Phone it in Friday XVI: Week in Review (5-8 October 2020)

I’m out of town for a few days, so I’m resorting to something I rarely do:  a week in review post.  Some bloggers feature these weekly, such as my blogger buddy Mogadishu Matt.  I sort of did one back with “Lazy Sunday LVIII: Spring Break Short Story Recommendations Recap,” but that was more a review of a week-long series of posts, not a review, per se, of the week itself.

Ah, well.  That’s just nit-picking.  Here’s what I wrote about this past week:

That’s it for this edition of Phone it in Friday.  Here’s hoping I wrote some material good enough that you don’t mind reading it (and reading about it) again.

Happy Friday!

—TPP

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TBT: Lazy Sunday LVIII: Spring Break Short Story Recommendations Recap

It’s getting into that spooky time of year, so for this week’s TBT I decided to look back at “Lazy Sunday LVIII: Spring Break Short Story Recommendations Recap.”  I spent most of my Spring Break this year reading horror short stories, writing reviews about and recommendations for some of the better stories I read.

I won’t do much more editorializing than that, as the original post is quite lengthy and detailed.  I will add that love short stories, and find the form chillingly effective for horror.  The brevity and concision of the form encourages horror writers to deliver chills and terror straightaway, and allows for frights to be the focus.

With that, here is “Lazy Sunday LVIII: Spring Break Short Story Recommendations Recap“:

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TBT: On Ghost Stories

Today marks the first day of October, perhaps my favorite month of the year.  We’re already getting that first crisp coolness in the air here in South Carolina, and it’s feeling more and more like autumn every day.

So with Halloween just thirty days away, I thought it would be fun to look back at a post from last “All Hallowe’s Eve Eve,” as I wrote at the time:  one all about ghost stories.

I finally finished slogging my way through The Penguin Book of Ghost Stories, thanks in no small part to quarantine.  It’s an excellent collection, and I stand by my recommendation from last October, but there are a handful of stories that are way too long—or dense.

I’m now reading through a more accessible, far lighter read:  the classic Tar Heel Ghosts by John Harden.  It’s a collection of North Carolina-based ghost stories published in the 1950s, so it has that pleasing sense of implicit patriotism and love of place that is now so sadly missing from our cynical, cosmopolitan writing of today.  Like The Story of Yankee Whaling, it possesses a refreshing innocence about and love for its subject:  no hand-wringing over now-unfashionable ideas, no condemnation of a lack of diversity, no talk of “marginalized” groups being “unrepresented.”

I picked up the book sometime in my childhood on a family trip, but I don’t think I ever finished the collection.  I’m rectifying that all these years later, and I’m thoroughly enjoying it.  I also plan to reread Ray Bradbury’s The Halloween Tree, one of my favorites to pull out this time of year.

Here’s hoping you find some spooky tales of your own to curl up with on these cold, October nights.  Here’s October 2019’s “On Ghost Stories“:

It’s Halloween!  Well, at least it’s All Hallow’s Eve Eve, but that’s close enough for some ghoulishly delicious ghost stories.

I love a good ghost story.  The Victorians did the genre best, but many writers since have honed it further, adding their own unique twists and scares.  Even Russell Kirk, the great conservative philosopher, was a fan of ghost stories.  Indeed, his bestselling book was a ghost story.

For the Victorians, ghost stories were told at Christmastime.  This timing, while peculiar to modern readers, makes sense intuitively—Christmas is a time for remembering the past, in part (perhaps especially) our honored dead (just ask Washington Irvingif he comes by to haunt you).  The “ghosts” of departed loved ones linger closely during those long, frosty nights.  The inherent nostalgia of Christmas and the winter season—and bundling up next to a crackling fire—sets the perfect mood for ghostly tales.

Nevertheless, what other time of year can beat Halloween for a good tale of witches and werewolves; of monsters and mummies; of ghouls, goblins, and ghosts?

As such, I’d encourage readers to check out “Nocturne of All Hallow’s Eve,” a deliciously frightening, blood-soaked tale of the supernatural and the macabre from Irish-American author Greg Patrick.  Alternative fiction website Terror House Magazine posted it back in September, and I’ve been saving it to share on the blog until now.

Patrick’s style conjures the dense verbiage of Edgar Allan Poe.  Indeed, he overdoes it a bit (see his more recently published “The Familiar“).  But his subject matter is pure Halloween—the tenuous space between the natural and the supernatural, the mysterious rituals, and on and on.

