The Great Tolkien Re-Read and Re-Watch: The Return of the King

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We’ve made it to the end! It’s always a bittersweet feeling to finish a re-read of these books. Tolkien already made the ending bittersweet, aptly capturing the feeling of a great story finished, but of the sorrow of leaving behind these characters and this world you’ve grown to love. This feeling is mirrored in Frodo’s leaving Middle Earth for good–but I get ahead of myself.

As with The Two Towers, we start off with the other members of the Fellowship and their separate quests. Gandalf and Pippin try to talk sense into Denethor (good luck) while preparing for Sauron’s onslaught. Theoden musters the Rohirrim to ride to Gondor’s aid, but Aragorn, along with Gimli, Legolas, and the other Rangers, must seek out the ghosts of the Oathbreakers from the last war and force their allegiance.

This book, more than any, really touches on the theme of hope in the midst of despair. Denethor, deceived by Sauron, is in a bad place. He thinks Minas Tirith is about to be hit with an unstoppable army; his favorite son is dead, and in his anger and foolishness he sends his other son off to die, only to regret it too late. When this does happen, Denethor becomes useless. The Steward who thought himself wiser and cleverer than others is rendered helpless by the very real possibility of losing his other son, and rather than rally his men against the enemy, sits by Faramir’s side to assuage his own guilt. Compare this (once again) to Theoden: Theoden loses his only son, and he also temporarily rejects his other “son”, his nephew Eomer. However, he rallies and acts with strength and decisiveness despite his past regrets. Time and time again, the narrative places Theoden in a situation where he has the choice to run away, and where others think he will make that choice: the one easiest on him in his old age. And time and time again, Theoden rejects that choice, and continues to act with bravery, loyalty, and honor.

Not only do we see the juxtaposition between how these two leaders treat their own family, but also how they treat their esquires. Merry and Pippin both swear fealty, but the reasons and the relationships are very different. Pippin feels himself indebted to Denethor because Boromir died saving him. Denethor is coldly amused by this, and treats Pippin as an afterthought. Merry swears fealty to Theoden simply because he is moved by the man’s positive characteristics, and Theoden is much more of a father figure to him.

Tolkien also touches on the concept of “just doing what I was told”. One wonders if this specific theme ended up in the story due to the Nuremberg Trials. When Denethor decides to commit suicide, he orders his guards to set fire to him and Faramir. They are fully prepared to kill both of them because they follow orders; but Beregond refuses to let this happen, though he is violating his oath and must kill one of his fellow guards. In the end, Aragorn finds a loophole that satisfies both the penalties for violating the oath and slaying a fellow guard, but also rewards Beregond for his true loyalty.

And of course, this book is also where Eowyn shines. I’ve ranted previously about the bad takes regarding Eowyn’s story, but I’ll discuss it more fully here. No one in the story doubts Eowyn’s bravery or her abilities. Theoden wants to leave her in charge of Rohan while he is away at war specifically because he trusts her abilities, both as a leader and a warrior. However, Eowyn has by this time been poisoned by Wormtongue’s words–she finds the mundane task of following her duties to her people and to King Theoden degrading, and longs for a glorious battle. Remember, Rohan is a warrior culture that highly values death in battle. This is exacerbated by her infatuation with/hero worship of Aragorn. It is not a popular thing to say, but Eowyn went to war for the wrong motives. This doesn’t take away from her bravery in battle, or from her love and loyalty to Theoden. If you want to get deeper into the lore, one could point out that in The Silmarillion, Morgoth’s discordant music to sow evil into the world still wound up becoming part of Iluvatar’s plan, and so Wormtongue’s attempts to destabilize Rohan became the same. Eowyn’s motives led her and Merry to being in the right place at the right time to defeat the Witch King.

And this leads to her romance with Faramir. Some people find it rushed, but it’s no less rushed than her insta-crush on Aragorn. But it also becomes part of the theme of Eowyn’s character. She valued war for its glory; Faramir valued war because it protected the people he loved. He showed Eowyn an alternative philosophy. His warmth and caring melted her resentment and anger, and she realized that war is pointless if it doesn’t protect life and beauty. Her decision to learn healing arts is a renunciation of her old attitude, not a set back for her as a woman. She lived for a glorious death but has come to accept life again. This is Eowyn’s rebirth.

The next part follows Frodo and Sam on the last slog to Mount Doom. A lot of people use this to show how Sam was the true hero (and yes, Tolkien did say Sam was an important hero), however, they do so at the expense of Frodo. The most recent Amon Sul podcast has a lot to say about Frodo’s character, and I would suggest everyone listen to it (and carve out about 3 hours of time for it; these nerds ain’t playing).

But they also make a good point: even Sam was tempted by the Ring. He resists the temptation, but even he has brief thoughts of grandeur. Frodo’s eventually succumbing to the Ring wasn’t an act of evil, or giving into temptation. His will was literally overcome by Sauron’s at the last second (which probably would have happened to anyone who made it that far anyways). Sam is a hero in that Frodo could not have made it alone–indeed, no one could have. Sam, lending his strength when Frodo’s is spent, and Gollum, by way of both Bilbo and Frodo’s previous pity, cause the destruction of the Ring.

Since Gandalf did not know what role Gollum was to play, and indeed, seemed to be prepared for the possibility that all three would survive, I would be interested in how this would play out if Gollum had not succumbed to his own temptation. Alas, we may never know.

Aragorn comes into his own as king, and his policies are based on mercy and forgiveness, hoping to make peace with the Haradrim and Easterlings as dupes of Sauron. Again, war is meant to defend, not to punish.

Even better is the Scouring of the Shire. This shows that you can make grand gestures and save the world as much as you want, but you still need to take care of your own community. Frodo and company restore peace and liberty to the Shire (and it says something about Tolkien that the villains of the Shire do things like ban alcohol and tobacco, have a massive bureaucracy for their police force, and high taxes). Saruman’s framed his takeover as an attempt at order, but order is different from authoritarianism, and Saruman is a specifically petty flavor of authoritarianism. In fact, both he and Sauron based their conquests as attempts to create order, but are merely authoritarian in nature. How much trouble does Aule have with keeping the rest of his Maiar from meddling in other people’s lives? Inquiring minds want to know.

