A Modern Genre Novel: Labyrinth (2019) by Catherine Coulter

Catherine Coulter is one of those powerhouse writers whose oeuvre is comprised of 85 novels and counting. Her novel Labyrinth was published in 2019 and is part of a series that follows Savich and Sherlock, a pair of FBI agents who happened to be married. This particular novel is an oddity in that two different plots are developed, but are curiously intertwined by themes of family and the different kinds of family life that are described, apart from the essence of deception that ties everything all together.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is one of the more popular agencies that writers of crime fiction like to tap in to, because of the realism it provides to the stories being told.

Coulter’s two plots are launched into action in media res: a wonderfully described car accident directs the course of the first plot-line. And what are the odds that the perpetrators of the accident just so happen to be involved in a scheme of international intrigue? It’s very delicious and mind-tickling, considering that the accident victim is none other than Agent Sherlock herself, who proceeds to experience a case of retrograde amnesia. From this point another plot-path forms from out of the woodwork: in a different part of the country, one of Agent Sherlock’s associates encounters a crime-in-progress, and it’s through the connective force of an FBI camaraderie that the two stories are interwoven.

But if the notion of two plots isn’t enough to dazzle a reader, leave it to a master-of-the-craft like Coulter to introduce supernatural elements to spice up the game. Psychic powers are introduced and mind-control concepts are layered in so that the whole of the novel starts to bear the semblance of a gigantic chocolate cake, dripping with chocolate icing and syrup, topped with fresh strawberries. In truth, it does seem a little much, but it’s highly entertaining, and I believe this is entirely the point.

Imagine a novel that is so enticing and delicious you could reach out and eat it like a cake.

Many people the world over believe that psychic powers are a natural, very realistic phenomenon.

Much has been written about the differences between “genre” writing and that which may be considered “literature,” to the extent that it tends to generate controversy. For someone like Coulter, I don’t think it really matters, her résumé speaks for itself. As a reader, what I noticed most was that no matter how much a person was described “tossing their keys in the air,” or that I got to visualize “cute little dog ears over the side of a food bowl,” or that I encountered myriad variations on the “painting of her toenails” — I didn’t find myself caring as much about the characters as I did the plot. I kept glossing over phrases and whizzing through sentences so that I could hurry to the end of the book, so that I could find out what all the fuss was about. In this fashion, one thing I most certainly noticed was the difference between how long it took to read Mary Shelley’s The Last Man (1826) and Coulter’s Labyrinth: around 22 days to read the one, about 8 hours to read the other.

Another noticeable thing were the continuous descriptions of FBI agents reputed to be astonishingly “good-looking.” Agent Savich is depicted as seriously in-shape and great to look at; Agent Sherlock is quite the looker, known to her husband for wearing tiger-striped underclothes; their colleague Agent Hammersmith is something of a living god of whom, women apparently get hot and heavy when they see him; and wouldn’t you know it — the girl he saves just so happens to have the looks of a supermodel. When the task force assembles to fill in the blanks of a later scene, it’s like we’re being treated to a law enforcement team that was formed from a workout club in Los Angeles. No less than four of these individuals have some kind of telepathic power, not counting the antagonist, and so it strays a little into the theater of the absurd; and yet it also feels a little like being drawn into superhero territory, the FBI being the people we can count on to give us hope. Alternatively, the details of their good looks, I believe, is quite naturally intentional, the goal being to make the experience feel as though it’s all playing out on television, which is part of the appeal of genre writing.

From Emmy Award winner Dick Wolf and the team behind FBI and the “Law & Order” franchise, FBI: MOST WANTED is a high-stakes drama that focuses on the Fugitive Task Force, which relentlessly tracks and captures the notorious criminals on the Bureau’s Most Wanted list. Seasoned agent Jess LaCroix oversees the highly skilled team that functions as a mobile undercover unit that is always out in the field, pursuing those who are most desperate to elude justice. Series premieres Tuesday, Jan. 7 (10:00-11:00 PM, ET/PT) on the CBS Television Network. Pictured (L-R) Kellan Lutz as Kenny Crosby, Keisha Castle-Hughes as Hana Gibson, Roxy Sternberg as Sheryll Barnes, Julian McMahon as Jess LaCroix and Nathaniel Arcand as Clinton Skye Photo: Mark SchaferCBS ©2019 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved

At one point, members of the team end up at the CIA building in Langley, Virginia, where I was intrigued to have KRYPTOS brought to my attention. KRYPTOS is a sculptured cryptogram created by the American artist, Jim Sanborn.

