27 September 2017

The Unexpected Robert Barr (w/ two queries)

Robert Barr
[n.p.]: Dodo, [n.d]
240 pages

A collection of short stories united by a common theme, Revenge! was one of Robert Barr's best received books. This anonymous review from the 26 November 1896 issue of Public Opinion is typical:
Under the comprehensive title of "Revenge," Robert Barr collects a score of the wildest flights of his imagination, which land us in all sorts of places. Horrors dire lie cheek by jowl with the broadest of farces. All tastes are suited save those the readers who wish to derive moral benefit from their literary pabulum, for there is not a scrap of moral to be extracted, although one can be invented to fit almost anywhere.
The first American edition, with illustrations by Lancelot Speed, Stanley Wood, and G.G. Manton, is a thing of beauty. I wanted a copy for years, I searched for a copy for years, and in the end settled for this crummy print on demand thing from Dodo Press. I'm glad I did because Revenge! was not only this summer's favourite read, but it renewed my interest in its author.

Barr was a better stylist than his contemporary Grant Allen, whom I describe in my new book (plug) as Victorian Canada's greatest novelist, but I'd long believed Barr lagged far behind his rival in weaving a good yarn.

I was wrong.

The stories in Revenge! are "wonderfully clever" – I quote Douglas Sladen (Literary Review, 23 October 1896) – the suspense, black humour, and twists remind me of nothing so much as Tales of the Unexpected, which so captivated as a kid.

Revenge! has twenty stories, all of which would've fit well in Roald Dahl's series. The first, "An Alpine Divorce," is one of Barr's most anthologized, which is not to say it is well-known. Because we never read it in school, what follows will likely spoil things.

As the title suggests, "An Alpine Divorce" concerns marital discord. It begins:
In some natures there are no half-tones; nothing but raw primary colours. John Bodman was a man who was always at one extreme or the other. This probably would have mattered little had he not married a wife whose nature was an exact duplicate of his own.
With all divorces one must pick a side. I chose to be with Mrs Bodman (she has no Christian name), but as the tale progressed she fell out of favour.

Things are set in motion when John Bodman books a holiday in the Swiss Alps. Saying nothing, his wife sets about preparing for the journey. At some point – the narrator is unsure as to just when – John gets the idea that a nearby picturesque outlook would be the perfect place to dispose of his wife. They'll hike there together – Mrs Bodman always insists on accompanying him everywhere –  and he'll simply push her over the outlook's crumbling wall.

Set out they do, in a scene that affords the reader the first and only glimpse of their married life. As the couple approach their destination, the wife pauses. "John," she asks, "don't you think that if you had been kinder to me at first, things might have been different?":
"It seems to me," he answered, not looking at her, "that it is rather late in the day for discussing that question."
     "I have much to regret," she said quaveringly. "Have you nothing?"
     "No," he answered."
     "Very well," replied his wife, with the usual hardness returning to her voice. "I was merely giving you a chance. Remember that."
     Her husband looked at her suspiciously. "What do you mean?" he asked, "giving me a chance? I want no chance nor anything else from you. A man accepts nothing from one he hates. My feeling towards you is, I imagine, no secret to you. We are tied together, and you have done your best to make the bondage insupportable."
     "Yes," she answered, with her eyes on the ground, "we are tied together, we are tied together!"
Mrs Bodman becomes increasingly agitated:
"Why do you walk about like a wild animal?" he cried. "Come here and sit down beside me, and be still." She faced him with a light he had never before seen in her eyes — a light of insanity and of hatred.
     "I walk like a wild animal," she said, " because I am one. You spoke a moment ago of your hatred of me; but you are a man, and your hatred is nothing to mine. Bad as you are, much as you wish to break the bond which ties us together, there are still things which I know you would not stoop to. I know there is no thought of murder in your heart, but there is in mine. I will show you, John Bodman, how much I hate you."
     The man nervously clutched the stone beside him, and gave a guilty start as she mentioned murder.
     "Yes," she continued, "I have told all my friends in England that I believed you intended to murder me in Switzerland."
     "Good God!" he cried. "How could you say such a thing?"
     "I say it to show how much I hate you — how much I am prepared to give for revenge. I have warned the people at the hotel, and when we left two men followed us. The proprietor tried to persuade me not to accompany you. In a few moments those two men will come in sight of the Outlook. Tell them, if you think they will believe you, that it was an accident."
     The mad woman tore from the front of her dress shreds of lace and scattered them around.
     Bodman started up to his feet, crying, "What are you about?" But before he could move toward her she precipitated herself over the wall, and went shrieking and whirling down the awful abyss.
Bloody hell! What an ending!

Now, I warned you I was going to spoil things. I did so because I wanted to give a sense of why Revenge! is worthy of attention. A collection of well-crafted, imaginative, disturbing, entertaining tales, it is the best Victoria's Canada offered. There are nineteen more tales – some better, some worse, most on equal footing.

Give it a read. Do not wait for next summer; it is a book for all seasons. I'm betting Roald Dahl would agree.

