loulamac’s #CBRV review #44: White Fang by Jack London

Croc Blanc

Jack London’s classic novel tells the story a wolf-dog cross, from his early life in the wild, to his lasting passion for the man who befriends him. When we first meet White Fang’s mother, she is leading a pack of wolves that is tracking and picking off the sled dogs of pair of men who are travelling across northern America. She herself is part dog, and has been domesticated after a fashion, but this doesn’t stop her from luring the dogs and one of the sledders to their deaths. In the course of the winter, she mates with one of the older wolves in the pack, and the following spring has a litter of pups. The feisty White Fang is the only one to survive, and learns to hunt and fight at his mother’s side. He is a few months old when they chance upon an American Indian settlement, and White Fang’s mother is claimed by her old owner. This is White Fang’s introduction to men, and his life is never the same again. He is later traded to a vicious dog-fighter called Beauty Smith, before being rescued by young prospector named Scott. This is where White Fang’s life changes again, and while never quite losing his wild streak, becomes a faithful companion of Scott, and leads a happy domesticated life.

I have seen London’s novels described as ‘morality tales’, but I don’t think that’s the case here. Without any moral judgement or opinion the novel presents a bleak and harsh world, where it is a case of kill or be killed. As a pup, White Fang learns the reality of survival of the fittest, and once in the realm of men has further harsh lessons in obedience and loyalty.  It is true that the nature of some men is touched on, and drawing a comparison between the ‘good’ of Scott and ‘evil’ of Smith, and the way White Fang reacts to them, is inevitable. However this is White Fang’s story, and he knows nothing of morals.

As you would expect, the bulk of the novel is presented through the eyes of the dog. He knows fear, courage and even love (the scene where a ‘teenage’ White Fang meets his mother, who of course doesn’t remember him, is particularly touching), and London manages to do this without anthropomorphising him in any way. Nor does it feel like conjecture or some kind of nature documentary. He really manages to put you inside the head of this wild animal, showing you how he changes and grows with experience. I enjoyed getting to know White Fang, and was completely immersed in the cold, harsh landscape he inhabits.

Valyruh’s #CBR5 Review #30: The Accursed by Joyce Carol Oates

Let me start by saying that gothic novels aren’t my thing, and had this been run-of-the-mill gothic, I would never have made it past the first chapter of this 1,000-plus-page volume. But nothing Joyce Carol Oates writes is ever run-of-the-mill, and while I still had to struggle with myself to pick this up night after night, I persevered to the end of this 1,000-plus-page volume.  Did I mention that this is a very long novel?

Oates’ story focuses on a series of Inexplicable, Indescribable and Unspeakable horrors that are visited upon the wealthy high society families of Princeton, New Jersey at the turn of the last century, with the particular focus of “The Curse” being the apparently golden family of the highly-revered former New Jersey governor and retired Presbyterian minister Winslow Slade. The history of The Curse is, in fact given us in the form of a narrative by a fussbudget Princeton historian 50 years’ later, and begins with the sudden appearance in 1905 of an oily and sinister character amidst the Princeton aristocracy. Before anyone can agree on where he came from, who invited him, and what he even looks like, our shape-shifting demon seduces Slade’s favorite granddaughter Amanda, and carries her off on the night of her long-anticipated society wedding to his “Bog Kingdom,” where he starves, gang-rapes, tortures, and eventually adds her to a large collection of former wives who have been broken and turned into garbage-eating slaves under his reign.

Amanda’s stunned brother and young cousins are now beset with nightmarish visions and voices in their heads which eventually drive them to suicide, leaving patriarch Winslow Slade in an agony of grief and despair. Other high-society families—the Van Dykes, the Burrs, the Strachans, the Bayards, the FitzRandolphs—are soon all afflicted in one form or another, with the ghosts of dead family members flickering in and out of view, beckoning to the living to join them. Cardiac arrests, strokes, fainting spells, and mental breakdowns begin to decimate the privileged families that run this university town, while extramarital affairs flourish, spouses turn on each other, mothers turn on their children, and people start dropping like flies.  All the while, the families struggle to keep up appearances, the women to gossip in private about the “unspeakable” events occurring around them, the men to sagely expound on growing threats to the white race, male supremacy, and their class superiority. Our historian’s narrative is stitched together from a pastiche of de-coded journal entries, letters, documents, public speeches, and hearsay, making for some mighty confused and confusing reading and adding greatly—and unnecessarily—to the overall length of The Accursed.

Oates now adds another layer to her story, the rampant racism against blacks, Jews, and immigrants that lies at the heart and soul of these privileged families. We are brought into the drawing rooms of these aristocrats as they expound on the natural superiority of their race and class, and we are presented in graphic detail with the lynchings and targeted murders of the underprivileged to which the power elites turn a blind eye. After flipping over one rock—that of the American aristocracy of the time–Oates now flips over another and offers terrifying and grotesque portrayals of some of the nation’s leading cultural and political icons of the era, from Jack London, Mark Twain and Upton Sinclair, to Woodrow Wilson (Princeton University’s president at the time), former U.S. President Grover Cleveland, and standing President Theodore Roosevelt. The displays of gluttony, addiction, misogyny, bigotry, hypocrisy, corruption, and downright hatred of humanity by these characters on both side of the divide are positively Dantesque, and I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or throw up over Oates’ descriptions of London’s Satyric drunk fest or Teddy Roosevelt’s meat-gorging frenzy in the face of Sinclair’s vegetarian asceticism.

Oates mixes a variety of genre in The Accursed—mystery, horror, romance (of a sort), history, and political and social commentary. There are demons, vampires, spectral snakes and ghosts galore, but the real horrors are revealed through her aggressive exposure of the decadent underpinnings of privileged American society. And despite my sympathies with much of what Oates is trying to accomplish with her satire—for that is what The Accursed ultimately is–, I felt that her story repeatedly foundered, even stalled out, with her bizarre turns and twists into gothic horror, her interminable descriptions of social conventions, her extraneous characters, her inexhaustible details on the descent into madness of a number of her prominent characters, etc. I also found the fatal game of draughts between the 10-year-old Todd Slade—an Inexplicable if ever there was one—and the Bog King, to be so absurd as to be positively laughable, despite the fact that it was supposed to be a plot turning-point for the entire story.

Of course, the core to the mystery isn’t solved until the bitter end, when Oates’ historian lets us read Winslow Slade’s “Covenant,” which the old man was prevented from reading from the pulpit. It is unfortunately so strident in its all-caps pseudo-Biblical hysteria that I feel much of the effect of the confession was, in fact, blunted. Which is sort of the way I feel about The Accursed as a whole.