If you’re still in search of some ghostly reads, check out The Penguin Book of Ghost Stories.  It’s the collection I’ve been reading since my trip to New Jersey this summer.  It’s a truly spine-tingling collection that covers some of the great—and many of the undeservedly unsung—writers of the genre, the men and women who truly created and molded what makes a good ghost story.

So wherever you find yourself the next couple of nights, curl up with a good book, a warm fire, and a good ghost story (and maybe someone else, if you’re so inclined).  You and the ghosts will be glad you did!

Ghost

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Lazy Sunday LVIII: Spring Break Short Story Recommendations Recap

Spring Break is (essentially) over, but that doesn’t mean you can’t keep reading fun stuff!  Today’s Lazy Sunday, perhaps predictably, is going to look back at my Spring Break Short Story Recommendations mini-series.  I’ll also include which of these stories was my favorite of the week.

These are strange times to be a politics blogger.  The Virus holds sway over every discussion, almost absorbing as much mental mind-share as President Trump.  It’s interesting that the same people who are obsessed with Trump are also the very same people that fetishize The Virus.  It’s the same kind of magical thinking:  just as Trump is the cause of all of their problems, so The Virus is the means by which they can exert more social and governmental control over the rest of us.

As such, writing about politics and The Virus has grown dull—and wearying.  Thus, this past week’s diversion into more harmless horror stories.

But I digress.  Let’s get on with the recap!

  • Spring Break Short Story Recommendations, Part I: ‘The Judge’s House’” – The chilling tale of Malcolm Malcolmson, the diligent mathematics student in search of total isolation, the better to pore over his textbooks.  Malcolmson takes quarters in the titular house in a distant town, but runs afoul of a demonic rat with a “baleful” eye.  Very spooky mood setting from a true master of horror, Bram Stoker.
  • Spring Break Short Story Recommendations, Part II: ‘Thus I Refute Beelzy’” – A short, skin-crawlingly creepy little story from John Collier.  In just five brief pages, this story depicts a troubled youngster—likely in league with Satan—and his overbearing, hyper-rationalist, abusive father.  The ending is satisfying, but the implication is even more horrifying.
  • Spring Break Short Story Recommendations, Part III: ‘Seven American Nights’” – A non-horror entry in the week, this story is a bit of sci-fi travel fiction.  A young Iranian visits a post-apocalyptic Washington, D.C., that is grasping to hold onto a nation irreparably in decline.  It’s an eerie bit of role reversal, as the Third World is on top, and America sinks into mutated decadence.
  • TBT: Rudyard Kipling’s ‘The Mother Hive’” & “Rudyard Kipling’s ‘The Mother Hive’” (Original Post) – This post is more of an “honorable mention,” as I wrote about it last summer.  But when you blog everyday, as I do, you’re not going to pass up the chance to reblog every Thursday (seriously, it saves a ton of time).  Regardless, this tale definitely fits the theme:  an insidious wax-moth begins filling the heads of vulnerable young bees with sweet, silky lies, much like a public school English teacher.  Soon, the once-proud high is on the verge of collapse, with mutated and invalid “Oddities” born in greater numbers.  It’s a shocking allegory—or Aesopian fable—that ends in flames, with a cautiously optimistic coda.
  • Spring Break Short Story Recommendations, Part IV: ‘The Shed’” – I described this small-town tale as proto-Stephen King:  young boys work together to investigate the disappearance of a local dog—and to overcome a mysterious, malevolent evil, The Shadow.

Naturally, I recommend all of these stories—that’s why their recommendations, after all—but which one do I deem the best of the bunch?

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Spring Break Short Story Recommendations, Part IV: “The Shed”

Well, all good things must come to an end.  Such is the fate of Spring Breaks everywhere.  While I still have the glorious weekend before me, today marks the formal last day of break.

With that, it’s time to finish out our Spring Break Short Story Recommendations (read Part I, Part II, Part III, and the TBT installment) with 1952’s “The Shed,” a bit of small-town terror by E. Eerett Evans.  This story is a tad obscure, as is its author, and I couldn’t find a free version online, but like “The Judge’s House” and “Thus I Refute Beelzy,” it’s from 11 Great Horror Stories.