“Since its dedication on November 3, 1990, there has been much speculation about the meaning of the four encrypted messages it bears. Of these four messages, the first three have been solved, while the fourth message remains one of the most famous unsolved codes in the world. The sculpture continues to be of interest to cryptanalysts, both amateur and professional, who are attempting to decipher the fourth passage. The artist has so far given three clues to this passage” (Source).

I run the risk of spoiling Coulter’s book if I analyze too much of it, since it’s relatively new, but I also get the feeling that if I did, it might be like trying to analyze a mini-series from the Rockford Files (1974-80). I mean, why would you want to do that? Not every published beast needs to undergo critical scrutiny; sometimes it’s nice just to have fun and let the words fly. Catherine Coulter’s novel is perfect for doing this, though it should be noted that her career is like a wannabe author’s dream. She’s in that position the woeful writers of the world, whose manuscripts rot away in the slush piles of publishing companies in and around New York City, imagine they’ll be in someday when that prized contract finally comes through. Coulter is the real deal, and I’m sure the day will come when I find myself blazing through another one of her fine crime thrillers.

In fact, as I’m always trying to balance out the tendencies I have for reading historic literature, I may as well fit Coulter’s novel into the list of contemporary works I’ve managed to read thus far:

Red Dragon (1981) by Thomas Harris
The Body Farm (1994) by Patricia Cornwell
Pure Instinct (1995) by Robert Walker
Black Lightning (1995) by John Saul
The Poet (1996) by Michael Connelly
Lake of Dead Languages (2002) by Carol Goodman
Sharp Objects (2006) by Gillian Flynn
Labyrinth (2019) by Catherine Coulter

Harris’s book is the one I remember being riveted by the most, probably because I’m a character/atmosphere person; a view into the life of Francis Dolarhyde is something I will never forget.

The Body Farm will always stick in my memory for the novel idea that bodies were left to rot in the open for the purposes of conducting forensic science.

Pure Instinct draws forth memories of a nasty serial killer, mad Matthew Matisak, and the terror he instilled into the poor woman trying to conduct her investigation.

John Saul’s Black Lightning is impossible to forget because the killer was the only one I ever learned about who stripped naked to commit his crimes, after shaving his whole body, committing his acts on vast sheets of clear plastic; truly demented.

The Poet is memorable for precisely just how unmemorable it is, but I believe there were poetry quotes throughout the book.

Carol Goodman gets a bad wrap for this book, and it is just so wrong because it has everything I love: snow and frozen lakes, suspicious characters, dank gothic atmosphere, and plenty of mystery.

How can anyone forget the look of Amy Adams as she drives around the Mid-west with her spaced-out, alcoholic gaze? It’s because I saw the show before I read the book, so memorable.

And, of course, Labyrinth is the latest addition to this excellent genre list, because it has dueling plots — and nothing short of a matriarch with Force-powers.

The Last Man: Character List

The Last Man (1826) is framed by an introductory passage, written by someone who is presumably a man. During a touristy day amid the ruins of Baiae, across the bay from Naples, Italy, at the Cave of Cumaean Sybil, this man and his companion find deep within the cave poetry that is written on “leaves, bark, and other substances.” The companion states they have found “Sibylline leaves,” i.e. poetry that has been written by a “sybil” — “One of a number of women regarded as oracles or prophets by the ancient Greeks and Romans.” The man takes it upon himself to collect and organize the material into a coherent narrative.

The first-person narrative that follows is written by Lionel Verney, son to a courtly man fallen on hard times. When he and his sister are orphaned, he maintains a vigilant relationship with her as they grow up. Life amid the climes of poverty make Lionel “angry, impatient, miserable…wild and rude,” much to the extent that sometimes he ends up in jail. His personality changes when his vindictive nature is confronted by the docile and peaceful tendencies of a young nobleman named Adrian. The relationship they form ushers Lionel into a state of maturity that seemingly prepares him for the pandemic-catastrophe that is to come.

