Sunday Potpourri: Not Quite New Year’s Eve, Reading, and Fictioneering

The first bunch of students — the football team — arrived on campus yesterday, and I think I saw some more new arrivals as I walked into my office this afternoon. Classes start in a couple of weeks, and I have to put my syllabi together and endure enjoy in-service training before then. Mrs. M returns to her classroom tomorrow, and gets her kids a week before I get mine.

I’ve mentioned this before, but since I’ve spent most of my life in academia, either as a student or a prof, and because I’m married to a schoolteacher, I tend to see autumn as the beginning of my year, despite the dictates of the Gregorian calendar. The fact that my birthday is in late September may also have something to do with that, as might the traditional football season. I don’t have any sort of position on pumpkin spice, but it all adds up to my favorite season of the year, and it’s coming soon.

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I’ve been reading some 1950s stuff this week — some fiction, some less so. But I also read something a little older, and since it gives me a chance to plug a friend of mine’s work, I’ll mention it first.

My colleague David Rachels, working with Jeff Vorzimmer, has launched a new imprint through pulp revivalist press Stark House. The imprint is called Staccato Crime, and it will deal with crimefic and true crime books from the period between 1899-1939. The line’s first offering is Bodies Are Dust, a 1931 novel from P.J. Wolfson. While Dashiell Hammett’s work predates it, contemporary reviews see the style as Hemingwayesque. Which makes sense, as Raymond Chandler noted, “Hammett was the ace performer, but there is nothing in his work that is not implicit in the early novels and short stories of Hemingway.” But if anything, Wolfson’s novel, about a corrupt big-city cop dealing (in various senses) with political machines and gangsters, is bleaker, more brutal, than most of his predecessors’ work. Wolfson’s voice is less controlled than Hemingway’s or Hammett’s, but that’s true of most of us, isn’t it?

The plot is sufficiently complicated, although with the advantage of ninety years of genre development and several years of my own reading, I was able to call the book’s conclusion in advance. Even so, it’s a strong example of noir avant la lettre, and makes a fine demonstration of the imprint’s ethos. David also offers a 1500-word intro that reviews Wolfson’s life and work, to a degree that indicates his fondness for the genre. If you’re a fan of grim, American urban/social realism, the book is worthy of your attention.

This week’s reading also included Monster Midway, by William Lindsay Gresham. These days, Gresham may be most remembered for having been the abusive first husband of Joy Davidman, who went on to marry C.S. Lewis, but his 1946 novel Nightmare Alley (filmed in a Bowdlerized version in 1947, with Guillermo Del Toro’s film version due out any day now) is a truly spectacular mid-century noir.

Monster Midway is a sort of non-fiction sequel to Nightmare Alley, offering readers a behind-the-scenes look at the lives and livelihoods of carnival workers — not the Barnum & Bailey acts so much as the somewhat seedier traveling midways that one might find at fairs big and small across the country in the mid-20th-C., and that exists in more sanitized forms today. Numerous chapters deal with folks like North Carolina promoter Joseph “Doc” Dorton and the performers in the stunt shows — stunt drivers and fliers, like this fellow from the land of my ancestors, Maury (pronounced “Murry”) County, TN. There’s also a mention of the stunt driving Chitwood family, whom I saw at the Tennessee State Fair when I was a kid.

For me, though, the more interesting chapters are discussions of some of the shadier bits — the rigged (or to use Gresham’s term, “gaffed”) games, the magic acts, and the fortune tellers, both among the Romany and the gadjo. The book concludes with discussions of performers like Houdini and Theo Annemann, and offers a fair amount of insight into the workings of “spook rackets” — the very stuff of Nightmare Alley.

Gresham’s own narrative voice is interesting — like his topic, there are echoes of the wise-guy barker, or the narrator of an old newsreel. He seems to write with one raised eyebrow; readers of popular magazines of the era will recognize the voice. Unlike Nightmare Alley, Monster Midway is not a masterpiece, but for those with an interest in the slightly seamy side of popular culture, settle down with some popcorn and enjoy an afternoon or two at the fair.

Finally, I read a couple of novels from Fredric Brown, We All Killed Grandma (1952) and Night of the Jabberwock (1950). Grandma is a nice example of amnesia noir, with a protagonist trying to remember his old life, including its secrets. Jabberwock involves a small-town newspaper editor and Lewis Carroll devotee (as was Brown) who would like to cover a big story at some point in his career. The plots are complicated, and while there’s certainly enough mayhem to keep things lively, there’s also a sense of the screwball to both, and honestly, they’re just a heck of a lot of fun. Also worth noting is that both protagonists show an absolutely prodigious capacity for alcohol. Mr. Block tells us that in his youth, he turned a Brown novel into a drinking game, drinking as the characters did, and was thoroughly sozzled by the conclusion. This element of Brown’s work seems to have annoyed at least one Amazon reader, but even as a teetotaler myself, I find the books to be great fun — as apparently did Mickey Spillane, who listed Brown among his favorite writers. I recommend both books, and have to include a bit from Jabberwock that I shared on Twitter last night:

The older you get the less afraid of ghosts you are — whether you believe in them or not. By the time you pass the fifty mark you’ve known so many people who are now dead that ghosts, if there are any such, aren’t all strangers.

Anyone who can write that deserves our attention.

***

As for my own writing, I’m pleased to report that my short story “Lightning Round” will be appearing in Playing Games, Lawrence Block’s forthcoming anthology of stories dealing with, well, games, from Hide and Seek to Crokinole. My subject? Trivia. More details as I have them.

Meanwhile, I’ve been invited to contribute to a couple of other anthologies in the next couple of months, so I hope to have more news for you in the weeks ahead.

***

And since I ought to be getting to that very business of writing, I’ll wrap things up here. My frequent faves the Green Pajamas continue their prolific ways, with a new album coming out on 17 September. You can find a preview track here, but for today, I’ll go back a couple of decades to this one, from 1999’s Seven Fathoms Down and Falling. This is “She’s Still Bewitching Me.”

See you soon!

About profmondo

Dad, husband, mostly free individual, medievalist, writer, and drummer. "Gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche."
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