Thursday, August 16, 2012

Book Review: A Shriek In The Midnight Tower

{N.B. - A few minutes ago I received via email a post from 4 years ago. I have no idea what Blogger is doing. Perhaps it was following the instructions my eyeglasses gave when they slid off my nose and landed on my keyboard.}

A Shriek In The Midnight Tower - A Queen-Size Gothic
by Katheryn Kimbrough (aka John Kimbro)
published by The Popular Library

Alright, so generally this is a knitting blog, with additional old-timey stuff on occasion. However, I'm at sixes and sevens right now in regard to my knitting (perhaps it's the warm weather) but getting everything blocked and photographed (much less completing nearly-finished items) is a bit more than I'm inclined to do. Mostly I'm just futzing around with some small crochet projects.
So why am I reviewing a book that has no knitting content and does not meet my criteria of old timey? Well, this book is... a treasure. No, that's not quite right... an oddity. Yes, it's definitely an oddity, a curiosity.
I read my first grown-up novel when I was 9 or 10; it was The Secret Woman by Victoria Holt. It completely warped my sensibilities; in 1970 there was no Goth movement such as came a decade or so later. But Gothic novels were a decent market back then, and Mme Holt opened the door to that market for this young reader. For the next five years I read every Gothic novel I could persuade anyone to buy me. Warped is probably an understatement, now that I think on it.
Anyhow, in recent years I've been revisiting some of the influences of my youth - music, books, films - to see how they've held up, to see what they might have offered me back in the day, whether those things can be of any relevance or significance to me now. The problem is, once in college, I divested myself of all the trashy fiction that I had acquired up to the age of 20. I no longer had any of those Gothic novels that I'd read back in the day.
Never fear, though - old ladies to the rescue. The clinic my mother goes to for her doctor's visits has a book rack - 25 cents for paperbacks. And bless those old ladies that go there (someone, please bless them!), they've been dumping collections of old romances, including some awesome 1970s Gothic novels. $1 gets you four, of course, so I found four and gave them my dollar. Thus A Shriek In The Midnight Tower found its way into my library, and is unlikely to exit it any time soon.
The magic of this book isn't the plot; sure, the plot has a 'shocking' twist like all Gothic mysteries of the time did, and the plot twist is a bit twisted, but the author left us with more than that to discuss. All you need to know is that a murder has taken place at Le Chat Noir, an old bayou chateau built by one of Jean Lafitte's lieutenants. (Yes, the house is named 'The Black Cat'.) The detective assigned to the murder case invites himself to stay there whilst investigating; after all, Le Chat Noir is 35 miles away from the nearest anything, and 70-mile round trips on a south Louisiana road is more than anyone should be expected to make every day, believe me.
More important, and of greater interest, is the list of characters.
  • Marietta Ingram - 12-yr-old orphaned heiress, precocious in a Freudian kind of way, in love with her attorney and waiting until she’s of age (this is set in the early 1970s), an “invalid” (she can walk, a little she claims).
  • Nora Elias - 20-something companion to Marietta; she’s beautiful, unconsciously very aware of handsome men and ogles them as much as she can. Orphaned in her early teens, she ended up in a convent, running away at 17 to hitch around the country with Jimmy - sex, drugs, artists, occultists and spiritualists. She has secretsssss. 
  • Patrick Carruthers - Sheriff investigating the death of Abner. Attractive in a middle-aged redneck kind of way. 
  • Abner Grouse - Estate handyman found dead, stabbed in the greenhouse. Actually, stabbed in the heart whilst in the greenhouse.
  • Dandelion Snodgrass - Cook, from New Orleans.
  • Barrett Young - an artist. Is obsessed with painting clowns & anything circus-themed.
  • Lucien Gaspar - Butler/houseman/whatever. Married and has one developmentally disabled son.
  • Hortense Gaspar - Not quite a Mrs Danvers-type, but is surly and has her secrets.
  • Carlos Gaspar – Son of Lucien & Hortense. He’s likes to watch (he actually says that). But perhaps he didn’t like watching Abner.
  • Mark Becker - The playboy attorney. He ended up with Marietta as a client when his boss, Maxwell Sprowl, was killed in a boat explosion. He makes love (in the 19th cent. sense of the word) to Marietta, but can’t keep his eyes off Nora. 
Yes, there is someone named 'Max Sprowl' in the book, as well as someone named 'Fedora Cuddington'.

In spite of all the circus-related content, this novel does not take place in a circus. It takes place in this southern mansion. Where almost everyone involved ends up having some sort of circus connection. It was as if the author were writing a novel based on comedy improv choices - "Kimbro, your fans have chosen 'Southern Gothic Mansion' and 'Circus' as the themes for your next book!"

