Souls on Paper: Nikolai Gogol on Bogus Financial Schemes

Some images in the above collage were taken from The Overcoat & Selected Stories, Special Edition, published by Special Edition Books, and Dead Souls, the Yale Edition


Gogol’s Dead Souls is a perfect analogy for today’s economy. Instead of buying junk bonds, the main character in Dead Souls purchases the names of peasants who have died but are still on the census rolls. In Russia, prior to 1861, serfs could be bought or sold by land owners. The government taxed the landowners for each soul they possessed, based on the most recent census, which was usually outdated, so landowners often paid taxes on “dead souls.” A charismatic fellow named Chichikov comes to town,  flattering and charming everyone, appealing to their vanity, and makes his rounds to the homes of several landowners, offering to purchase lists of deceased serfs, to have the names legally transferred into his ownership. Some of the people he approaches are skeptical at first, but most of them recognize a chance to rid themselves of a tax burden and agree to Chichikov’s proposition. His goal is to make himself appear wealthy on paper, raise his social standing, establish credit, maybe even marry into a wealthy family, and ultimately, to sell all these paper souls back to the unsuspecting government for real money. This is basically what many mortgage companies were doing in the years leading up to our  housing and economic crisis: Selling bundles of high-risk  mortgages to banks as if they were solid and safe. Gogol’s gift for caricature, satire, and amusing turns of phrase make Dead Souls an absolutely hilarious book from beginning to end.

I was going to write more, but I’ve discovered a great essay on Gogol by Darran Anderson, over at Literary Kicks, which begins:

We live in a Gogol world. He may have died 150 years ago but his world is our world, a world of absurdities haunted by ghosts and government clerks, where people are victimized by committees and asylums, where rational insanities and irrational truths determine the course of lives. His writing remains modern not only because he avoids the archaic language that makes other writing of the era virtually unreadable, but because he deals in universal truths. Reading Gogol, we recognize characters, places and situations to the extent that the only difference between the streets we walk on our way to work and the frozen cobbled gas-lit streets of his St. Petersburg are aesthetics. We can stare out from the windows of our offices, our shops and our call centers and feel exactly what Gogol and his characters felt during the intolerable, endless office hours staring out onto the Neva River.

Read complete essay by Darran Anderson at LitKicks


I often write about the exhilaration I feel when one good book leads to another and another. After reading and enjoying Ticket to Minto, I interviewed the author, Sohrab Homi Fracis. He mentioned that he was pitching his novel-in-progress as “Jack Kerouac’s On the Road meets Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake.”  This piqued my interest in The Namesake. I picked it up at the public library and I must say, it’s a very good book. The main character is a young man who does not appreciate the fact that his parents named him Gogol, after the writer, Nikolai Gogol. Only later does he find out the full story behind his name. But we won’t go into that now. The book begins with a quote from Gogol’s short story, “The Overcoat.” Now I’m reading a collection of stories by Gogol on my iPhone, which I got from Kindle for only a couple of dollars. What a deal! Gogol is so cool that Vladimir Nabokov wrote a book about him, and that says a lot. 

eNotes tells us that  “The Overcoat”  is “both comic and horrific—at once a scathing social satire, moralistic fable, and psychological study” beginning with “the mundane and alienating world of a bureaucratic office in St. Petersburg . . . as the story progresses, we enter a fairy-tale world of supernatural revenge, where the clerk’s corpse is seen wandering city streets ripping coats off the backs of passersby.”

Read more at eNotes 

My Interview with Sohrab Fracis at LitKicks


“Imagine you have a friend name Rob,” says our instructor at the University of North Florida Writer’s Conference. “If you want to ask your friend a question, you might begin by saying, ‘So, Rob…’ and that is how to pronounce my first name.”

Sohrab Homi Fracis (“Fray-sis”) is the first Asian writer to win the prestigious Iowa Short Fiction Award. He received it in 2001 for his collection of short stories, Ticket to Minto: Stories of India and America. He resisted advice from publishers to combine the thematically related stories into a single novel, which they thought would be easier to sell. Fracis believed passionately that the stories stood strong and worked best as they were.

“And I was proven correct,” he says.

India Magazine calls the book, “Stunning in its breadth and scope of language and description … a fresh voice in South Asian fiction,” and adds, “One can grow tired of Rushdie wannabes, mother-in-law stereotypes, and village parodies. Fracis’s writing is brutally honest, exposing sinew and nerves and getting at the heart of the matter.”

Read the interview at Literary Kicks

Wadsworth Camp Revisited

I’m happy to know someone besides me is writing about Charles Wadsworth Camp, even if it was three years ago and I just found it yesterday.

Here’s a review by Mary Reed of  Camp’s novel, The Abandoned Room, courtesy of The Mystery File.

