Gothic Book Tag


Here’s another exercise for the Halloween season from the Classics Club: Gothic Book Tag. The assignment is to post answers to 13 questions.

(1) Which classic book has scared you the most?

This has to be Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Pit and the Pendulum” (continued in #2)

(2) Scariest moment in a book?

That moment in “The Pit and the Pendulum” when that slowly descending, polished-edged pendulum finally makes its initial blood-producing trail across my body …

(3) Classic villain that you love to hate?

Probably Mrs. Danvers, the housekeeper in Rebecca (see #7)

(4) Creepiest setting in a book?

Manderley as described by the unnamed narrator in her dream near the end of the novel. The previously beautiful estate becomes, in her dream, a place of death and decay threatening to devour and consume her.

(5) Best scary cover ever?

I am always taken aback at avid discussions of book covers. I pay almost no attention to them. I guess that’s probably because I know from reading about a book whether I’m going to read it or not. If I am, then I take it off the shelf with almost no regard for the cover.

(6) Book you’re too scared to read?

I don’t think “too scared” is quite the right description, but there are two books that I refuse to read because I’m pretty sure some of the content will curdle my stomach:

The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris
American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis

(7) Spookiest creature in a book?

Mrs. Danvers, the housekeeper in Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. I admit that this vision, for me, comes from the film rather than from the book itself. But that crazy-eyed Mrs. Danvers standing happily amidst the flames is the most haunting thing I’ve ever seen.

(8) Classic book that haunts you to this day?

“The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. It’s so haunting not because of its fantasy, but because of its reality: that’s how women really were treated at that time.

(9) Favourite cliffhanger or unexpected twist?

Nothing comes to mind here. I wonder if that’s because all good gothic literature makes us expect—or at least not be surprised by—any of the devious twists.

(10) Classic book you really, really disliked?

This has nothing to do with gothic literature or Halloween, but I have always disliked The Awakening by Kate Chopin. I’ve read it three times now, and, as much as I try to see it as a seminal feminist tract, all I ever see is a selfish woman who wants to avoid any responsibilities.

(11) Character death that disturbed/upset you the most?

I guess that would have to be poor Fortunato from Edgar Allan Poe’s story “The Cask of Amontillado.” In this story the first-person narrator entices his neighbor Fortunato to his wine cellar with the promise of sampling a rare vintage of an exotic wine, Amontillado. The narrator gets Fortunato drunk as they navigate their way to the wine cellar, then chains him to the wall and taunts him while using a trowel to finish building a wall to entomb Fortunato forever.

What makes this story so disturbing is that the narrator is very vague about his motivation for walling up Fortunato; he refers only to numerous insults but gives no details. It’s hard to believe that even repeated insults call for such a gruesome death. And 50 years later the narrator is still bragging about what he did to Fortunato, who still hangs in chains under the narrator’s villa.

Talk about the punishment not fitting the crime…

(12) List your top 5 Gothic/scary/horror classic reads.

In no particular order:

  1. We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
  2. The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
  3. “Silent Snow, Secret Snow” by Conrad Aiken
  4. “The Fall of the House of Usher” by Edgar Allan Poe
  5. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

(13) Share your scariest/creepiest quote, poem or meme.

The Raven

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore—
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
“’Tis some visiter,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door—
Only this and nothing more.”

—Edgar Allan Poe


I did a  Halloween edition of Last Week’s Links . Here are some items I found afterwards.

Before Watching ‘The Haunting of Hill House,’ Read These 13 Haunted Books

Moral Questions Lurk Beneath a Ghost Story in ‘Melmoth’

Reviewer Parul Sehgal calls this newly released novel a “Gothic novel … to its core, from its filigreed sentences to its twisty, supernatural plot.”

AN EDUCATION IN HORROR: 7 Classics of Dread, Suspense, and the Uncanny

Horror gets to the heart of it (sometimes quite bloodily) and I wouldn’t trade its dark lessons learned for those of any other genre. In these days of national and international turmoil and too much terrible mortal trauma, horror seems more important than ever for punching through to the deep what’s and possible why’s of all these calamities.

