PERVERTED PATRIARCH

In the afterword to her recent novel, The Sentence, Louise Erdrich makes a number of reading recommendations. I’ve started working my way through the list. The first was The Hatak Witches https://www.carlrbrush.com/casting-spells-with-the-hatak-witches/. a And now, here comes Brian Evenson’s The Father of Lies. Jesus labeled Satan that way in the gospel of John, so you’d expect the novel to have a religious bent to it, and boy would you be right.

Evenson has structured the book in a fascinating way, ping-ponging back and forth among letters, delusions, therapy sessions, and savagery. Sometimes you feel you are in the hands of a novelist telling a story. Other times, you are in the mind of the protagonist in what you might call his “right mind” state. Then again, you are witness to the “right mind” state which turns out to be delusional. Sounds confusing? Yes. ExceptEvenson keeps us all straight somehow.

The aforementioned protagonist is named Fochs (pronounced “Fucks.”), who is a recently appointed provost of a religion or church order called The Blood of the Lamb. The adherents are called “Bloodites.” The opening pages focus on an exchange of letters between various church officials that leave the reader with bits of information but wanting more. There is mention of “The Fochs matter” without mentioning who Fochs might be or what the “matter” might consist of. The officials are insistent that the affair, whatever it is, be concluded immediately and kept under wraps. As the communications proceed, we are introduced to to a therapist who has been employed to help our provost rid himself of disturbing thoughts. Highly unreligious and immoral thoughts. The prime directive of the Bloodites is obedience. The male director commands the provosts, the provosts, all male, who have families, command their wives and children. Question the father or the director? Not done. Excommunication is the price to be paid for disobedience, and no one wants that.

As the therapy proceeds, the line between our provost’s disturbing dreams and reality begin to blur. Our therapist begins to wonder when fantasy ends and reality ends. It also becomes harder and harder for our provost to separate imagination from reality for himself. I’ll stop with synopsis here to avoid spoiling things. However, I think it’s worthwhile to look at the themes.

At the core of Evenson’s story here are the dangers of hierarchy and authoritarianism. If the central concern of an organization is to maintain control and image, if that, indeed, is the central morality, nothing else matters much. Since there’s no admitting that the object is power for power’s sake, the power is assigned to guess who? Hint. Name starts with a “g”. A capital “G”. So what happens when our provost and his cohorts become wrapped up in those assumptions and rules? It’s quite predictable, and it mirrors the institutions of our daily lives. We don’t protect the innocent and punish the guilty so much as protect our institutions and punish the whistleblowers. It took me about thirty seconds to think of a couple of such incidents. Maybe it will take you longer. Maybe two minutes, but you can do it. Go ahead. If you have a problem, turn back to The Father of Lies. The answer is right there.

GUM MOON:CANTONESE FOR GOLDEN GATE HORROR AND TRIUMPH

Anyone even slightly familiar with my historical novels will recognize that Jeffrey Staley’s Gum Moon falls right into the times and locations of my brightest interest and knowledge. The novel’s action is set in San Francisco and covers a time period from 1898 to about 1909. Of the multitude of incidents and stories the novel contains, the pivotal happening is the great earthquake and fire of 1906. Before that, Staley drops into a Chinatown world of incredible horror and brutality.

Underworld Tong bosses rule the day–and years. Opium and other drugs infuse the environment. The worst kind of prostitution is rampant. I mean “worst” in the sense of sex slavery among even the youngest of girls. They spend their lives in “cribs”– closet-sized rooms in basements and hovels entertaining customers at a dollar a shot. From previous reading, I know that until a San Francisco reform movement finally took hold in 1916, prostitution was not just a business, it was an industry. There were houses with 200 – 300 available women and girls. Young boys ran through the corridors in hopes of getting introduced to that legendary experience that fascinates most pubescent males. It was an atmosphere that would disgust all but the most lascivious. Unfortunately, there were–and are–plenty of those.

Fighting against all this during the time of the novel was a collection of religious organizations. Some were legitimate. They sought to rescue the sex slaves suffering in those cribs and to save them from a life of vice and squalor. Others were fake. Predators. Once they’d “rescued” their victims, these imposters bribed and manipulated their way into guardianship of the girls. Then they sold them on to other bosses or integrated them into their own “businesses.” Quite a racket.

Center to the story is a young three year old girl named Chun whose mother sold her to what she thought was a merciful white family because she couldn’t feed all her children. Chun finds her way to a Methodist orphanage dedicated to saving girls who are either in danger of becoming immersed in sex slavery or who are already there and need rescuing. Chun was one of the lucky ones. Life in the orphanage is not easy. There are whippings and harsh labor, but there is education and no rape. Chun even learns to play the piano.

She is, however, in danger of being pulled into the nether world by one of the fake rescuers. During her original “liberation,” the head of another organization manages to get his name on a document that makes him Chun’s guardian. The Methodist folks have possession of the girl, so there’s that. But the other guy has that paper. So, trouble. They go to court, represented pro bono by a lawyer who is romantically involved with one of the custodians. They are forced into court twice. The judge awards Chun’s custody to the Methodists, but does not void the bad guy’s guardianship. Then, when Chun is twelve, comes the earthquake.

The adults in the orphanage manage to shepherd their charges across the city, away from the fires and the wreckage of the building that had been their home. Next, the fires diminished, they trek miles back downtown to the recently-built ferry building, float their way to Berkeley across the bay, where accommodations await. All seems better. At least they survived.