And in case you missed it, here are the results, so far, of my research. It’s not enough for the Master’s thesis I was hoping to write, but I’m still looking for more.

UNF Writer’s Conference: The Good Stuff

Good Stuff from the UNF Writer's Conference. I was like a kid coming home with goodies on Halloween night, but with fewer calories.

One of the main things I learned at the UNF Writer’s Conference was that indie publishers need to take quality very seriously.

Deborrah Hoag, editor of books, ebooks, academic papers, corporate publications, and more, said now that anyone can publish their work inexpensively, a glut of poorly written, carelessly edited books are giving all indies a bad name. She’s right, y’know.

Tony Timbol, author of Cybal Raven series, says, “Do not confuse the simplicity of electronic delivery with the complexity of the writing craft: publishing crap on the internet leaves an indelible electronic smell that will last a long time.” 

For me, the high point of the conference was the Critique Workshop. Instructor Sohrab Fracis is clearly dedicated to the craft of writing.  He has a teaching style that is both serious and fun, and I don’t believe I am exaggerating when I say that the tips and techniques he shared with our class are priceless. 

Finally, I met a lot of really cool people over the three days of the conference. Too many to name, but you all know who you are. All the people I interacted with in the workshops, at lunch, and elsewhere!

My first day’s schedule

Mystery Marsh

Mystery books by Glynn Marsh Alam

I came away from day two of the UNF Writer’s Workshop with a better understanding of the craft of writing. I feel exhilarated, but also a little tired. Tonight, in lieu of a lenthy blog entry, please allow me to share this link to the website of Glynn Marsh Alam, whose topic at the Conference was How to Keep Your Mystery Moving.

The Devil’s Generation: Bill’s Bookshelf No. 2

For the second installment of Bill’s Bookshelf, I’ve chosen another anthology, The Devil’s Generation (1973, Lancer Books, Inc.), edited by Vic Ghidalia. Each story involves kids, from an unborn baby to teenage punks and everything in between, but the book contains few, if any, actual stories about the devil. Satan was having a heyday in popular culture during the late 60s and early 70s, so the title was probably a way to cash in on that.

Hollywood was going through a phase in which they thought Frankenstein and Dracula were no longer scary, but that audiences could still be freaked out by Satanic themes. When Rosemary’s Baby came out in 1968, most of us knew Roman Polanski directed it, but the movie studio play down the fact that William Castle produced it, due to Castle’s past association with cheap, gimmicky films like The Tingler (1959) and Thirteen Ghosts (1960). I had just seen The Exorcist when I bought The Devil’s Generation, and I assumed Lancer Books was also cashing in on that blockbuster. But maybe not. The copyright date of Devil’s Generation is 1973. The Exorcist was released in December 1973. Maybe there was inside information, maybe not. Too close to call.

 By far, the best story in this collection is Call Him Demon, by Henry Kuttner, followed by The Other Wing, by Algernon Blackwood. I’ll save my commentary on those two tales until the end.

 The book features a number of authors who had become celebrities by 1973, but their stories here seem like knock-offs. For example, in 1971, Robert Silverberg won the Nebula Award for his novel, A Time of Change. His story in The Devil’s Generation anthology, Hole In the Air, first appeared in the January 1956 issue of Amazing and is no more than a variation on To Serve Man by Damon Knight, which first appeared in the November 1956 issue of Galaxy Science Fiction and became a well-known Twilight Zone episode in 1962.

The Richard Matheson also wrote a famous Twilight Zone episode, Nightmare At 20,000 Feet (the one about the Gremlin on the airplane wing with William Shatner). The Matheson selection in The Devil’s Generation is called Mother By Protest. It shares a few similarities with Rosemary’s Baby, but not as scary, and the pregnant woman discovers that she is  carrying the baby of a space alien instead of Satan’s child.

There isn’t much to say about Ray Bradbury’s story, Black Ferris, except for ‘How did it serve the story’s plot to have one of the kids sneak out of his house naked? Did the editor order up a carnival, a skeleton, and some nudity?’

Robert Bloch’s tale, Floral Arrangement, is about a mother and son who live in a house overlooking a cemetery. It first appeared in Weird Tales, eleven years before his more famous story about a mother and son living among taxidermied birds in the Bates Motel.

In The Place In the Woods, August Derleth attempts to do what M. R. James did much better in An Episode of Cathedral History; that is, use a mythological creature as the basis for a supernatural tale.  

Day of Truce, by Clifford D. Simak, begins promisingly and really held my attention with a build-up of suspense, but at the end, it fizzled out and didn’t go anywhere. It ended up as just one more meditation on man’s penchant for war.

I saved the best for last. Henry Kuttner’s Call Him Demon struck a chord in me as the most original and enjoyable of all the stories, allowing for suspension of disbelief and total immersion into the secret world of kids. These kids are aware that one of the adults in the house is not really what he seems, and his presence is somehow connected to a horrible meat-eating monster in another dimension, which can only be accessed through the dark, dusky attic.

About Henry Kuttner, Wikipedia tells us:

Marion Zimmer Bradley is among many authors who have cited Kuttner as an influence. Her novel The Bloody Sun is dedicated to him. Roger Zelazny has talked about the influence of The Dark World on his Amber series.

Kuttner’s friend Richard Matheson dedicated his 1954 novel I Am Legend to Kuttner, with thanks for his help and encouragement. Ray Bradbury likewise dedicated Dark Carnival, his first book, to him, calling him one of his hardest-working and most patient teachers; Bradbury has said that Kuttner actually wrote the last 300 words of Bradbury’s first horror story, “The Candle” (Weird Tales, November 1942). Bradbury has referred to Kuttner as a neglected master and a “pomegranate writer: popping with seeds — full of ideas”.[3]

William S. Burroughs‘s novel The Ticket That Exploded contains direct quotes from Kuttner regarding the “Happy Cloak” parasitic pleasure monster from the Venusian seas.

Finally, Algernon Blackwood’s The Other Wing is not scary, but it is such a nicely crafted, classic ghost story that I must give it a thumbs up.

Good Reading Ahead

Two books arrived in the mail yesterday!

Thomas Pynchon (1974, Warner Paperback Library), by Joseph W. Slade, is a detailed analysis of all Pynchon’s short stories and novels up through Gravity’s Rainbow, which was Pynchon’s most recent book at the time this study was written. In the preface, Slade’s list of prerequisites for studying Pynchon include, among others, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness,  T. S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Goethe’s Faust, and E. E. McKenzie’s The Major Achievements of Science.

In the forward to the Pynchon book, Terence Malley of Long Island University, Brooklyn, says, “It seems almost impossible that a writer still in his thirties could know so much, It is even more difficult to believe that any writer could assimilate so much in his fiction – and could treat it all with such authority . . . Genocidal war in South West Africa or arcane global diplomacy in Alexandria; how it feels to sit waiting for a V-2 rocket to land or how it feels to learn that beneath the taken-for-granted business-as –usual America an organized counter culture of losers may be operating . . .  ” 

The book is part of a series called Writers For the 70’s. Other titles in the series are Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. by Peter J. Reed,  Richard Brautigan by Terence Malley, Herman Hesse by Edwin F. Casebeer, and J.R.R. Tolkien by Robert Evans. So far I’ve read the Forward, Preface, and Chapter 1, and can’t wait to get back into it.

As soon as I finish the Pynchon book I’ll start reading Claudia Moscovici’s novel, Velvet Totalitarianism. Ken Kalfus calls the book “a taut political thriller, a meditation on totalitarianism, an expose of the Ceausescu regime, and a moving fictionalized memoir of one family’s quest for freedom”.

I first discovered Moscovici here on Literary Kicks, where she says:  

My first novel, Velvet Totalitarianism, took me about ten years to write. It took me so long partly because I wrote this book while also teaching literature and philosophy, writing scholarly books and raising a family. It took me a long time to write it also because I had to do a lot of historical research for it. When one works for so long on one book, the interrelated questions of motivation and intended audience become all the more relevant. As I was writing Velvet Totalitarianism, I asked myself often: why write historical fiction about the Cold War, an era which is now relegated mostly to history books? Why is the history of Romanian communism so important to me and whom do I hope to touch in writing fiction about it? An anecdote brought these questions into sharper focus.

Read entire LitKicks article


Morbid Fascination

Via Literary Kicks, here’s an interview with Michael Largo, author of  “Final Exits: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of How We Die“, “Genius and Heroin: The Illustrated Catalogue of Creativity, Obsession, and Reckless Abandon Through the Ages” and “God’s Lunatics: Lost Souls, False Prophets, Martyred Saints, Murderous Cults, Demonic Nuns, and Other Victims of Man’s Eternal Search for the Divine“. 

Levi: Looking at your three books together, I see … death, creative self-destruction and religious fanaticism. I have some idea what I think might be the common denominaton between all three, but I’d love to hear what you think the common denominator might be.

Michael: Please tell me what it is. I only know that death is extremely fascinating. A life, a person’s story, cannot be complete without it. It is interesting to write the stories of the dead when knowing the beginning, middle, and end. Thematically, there is a Dylan Thomas rage against the “dying of the light,” but of a brand that requires going to the edge of the cliff, not over it. There is a “Hail Mary Full of Nada” denominator, I imagine, but not so serious. More like being locked in a fun house. By in all, there is this lingering suspicion that life is a meaningless proposition, so what else is there to do but create something that might matter, might be remembered, and if nothing else, at least entertain.

Read entire article