10 Great Horror Books for Wimps


From the flat-vowelled, low-pitched voices of the characters who tell the stories, to the turbulent windswept landscapes in which the mysteries play out, novels set in the north of England have an atmosphere of brooding menace all of their own.

The Scariest Movies of 2018


© 2018 by Mary Daniels Brown

The Classics Spin #18

The Classics Spin #18

I love these Classics Spins because they get me reading the books on my list when I might otherwise avoid them.

Here’s how it works: I list 20 books here that I have yet to read from my original list of 50+ classics. On Wednesday, August 1, the Classics Club will announce a number, and I have to read whatever book on my list has that number.

So here’s my list:

  1. Masters, Edgar Lee. Spoon River Anthology (1915)
  2. Agee, James. A Death in the Family
  3. Wilson, Sloan. The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit
  4. Steinbeck, John. Of Mice and Men
  5. Cather, Willa. O Pioneers!
  6. James, Henry. What Maisie Knew
  7. Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice
  8. Fowles, John. The French Lieutenant’s Woman
  9. Tarkington, Booth. The Magnificent Ambersons
  10. Lewis, Sinclair. Babbit
  11. Styron, William. Darkness Visible (1990)
  12. Dostoevsky, Fyodor. Crime and Punishment
  13. Hardy, Thomas. Far From the Madding Crowd
  14. Adams, Richard. Watership Down
  15. Hemingway, Ernest. For Whom the Bell Tolls
  16. O’Neill, Eugene. The Iceman Cometh
  17. James, Henry. The Beast in the Jungle
  18. Pym, Barbara. Excellent Women
  19. Nabokov, Vladimir. Pnin
  20. Woolf, Virginia. Mrs. Dalloway



And the winning number is . . . 9! So I get to read The Magnificent Ambersons this month.

And here’s something weird: Right after I posted my list of 20, I thought, “I hope The Magnificent Ambersons number comes up.” And it did! What are the chances of that happening? (Yes, I know it’s one in 20, but I like to think of it as a wonderful synchronicity, a reward from the universe allowing me to do what I wanted to do anyway.)

© 2018 by Mary Daniels Brown

The Classics Spin #13: “Cold Sassy Tree”

It’s time to report back on The Classics Spin #13, as explained in my post.

Burns, Olive Ann. Cold Sassy Tree
Dell, 1984; rpt. 1994
ISBN: 0–385–31258-X

On July 5, 1906, Grandpa Blakeslee instructs his grandson, 14-year-old Will Tweedy, to summon relatives to a family meeting. Grandpa then informs the family that he intends to marry Miss Love Simpson. The announcement causes a scandal in the town of Cold Sassy, Georgia, since Grandma Blakeslee has been dead only three weeks and Miss Simpson is half Grandpa’s age, and a Yankee. In Cold Sassy Tree Will narrates how the scandal played out in this small town. Along the way he paints a vivid picture of what life was like in rural Georgia at the turn of the twentieth century, with highlights such as the arrival of automobiles and the social tension between the “lintheads” who work in the cotton mills and the merchants and professionals who live on their own side of the tracks.

Will lets us know on the opening page that he’s telling the story eight years after the fact. Given Will’s age at the time of the events (14) and his first-person narration, I expected Cold Sassy Tree would be a typical coming-of-age story. The point of this type of story is to let readers know what the narrator has learned from the experience. The novel does eventually turn in that direction, although it starts out with maddening slowness. I almost gave up on the book early because all the goofy humor quickly wore thin.

In coming-of-age stories there are two set topics young characters must learn about: death and sex. Will learns about death early, not only because of his grandmother’s death but also because of the precariousness of life in a time before antibiotics. He slowly comes face-to-face with the fact of sexuality in the undercurrents of all the scandalous talk of the town’s residents. (It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that Grandpa Blakeslee is only 59 when his first wife dies.) Will also begins to realize his own sexuality in the attraction he feels but cannot initially explain to one of the young mill workers at school.

