Reading Group #16 ('The Kit-Bag')
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What a fabulous couple of sentences: they really spell out the way Blackwood's fiction works, I think.
This story took me forever to track down, but I finally found it in Oxford's Victorian Ghost Stories, entirely by surprise. It's been a favorite of mine for a long time, so it was great to discover it somewhere other than just online. That said, here's a link for those without access to the Oxford anthology (which thus far is the ONLY volume I've ever seen containing it):
But anyway, back to 'The Kit-Bag.' I have difficulty refraining from singing Blackwood's praises; he's my favorite writer, after all...
First read and I haven't really collected my thoughts on it yet - but I love the way he roots the scares in reality:
I'm sure that we've all had that experience of a momentary shock followed by the realisation we are seeing some familiar, ordinary object under unusual lighting or from an unusual angle. Especially something malleable in shape - like the old-fashioned kit-bag, for example. Also, I'm sure lots of us have experience of old houses where the stairs suddenly creak loudly for no obvious reason. I think Blackwood uses these shared experiences as his ways in to the reader's imagination - getting us more intimately involved.
Growing up in the 1960s, in a three storey house that was already over 100 years old at that time, means I am familiar with a house that has only one room heated in winter; how the stairs creak and groan; how the single glazed, sash windows rattle in the wind; how the half shadows play with the imagination; and how the cold linoleum freezes your feet when you get out of bed on a cold winter's morning..
It was not difficult for me to be put in Johnson's shoes.
I admire Blackwoods use of what rankamateur called "shared experiences" to build the atmosphere, and how he uses the plausibility of the victim simply having an attack of the nerves due to the unsettling experiences of the trial.
He was very good at putting the reader in the situation where one is at the point of panic, such as that frightening moment when you turn off the main light in the bedroom and still have to traverse six feet in the dark not knowing what horrors will touch your arm or run their finger down your spine before you can get into bed and pull the blankets up round your chin wishing it was ok for a grown man to pull the blankets right up over your head.
I also thought it interesting that Blackwood had his characters referring to the man as the murderer when he had not been found guilty. Was this an accident, or was Blackwood saying the defense council knew the man guilty but were so professional that they were able to present a reasonable doubt?
We will never know!
He was found 'not guilty by reason of insanity.' I suppose you can stil call him 'the murderer,' because it was acknowledged by defense council that he killed the woman; his defense wasn't that he didn't do it, but that he was insane.
I'm getting a strong sense of Blackwood as a sort of ultimate master craftsman of this type of story. There are no meanderings or vaguenesses - he intends a straightforward story and he's absolutely focussed on doing the job properly.
And I think that where I most see his craftsmanship is in his ability to really put the reader into the mind of the main protagonist. I think Blackwood is better than anyone else we've discussed at giving the main protagonist 'reality' for the reader and he makes it extremely difficult for the reader to maintain any sort of detachment from him (always a 'him' as far as I've read so far) - you're right there, looking through his eyes. Now all I've got to do is figure out how he does it ...
And that has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that last night when I was reading it there was rain and wind rattling the window and distant thunder.
And I still can't make up my mind whether I'm glad or sorry I didn't have an Aunt Julia when I was younger - I'm now wondering whether Blackwood wrote any more on those two. It's quite an interesting concept to have the conventional 'hero' but to have his elderly auntie as the 'heroine' - published long before 'Miss Marple', of course, and I'd be interested to know how original it was at the time.
ETA - And I still can't make up my mind whether Blackwood was sneaking in a little humour in naming the hero 'Shorthouse'.
After putting in the ETA about 'Shorthouse' I had to check the story that I wasn't confusing it with something else - Blackwood had given me so much empathy with the main character that I was unconsciously remembering it as first-person narrative.
If that is not a giant nudge to the reader I don't know what is. Slimy/creepy images, excited for his trip, late night packing, moving luggage, ten days of intense courthouse drama, with Cmas skates/skis to look forward to, 26yrs of age? Nothing surprised me except the ending. I don't get why he'd do that with a not-guilty verdict. Because of the insanity plea? Sorry, not my fav. Preferred the Canon Alberic's Scrapbook over this, which was also read today. Blackwood's The Wendigo is vastly more entertaining to me.