Verney’s Father was an intelligent, personable person who came from a noble family with connections to the king of England, which proffered him friendship with the prince. By the time the prince himself became king, Verney’s father was welcome among fashionable society, for his vivaciousness and witticism. In time he grew careless with his finances, based on a gambling addiction, though the king continued to reverence their relationship. But the man became increasingly unreliable as a human being, falling in with continued dissipation such that the queen, aka Princess of Austria, Countess of Windsor, came to dislike him. After a bout of heavy gambling, Verney’s father self-exiled himself to Cumberland, where the “daughter of a poor cottager” nursed him in his despair; he married this cottager and with her had two children. Before he died from the pressures of rural family life, he sent a letter to his old friend the king, hoping for help for his family — a letter that somehow ended up lost in the shuffle.

Verney’s Mother came from an emigrant family of the peasant classes — they were “outcasts, paupers, unfriended beings.” Though she was tender and sweet, she forever remained “poorer than the poorest.” She died when Lionel was five years old, committing into his care that of his younger sister, Perdita.

Perdita had “golden hair clustered on her temples, contrasting its rich hue with the living marble beneath.” She was three years younger than Lionel and as she grew up, the problem of poverty and not having actual parents made her distrustful and reclusive. The intensity of her particular life-dramas came critically to destabilize her mental health, causing her to make irrational decisions that lead to her demise.

Adrian, Second Earl of Windsor: “every one admires and loves him.” He would’ve been king of England had not his father abdicated the throne. He befriended Lionel after catching him in the act of trespassing, from which a devoted friendship formed. From a phenomenon sometimes referred to as “calf love,” Adrian was thrown into a mental quagmire of depression; he gets through with Lionel’s help. Adrian’s kingly heritage, with his mind — “gifted as it was by every natural grace, endowed with transcendant powers of intellect, unblemished by the shadow of defect” — are what situate him as the appropriate leader when the world begins to crumble. He is the only one of the group who never marries.

The “beauteous” Idris, Adrian’s younger sister by two years, was a “frank and confiding” woman. She was a target for marriage by those seeking to restore the monarchy, including her scheming mother the Countess. Idris exudes elegance because of her rank and beauty, but is largely humble in her character; she marries Lionel and together they have three children, the middle of which unfortunately died.

The Countess of Windsor is defined by stereotypical definitions of the aristocracy. She wasn’t happy that her husband abdicated the throne; she wanted the monarchy restored because she desired power; she schemed to keep her daughter from marrying Lionel, knowing that it would compromise her restoration hopes; and she continued her condescending attitude towards Lionel until circumstances dictated how useless it was to keep behaving that way.

Princess Evadne was the daughter of Prince Zaimi, ambassador to England from the free States of Greece. Her father was often a guest at Windsor Castle as a “partizan” to the Countess, through which the lovely Evadne became accustomed to English life. She exerts “feminine prudence” in her rejection of Adrian’s love, but meets with curious irony when her situation devolves to the very level of despair that he went through earlier on.

Lord Raymond was the “sole remnant of a noble but impoverished family.” He comes across as highly self-confident in his mannerisms, entertaining at one point the interests of all three women in the novel. His political acumen is offset by his ego, by which he finds himself abandoning his post as England’s Protector. “Festivity, and even libertinism, became the order of the day.” His egotism functions as a form of nobility that the soldiery views as worthy of devotion, yet it’s the romanticized version of himself that seems to evoke tragedies that could have otherwise been avoided, this being his fate and the fate of Perdita.

Clara was Perdita and Raymond’s daughter, the only child of the group to make it to her teen years. Because she’s the eldest of the children, she was not an “ordinary child; her sensibility and intelligence seemed already to have endowed her with the rights of womanhood.” Clara’s mind was tainted by the traumas instilled by life as the pandemic came to pass, mainly in the loss of her parents, but she is referenced as being a source of hope every time she’s noticed or observed by the group, even as the plague continues to shut down life as it’s known all around.

Alfred was the eldest child to Idris and Lionel. Before he is actually named in the narrative, the children are viewed as “little darlings” that bring joy and happiness to their lives. At age nine, Alfred is an “upright, manly little fellow, with radiant brow, soft eyes, and gentle, though independent disposition.” He owns a pet eagle and is close with Clara, next to whom he spends the final moments of his life.