By the end of the novel Will has matured enough to know that he doesn’t want to spend the rest of his life in Cold Sassy managing the family’s general store, despite Grandpa’s entreaties: “Well, in the matter of my future, I meant to have mine” (p. 390). On the novel’s last page he lets us know that, even though he went off to college, he still keeps a treasure box holding his journal and several tokens representing his early life in Cold Sassy.

I rate this book three stars out of five.

© 2016 by Mary Daniels Brown

The Classics Spin #13

The Classics Spin #13

I love these Classics Spins because they get me reading the books on my list when I might otherwise avoid them.

Here’s how it works: I list 20 books here that I have yet to read from my original list of 50+ classics. Tomorrow, June 6, the Classics Club will announce a number, and I have to read whatever book on my list has that number.

So here’s my list:

  1. Masters, Edgar Lee. Spoon River Anthology (1915)
  2. Agee, James. A Death in the Family
  3. Wilson, Sloan. The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit
  4. Steinbeck, John. Of Mice and Men
  5. Cather, Willa. O Pioneers!
  6. Smith, Dodie. I Capture the Castle (1948)
  7. Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice
  8. Fowles, John. The French Lieutenant’s Woman
  9. Tarkington, Booth. The Magnificent Ambersons
  10. Lewis, Sinclair. Babbit
  11. Styron, William. Darkness Visible (1990)
  12. Dostoevsky, Fyodor. Crime and Punishment
  13. Hardy, Thomas. Far From the Madding Crowd
  14. Adams, Richard. Watership Down
  15. Burns, Olive. Cold Sassy Tree
  16. O’Neill, Eugene. The Iceman Cometh
  17. James, Henry. The Beast in the Jungle
  18. Pym, Barbara. Excellent Women
  19. Nabokov, Vladimir. Pnin
  20. Woolf, Virginia. Mrs. Dalloway

And the Winner Is . . .

#15. So I will be reading Cold Sassy Tree by Olive Burns by August 1.

© 2016 by Mary Daniels Brown

Review: “A Canticle for Leibowitz”

A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr.
© 1959

leibowitzThis book was popular when I was in college back in the late 1960s. I never got around to reading it back then, and the same mass market paperback has been kicking around on my bookshelves ever since then. It won the 1961 Hugo Award for best science fiction novel.

A Canticle for Leibowitz is a post-apocalyptic science fiction novel that deals with the themes of recurrent history and of the conflicts between church and state, and between faith in science. It comprises three sections:

Part I: Fiat Homo (“let there be man”)
Part II: Fiat Lux (“let there be light”)
Part III: Fiat Voluntas Tua (“let thy will be done”)

Part I opens 600 years after nuclear devastation, known as the Flame Deluge, destroyed 20th century civilization. Isaac Leibowitz, who had been a scientific engineer with the U.S. military, started a monastic order to preserve as much knowledge as possible by hiding books, memorizing books, and writing out new copies. The order’s abbey in the Utah desert is the repository for the Memorabilia, the remaining documents of the earlier civilization. We learn that after the nuclear devastation, there had been a backlash against the science and technology that had produced it, a period known as the Simplification, when learning, even the ability to read, became a cause for execution. For 600 years the Order of Leibowitz had been keeping safe the Memorabilia for a time when the world was once again ready for it. Part I ends with the canonization of Leibowitz as Saint Leibowitz.

As Part II opens, 600 years after Part I, civilization is beginning to emerge from the previous dark age. While scientists study the Memorabilia at the abbey and begin to make crude instruments from the preserved descriptions, political unrest and manipulation heat up.

After another 600 years, in Part III, mankind once again has nuclear weapons along with spaceships and extraterrestrial colonies. Members of the Order of Saint Leibowitz load the Memorabilia onto a ship and head off toward another planet just as the people of earth once again destroy themselves through nuclear attack.

