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Nonfiction

Book Reviews: July 2021

Read This! Volume 17
New Horror Fiction You Should Know

Clear communication is key.

Without being able to understand each other, life becomes a series of painful sitcom misunderstandings that could easily be avoided by two people simply talking. Divorces move forward, businesses fail, countries go to war, all because of a lack of clear communication.

The irony of the Internet and its associated social media is that while it’s now possible to send messages back and forth almost immediately, it has also become evident how easy it is to misinterpret text messages, posts, emails, and et cetera, how quickly those misunderstandings can cause and escalate conflict, and worst of all, how easy it is to lie.

The rapid widespread dissemination of misinformation is perhaps the most serious communication crisis we have faced in our history. Lies can be spread extensively, instantly, and remain long after they’ve been debunked. The more accurately named disinformation has caused more deliberate division among us than the worst religious wars of the past, as it becomes the primary weapon of choice in a battle for ownership of “The Truth,” whatever that may be based on.

George Orwell has been proven right about so much he wrote on the subject in 1984 that it’s scary. As he explains in the novel, “The Ministry of Peace concerns itself with war, the Ministry of Truth with lies, the Ministry of Love with torture and the Ministry of Plenty with starvation. These contradictions are not accidental, nor do they result from ordinary hypocrisy: they are deliberate exercises in doublethink.”

Governmental organizations today are routinely named to reflect the opposite of what they do, from Homeland Security, a name that left us all uneasy, to The Patriot Act that stripped us of our civil liberties.

In an age when we can deliver vast quantities of data at lightning fast speeds, we’re confronted with the growing task of filtering out falsehoods. So far we’ve failed miserably. A terrifying number of people still believe that the last election was stolen despite all evidence to the contrary, when it was really the previous election that was successfully rigged—by digital means that changed minds, not voting machines.

In this column I take on fictional failures and factual fallacies with a novel about how otherwise intelligent and perceptive people can overlook the obvious in animal communication, and a nonfiction work about books and how they’ve adapted over the centuries from early forms that can only be called books in concept.

Smithy
Amanda Desiree
Paperback / Ebook
ISBN: 978-1950301218
Inkshares, April 27, 2021, 500 pages

I’ve always had a weakness for perversely gothic stories about psychics and scientists doing their best to quantify the occult and being bested by it. Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House is a seminal work in the genre, adapted into two films, a play, and a Netflix series. It’s followed closely for me by The Legend of Hell House, a trifle camp, but a classic, and John Carpenter’s still terrifying Prince of Darkness. There’s also Poltergeist, which gave us a modern variation on the haunted house, and other more recent films and novels I’m sure are equally effective.

There will always be more because the basic premise works. We love to see the slow boil of horrified realization in characters who are either skeptics forced to become believers, or those who set out to prove the supernatural is real and end up facing far more truth than they anticipated.

Smithy falls into a specific subcategory of the genre, that of scientists trying to do one thing who gradually discover they’re actually in the middle of something quite different. The cast of characters feature all the archetypes you would expect to find in a psychological study group. The imperious head of the project, Dr. Piers Preis-Herald, a professor of psychology at Yale and popular syndicated radio host of Secrets of the Mind in 60 Minutes, insists on being called Piers. It’s an intimacy that’s obviously affectation, part of his carefully marketed public image. The starstruck student researchers working with him have the task of teaching a young chimpanzee to speak American Sign Language, but they have set out to prove actual understanding in his use of it, rather than mimicry or conditioning.

There are two young male researchers, one who doubles as videographer, along with three young women who range from the coolly intellectual to naively young, all with enough variety to generate conflict throughout. They are managed by Wanda Karlewicz, slightly older than any of them, the alpha who runs the project in Piers’ absence and may or may not be more than professional partners with him.

They move into Trevor Hall, an abandoned mansion in Newport of seemingly undistinguished history, the third floor closed off except for Webster’s quarters. That’s the name the chimpanzee was given by Piers, to honor his goals in vocabulary. That the staff uses the nickname of Smithy, short for wordsmith, is the first and smallest indication of what gradually become increasing conflicts between management and labor.