Evelyn, a “laughing cherub, a gamesome infant, without idea of pain or sorrow, would, shaking back his light curls from his eyes, make the halls re-echo with his merriment, and in a thousand artless ways attract our attention to his play.” He was the third youngest child to Idris and Lionel; as others within the group proceed to die, Evelyn keeps Clara busy because of his extreme youth, such that she begins to feel towards him like a mother.

Ryland appears as a political figure. He was the “leader of the popular party, a hard-headed man, and in his way eloquent.” His politics were anti-monarchist but his personality contained traits of instability under pressure: his end comes with evidence of selfish hoarding.

Merrival was a “little old astronomer” who was often found participating in conversations in and around the political scene at London and Windsor Castle. Like Ryland, the effects of the plague drew forth emotions of weakness, such that he forgoes his own family in a case of plague-induced madness.

Lucy Martin was originally from a lower-middle-class family, but was forced to marry to solve problems of “disastrous poverty.” She endured the pain of domestic violence until the man died; after her mother’s passing, and before her own, she had “devoted herself throughout to the nursing of the sick, and attending the friendless.”

Juliet was the daughter of the Duke of L——. Her family wiped out by plague, she falls in with the Prophet-Impostor when the survival-emigrant group splits into factions. Even though Lionel tried to help her out of her predicament, she suffers personally nevertheless by the actions of this false-messiah.

The Prophet-Impostor came into being when the division of emigrants took place in Paris. His angle was the use of religion; as a cult leader he came to elicit unnecessary tension for the sake of basking in the power of controlling others. “It is likely that he was fully aware of the lie which murderous nature might give to his assertions, and believed it to be the cast of a die, whether he should in future ages be reverenced as an inspired delegate from heaven, or be recognized as an impostor by the present dying generation.”

Disease in Literature: Reminders from the Past

The current crisis unfolding across the world is one of those things, it seems, we humans are plainly not going to avoid. As we stack ourselves upon the technologies that make us feel kingly, Mother Nature always steps in to show us who’s boss. Have we learned from the mistakes of our past when it comes to disease and viral outbreaks? (a.k.a. contagion, pestilence) Or are the qualities of these malicious entities simply and purely inextinguishable, no matter the defense we enlist against them? Whichever way the wind may blow, the literary arts have taken note.

Mayhem in Pieter Bruegel’s The Triumph of Death (1562).

Thucydides wrote about the “Pestilence at Athens” (430 B.C.E) in his History of the Peloponnesian War (431–404 B.C.E.). “‘The account of the plague of Athens written by Thucydides is one of the most vivid and terrible pieces of writing in all literature.’ Many years later Lucretius (c.98-55 B.C.) converted the record of Thucydides into Latin hexameter verse in his great poem, ‘On the Nature of Things.’ And it is safe to say that all later accounts of the plague of Athens are built around the story of Thucydides” (Source).

In Dante’s Inferno (1320), Canto 29 brings us to the Eighth Circle of Hell (Malebolge — “evil ditches”), where Bolgia 10 contains various fraudulent types who are suffering from terrible, plague-type disease. Here the notion not only foreshadows events to come, but seems to ask the question: Does the human race need to be visited by plague?

Virgil and Dante at Bolgia 10, by Gustave Doré.

The Decameron (1353) by Giovanni Boccaccio is a frame narrative in which a group of young people seek safety from the Black Death as it ravages the town of Florence, Italy. They tell stories to pass the time and their behavior reflects the modern medical advice to avoid large gatherings.

Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (1400) features “The Pardoner’s Tale.” After a corpse is rolled past a tavern, a boy is asked of whom it was the unlucky person; the boy goes on to describe:

“And he was slain, all suddenly, last night,
When drunk, as he sat on his bench upright;
An unseen thief, called Death, came stalking by,
Who hereabouts makes all the people die,
And with his spear he dove his heart in two
And went his way and made no more ado.
He’s slain a thousand with this pestilence;
And, master, ere you come in his presence,
It seems to me to be right necessary
To be forewarned of such an adversary:
Be ready to meet him for evermore.”

An entry dated June 7, 1666 from The Diary of Samuel Pepys (1660-1670) reads: “This day, much against my will, I did in Drury Lane see two or three houses marked with a red cross upon the doors, and ‘Lord have mercy upon us’ writ there; which was a sad sight to me, being the first of the kind that, to my remembrance, I ever saw.”

