Chekhov on Solitary Confinementhat

Anton Not Pavel

When I started thinking about the topic of solitary confinement one of the first stories to come to mind was Anton Chekhov’s “The Bet.” I’ve read the story a few times over the years, and with each read I came away with some new and interesting insight. My recent reading was during the current Covid lockdowns and quarantines is no exception to finding something new to think about.

Anton Checkhov The Complete colection

The plot of “The Bet” is straight forward. A wealthy banker bets a young lawyer two million rubles (a large sum of money for the time) that the lawyer won’t commit himself to fifteen years of voluntary solitary confinement. This story is an insightful commentary on the long term effects of solitary confinement, but reading it in the time of Covid has me focusing on two points. The first is that voluntary confinement is much more difficult to bear than compulsory confinement. This is an interesting point when you see the spike in anxiety and depression in recent months amidst lockdowns and quarantines. The second point focuses on the lawyer’s reading habits during his confinement. His reading list got me thinking about what I’ve been reading during the past nine months and how confinement is influencing my reading list and impacting how I’m seeing the world.

Covid 19 lockdowns and quarantines have impacted all of us in varied ways. Fortunately none of us have been confined as long as the character of the story, but being able to relate to his self-imposed solitary confinement and the impact it has on him may help us better deal with our own lockdowns and quarantines. Anton Chekhov’s “The Bet” may help to put feelings of solitary confinement in perspective. Give it a read and let me know what you think.

-K-

“The Bet” from Anton Chekhov the Complete Collection (2018).

Horror Stories Are OK

…if They Are Educational?

What was you first experience with a good (that is as subjective of a word as you can get) horror story? I’m talking about the first time you read an adult horror story, not a children’s story. My guess is that some story by Edgar Allan Poe will come to mind for many of you, it does for me. Most of us had our first experience with Poe in junior high or maybe freshman year, and “The Cask of Amontillado” is often the first story we read and/or is the most memorable.

The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe

“The Cask of Amontillado” came to mind when I started thinking about this month’s topic concerning grave thoughts. I don’t want to spoil the story for the few of you out there who haven’t read it (well, maybe it’s not taught anymore but damn near everybody my age has read it). A grave, of sorts, plays an important role in the story so I decided to give it another read. I came away with a few observations. First, the exposition of the story discusses some of the finer points of revenge. Second, there is a whole of drinking going on in this story (hell, the title references booze). Finally, with proper planning and execution you can get away with murder. I’m not trying to disparage the story in any way. It’s a well written, compact story that incorporates many elements of classic gothic fiction, but damn I don’t remember these points from way back in junior high.

I figure my teacher all those years ago was more interested in teaching Poe the author (the man’s tormented life plays a large role in his appeal to many people, adolescents included) than really focusing on the content and context of the story itself. Either way I remember the class reading it and enjoying it. But I can’t help but think that today, in a world where people are easily offended and triggered, if teaching the horror classics of Poe would still be considered educational? Give it another read or first read and let me know what you think.

-K-

“The Cask of Amontillado” from The Best Short Stories of Edgar Allan Poe (2011) by Edgar Allan Poe.

The Cost of Being a Cowboy

Drugstore Cowboy and the Junkie Lifestyle

There is no shortage of movies that feature drugs and drug use. Most have an agenda regarding their portrayal of drugs and those who use drugs. Most movies either attempt to glamorize drugs or intend to demonize them. I usually find that these movies try too hard with their message or loose the through line somewhere in the second act, but there are a few movies out there that don’t romanticize, idealize, or patronize when it comes to drugs and drug use. Gus Van Sant’s Drugstore Cowboy is one of these few movies.

Drugstore Cowboy

There are a couple concessions I want to make before I recommend this movie. First, the movie is set in 1971, and it was released in 1989 so it does feel dated at points. Second, there are a few moments early in the movie when Matt Dillon’s character, Bob, waxes poetic about drug use. I don’t view this as romanticizing drug use especially when we hear what Bob has to say later in the movie (hope that isn’t too much of a spoiler for you). With these too minor points aside this is a sound movie that takes an honest look at drugs and drug use (as honest as you can get in the weird world of Hollywood). Drugstore Cowboy is an insight into the world and daily lives of four junkies, but Van Sant does not pass any sort of explicit judgement on their lifestyles (he leaves judgement to the viewer).

If you are in the mood for a well written movie with sound acting and solid directing that features drugs and drug use in a realistic sense then Drugstore Cowboy is worth a watch. Hell, you may want to watch it just to see William S. Burroughs acting.

-K-

Drugstore Cowboy (1989) with Matt Dillon, Kelly Lynch, James Le Gros, and Heather Graham. Directed by Gus Van Sant.

Unanswered Questions and Obsession

The Allure of Wicker Park

Have you ever had a girlfriend or boyfriend leave you without any warning? She or he just vanished without a handwritten note, a text, or a pair of burnt boots on the front steps? The end of a relationship is a difficult time but not knowing why your girlfriend or boyfriend left can play with one’s psyche (it’s like failing a test but not being told what questions you got wrong). The movie Wicker Park may have a few flaws but it does a fine job capturing the feeling and fall out of a relationship that ends unexpectedly when a love interest vanishes.

Wicker Park #2
Wicker Park

Wicker Park may have a few flaws concerning plot and structure but overall it is a solid movie with fine performances by Josh Hartnett and Diane Kruger. Harnett and Kruger play a couple that splits after one of them vanishes without an explanation. The movie, presented in both present day and in flashbacks, is a story of obsession, of needing to know why somebody would leave without a word, a reason, or a clue. The movie shows us that we may believe we have moved on after a relationship ends but not knowing why it ended has a way of pulling us back in time.

When there is no word, no message, no final gesture before somebody vanishes from a relationship the resulting feelings and fall out can weigh heavily on the mind and heart. Wicker Park shows how such an event can follow us even after we feel we’ve moved on. A person may vanish quickly, but feelings don’t fade as fast.

-K-

Wicker Park (2004) with Josh Hartnett and Diane Kruger. Directed by Paul McGuigan.

Vanishing as Metaphor and Violence as Act

in Joe R. Lansdale’s “Listen”

One of the great things about horror fiction is it often is a closer reflection of real life than more traditional fiction genres. Talented writers of the horror genre show us a world that is both scary and familiar. Joe R. Lansdale’s “Listen” is an interesting read as a horror story, but it can also be read as a metaphor of individuals who are marginalized.

A Fist Full opf Stories (book cover)
A Fist Full of Stories (and Articles) by Joe R. Lansdale

Floyd Merguson visits a psychiatrist and reveals a troubling condition; he is slowly fading away. In an extended monologue Floyd recounts a series of events that have convinced him that he is becoming transparent, invisible. The violence that occurs at the end of the story would appear to confirm Floyd’s belief that he is suffering from some sort of terminal illness. Lansdale’s story has the required elements to make it a solid horror story, but it can be read on another level. Floyd Merguson’s vanishing, his invisibility, can be viewed as a metaphor. One does not have to physically fadeout or vanish to feel marginalized and invisible. The forgotten, the neglected, the discarded, and the bullied all feel invisible. These marginalized individuals, like Merguson, can recount numerous instances of slowly vanishing, of becoming transparent, of being invisible. And sadly, like Merguson, may come to a similar violent end.

One of the best elements of horror fiction is its ability to show the reader how scary the world around us is, how real life is scarier than fiction. Joe R’ Lansdale’s “Listen” is a well written horror story. If you take a different view “Listen” becomes a scary metaphor, and if we do not listen to this metaphor it may result in violence.

-K-

“Listen” from A Fist Full of Stories (and Articles) (2014) by Joe R. Lansdale.

John Lee Hooker, Black Coffee, and Cigarettes

Something For What Ails You

Another Sunday morning suffering the side effects of Saturday night. I’m no doctor. I have no cure for what ails me, but a healthy dose of the blues does treat the symptoms. My current prescription is John Lee Hooker’s “Never Get Out of These Blues Alive” (I recommend the version Hooker sings with Van Morrison).

The Best of John Lee Hooker (cover)
The Best of John Lee Hooker 1965 to 1974

If you have ever sat up all night drinking black coffee and smoking cigarettes then this song is worth a listen. If you have ever spent your nights pacing the floor then you want to download this song. If you have ever stayed up all night obsessing over a woman (or man or whoever) then this song will speak to you. If you have ever wondered if you will escape the blues then this song should be on your playlist.

John Lee Hooker’s “Never Get Out of These Blues Alive” is quintessential blues (Hell, John Lee Hooker is quintessential blues). Whether you are new to the blues or already have an extensive playlist consider adding this song. There is one important thing to keep in mind when listening to this song (or the blues in general for that matter). The blues isn’t just about how bad things are, the blues is about a hope that things will get better.

-K-

The Best of John Lee Hooker 1965 to 1974 (1992) by John Lee Hooker

When Cigarettes are Currency

War Profiteering in Blue Helmets and Black Markets

Most of us have spent more time than usual at home over the past few months. I spent some of that time reviewing my current events/history bookshelf (yep, I’m the kind of person who has organized and dedicated bookshelves). It’s interesting how current events become history. Today’s newspaper is nothing more than tomorrow’s fish wrapper if we don’t take the time to study, analyze, and learn from current events, history, and were the two meet. We should all keep a current events/history bookshelf and review it on a regular basis. One of the books I recently reviewed is Peter Andreas’ Blue Helmets and Black Markets The Business of Survival in the Siege of Sarajevo. Its message is as timely today as it was over a decade ago.

Blue Helmets and Black Markets (book cover)
Blue Helmets and Black Markets by Peter Andreas

History can be viewed as a series of specific events over a general period of time. Some of these historical events can be too specific to appeal to a wide audience. Andreas’ book covers the Siege of Sarajevo which lasted from 1992 to 1995. This event, and time period, may be too narrow to appeal to some readers but it shouldn’t be a surprise that wars tend to be wars and politics tends to be politics. Andreas contends that various political and military groups, including UN soldiers, profited from the black market that existed during the siege. This profiteering also served to prolong the siege for the citizens of Sarajevo. Andreas states, “Cigarettes were so valued in wartime Sarajevo that they became an alternative form of currency.” At another point in the book reporter Maggie O’Kane states, “The UN soldiers here are making themselves and the Sarajevo mafia rich. The soldiers are the importers and the locals are the middlemen for a trade in cigarettes…worth millions of dollars.” This is not the first, or last, time soldiers and politicians have profited from war, but without analysis of historical events it is difficult to develop an understanding and learn from history.

Peter Andreas’ book is an insightful look into the lives of the citizens who lived through the Siege of Sarajevo and the politicians and soldiers who prolonged and profited from the siege. It is a book worth study and analysis for its historical context. It is also worth a read in a time when current events are fraught with individuals who willingly manipulate and prolong conflict for profit.

-K-

Blue Helmets and Black Markets The Business of Survival in the Siege of Sarajevo (2008) by Peter Andreas.

Brand Preference

Why Some People Don’t Mind Being a Billboard 

In a world of posts, pics, updates, likes, and follows image can become more important than preference. The ‘gram, the ‘book, and the twit’ may not have created posturing but they sure as hell have turned it into a martial art of sorts. There are many individuals out there that feel having classy things will make them classy people. Mark Twain addresses posturing, price, and pretentiousness in “Concerning Tobacco.”

Drinking, Smoking, and Screwing
Drinking, Smoking, and Screwing

Twain begins his essay by establishing a couple common superstitions. These superstitions concern an individual’s preferences and standards concerning tobacco. Twain states that many of his friends will only smoke expensive cigars and take great pride in showing off the labels of their cigars whenever they smoke. These friends also berate Twain for his choice of cheap cigars and state they could not bear to smoke such sub-standard tobacco. In an act of subterfuge Twain places the labels of his cheap cigars on some expensive cigars he secretly took from a friend. His friends, self-proclaimed experts with high standards, could not tell the difference and thought they were smoking cheap cigars. Twain ends the essay by returning to the superstitions he establishes at the beginning. He states that the only real standard concerning tobacco is an individual’s preference, but it may be a preference to brand and not necessarily flavor.

Twain wrote “Concerning Tobacco” in 1917. If the ‘gram, the ‘book’ and the twit’ were around a hundred years ago I would wager his friends would have posts, pics, updates, and likes about their expensive cigars. They would be posturing and bragging about the price of their stogie selections.  Mark Twain wouldn’t be so pretentious. He wouldn’t use a brand to make himself look better, to end up being a billboard for that brand. Take Twain’s advice and embrace your preferences, even if they are on the less expensive side.  Better to be you than a billboard.

-K-

“Concerning Tobacco” by Mark Twain from Drinking, Smoking, and Screwing (1994) edited by Sara Nickles.

When Art Imitates Life

or When You Connect With a Song

Have you ever noticed the wide variety of euphemisms that are used in relationships? Has anyone ever “stepped out” on you or maybe “let you down easy?” If you can answer yes then there is a blues song somewhere out there for you (maybe a couple or few). There is one song from the “Blues at Your Door Mix Tape” post from a couple weeks back that holds an ignominious place in my relationship history.

ZZ Top is one of those bands that you either get or you don’t. I don’t mean that in any sort of critical analysis and deeper meaning sense. I mean you either get where that little old band from Texas is coming from or you don’t. I’ve given up trying to explain it to people so I can only ask that if you haven’t listened to ZZ Top then give their first album, conveniently titled ZZ Top’s First Album, a listen (if you are familiar with it then you probably know where I’m going with this). The last song on the album is “Backdoor Love Affair.” The backdoor man motif, a man having an affair with a married woman, is common to many blues songs. ZZ Top takes this idea and adds their own twist to it (no spoilers), but I will say I’ve experienced what the narrator of the song experiences, and I’m none too proud of it.

ZZ Top's First Albom (cover)
ZZ Top’s First Album by ZZ Top

We tend to use euphemisms in an attempt to minimize the damage of failed relationships. These euphemisms are common in many blues songs, which may be one of the reasons why blues music is timeless. As long as people “step out” and “let you down easy” there will be material for blues musicians. ZZ Top’s song “Backdoor Love Affair” is one such song, a song that this writer has lived through. But knowing there is a song about it gives me comfort that others have lived through it too.

-K-

ZZ Top’s First Album (1971) ZZ Top

A Puzzle Box and Foreboding Places

Hellraiser and the Doors to Heaven and Hell

“What’s your pleasure?” That’s about as loaded as a question as you are going to get, and it’s the beginning of Clive Barker’s Hellraiser. This is the movie that introduced me and many of my friends to the Cenobites, Pinhead, and the Lament Puzzle Bob. The box serves as a key/door to other dimensions offering both pleasure and pain. Barker’s movie, based on his novella, addresses the idea of being careful of going through doorways that promise something better or different than what you already have (an idea we began with Neil Gaiman’s Coraline).

Hellraiser Movie Cover v2
Hellraiser

I remember the first time I watched Hellraiser. I was with a group of friends, each of us brought a horror tape (oh, how I do get sentimental about VHS on occasion), and we had a Saturday night horror movie marathon. I noticed then, over thirty years ago, that Barker’s movie was different from many of the horror movies of the time. There are many great horror movies from the 1980s but most of them don’t have the depth of Hellraiser. The antagonists of many horror movies of the time are one dimensional, as are the protagonists. The world the characters inhabit are also relatively underdeveloped. The characters of Hellraiser are interesting. They have believable motivations and desires for their actions. They inhabit a world like our own but would be wary to inhabit. It is a world of with doorways that can be unlocked with a Lament Puzzle Box. These doorways appear to offer a better world, a world of pleasure, but there is something lurking beyond the doorway, Pinhead.

Most of the horror movies of the 1980s can be viewed as cautionary tales, modern twists on the old tales of foreboding and magical places with their possible dangers. Clive Barker’s Hellraiser is a more developed tale. Barker isn’t telling us to avoid those foreboding places, to not go through those doors. He is telling us to be aware of what is on the other side.

-K-

Hellraiser (1987) with Andrew Robinson, Clare Higgins, Ashley Laurence, and Doug Bradley. Written and Directed by Clive Barker.

Powered by WordPress.com.

Up ↑