The novel is written in epistolary form, composed entirely of letters and diary entries by team members, transcripts of video footage, newspaper articles and interviews, all from different periods of time, and not always presented sequentially. Before catastrophic events occur they’re hinted about in a book published decades later about the entire affair—SMITHY: A Twenty-Year Compendium, written by Reid Bennett, Ph.D. These intermittent entries and others act as literary organ trills of foreshadowing before calamities play out fully in letters or journal entries.

The team meets Reid and some of his friends at a rare night out to a bar in town, more than midway through the novel. A Harvard grad student in town for the summer to research local history, Reid gives the team their first inkling of the darker history of their current home. After the original owner’s fortunes faded it became a boarding school, and at least two suspicious deaths (of a maid and then a teacher) occurred there. Either of them could be the faceless phantom dark woman spotted by former inhabitants.

From that encounter the seed that’s planted takes root and grows rapidly. The researchers waver in their belief in a haunting, but quickly wonder if words they’d considered errors on their charge’s part may have been seriously misinterpreted, and that when he was signing “woman” and “dark” Smithy told them who was really responsible for random small fires and broken locks around the mansion. As they wrestle with the implications of belief or disbelief in the supernatural, incidents with the ape become increasingly violent and ambiguous. While some incidents seem as if they must be otherworldly, there are always plausible scientific explanations as well.

The reader is clued in early that something’s wrong, that Smithy seems to be trying to tell the staff about someone he sees that they can’t, long before we hear any ghost stories. By the time the researchers can see her it’s too late to save him or themselves from her influence, real or imaginary. Either the ape is slowly being possessed or it’s maturing beyond being tame into feral violence; either they’re seeing ghosts or falling victim to a mass hallucination.

None of the options are comforting.

Desiree keeps the story moving along when things are slowly and quietly building with enough crumbs along the way to keep you reading to deeper reveals, which come in due time. She uses the relatively safe space before anyone thinks about even the possibility of ghosts to flesh out her characters with all-too human petty grievances, minor jealousies, competition, and even a romance. By the end, communication within the group and between them and Piers has broken down. Smithy becomes either the victim of their delusions or of a more malevolent force. Whether what seems apparent to them and us is real or not is for the reader to decide after reviewing the “evidence,” but that truth becomes secondary to the greater truths about human nature expressed in their study of an ape.

The Madman’s Library: The Strangest Books, Manuscripts and Other Literary Curiosities from History
Edward Brooke-Hitching
Hardcover
ISBN: 978-1797207308
Chronicle Books, April 6, 2021, 256 pages

The invention of Gutenberg’s movable type changed the Western world as profoundly as the Internet revolution altered ours, but I was surprised to learn in this book that there was movable type in China 200 years earlier. The Madman’s Library begins with early forms of written communication on clay and cloth, before moving on to publications that are more recognizable, even if unfamiliar, constantly surprising the reader with startling facts like that.

I have to confess that I haven’t finished reading this remarkably thorough and compelling book because it is a smorgasbord of material on the subject, a feast to be taken in slowly and savored, not devoured. While reading it avidly, halfway through I realized that to make my deadline I was binging a meal I could enjoy more fully over time. Make no mistake, it will be read to the end, not gulped, but nibbled with pleasure, chewed over carefully before I swallow each morsel. It will remain on my shelves, where there’s precious little room for additional acquisitions, save for exceptional new reference works.

The Madman’s Library is broken into categories. Books that aren’t books, books of flesh and blood, cryptic books, literary hoaxes, curious collections, supernatural works, religious oddities, curiosities of science, books of spectacular size or with strange titles. . . That alone should prompt any lover of obscure or illicit literature to order it immediately. I stopped just before the supernatural section, because I intend to read that one slowly and with great gusto. I can’t help but believe that I’ll know at least some of the works, as I did in sections I’ve already read, but the promise of finding more unknown discoveries there is most enticing.

I was taken aback by the small size of the font in the narrow columns that run down each page, but was also astounded that the book is only 250 pages long. So much is packed into each, between the content of the text and the lushly colorful photos and illustrations that accompany it, that slowing down to read it seemed the best course. It’s almost as if reducing the visibility of the explanations, making them serve the visuals, is the author’s way of making you take notice of each point made.

