30 November 2023

Celebrating John Metcalf at 85

This past Saturday, I joined a pubfull of people – yes, a pubfull – in downtown Ottawa to celebrate John Metcalf's 85th birthday. It was a glorious event with David O'Meara serving as host and Biblioasis publisher Dan Wells as MC. The fête began with Lisa Alward reading from 'Cocktail,' the title story of her newly published debut collection. Mark Anthony Jarman followed with 'Burn Man on a Texas Porch' from Burn Man: Selected Stories, also newly published. We were then treated to two passages from 'A Pearl of Great Price,' a new story by the man himself.

'Happy Birthday' was sung. There was cake!

What with Covid and geography, it had been some time since I'd last seen John Metcalf. I brought The Museum at the End of the World (2016) and The Worst Truth (2022) for him to sign. The latter is a 61-page review of David Staines' A History of Canadian Fiction, a book I myself had read for the Dorchester Review. 'What Is A Canadian Fiction?', the title of my much shorter review is a nod to John's What Is A Canadian Literature (1988).

We exchanged observations and opinions as members of a very small number who had actually read Prof Staines' latest.

At $126.95, I don't expect I'll meet another. 

The Worst Truth: Regarding A History of Canadian Fiction by David Staines can be purchased for eight dollars through this link. 'A Pearl of Great Price' is now available as the ninth number in the Biblioasis Short Fiction Series. Limited to one hundred numbered and signed copies, it is a thing of uncommon beauty.

20 November 2023

An Alvin Schwartz Cover Cavalcade

Alvin Schwartz's debut novel, The Blowtop, was published in 1946 by Dial Press. It followed dozens of shorter works, including: "His Lordship's Double" (Batman #21), "Superman's Search for Clark Kent" (Superman #32), "The Toughest School in the World" (Superboy #10), and at least eight comic romance stories titled "A Date With Judy" (A Date With Judy #1-3).

I've not read The Blowtop, but it sounds right up my alley:

Le Cinglé, its French translation, was a bestseller overseas.

Le Cinglé
Paris: L'élan, 1950

Schwartz wrote or co-wrote six other novels, all of which were issued as "Sophisticates" by Arco, a publisher previously known for The Handy Manual of House Care and Repair (1949) and How to Win Prize Contests (1950). I've read and written about a couple of Schwartz's Sophisticates, Touchable and Hot Star, but I'm not sure I'll bother with the others. They're becoming increasingly rare, increasingly expensive, and... well, truth be told, those I have tackled haven't been terribly interesting. To be frank, I'd much rather read "The Superwoman of Metropolis!", which Schwartz wrote for Superman's Girl Friend Lois Lane #8.  

Do not be fooled by the publisher's descriptions, Arco Sophisticates promise much more than they deliver: 

Sinful Daughter
New York: Arco, 1951
SINFUL DAUGHTER is different, unlike any book Jack Woodford has ever written. Sabra is the daughter who tries to tear herself away from her mother's wickedness because she fears her own weakness and voluptuous nature. Reared amid scenes of splendor and debauchery, she has never succumbed to temptation. To avoid trouble she submerges herself in mediocrity and through error finally discovers the right way of life for her. A very exciting book.
New York: Arco, 1951
From young Arch Rader, Ruth learned of passion. From Blackie Dawson she learned of love. From Mike, the bartender, she learned of bestial lust, and its unexplainable allure. From Tony, the lesbian, she learned of the strange, exotic, frightening fasination of abnormal relations. From Bruno she learned the utter depths of degradation. And from Clare, she learned the terror, the hopeless despair of dope. And at the last, out of this inferno, which had her helpess in its grip, she learned the possibility of redemption... from herself.
City Girl
New York: Arco, 1951
You may know a number of girls in the city, but you've never met anyone like Clio Haven. Never, that is, unless you travelled with the bootlegging set of Prohibition Chicago. Clio was a bootlegger's girl; bootlegging was Clio's security. Then in walked Bob, Logan, and half the Chicago police force to help her change her mind. it would make any girl wonder if it's safe to be desirable.

Sword of Desire
New York: Arco, 1952
Big City corruption and gambling successfully withstand a Senate Committee investigation, until psychiatrist Dr. Varesi's mysterious power works to reveal the secrets of the women involved. The ironic result is as unusual as it is intriguing.
Hot Star
New York: Arco, 1952
Maybe the thing that happened to Betty Frenck could happen to any young actress. She became a star of illegitimate pictures; became, too, a creature of desire and passion, caught in the magical spell of Director Perepoint's talent, and a victim of Producer Kern's contempt for all women. Whatever your opinion of her, you're sure to agree that there's never been a HOT STAR like Betty, either in or out of pictures. 
Man Made
New York: Arco, 1952
Man Maid is a bit of a mystery; all I've ever seen is its cover. 