The restoration of order, peace, and plenty in the Shire (and I’m interested in the apparent epigenetic changes to Hobbit phenotype caused by the introduction of Lothlorien magic into the area) does not mean all is well. Frodo is haunted by many things: his own experiences, and being so thoroughly touched by the evil in the world. He must leave behind the home he tried so hard to save, in order to find a semblance of peace and healing before he dies.

Many people have speculated that this is merely Tolkien’s observation on how war affects people differently. Not everyone comes back suffering PTSD. Some, like Merry and Pippin, enjoy being lauded and telling war stories. Some, like Sam, are simply happy to settle back into domestic life again. Others, like Frodo, are haunted by their experiences, both physically and psychologically. It’s easy to see why this interpretation is so popular.

However, Frodo has experienced more than just war. He came into contact with evil that has been embedded into the world itself. Again, the Amon Sul podcast I mentioned above goes into more detail on this, but Morgoth, Sauron’s master now imprisoned, used his discordant music to tie his power and evil into the very creation of Arda–essentially making the world his own version of the Ring. Frodo has been harmed by evil that had its origins in Morgoth’s rebellion, and he cannot escape it.

So even though hope is such a powerful force in the books, it’s not idealism. Evil is part of the world and our job is to accept it and deal with it as it arises. Our hope lies in something beyond this life, and it’s hard to see why so many try to ignore how much Tolkien’s beliefs informed and became an integral part of his worldbuilding.

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ALL RIGHT KIDS, SIT DOWN AND LET MAMMA TELL YOU ABOUT WHY PETER JACKSON CONTINUES TO BE WRONG.

Look, I don’t hate PJ. I love the movies for their aesthetic. The music, the visuals, the costumery, all match what I envisioned when I read the books. Not all of the characters are changed beyond what is necessary for a movie. I will even say this: I still think having the ghost army come to Minas Tirith was a change for the better. Make those ghosts work for their redemption! Why not have them overrun the Orcs at Minas Tirith? (I bet someone will have some reason for this, and I look forward to it.) I also enjoyed that Merry had more interaction with Eowyn, which was a bigger inducement for her to take him with her.

But honestly, this time I was even more disappointed in the movie overall.

First, they really left out Merry’s loyalty and respect for King Theoden. I feel like this was a big part of his motivation to go fight, and it also continued the narrative’s juxtaposition between Theoden and Denethor. Theoden maintains good relationships with those around him, even in dark times; Denethor does not.

I was also kind of disappointed in Eowyn’s big moment this time around. It occurred to me that in the books, she remained intensely defiant up to the end. The book says she was crying, but still depicts her as being a very strong-willed person, refusing to back down even after being hurt. Here, she doesn’t strike me as the type of person that would laugh in the Witch King’s face. She loses her defiance, cringes away, and doesn’t regain it until after Merry stabs the Witch King and the enemy is injured himself. I feel like this could have been done much better, and I think Miranda Richardson could have done it well.

It was also a bad decision to end her character arc there. The movie made Eowyn’s character arc about being a warrior; her real character arc is about being a leader.

Another disappointment: since I don’t have the extended edition, this means someone looked at the end of Saruman’s character arc and thought “we’ll just leave him in the tower and that’s that”. Once again, ending a character arc before it’s actually complete, and leaving the viewer disappointed.

Speaking of character arcs…let’s talk about wtf is going on with Arwen.

Okay, so we got the dad drama that has her leaving to go to the Grey Havens, then changing her mind halfway through because vision of the future. That…isn’t so bad. But then, because she wholeheartedly chooses a mortal life she…somehow starts dying immediately. Because her fate is tied to the Ring, or something.

This. Makes. No. Sense.

If being mortal is what does it, then why isn’t everyone keeling over? I think they were trying to give Aragorn some kind of personal motivation to overcome his doubts (which he shouldn’t have but never mind), but why did they need that? Aragorn already had lots of personal motivation. In fact, if they hadn’t done the weird break up subplot, then Arwen still would have been part of Aragorn’s personal motivation. Everyone he loves lives in Middle Earth, y’all. He has lots and lots of personal motivation to fight Sauron. Anyways, that’s that for cranky dad Elrond subplot. After this, Aragorn starts acting like book Aragorn.

(Also, I find it funny that they struggled to come up with lines for Legolas so they had him tell Gimli the entire story about the oathbreakers, even though it would have made much more sense coming from Aragorn.)

All right, with that over with…

Let’s talk about Frodo.

Let’s talk, specifically, about how Frodo, for no reason, suddenly starts believing Gollum implicitly because “both suffering from the Ring”. It makes absolutely no sense. It destroys one of the big themes of Frodo’s character: you can be kind without being foolish. Frodo sending Sam away because he believes Sam ate all their rations like five seconds after Sam gave up his own rations for Frodo because Gollum is quite possibly the stupidest narrative decision that anyone could make. I want to know precisely what drugs the writers were on when they came up with this.

At least, however, this is the worst of the character assassination. Everyone goes back to normal, and the story goes as you would expect.

While I would have loved to see the Scouring of the Shire as an expansion upon the greater themes, I understand why they cut that out. It would cause ending fatigue in a movie that’s already been mocked for having ending fatigue.

So, overall, while I like the movies, and I know the cast and crew put their hearts and souls into them and gave us a solid bit of entertainment, the failure to capture many of the themes of the stories made them less than they could have been.

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Well that’s it. We’ve done it! While I plan on reading the full History of Middle Earth as well as the letters and biography at some point, that ends our Great Tolkien Re-Read.

Up next…

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THE GREAT NARNIA RE-READ

The Suffering Heroines of Gothic Tales

Gothic novels have long been a popular form of fiction. From the earliest known Gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto, to today’s Twilight, the Gothic novel has several features, such as an eerie and mysterious setting, a brooding hero or brooding villain (or sometimes both), and a meek, moral heroine.

The idea of the suffering heroine has a long history. Most often it’s women being tormented by an unwanted suitor. In Greek and Roman mythology they sometimes undergo transformations to be saved from rape (or, in the case of Medusa, as a result of the rape). Once Christianity took hold, tales of women martyrs became common, such as Perpetua and Felicity, calmly facing down wild beasts while trying to ensure they remained modest. These two concepts combined into a blueprint for the heroines of Gothic literature.

These characters all have much in common. The heroines live during an age when women had much less freedom than they do now. The majority of them are under the control of an unscrupulous male figure, and they have nothing but their own religion/moral character to fall back on.

