Field of Thirteen: Short Stories (Francis Thriller)
There were the usual little mud hovels, shops displaying, say, two bunches of plantains and a few handfuls of grain, the usual collection of gaunt red pariah dogs, naked children, and unearthly-looking cats and poultry.
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There was a forlorn, desolate, dismal appearance about the place; it looked as if it had not been visited for years. At length an old man in dirty ragged clothes, and with a villainous expression of countenance, appeared from some back cook house, and seemed anything but pleased to see us.
Thank goodness the women have some natives they can order to clean up and cook for them! And soon the place is all cosy and they retire to bed while the natives sleep outside on the verandah. But, in the darkest part of the night, Nellie starts awake and, to her astonishment, sees….
There was a man in the room, apparently another traveller, who appeared to be totally unaware of our vicinity, and to have made himself completely at home. I leant up on my elbow and gazed at the intruder in profound amazement. He did not notice me, no more than if I had no existence…. This is an enjoyable little tale, with a great mix of mild horror and light humour. The ghost story is pretty standard fare, but the setting gives it added interest, especially since the author pokes a little fun at the colonial arrogance of our heroines.
Apparently Croker herself was the wife of a British official out in India, so her descriptions of Anglo-Indian attitudes feel authentic. However, they pretty much solve the mystery of the bungalow before their husbands turn up, and after a diet of woman-as-swooning-victim in my recent horror reads, these two made very refreshing companions.
Jaeger was writing this in in response to the rash of Utopian fiction that was prevalent in that period. Her own introduction tells us that, to a degree, she buys into the idea of the socialist utopia, at least in so far as that she believes that soon, given the will, society will have the means to provide decent living conditions to all citizens, and that mechanisation will free people from the drudgery and exhaustion of repetitive and uninspiring work.
However, she sets out to speculate what, in that event, would happen to humanity — how would we develop, individually and as a society? And she suggests that the Utopias that assume that, freed from poverty, suddenly all people will become good and kind and devote themselves to art and culture are perhaps not taking account of human nature. Though not necessarily in that order. Also, by beginning the book in and letting us see the class and economic divisions of her own time, she avoids the odd kind of nostalgia that some dystopias indulge in, as if the past was somehow a lost idyll to which we should try to return.
At first, Guy is entranced by this new world. Dr Wayland and John are both intellectuals, choosing to spend their days on scientific and artistic pursuits, and indulging in philosophical debate with their friends.
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But soon Guy begins to discover that this society is just as divided as in his own time. They are called the normals and, while all their physical needs are met, they are left somewhat purposeless, their empty lives filled with childlike emotions and pursuits. The intellectuals treat them kindly enough, but with an amused contempt at their antics. Guy finds himself again standing uncomfortably on the dividing line between two classes, and gradually begins to wonder if the advances of the last two hundred years have made things better or worse.
Despite its age, I found that this book is addressing questions which are perhaps even more urgent today. With increasing automation, we will soon have to decide what we as a society will do with vastly increased leisure time. Will we step up to the plate and find ways to give people a fulfilling purpose, or will we simply throw millions, billions, of people out of work and leave them with nothing to strive for? Well written, thought-provoking, and a rather more human look at utopian society than we often get. Wakey, wakey, Porpy!
The evening are lengthening, the ghouls are returning from their summer vacations having noticeably failed to acquire a healthy tan, the people out there have been lulled into a false sense of security. This little story should remind us all of the terrors that await us in the long, dreadful months of darkness ahead….
The quarrel was about a woman. The women who followed the footsteps of Philip of Orleans were the causes of many such disputes; and there was scarcely one fair head in all that glittering throng which, to a man versed in social histories and mysteries, might not have seemed bedabbled with blood. Yeah, blame the woman!
Field of Thirteen
So he strikes his cousin across his face…. The eastern sun shone on the face presently, and dyed the cruel mark with a deeper red; but the sting of my own wrongs was fresh, and I had not yet learned to despise myself for that brutal outrage. We fought, and I wounded him mortally. Life had been very sweet for him; and I think that a frenzy of despair took possession of him when he felt the life-blood ebbing away. They will bury me, and sing masses for my soul; but you and I have not finished our affair yet, my cousin. I will be with you when you least look to see me,— I, with this ugly scar upon the face that women have praised and loved.
