Reading Group #5 ('The Listener')
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£25 a year for rent in London!!!!! You'd be lucky to get a decent meal here for that these days! I wish my rent was £25 a year, I'd take £25 a week...
Anyway I'll print it out in a quiet moment at work and look forward to reading it properly and saying something more intelligent later :)
It's quite humorous until his sister turns up, isn't it? And then it turns a bit sinister. But why is the sister there? What's her significance?
As for anything lurking beneath the surface, aside from Blackwood's frequent (and somewhat brooding) mysticism, I'm very curious to hear what you think, rankamateur (and of course everyone else, too!)...
And now I'm remembering the first time I encountered this one, and it was the first Blackwood (I think I mentioned elsewhere that he is my favorite writer) I ever read. I was hooked from the start....
I was probably sixteen-years-old, and trying my hand at writing short fiction. I found 'The Listener' on a free Gutenberg-style site, like Wikisource or something, and...ah, memories...
Anyway, off to Shakespeare. Sorry for the digression!
I like the dark humour, too - I was amused at the way he disparages Chapter for worrying about his nerves and I'm sure that in the November 10th entry the diarist is slightly stoned.
Incidentally, someone might wonder where the 'Gothic' elements are in 'The Listener:' first, Blackwood's typical obsession with the mysteries of architecture really just supplant a haunted castle with a boarding house, especially in his stupendously creepy use of staircases (something of a trademark, that, employed in others: 'The Empty House;' 'Keeping His Promise;' 'The Kit-Bag' (the last of which, another of my Blackwood favorites, is an all-out screamer!)); there is also a very Gothic handling of a 'mysterious disease,' which we, of course, discover the identity of in the very last word of the story. Chilling stuff...
By the by, do you find the story as creepy as I do, rank?
#7 - ... and into that pitch-black, lonely room...terrifying!
The idea of shutting himself into that room and then deliberately feeling round for whatever might be lurking in there ... well - that's got to be one of the creepiest ideas ever! And, now I think of it, I'm wondering what this, again, says about the diarist's mental health. Then again, he doesn't know where he got the courage, does it actually come from the ghost's influence?
Does the story also play on contemporary male insecurities about threats to the status quo of gender boundaries - the 'new woman' and so on? There are hints here and there that the diarist is a little antagonistic towards women - "Women could not come between us", "... wasting time in dancing attendance upon women" - perhaps a little insecure about, and threatened by, them in the sense that he's a bit insecure in his masculinity, and then there's this threatening male presence with designs on his body!
ETA - It occurs to me that here and in 'The Horla' the main characters are both 'damsels in distress' in this sense. Very unsettling to male sensibilities - but how does it come across to the female reader? Also, I'm not sure if I see this as deliberate by Blackwood or an unconscious product of the contemporary male mindset.
Another ETA - I think I meant '- but how did it come across to the female reader?'
I must say I guessed the punchline as soon as the leonine features were mentioned.
That bit from the nightmare about the landlady and the Listener coming into his room on all fours--AAAAUGH!
Also, he got it. The narrator. Got leprosy. The cats KNOW.
I'm sure any story from the turn of the century will deal with certain gender concerns, but most of Blackwood's fiction (like Lovecraft's) seems to sort of neatly skip this issue by simply not including many female characters. In life, I think he was a considerably progressive man. But that doesn't mean his narrator is, of course; that's part of the freedom granted by an epistolary form...
LOLA I HAD NEVER CONSIDERED THE NARRATOR GETTING LEPROSSSSY!!! CREEEEEEEEPIER THAN EVER NOW!! The cats MUST know!
I haven't got round to reading it again since I read #15 (got sidetracked by Oliver Onions), but if it's right that adds a whole new level of creep - or ... um ... squick? I had been vaguely wondering what the cats were for (and thirteen of them, too) but I'd given up on them. Really need a re-read.
By the way, and rather off-topic, does anyone remember a short story where a doctor injects a man with leprosy because he's been carrying on with the doctor's wife, or the doctor suspects him of it, or something like that? I think I've just given away the denouement of the plot and I'm sorry for it, but it's been niggling at me since I first read this one. I think it was set in Paris.
I'm not familiar with that story.
The first time I read 'The Listener' I, too, had this sort of 'Elephant Man' idea all the way up until the last sentence. And, like you, words failed me at that word: 'leper.' I was just...floored, immediately. It was too creepy for words.
I come back, again, to the narrator waking up in bed and finding that...thing...staring at itself in the vanity, and then turning around...ACH! That's still the creepiest image in the story for me, but the night-visits are also lingering terrors...and the bit with the landlady that Lola mentioned...