According to the epilogue, many of the characters Staley introduces us to were actual people who lived beyond the cataclysm. For a while they seem to flourish and even thrive. But they still faced many difficulties. The racist attitudes and laws imposed on Asians not only in San Francisco, but nationwide pursued them relentlessly. Thus, Gum Moon is a combination of dream and nightmare. As a novel, it is a jewel of historical fiction. Grounded in real history, yet taking us simultaneously into the world of imagination. Few novels achieve both those things. It’s a rewarding and even inspiring tale. What more could a reader want?

Jeffrey L. Staley

CASTING SPELLS WITH THE HATAK WITCHES

I’m not quite sure how I stumbled across Devon Abbott Mihesuah’s The Hatak Witches. I’m glad I did, though I’m still not quite sure why. I seem to be browsing through a world of the paranormal lately. Check my post about Louise Erdrich’s The Sentence. https://www.carlrbrush.com/louise-is-at-it-again/ or Sadie Jones’ The Uninvited Guests. Not only that, I am in the middle of another–Girl Gone Missing by Marcie R. Rendor. I guess I’m on an unintentional supernatural roll. So let’s get down to business.

We open as Monique Blue Hawk, a member of the Choctaw nation and chief detective of the police department in her small Oklahoma town, rises from her night’s slumber and takes off on a customary three-mile run. In the course of things, we learn that the three-miles is a short version of her normal morning mileage. She prefers five, but she’s short on time today. Today, once she gets her husband and son on the road, she takes off for a normal day’s work. From there on, complications ensue.

There’s been a murder at the local anthropological museum. One of two security guards is the victim.. The other one is missing. During the investigation, which involves a search of the premises, they find there’s a secret room in the museum, one to which only two of the employees have access. As the officers explore the secret room on their search for the missing guard, they find that it is filled floor to ceiling with cardboard boxes full of bones. Old bones found by various citizens over the years and donated to the museum on the chance that they contain Indian artifacts. They are doing their bit to help preserve their native heritage. Most of the artifacts , have yet to be catalogued or identified. As things proceed, we are faced with one of those riddles that populate conversations at some parties. There’s a room. No doors or windows. A person is imprisoned therein. Yet, he gets out. How does he do it?

At this point, it seems we are embarking on a rather conventional detective tale. However, mysteries accumulate and collide. There are incidents involving owls, which are shape shifters, plus other creatures best left to Ms. Mihesuah’s descriptions. Things get more and more dangerous and mysterious. We are soon in a world that is so full of the paranormal and supernatural that the ordinary world itself begins to seem part of the supernatural. Thus, a well-done murder mystery transforms itself into an absorbing fantasy taking place far outside the sphere of reality. Yet Ms. Mehesuah somehow keeps us grounded in reality at the same time that she transports us into another world altogether. Quite an accomplishment and entirely absorbing.

Ms. Mihesuah tells her tale with great skill, keeping at least this reader captivated the while, even while describing that which should have been completely unbelievable. The Hatak Witches is most unusual and most absorbing book. Don’t be scared. Hee, hee, hee.

DID THE TRAIN REALLY GO OFF THE RAILS?

SADIE JONES

Sadie Jones’ The Uninvited Guests is a moving target. At first, it seems like a rather conventional Downton Abbey sort of comedy of manners. 1920’s, a British country house, the daughter’s eighteenth birthday, a threat of foreclosure, a smart–ass son, and a neurotic mother. Plus. the servants. Well, you can just imagine what they’re like.

Then comes the supposed nearby railway accident and an influx of stranded passengers. It’s raining like crazy, of course, What would we do without a storm? The family gamely attempts to carry on with the party, giving the refugees short shrift, but before long, things fall apart, and, as Yeats puts it, the center cannot hold.

Shortly, we’re not in anything like Downton Abbey at all. All manner of events and characters appear. There’s the fine-looking young man who mesmerizes, then terrorizes, everyone. There’s the little girl who sneaks her pony into her bedroom, the animal shedding droppings as he goes, so she can draw its portrait. There’s the older suitor who would like a romantic connection with the birthday girl. There are the guests devouring every bite of the party food and demanding more. With the young man suddenly orchestrating events, we readers are inexorably drawn into a supernatural semi-horror story that threatens to destroy not only said country house but the family as well.

How Jones manages this transformation is a clever piece–pieces, really–of literary legerdemain. I almost quit on the book early on because it seemed so full of cliche, but I’m glad I stuck it out for a couple of more chapters because not only is it not cliche, it is one of the most original narratives I’ve read in some time. Four stars out of five. A very high score for yours truly.

BOO HOO FOR WERTHER

Johann Wolfgang Goethe
The Sorrowful Sorrows of Young Werther

The reviews are in for The Sorrows of Young Werther, at least among the academic crowd. For myself, I can’t explain how this has remained a classic for for well over a century. Here we have the very definition of a callow youth lost in the throes of unrequited love. Not only is his affection unrequited, but the object of it is unattainable and determined to remain so. She’s married and wants nothing to do with leaving her husband. Nevertheless, Werther persists in the most pitiable manner.

He persists not only in the face of certain defeat, but he wails about it day after miserable day. Wails and wallows. Even allowing for the filagreed excesses of the prose of the time, it is hard to imagine working up sympathy for someone who can shed uncountable tears over a ribbon that his beloved once touched.

Nor is that all. Goethe tells the story via letters and ruminations Werther has written to and about poor Lotta in his diary. Thus, the unfortunate she is treated not only to Werther’s absurd hanging about but to the constant moaning and sobbing and wailing that accompanies it.

But enough. I know it’s a classic, but that obliges me neither to like it nor to spend more time on it.

Farewell, Werther. I’d weep over your grave, but you’ve doubtless already made it muddy with your own tears.