While no doubt some of these depictions are intended to be titillating more than anything else (the opening scene of Varney the Vampire is blatantly erotic, and Richardson’s work is pretty racy for someone claiming he wants to teach people morals), much of them carry the same theme of moral, religious women being under the control of amoral or evil men.

I argue, then, that the suffering heroines of literature are meant as an indictment upon society, whether consciously or unconsciously.

In what is considered the first true Gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole, the heroine Matilda and her dear friend are being swapped by their own fathers as brides for the other. Matilda’s father has agreed to this because his heir has just died and his wife is past childbearing age. Matilda is deeply religious and very kind to those around her. She falls in love with Theodore, but is forbidden to see him. She fights constantly between love and duty while trying to avoid an unwanted marriage. The story ends when Matilda is killed by mistake by her own father, leading Theodore and Matilda’s friend to marry and assuage their mutual grief. In this, Matilda and Isabella are both under the control of tyrannical fathers and a society that overvalues male heirs and blood lineage and treats women as chattel. There is no happy ending for our heroine. Her death is the final blow of a family curse brought upon them by an immoral patriarch.

The Mysteries of Udolpho has Emily shunted from place to place by her cruel uncle, who abuses both her and her aunt. Emily, too, is prey to an attempted arranged marriage, as well as a separation from her lover. Her aunt is physically and financially abused by her new husband, eventually dying as a result of the abuse. Despite Emily being heiress to her father’s property, she still is unable to exercise her own independence once she is in the clutches of her aunt and uncle. Throughout the book, she shows the most kindness to her aunt, who softens toward her. There is an unspoken solidarity of abused women between them. It is only near the end that people finally decide to help them; through most of the novel, people are clearly distressed by the obvious mistreatment but do nothing.

We see this same sort of theme in Pamela as well. The heroine is abducted by the squire, who constantly attempts to seduce her, regularly gropes her, and nearly rapes her on multiple occasions. She begs him to let her go back to her parents. Her father comes to pick her up, only to be turned away, helpless to rescue his daughter. The local vicar, despite knowing the situation, does absolutely nothing. In this, Richardson does make a very clear indictment against a world that is so enamored of the upper classes and of wealth that they allow them to get away with all manner of abuses. Pamela, despite all of her morals, is still under the total control of her employer, and still unable to even run away on her own because he can easily hire people to find her. The depravities of wealth are fully on display.

While it can be argued that these last few authors did not necessarily have anything resembling feminist leanings, the same cannot be said of Charlotte Brontë. Jane Eyre is very clearly about the empowerment of a woman. Jane is physically and emotionally abused throughout childhood, her employer plays with her emotions for a good chunk of the book, and in the end Jane is faced with a choice of staying with Rochester but losing her independence, as well as her respectability (which was highly important for women in those days), or fleeing, becoming homeless and impoverished, and retaining her self-respect, her morals, and her independence. We all know what happens: she chooses the latter, and the book rewards her with a happy ending. In fact, Jane returns to Rochester with the tables turned: Rochester, blind and scarred, is dependent upon Jane. He eventually regains his sight, but the text makes it clear that this merely creates a balance of equality between them. The book has much to say about how society treats women: Jane is considered a burden on her family when she is orphaned because she is a girl rather than a boy; in the boarding school she attends, the headmaster’s own daughters are spoiled and petted, but the other students are mistreated, neglected, and abused. One girl has her curls cut off to “prevent vanity”. Mr. Brocklehurst tyrannizes over an entire school of girls (and is such a perfect portrait of his real-life inspiration that Rev. Wilson attempted to sue the author for defamation).

The more blatantly feminist portrayals of suffering heroines continue throughout the Victorian era. The Woman in White gives us two very different heroines: Laura Fairlie, meek, beautiful, and moral, who marries a financially abusive man, and her sister, Marian, a much more proactive character who, nevertheless, is still restrained by the strictures of feminine behavior, and sickens in true Victorian heroine fashion by being in the rain too long. Despite this, Marian is a bright ray of light, and is invaluable to the hero in rescuing the more traditional heroine.

Dracula is another interesting variation. Mina and Lucy both fall victim to Dracula’s depredations. Lucy suffers in true heroine fashion, eventually dying and succumbing to the horrendous fate of being a vampire in turn. Mina, however, acts as a subversion. She too is preyed upon by Dracula, and finds herself unable to have contact with the communion Host, privy to Dracula’s dark thoughts, and facing the same fate as Lucy. However, rather than give up, she fights back. Even though Mina isn’t an action heroine, she uses her ability to know Dracula’s thoughts and location, as well as her own natural intelligence, to help the men locate the monster and kill it. In many ways she helps save herself.

More often than not the modern spiritual successors of Gothic tales give us the same suffering heroine, but following the Twilight formula, the heroine succumbs to the villain, monster, or antihero and, like Mina, is granted some sort of strength. In this version, the meek heroine is empowered by giving into the antagonistic force.

However, despite modern fiction’s attempts to make the heroine more proactive by having her flout conventionality and have a stronger, more stubborn persona, in the end she is still weak inside. The heroines of the past had nothing outside of themselves, and thus showed off their strength within. The modern formula makes heroines reliant on outward strength as granted to them by their oppressor.

While people may find the Gothic heroines of the past frustrating with their seeming ineffectiveness, this conveyed a very real point about the society in which women lived, as well as the fact that inner strength is a much more potent force than outer strength.

The Power of Language in Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter

During my re-read of The Lord of the Rings, it has been impossible not to notice many aspects of the book that found their way into the Harry Potter series. I wouldn’t call this plagiarism by any means; Tolkien was inspired by myth and folklore, and his books inspired the bulk of modern fantasy. However, I would also argue, as with most modern fantasy, the aspects that can be seen in Harry Potter are merely on surface. At their heart, there is a strong difference in theme and usage.

Sauron is often simply referred to as “The Dark Lord” or “He Who We Do Not Name”. The parallels here with the Harry Potter series are pretty blatant; Voldemort even attempted to put an aspect of himself into a ring. (One wonders if he ran across the Red Book of Westmarch while researching Horcruxes…but that’s a headcanon for another time.)

In Tolkien’s work, it is blatantly stated that people generally avoid using Sauron’s name because they don’t want to call his attention to them. In the last book of Harry Potter, Voldemort uses a spell that will literally alert he and his Death Eaters when someone uses his name rather than title: it’s a way to discover where his most determined enemies can be located. However, the surface similarities end. Voldemort’s spell is an outward occurrence, something he himself does because he knows his enemies don’t fear saying his name. As Dumbledore put it, “fear of a name only increases fear of the thing itself”. Within the context of Harry Potter, merely saying Voldemort’s name is not an inherent issue. It is only Voldemort’s actions that make it dangerous.

