a way with words, no doubt about it. In Christmas Land, he has conjured a timeless village which only Manx can enter and depart from at will – until Vic stumbles onto his scene.  Hill draws upon mythology (think vampire, incubus, Batman, immortality), poetry (the concept of inscape, the inner world of the mind described by G. M. Hopkins), music (Maxwell’s Silver Hammer and countless Christmas carols), and magic.  He incorporates plays on word and ideas all over the place, and these are great fun to recognize. In many ways this book is Harry Potter for adults. He sets Vic  on a classic hero’s quest, and along the way she receives assistance from the unlikeliest of friends and family. During her struggle, she comes to know and accept herself and to release the deep love and empathy that she holds deep within. Hill has become a master of the contemporary horror novel, understanding that suggestion can be more powerful than the  most grotesque description can ever be. Rather than sicken his readers, he invites them to use their own imagination and fears to experience what his characters are experiencing. And it works. Very, very well. My only criticism of the novel is that its middle third fails to move along at the pace  of the first and final sections.

Most of the reviews I’ve read online contain comparisons between the work of Joe Hill and that of his more famous father, Steven King. It’s my belief that Hill’s writing deserves to be considered on its own substantial merits.

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