Through its three sections this novel examines the themes of the cyclical recurrence of history and the eternal conflicts between darkness and light, knowledge and ignorance, truth and deception, religion and science, and power and subjugation. A Canticle for Leibowitz has remained in print since its original publication and is generally considered one of the outstanding works of science fiction. I’m glad I finally got around to reading it.


© 2016 by Mary Daniels Brown

The Classics Spin #12: “Darkness at Noon”

Related Post:

darkness at noon

Koestler, Arthur. Darkness at Noon
Translated by Daphne Hardy
Original publication date: 1940
Rpt. New York: Bantam Books, 1966
ISBN 0–553–26595–4


Originally written in German and translated into English by Koestler’s companion Daphne Hardy, Darkness at Noon was first published in 1940. Set in an unnamed country, the book is an allegory for the USSR’s 1938 purges during which Stalin worked to cement his position as dictator by eliminating potential rivals.

In an opening note Koestler wrote:

The characters in this book are fictitious. The historical circumstances which determined their actions are real. The life of the man N. S. Rubashov is a synthesis of the lives of a number of men who were victims of the so-called Moscow Trials. Several of them were personally known to the author. This book is dedicated to their memory.

The Classics ClubThe main character, Nicholas Salmanovitch Rubashov, is imprisoned and tried for treason against the government that he helped to create. As he contemplates his life, Rubashov realizes the Party, which has been in power for 20 years, is no closer than it originally was to accomplishing its goal of creating a socialist utopia. He remembers, with some shame and guilt, his own earlier actions of betrayal that promoted the Party’s purposes.

As he is interrogated, Rubashov initially refuses to admit to the trumped-up charges. Afterwards, the two interrogators, Gletkin and Ivanov, discuss Rubashov’s fate. Ivanov, the more intellectual of the two, is basically humane and disturbed by the suffering he causes. Ivanov represents the original Party supporters. Gletkin represents the younger generation of the Party elite moving to take over from the older generation. He favors more ruthless means of torture such as sleep deprivation and doesn’t care how he gets the confession he needs to establish his own position.

Eventually Rubashov admits to the false charges. The novel ends with his execution.

© 2016 by Mary Daniels Brown

The Classics Spin #12

It’s time for The Classics Spin #12.

Here are the directions:

At your blog, by next Monday, March 7, list your choice of any twenty books you’ve left to read from your Classics Club list — in a separate post.

Next Monday, we’ll post a number from 1 through 20. The challenge is to read whatever book falls under that number on your Spin List, by May 2, 2016.

Here’s my list, awaiting the announcement of the lucky number:

  1. Adams, Richard. Watership Down
  2. Masters, Edgar Lee. Spoon River Anthology (1915)
  3. Agee, James. A Death in the Family
  4. Steinbeck, John. Of Mice and Men
  5. Cather, Willa. O Pioneers!
  6. Smith, Dodie. I Capture the Castle (1948)
  7. Dostoevsky, Fyodor. Crime and Punishment
  8. Koestler, Arthur. Darkness at Noon
  9. Fowles, John. The French Lieutenant’s Woman
  10. Tarkington, Booth. The Magnificent Ambersons
  11. Styron, William. Darkness Visible (1990)
  12. Hardy, Thomas. Far From the Madding Crowd
  13. Burns, Olive. Cold Sassy Tree
  14. O’Neill, Eugene. The Iceman Cometh
  15. James, Henry. The Beast in the Jungle
  16. Pym, Barbara. Excellent Women
  17. Lewis, Sinclair. Babbit
  18. Woolf, Virginia. Mrs. Dalloway
  19. Wilson, Sloan. The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1955)
  20. Nabokov, Vladimir. Pnin


The lucky number is 8! So I’ll be reading Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler by May 2. Fortunately, it’s relatively short.

Final Update

My review is here.

The Classics Spin #9: “Cannery Row”

Back in March I won the opportunity to read John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row for The Classics Spin #9. And I mistakenly thought the completion date was May 15. In fact, it was May 5. Not that it really matters, since I’m a bit late either way. But I did finally finish reading the book on the plane flight to Europe.