It is with some small measure of shame as a fan of Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett’s whimsical intellectualisms that I have been unaware of Edward Brooke-Hitching’s earlier works, which I imagine to be as vastly amusing as this one. The titles sound as if they should be included in his current collection of obscure publications: Fox Tossing, Octopus Wrestling and Other Forgotten Sports is evidently the last remaining record of ninety pleasures long lost to our modern day, and The Phantom Atlas: The Greatest Myths, Lies and Blunders on Maps is just that, an assemblage of nonexistent places recorded by earnest cartographers that are still on maps even if not the planet.

Brooke-Hitching’s writing style is comparable to that of the writers mentioned above in that it is rich, yet light, a frothy treat that somehow still nourishes, like a really good frozen yogurt. The author covers all periods in each category, so that in literary hoaxes he goes from the eighteenth century to the faked diaries of Hitler in the twentieth, and then on to Clifford Irving’s faux autobiography of Howard Hughes. I had heard of that and Hitler’s faux diaries, but didn’t remember that Irving and his wife collected millions and served time for fraud.

I had certainly never heard of George Psalmanazar, author of An Historical and Geographical Description of Formosa published in early eighteenth century London, who claimed to be a native of that exotic faraway land. Blond, pale-skinned and blue eyed, he became a sensation supporting his book sales with lecture tours. He blithely brushed away any questions about the legitimacy of his heritage or his tales of polygamous cannibals walking about in the nude, save for a golden plate over their privates that no doubt made them all the more alluring. He was only unmasked by posthumous publication of his actual autobiography, detailing his hoax.

One nugget I loved is that Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal, a scandalous satire that suggested eating Irish children as a solution to hunger among the poor, was inspired by that fraud and released at a time when Psalmanazar was still around. It becomes doubly satiric, making mock of Swift’s subject, but also exposing the absurdity of the man’s claims.

In further fakes Swift went on to pseudonymously publish a parody of his rival John Partridge’s almanac of predictions by printing his own as Isaac Bickerstaff, whose works were rumored to be so accurate that the Spanish Inquisition had ordered them to be rounded up and burned under suspicion of witchcraft. Swift promptly announced Partridge’s impending death, then followed up with a deathbed interview, Partridge’s confession that he was a fraud before he gasped his last. The hoax was so widely believed that even after assertions in Partridge’s own publication that he was still alive—immediately refuted by Bickerstaff in print as the work of an imposter—it took six years for him to regain his reputation and livelihood.

There are too many areas covered in each category of the book to reduce them all down in a review, but even my few examples give you an idea of the range of surprising side trips each chapter takes. A writer and researcher for the British comedy game show QI (Quite Interesting), Brooke-Hitching has a tightly written humorous way of conveying a great deal of information in short cogent bursts that entertain as much as they inform.

His examination of some of the more outré ways we’ve found to communicate ideas across time and space is as fun to look at as it is to read, and seeing crisp colorful images of his wilder discoveries is an added treat in print. As an eclectic record of the many ways humans have recorded their thoughts over the ages it’s definitely a hardcover must-have for the bibliophile in your family.

As we move forward, our means of communication changes each time a new app is launched, and we need to remember that content is king. In both of these books, how something is being said isn’t nearly as important as what’s being said, and no matter how fluid the form may be, that at least remains a constant.

I hope all of that is perfectly clear.

Terence Taylor

Terence Taylor (terencetaylor.com) is an award-winning children’s television writer whose work has appeared on PBS, Nickelodeon, and Disney, among many others. After years of comforting tiny tots with TV, he turned to scaring their parents. His first published short story, “Plaything”, appeared in Dark Dreams, the first horror/suspense anthology of African-American authors. He was included in the next two volumes, and his short stories and non-fiction have appeared in Lightspeed and Fantastic Stories of the Imagination. Terence is also author of the first two novels of his Vampire Testaments trilogy, Bite Marks and Blood Pressure. He is currently writing the conclusion, Past Life. Follow him on Twitter @vamptestaments.