Tolkien’s mythopeia, embedded as it is in old myth and folklore, assigns power to words. Not merely to spells, as in Harry Potter, but in how words are used, what they convey, and how others perceive them. Tolkien, ever the linguist, knew that our usage of words is as important as the words themselves.

Within mythology, names were considered extremely important. They explained who you were, what you stood for, and how others should treat you. In some myths, a person who told their name gave others power over themselves. In others, giving out a name was a revelation of one’s own power. Tolkien plays with the importance of names a lot. It’s more common in The Silmarillion, such as when Turin hides his name and gives himself other names that describe him without revealing who he is. When Beren calls Luthien “Tinuviel”, it calls her to him, indicating that he has recognized the name that reveals her true aspect and binds them together. Finrod is given multiple names to reflect his importance as a wise leader among both Elves and Men. In Lord of the Rings, we also see this come into play. The narrative states outright that it was foolish for Bilbo to give out his true name, and indeed we see the consequences when Sauron learns from Gollum where his Ring might be. Gandalf is known by many names, and his name is explicitly changed to Gandalf the White in The Two Towers to signify that he has taken Saruman’s place within the cosmological order of things. Aragorn has multiple names that reflect his roles in life. He explains to Merry and Pippin that he is both Aragorn and Strider; both the king of the people and one of the people. (This dual nature is why “Aragorn is the real Christ figure” is a popular theory.) Frodo also appeals to what’s left of Gollum’s good side by referring to him as “Smeagol”. Names are of tremendous importance.

In Harry Potter…well, they aren’t. Apart from Voldemort’s spell, and J. K. Rowling’s (entirely relatable) obsession with apparently searching for character names on behindthename.com, there is nothing important to them. Again, Dumbledore underscores this concept.

Similarly, spells are used very differently. In Harry Potter, the spells are pseudo-Latin and have a utilitarian purpose. In Tolkien’s work, the spells we do see (and they aren’t many, as magic seems to be a more organic thing in these books), do more than just serve a purpose. Arguably Elvish songs are the spells of this book, often invoking the name of Elbereth, one of the Valar, but also referring to other powerful figures within this world. This double as “names are important” and “spells aren’t just for doing one thing”. As with “Mellon” being the way to open the door to Moria, these words reflect an entire worldview. Mellon doesn’t just open a door, but reminds everyone of the need for unity, for understanding, to love one’s neighbor. These are all things that are the antithesis to Sauron’s reign, which is one of self-love and self-obsession. Invoking the names of the Valar, of Galadriel and Gandalf, act against dark forces by reminding those forces of the existence of goodness, of powers working for the good of the world rather than their own aggrandizement, of light triumphing over darkness.

Word choice is also very important in Lord of the Rings, in ways it is not in Harry Potter. The way characters express themselves reflect their worldviews. When Merry and Pippin refer to Frodo as “the lord of the ring” Gandalf shuts them down quickly. When Frodo jokes that he may become a wraith, Aragorn warns him against making that joke (and indeed, a few pages later the Ringwraiths attempt to turn Frodo into a wraith like themselves). We see the power of words on a lesser scale when Wormtongue manipulates Theoden, and on a greater scale when Saruman attempts to manipulate his sundry enemies gathered at his tower. Oaths are serious matters, not because of a specific spell (like the Unbreakable Vows), but because the nature of the world binds people to their oaths. Gollum’s oath on the Ring does indeed drive him to his end, but not because of magic, but because it is woven into the fabric of this fictional universe.

The difference is subtle, but it is there. Rowling’s world is affected by outward circumstances and actions, even if those actions are magical in nature. Tolkien’s world, however, has these same kinds of aspects as inherent parts of the cosmology.

In some ways, of course, this is comparing apples and oranges. Rowling’s work, while it gets darker, is still intended for children and teenagers. Tolkien’s work was modeled after mythology and epics. Still, this shows a lot about their creative choices. Rowling’s worldbuilding was surface level. While Rowling included certain themes within her books, her main intent was to write entertaining stories for younger people while occasionally making a salient point about the real world. Tolkien, on the other hand, chose to write in such a way as to reveal his entire worldview, layering it into a story built upon myth and storytelling. As such, while Rowling uses words to paint a a bright and vivid picture for us, Tolkien’s works shows language, words, and storytelling inextricably connected to our way of thought and life.

QuickLit: November 2020

Not much happening around here. I’m working on NaNoWriMo, so I’m doing some re-reading rather than trying anything new. Still, I’m getting new impressions from old favorites, as always.

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First up, I’m working through the last of Tolkien’s great epic, The Return of the King. I’ve just gotten past the rescue of Faramir, and I’m once again struck by the contrast between Theoden and Denethor, as I mentioned in another post. Theoden comes to Gondor only to see the devastation from the siege. For a moment, he is bent with despair; but then, he rallies and leads his men into battle. By contrast, Denethor is faced with a hopeless situation and gives up. He refuses to lead his men, partly because of his guilt over the treatment of his son, and in the end tries to kill both himself and Faramir to avoid ignoble defeat, rather than fighting on until the end.

As always, I enjoyed Eowyn’s defeat of the Witch King, and Wose Ghân-buri-Ghân refusing to put up with condescension.

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I wasn’t sure what to read next on Project Gutenberg, so I just decided to re-read Little Women before I go on an adaptation binge. It’s such a sweet, pleasant book, but I have to say it does get preachy at times, although I’m somewhat appeased by the fact that Alcott herself admitted to doing it on purpose because she knew that was the kind of book that was popular at the time. But I think it’s no coincidence that the unofficial protagonist is Jo, who in many ways is the embodiment of the exact reverse of proper Victorian femininity. I was particularly amused this time around by Jo’s trolling Amy when she’s forced to go on social calls. But, at the same time, I did notice how protective and maternal Jo gets toward her sisters and Laurie (the main reason I can’t be a Jaurie shipper). I think Alcott did this on purpose, to show that a woman didn’t have to be a proper Victorian housewife to be a good mother (or wife).

Also, I was amused to realize that people have been taking Mrs. March’s comments out of context. For a while I saw the “I am angry almost every day” quote being tweeted everywhere with the implication of anger against injustice…but in the book, Mrs. March basically just admits that she gets irritated with people and small, trivial life events and has to hold back her anger. Extremely Relatable.

The Great Tolkien Re-Read AND Re-Watch: The Two Towers

Well, I’ve made it through The Two Towers. I always find this one a little harder than the others, and I think it’s mainly because of the Gollum sections. But let’s discuss that with the rest of the book…

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We pick up where we left off: Frodo and Sam have gone off together, leaving behind the rest of the Fellowship to deal with Orcs. Boromir bites it and makes a very long, sad speech before dying, Merry and Pippin get kidnapped but Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli spend time preparing Boromir’s Viking funeral before setting him off down the Anduin. I’m only being half sarcastic. It’s a beautiful scene, and shows that despite Boromir’s attempt to take the Ring, he is still considered honorable and worthy of respect. Some people dislike that the morality of the books is so black and white, but it’s morality grounded in the concepts of forgiveness and redemption.

This leads into the Longest Marathon Ever, as our trio attempt to catch up to the Orcs, and meeting up with the Rohirrim, who are the Weird Horse Girls of Middle Earth. They just. They love their horses, a lot. Eomer, King Theoden’s nephew, reluctantly allows our heroes to continue searching for Merry and Pippin, though the Rohirrim didn’t see any little people while absolutely wrecking the Orcs.

Another theme I’ve noticed is that of using intuition. It’s not often seen in modern fiction, where the characters are generally always mistrustful of others until good evidence is brought forward. But a lot of the trust in The Lord of the Rings is based around intuition. Eomer, rather than mindlessly following orders, can tell that the trio are good, honorable people, and makes his decisions accordingly. This happened in the first book, when they meet Aragorn; Frodo says he “feels fair” despite his outward appearance. We’ll also see this come into play in the Gollum subplot later on.

Meanwhile, Merry and Pippin have a bad time of it. It turns out Orcs make the equivalent of Five O’Clock Vodka when it comes to their aqua de vitae, and they have no concept of “use by dates” for their food. They manage to escape while the Rohirrim ruin the Uruk-hai’s day, and wind up running into an Ent.

GUYS I LOVE ENTS. I LOVE THEM SO MUCH.

Ents are tree-shepherds, and we can be pretty sure this is the result of Yavanna complaining that Aulë got to make Dwarves, what about her trees? I think Ents really show Tolkien’s imagination the best. While the rest of the cultures of Middle Earth are largely equivalent to human cultures, Ents are totally different in a good way. They take their time saying things because everything important is worth long consideration. This also acts as a good commentary on war. Unlike in the movie (we’ll get to that) the Ents are not averse to going to war. But they take their time making that decision, because it is a huge decision. Once it’s made, Saruman never had a chance.

And honestly, Saruman? You just completely forgot there were large sentient trees nearby??? The biggest commentary on the nature of evil in these books is that evil is largely single-minded and unimaginative. Sauron can’t imagine anyone would want to destroy his Ring, and Saruman can’t imagine that the Ents would possibly get angry enough to fight back. They’re so focused on their own selfish goals that they can’t understand others anymore.

I’ve written previously about Theoden’s recovery as a commentary on hope, so I’ll just leave the link here. But I just really loved the battle of Helm’s Deep in the books. Theoden has recovered from the fog of despair, and even when it seems like there is no hope, he instead chooses to fight to the end. Also, I liked the Huorns. And that they and the Ents were a result of Tolkien’s Shakespeare spite.

One last thing I picked up on in this section was Pippin’s fixation on the Palantir. I never really thought about the fact he touched it, but Sauron’s influence instantly makes itself known. It’s been noted before that the Big Bad stays entirely in the background, but things like this ensure that he is still at the forefront of everyone’s minds. It’s also the one time we hear of him speaking directly to one of the characters. Poor Pippin.

And so we come to the Gollum subplot. I don’t hate it, but I find it tedious, probably for the same reason everyone finds Gollum tedious. But it does give us much to think of in terms of redemption, kindness, and empathy. Sam doesn’t try to hide his distrust and suspicion of Gollum (imagine them playing Among Us). However, he doesn’t balance this out with anything resembling kindness. Frodo, however, does feel the pity that Bilbo did for the wretched creature, and his kindness and compassion, more than anything, is what brings Gollum closer to redemption than ever before. Frodo can tell that, despite Gollum’s general bad intentions, he is affected by compassion, and in some ways is still fighting his dark impulses. Sam struggles to recognize that Frodo’s compassion does not mean he is naive or foolish when it comes to the bad intentions of others. The more cynical in our society have this same struggle, as did Peter Jackson (but more on that in my review of “The Return of the King”). There is an interplay here in the characters: Frodo’s compassion affects Gollum, but it’s possible without Sam to act as a sentinel Gollum may have found it easier to give into his dark side. Sam could not have made any headway with Gollum on his own. Both traits are needed in life. To take a leaf from the Bible, we should be “as wise as serpents and as gentle as doves”.

Also, this section does introduce us to Faramir, who is just the absolute best. He acts as a counter-balance to his brother, recognizing that he has no right to the Ring, and showing that there is no dishonor in fleeing temptation. One thing he notes is that Boromir was always slightly resentful that his line had to remain stewards rather than being elevated to kings of Gondor, which fits in with his desire for the Ring. Boromir was an honorable man but he wanted power, because he thought that would be how Gondor would survive Sauron’s onslaught. He thinks he has a right to the throne of Isildur, therefore he has a right to Isildur’s war trophy. Faramir recognizes he has no right to either, and he well knows that keeping the Ring away from Minas Tirith is the best decision, lest it drive his father mad as well.

Also, I still hate giant spiders. That is all.

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So, here we are. The movie.

Let’s…just talk about this.

I will say that the movie didn’t start by going off the cliff rails. It follows the story pretty closely. I enjoyed that we saw Gandalf’s fight with the Balrog, and the revelation of Gandalf the White. I also enjoyed how they balanced Merry and Pippin’s escape with Aragorn following their tracks. It was nicely done and plotted. And, as usual the music and visuals were superb.

But here’s where things start getting…odd.

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First, let’s talk about the Ent subplot. I hated that they changed the Ents’ decision just to give Merry and Pippin something more to do. It erases the commentary on the Ents’ culture, on decision making, and on war. Even though the Ents are already fully aware of what Saruman is doing, somehow Treebeard has to go look at it again. And somehow, all it takes is for Treebeard to say “well I guess we’re going to war then” and the other Ents, who are not also standing there looking at Sarumans’ depredations, are just like “well okay I guess”. It was silly and unnecessary.

