Sunday, May 31, 2015

Soul Cages & Batting Cages

How Life Imitates the World Series by Thomas Boswell (1976-1981; collected 1982): Thomas Boswell became one of our two or three greatest regular chroniclers of baseball in the mid-1970s when he was about 30 and has continued as such ever since. He manages something extraordinarily rare in sports writing -- a mix of the poetic and the carefully observed normative. 

He's also extremely but unfussily literate in these essays, most of them stories and columns for the Washington Post. And while he's a poetic fellow, he's also statistically inclined. One of the stories included herein has Boswell introduce one of the first new baseball stats in years at the time, Total Average, as a better indicator of baseball hitting greatness than the batting average, on-base percentage, or slugging percentage.

As these essays were written in the late 1970's and early 1980's, they at times shine a light on a baseball world that's still dominated by players that include Reggie Jackson and Pete Rose, and managers that include Earl Weaver. These and others are profiled sympathetically but occasionally critically by Boswell. So, too, owners, innovators, Cuban baseball, the enigmatic Steve Carlton, Boswell's own history in baseball, the vanishing adult hard-ball leagues which are being supplanted by softball leagues, the care and feeding of baseball bats, and many other topics. Boswell's style is a joy to read, and his subject matter never disappoints in the general or the specific. Highly recommended.

The Wild Night Company: Irish Tales of Terror (1971): edited by Peter Haining, containing the following stories: 

A Wild Night in Galway (1959) by Ray Bradbury
'Hell Fire' [Section of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916)] by James Joyce
Julia Cahill's Curse (1903) by George Moore
Legends of Witches, Fairies and Leprechauns (1919) by Lady Wilde
Teig O'Kane and the Corpse (1918) by Traditional
The Banshee's Warning (1862) by Charlotte Riddell
The Canterville Ghost (1887) by Oscar Wilde 
The Coonian Ghost (1970) by Shane Leslie
The Crucifixion of the Outcast (1897) by William Butler Yeats
The Dead Smile (1899) by F. Marion Crawford
The Fairies' Revenge (1970) by Sinead de Valera
The Friendly Demon (1726) by Daniel Defoe
The Haunted Spinney (1904) by Elliott O'Donnell
The House Among the Laurels (1910) by William Hope Hodgson
The Legend of Finn M'Coul (1830) by William Carleton
The Man from Kilsheelan (1923) by A. E. Coppard
The Man Wolf (1970) by Giraldus Cambrensis
The Moon-Bog (1926) by H. P. Lovecraft
The Parracide's Tale (1820) [Section of Melmoth the Wanderer (1820)] by Charles Maturin 
The Soul Cages (1825) by Thomas Crofton Croker
Wicked Captain Walshawe of Wauling (1864) by J. Sheridan Le Fanu
Witch Wood (1947) by Lord Dunsany

One of those many Peter Haining-edited anthologies with a fundamental problem in the title. These are tales by or about the Irish. Many feature the supernatural, though not all. But there's not a whole lot of terror involved. Throw that false claim away and enjoy instead a pretty enjoyable mixture of folk tales, excerpts from novels, and short stories.

Haining certainly gets bonus marks for including the terrifically horrifying sermon from James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and a grimly jocular section from Charles Maturin's seminal 19th-century Gothic Melmoth the Wanderer. And if you know the Sting song "The Soul Cages," you'll be intrigued to discover a much less sinister Irish version of the story from folklore, recorded in the early 19th century, that nonetheless still involves the souls of dead sailors kept in lobster traps by a supernatural being. But it won't be "magical wine" that knocks the creature for a loop -- it will be Irish poteen. Oh, go look it up. I'll wait.

The anthology ranges from folklore to genre writers to the famous literary elite and back again. I can criticize Haining for his odd choices in titling, but I can't criticize his range as an anthologist or his enthusiasm as an essayist introducing the tales. The drollness of the Ray Bradbury story that concludes the anthology is something to behold. I'm pretty sure no other ostensive horror anthology selection has so hilariously undercut a brief spate of terror with the revelation that the story serves up as its epiphanic (or is it anti-epiphanic?) moment about just what a wild night in Galway entails. Recommended.

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