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  • Writer's pictureRussell Magee

October Reads

A list of the books (and stories) I read and what I thought of them.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce

This 1916 novel by famous Irish writer James Joyce is one of the most important and incredible works of modernism. It follows the protagonist Stephen Dedalus, thought to be the alter ego of Joyce himself, as he grows up in Dublin, attending a Catholic boarding school run by Jesuit priests. As young Dedalus grows up, he begins to see the world differently: his classmates and the Jesuits priest that run the educational institution, the role of hierarchy plays in the church as well as hypocrisy; his family, and the financial repercussions of a classist system. He confronts his own identity, begins to stray from his faith, commits sin, repents, and returns to his devotion, only for the cycle to begin again. And by the end of the novel, Dedalus is a different person, transformed from the young child into a young man, the artist, ready to “forge in the smithy of his soul the uncreated conscience of his race.”

This was a reread for me, but because it was for a class, it was an entirely different experience second time round. The novel is a masterpiece, a modern classic. Joyce employs all of the writing styles that thrust forward the emergence of modernism: stream of consciousness, free indirect speech, the fluctuation between interior monologue and exterior dialogue, as well as the experimental substitution of hyphens in place of quotations. The novel, like Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, is chapter-less and meanders from scene to scene with a fluidity that came to mark Joyce’s literary prowess. Studying the book in a formal setting illuminating aspects of the book that changed the way I saw literature, that changed the way I saw life; this is a profoundly important book, and one that I will return to again and again for the rest of my life.

Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor

This 2020 fourth novel by Mexican author Fernanda Melchor is at once a phantasmagorical witch hunt and daunting thriller. In a small Mexican town named La Matosa, the body of a presumed witch is found which sends the strange and paranoid denizens into a frenzy. An investigation is launched which, while inquisitively resulting in more questions than answers, begins to reveal the sinister and dangerous underground of an odd, insignificant city where the real demons that live within man himself thrive unfettered in a lawless wasteland riddled by poverty and cursed by an omnipotent evil.

The novel was shortlisted for the 2020 International Booker Prize. It is has the daunting mystery, fervent suspense, and exhaustiveness of detail of Bolaño; the gothic narrative, dilapidated setting, immoral characters, and unrestrained violence of a Faulkner novel; and the experimental, stream-of-consciousness, blend of direct and indirect speech intertwined in a long-stretching, rule-breaking, tersely punctuated prose that rivals that of Krasznahorkai. This is a post-modern powerhouse, a weapon of a novel; one that forces the iniquity and immorality of life onto the reader with a relentless force. It kept me up at night, and long remained in my thoughts after finishing. Absolutely fantastic.

Compulsory Games by Robert Aickman

This 1977 short story by English writer Robert Aickman is a creepy ghost story that begins the eponymously titled collection of short fictions published in 2018. The story surrounds Colin and Grace, a middle-aged married couple recently moved into a new neighborhood, who become acquainted with an odd neighbor–a woman named Eileen who frequently insists on meeting and having dinners. Initially thought to be boring and dull, Eileen perplexes the couple, particularly Grace who ends up forming a strange friendship with her. The two take piloting lessons, eventually purchasing a plane for themselves, and all the while Colin feels disenfranchised. Soon, he begins experiencing strange events and as things grow weirder and weirder, Colin begins to question his sanity. The answer he receives is a shocking denouement to what is possibly one of the strangest short stories I’ve ever read.

Aickman is often compared to Henry James and lumped in with the short story greats. His prose is unexpectedly elegant, like James’s, imbued frequently with beautiful description, abundant alliteration, and syntactically-crafted sentence structures. His keenness to his art is remarkable. Also there is an aura produced within the story which reminds me of the cosmic suspense akin to Lovecraft, a stirring and often rare accomplishment in literature that adds a thick creepy layer to the reading experience. After his death, The Times wrote that “his most outstanding and lasting achievement was as a writer of what he himself like to call ‘strange tales.’” If this story is an indication of his literary prowess, Aickman is nothing short of a powerhouse of weird fiction, a writer that sits among William Hodgson, M.R. James, and H.P. Lovecraft.

Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury

This 1962 novel by American writer Ray Bradbury is a nightmarish tale of fantasy and horror. William Halloway and Jim Nightshade are two 13-year-olds who enjoys books but also have a penchant for adventure and when they catch wind that a new and creepy traveling carnival show is headed to their city, they cannot stifle their curiosity. However, the boys soon come to discover an unimaginable evil within the carnival’s members led by the indomitable Illustrated Man who has set his eyes on Will and Jim, determined to capture and force them into his crew. What follows is a dark, fantastical, and turbulent fight for life filled with ghastly horrors, gruesome treacheries, and spine-chilling twist that is sure to shock and awe any reader.

R.L. Stine called it the scariest book he ever read, and today, it has become a fixture within the horror genre, a book celebrated by the undying Bradbury fan and novice reader alike. For me, it was more than simply frightful, more than just an easy paperback filled to the brim with thrills and wild scenes painted in Bradbury’s signature prose that just sends the words leaping from the page–the book was also a nostalgic well into which I fell, hard. There is a haunted, spooky, and kind of corny undercurrent that runs through the pages of this novel inspiring that feel-good anxiousness of a childhood October. And that was what I found not only most enjoyable, but most powerful too. This novel is the quintessential Halloween novel, one I’ll likely read over and over again.

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