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The Charioteer ~ A Capsule Book Review

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The Charioteer ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

English writer Mary Renault (1905-1983) is known mostly for her historical fiction set in ancient Greece. Her 1953 novel The Charioteer, however, is set in a much different time period: World War II. Young British soldier Laurie (Laurence) Odell sustains a severe leg injury (his kneecap is blown off) in the Dunkirk evacuation in 1940. While recuperating in an army hospital from a series of operations on his leg, he meets Andrew Raynes, a Quaker and a conscientious objector. (These “COs” are very unpopular with most people.) Andrew doesn’t fight in the war because of his religion, but he’s doing “war work” as a hospital orderly. Andrew and Laurie Odell become friends, they begin to meet secretly every day and, after a time, they become more than friends.

Years earlier, when Laurie was in school, he was drawn to an older boy named Ralph Lanyon. Ralph was a “Head” (sort of a student leader) at the school. After Ralph is “sent down” at school (expelled), Laurie never sees him again but never stops thinking of him. Fast forward years later to the war: Laurie and Ralph meet again; it turns out that Ralph rescued Laurie at Dunkirk, even though Laurie was barely conscious at the time and wasn’t aware of what was going on. Not surprisingly, he still is drawn to Ralph in a sexual way and he discovers that Ralph feels the same way about him. Since Laurie has already committed himself in a way to loving Andrew, he is faced with a dilemma. Who needs him more, Andrew or Ralph?

Meantime, Laurie has family problems. His mother, who has been a widow since Laurie was five, is planning on marrying a vicar named Mr. Straike. Laurie and Mr. Straike don’t like each other very much and are at pains to keep it hidden.  Mr. Straike was instrumental in having Laurie’s eleven-year-old dog, Gyp, euthanized while Laurie was away and his mother didn’t bother to tell Laurie about it until he comes home for her wedding. He swallows his grief over losing Gyp and ends up giving his mother away in her wedding to Mr. Straike. Whenever Laurie is alone with his mother, he wants to tell her of his homosexuality and of his feelings for Andrew, but he is never able to get the words out; he knows that Mr. Straike would violently disapprove.

The more Laurie sees Ralph on his leaves from the hospital for treatment, the more he sees him a different light. Ralph is a member of an insular group of gay men, whom Laurie doesn’t like very much. (They’re plenty bitchy and one of them attempts suicide while Laurie is present.) Although Ralph is talking about him and Laurie being together forever, Laurie isn’t sure that’s what he wants, especially since Andrew has come into his life.

The Charioteer is interesting fiction for its time, the early 1950s. If the plot creaks at times (especially for the American reader) in the long, long conversations in the second half and we’re not always sure what the characters are saying, we can overlook the plodding and the occasional flaws. (Who doesn’t have them?) On the whole, it’s a rather conventional wartime love story made unconventional because all the participants are men. Despite its theme, however, it’s easy on the ears and eyes for those who might be offended by descriptions of an “alternative lifestyle.” The sections dealing with any kind of love or sexual activity are very chaste. For all we know, Laurie and Ralph or Laurie and Andrew might be playing chess when they are alone together. We know what’s going on here, but we’re not hammered over the head with it. This is what is known as subtlety and artistry, two qualities sorely lacking in today’s tell-all, anything-goes culture.

Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp

Dracula ~ A Capsule Book Review

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Dracula ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

Irish author Bram Stoker lived from 1847 to 1912. He is known today for his famous Gothic novel Dracula, published in 1897. It’s a story of good versus evil that has inspired countless stage plays, books, movies and TV shows. It popularized the ancient legend of vampires and made it part of mainstream culture. Who doesn’t know that vampires are repelled by garlic, cast no reflection in a mirror, and can only be killed by a stake driven through the heart and the cutting off of the head?

