alisa alering

Writer of fantasy and other fictions


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Joplin’s Ghost, by Tananarive Due

dueI’ve been meaning to read this for a long time, and the first chapters didn’t let me down; they were like deliciously trashy candy. Phoenix Smalls was nearly killed by a piano in her parent’s club when she was ten. Now she is in her twenties, signed to rap impresario G-Ronn’s Three Strikes record label, and poised to become the next hot R&B star. Except for that little problem where she keeps channeling Scott Joplin during live interviews and performances.

Chapters switch back and forth between Phoenix in the now, and Scott Joplin in the then. I guess it was interesting that Joplin’s dreams of the great African-American opera were tragically disappointed, and the poor man died of syphilis, and all that, but I kept waiting for the historical bits to be over so I could get back to the present day.  I was much more interested in Phoenix – her music career, her parents, her boyfriends, etc than I was in old Joplin.

There was also a lot here I didn’t buy. Because even though Phoenix is definitely haunted by Joplin, sees his ghost, dreams she’s his wife, etc., it’s really the piano that is the bad news, and that had blighted Joplin’s life before it tried going after hers. It’s a real stretch for me to believe in a ‘piano of evil’, and I can’t help but wonder if the author ended up blaming everything on an inanimate object as a workaround because she wanted Joplin to be the ghost, but didn’t want him to be actually bad.

The scary ending didn’t work for me, because the majority of the book was more entertaining than scary, so when it came down to it, I really couldn’t feel the threat. This all sounds like criticism, but I gobbled the book right up, and am all set to rush right out and check out one of Due’s vampire stories.

(Don’t know who Scott Joplin is? You know his music, 100% for sure. I have a recording of some of his rags, but even I didn’t realize that the ubiquitous tune ‘The Entertainer‘ was his.)

Recommended readings:

Voodoo Dreams — Jewell Parker Rhodes

Baby Brother’s Blues — Pearl Cleage

Blood Colony — Tananarive Due

(Color Me Brown is an August challenge by Color Online)

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Lost Story Found

Thanks to a nudge from Robb, I tracked down last week’s missing short story.

It is (drum roll, please)…’A Little Place Off the Edgeware Road’ by Graham Greene. (1939)

A man named Craven is walking the streets of London. He wears a cheap mackintosh. He is seedy and alone. Soldiers and girls pass him on the wet pavement and he tells you that he hates the thingness of his body. He tells you that he dreams of caverns under the ground of a graveyard, where all the uncorrupted bodies lie, waiting and quiescent, in their little interconnected pods. (I’m pretty sure a capsule hotel would freak him right out.)

He goes into a cinema to get out of the rain. It is nearly empty, showing a program of silent films about the Roman empire. A piano plays in the darkness. A man shuffles past his knees and takes the seat next to him, brushing Craven’s face with his large beard. On-screen, a woman in a toga stabs herself. The newcomer objects that there is not enough blood.

The bearded man and Craven nearly get into an argument, ‘an absurd and meaningless wrangle in the dark.’ The newcomer continues to talk, and lays a hand, ‘sudden and confidingly’ on Craven’s. It is damp and sticky, and Craven hopes it is treacle.  The newcomer announces that he has forgotten his umbrella, and scrabbles out past Craven’s knees.

…I don’t know why this story made such an impression on me the first time. Maybe because I was reading it alone in my apartment before sleep, instead of over a bowl of soup at a brightly-lit dinner table with company just beyond the ketchup bottle.

Maybe because of contrast. I read it towards the end of an anthology of ‘Ghost Stories’; given the typical fare of such collections, Greene’s spare modern prose must have stood out:  Banal, urban setting. Repressed. Short, tight, story. No Lovecraftian furbelows.

Reading experiences are made up of at least 50% of the ‘experience’ portion – the experience of the reader, rather than the words on the page. A story isn’t fixed until it is read and intersected. This explains not only why some books are loved by some and loathed by others, but also why I have read books and failed to feel them, or hated authors until I came back to them with a new idea of what I wanted. Just as a bad day can be vastly improved by a good book, I’m pretty sure that a good book can be wasted on a bad day.

(“Edgeware Road” appears in Twenty-One Stories, by Graham Greene, 1954.)


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Do you know this story?

I was reading John Mutford’s Short Story Monday post over at The Book Mine Set, and because he was reading Graham Greene, it reminded me of a short story I read and really really liked, except I can’t remember what it was called or where I would find it.

It was by Graham Greene (who is awesome, awesome, AWESOME) and it was in a collection of ghost stories I got out of the library in Virginia. A guy is in a movie theater and someone is sitting beside him, and really that’s all I can remember but it was sooo good. And good and creepy.

Does this mean anything to anyone? Please help.