What it does have is a shift in narrative that calls full attention to itself, with no attempt to dress it up or even put a robe on; a blatant self-reference to the author; and some of the most entertaining dialog I've ever read in one of these things. I'm not sure if the latter is intentional or not; I'm uncertain about a lot of things regarding this book. I regret that the author is deceased and that I can't just shoot him an email. So for the rest of this review I'm simply going to post some of the better dialog bits from the first part of the book; I'm leaving plenty unquoted so that, if you're curious enough to read this yourself, you won't have all the fun spoiled for you. Here goes:
(Marietta the precocious child to Mark the sleazy attorney) "Even if I did think Mr Carruthers was better looking than you, I would never be so foolish as to entertain thoughts about a cop."
"I should hope not," Mark returned with easy laughter... "Were anyone to know the deep feeling I had for you, they might well consider me some sort of child-molesting pervert, or suggest that I was plagued with some other peculiar fetish... We all have our idiosyncrasies, haven't we?" (pg. 27)
 When I got to this part of the story, I checked the cover to make sure I hadn't mistakenly grabbed some other kind of book, but it still said "A Queen-Size Gothic" on the cover.
"Murder? Murder? Murder?" Mark exclaimed. "Have you actually reached the conclusion that murder was committed and that Abner Grouse didn't meet an accidental death?"
 "No, I can't say that I have established that fact as yet," Carruthers returned patiently, a large smile wreathing his face. His eyes twitched. "But in my humble opinion a man does not accidentally puncture himself in the heart with a dull rusty instrument, stagger some distance and drop dead. Even if such were possible, there is no indication of a murder weapon, no rusty projections of lethal proportions, nothing. What other conclusion could be reached than that Abner Grouse had some sort of assistance in going to his final reward?"  (pg. 41)
 (Nora, speaking to Mark, Carruthers and Marietta) "I was very fond of my father, and I knew his happiness depended a large part on Helen (Nora's stepmother). I wished that I could make him equally as happy, but physically that would have been sinful." She blushed.
"Physically? Did you have such thoughts about your father?" questioned Carruthers, repositioning himself in his chair and picking up interest. (pg. 43)
No comment.

And hey, need to switch from a first-person narrative to a third? The book begins in the first person, narrated by Marietta. However, come Chapter Six, we need something different, so the author gives us this: 
Because certain events have been related to me later, such as situations at which I had not been present but later received the details, I will include them now to establish the continuity of the story. (Pg. 58)
No need to expend effort on, say, diary entries or a complex narrative structure to accommodate multiple voices, or even hearsay. Nosireebob, we're not gonna gussy up this tale with sophisticated narrative tricks - we've already used one narrative trick (which I won't reveal), ain't gonna waste no time on any others.

Oh, Mr Kimbro - I wish I had a fraction of your writing chutzpa!

And if you like a story with deep psychological insight, this tale has it aplenty! For instance, here's Barrett the painter:
"I suppose many a boy has had a secret urge to be a circus clown--someone who makes the world laugh even when he is hurting on the inside." (pg. 74)

The next - and last - couple of quotes are from the amazing dinner scene which begins on pg. 76. The first quote is how the author inserts himself and his work into the dialog:
(Barrett) ..."Would you believe I have a perfectly marvelous contract to paint covers for original Gothic romance novels. I turn out as many as four a month just for bread and butter money. They're kinda fun, drawing those spooky old houses, or should I say mansions with sinister elements dripping from them."
"Do people actually read those things?"
Again Barrett laughed. "I met a person once whose initials are K.K. who has been writing the things for years and making a nice living out of it." (pg. 79)
 What's a little self-promotion, after all? Not by name, which I'm sure even a drunken, barely attentive editor would have noticed. Just the initials. Nice work, John Kimbro.

And finally I'm just pulling two paragraphs from the last part of the dinner conversation because... because...
(Carruthers) ..."But Abner Grouse was quite a big man, over six feet tall with a heavy frame, not always muscular." He glanced about, especially at me (Marietta's first-person narrative again) with a funny expression. "I saw the autopsy report. Grouse was not an ordinary person, certain parts of his anatomy were, well, overdeveloped, I suppose you might say."
"I know," Barrett said with a laugh, "he posed for me nude on two occasions. That's why I found it so laughable that he--I mean--I've heard preposterous tales but--" He fell into fits of laughter ultimately asking to be excused while he gained his composure. (pg. 83)
What’s better dinner conversation than to talk about a corpse’s oversized dong?
I'm going to end with two pieces of advice gained from reading A Shriek In The Midnight Tower:
  1. If you find a copy of this book, buy it and read it. It won't give you Gothic creepies or anything like that, but it's (intentially or unintentionally) postmodern gold. Skip Richard Yates. That was written for a bunch of snobs. Read this delightfully subversive genre-buster instead;
  2. Sometimes treasure will still only cost a quarter.

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