From the first page we are immersed in atmosphere. Englishman Jonathan Harker is a solicitor working for a London real estate agent. Count Dracula, living in a crumbling, isolated castle in the Carpathian Mountains in Transylvania, has purchased a piece of property in London known as Carfax Abbey. (Why anybody would want to buy the creepy old Carfax Abbey is never questioned.) Harker travels to Castle Dracula in Transylvania to handle the business end of the sale. Right away he sees that Count Dracula is beyond eccentric. He is never seen during daylight hours, he doesn’t eat food or drink wine, and his eyes and mouth are red and his teeth are sharp. (“Listen to them!” Dracula says about the wolves howling in the hills. “Children of the Night! What music they make!”) When Harker is confined to his room and not allowed to go home when expected, he begins to wonder if he will ever make it out alive. When he looks out the window, there is a thousand-foot drop-off, offering no means of escape. At night he witnesses Dracula leaving the castle by climbing down the wall like a fly. To make matters worse, some of Dracula’s “brides” are awfully interested in getting their hooks into Harker. (“He’s young and strong!” they coo.) “Leave him alone!” Count Dracula says. “He is mine!” No matter what evil he is engaged in, he is always suave and courteous.

When Dracula departs his home in Transylvania to take up residence in England, he goes aboard a ship call the Demeter. He’s not your ordinary commercial traveler, though. He has fifty coffin-sized boxes of dirt containing soil from his native Transylvania in the ship’s hold. When the Demeter docks in England, all the crew are dead, mysteriously drained of blood. Nobody can figure out exactly what happened during the trip. We, the reader, have a pretty good idea, however.

Jonathan returns to England, physically and emotionally ill. (Either he escaped, or Count Dracula released him.) Once back home, he finds that all is not well with his fiancée (later his wife), named Mina, and his circle of friends. Mina’s best friend, named Lucy Westenra, has a mysterious illness and nobody can figure out what is wrong with her. Enter Dr. Van Helsing of Amsterdam to try to solve the riddle. He knows right away that what is wrong with Lucy isn’t in the usual run of illnesses.

Dr. Seward is also interested in the case. He was romantically interested in Lucy Westenra (as was American Quincey Morris), but she rejected him in favor of Arthur Holmwood. (When Arthur’s father dies, he becomes Lord Godalming.) Lucy and Arthur are in love and plan to be married. Lucy, however, becomes increasingly ill. Dr. Seward and Quincey Morris, even though Lucy rejected them (politely), seem to hang around to see if they might be of assistance. As these characters gradually realize the type of foe they face in Count Dracula, they vow to band together to fight evil and do all they can to defend English womanhood.

Dracula is told in “journal” entries and correspondence of the various characters, giving it a first-person sense of drama and immediacy. There is also the occasional newspaper article (as with the account of the docking in England of the Demeter), further lending verisimilitude to the story.  It is fleet in its 326 pages and is never ponderous or wordy. Though it may be considered a “pulp” novel not on a literary scale with Poe, Oscar Wilde or other purveyors of the “Gothic” genre, it’s well-written and engaging. It won’t give you a headache and it will keep you turning the pages, even though it’s a story that is familiar to almost everybody by now.

Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp

Since Yesterday ~ A Capsule Book Review

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Since Yesterday ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

The 1920s were a time of economic prosperity and optimism in America. Ordinary people—factory workers, store clerks, school teachers—were able to turn a profit in the stock market. Everybody seemed to think the good times would last forever, but they didn’t. Too many people were investing in the markets “on margin,” meaning they were borrowing the money they were investing and didn’t necessarily have a way to pay it back if their investments didn’t turn out well for them. The big bubble burst in 1929 and the economic structure in America and just about every other country in the world came crashing down, ushering in the Big D: the Depression. No matter what else happened in the 1930s, the entire decade was marked by depression and a painful realignment of the economies of the world. In retrospect, people saw that things just couldn’t go on the way they had been since the end of the First World War.

Herbert Hoover of Iowa occupied the White House at the time of the stock market crash of 1929. He was more of an administrator than a politician and, no matter how hard he tried, he wasn’t able to stop the economic decline or do much of anything to improve it. He was defeated for re-election in 1932 by Franklin Roosevelt, former governor of New York. Roosevelt had a very big job on his hands going forward. One of the things he did right away was to repeal Prohibition (the Volstead Act), which, by almost any standard, was a failure and had led to a rise in crime.

