Saturday, August 26, 2023

Arthur Machen's White Powder

Despite the title, this is a short story, and actually on the shorter side of short. It was originally published in 1895 along with two other interwoven stories in a work called "The Three Imposters." I have not read the collection but this piece stands on its own as a short tale. The story is simple. An Englishman from the upper class is studying for the law and begins suffering from what might be called "nervous exhaustion." He is prescribed a white powder by his doctor and at first he seems full of renewed energy and vigor. However, the powder begins to take an awful toll and the man becomes more and more reclusive until...well, you'll need to read to find out. The story is told by his concerned brother, and in the course of the tale we find that the medicine prescribed by the doctor is not what the pharmacist supplied. As the basis of the drug, the pharmacist used a container of powder that had been on his shelves for many years and had been chemically altered by that long exposure into another substance called Vinum Sabbati--a witch's brew.

The story is pretty simple but effective. Since it's told by the brother, we don't "see" or experience the man's transformations except second hand. This was a common storytelling technique in those days and is still used today, although not as commonly. However, the writing is very fine and we get a good sense of mounting dread from the story. One can see how this tale was likely a strong influence on H. P. Lovecraft and his nameless horrors. 

I suspect that Machen's influence here came at least partially from the writings of Sigmund Freud on Cocaine, which mostly appeared between the years 1884 and 1887. The drug was well known by the time Machen wrote this story, and quite a few doctors and researchers had extolled its virtues, although it's less desirable effects were also becoming known.  

Monday, August 14, 2023

Coach Charles Tadlock

Very sad to see that Coach Charles Tadlock has died. He was my first football coach, in seventh grade at Charleston, Arkansas Junior High. I remember that he was quite a large man, and as a kid who barely weighed 100 pounds in 7th grade he was intimidating. But over the next few years I came to admire him and…I liked him.  (Picture above borrowed from a facebook page. All rights to the photographer.)

Coach Tadlock could be tough but I always found him fair. The thing I remember most is that he wanted you to do your best, but if you tried your best and it wasn’t good enough, he recognized it and didn’t hold you accountable for not being able to do the miraculous. 

I remember one particular game. I was playing safety on defense and the opposing team had a wide receiver who was something like six feet, nine, a good foot taller than me, with arms to match. This guy caught three touchdown passes right over me that night. I was so upset, so angry. I remember coming off the field nearly in tears and sitting on the bench with my head in my hands. No one would talk to me, not out of meanness but because they were all just as young as I was and didn’t know what to say.

Coach Tadlock approached. He patted me on the shoulder pads and said, “just keep doing your best. That’s all you can do.” There was no anger or recrimination in his voice. I’ve remembered that moment for fifty years. 

I remember, too, a much funnier moment. We were playing a team from Oklahoma. Pacola, I think. They were driving toward a touchdown. I was playing safety. I intercepted a ball just before the endzone and gave us back the ball. This time, my teammates knew just what to do. They all cheered and pounded me on the back. 

After the celebration was over and I was sitting on the bench, Coach Tadlock came over to me. He was smiling and slapped me on the shoulder pads. Then he leaned in, and in a very quiet voice that no one else could hear, he said: “you know you were out of position, don’t you?”

Indeed, I had been. The receiver had beat me and their quarterback underthrew him and hit me right in the chest. It was a colossal piece of luck on my part. But the kindness of coach there, knowing what I’d done wrong and wanting to teach me, but not to correct me in front of all my peers and take away that moment of joy. 

I’m sorry for the loss of this good man, and for his family who will now have to bear his absence. He will be remembered by many. 


Friday, August 04, 2023

A Halloween Duology from K. A. Opperman

I'm a fan of Halloween, but not as big of a fan as K. A. Opperman. I'm not sure there is a bigger fan of All Hallows Eve than Opperman. His introduction to “Past the Glad and Sunlit Season,” his first collection of Halloween themed poems, illustrates it. I enjoyed the brief story of his Halloween journey. It's quite different from mine, and he is far more passionate in his love for the holiday.

Opperman has also produced a second collection of Halloween related poetry in “October Ghosts and Autumn Dreams.” I’ve reviewed them independently on Goodreads but decided to blog them together. The covers on the two books are the first thing you notice. Both are striking, and the interiors are fully illustrated. These are my photos here of the covers. The covers reflect—in my opinion—the contents of the books. The book 2 poems are generally darker, although not horrific. 

As for the poems? The first volume contains 54 of them. Most are short. All are rhyming. They are charming enough to be read to children but have enough ghoulish imagery to tantalize the adult. I read some to my wife, who is also a Celtiphile, and she found them delightful.

The second collection contains 46 poems, but several of them are longer so it’s about the same total length. These are also rhyming poems, although he varies the rhyming scheme a little more here. I personally find writing good rhyming poems difficult, but in these two books Opperman has done a wonderful job in making the rhymes work to his—and the reader’s—advantage. 

A very nice touch in both books was a section at the end about the poems, wherein Opperman discusses the origins and some of the meanings of the pieces. I keep this kind of information for my own stories and poems so it’s nice to see it from someone else. 

The second book also ends with a too brief essay on “Trick-or-Treat As Initiatory Rite and Attendant Symbolism.” Opperman laid out some very interesting concepts in this piece and I’d love to see an expansion of it. He clearly has thought a great deal about Halloween and that time of the year. Perhaps he is indeed the Pumpkin King and his human face only a summer disguise.

Overall, there's a touch here and there that remind me of Ray Bradbury's work, who was also a lover of Halloween. The titles, particularly, put me in mind of Ray. I will mention one specific poem that reminds me of Bradbury’s work, from book 2. It really connected with me. “Where Yet October Dwells.” To quote:

Against the bleak advances of November,

There is a hollow lost in hidden dells,

Where yet a pumpkin keeps October’s ember—

A place of dreams and spells. 

I was born in October, as was my wife. We are one day apart, although not in years. So this poem resonated with me for that reason in addition to others. When I finished reading it, I was expecting it to be the last one in the collection. Turns out there was one more but I think the position of these two might have been reversed to good effect. 

To sum up, these two volumes make a nice addition to my shelves. Perhaps I’ll have to put them up with a Halloween display this year. And I doubt we’ve heard the last about Halloween from the Pumpkin King. Not the “King in Yellow” but the King in Orange. With a carved smile.