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Yesterday I started to get a sore throat.

Today it's a bit worse, and I've spent nearly the entire day in bed, resting and trying to heal up.  Fortunately my annual physical is scheduled for Wednesday so I'll be seeing my doctor anyway (at no cost, thank you Mr. President!), but needless to say, the last thing I've had the energy to do is write.

So...

Tonight we're going to do things a little differently.

Tonight we're going to go back...way, way, waaaaay back.

That's right, boys and girls.  Tonight I'm going to repost my very first BSBTG column so you can all point and laugh hysterically see how these diaries have changed over the last couple of years.  It'll give us all a chance to see how this journey into the wilderness of lousy, or silly, or just plain peculiar literature began, and compare the origins to the current product.

Have fun!

From February 26, 2011:  "Books So Bad They're Good:  Gothics."

I’ve been reading all my life.

Really.  I was one of those peculiar children who figured out what the funny black scratches on paper meant almost before I was out of diapers.  My poor mother nearly drove into the back of a bus when I was three or four and started reading the street signs aloud in a part of town I’d never been.  How she kept me from starting on adult books until I was eleven is still a mystery, but I think it may have involved bribing the librarian to keep me in the children’s room, at least until I was old enough to figure out that no, Archie Goodwin and Lily Rowan probably didn’t have separate rooms when they went on vacation together.

I’ve read an awful lot of books in the half century I’ve been kicking around this vale of tears.  Science fiction, fantasy, mysteries, classic fiction, history (medieval, American, costume and textile, Renaissance), religion, art, science…I’ve read some of almost everything, and more than a bit of several.  There are books in every room of my house, and I’m up to 70 books on my e-reader.  When I can’t get a book, I read the ingredients on the oatmeal package.

In other words, I’m addicted to books.  When I can’t find a good book, I’ll grab anything in sight to support my habit, regardless of quality.  And since I read a lot, that means I’ve read more than my share of stinkers.

Most of the bad books I’ve read are just that:  bad.  Silly plots, cardboard characters, questionable grammar, dialogue seemingly translated from Klingon into Wendish into English…books like this keep me from twitching while I’m waiting for an oil change or watching my clothes thump about in a circle at the laundromat, but nothing more.  They help me kill time, and I forget them almost as soon as I’ve finished.

And then there are the really bad ones.  

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We’ve all read them.  Books that start out with all the ingredients for a good read that go terribly, terribly wrong along the way, to the point that we couldn’t forget them on a bet:

-  The romance novel whose heroine’s eyes are “purple pools of passion” as she grasps her lover’s “throbbing manhood” and kneads it like bread dough.

-  The space opera starring a heroic captain who wins the day by lobbing a case of atomic grenades down the monster’s gullet.

-  The Phillip Marlowe clone who falls for a treacherous frail, defeats the deadly crime syndicate in Pekin, North Dakota, and calls his gun a roscoe.

-  The earnest first novel about a traumatized war veteran turned kinkajou farmer who
lives in a converted VW microbus until a young fresh girl and her collection  of vintage Jell-O molds dances into his life.

-  The airport paperback proving that the Buddha was a space alien sent by Jesus and the Ascended Masters to save humanity from rampaging mutant hordes of Neanderthals hiding out in the sewers of Gdansk.

-  The juvenile series about adorable orphans who solve mysteries with pluck, luck, a beloved pet, and a motherly cook who slips them extra desserts when no one is looking.

Those books.  Admit it:  you’ve read them too. Sweet Savage Love.  Gray Lensman.    The products of small college MFA programs.  The Happy Hollisters.  T. Lopsang Rampa.   Books we’ve read to pieces even though the plots are ridiculous, the prose is Tyrian purple, the characters are cardboard, and the cover models look like the bastard offspring of Fabio and Tracy Lord.  Bad they may be, but we love them anyway.

So don’t be shy.  We’re all friends here.  Your secret is safe.  Whether it’s your cherished set of Kathleen Woodiwiss, the adventures of Tom Swift AND Tom Swift Jr., or the collected works of Pel Torro, we won’t say a word.  Tonight is Saturday, so let’s have some fun with Books So Bad They’re Good!

I could start with any of a hundred lousy but lovable volumes, from Bad Science Fiction to Bad History to Very, Very Bad Archaeology.  But it’s a dark and gloomy Saturday night here in Massachusetts, so it seems only fitting to start with a genre custom-tailored for the dark and the gloom:  Bad Gothics.

No, not Goths.  Gothics.  You know, Gothics.  Those bastard offspring of early 19th century potboilers by “Monk” Lewis and E.T.A. Hoffman and the Bronte sisters that feature a lovely, naïve young woman comes to a remote house/castle/abbey/ranch/mansion to tutor the children/catalogue the library/restore the tapestries/train the horses in Devon/Wales/Maine/the Loire Valley, meets a brooding, devilishly handsome dark-haired man, falls in love despite warnings from every other person in spitting distance, and faces unimaginable torments before she defeats a ghost/previous wife who’s gone mad/family curse/lack of Internet access before she finally marries her beloved and gets the deed to the house/castle/abbey/ranch/mansion as a wedding present.  It’s a formula that’s been around ever since a clever publisher figured out that stripping Jane Eyre of the feminism and political commentary was a dandy idea.  The heroine is always virginal and somewhat stupid, the hero is always handsome and somewhat cloddish, there are always Dark Secrets and Mysterious Passageways, and the supernatural trappings turn out to be as menacing as the rubber masks worn by the villain in the most recent Scooby-Doo cartoon.