Next, Theoden. Instead of merely being weighed down by despair over the current events as well as being convinced he is too old to be effective (and trust me I’ve literally seen this in old people before, who are constantly treated as too old to function and start acting as such), Theoden is quite literally possessed by Saruman. How does Saruman balance standing around possessing some old guy along with being Dad to his Orc-hybrids, constant Zoom calls with Sauron, and making bombs in his spare time? Instead of the problem being an inward problem that Theoden must overcome, it becomes yet another outward problem. If Saruman was possessing Theoden, then what is the point of Wormtongue? And, I mean, they did a great job of portraying Wormtongue! They showed us the creepy, duplicitous advisor and basically wasted it! (Although I did like Wormtongue psychologically manipulating Eowyn. It’s hinted at in the books but done more openly here, and it shows that even though she consciously rejects his words, they get under her skin and inform her actions later on.)

Helm’s Deep. Look, I enjoyed the visuals and were it not for certain aspects it would have been a great battle sequence, but again, some parts were just very odd. Why did Aragorn have to go barrelling off a cliff, to have flashbacks to his and Arwen’s break up which didn’t happen and wasn’t even necessary to explain the whole “immortal Elf giving up her immortality” thing and only served to make fake relationship drama and try to shoehorn in a love triangle with Eowyn that, again, was totally unnecessary? Why did the Elves have to come to Helm’s Deep, other than to give a weird amount of screen time to Haldir which was, again, narratively unnecessary? Why did Legolas skateboard down the stairs? Why.

Regarding the Gollum subplot, the big problem I had was the characterization. Sam’s suspicion is amplified to something resembling abuse, and Frodo’s compassion turns into merely understanding Gollum because he is burdened by the Ring too. In other words, the narrative undermines the idea of empathy. Frodo only has compassion on Gollum because he himself is suffering the same things, not because he is a good, kind person. In the books, the narrative likens Gollum to the Hobbits. In the movie, the narrative likens Frodo to Gollum. Instead of showing Gollum’s “humanity”, it shows Frodo’s weakness. Instead of redemption, a fall. It gets worse in the next movie, but we’ll save that for next time.

Finally…

Get ready for it…

Y’all know what’s about to happen…

WHY IN THE NAME OF ALL THAT IS SHINY AND GOOD DID PETER JACKSON DECIDE IT WAS BETTER FOR FARAMIR TO BE A BOROMIR COPYCAT AND TRY TO TAKE THE RING.

NO PETER JACKSON IF YOU WERE REALLY A FAN YOU WOULD UNDERSTAND THAT CLAIMING THAT FARAMIR RESISTING THE RING MADE EVERYTHING LESS DIRE MAKES NO SENSE. FARAMIR WAS A COMMENTARY ON THE POWER OF CHARACTER AND HONOR WHEN FACED WITH TEMPTATION AND THEY JUST…DECIDED THAT WASN’T EXCITING ENOUGH. SO THEY HAD FARAMIR DRAG FRODO ALL THE WAY TO OSGILIATH SPECIFICALLY SO A NAZGHUL COULD COME AND HAVE A LOOKSY.

FJERY3WHFLSHDS%#^&$%*#^$%rhf213289!!!!!!!!

So anyway that’s my opinion of “The Two Towers” movie.

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Spooktober Movie Review: The Thing From Another World (1951)

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We all know about “The Thing”, right? Grizzled Kurt Russell vs. eldritch gooey thing that takes over other people?

Well, if you don’t…don’t watch it before this one. If you haven’t read “Who Goes There?”, don’t read it before watching this either.

Not that this was a bad movie, mind you. It’s just that it’s very different from either the short story or the John Carpenter movie.

The movie takes place, not in Antarctica, but in Anchorage, because apparently every alien invasion movie in the 50s had to be a screaming metaphor for the Cold War. Our intrepid crew of soldiers, scientists, and journalists find out something strange has landed nearby, which they soon discover is a flying saucer.

Being brilliant, they decide to use dynamite to get it out of the ice. It…doesn’t survive the explosion. But a block full o’alien does, and they drag it back to base, where the brilliant Corporal Barnes places an electric blanket over it without checking to see if the blanket is. You know. On.

Per the original story, the alien escapes, and that’s where similarities end.

In this movie, the alien is not a shapeshifter able to assimilate bodies into its consciousness via blood. It’s literally just an evolved vegetable from another world with “no emotion, no sex drive” to complicate things. Token mad scientist Carrington quickly goes crazy with the whole “it must be superior to us!!!!” dialogue. The alien drinks blood like a vampire and uses the bodies to feed its eggs, and appears to be nigh-unkillable. In reality, the alien is Every 50s Movie Monster, stumbling around, remaining unhurt through almost everything they throw at it until someone uses electricity, which seems to have been the go-to solution for these movies. This version of the Thing may get along well with Charles the Butcher. Butcher can make weird eye twitches, and the Thing can. Um. Lay spores, or something.

Overall, the movie was notable not for the actual monster, but for the characters. Captain Hendry is a bit of a rogue, and doesn’t put up with the journalist’s badgering or Carrington’s rants about alien superiority. I was also impressed with the romantic side plot. Nikki Nicholson, played by the lovely Margaret Sheridan, does not act like the screaming woman on the poster. She matches well with the decisive Hendry; they flirt/bicker throughout the movie with none of the harshness often seen in that kind of dynamic. These two also do their level best to trample over the Hays’ Code without crossing the line. For example, at one point Hendry jokes that he would let Nicholson “tie his hands”. They get away with making such a blatant bondage joke because the scene then cuts to Hendry actually tied to a chair while Nicholson helps him sip his coffee. “Bondage? No, no, censors, it was quite literal!” Of course this joke is in context with her offering to buy him a drink, and playfully proposing to him in the midst of their fight against the alien. The director and writers knew precisely what they were doing with this.

While Carrington is your stereotypical mad scientist, “don’t hurt my sad monster” type, the journalist Ned Scott is refreshing as kind of a weenie journalist, but he isn’t the stereotype of the meddling but useless journalist. They roast him, but again, like with Hendry and Nicholson’s relationship, there’s none of the harshness or sense that these people hate each other. Scott helps out with the fight (although he faints when he finally sees the monster, and can’t get the photo of it he’d been wanting the whole time), but he also gets his chance to make his report via radio, which also helps cement the “the Thing is a metaphor for Soviet Russia” theme running underneath it all.