I like to think that Alvin Schwartz made good money with Arco, but have my doubts. Late in life, he wrote two memoirs, of a kind, which may or may not support my skepticism. The first, An Unlikely Prophet, went through two editions. Originally self-published, the second edition replaces the subtitle and cover to emphasise his work with DC.

An Unlikely Prophet: Revelations on the Path Without Form
[np]: Divina, 1997
An Unlikely Prophet:
A Metaphysical Memoir by the Legendary Writer of Superman and Batman

Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 2006

A Gathering of Selves: The Spiritual Journey of the Legendary Writer of Superman and Batman (Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 2006) was his last published work.

Alvin Schwartz died five years later. By all accounts, he left this world from his Chesterville home, roughly fifty kilometres southeast of downtown Ottawa. 

Alvin Schwartz
17 November 1919, New York, New York
28 October 2011, Chesterville, Ontario
Who am I kidding.

Researching this piece, I happened upon a Minnesota bookseller who was selling a lot of twelve "erotic" books at a price that amounts to fifteen dollars apiece. Sword of Desire and Man Maid were two of the twelve.

I bought the twelve for those two.

You knew I would.

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13 November 2023

Dick Tricks Chicks Into Hot Pix!

Hot Star
Robert W. Tracy [Alvin Schwartz]
New York: Arco, 1952
179 pages

Betty and Bob's honeymoon was a disaster, but don't blame the bride. Bob had been burned – their nuptial room didn't even feature a bath – yet he couldn't bring himself to complain to the front desk. The clerk had spotted him as a virgin, and Bob wasn't about to subject himself to further humiliation. Betty too had been a virgin. She'd imagined their wedding night as one of romance, sensuality, and tender passion, only to have her groom become a pouty, demanding man-child:

"I thought when we talked it over you understood – that a man's got to... Oh why can't you be sensible about it, Betty? You – you act as though I'm not your husband. Haven't I got a right after all this waiting? What are you trying to do – torture me more?
There would be no dinner, no dancing, and no time to change into something more comfortable.

Flash forward two weeks. The couple are still married, if not entirely happily. Bob works the assembly line at the Ross Machinery Company, while Betty spends her days keeping their tiny rented home. Her nights are spent warding off Bob's advances – often unsuccessfully – "wondering if that was all sex was; something for a man to enjoy."

Betty's dreams of becoming a professional actress make life somewhat bearable – what's more, it gets her out of the house. Cast as the lead in a community theatre production of Anna, a drama about a boozy floozy, she researches the role by pulling up a stool at a local bar. Lest anything go wrong, Bob sits in the adjoining dining room.

A handsome man in brown gaberdine topcoat buys Betty a highball. Betty is certain he's trying to pick her up, until he introduces himself as Carl Perepoint, a director at Experimental Motion Picture Studios: "You don't mean you are interested in me as-as – Oh, no! I can't believe it."

In fact, Perepoint was trying to pick her up, but Betty's mention of nearby Bob put an end to that.

And what of Bob? What is his dream? Well, he hopes to one day leave the assembly line for a career as a comic strip artist. If anything, this is an even more uncommon occupation than professional actress, but it would've been familiar to Alvin Schwartz, who between 1942 and 1959 wrote for DC Comics. Bizarro Superman was one of his creations.

I make a point in mentioning this because the introduction of Perepoint propels Hot Star along a path in which we find tropes belonging to comics' Golden Age. Consider Experimental Motion Picture Studios, which is located in a failed amusement park and is owned by a mysterious crime syndicate.

Perepoint would have Betty believe that Experimental is just that – experimental – and is the latest venture of an unnamed Hollywood studio. He takes advantage of the newlywed's naïveté to score footage of her in the flesh, assuring the actress that that this "professional screen test" is an industry standard: "It's very simple Betty... Before we invest money in a girl, we must know her figure as an artist would know it."

Hot Star isn't exactly hot stuff, but then no Arco Sophisticate is. Ellipses serve to suggest.

Perepoint provides Betty with coffee and cigarettes spiked with a drug that promotes sexual arousal. As the it takes effect, he puts on a record, Festival of Aphrodite, and Betty strips.