Repealing Prohibition, though, was easy compared to solving the country’s economic problems. Roosevelt instituted what was called the New Deal, which turned out to be a huge expansion of the power of the federal government. Millions of unemployed people were put to work as essentially employees of the government in “public works” projects. And, for the first time, the United States government became an enormous distributor of assistance to the needy.

Of course, during the 1930s, there were other things that happened besides the Depression, the repeal of Prohibition and the New Deal. In the plains states, millions of acres of topsoil blew away in epic dust storms caused by over-cultivation of the land. The region became known as the “dust bowl” and tens of thousands of farmers and their families were displaced and forced out of their homes. The Ohio River flooded, laying waste to Louisville and Cincinnati and destroying thousands of acres of crop lands. A freak tropical hurricane blew through New England, creating much destruction and killing 647 people. (I think there’s a pattern here.) “Lighter than air” transatlantic transport received its deathblow when the Hindenburg caught fire and crashed in Lakehurst, New Jersey, in 1937. In the “crime of the decade,” aviation hero Charles Lindbergh’s infant son was kidnapped from his New Jersey home and later found dead. One Bruno Richard Hauptman, a German immigrant, was convicted of the crime and executed, proclaiming his innocence to his final breath. The 1930s also saw the rise of labor unions and sometimes bitter strikes between labor and management. To ease the pain of all the terrible things that were happening, Americans flocked to the movies. There were Mickey Mouse, Mae West, the Marx brothers, Shirley Temple, Clark Gable in It Happened One Night and Mutiny on the Bounty, Greta Garbo making a triumphant transition to talking pictures in Anna Christie, Marlene Dietrich in Shanghai Express and The Garden of Allah, Ronald Colman in Lost Horizon, and countless others to help people relieve the pain of living during such difficult times. There were tremendous strides also being made in the arts: music, painting, theatre, and literature. Unemployed painters were being put to work by the government painting murals in post offices and other public buildings. Classical music became popularized on the radio with regular programs by famed conductor Arturo Toscanini and other concert artists. “Swing” music with performers like Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller and the Dorsey brothers became all the rage. In 1939, the New York World’s Fair opened. Called “The World of Tomorrow,” it called on people to look forward to the future with hope and optimism and set aside, as least for a time, the troubled past.

The 1930s were not to end on a very happy note, though. Whereas the beginning of the decade arrived with great economic uncertainty, it would end with fear of another war and foreign dictators: Mussolini but most particularly Hitler. He seemed to be gobbling up all the countries around him. What would the United States do if Hitler invaded its allies Britain and France? Most Americans were against getting involved in another European war. It was a time of great unease in the country.

Since Yesterday: The 1930s in America is an informal (meaning easy to read, not academic and not scientific) account of the 1930s—from September 3, 1929 to September 3, 1939—by a person who lived through it and was there, historian Frederick Lewis Allen. He writes on nearly every aspect of American life during the 1930s. If you remember the 1930s, and even if you don’t, this is a very entertaining and informative journey down memory lane. Now it’s on the 1940s. If you lived in the 1930s, you were probably better off not knowing what awaited you just around the corner.

Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp

The Mask of Apollo ~ A Capsule Book Review

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The Mask of Apollo ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

Mary Renault’s 1966 novel, The Mask of Apollo, is historical fiction, based, in large part, on historical fact. The main character is Nikeratos (“Niko” to his friends), an Athenian actor who is relating the story in his first-person voice. Nikeratos is a fictional construct, but most of the other characters and incidents, including a very young Alexander the Great at the end of the story, are real.

The setting is Greece about four hundred years before Christ. Nikeratos, being the son of an actor, is born into acting. He finds success in his calling early in life and moves up through the ranks of desired actors. To me the most interesting parts of the novel are the descriptions of the stagecraft of the period, which, even by today’s standards, were very elaborate and sophisticated. Plays were the entertainment of the masses, instead of just the cultured few. Theatres seated as many as fifteen or twenty thousand people and plays often began before dawn, with the rising sun sometimes used as an effect in the play. Only men were allowed to act on the stage, so men played in women’s roles. People in the audience never saw the faces of the actors during a performance because they wore elaborate masks (mask-making was a craft in itself). Underneath the masks the actors spoke the lines the playwrights had written. The best and most successful actors became celebrated.