A query: The 14 November 1896 Atheneum has it that "An Alpine Divorce" was likely suggested by an "'over-true' tale of some years since." Does anyone have an idea as to the incident the reviewer is referencing?

A second query: "An Alpine Divorce" is one of two Revenge! stories to feature suicide, and murder features in most, but not all are touched by death. An example of this last is "The Bromley Gibberts' Story," which Sladen likens to a roman à clef, adding "it is hard not to think that the alphabetical resemblance of the hero's name to that of a well-known novelist of the day is entirely accidental, or that the resemblance of the name Shorely to that of one of the cleverest and most popular of our editors is purely fortuitous."

I have no idea just who he's on about. Do you?

Object and Access: A trade-size paperback. I paid US$10.99 for my copy.

Of all the print on demand vultures, Dodo has the nicest cover – that's James Tissot's July: Specimen of a Portrait (1878). The strangest positions Robert Barr as a pulp writer, and reimagines Mrs Bodman as a woman who knows how to handle a gun.

The 1896 Stokes first edition I searched for isn't horribly expensive, but it exceeds my current budget. Copies begin at US$65 and, for no good reason, reach US$500. "Tastefully stamped with silver and colors," says the ad in the November 1896 edition of the Pocket Magazine. I've seen copies on yellow, red, green, and tan boards, with no indication as to which, if any, is the true first. A yellow copy of the Stokes edition can be read online here – gratis – at the Internet Archive.

An English edition was published the same year by Chatto & Windus.

Held by nine Canadian university libraries. All our public libraries fail.

25 September 2017

Hugh Hood and Me

I'll be in Montreal next week for what looks to be an eventful thirty-eight hours. On the Tuesday, October 3rd, I'll be hosting the ninth annual plaque dedication at the Writers' Chapel. This year we'll be honouring Hugh Hood, author of Flying a Red Kite, The Camera Always Lies, and thirty other books. Andre Furlani and Sarah Hood will speak. As in the past, this is a free event and will be followed by a wine and cheese reception.
The Writers' Chapel
St Jax Montréal
1439 St Catherine Street West
(Bishops Street entrance)

Tuesday, October 3rd at 6:00 pm
The next day, Wednesday, sees the launch of my new book, The Dusty Bookcase, at the legendary Word bookstore. I'll be speaking briefly and will at some point hold up a copy of what I now know to be the very first Canadian novel I ever read. Please do consider dropping by to say "hello." I'm told there will be ever more wine and cheese!

The Word
469 Milton Street

Wednesday, October 4th at 7:30 pm

Related posts:

22 September 2017

'Autumn, 1917' and 'Autumn, 1917'

For this first day of the season, two century-old poems of the Great War, both titled "Autumn, 1917," both written by women on the homefront. The first, by Helena Coleman, the pride of Newcastle, Ontario, is found in her chapbook Marching Men (Toronto: Dent, 1917):

AUTUMN, 1917
               We know by many a tender token
                    When Indian-summer days have come,
               By rustling leaves in branches oaken
                    And by the cricket's sleepy hum. 
               By aspen leaves no longer shaken,
                    And by the river's silvered thread,
               The oriole's swinging cup forsaken,
                    Emptied of music overhead. 
               By long slant lines on field and fallow.
                    By mellowing portals of the wood,
               By silences that seem to hallow
                    Inviting us to solitude.... 
               Are there young hearts in France recalling
                    These dream-filled, blue Canadian days,
               When gold and scarlet flames are falling
                    From beech and maple set ablaze? 
              Pluck they again the pale, wild aster,
                   The bending plume of golden-rod?
              And do their exiled hearts beat faster
                   Roaming in thought their native sod? 
              Dream they of Canada crowned and golden,
                  Flushed with her Autumn diadem?
              In years to come when time is olden,
                  Canada's dream shall be of them — 
              Shall be of them who gave for others
                   The ardour of their radiant years; —
              Your name in Canada's heart, my brothers,
                   Shall be remembered long with tears! 
              We give you vision back for vision,
                  Forgetting not the price you paid,
              O bearers of the world's decision,
                  On whom the nations' debt was laid! 
              No heart can view these highways glowing
                  With gold transmuted from the clod,
              But crowns your glorious manhood, knowing
                  You gave us back our faith in God.
Miss Coleman's poem also features in John W. Garvin's Canadian Poems of the Great War (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1917), in which we find another "Autumn, 1917." This one comes from the pen of Elizabeth Roberts MacDonald, sister to fellow poets Sir Charles God Damn, Theodore Goodrich, and William Carman Roberts.