“The Shed” takes place in a small town in Michigan in the first decade of the twentieth century, and focused primarily on the rough-and-tumble adventures of the town’s boys, all under fourteen.  The boys are scrappy, plucky, and fun, and spend their days exploring town, splashing in the local waterhole, and generally doing the kinds of things boys did before they were shut up in classes for eight hours everyday.

The boys’ favorite play place is a dilapidated shed that belongs to the local railroad company.  They use the shed as their base of operations, and as a makeshift jungle gym.  However, they strenuously avoid one dark corner of the shed, in which resides The Shadown, an iridescent, subtly shifting, amorphous mass of malevolence.  The boys know, instinctively, to stay away from it, but otherwise tolerate its malignant presence.

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TBT: Rudyard Kipling’s “The Mother Hive”

This week I’ve been highlighting some of my Spring Break reading recommendations (Part I, Part II, and Part III).  I’ve been reading quite a bit in the horror genre, as I love weird tales and ghost stories.

In that spirit, I thought I’d use this week’s TBT as another Spring Break recommendation—the chilling tale of a progressivist wax-moth infiltrating an unsuspecting hive of busy, but declining, bees.  I stumbled upon it while teaching my History of Conservative Thought class last summer, and immediately was taken with this macabre, yet hopeful, tale (which you can read in full here).

Literary short stories offer us many opportunities for exploring the human condition—even with bees.  One reason, perhaps, for our general social and cultural decline is that we usurped the literary canon—which sought to expose students of English literature to the best representative works—with the wax-moths of identity politics and watered-down standards.

Even my brightest students struggle to write grammatically, much less to write well.  And some of the canonical works I read in high school are conspicuously absent from the curriculum (although, of course, some of the greats still remain).  Summer reading has more or less become “read whatever you want” (a not entirely ignoble idea), rather than “read these excellent, challenging works” (why not some combination of the two?).

But I digress.  I’m treading into waters that are not, as history and music teacher, my own.  Nevertheless, I would encourage readers to seek out the best of what has been said or done, if for no other reason than to keep the wax-moths at bay.

With that, here is July 2019’s “Rudyard Kipling’s ‘The Mother Hive’“:

To start yesterday’s History of Conservative Thought class, I had students skim through Rudyard Kipling’s 1908 short story “The Mother Hive.”  I stumbled upon the reading in our class text, Russell Kirk’s The Portable Conservative Reader.

It is a grim little fable that warns about the perils of progressivism infiltrating a proud but weakened nation.  In the story, a deadly wax-moth sneaks into a large but bedraggled beehive during a moment of confusion.  She quickly steals away to the cell of the youngest bees, who have yet to take their first flight.  There, she fills their impressionable heads with gentle words and promises of a glorious future, all while covertly laying her eggs.

One young bee, Melissa, who has just returned from her first flight, is suspicious of the beautiful stranger’s soothing words, but the wax-moth plays the victim and insists that she’s only spreading her “principles,” not the eggs of her hungry future children.

The infiltration of the young bees’ minds pays lethal dividends.  When an old guard asks the young bees to construct pillars of wax to protect the entrance to the hive, they complain about the work, saying that pillar-building is a form of provocation, and that if they just trust the wax-moths, the wax-moths will return the favor.  When they reluctantly begin to build the pillars, they refuse to use chew the hard wax, and insist only on the finest, softest wax—and even then they balk at completing their work!

Needless to say, disaster is quick in coming.  The wax-moth’s eggs hatch and begin to devour the precious honey stored in the hive.  As they burrow weird, cylindrical tubes—an innovation that takes eight times the wax as a hexagonal cell—they expose the bee pupae to deformations.  Increasing numbers of bees are born as “Oddities”—missing legs, blind, unable to fly, half-breeds, etc.

As the number of lame bees are born, the dwindling number of “sound bees” must shoulder greater amounts of work to feed themselves, the aging Queen, the Oddities, and the wax-moth and her brood.  Sound bees work themselves to exhaustion as the Oddities sing merry working songs, unable to complete any work of their own.  The Oddities insist there is plenty of honey, saying it comes from the Hive itself.  One Oddity claims that each bee need only work 7.5 minutes per day to feed everyone, but those calculations—not surprisingly—come out to be overly optimistic.