Steinbeck, John. Cannery Row
Original publication date: 1945
Rpt. New York: Penguin, 2002
ISBN 978–1–101–65979–3

Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream. Cannery Row is the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chopped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky tonks, restaurants and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flophouses. Its inhabitants are, as the man once said, “whores, pimps, gamblers, and sons of bitches,” by which he meant Everybody. Had the man looked through another peephole he might have said, “Saints and angels and martyrs and holy men,” and he would have meant the same thing.

This opening paragraph introduces readers to Cannery Row, where, when the “cannery whistles scream … men and women scramble into their clothes and come running down to the Row to go to work.” But at day’s end, after these workers “straggle out and droop their ways up the hill into the town … Cannery Row becomes itself again—quiet and magical. Its normal life returns.”

The book’s narrator asks, “How can the poem and the stink and the grating noise—the quality of light, the tone, the habit and the dream—be set down alive?” He decides that the way to write this book is “to open the page and to let the stories crawl in by themselves.”

And so, in the manner of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, Cannery Row tells the story of this place through the intertwining stories of its inhabitants. Set during the Great Depression, the book portrays a time when work was hard and life was even harder.

The main characters include Doc, a marine biologist based on Steinbeck’s friend Ed Ricketts, to whom the book is dedicated; Lee Chong, a local Chinese grocer; Mack, the leader of a group of unemployed men; and Dora, owner of the local brothel. The book acknowledges the characters’ many faults—drunkenness, malingering, craftiness—while at the same time portraying their good qualities—kindness, charity, friendship. After all, “whores, pimps, gamblers, and sons of bitches” are the same as “saints and angels and martyrs and holy men.”

© 2015 by Mary Daniels Brown

Rereading “Caddie Woodlawn” by Carol Ryrie Brink

caddie woodlawnBrink, Carol Ryrie. Caddie Woodlawn
Original publication date: 1935
rpt. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2007
eISBN 978–1–4424–6858–0

Part of the charm of rereading, as an adult, books that I read as a child is understanding and appreciating how I must have reacted to the books back then. I didn’t remember much about Caddie Woodlawn when I put it on my Classics Club reading list except that I enjoyed it. Now I see why.

Carol Ryrie Brink based the book, and the character of Caddie, on her grandmother’s stories about her own childhood. The book opens in 1864 with a description of 11-year-old Caddie Woodlawn, “as wild a little tomboy as ever ran the woods of western Wisconsin.” Caddie and her sister Mary had both been frail and sickly when the family first came to Wisconsin from Boston seven years earlier. After Mary died, Mr. Woodlawn told his wife, “I want you to let Caddie run wild with the boys. Don’t keep her in the house learning to be a lady. I would rather see her learn to plow than make samplers, if she can get her health by doing so. I believe it is worth trying.” So Caddie was allowed to run free with her brothers, Tom and Warren, all over the area surrounding their farm.

Their adventures would have appealed to me because, as a young child, I also spent much of my time exploring the world around me in a small, rural New England town. I didn’t have siblings to accompany me, but some of my happiest memories are of sitting in the crotch of an apple tree below my house during apple blossom time and watching the bees buzz among the flowers. I also often tried to catch field mice in the unmown meadow with a coffee can, but I never succeeded. My parents had a troubled marriage, and I learned to take refuge outdoors.

Another feature of this book that would have appealed to me was the strong family life it portrays. I did not share that experience with Caddie’s family, and throughout my childhood I was drawn to books and television shows that offered alternate visions of what family life could be like.

Rereading the book now, I wonder how I reacted to the gender message that it carries. Although Caddie’s adventures appealed to me, I probably simply glossed over the gender issues. Children’s books entertain while at the same time imparting the message of what one’s society considers proper behavior, especially which behaviors are proper for boys and which for girls. Other members of society question Mr. Woodlawn’s approach to raising Caddie along with the boys. Early in the book the visiting circuit preacher asks, “When are you going to begin making a young lady out of this wild Indian, Mrs. Woodlawn?”