I will come to you when your life seems brightest. I will come between you and all that you hold fairest and dearest. My ghostly hand shall drop a poison in your cup of joy. My shadowy form shall shut the sunlight from your life. Men with such iron will as mine can do what they please, Hector de Brissac.
It is my will to haunt you when I am dead. Good curse, eh?
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A few years later he falls in love with sweet Eveline…. She loved me. The richest blessings of our lives are often those which cost us least.
I wasted the best years of my youth in the worship of a wicked woman, who jilted and cheated me at last. I gave this meek angel but a few courteous words — a little fraternal tenderness — and lo, she loved me. For a few short months they lived a life of idyllic happiness.
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In her walks about the park and woods during the last month, she had met a man who, by his dress and bearing, was obviously of noble rank. I was at a loss to imagine who this stranger could be…. I think not! But, ah me! I like her style a lot — it has that Victorian feeling of heightened emotion without tipping over into pulpy melodrama. Then followed an interval in which I did not see him; and, to my shame and anguish, I found that life seemed dreary and desolate without him.
I could a tale unfold whose lightest word Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood, Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres, Thy knotted and combined locks to part And each particular hair to stand on end, Like quills upon the fretful porpentine. Makes writing a review kinda tricky. It has as much to say about the present as the past, although we never visit the present. Are you intrigued? You should be! Christopher has spent his young life in the Church, sent there as a boy to train in the priesthood.
This is his first real venture into the world beyond the limits of the cathedral town he calls home, and he soon finds that the world outside has temptations, not simply of the body but of the mind. Heresy, he finds, is a slippery slope — somehow the forbidden exerts a pull on his mind, and the more he discovers, the more he begins to question all that he has been taught.
Are the strict rules the Church forces on the population designed to save their souls, or simply to give the Church a stranglehold on power? At the same time, he is beginning to question his personal vocation — his faith is not in question, but as he becomes open to new thoughts and feelings, he wonders if he is able to go on preaching a religion he is beginning to question.
Others have dabbled in what the Church calls heresy, although the punishments are brutal. Some tread a fine line, trying to disguise their research into the forbidden areas of the past as anti-heretical warnings. Church and state are inextricably linked, and those who fall out of favour with one must suffer the penalties imposed by the other.
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As always, Robert Harris has the ability to create settings which have the feel of total authenticity. For some people, I know this is a real weakness, and usually it would be for me too. Other times, as in this one or, say, Fatherland , he uses a slightly off-kilter look at history to make us see it with fresh eyes — not so much as it was, but rather as how only very slight alterations may have made it work out differently — and I find those wonderfully thought-provoking.
I also find his writing so smooth and effortless-seeming that the actual act of reading is pure pleasure. I do hope my vague review has intrigued you enough to tempt you to read this one…. Off she goes, way up to the north of Scotland to a house set in splendid isolation, to take on a family of four girls: two small children, one baby and a bratty teenager. Their parents are busy architects running their own business so are often away from home, leaving their brood in the hands of the nanny, with only a hot handyman and a grumpy old daily help for company.
And then the strange noises begin…. The isolation, the nanny who may or may not be a reliable narrator, the children who may or may not be sweetly innocent, the absence of parents, the suggestion of evil and the doubts over whether the odd things that happen are human or supernatural in origin, are all there.
At the risk of repeating myself, I will say again — if an author deliberately sets out to remind a reader of a great classic, she needs to be sure her own work will stand the comparison. He had, I assume, worked out that horror is exceptionally hard to sustain over lengthy periods, hence the novella form, and used ambiguity to great effect to unsettle the reader, never letting us know whether we could trust what we were reading. The framing mechanism is that Rowan, in prison, is writing a letter to a barrister begging him to take her case, so we are told from the beginning that a child has died and Rowan is accused of murdering her.
A page letter. As always, I found this technique utterly annoying, although I know many people enjoy it. Having got my grumps over with, there are some good things about it. After a far too slow start, it does become a page-turner, and the quality of the writing meant that even during the excessive details about everything I was never tempted to abandon it. The house is well done — a nice mix of Gothic overlaid with ultra-modern, again, I felt, a nod to the fact that this is a modern version of a classic story.