Another snippet from Richard O’Connor’s 1967 biography of Ambrose Bierce:
“The book-reviewing end of his chores, predictably, loosed [Bierce's] most savage energies… He once composed what may be the shortest, nastiest book review on the record by listing its title, author and publisher and adding the one-line comment, ‘The covers of this book are too far apart’.
“Occasionally, like an eagle swooping down on the carrion-littered plains of literature, he would quote one paragraph of a current novel as an example of hopelessly bad writing. Such as : ‘She remained inactive in his embrace for a considerable period, then modestly disengaging herself looked him full in the countenance and signified a desire for self-communion. By love’s instinct he divined her purpose – she wanted to consider his proposal apart from the influence of the glamour of his personal presence. With the innate tact of a truly genteel nature he bade her good evening in French, and with measured tread paced away into the gathering gloom’.”
Alas, we are not told the titles of the two books under review.
I am not a frequent flier, so it may be some while before I can take advantage of this excellent service. However, next time I am summoned to an important Hooting Yard-related international conference, I shall insist that my all-expenses-paid trip is made via Henri Lehmann Airlines. Satisfied customer Saint Catherine of Alexandria chirrups: “My flight was so comfortable it was almost as if angels were transporting me to my dedicated monastery at Mount Sinai after a foolhardy attempt by bad, bad heathens to have me broken on the wheel”.
See Art Inconnu
“It has been observed that in their treatment of the Western frontier Bret Harte made the prevalent contempt for the law picturesque and Mark Twain found it humorous, but Ambrose Bierce labeled it for what it was – murder, armed robbery, assault with intent to kill. His occasional essays into Western crime were as bluntly stated as a police blotter: no chivalrous gamblers, just cardsharks; no courtly gunfighters, just homicidal psychopaths; no golden-hearted dancehall girls, just pathetic whores; no gallant soldiers nor stouthearted pioneers, just men on the government payroll bored by routine and farmers looking for a better piece of land. The Western legend was, to use his favourite word, bosh.”
Richard O’Connor, Ambrose Bierce : A Biography (1967)
This week at the super soaraway Dabbler, I turn my attention, not before time, to certain aspects of mediaeval church decoration. Modern readers will discover a useful method of stunning the puny brain of a Europeasant, if that kind of activity is your “bag”, which it probably is, if you’re honest, and which of my readers is not?
Many years ago, I wrote a story based upon an alphabetic structure, called Abandoned Zoo. Yet I could so easily have used the title Alpine Zombie to achieve the same narrative ends. Whereas Abandoned Zoo was about an abandoned zoo, Alpine Zombie, had it ever been written, would have been about a zombie in the Alps. The mood, rather than being one of misty melancholy – and as I recall, there was much mist in Abandoned Zoo – would have been closer to terror, as the zombie stalked denizens of the Alps such as goatherds and yodelling Edelweiss-pickers. I might even have arranged for a walk-on part for Captain Von Trapp, memorably played by Christopher Plummer in the film version of The Sound Of Music. How would the Austrian martinet have dealt with a threatening zombie? The cold imperious contempt with which he faced the Nazis would not, I’ll wager, suffice to cow a great lumbering glassy-eyed member of the living dead community, as I suppose we should call them nowadays. I have not read enough of the literature to know if a zombie can be stopped in its tracks by a person brandishing an acoustic guitar, gathering around him an ex-nun and several tinies, and launching into an Alpine songlet. It would be a tactic worth trying at least once, and that could be made the central incident at the heart of the story called Alpine Zombie.
Given that the central figure in the tale would be a monster of the mountains, my prose would have to glisten with sufficiently bright clarity to ensure the reader did not mistake the zombie for a Himalayan Yeti. Inserting the proper names of a number of notable Alpine peaks would help to pin our yarn to its geographical cushion. Their deployment within the text could follow an alphabetic schema to enhance the A to Z superstructure of our story. Thus, the zombie could pursue Captain Von Trapp from Alphubel to Zinalrothorn, taking in, say, Blüemlisalp and Carè Alto and Dom and Eiger and Finsteraarhorn and Grimming and Hochgall and so on and so forth along the way. So haphazard and incoherent a journey may make no sense, but in dizzying the brains of both the reader and Captain Von Trapp himself, it would no doubt add to the terror of the tale.
It would probably be a good idea to have the ex-nun and the tinies also menaced by zombies, perhaps while cowering in a chalet.
Snap by Phil Meades, taken in St. Mary’s Parish Church, Rye, East Sussex on 10th September 2010.
One has to ask : did Ambrose Bierce grow up on Scroonhoonpooge Farmyard, or an eerily exact replica of it? “The Old Oaken Bucket” – published in The Wasp, 3rd November 1883 – begins thus:
With what anguish of mind I remember my childhood Recalled in the light of knowledge since gained, The malarious farm, the wet, fungus-grown wildwood, The chills then contracted that since have remained; The scum-covered duck pond, the pigsty close by it, The ditch where the sour-smelling house drainage fell, The damp, shaded dwelling, the foul barnyard nigh it – But worse than all else was that terrible well, And the old oaken bucket, the mould-crusted bucket, That moss-covered bucket that hung in the well.