Significantly, Caddie turns 12 during the year of the book’s narrative, the traditional age of puberty that marks the progression into adulthood. After her birthday the gender message intensifies. Near the end of the book, Caddie’s mother punishes her for treating a visiting cousin badly, while the boys, who also participated, go free. Later Mr. Woodlawn “thrashes” the boys because he thinks it only fair that they share in the punishment, since he has raised Caddie, Tom, and Warren the same way.

Then father explains to Caddie:

It’s a strange thing, but somehow we expect more of girls than of boys. It is the sisters and wives and mothers, you know, Caddie, who keep the world sweet and beautiful. What a rough world it would be if there were only men and boys in it, doing things in their rough way! A woman’s task is to reach them gentleness and courtesy and love and kindness. It’s a big task, too, Caddie—harder than cutting trees or building mills or damming rivers. It takes nerve and courage and patience, but good women have those things. They have them just as ich as the men who build bridges and carve roads through the wilderness. A woman’s work is something fine and noble to grow up to, and it is just as important as a man’s. But no man could ever do it so well.”

You will not find a better description than this of the Victorian notion of separate spheres of life for men and women. This notion prescribed that business, finance, and politics were men’s world, while home and church constituted women’s world. There could be no overlap in these spheres of distinction. This concept also gave rise to the view of woman as a tender flower who had to be protected from the unsavory aspects of the world. This view conveniently kept women in their place and kept men in charge.

Like other young girls, I would have unconsciously and unquestioningly absorbed this vision of reality as truth. Caddie certainly does. After her father’s talk, she falls asleep.

When she awoke she knew that she need not be afraid of growing up. It was not just sewing and weaving and wearing stays. It was something more thrilling than that. It was a responsibility, but, as Father spoke of it, it was a beautiful and precious one, and Caddie was ready to go and meet it.

Thank you, Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem, for shattering the notion of that view of life as a “thrilling responsibility, beautiful and precious,” that all girls should rush forward to meet as they grow up.

The Classics Spin #9

It’s time for The Classics Spin #9.

For this exercise, Classics Club readers are to make a numbered list of 20 unread books on their original reading list. Then next Monday, April 6, the club will announce a number between 1 and 20, and by May 15 we are to read the book with that number on the spin list we created .

The assignment suggests that we pick books from several categories for the spin list to challenge ourselves:

For example, you could list five Classics Club books you are dreading/hesitant to read, five you can’t WAIT to read, five you are neutral about, and five free choice (favorite author, rereads, ancients — whatever you choose.)

However, I know that the next three months (April-June) are going to be very busy for me. Not wanting to set myself up for failure, I’m choosing from among the shorter books and the easiest to read on my original list.

So here’s my list of 20 for the upcoming spin:

  1. Faulkner, William. Sanctuary
  2. Steinbeck, John. Cannery Row
  3. Brink, Carol Ryrie. Caddie Woodlawn
  4. O’Neill, Eugene. The Iceman Cometh
  5. Morley, Christopher. Kitty Foyle
  6. James, Henry. The Beast in the Jungle
  7. Nabokov, Vladimir. Pale Fire
  8. Steinbeck, John. Of Mice and Men
  9. Wharton, Edith. Ghost Stories
  10. Cather, Willa. O Pioneers!
  11. Masters, Edgar Lee. Spoon River Anthology
  12. Wilder, Thornton. Our Town
  13. Koestler, Arthur. Darkness at Noon
  14. Styron, William. Darkness Visible
  15. Agee, James. A Death in the Family
  16. Vonnegut, Kurt. Slaughterhouse Five
  17. James, Henry. What Maisie Knew
  18. Smith, Dodie. I Capture the Castle
  19. Nabokov, Vladimir. Pnin
  20. Dostoevsky, Fyodor. Notes from the Underground


We have a winner! It’s #2.

So I’ll be reading Steinbeck’s Cannery Row by May 15. Excited! Believe it or not, I’ve never read this book before.