Ultimately, the beekeeper—the “Voice behind the Veil”—finds his old, neglected hive in ruin.  He and his son break apart the hive panel by panel, revealing how weakened the structure has become due to the wax-moths’ infiltration.  The lame Oddities fall to the grass after struggling to ride on the remaining healthy “sound bees.”  Melissa, her old friend, and a secretly-birthed Princess—the dying act of the old Queen—along with the other sound bees escape to a nearby oak tree, where they witness the destruction and burning of their old hive.

One of the wax-moth offspring flies up, explaining that the promised, glorious “New Day” that was promised was miscalculated.  The proud new Princess boldly proclaims that it was the wax-moths, catching the old hive in a moment of weakness, that destroyed them, but that the bees will rebuild.

I was surprised that I had not heard of this little fable before this morning, while idly flipping through Kirk’s reader.  The parallels between the wax-moth and the social justice, Cultural Marxist progressives of today are stunning, considering Kipling wrote this tale about English Liberals and socialists 111 years ago!

Note the wax-moths beeline (no pun intended) for the younglings.  Having never seen even the bending of flowers in the breeze, these impressionable youngsters are already theorizing about the nature of the world and reality.  At that tender moment, the insidious outsider fills their heads with tales of her own morality, all the while laying her hungry eggs.

The sound bees are slow to act.  They’re tired and worn out, as the hive has grown large, and there are many bees to feed.  When the old Queen calls for a “swarm” to leave the hive, no one heeds her royal decree—why should they leave their comfortable lives?

There are two points here:  good people, especially when overworked, are slow to act (and, indeed, can get careless—the wax-moth slipped in when the Guard bee fusses at Melissa due to his frayed nerves from an overly long watch at the hive’s gate).  They are willing to give others the benefit of the doubt, and to ignore their own nagging gut instincts that something is amiss.

The other point is that good times and plenty made the bees soft and comfortable.  They are loathe to leave their comfort, and have come to believe that nothing bad could ever befall them.  Indeed, the wax-moth convinces the young bees that wax-moths never infiltrate beehives, and that such a notion is a fear-mongering myth.

The young bees come to resent and shirk off their work, preferring instead to theorize and hold rallies.  One young bee gives an impassioned, contradictory speech about the greatness of the hive, while also condemning the manufacturers of it.  Even as he contradicts  himself, the other bees—wanting to appear “in the know” and cool—cheer lustily.  He doesn’t even know what he’s said, but he enjoys the applause and the cheap accolades his fiery rhetoric brings.

The Oddities become an increasing burden on the hive, but the good, healthy bees continue to feed them.  I don’t think Kipling is making some point about unhealthy or deformed people here being a drain on society.  I think he’s employing the Oddities as metaphors for people with unhealthy or unnatural habits or worldviews, the people that project their derangement onto the world around them and expect a handout.  While it wasn’t an issue when he wrote this story in 1908, I couldn’t help but think of the various transgender and “alternative” weirdos that attempt to normalize their mental disorders, while expecting society to bend over backwards to accommodate them.

As for Kipling, it seems he’s using the Oddities as a stand-in for shirkers, Communists, and other forms of social leeches.  Their deformities are the result of the unhealthy hive and the twisted influence of the wax-moth infestation.  Similarly, the social justice thugs of the modern West are the result of Cultural Marxist infiltration—they are the bad fruit sprung from poisonous seeds.

Reading this short story was disturbing, but also a reminder that we must be ever vigilant to remain truly free.  That freedom only comes from discipline and order.  Further, good people must be willing to acknowledge that evil exists around them, and must be willing to confront it.

If we don’t, we’ll be the ones on the ash heap of history.

Spring Break Short Story Recommendations, Part III: “Seven American Nights”

For today’s edition of Spring Break Short Story Recommendations (read Part I and Part II), I’m moving away, at least temporarily, from the collection 11 Great Horror Stories to look at piece from another collection, this time in the science-fiction vein.  The collection, Not the Only Planet: Science Fiction Travel Stories, compiled by Damien Broderick, was published in 1998 by Lonely Planet Publications.

When I was a kid in the 1990s, Lonely Planet dominated, at least in my young mind, travel guides.  They were the “cool” travel guides, that told you how to bike through Shanghai or where to get good food in Nepal.  I managed to pick up a few of them at second-hand stores or book sales, and would just pour over them and their descriptions of odd places around the globe.