The girl can't help it.

From this point on, Betty acts as a Pavlovian bitch, becoming aroused whenever the music plays. 

Remove the sex and drugs from these dance scenes and you have an ideal tale for Superman's Girl Friend, Lois Lane. A better story, buried within the early chapters, involves Frank Legault, who works the assembly line beside Bob: "He was a powerfully built, blond young man of thirty-one and, despite he handicap of his artificial legs, could stand up at a bench or drilling press for hours."

Frank lost his lower limbs in the war. He peddles pornographic photos  on the side and has started screening spicy films at the local union hall with the goal of earning enough money to open a small novelty store. His wife wants to help, but her vision is failing. She's learning Braille.

Frank's is not as sophisticated a story as Betty and Bob's, but isn't it the one you'd rather read? Is it not more real?

I've always preferred Earth-One to Bizarro World.

Favourite passage: Questions regarding punctuation, capitalization, and more are best left addressed to the Arco editor. 

He told her that he was going to star her in an adaptation of the Madame Bovary classic, with emphasis on nude love scenes. "especially that scene in the garden where Madame Bovary keeps a tryst with her new lover, while her husband is asleep inside. How does that appeal to you Betty?"
     "I've always wanted to play Madame Bovary," she said.

Trivia: Though Hot Star was published sixteen years before Alvin Schwartz left the United States for Canada, there is Canadian content. The second night of Betty and Bob's honeymoon takes place in Montreal: 

Their so awfully disappointing second night, when they drank wine, and Bob, instead of becoming an exciting lover under its influence, only became silly and had burst out laughing even while he... until what might have been glorious fulfillment to their romance had become a joke... on her. This stranger, or that Frenchman, she felt sure, would have made her feel... feel.... 

Object: Cheap paper bound in sturdy yellow boards. The novel proper is followed by nine pages of adverts for other Arco titles, beginning with Touchable (1951), co-written by Schwartz and 

Access: One copy is listed for sale online; at US$15.00, it's a steal. Evidence suggests that not even Library and Archives Canada has a copy.

Go get it!

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11 November 2023

Remembrance Day

Daniel Issac Vernon Eaton was the father of novelist Evelyn Eaton, whose 1940 international bestseller Quietly My Captain Waits was reviewed here this past April. Known as Vernon, he was born on 19 September 1869 at Salmon River, Nova Scotia. Eaton was a civil engineer, surveyor, typographer, and geologist, but believed military service to be his true calling. At twenty-six, he left a good position at the Geological Survey of Canada for a career as a soldier. Eaton served in the South African War and the Great War, during which he was promoted to lieutenant-colonel.

Records indicate that during the latter conflict his wife, Myra Eaton (née Fitz Randolph), relocated from Kingston to London. It's possible, but not certain, that daughter Evelyn was living in the Big Smoke when news was received that her father had been killed whilst preparing to take Vimy Ridge.

Eaton's entry in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography is recommended. Written by Glenn Wright, it concludes:

Vernon Eaton was tall and handsome with steely grey eyes and a dark complexion. He was keenly aware of his Eaton family heritage and proudly wore a tattoo of the family crest on his right arm. Twice he was mentioned in dispatches for gallant and distinguished service in the field. In many ways he epitomizes the professional soldier in Canada in the period from the 1890s to World War I. With opportunities for training and for active service, Eaton carved out a promising career for himself as an experienced artillery officer of the first rank, only to lose his life on the eve of Canada’s greatest military achievement of the Great War.

Daniel Issac Vernon Eaton
19 September 1869, Salmon River, Nova Scotia, Canada
11 April 1917, Vimy Ridge, France

02 November 2023

Abraham's Bosom and the Great Change of Life

Abraham's Bosom
Basil King
New York: Harper & Brothers, 1918
54 pages

A short story masquerading as a novella, Abraham's Bosom first appeared in the March 30, 1918 edition of The Saturday Evening Post. Its publication nearly coincided with Germany's devastating spring offensive, which resulted in more than 862,000 Allied dead and wounded. 

Abraham's Bosom begins in a doctor's office. Berkley Noone, first rector of St Thomas, is told that he is suffering from the very same rare disease that had afflicted organist Ned Angel. A "near-sighted fellow with a limp," Angel had trained the choir of St Thomas for forty years – "without salary" – only to be dismissed by Noone after sharing his diagnosis.

Abraham's Bosom frontispiece.
The organist died two months later.