If Nikeratos’s life isn’t interesting enough as an actor, he becomes involved in political intrigue in Syracuse, a powerful Greek city state at the tip of the island of Sicily. Syracuse has been controlled by despots, first by Dionysius, and then after his death by his son, Dionysius the Younger. Nikeratos befriends Dion, a moderate politician and pupil of the philosopher Plato. (They never become “lovers” in the Greek sense because they are of different worlds, but there is definitely an attraction going on there.) Dion is trying to bring stability and democracy to Syracuse by teaching Dionysius the Younger about more tolerant forms of government. Dion entrusts Nikeratos to convey sensitive political documents between Syracuse and Athens. Plato and Dion attempt to restructure the government of Syracuse along the lines of Plato’s Republic, with Dionysius the Younger as the archetypal philosopher-king. Of course, things don’t work out the way they had hoped.

The Mask of Apollo is a readable classic, somewhere between pop fiction and literature. It’s plenty engaging enough, but for me the political intrigue began to grow thin and meandering toward the end of the book. History tells us that things didn’t end well for Plato and Dion, but the last hundred pages or so seemed kind of anticlimactic. It might have been gripping but isn’t. All in all, though, it’s an interesting and informative journey to the ancient world, an escape from the dreary times we live in.

Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp

Three Famous Short Novels ~ A Capsule Book Review

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Three Famous Short Novels

Three Famous Short Novels ~ A  Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

William Faulkner (1897-1962) is arguably the greatest American writer of the twentieth century. He was a genius, a literary stylist and innovator; there has never been anybody else quite like him. While some of his books are more accessible than others (As I Lay Dying, Sanctuary), his work is notoriously challenging to read. It helps sometimes, when reading Faulkner, to have a “study guide” or at least a synopsis of the chapters to be able to keep up with what is going on. He switches around from one time period to another, and the relationships among his numerous characters are often difficult to keep straight. There might, at times, even be different characters with the same name or with very similar names.

In this volume are three of Faulkner’s shorter, standalone works: Spotted Horses, Old Man, and The Bear. Not much happens in Spotted Horses. It’s about poor country people at an auction of some very wild Texas horses in Mississippi. These people are so poor that buying a horse for five dollars places a terrible financial burden on them. The thing about the horses is that they are so wild they can’t be caught after they’re sold. You don’t want to spend your last five dollars in the world for a horse you can’t catch. “Give me back my money. I wasn’t able to find the horse I bought.” “The owner of the horses took your money and has gone back to Texas. Too bad.” A fool and his money are soon parted.

The “old man” in Old Man is the Mississippi River. This readable and entertaining short novel is set in the Mississippi Delta in 1927, during a terrible flood in which there is much destruction of property, loss of human and animal life. (Faulkner renders a wonderfully vivid and evocative description of the flood.) Local officials enlist the aid of prison labor to help with sandbagging. Enter a stolid convict whose name we never know, in prison for the old-fashioned (even in the 1920s) crime of train robbing. He is soon swept away in a small boat on rising flood waters. He wants to get back before they think he has escaped, but he is not in control of where he goes. Eventually he rescues a woman who—guess what?—is about to have a baby. He saves her life (and the life of her baby) and with his strength is able to keep the boat upright. The man, the woman, the baby, and the boat end up very far away from where they started out. The prisoner wants nothing more than to get back to the relative comfort of the prison to finish his term. The irony is that he gets ten additional years tacked on to his sentence for his adventuring. Talk about gratitude! After all he went through, he should have been released from prison as long he promised not to rob any more trains.

Then we come to the short novel The Bear, which is notoriously difficult reading, at least in the fourth and fifth sections of its five sections. The time is the 1880s, when the wounds of the Civil War and slavery are still felt in the South (more about that comes later in the story). Every November all the hunters track the legendary bear, Old Ben, but there seems to be kind of an unspoken agreement not to kill him. Old Ben has been shot many times but never brought down. Tracking him is a sort of sport, not unlike a boxing match or some other sporting event. Young hunter Isaac McCaslin (“Ike” for short) grows up in the woods, becoming a more accomplished woodsman and hunter than most grown men while still a child. He comes to revere Old Ben as a sort of god. In one fateful encounter with a “legendary” dog, however, Old Ben has met his match. When one of the hunters, Boon Hoggenbeck, sees that Old Ben is about to kill the dog, he steps in and kills the bear with a knife instead of a gun. So much for the unspoken pledge not to kill the bear.