I should warn viewers that one character does make a joke about everyone being armed up “looking like a lynching party”. The 50s…sure were a time.

Overall, though, it’s a fun, typically 50s monster movie.

Spooktober Movie Review: Masters of Horror Dreams in the Witch House

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So I’ve been wanting to watch this for some time. I heard reviews that it was quite close to Lovecraft’s short story, and in some ways I would say it is. It follows the formula closely: tired graduate student Walter Gilman just wants a quiet place to study his advanced physics. He is given a small, oddly shaped room by the sleazy landlord of a local boarding house. However, his time there turns out to be not so quiet, as he discovers that his room matches the non-euclidean geometry he is studying. Things go downhill fast as it becomes apparent that he is being stalked by an old witch, who has quite an interest in his pretty neighbor’s baby…

So it actually was a little spooky. They add in a love interest to make the kidnapping of the baby a little more personal. I also thought Keziah Mason was done well, although why she continued posing as the neighbor at times after Gilman realized that absolutely was not his neighbor he was about to bang is anyone’s guess. For the record, there is no Nyarlathotep; I guess he had better things to do.

Most of it was spooky. When they first showed the back of Brown Jenkins, I expected to be creeped out.

AND THEN THIS SHOWED UP ON SCREEN.

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Y’ALL. I LAUGHED OUT LOUD.

This is not scary. This is “Peter Pettigrew mid-transformation”. The guy talks in quick stutters, supposedly to sound more rat-like, but again. Laughed. Out. Loud. Nothing they did later made him scary to me.

It’s definitely worth a watch though, and gets particularly dark at the end, but all within the spirit of the original short story.

Spooktober Review: Twenty Years’ Experience as a Ghost Hunter by Elliott O’Donnell

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Late Victorian and Edwardian times seemed to be prime time for ghosts of all kinds. Everyone had some old knight haunting their ancestral manor; every boarding house seemed to have a murder victim somewhere in their past. The late 1800s purported to move away from religion and superstition but merely replaced it with a loose conglomeration of spiritual beliefs from around the world. Some called it open-minded science, while others made no bones about the fact that they were replacing traditional Christianity with something “less narrow”, according to them. In the former category you had people like Charles Fort as well as many scientists, who studied everything from inexplicable phenomena, phrenology, and the seemingly endless uses for electricity, with equal fervor; in the latter category you had theosophists, transcendentalists, and lots and lots of old ladies purporting to be psychic.

Elliott O’Donnell was the latter type. His book starts out explaining his early experiences with the supernatural, which made him question Christianity. (Never mind most of his experiences land squarely in the territory of “textbook demonic activity”.) This led him on a twenty year journey to study more phenomena as well as find an actual job he liked. I…kind of want to judge him for that, but at the same time I understand how awful it can actually be to work at a job you despise.

O’Donnell journeyed across the U.K. and into the U.S., always happening upon an acquaintance who had experienced, or knew someone who experienced, something supernatural, which led O’Donnell to investigate. I leave it to the reader to decide how much they believe in coincidence.

Some of the stories were good spooky stories, especially his own ongoing haunting by what seems to be a marathon runner in high heels, based on his description. However, the amount of coincidence as well as his own inability to articulate why he believed a phenomenon was one thing and not another (he sometimes claims a haunting is due to what he terms a “neutrarian”, which is a spirit that never had a body), along with his sudden bursts of Dickensian complaints about society, vegetarianism, and love of acting, really took me out of the spookiness of the tales. Along with this, some of his tales closely mirror popular stories published in the recent years before his book came out, such as spooky tree spirits surrounding campers while they sleep (“The Willows”), or a family dealing with haunted bedsheets (“Oh Whistle and I’ll Come To You My Lad”).

Overall, it was hard to get into the book. O’Donnell wasn’t content with merely telling scary tales for an interested audience; they were simply a frame to tell the story of his wandering lifestyle.

Overall, if you want some good Victorian and Edwardian tales, this isn’t quite the book for it.

Spooktober Movie Reviews: The Indestructible Man and Nosferatu

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It’s more vintage spookiness for your Spooktober requirements. I watched one cheesy B movie with dubious science, and one silent film that’s known specifically because of an episode of Spongebob.

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First up, The Indestructible Man. A bizarre combination of Frankenstein, narrated police procedural, and gritty noir. Detective Dick Chasen looks back at the wrap up of the weirdest case in his life. A dangerous murderer named Charles “Butcher” Benson has just been executed, but some scientists decide to use his body for science. Somehow, in attempting to cure cancer, they bring him back to life using electricity, as one does. Butcher discovers that he can’t be harmed, and promptly goes on a rampage, searching for his ex-compatriots who double-crossed him, and the money he stole.

It plays out rather typically. Butcher’s ex-girlfriend Eva has changed her ways and is now dating Dick because of his name (no, seriously, he says his name is Dick and her face says it all, the Hays Code was a tiny wire garden fence that was regularly trampled). Butcher had sent an envelope with the location of the money to her, but it was stolen by Butcher’s lawyer. Butcher rampages through a lot of people before he finally gets to the people he actually wants to kill, and ends up getting hurt quite a lot. There were a lot of close ups of Lon Chaney Jr. twitching his eyes in a deranged, angry manner…and then the camera would cut away and his face would have a calm, neutral expression. Also, Dick proposes to his girlfriend by first getting her fired, but it’s. You know. The 50’s.

It’s cheesy but fun, and the makeup effects on Chaney Jr. are actually quite gruesome.

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So, anyone within my age bracket has probably heard of Nosferatu simply because we watched that one Spongebob episode where Count Orlok makes a cameo. We can all quote it by heart.

But what of the original? Well, essentially, Nosferatu was a German attempt to make a Dracula movie without actually having the rights to Dracula. It follows the plot relatively closely at the beginning. Young realtor Hutter, who has the most cheerfully vacant expression most of the time, is asked by his employer to travel to Transylvania to meet with Count Orlok, who has expressed a wish to move to their little German town. He goes, leaving his wife to have weirdly prophetic dreams, and despite recognizing that Count Orlok is very creepy from the beginning, takes forever to actually realize he’s in danger. He is, somehow, smarter and dumber than Jonathan Harker: smarter, because he recognized early on there was something off about the Count, but dumber because the Count was so blatantly threatening that a five year old would recognize the actual danger.