As such, I always thought it was cool that Lonely Planet put out a collection of science-fiction stories—naturally, about travel.  My memory told me that I picked up this collection in middle school, which is plausible, but the I was out of middle school by 1999, and I picked up this book at a used bookstore.  Having the means of a thirteen- or fourteen-year old, I would not have paid full-freight for it.

Indeed, I remember vividly the bookstore where I purchased it, if not the name.  I was on a trip with my best friend from the time, David, to his family in Virginia (in Blacksburg, if I recall correctly; David’s father was an alumnus of Virginia Tech, and I think his mother grew up in the area).  I can’t remember if it I was drawn to the book because of its strange cover art, the science-fiction travel focus, or the Lonely Planet imprimatur, or some combination of those three, but I picked it up and have enjoyed it thoroughly.

Of course, the publication date of 1998 leads me to believe that I was slightly older than my memory suggests, maybe fifteen.  What I do remember is that these stories really left an impression on me, particularly one odd tale, the feature of today’s post:  Gene Wolfe‘s “Seven American Nights.”

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Spring Break Short Story Recommendations, Part II: “Thus I Refute Beelzy”

As I noted yesterday, Spring Break is an excellent time to catch up on some reading.  I am particularly fond of short stories, especially ghost stories, which can thoroughly explore one or two ideas in a relatively bite-sized chunk.  They’re perfect for casual reading while enjoying some downtime.

Like yesterday’s selection, today’s short story recommendation, John Collier‘s “Thus I Refute Beelzy,” comes from 11 Great Horror Stories, a collection of short stories that are not entirely horrific in nature, the title notwithstanding.

Thus I Refute Beelzy” definitely is a horror story, with touches of The Omen and Children of the Corn; that is to say, it’s a little bit of “terror-tot fiction,” a term I learned recently from Alan Jones’s review of the film Let’s Be Evil, one of the scores of bad horror films on Hulu.

The whole story is very short—about five pages—and can be read in around ten to fifteen minutes.  Indeed, there is a chilling recording of Vincent Price reading the story that is just shy of thirteen (mwahahahaha!) minutes long:

Within those five pages, though, Collier crams a great deal of characterization—and terror.

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Spring Break Short Story Recommendations, Part I: “The Judge’s House”

One of the perks of teaching is all the time we get off.  For my money, it’s not the long summer break that is the best—usually because I spend my summers working—but Christmas Break, which stretches on for two stately weeks.  It’s the ideal amount of time to decompress after the long Fall semester.

Next to that, however, is Spring Break, which at my little school lasts for a gloriously overstuffed eleven days, if you include the weekends (it’s seven workdays in total).  I still contend that Easter should get its full due and, a la a Southern European and/or Latin American country, get a full two weeks.

Nevertheless, the time off gives me a bit more time to relax and reflect (although I’ve been promised quite a few chores from my parents, who I am visiting for a bit)—and to read.  When it comes to books, I have the same issue as I do at buffets:  my eyes are bigger than my stomach (or, in this case, my capacity to read everything).  I always bring too many books with me on any trip, and am lucky to crack even one of them.  I also overindulge in written junk food, like reading various articles and blog posts online.

Further, my parents’ house, like my own, is full of books.  So I often find myself thumbing through their collection while neglecting my own Babel-esque stack of half-read tomes.

Such has been the case this Spring Break.  My own stack of reading sits forlornly to my right, probably feeling (if books can feel) a tad unnecessary.  Instead, I’ve been reading through a short story collection, 11 Great Horror Stories, edited by Betty M. Owen.  It’s a collection my mother picked up from a Scholastic book sale when she was still in school (this particular printing, the fourth, was published in March 1970, though the original copyright date is 1969), and it’s held up remarkably well for a paperback.

The collection itself is not all that horrific.  Several of the stories are only tangentially related, at best, to the horror genre; some of them, like Poe’s “The Oblong Box,” are more properly mysteries.  The collection does open with H.P. Lovecraft’s magisterial “The Dunwich Horror,” which is a must-read, although I skipped over it on this reading because it’s nearly sixty-five pages long.

For a detailed synopsis of all eleven stories, GoodReads.com reviewer Williwaw has written an excellent and useful summary of the collection, without giving away any of the fun and macabre twists.

For our purposes today, I’m recommending one of the better stories from the collection, Bram Stoker‘s (of Dracula fame) “The Judge’s House,” first published 5 December 1891.

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