Daniel Defoe wrote the Journal of the Plague Year (1722), in which he describes quack doctors trying to profit (or maybe help) during the London Plague: “It is incredible, and scarce to be imagined, how the posts of houses and corners of streets were plastered over with doctors’ bills and papers of ignorant fellows, quacking and tampering in physic, and inviting the people to come to them for remedies, which was generally set off with such flourishes as these, viz.: ‘Infallible preventive pills against the plague.’ ‘Never-failing preservatives against the infection.’ ‘Sovereign cordials against the corruption of the air.’ ‘Exact regulations for the conduct of the body in case of an infection.’ ‘Anti-pestilential pills.’ ‘Incomparable drink against the plague, never found out before.’ etc.”

A quack doctor is someone who peddles medicine that is not real; but during the olden days, people were far less-informed. Painting by anonymous.

La Miseria by Cristóbal Rojas (1886).

The problem of tuberculosis for the longest time was described as people suffering from “consumption.” In Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847), Jane’s childhood friend Helen Burns dies from the disease, thankfully without infecting her best friend; Paul Dombey meets with a similar fate in Dombey and Sons (1848), by Charles Dickens. Bessy Higgins from Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South (1854) and Fantine from Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables (1862) succumb in much the same way; and in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment (1866), Katerina Ivanovna’s experience is chilling, her nightmarish life unfolding while “coughing and spitting blood too.” Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death” (1842) is superb for the way it shows that not even the well-to-do can escape the clutches of an infectious disease like tuberculosis.

One of Ours (1922) by Willa Cather offers depictions of the Spanish Flu pandemic; it won a Pulitzer Prize. Pale Horse, Pale Rider (1939) was written by Katherine Anne Porter, who actually endured that flu; she writes, “Pain returned, a terrible compelling pain running through her veins like heavy fire, the stench of corruption filled her nostrils…she opened her eyes and saw pale light through a coarse, white cloth over her face, knew that the smell of death was in her own body, and struggled to lift her hand.” Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was (2013), by the Icelandic writer Sjón, is set historically against the backdrop of 1918 Reykjavik, where Spanish Flu wreaks its havoc with abandon.

Spanish Flu Epidemic 1918-19. U.S. school gymnasium converted into a flu ward where patient beds are separated by screens and masked health workers. An estimated 25% of the US population contracted the flu and over 500,000 died. (CP/Courtesy of Everett Collection)

The Plague (1947) by Albert Camus considers an outbreak of cholera and The Andromeda Strain (1969) by Michael Crichton portends a viral threat that could come from outer space; Love in the Time of Cholera (1985) by Gabriel García Márquez revisits the topic of cholera as it affects a city in South America, where the streets had been “decayed” and “rat-infested.”

Matters really get out of control in World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War (2006) by Max Brooks, who apparently wonders if it’s possible that a plague might turn people into rabid, infectious zombies; Vladimir Sorokin’s The Blizzard (2010) does much the same thing, the situation in this case being, Mother Nature’s microscopic threat is not the only thing stifling the lives of human beings.

People in Resident Evil (2002) are infected with the T-virus.

A completely empty San Marco Square in Venice on Monday (3/9/2020), after Italy enforced travel restrictions to try to contain the worst outbreak in Europe.

Literary art provides a space for documenting humanity that matter-of-fact documentation cannot; it reveals how the large-scale spread of disease can affect lives at the level of the individual, with personalized introspection. But even as the phenomenon might make for compelling reading, if you happen to be reading during this potentially dangerous time, please remember to wash your hands regularly; read up on what you can do to play a part in protecting the lives of those whom you love as well as the common stranger. Together we can get through this, to show that pandemics don’t have to run the gamut of our lives. Ultimately speaking, please be safe out there, with love and care, yours truly.

A view of the entrance to the Louvre, Paris, France (3/2/2020). Getty Images

The Narrative of Frederick Douglass

The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845) is an incisive, soul-piercing document. It reaches for your heart with the sincerest intention of ripping it out still-beating from the chest. Even for the most die-hard atheist, it’s hard not to see this testimony as a work brought into existence by the powers of the supernatural. The details are too excruciating; to think that it wasn’t part of some nightmarish dream, that it really happened, is why it seems only divine providence could have intervened, to institute the agency of documentation against the industrialized-scale horrors men are capable of creating, to lay the groundwork for bringing it to an end.