Whoo. Phantasmagoric; but there's a 'realism' (or whatever you want to call it) at the heart of 'The Listener' that just pushes it into another realm of freakiness... The pacing, too, is brilliant: as soon as you think Blackwood is going to be content to simply 'suggest' things with scattered clothes and the sensation of something 'listening' at a door, he goes and pulls out the fervid traipse upstairs and into that heart of darkness, and then...well, I've already covered some of the rest. It doesn't do well to discuss this story in anything other than broad terms when you're sitting alone in the dark with a light rain pattering at your window and someone in the next apartment giggling a bit too tremulously for comfort(!).
Yep. Still my favorite short story ever. I'm glad you all found it creepy. We should take a hack at 'The Wendigo' at some point, and probably something more esoteric like 'Keeping His Promise' or 'The Kit-Bag.' The latter I've only ever been able to find online, but I keep a print-out in my file. It's the only story I've ever done that with.
I'm excited to hear what you think, though...
I'm thinking one of the following:
'Green Tea' -- J. Sheridan Le Fanu
'The Minister's Black Veil' -- Nathaniel Hawthorne
'Rats' (or perhaps 'Canon Alberic's Scrapbook') -- M. R. James
I'm not sure I would consider the first story 'Gothic' in the strictest sense (which is, even then, pretty loose) of the word, but it IS eerie, and extremely well-known. The Hawthorne was on our list last round, and I'd still really like to give it a go. The third ('Rats') is my favorite M. R. James story; it's absolutely bizarre, a little unpolished, but yet still my favorite of his stories. It's just toooo weird. I suppose if we did a more Gothic James story, something like 'Canon Alberic's Scrapbook' would be fun, too, and totally canon...
Suggestions? Has anyone seen something they'd like to read together lately? I know some of you have some great collections...
Looking at the beginning of 'Rats', I'm pretty sure I've read it at some point, but not the others. Don't remember that I've ever read any Nathaniel Hawthorne. It's probably decades since I read any Lefanu and I hardly remember any of him, but I do remember that I thought he was one of the scariest and best, and I've been meaning for years to having a good crack at his stuff, so I'm looking forward to that one.
Let's do the Hawthorne first, and we'll set the other two to follow. Sound like a plan? I'd really like to read all three...
I hope down the line we'll return to Hawthorne and read "Young Goodman Brown." It's such an mysterious story that I keep going back to over the years.
I don't remember much about it (according to IMDb this was thirty-three years ago), but it must have been quite good because I think it was what introduced me to Lefanu in print. I remember being quite intrigued a while later to come across the paintings of the real Schalken, which added an extra piquancy. So I have fond memories of 'Schalken The Painter' - I don't know if 'fond memories' is the right phrase for this kind of literature but, for want of a better phrase ...
Yes, good idea on the Uncle Silas thing. I'm a bit 'overbooked' at the moment but, as soon as I've got a couple of current reads out of the way, I was intending to start a reading project of working my way through the 'Key Works' list in Punter and Byron's The Gothic (aargh! - I'm giving up trying to get that touchstone to work). Uncle Silas is about half-way down the list but I suppose there's no reason why I should stick to chronological order.
So, 'The Minister's Black Weil', then? I haven't got round to any of them yet - I'll have a go this evening and start with that one (also, I still haven't got round to a re-reading of 'The Listener' with Lola's #15 in mind - must do that).
Oh well...maybe I'll compose my own list. :D Seems to me there should be about a half-dozen short stories on that list, as well as some poetry, but I understand that the editors were probably only thinking of longer works.
Let me know when you're ready for Uncle Silas. I think I'll read Frankenstein in the interim. I've never read it. (I did most of the rereads first, since they seem to be more esoteric and a few of them I consider 'all-time favorites.')
So, yes, 'The Minister's Black Veil.' I'll get a new thread going. Anyone still reading/rereading 'The Listener,' please continue to post! :)
(Excuse the rambling. I'm feeling pretty languid this morning...)
I've just been re-reading it and I think you may be right. There's a hint of it, at least. There are clues throughout that his health is deteriorating - especially the bit towards the end about him vomiting blood.
On a general note - I think this repays repeated reading. I seem to pick up more little nuances each time. Possibly giving more questions than answers, though. For instance, are there are indications that the diarist and his sister come from a fairly wealthy background; which, as the male child, he shoud have been heir to - so why is he in poverty now?
I still can't get an angle on the bit about the people staring at him in the reading room, though. Is it to indicate that he's starting to look really ill; or, as we said earlier, is it in his imagination and a sign of his imbalance?
