Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Friday, September 9, 2011

Two Edwardian Englishmen take on Haruki Murakami in a Paranormal Short Story Match

"The Cobweb" by Saki (5 pages, 1902
"The Bowman" by Arthur Machen (4 pages, 1917)
"The Elephant Vanishes" by Huruki Murakami (1987, 17 pages)

Can Two Odd Englishmen from the 1910s
Really Stand up to Huruki Murakami
A Paranormal Contest

I am really enjoying participating in Carl V's R I P reading event devoted to Horror and Paranormal Literature.   My last post for it was devoted to short stories by two American authors, O Henry and Sherwood Anderson, and the world's second best short story writer, Guy de Maupassant from France.   

Today I plan to look at two short stories written during the early years of the 20th century by Englishmen and one from the towering Japanese writer Huruki Murakami.   Can two maybe a bit odd Englishmen stand up to one of the world's greatest living authors.

I have posted extensively on Saki and Huruki Murakami in the past (I think I have more posts on Saki than any other book blog) so I will  focus first on Arthur Machen.

"The Bowman" by Arthur Machen

"The Bowman" by Arthur Machen was totally loved by the English reading public on its first publication.   It has to be one of very best uses ever of the short story as  a device for raising public morale during a war.   

Machen (UK-Wales-1863 to 1947) had a huge influence on paranormal writing.   He is best known for his novella The Great God Pan which Stephen King has called possibly the best horror story ever written.   He was a strong influence on P. K. Lovecraft and almost every writer who published in the pulp magazines where horror and paranormal stories got there start.   His life is interesting.  It seems he first developed an interest in the occult when his wife died of cancer.  He was for a time involved with The Order of the Golden Dawn headed by A. E. Waite.   He had a life time belief in "little people" only some can see.  (There is a very good article on his life, background and influence here.)

The story begins on a WWI battleground in France.   The English are being slaughtered in the 1000s by a much larger German army. (This work is understandably very anti-German).   Thousands of brave Englishmen are being cut down by German machine guns and canons.   A highly educated Englishmen recalls the very famous battle of Agincourt in France in 1415 when a greatly outnumber army of English men destroyed a much larger and better equipped French army through the use of long bows.   Every soldier had learned of this battle in school and it is great source of pride to the English.   Suddenly this man calls out, in Latin,  to St George (the patron saint of England) for the help of the Welsh and English archers from this battle just as all seem doomed to a certain death.   Suddenly thousands of what are described as "shadowy" archers appear among the English.   The air darkens completely as millions of arrows are launched at the Germans.   Everywhere on the battle ground we here shouts of "The Archers are here" and "St George has saved us".  The English soldiers were saved.   The German soldiers attempt to retreat but their officers begin to shoot their own men in mass for cowardice but soon the all  the Germans run from the battlefield.  Hundreds of thousands of Germans are found dead on the battlefield but none has a mark on their bodies.   The German  authorities attempt to claim it was a gas attack.    

I think  "The Bowman" was in its place and hour of need, a work of genius.   I think even now anyone who feels he is of English inheritance at all will be moved by this story.  I can see how one could say it is jingoistic but that is what was needed.   I will take a look very soon at Machen's most famous work, The Great God Pan.     My guess, forgetting who is a better writer, that Machen's story will be read widely long after Saki and Murakami are read only by specialists in ancient literature.   

"The Cobweb" by Saki

I really like Saki (Hector Munro 1870 to 1916-UK) a lot.   He wrote a lot of short stories, pretty most all with surprise endings.    Most of the stories are set among the upper crust of society in England in the early years of the 20th century.   His works tend to be gentle satires.   His prose style is very mannered and he may seem effete to some but I love his stories.   He was over the draft age for WWI (43) but he volunteered for service and was killed during the war.   One thing nobody associated him with, including me until I read "The Cobweb", was the paranormal.   One of the unfortunate associations in paranormal/Gothic/occult stories is the assumption that quite old unattractive women are sinister.   "The Cobweb" takes place on a remote farm.   It has passed from hand to hand in a family as people die off.  The only fixture is an old woman who works there.   No living person  can be found who knows how she got to the farm.  It just seems like she has always been there.   The atmosphere of the story is very Gothic.   The woman begins to see traditional occult images of coming death.  Everyone just takes it for granted she is seeing signs of her own death.    This Saki and there is a twist but unlike all of his other stories, it will not make you smile.   This is a story for Saki fans and those who want to read a story of the occult from England in 1902.   

"The Elephant Vanishes" by Haruki Murakami

Haruki Murakami (1947-Japan) is by far the most read Japanese writer in the world today.   Some see him as one day the 3rd Japanese Nobel Prize winner for Literature.    I think his forthcoming IQ84 (October 2011) will be one of the most blogged on books for the rest of the year.     (There is additional background information on him in my prior posts on his work.)

"The Elephant Vanishes" (translated by Jay Rubin) is a very well done and set up story.    To compress things, an old elephant is given to a town by the owners of a local zoo when the land the zoo  is on was sold to developers.   At first the town leaders did not know what to do with the elephant.   No zoo will take him as he is old and they all already have elephants.    To kill him is out of the question so they set up a house for him with airtight security.     He is taken care of by the same elderly man who cared for him many years at the zoo.    One day the elephant just disappears (he was also chained up by his leg with a key only the city leaders had).   Everyone assumes somehow the keeper stole him but it just seems impossible.     The narrator of the story develops an obsession with trying to figure out how the elephant disappeared.   Murakami does his normal great job with the characters in the story.   There is even a failed romance.      I want to leave the ending of this story unspoiled.   Murakami makes use of magic-realism to explain how the elephant disappeared and I found this ending a little forced.

OK how does the dust settle in this read off?

For sure I think "The Bowman" has had and will continue to have the most readers.  Of this story many of its readers love it and that includes new readers.   It has been and will continued to be read by people who see Saki as a bit silly (OK sorry for that) and Murakami as over their head.   (It will probably never be taught in German High Schools!)   People will like the stories by Saki and Murakami but they will not love them they will not tell others about them.   As I said, "The Bowman" is a war time story and it screams that out to us.    Murakami's  story is the best plotted and the only one with any real character development.   The Saki story is clever and well written but no more.

You can read "The Bowman" and "The Cobweb" at East of the Web:  Short Stories.   There a lot of short stories that would be perfect for the R I P challenge.

I read "The Elephant Vanishes" in The Oxford Book of Short Stories and it also is included in other collections.  

Has any one any experience with Arthur Machen to share with us?  

Mel u


(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

Thanks for referring me to your Murakami ss. It sounds like one I'd like to curious about what happened to the elephant...LOL

Hope u have fun with the RIP VI challenge. I like this one too.

Kailana said...

This was a fun idea! I haven't read any of the stories, but I still enjoyed reading about them. :)

Buried In Print said...

I haven't read any of Saki's stories, but you've certainly piqued my interest. I'm currently obsessing about reading all of Alice Munro's stories, which sometimes have surprise endings, but usually a very quiet and unsettling sort of surprise.

Tom Conoboy said...

Great combination of stories.

I don't know much about Machen, but I devoured Saki as a youngster. In fact, it took a long time to get him out of my own writing system - as a kid growing up in Thatcher's Britain I was writing these strange Edwardian pastiches full of ornate language. They work for Saki, they didn't work for me. I still think he's one of the best at that style of writing. Sredni Vashtar is a fantastic story.

I like Murakami's short stories. They distil the strangeness that has tended to overwhelm his longer fiction ever since The Wind Up Bird Chronicle.

If I had to choose from the three, I'd probably go for Saki because I just love that mannered, almost overwritten style. It creates a mood which is just perfect for the oddity of the plots.

I'm looking forward to the publication in the UK of the new Murakami novel. I swore after the last one I wouldn't read another, but I can't resist.

Novroz said...

You also join R.I.P how fun :)

I still haven't read The Elephant Vanished yet.I will one day.

Mel u said...

Diane-I am glad we are both in The R I P challenge and as always I will look forward to reading your posts

Kailana-thanks for your visit and comment-lots of Saki stories can be found online-maybe you can give him a try-I have reviews of several of the post famous ones posted here

Buried in Print-I have read three or four of Alice Munro's short stories and posted on one of them-I would for sure want to read more and your project seems very much worth while-thanks so much for your comment and visit

Mel u said...

Tom Conoboy-thanks so much for your visit and comment-I just book marked Sredni Vashtar by Saki based on your suggestion and will hopefully read it in a day or so-you might find it worth while to seek out "The Bowman"-it is jingoistic but still inspiring-I am a big Murakami fan and have read all of his novels but for two of them-

Carl V. Anderson said...

Am loving reading the comparisons. Both of the first authors are ones I want to check out. I've read many Murakami stories and am reading The Elephant Vanishes collection now and so skipped that part of your post as I haven't gotten to that story yet.

Love discovering new classic short story authors, especially those who write gothic/horror/scary stories.

Jodie Robson said...

What an interesting post! I love Saki (and his cleverness) but I haven't read the Machen story - I've read *about* him but not any of his work. The story reminded me of the one about the angel appearing to soldiers in WWI - I wonder which came first? I think I read that the angel story wasn't around during the war, but I'm not at all sure about that.
Murakami is such a satisfying writer - I'm always trying to decide which of his translators I prefer, but I think his distinctive voice cames through so clearly whoever is mediating it.