Douglass’s Narrative calls attention to the power of the first-person form and in his particular case, the very substance of what it means to stretch a reader’s credulity. William Lloyd Garrison writes, “It is, therefore, entirely his own production; and, considering how long and dark was the career he had to run as a slave,—how few have been his opportunities to improve his mind since he broke his iron fetters,—it is, in my judgment, highly creditable to his head and heart.” In his opinion the work is “essentially true” and in sum, this is all to suggest that the account is simply — very hard to believe — and that, in order for the readers of his era to believe it, he had to offer a seal of approval so as to get the ball rolling.

The text is one that tends to balk at analytical criticism because of the readerly tendency to wince in dismay as the tale unfolds. It is thematic material to the nth degree, pertaining to the worst of themes considerable to the human race. For the year of its release, the material is shocking, but we can thank the passing of time for uncovering “most” of what went on and presenting it to the public. In that regard, while there is no element of Southern State Slavery that is less or more inhumane over the other, one particular element glows with the intensity of pure evil.

When Douglass relays in but a few sentences how a man named Mr. Thomas murdered one of his slaves, only to boast about it later “laughingly,” the terseness of describing this act-of-the-despicable overpowers what any full-length novel of fiction could ever hope to achieve. The murder of Demby takes up the whole of a solitary paragraph, but we are left with feelings of perplexity that will last for all time. The actions of Mrs. Hicks, who kills a slave-girl with a log, challenges our naturally held beliefs about women, and Mr. Bondly’s actions define him as someone lost from the realms of humanity.

This kind of reading is blistering to the mind because of the brevity of each linguistic moment. Douglass has no desire to craft passages that will draw admiration for his skill as a writer; these are indictments against a system. It forces people to think about what the system does, not only to the people suffering, but as well to its proponents, which is a part of Douglass’s message. I’m inclined to think of the Milgram Experiments, which exposes one of the scariest aspects of being human, dictating that when a person is not completely in touch with the “reality of reality” at any given time, they can be duped into behaving immorally under the guidance of scripted information that is being directed into their minds.

Douglass actually touches on a variable of these experiments when he describes Mr. Hopkins as a man who “whipped, but seemed to take no pleasure in it.” This is a man whose subconscious is grappling with the tension that extends between the (perceived) duty of his enterprise and the feeling that it may not be right. A woman like Mrs. Hicks, by contrast, has come to feel practically comfortable committing a heinous crime, because she isn’t entirely aware of the localized and greater effects of her behavior; she’s only aware that other people are doing it too. Mrs. Hicks is not a psychopath, she’s been conditioned by a mode of thinking that views slavery as an acceptable part of a system of government; it is a mode of thinking that goes deep into the psyche of humankind, archetypal, stretching well into ancient times and beyond. Thankfully, the Milgram Experiments show that every once in while, a person will question the morality of what is happening and actually defy the orders given. But as we have seen, as played out in the Civil War, the deeper that the structure of a thought-system is ingrained into a larger social consciousness, the harder it is to set matters straight.

Murder is the ultimate inhumanity; it is permanent erasure. In the case as it plays out in the slavery narrative, words can’t fully do justice as to how perverse it really is with regard to the core of humanity; but Douglass delivers more that is certain to have readers reaching for extra tissue. He describes an old woman of whom, “her frame already racked with the pains of old age, and complete helplessness fast stealing over her once active limbs, they took her to the woods, built her a little hut, put up a little mud-chimney, and then made her welcome to the privilege of supporting herself there in perfect loneliness.” They may as well have ended her life, and this highlights the psychological damage that is as crushing as the physical; she’s been sentenced literally to die of sadness. We hear of the voices of those who “would make the dense old woods, for miles around, reverberate with their wild songs,” and we are complete in our privy to the terrors of cause and effect at the most intimate levels. The soul-sickness of believing slavery is acceptable, pervasive throughout the social consciousness of the South, has its inversion in the tormented consciousness of their subjects.