The death of Old Ben comes at the end of the third section of the novel. For the next two sections, Faulkner switches gear for some reason, making the story seem uneven. (He must have had his reasons; after all, he was the genius.) Fast forward to 1888, when Ike is twenty-one. He and his cousin, McCaslin Edmonds, are in the plantation commissary, looking at some old ledgers in which Ike’s father and Ike’s father’s twin brother, McCaslin’s father, recorded some semi-literate entries about slaves they had bought and sold before the Civil War and Emancipation. Ike and McCaslin read the ledger entries and we (the reader) read them too. They go on and on and are not all that interesting. Ike and McCaslin then engage in a long and dense discussion of how wrong slavery was for the South and how the South and everybody in it is cursed because of it. There are some very long sentences here and some very long paragraphs (one single sentence is 1600 words). You have to be a dedicated reader to wade through all this.

Faulkner is Faulkner and he is the one and only. Nobody else even comes close. You either find his work rewarding or completely incomprehensible. After you’ve read one of his sentences or one of his paragraphs, you might have to go back and break the sentence or the paragraph down into its various parts to understand what he is saying. And, as wordy and dense as his work is, he is also the master of the unspoken. Read him and you’ll see what I mean.

Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp

The Picture of Dorian Gray ~ A Capsule Book Review

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The Picture of Dorian Gray ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

London in the 1880s: Not only is Dorian Gray young, innocent, and fabulously wealthy (he doesn’t have to earn his daily bread), he is also extravagantly beautiful. When sometimes-mediocre painter Basil Hallward meets the beautiful young Dorian, he becomes obsessed and infatuated. “Gay attraction” and “love” are never mentioned, but isn’t that what we’re talking about here? After all, it’s Oscar Wilde.

Basil Hallward rises above his own mediocrity when he paints Dorian’s portrait. It is, everybody agrees, his masterpiece. He could sell it for a tidy sum but decides to give it to Dorian. Dorian mouths an innocent (or not so innocent) prayer to the effect that he wishes he could always remain young and beautiful, while his portrait would show the inevitable signs of aging and living. In a touch of “magic realism” (how else do you explain it?), he gets his wish.

Early in the story, Dorian meets Lord Henry Wotton, a character who could be Wilde himself. He’s worldly, cynical, intelligent, and in possession of a scathing wit. He speaks in epigrams (“The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.”) and doesn’t believe in goodness or much of anything else. He becomes an important character in the story because he is a corrupting influence on Dorian in his youth. Dorian admires him and is drawn to him and seeks to emulate him, even though he has a lot of the devil in him.

Dorian begins to live recklessly. He “falls in love” (or believes he does) with a young Shakespearean actress named Sybil Vane. Sybil’s biggest failing is that she doesn’t know what Dorian is all about or what she is getting herself into. Dorian believes she is a divinely talented actress and says he wants to marry her. When he brings his friends to the theatre to see her in a performance of Romeo and Juliet, she is terrible. She disappoints Dorian and embarrasses him in front of his friends. When he sees her after the performance, he is cruel to her. He tells her she is not what he thought she was and he can’t marry her and doesn’t want to see her again, while she says that her happiness at being his betrothed has robbed her of her “art.” He leaves her heartbroken and the next day discovers that she has committed suicide.

From Sybil Vane’s suicide, Dorian goes on to do other bad deeds. People are naturally drawn to him because he’s so attractive, but he turns out to be poison to everybody who comes into his sphere, male and female alike. Several young men are “ruined” because they acquire the taint of scandal from being Dorian’s “intimates.” (Homosexuality is still a crime in England at this time.) There are ruined careers and other suicides. Dorian immerses himself in a world of vice and degradation, frequenting opium dens and other low places of ill repute. Eventually he commits murder.