AUTUMN, 1917 
                       The rain and the leaves together
                            Go drifting over the world;
                       Autumn has slipped his tether
                            And his flag of death unfurled. 
                       'Tomorrow — tomorrow — tomorrow — '
                            Hear how the grey wind cries!
                       Tomorrow the stark bare branches,
                            Tomorrow the steel-cold skies. 
                       The garnet leaves and the golden
                            Are tossed and trampled and thrown
                       As the hopes of man when the trumpets
                            Of crimson war are blown. 
                       Unleashed are the hounds of anguish
                            That hunt the heart of man
                       To tear its dream-bright garments,
                            To rend its valiant plan; 
                       Honour and valour, the priceless
                            Blood of our heroes slain, —
                       Shall their offering all be wasted,
                            Their sacrifice be vain? 
                       No; for the great ideal
                            For which our hearts have bled
                       Lives — by each field of honour,
                            Lives — by our countless dead; 
                       And a wind of Life is blowing,
                            A golden trumpet calls:—
                       'Rally — rally — rally, — 
                            Till the dark fortress falls!'

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19 September 2017

The Honesty's Too Much: Dan Hill's Comeback

My promised review of Comeback, the 1983 novel by singer/songwriter Dan Hill is now available at the Canadian Notes & Queries website. An excerpt:
I hesitate in describing Comeback as an extraordinary novel because it is not very good; what I mean to say is that it’s unlike anything I’ve read. Let’s begin by recognizing that the author modelled protagonist/rapist, singer/songwriter Cornelius Barnes IV on himself. Like his creator, Barnes achieves fame in his early twenties with a hit considered by some as “the most romantic song of the decade,” but his star soon falls into the gutter. Now pushing thirty, it’s been five years since his last hit, and Barnes is without a recording contract. The other characters of note come from the author’s life: Cornelius Barnes III is modelled on his father, Daniel Hill III. Timothy Reynolds, Barnes’ high school friend and musical collaborator, is based on music producer Matthew McCauley. Timothy’s father bankrolls Barnes’ first album, just as McCauley’s did for Hill. Bernie Fiedler, owner of the legendary Riverboat Coffee House, plays himself.
     Sadly, Lawrence Hill, the author’s Giller Award-winning younger brother, does not feature.
You can read the whole thing here:

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13 September 2017

Ten Dusty Favourites from The Dusty Bookcase

Brian shares ten noteworthy finds on his bibliophilic journey, including gossip about the Eaton family, radish-heavy dialogue, and "the worst sex scene in all of Canadian literature."
The good folks at All Lit Up have just posted my overview of ten favourite Dusty Bookcase finds. You can read it through here.

Yep, the worst sex scene in all of Canadian literature – and it wasn't written by Dan Hill.

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11 September 2017

Sometimes When We Touch: Dan Hill Writes Six Sex Scenes (NSFW)

Things have been pretty quiet here, I know. Much of these past two weeks has been taken up by other writing and promotion of The Dusty Bookcase – the book. This is not to say I haven't found time to read. Just yesterday I finished Comeback, the 1983 novel by Dan Hill, brother of Lawrence. It's one of the most unusual books read in this journey through Canada's forgotten, neglected, and suppressed writing. For reasons outlined in my review, which should follow in a few days, it is also one of the most disturbing. A roman à clef infused with self-loathing and sex scenes, at time of publication Maclean's dismissed Comeback as "soft-porn."

Because used copies listed online begin at C$115 ("20 pages throughout the book have splatter stains" – coffee, I hope), I present these excerpts.

You may wish to close your eyes and hide.
She felt awkward – no man had undressed her before. Her legs were pressed so tightly together that he finally had to pull off her suit in hurried jerky motions. She felt his warm breath against the opening of her vagina. As his hands opened her legs she shuddered and whispered. "No – please – don't."
     "It's alright," he murmured, his breath pounding into her, "it's alright."
Her nipples felt as soft and pliant as the erasers at the tip of a pencil, but her breasts were hard and unyielding – like a pair of Prince Edward Island potatoes
She drew my mouth against hers, kissing me with unusual tenderness, but the moment I closed my eyes she slid her hand into the salad bowl, scooped up a handful of grapes, and dropping them down the front of my pants. I squawked indignantly, sliding down the refrigerator and toppling on the floor, pulling her down on top of me as I fell. The salad bowl hit the floor with a crack and I slid it out of our way, leaving Maria and me a good double bed's worth of space to flop around in.
"You can touch it if you like."
     I timidly obliged.
     "Now trace your way down...slowly...softly...until you reach the opening.... That's right...hmmmmm...hmmmm...that's right, you're catching on...just a little at a time.... Oooohhhh, that feels like...hmmmm...like you've got the knack of it...."
She started running her hand up and down my thigh, as if I were nothing more than an extension of the bedspread, something that needed to be unwrinkled, smoothed over.
I felt her hands pull down my pants, felt her mouth take me in – gradually, a little at a time. My body stiffened, coiling itself up for impending release. I tried to step away. But she clasped her hands around my buttocks and drew me closer, deeper, and I lost myself to the sensation sweeping through me like a waterfall. I started falling to the floor – I didn't care – and my hands grabbed hold of her shoulders, pulling her with me. Somehow her mouth stayed fastened to me – my body curled around either side of her face – her mouth still sucking long after the last drop had trailed down her throat.
Sadly, this has now lost its innocence: