Get yourself warmed up for the reading season

  • Ben Conant

Published: 10/28/2021 3:57:20 PM

October is a month I reserve for “atmosphere.” Halloween is coming and I like to get warmed up for that special holiday with some creepy reading. My benchmark is “Something Wicked This Way Comes” by Ray Bradbury. I wrote about this book last October and if you didn’t take my advice then, I am repeating it a year later. Read this book. If you did read the book, I bet it has become your “atmosphere” benchmark as well.

“Dread Journey”

 

Naturally, I am always on the lookout for some new atmosphere and I happened up “Dread Journey” by Dorothy B. Hughes. Hughes knows her way around a sentence and I doubt that she could have written a bad book if she tried. Yes, this is a recent reprint from Hughes’ original published in 1945. She wrote seven novels before retiring and every one is amazing.

The setting for this little gem is a luxury Pullman traveling between Los Angeles and New York. In those days everyone who could afford to travel went cross country on The Chief. For this trip, we pretty much know that a murder is going to take place, and we have a clear idea who the murderer is. But we don’t know who is to be murdered or when, or how it will happen.

The cast of characters is just that – a “cast.” This book could become a stage play with the same amount of atmosphere and thrill. A glamorous movie star named Kitten Agnew is traveling to New York with her producer/director Vivien Spender. Spender’s grand ambition is to make a move about ClavdiaChaucat, a mystical, complex Cleopatra-like literary figure. Spender, however, has a serious flaw – he finds what he thinks is the perfect actress to play Clavdia – then when the woman doesn’t stay up to his standards, he destroys that actress before going on to the next one.

Kitten was his latest Clavdia, until he met Gratia Shawn. Shawn, an ingenue, is also on the train and dreaming of stardom, yet is unaware of the history of all the other actresses before her, and doesn’t realize that Spender sees Kitten as the only stumbling block between himself and Gratia.

Next on the list of characters we add Mike. She is Spender’s secretary and the product of internalized misogyny. She sees Spender for what he is, knows what he has done to so many other women, and still remains loyal. To round out the players we meet Leslie Augustin a playboy bandleader, Sidney Pringle a failed screenwriter, Hank Cavanaugh a reporter who turned to alcohol trying to deaden the memories of his experiences on the warfront, and James Cobbett a porter who is underestimated due to his class (service) and his race (black). Interestingly, in an era when a person of color had a specific stereotype, Hughes portrays Cobbett as a man to be respected for his intellect and demeanor. Cobbett has more class than any of the passengers on the train.

We get to know these characters, see their flaws exposed, and feel their pain as Hughes beautifully paces this story like a conductor building a symphony to its crescendo, before releasing it to a bitter, but exacting and brilliant conclusion. The tragic events that end this story, written so many years ago, lets Hughes really tell how Hollywood worked then, and with the #MeToo movement we realize that is how things still work. Toxic, insecure, powerful men, morally corrupt yet desperate for more power, prey upon innocents who have been put in situations where they have no control. Sick, but true, and excellent for a character such as Spender when an author is building atmosphere.

“The Bride Wore Black”

 

“The Bride Wore Black” by Cornell Woolrich, first published in 1940, is another great choice for an October read. Yes, the older books do have a great atmosphere. Many modern novels, unfortunately, are watered down for reading level to make them more marketable to readers who are used to television and short sentences – which often leaves the establishment of genuine atmosphere in sketchy territory.

In Woolrich’s noir we are introduced to a series of unrelated murders. The means of murder are all different, the locations of the murders have nothing in common, there is no relationship among those murdered. The only commonality is the appearance of a beautiful woman at each crime scene. These women, however, do not look at all alike and they vanish without a trace before anyone can question them.

One man, at his engagement party, has fallen from his balcony. Another man is poisoned, while a third is sealed in a closet and left to suffocate. The police are stymied, but one detective, thinking outside the box, begins to piece the puzzle together because he is convinced that more murders will occur, and he is now racing a murder who is bent of completing a killing agenda.

Will he make it? Not telling. But this is a nice, tense thrill read that will keep you up at night – either reading or just having trouble sleeping because you need to keep the lights on. By the way, this particular book served as the inspiration for Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill movies. A fine legacy in my opinion.

“Mexican Gothic”

 

Speaking of staying up with the lights on; if you are so inclined and really wish to be unsettled, try “Mexican Gothic” by Silvia Moreno-Garcia. I have a friend, somewhat easily spooked apparently, who could not finish the novel and gifted me the book.

Although a modern novel, the time setting is the 1950’s, and the basic plot is the rescue of a woman in distress. Noemi Taboada, glamorous and appearing to be a bit capricious, gets a letter from her cousin, begging for help. Noemi doesn’t appear to be the rescuing type, but do not let appearance fool you. She is tough and determined, and no one’s fool. The cousin in question is married to a charming, but scary, English gentleman and they, along with the husband’s father, are living in a mansion called High Place, in the remote Mexican countryside.

High Place itself is sinister, to say the least, as it invades Noemi’s dreams with hideous visions. Yes, the house holds secrets. Massive wealth, violence, colonialism, racism, and eugenics all fold into the plot and are centered in the building itself. Almost sentient, the building houses violence and madness – just in case you needed a little more atmosphere. This is truly a gothic novel. The value is in the characters and establishment of atmosphere – which is basically designed to scare the dickens out of the reader. So, while Noemi is certainly trying to save her cousin and unravel a mystery, the significance for this book is really in how Moreno-Garcia establishes her setting, paces her descent from menacing into terrifying, and finally moves on to petrifying. Just keep your lights on and you will be fine.

There you have it. Some nice, eerie, spine-tingling reading. So, get your atmosphere on and start the countdown to Halloween correctly.


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