Douglass tells us how it was all kept in order. By allowing time-off between Christmas and New Year’s Day, the vacation was meant to be seen as a gift, “to carry off the rebellious spirit of enslaved humanity.” Whiskey was provided along with provisions for a celebratory atmosphere, giving the impression that freedom was in the midst. “[W]hen the holidays ended, we staggered up from the filth of our wallowing, took a long breath, and marched to the field, — feeling, upon the whole, rather glad to go, from what our master had deceived us into a belief was freedom, back to the arms of slavery.” The process was meant to serve as a “safety-valve” to prevent uprising, a continuous source of anxiety for plantation owners, and what we have is a concocted system of control. (It’s worth noting that Douglass’s experience is based on life in Maryland, where states further south of the Mason/Dixon line such as Georgia, Alabama, and Louisiana were viewed, by rumor and with dread, as inexplicably worse.)

Can we believe that these acts of mind-manipulation occurred during the Christmas holiday? Douglass addresses the topic of religion point-blank, telling it like it is, calling b*llsh*t when he sees it. The “hypocritical Christian” paradox is threaded throughout much of his testimony. Not only did slaveholders propagate ongoing misery, but reverends and devout men of God are described as capable of committing the most vile acts, all within the omnipresence of a holy lord. This is one that defies even the results of the Milgram Experiments, because the messages of the New Testament do not appear to condone the brutality described. There is no authoritative voice instructing slave owners and people of the South to inflict this kind of pain. Douglass drives the point home, how the institution of slavery taints both the souls of those suffering and the people who conduct it as a way of life.

Easing the matter with the slightest edge of optimism, the passion with which Frederick Douglass sought to educate himself is marveling to absorb. He wrote alphabetic letters on fences with chalk and conned neighborhood kids to teach him various things from books. It shows how neglecting our intrinsic need to learn, by some happenstance biologically-neurological process, can cause the mind itself to formulate a “mind of its own” so as to overcome mental stagnancy. In light of the tremendous skill with which Douglass wields the English language, had not the horrors of slavery been so foremost in his thoughts, great novels could’ve been written by this man. He employs literary devices with ease, the most prominent one being a sort of parallel-inverse play on words to denote circumstances and situations that are flagrantly inexorable. The opening chapters, for example, bring us to Douglass’s aunt, whose master “would whip her to make her scream, and whip her to make her hush.” His nemesis, the overseer Mr. Covey, was fiendish about his job: “The longest days were too short for him, and the shortest nights too long for him.” This kind of writing reflects an absolute presence and connection with the thematic material such that readers are seemingly doubly-smacked by the points of detail.

If there is any one passage that thoroughly expresses the sorrow and the longing, the integrity and the injustice of Douglass’s experience, the moment when he realizes what’s really going on is where the totality of all that is wrong is entirely defined. “Those beautiful vessels, robed in purest white, so delightful to the eye of freemen, were to me so many shrouded ghosts, to terrify and torment me with thoughts of my wretched condition.” Moments like these speak to the deepest recesses of our souls because they circumscribe the meaning of entire lifetimes, the case here being, the difference between what it means to be free and what it means to be shackled in chains. Frederick Douglass is a man whose life was singled-out and extracted by the ardent sense of purpose he was able to seize, and the world will be a better place for it, for as long as we have his narrative to remind us how it all really happened.

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Christmas Banquet

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story “The Christmas Banquet” derives from a notebook entry of his, circa 1836-37, later to be revised and published in the Democratic Review in 1844 (Cody 1), where it ultimately finds its way into a collection of tales entitled Mosses from an Old Manse (1846). Google Books has the story listed as being randomly published in 2017, by someone unknown from CreateSpace, who characterizes Hawthorne’s content as “VERY funny,” with sections that read “sharp and hilarious” (Source). This perception of the story is something to ponder, testament to the quirkiness of reader-response theory in that Hawthorne’s story reads as anything but a literary piece at which to laugh.

The premise concerns a man named Roderick, his wife Rosina, and a sculptor, as they consider the description of a person, or a group of people, who are a “hopeless puzzle.” In this day and age when storytelling is mired in the sheer demand for plot, Hawthorne’s piece reads more like an article from a pre-Freudian psychiatric journal; its linguistic, descriptive power propels it into what has been anachronistically termed an “allegory of the heart.” To read the piece in the modern age is to understand it as a meditation on the phenomenon of clinical depression.