I'm sure it's a little of both. I think 'nervous' types (I don't think the narrator goes 'crazy,' precisely) have a habit of taking things out of context or exaggerating their importance/impetus/motivation. For example, Joe (who's a little 'off') walks into a shop and everyone looks up. Joe turns this into some kind of creepy thing, when in reality they all looked up because the bell rang on the door, and that's just what people do... If Joe wants to think people are staring at him for some malicious purpose, that's what he's going to see. One of the benefits of writing within the 'diary' mode is that you can pass off an unreliable narrator without giving him or her too many reasons to be unreliable (if that makes any sense whatsoever).
I agree that the story rewards with multiple readings. I've probably read it a dozen times in the last few years, and, as I said a few times before, it gets better every time. It also gets a little more difficult to fathom. It's eerieness is not its only strength; Blackwood's personal mysticism, which is otherwise 'turned off' for a pure 'horror story' like this one, drips very subtly through the ending, and leaves a lot of questions. Is the story a take on botched reincarnation? Dreams and dreaming? The 'other hauntings' Blackwood explores in other short stories? I have no idea anymore, even after the dozen readings. At this point all analysis seems to leave me: the story mostly just entertains now, and mostly because it's just plain chilling (and, rare in terror fiction, the chill doesn't wane, even though I know literally EXACTLY what's coming).
I think comparisons can be made most accurately with other Blackwood stories about visitations and apartment buildings. 'Keeping His Promise' is one you should give a read in the very near future, rankamateur. It shares some qualities (technique-wise) with 'The Listener,' and is pretty spooky. It's also got an underlying 'mystic' thread that weaves through it with a kind of silver indefinability (is that even a word?). It's nowhere near as disturbing as 'The Listener,' but the chills are certainly there. I quite like it.
In other news, what time is it in the UK? Midnight? Maybe you should give 'Keeping His Promise' a read right now! It would be perfect timing. :D
Anyway, I'll certainly explore more Blackwood. I think he's going on my lookout list for a nice 'collected' or 'complete' edition (and an Ambrose Bierce ... and an Oliver Onions ... and an ... oh dear - bankruptcy!). And I'll probably hunt up an online 'Keeping His Promise' over the next couple of evenings.
It's occured to me that I've probably read and forgotten a lot of these short stories in the dim and distant past; which, I suspect, indicates that one's local library is not the best source for short stories. Taking out an anthology or collected stories and reading the book straight through in a week or two, like a novel, I was probably not giving the individual stories (of the best authors, at any rate) the care and attention they deserve. I'm beginning to suspect that it's only since joining this group that I've been reading short stories properly.
To get back on topic, this story is a case in point. My appreciation of it has really grown with repeated readings and a bit of 'pondering'. I suspect Blackwood is deliberately giving readers opportunities for different interpretations and 'open ends' to fill in themselves - in other words, of course, intending the story to be given multiple readings and plenty of pondering over.
Of course, Centipede Press puts out a $250 (!!!!) near-'collected' Blackwood that looks enticing, but is, for the moment, ENTIRELY out of reach. Also, though he's my favorite writer, I have some concerns with 'collecting' his work: for every knock-out, ab-fab story he produces he writes two or three bizarre, unfathomable, far-too-personal works that at best escape even a seasoned readers' analysis and at worst are just...boring, especially when he eschews the supernatural for other themes. That said, I'm beginning to appreciate some of his more spiritually-exhausting stories (like 'The Wings of Horus'); those are an enitrely different realm. I'm talking about the BORING stuff. Another notch in 'Best Ghost Stories' belt is that it only contains one clunker, and I'll let you find it on your own. :D The rest are purely enjoyable and often profound. Again, I highly recommend starting with that collection. And, as I said, it's perfect for a budget!
Gee, I seem to have gone on quite a bit...not surprising, of course, but I didn't realize. Good morning/afternoon! :)
It's £182 over here - which is nearer $300 - ouch!
Anyway, trying to make sense of all the collections published in his lifetime (a sizeable proportion of which were 'selections from previous collections') made my head spin and the Centipede Press's prices are a bit too rich for my blood so - I've gone with your advice and ordered the Dover.
So, veil, if you still want to read it together, any time you're ready ...
#38 - I've gone with your advice and ordered the Dover.
Last night I read your three choices for the next reading thread - http://www.librarything.com/topic/117005#2744611 - and Blackwood's 'The Empty House' from the Dover. For sheer scariness, plain and simple, I think the latter tops the four! Creepy!
I'm actually feeling quite enthusiastic about thoroughly exploring Blackwood (or re-exploring - a lot of descriptions I'm reading online faintly ring bells) - even some of your caveats in #35 are whetting my appetite. So many books - so little time.