Count Orlok enacts his plan, and makes it to Germany. Hutter eventually recovers from his Gothic novel fever, but it’s his wife Ellen who saves the day. Oh, not by taking an active role in finding the vampire like Mina did. No, she read a book that the best way to defeat the vampire is for a pure-hearted woman allows him to drink her blood, keeping him distracted until the sun rises.

Yeah, why can’t literally anyone do that? It’s a vampire, they like blood.

Anyways, it’s interesting, and Orlok’s makeup is very creepy and grotesque, but honestly not that thrilling.

Let’s be real, that Spongebob episode was actually creepier.

Spooktober Reviews: Kerfol and Tales of Men and Ghosts by Edith Wharton

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Well that was profoundly underwhelming.

I’d heard good things about Edith Wharton’s short stories, particularly ghost stories. The H.P. Lovecraft Literary Podcast reviewed “The Eyes”, which appears in the Tales of Men and Ghosts collection.

But, alas, I was disappointed to find most of her stories were not in fact about ghosts or even particularly creepy in any way. I probably wouldn’t have read this had I not been expecting more creepiness or horror, as most of Wharton’s literary fare is a focus on people’s psychology and interactions, which I find rather boring in general. I’m around people’s neuroses all day, I don’t need to read about them later! Anyways, let’s go through them one by one.

Kerfol: In this, the protagonist visits the supposedly haunted castle of Kerfol, and the dogs therein behave in an eerie fashion. It’s only after he leaves that his friend, a descendant of someone closely connected to the castle, tells him the full story.

The very first part, in which the protagonist wanders the grounds of Kerfol, was superb. Wharton hit a very creepy note in this one, and used the dogs’ behavior to add to the atmosphere.

And that was it. After this is nothing but exposition, and sad, horrifying exposition at that. I would have preferred more spookiness, less domestic and animal abuse.

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The Bolted Door: The protagonist, depressed from his artistic failures but unable to bring himself to commit suicide, tries to confess to the murder of his wealthy relative years before. But no one believes him, and he becomes increasingly desperate to prove his case.

I thought this was a good one. It was more psychological horror than anything, with an unreliable narrator and the depiction of his slow descent into insanity. The last line, too, makes the story all the more horrifying. Absolutely well done.

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His Father’s Son: An old man, living out his own dreams through his far more successful son, must confess his sordid past.

This was decent. I think even though on the surface you’re intended to just feel bad for the son’s illusions of grandeur, I think there’s enough ambiguity to make you wonder if the father isn’t really fooling himself after all. On the other hand, if the father’s story is true, then there’s a tinge of either intended or accidental homoeroticism going on here.

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The Daunt Diana: An antiquities collector becomes world-famous, but proceeds to sell his entire collection and then buy it all back in bits and pieces.

This was, again, decent. There’s some interesting stuff about not getting things too easy or you can’t appreciate them, and the old collector has a Pygmalion thing going on, but that’s about it.

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The Debt: A man discovers that his late professor’s protégé is speaking out against his scientific theories. Philosophizing ensues.

I found this one rather boring, until the end when they get into an actual discussion of scientific theory and approaches to science. That brought some life to my nerdy heart, but there wasn’t much else to find in this one.

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Full Circle: A successful novelist tries to make up for letting a friend down before.

Again, kind of boring to me. It’s a look at how guilt can really affect a person’s mentality (as well as how they perceive others’ mentalities), but again, not that interesting.

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The Legend: The protagonist comes to suspect the old tramp his friends have taken in is actually a novelist that disappeared years before.

Again, more waffling about literary theories and possibly Wharton complaining about people who think they get what a certain writer is saying but they actually don’t. There’s a slight possibility the novelist may have been a ghost, as he vanishes at the end? Maybe? Who knows. I was getting very bored by this point.

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The Eyes: The protagonist and his friends ask their host to tell them if he’s had any ghostly experiences. He certainly has, but what did they mean?

This was pretty decent. The host recounts two times he saw eerie, angry eyes glaring at him in the night. Both times were precipitated by instances of his trying to do good, but in a way that was clearly meant more to assuage his own feelings than assist the person in question. It’s an intriguing study in hypocrisy, mixed motives, and self-righteousness.

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The Blond Beast: A young man insinuates himself into a philanthropist’s work as his secretary, all while cultivating a friendship with the man’s son.

Not gonna lie, I didn’t fully understand the import of this, other than “the philanthropist is a hypocrite”. There was once again some homoeroticism going on with the protagonist being unwillingly drawn to a pretty young man, which was weird because it feels like we’re supposed to make a connection between the dog at the beginning and the philanthropist’s son. I also didn’t fully understand what exactly was the protagonist’s purpose. Just expose the philanthropist? Some more devious motive? I feel like there was some kind of study of morality involved but it was all muddled.

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Afterward: A couple who recently came into money buys a supposedly haunted mansion in England.

Now this was a creepy one. The story centers around the idea that the house is haunted, but you never know until long after the haunting. Once again this shows off Wharton’s ability to create an atmosphere for her stories, and to make it very creepy. The ghost itself, as well as the ending, is not that surprising, but that doesn’t take away from the dawning horror.

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The Letters: A young teacher falls in love with her employer, à la Jane Eyre. However, when her new love must leave for some time to tie up business affairs, she hears less and less frequently from him. Was it a fling, or did something terrible happen?

You know, for something that wasn’t that creepy and built around an affair, this story wasn’t actually that bad. Lizzie is an interesting protagonist, in that she is rather romantic, but also practical. She is able to pick herself up and move on, and I actually liked the clear message that loving relationships are still going to be flawed and have times of frustration and unpleasantness. I didn’t quite understand the character of Andora Macy. She has all the romanticism without the practicality, but was that all? Lizzie constantly dismisses her as someone living out her romantic dreams through Lizzie, but then again, Andora does keep declaring her love for Lizzie and tries to get her to leave her husband and run away with her at the end…

Real talk, I haven’t seen this much late Victorian homoeroticism since I read The Picture of Dorian Gray.

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Anyways, if you’re a fan of class angst/interpersonal relationship/psychological struggle genre of stories, then you would probably enjoy these stories. However, as far as spookiness for Spooktober goes…well maybe find something else.