After receiving his own diagnosis, Noone walks about the city a bit before taking to his death bed. As he lies dying, the reverend reflects upon on his marriage and children. Wife Emily hovers about, propping him up in what she insists are the most comfortable positions. Their five children, whom he considers disappointments, visit from time to time. All are present during his final moments as the reverend gazes somewhat vacantly at an engraving of his favourite painting, William Homan Hunt's The Light of the World. His eyes see the lantern glowing brighter and brighter until it outshines the afternoon sun.

It takes time for Noone to recognize his passing. He'd expected an instant in which his soul would "tear its way out of his body and he should be thrust, a naked, quivering bundle of spiritual nerves, before angels and archangels and principalities and powers, and a God whose first question would be that which was put to Cain: "What hast thou done?"

Instead, he's met by Ned Angel.

As a story, Abraham's Bosom is much shorter than it appears. The diagnosis, wandering, and death bed scenes are brief; the better part of the book involves theological discussion as Angel sets Noone straight on things theosophical and what the reverend may expect now that he has passed through the "great change." It was followed six months later by King's far superior Going West, which concerns a ghostly journey shared by German and American soldiers who have killed each another in battle. 

Both are products of the author's growing interest in spiritualism, sown in Flanders and other bloody fields. In this respect, he was far from alone amongst bestselling authors – Arthur Conan Doyle, for example – but he did stand out as a popular Anglican minister who challenged church doctrine. Reverend King did not believe in death, rather the continuance of life. In Reverend Noone's case, as with everyone, there is no sudden tearing of the soul from the body, rather a gentle imperceptible "great change."

That term – "great change" – features three times in the text, and on the first of three different dust jackets Harper used to sell book (above). I suspect King himself wrote its words. Note the second paragraph:
This story will bring Comfort and Consolation to many who are in trouble of mind about the Hereafter.
In the Hereafter, as King believes it to be, those who have passed through this great change see things with different eyes. Berkley Noone sees his wife and children as themselves but themselves glorified:
Emily was again the dryad of their youthful days; but a dryad with ways of light and tenderness he had never known her to possess. Each of the children was bathed in the same beautifying radiance. He knew them – and yet he didn't know them. All he could affirm of them exactly was that his doubts and worryings and disappointments on account of them were past. He felt what Angel had just been telling him, that he was waking from some troubled dream on their behalf.
Noone's familial relationships will continue. As with the soldiers in Going West, he will be able to visit and even communicate. 

If anything, Reverend King's The Abolishing of Death (1919), an account of his experiences communicating with nineteenth-century chemist Henry Talbot – but not really – would've brought further comfort and consolation to the greiving.

Knowing the date of composition, some nine months before the Armistice, what struck me most about Abraham's Bosom is its disconnect from the Great War.  The conflict, which plays such a part in his novels  The High Heart (1917), Going West (1918), The Thread of Flame (1920), The Empty Sack (1921) is not so much as mentioned. Or might it be that the allusion is subtle? Here's Ned Angel:
"How are the Children of Dust making use of the knowledge they've gained during the last fifty years of their counting? Is it to help one another? Is it to benefit themselves? Is it to make the world happier, or more peaceful, or more prosperous? Haven't they taken all their new resources, all their increased facilities, all their approximations to Truth, all their approaches to God – the things which belonged to their peace, as Jesus of Nazareth called them – and made them instruments of mutual destruction? Aren't they straining their ingenuity to devise undreamed-of methods for doing one another harm?''
I write this nine days short of the 105th anniversary of that Armistice. 

Object and Access: My copy, which is in pretty rotten shape, was purchased seven years ago as one title in a box containing twenty or thirty old Canadian books. Price: $20.

The frontispiece featuring afflicted organist Ned Angel is one of four Walter H. Everett illustrations commissioned for The Saturday Evening Post. Interestingly, no matter the placing, all depict scenes and from the first third of the story. This image, with caption from the opening pages of the story, appears at on the final page of its Post debut:

The "timid, wild-eyed nymph of a thing who had incarnated for him all that was poetry in the year when he was twenty-eight" is Reverend Noon's wife. She's a cutie!

Online booksellers list copies beginning at five American dollars, but they'll demand a further US$30 or US$35 for shipping. Some have dust jackets, some do not. The one you want to buy is offered by a Massachusetts bookseller who promises an inscribed copy at US$75.

All claim to be offering the first edition, but as I've discovered, there are at least three variants.

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