It gave me the creeps from start to finish, since the hints Blackwood threw in were obvious to me after having read his Empty House collection. Altogether satisfying and sinister, mwa ha ha. Good grouping of characters, afflictions, but way too many cats. =( Gave me hives just reading it... I did like the 'too much tea and not enough sustenance and fresh air' scolding from Chapter, which reflected Green Tea by Le Fanu, which I finished last week. Whether this was a factor in the mental health aspect that the main character was terrified to inherit, or whether they existed separately, was food for thought concerning his deterioration. The physical decline mirrored the inner state of weakness that The Listener was looking to possess. The senses brought it to life; the touch of something moist/cold in shadows, the odours, the menacing repetitive sounds of knocking and footsteps and of course, the sight of the unusual bulk on the floor with a mane. Zoinks. The fact that taste was withheld as a major sense, with zero food/bevie/behavior excess, worked to highlight the others. Like losing sight sharpens the other four main senses.
I see the humour (his pokes at the son, etc.), but I felt more sadness than anything else as the story began to unfold. He tore up the cheque from pride, at age 41, not wanting the assistance of affluent sister/bro-in-law. He gripped his poverty and loneliness as others grip material goods in a rich environment. His self-inflicted deprivation hinted at the spiraling decline of intellectual faculties, which was all he had going for him at the time. And 25 pounds per month for one year should have been his first clue ... more denial.
* who is Quincy in Soho?
* why does leprosy produce lion heads? I don't get the reference, with my only knowledge being biblical or Mother Teresa anecdotes.
* he puts down the kid, the sister, Emily, the landlady, her son, the museum patrons, the cats, the noise, the lack of noise, the drafts, the lecture … is he like this after 20yrs on his own or only in this environment? He seems starved for everything, although he comes up with clever reasons for each 'lack'. It is as though he's writing it down to give witness to his ideas, but sometimes it gets away from him (ie. idle threat). Is he trying to convince himself of his convictions, or simply copying down what his mind is spouting out?
* I didn't feel he was derogatory toward women, since he said nasty things about everyone, but it sounds like his sister had secrets and knowledge he did not wish to be reminded of, so it might have stemmed from that, depending on when the parents died. Did I miss that?
* Nov.10th/11pm - cat scratched him, marring his jollier disposition due to improved health (less annoyance) and completion of his writing project, with another pending... how long before his 1st encounter ? Emily left on the 6th? … and shall (live and) die here … sleepwalking ??
Leonine facies: a face that resembles that of a lion. It is seen in multiple conditions and has been classically described for Lepromatous leprosy as well as Paget's disease of bone. It is a dermatological symptom, with characteristic facial features that are visible on presentation and is useful for focusing on differential diagnosis.
Trying to pay attention to the timeline took away the initial enjoyment of the story. Nov28th became a critical element, but was only 2mos after the arrival on Oct01st. Research revealed that leprosy might be dormant for 5yrs or more before signs appear.
Who was Blount? Why did Chapter know him, visit him, but the narrator did not? Was he a victim of the Listener too, or was he now the Listener? 2yrs earlier only... how many other victims? Did the landlady catch victims in her net so that she would not be made to suffer more? Did the son know? He wanted the place burned top to bottom, but was it because it affected his mother or because the Listener had tried to possess him, but the strength of mind in the son, his obstinancy, would not allow it? Was the little boy forced to play outside as much as possible in order to avoid being another victim? It thrived on weakness, but did this include innocence or merely brain capacity? The narrator's engaged mind never seemed at risk, it was only when he tired or lost focus, and wandered... Egad. That to me is frightening, not the presence of disease.
The narrator seemed fussy in nature, anti-social, with an equal wish to relive his past and push it away (the sister, the friend) which is what gives this story an off-balanced feel. We might never get our footing with this one, much to the author's delight I think.
As an aside, this story gave me two images in my mind, lingering after the first read;
* Scrooge; tall, thin, gaunt facial features, miserly in habit and diet, no wish to socialize yet fiercely loyal to his business sense
* Comte de Reynaud; Chocolat 1997 had a bad guy who was not bad, merely deranged from excessive self-denial, which led to a spectacular fall from grace
Picturing George C. Scott (menacing miser) combined with Alfred Molina (aloof elevated status in town as mayor unable to bear his failed marriage, using Lent for his own purposes, corrupting the 40day observance) brought more colour to this distasteful man. He seemed terrified of what money and women might do to his mind, so avoided both, but casing this fear in noble intent. Bah, humbug!