I squelched across the marsh, in driving rain, and linnets sang within my brain. There were no linnets to be seen, just crows, drenched crows, drenched crows. I lit my pipe and sucked, and heard the caw of a drenched crow. The rain was pelting down as I made my slopping way from marsh to town. And in the town, no linnets, no, nor crows. Just shuttered kiosks and the stadium. An athlete threw his javelin in the air. I watched it soar then stab the sodden grass. I went to the canteen. An arty print of crows hung on the wall. I slurped a bowl of steaming warming broth, and then I caught a bus back to the marsh.
Waspish playwright Maud Wasp, holding a tin trident atop Pilgarlic Tor, struck by a thunderbolt.
A drawing, like almost all my drawings, from the last century. It is a detail from the 1992 Hooting Yard Calendar, wherein Maud Wasp hid behind a pseudonym.
Nige has been rereading Pale Fire, and has inspired me to begin my own once-per-decade revisit to Vladimir Nabokov’s most magnificent novel. Just as Lolita has the finest parenthetical phrase in all literature – (picnic, lightning) - so Pale Fire contains my absolute favourite sentence. If you have not yet read the book, you should look away now, as they say on television…
In itself, the sentence is unremarkable. But in its context, its placement (at the end of the third paragraph of the Foreword), and its startling, joyous, vertiginous effect, it has no peer.
There is a very loud amusement park right in front of my present lodgings.
“An interesting, though rather detestable, creature called the ant-lion is found in some of the bestiaries of the Middle Ages… The ant-lion was so called because of its size, since ‘while to other animals it is only an ant, to ants themselves it is as if it were a lion’.
“As an instance of the implicit credulity of the Middle Ages witness this account of the ant-lion given in the Physiologus. This states that the ant-lion’s father was shaped like a lion and his mother like an ant. The father was a flesh-eater; its mother herbivorous. When these two had issue, this was the ant-lion, partaking of the features of its parents, its forepart being that of a lion and its hindquarters like an ant. Being thus composed the wretched insect could neither eat flesh like its father nor herbs like its mother, and so it starved to death!”
Colin Clair, Unnatural History : An Illustrated Bestiary (1967). Alas, the ant-lion is not illustrated in the book, and nor is the gigantic gold-digging pismire, with which it shares a chapter.
This week, my cupboard over at The Dabbler contains a story so terrifying that big tough persons, wrestlers and dockside brawlers and such, have been known to quake in their boots when reading it. When it originally appeared, some years ago, it was voted the “tale most likely to disarm a ruffian bent on brutality” by the Association For The Disarming Of Brutes And Ruffians By Means Of Prose And Verse (Registered Charity No. 2). This is a very worthy organisation which Hooting Yard is pleased to promote. A percentage of the money we receive in donations is diverted from the Fund For Distressed Out Of Print Pamphleteers to help the Association continue its work, which, weirdly, is both valuable and invaluable. Click that button to the right and please give generously.
Here is a simple method of grasping a weasel by the scruff of its neck, hypnotising it, and having it do your bidding.
1. Take one weasel.
2. Grasp the weasel by the scruff of its neck and hold it so that its head is no more than a couple of inches from your eyes.
3. Stare into the eyes of the weasel while making hypnotic weaselly noises.
4. Place the weasel carefully on your floor and issue it with a command.
5. When the weasel returns from its mission, pick it up by the scruff of the neck, and repeat step 3, substituting hypnotic weaselly noises with antihypnotic weaselly noises.
6. Release the weasel.
What could be simpler than that? Indeed, the only difficulty most students find is to think up a suitable command for the hypnotised weasel to obey. Experience shows that tasks involving high-pitched squealing and savagery are likely to achieve the best results. If you are of a squeamish disposition, command the weasel to do its slashing and slaughtering in another room, or even outside, in your front garden, if you have a front garden. Try to remember that weasels will attack most effectively if set upon organisms of equal size, or smaller than themselves, although in certain circumstances they can prove lethal and terrifying pitted against larger beings, particularly if such beings are tethered to a stout post.
Advanced students may wish to attempt the grasping, hypnotising, and commanding of more than one weasel at a time.
Even more advanced students can omit steps 5 and 6, and maintain a pack of hypnotised weasels primed and ready to do their bidding in perpetuity, or until the weasels die.
Reader Mark Patterson alerts me to the usefulness of the robe in modern Druidic practice – with an important caveat.
In The Living Stones (1957), Ithell Colquhoun wrote : “It disguises imperfections of figure: round shoulders, bosoms of unmodish size or shape, pigeon-chests, pot-bellies, too-insistent buttocks, knock knees and bandy legs, all are mitigated in the merciful folds of the robe. But whatever the type of robe… its effect is often destroyed by disillusioning shoes.”
“Some years since, observes a correspondent of the Athenaeum, a gentleman at a dinner table happened to mention that he was surprised, on the death of a relative, by his servant inquiring ‘whether his master would inform the bees of the event, or whether he should do so’. On asking the meaning of so strange a question, the servant assured him that bees ought always to be informed of a death in the family, or they would resent the neglect by deserting the hive. One of the party present took the opportunity of testing the prevalence of this strange notion, by inquiring of a cottager who had lately lost a relative, and happened to complain of the loss of her bees, ‘whether she had told them all she ought to do?’ She immediately replied, ‘Oh yes : when my aunt died I told every skep [hive] myself, and put them into mourning’.”
John Brand, Observations On The Popular Antiquities Of Great Britain: Including The Whole Of Mr. Bourne’s Antiquitates Vulgares (1777)