So – what are your favorite Bad Gothics?  Here are a couple of mine to start things off:

Wieland, or The Transformation, by Charles Brockden Brown.  This is one of the first novels written by an American, and is firmly in the early, blood-soaked semi-supernatural Gothic tradition.  It’s occasionally taught in college English classes by professors who somehow manage to keep a straight face when describing a German immigrant who creates his own religion and then spontaneously combusts while meditating in THE HUT [sic], mysterious voices telling the title character to kill himself and his family, or when the supernatural goings-on turn out to be caused by a ventriloquist with the eldritch name of Carwin.

Augusta, the First, and its numerous sequels, by Kathryn Kimbrough.  This is the first volume of The Saga of the Phenwick Women, a very long and inexplicably popular series that ran from 1975 to the early 1980s, long after the Gothic had ossified into the young woman comes to the manor house stereotype.  Published on slightly greenish “eye-friendly” paper by Popular Library, The Phenwick Women were members of a single enormous family that flourished from the 1700s to the 1930s.  They all faced interminable trials, wore vaguely historical gowns, had flowing hair, and skulked about with lanterns or candles while posing for the vaguely historical cover art.  Every title was WOMAN’S NAME, the DESCRIPTIVE WORD, which must have sounded great in the publisher’s office but really got tiresome when the writer was reduced to Millijoy, the Determined (#15) or Ursala [sic], the Proud (#34).   Mercifully, the series ended about the time that Rosemary Rodgers and Kathleen Woodiwiss proved that “sweet, savage love” would sell oodles more books than yet another quickie about Shegundela, the Sagacious….

Gaywyck, by Vincent Virga.  I feel guilty about mentioning this one since it’s almost as important in its way as Jane Eyre itself.  You see, Gaywyck is the very first gay Gothic, and one of the first gay-themed books to be published as a mass market paperback.  Oh, it still follows the time-worn formula of an innocent youngster coming to a gorgeous old house (this one near New York in the 1890s) and falling for the brooding master, except that both innocent and brooder are male.  And if plot and historical importance were the only considerations, Gaywyck might well be taught in gender studies classes to this day.  The characters are refreshingly free of self-loathing, for one thing, and the lovers get to live happily ever after in the huge old mansion, which was almost unheard of back in the day.  

But what puts Gaywyck into the BSBTG category isn't the plot, or the characters.  It's the writing, and the writer's insistence on cramming just one more detail, just one more adjective, just one more plot twist, into each and every paragraph and sentence and chapter.  The young narrator, Robert, “almost too innocent and beautiful to live,” begins the book by describing himself as having “pellucid” skin, while his brooding older swain with a mysterious past has seemingly spent most of his life stuffing his brooding manor to the rafters with priceless antiques while he entertains friends with names like “Goodbody” and pets the Persian cat he imported from Persia and saddled with a Gaelic name.  There’s an identical twin, a tragic fire, a social circle of amazingly tolerant straight friends and out-and-proud gay couples who seem unaware of 19th century vice laws, a cave with paintings of gay porn…it’s enough to make the Phenwick Women collectively keel over on top of their lanterns.  

All this is related in the sort of cloyingly rich pseudo-Victorian language that will have healthy readers falling on the floor laughing and asthmatics lunging for the inhaler to keep from asphyxiating.  Anyone who thinks I'm joking is cordially invited to read the scene late on where young Robert, fresh from a roll on the beach with a man he thinks is his lover but is actually his lover’s identical twin who’s been missing and presumed dead for twenty years, describes himself as feeling like a “tumescent boy” without laughing hard enough to scare the neighbor’s children.  I dare you.  

So – what about the rest of you, fellow Kossacks?  What are your favorite bad Gothics?  Can you top Gaywyck?  Out-lantern the Phenwicks?   Know of another book where someone spontaneously combusts?  America wants to know!

%%%%%

And so there you have it, my friends - our very first expedition down the River of Badness, into Darkest Badbookistan.  What say you now?  Should I rewrite this?  Find out more about the Phenwick Women?  Devote a diary to Vincent Virga's other works?  Investigate more works about spontaneously combusting ventriloquists?  The floor is yours....

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Readers & Book Lovers Series Schedule






DAY TIME (EST/EDT) Series Name Editor(s)
SUN 6:00 PM Young Reader's Pavilion The Book Bear
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2:00 PM What's on Your E-Reader? Caedy
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Sun 9:30 PM SciFi/Fantasy Book Club quarkstomper
Bi-Monthly Sun Midnight Reading Ramblings don mikulecky
MON
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2:00 PM Political Books Susan from 29
Mon 8:00 PM Monday Murder Mystery michelewln, Susan from 29
Mon 11:00 PM My Favorite Books/Authors edrie, MichiganChet
TUES 5:00 PM Indigo Kalliope: Poems from the Left bigjacbigjacbigjac
alternate Tuesdays 8:00 AM LGBT Literature Texdude50, Dave in Northridge
alternate Tuesdays 8:00 AM All Things Bookstore Dave in Northridge
Tue 8:00 PM Contemporary Fiction Views bookgirl
WED 7:30 AM WAYR? plf515
Wed 2:00 PM e-books Susan from 29
Wed 8:00 PM Bookflurries Bookchat cfk
THU 8:00 PM Write On! SensibleShoes
Thu (first each month) 11:00 AM Monthly Bookpost AdmiralNaismith
alternate Thursdays 11:00 PM Audiobooks Club SoCaliana
FRI 8:00 AM Books That Changed My Life Diana in NoVa
Fri 8:00 PM Books Go Boom! Brecht; first one each month by ArkDem14
Fri 10:00 PM Slightly Foxed -- But Still Desirable shortfinals
SAT (fourth each month) 11:00 AM Windy City Bookworm Chitown Kev
Sat 12:00 PM You Can't Read That! Paul's Book Reviews pwoodford
Sat 9:00 PM Books So Bad They're Good Ellid

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