While Dorian becomes more and more immersed in sin, he remains young-looking and beautiful. At age thirty-eight, he still looks the same as he did at twenty-three. We (the reader) know what his secret is if nobody else does. The portrait that Basil Hallward painted of him (which he keeps locked away in the attic of his house) bears his shame and the marks of his vice and sin. It becomes more and more hideous while Dorian himself remains unscathed. The painting is, in a way, his soul and his conscience. We know this isn’t going to end well for Dorian.

There are elements of Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in The Picture of Dorian Gray; also elements of Poe, although The Picture of Dorian Gray is generally easier reading than Poe. (We are told in the introduction that it started out as a shorter piece until Wilde expanded it into a novel.) It’s a readable classic, worth revisiting, if you read it once a long time ago, as I did, and want to experience it again now that you’re older and wiser. (If you’re interested in the life and too-early death of Oscar Wilde, the 1997 British movie, Wilde, makes for fascinating viewing.)

Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp

The Best Short Stories of Edgar Allan Poe ~ A Capsule Book Review

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The Best Short Stories of Edgar Allan Poe

The Best Short Stories of Edgar Allan Poe ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

In this collection are twenty-eight short stories by Edgar Allan Poe, from the really well known (“The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Pit and the Pendulum,” “The Fall of the House of Usher”) to the less well known (“A Tale of the Ragged Mountains,” “The Sphinx,” “The Imp of the Perverse”). Poe’s best stories are the ones where he gets right to the story and doesn’t theorize or provide dry, unnecessary information, as in the first couple of pages of “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” a fine story if you start reading about the third page. And, no, there’s no morgue in this story where dead bodies are kept. The “Rue Morgue” is a street in Paris where two women, mother and daughter, are brutally murdered, stumping police, especially since the body of the daughter is stuffed up inside a chimney. The 1932 movie version of the story, a vehicle for Bela Lugosi, bears little or no resemblance to the original story. Yes, there’s a killer ape in the story and also in the movie, but that’s where the similarity ends.

The movies have not been kind to the works of Edgar Allan Poe. His stories just aren’t cinematic. Maybe some day somebody will make a movie from one of his stories that is faithful to the original story. In the 1960s, somebody thought it would be a good idea to make a series of movies based on the works of Poe starring that master of horror, Vincent Price. These movies were not serious attempts to translate the works of Poe to the screen but were mostly a way for filmmakers to make money, and I’m sure they succeeded in this goal, or there wouldn’t have been so many of them. To know what the stories of Poe are really like, you have to read them in their original form and not watch cheesy “B” movies.

Poe wrote on subjects that probably most other writers of his generation would have found too distasteful: mutilation murder, lunacy, drug addiction, being interred alive, being closed up in a wall to die, rotting corpses, rats, catacombs, disease, jealousy, revenge, etc. He was preoccupied with dying and death and the dark side of things; he probably suffered from some sort of undiagnosed mental illness. He didn’t write about monsters from another realm as H. P. Lovecraft did, but about monsters that exist right here on earth that you might just bring upon yourself if you’re not careful. In “The Imp of the Perverse,” a man commits a successful murder and has an easy life living on the money from the person he killed. Everything is going well for him, but he just can’t keep from confessing the murder and he ends up on the gallows. In “The Premature Burial,” a man who experiences catalepsy (trances that resemble death) has a morbid fear of being buried alive. In “The Black Cat,” an alcoholic who loves animals begins to have a consuming hatred for, and fear of, a certain black cat. In “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” a “Mesmerist” hypnotizes a man who is on the brink of death from tuberculosis. As an experiment, he keeps the dying man in a state of suspended, hypnotic animation, neither alive or dead, for a period of seven months. “The Pit and the Pendulum” is about a prisoner of the Spanish Inquisition being tortured in a fiendish and cruel way. In “Hop-Frog,” one of Poe’s best stories, a dwarf who is court jester for a cruel king exacts his revenge in the most dramatic way possible.

Poe elevated and legitimized the short story. In some ways, he is the father of the American short story. If you read his stories now, you will see why he endures. The best of his stories are the best ever written.     

Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp 

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