L. Frank Baum – The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

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I’ve somehow owned a copy of this book since childhood but hadn’t thought to read it until now. It’s weird, and not always in a fun way. I was reminded most of the Grimm fairly tales, with their meandering, unstructured, unresolved plots, confused morals and sudden lurches into violence. The prose itself is a disconcerting mix of the sentimental Victorian style and a sort of pompous late-Twain-esque highfalutin moral fable. Somehow this became one of the best-selling children’s book series of all time and I’m not sure how or why.

L. Frank Baum – The Wonderful Wizard of Oz
L. Frank Baum – The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (Full text at Project Gutenberg)
L. Frank Baum – The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (Dramatic reading at Librivox)

 

Joseph Conrad – Heart of Darkness

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The British Empire was never the positive, civilizing force that it was sold as, but the Victorians seemed, as a whole, to either sweep any misgivings under the carpet or consider them less important than their blossoming sense of national pride. It’s only in the dying years of the era that cracks start to appear in the jolly facade, and none so vivid as Heart of Darkness.

Joseph Conrad is one of the most extraordinary writers I can think of – not only for the jarring modernity (coupled with undiluted 19th century prejudice) of his work, but the fact that he learned English as an adult, working for the merchant navy, yet has one of the most assured voices in literature, able to slip in and out of character like nobody else.

Heart of Darkness isn’t a fun book. A slim novella, it took me the best part of a month to get through it, but the relentless grimness of the trek through the horrors of the Belgian Congo never amounted to being bored. The “horror” here implicates not only the protagonist and narrator in these crimes, but also the reader and the culture they belong to.

A fascinating discussion about the book on the BBC’s In Our Time can be found here, the full text is here, a free audiobook is here, and you can buy the book here.

H. G. Wells – The War of the Worlds

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Reading The Island of Doctor Moreau, I thought it must be the darkest of Wells’s science fiction stories, but The War of the Worlds represents some solid competition on that front. As stories of alien invasion go, it’s remarkably bleak and lacking in heroism. After the aliens land in the suburbs of London (the capital of a third of the world in 1898) every attempt to deal with them is doomed by naivety, arrogant folly and blind, incoherent panic. An attempt by one individual to survive and rebuild is a castigation of these faults, but is, as the narrator soon realizes, guilty of the same. Victory over the Martians only comes by chance, with the humans having nothing at all to do with it.

The War of the Worlds
The War of the Worlds (full text at Project Gutenberg)
The War of the Worlds (free audiobook at Librivox)

Bram Stoker – Dracula

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It’s been over twenty years since I last read ‘Dracula’ and I was a little surprised to find that my opinion about it this time was essentially the same. It’s 50% utterly wonderful, a wildly evocative mystery story with enough half-spoken to lead to a century of derivative works, none of which can quite capture its unique atmosphere. The first part of the book largely falls into this category.

But then there’s also the 50% pointless tedium, lifeless characters writing long letters about how they had a meeting and how wonderful another boring character is. Aside from possibly Van Helsing, the characters are so thinly drawn it’s sometimes breathtaking. Quincy, for example, has the defining feature of being American, and that’s pretty much it. Lucy is the worst though, surely the most insipid personality ever put on a page (and praised to the heavens for being braindead in such a delicate, ladylike way,) she only gains any character when she is killed and brought back  as a vampire, only for the others to be physically repulsed by her passion to the point of driving a stake through her heart. I’m sure there has been a great deal written about what this says about Stoker’s view of female sexuality, none of it very positive.

In spite of all of this I still loved reading it again. The best parts are absolutely worth sitting though the dull sections for, and if you’re anything like me you can also enjoy imagining what you would do with it if you were Bram Stoker’s editor.

Bram Stoker – Dracula
Bram Stoker – Dracula (free text at Project Gutenberg)
Bram Stoker – Dracula (BBC radio adaptation)
Bram Stoker – Dracula (free audiobook at Librivox)

…and here’s a clip from perhaps the most famous adaptation, the one with Bela Lugosi from 1931. Unfortunately the film gets even more bogged down in its second act than the book does, but this scene shows off both Lugosi and the superb set design.

H. G. Wells – The Island of Doctor Moreau

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Probably the least well-remembered of Wells’s three groundbreaking science fiction works of the late 1890s, The Island of Doctor Moreau has suffered even more then The Time Machine from a series of poor quality adaptations, and an odd sort of uncertainty of what the point of the story is. Whether you view the book as pleasingly ambiguous or confused in its ideas, it’s still a pleasing combination of proto-sci-fi and gothic horror, reminiscent of Tom Baker era Dr Who.

The Island of Doctor Moreau
The Island of Doctor Moreau (full text at Project Gutenberg)
The Island of Doctor Moreau (free audiobook at Librivox)

J. Meade Falkner – The Lost Stradivarius

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If obsessively uncovering secrets through ancient sound is our job here, then this is very much on-topic. It’s not exactly an obscure occult text, but The Lost Stradivarius is a great ghost story anyway, Falkner pitching it at a sweet spot somewhere between The Great God Pan and the works of M. R. James. It’s a long short story or perhaps a short novella, in any case worth an hour or so of your time.

The Lost Stradivarius
The Lost Stradivarius (free text at Project Gutenberg)
The Lost Stradivarius (free audio at Librivox)

 

H. G. Wells – The Time Machine

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Looking back at people looking forward never fails to fascinate – in order to judge predictions, of course, but also because of what these stories tell us about the cutting edge of thought and values at the time. On the whole The Time Machine works well from this sort of perspective, the predictions are far too far into the future to be judged, and the concepts do seem at least modern in a pre-war sort of way. As a work of literature, it starts well, sags quite a bit in the middle (or perhaps the reveal about the morlocks was shocking at some point – it isn’t now), then gets its act together again at the end.

Time travel was not an original concept, but H. G. Wells coined the term “time machine” and his concept of a sort of fourth dimensional vehicle is still the one we tend to go to when we create these kinds of stories. The ideas of The Time Machine are still everywhere, but generally not unmediated – the film adaptations have all been pretty terrible.

The Time Machine
The Time Machine (Full Text at archive.org)
The Time Machine (Audiobook at Librivox)