In the attempt to describe the “hopeless puzzle,” the character of Roderick draws on a manuscript in his possession. It outlines the story of a man who seeks to define society’s depressive types by creating an annual Christmastime banquet that invites “ten of the most miserable persons that could be found.” The element of interest considers how the man’s estate continues to fund the banquet, and how his skeletal remains are displayed at the head of the table at each subsequent gathering. This man had been noted for his “melancholy eccentricity” when he was alive; his purpose in founding the banquet reads as follows:

“It seemed not to be the testator’s purpose to make these half a score of sad hearts merry, but to provide that the stern or fierce expression of human discontent should not be drowned, even for that one holy and joyful day, amid the acclamations of festal gratitude which all Christendom sends up. And he desired, likewise, to perpetuate his own remonstrance against the earthly course of Providence, and his sad and sour dissent from those systems of religion or philosophy which either find sunshine in the world or draw it down from heaven.”

Much of the reading is spent poring over the details of the many different guests, year after year, ten per year, how wretched they are in their lives. And with the figure of death at the head of the table, the whole thing comes off as rather an exercise in anthropological cynicism. But there is beauty in everything Hawthorne creates, “dark beauty” as Herman Melville might’ve called it. A character by the name of Gervayse Hastings is introduced as the foil to depression, and he is a representative of the worst of all human conditions known to mankind: the state of being indifferent. Through this character, by the end of the narrative, we come to feel relieved that we as readers are not icicles of society, that no matter how sketchy things can get, it’s the ability to feel that is most important.

Themes vary from this point. For Hawthorne’s time, the text is a sketch that introduces the subject of mental health as a social issue to be addressed. Considering the era’s lack of research, the idea that a person was expected to mask their psychological problems is evident. Roderick suggests: “He [the depressive] looks like a man; and, perchance, like a better specimen of man than you ordinarily meet.” This translates in our day and age into the notion that clinical depression is a condition to be recognized, diagnosed and treated. The need to wear a mask is no longer necessary as modern society strives to de-stigmatize conditions of mental illness, psychological or psychiatric.

Some of the banquet’s invites appear to have entirely given up on life, and we are meant to consider that in reality, Quixotic ideals can be useful. To realize a dream is to follow through on that dream no matter the amount of failure we might face. As Thomas Edison once put it: “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” People are often quick to give up on goals when they become frustrated trying to achieve them, which in turn leads to the passage of time, depression, and the notion that a person may have never been good enough in the first place. Perseverance, then, is the way to keep the devils of depression at bay.

Other dinner guests have lost themselves in the hectic, hustle and bustle of getting through life; there is contemporary Thoreauvian philosophy to read into this. Henry David Thoreau suggested that people not forget their connection with nature, and to seek out that connection to bring spiritual health to the mind and body. Getting caught up in the game of living to get by is merely to survive; balancing our responsibilities and necessities with our deeper and divine selves, preferably by seeking to be in tune with nature, leans more towards harmony.

Additionally, the Banquet highlights the statistical probability that not everyone is a joyous chap during the holiday season. The presence of such pervasive festivity can bring on the harbingers of depressive, even suicidal ideation in those who have no family, nowhere to go, no one to turn to in times of focalized loneliness. The season of peace demands that we consider the plight of those who are less fortunate or alone, possibly even to entertain the notion of lending a comforting, helping hand or a moment of our time.

The curiosity is that somehow, the crafting of literary dread is how Hawthorne ignites these underlying themes of constructive positivity. Again we have the art of literature performing work for the greater social good, of which Hawthorne was an indisputable master. Here is the author who brought us Hester Prynne, America’s beloved heroine of the Puritan Age, Miles Coverdale, professed supporter of women’s rights, and Young Goodman Brown, whose experience encourages us to keep a careful eye on our leaders. “The Christmas Banquet” may be weighty thematic material for someone who isn’t used to peering into the abyss of human despair, so condensed and refined as it is in such a short space of writing; yet it’s Hawthorne’s keen eye for the human condition paired with his genius skill for language that has scholars continuing to examine exactly what it is, the difference between a standard story of plot and that which constitutes a unique specimen of literature.

Cody, David. “Invited Guests at Hawthorne’s ‘Christmas Banquet’: Sir Thomas Browne and Jeremy Taylor.” Modern Language Studies, vol. 11, no. 1, 1980, pp. 17–26. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3194164.