100 Years. 100 Books #7 – 1912

The Room in the Tower by E.F. Benson

In high school, I went on a bender for vintage ghost stories, primarily due to MaryAnn Satter, my English teacher at Nazareth Academy who also loved a good ghost story. She introduced me to authors such as J. Sheridan LeFanu, Ambrose Bierce, Edgar Allan Poe, Algernon Blackwood, and E.F. Benson. When I came across The Room in the Tower by Benson in my search for a title published in 1912, I was reminded of the fierce and cold terror many of these authors wrote into their stories and decided I had found my entry of 1912.

The Room in the Tower is a short story, but it packs a whole lot of terror into a few pages. The narrator describes a terrifying recurring dream he’s had for years, where he finds himself at a lovely country home with an old school acquaintance and his family. The dream begins with tea or some sort of gathering with all the guests and family, and invariably ends with the hostess, Mrs. Stone, getting up and telling the narrator “Jack will show you your room. I have given you the room in the tower.” Those words start the shivers up the narrator’s spine, which only worsen as he follows Jack up the stairs to the room in the tower. The dream ends as the door is closed and locked behind the narrator.

The dreams recur until the day he finds himself face to face, in real life, with the tower and the country home. As in the dream, he is led up the stairs to the room in the tower, where he and his friend find comfortable lodgings, with the exception of a creepy looking portrait of Julia Stone, the former owner of the property. The portrait is removed and carried to the hall, where both men find their hands covered in blood. That night, the narrator is awakened by a horror too awful to comprehend, Julia Stone come back from the grave.

I know this sounds like a typical ghost story, but what I always found unique about Benson’s writing is how he was able to build that swell of terror while describing ordinary activities and objects. By the time the narrator is awakened by the ghost, I was gripping my Kindle so tightly my fingers were white. Contemporary authors who do as good a job with that are Stephen King in Pet Semetery  and Peter Straub, with Straub’s Ghost Story is equal to Benson’s best work.

Definitely recommended for ghost story and horror aficionados.

4 out of 5 catalog cards.

100 Years. 100 Books #6 – 1918


My Antonia by Willa S. Cather

My friend Paula, a Nebraska native, has been after me to read this book for years and now I understand. I’d been spending nearly all of my reading time with early 20th century mysteries and, quite frankly, they’d become tedious. After forcing myself through The Red House by A.A. Milne, I really felt like I needed a change of pace. I had downloaded a whole bunch of free books to my Kindle for this reading project, and My Antonia just happened to be at the top of the list, so I casually opened it one night a week ago to see what it was all about.

I found a beautiful, heartbreaking, luminous story that captivated me from the first page. Cather tells the story of Antonia Shimerda, a headstrong, handsome Bohemian girl whose family is transplanted to Black Hawk, Nebraska in the 19th century.  Antonia’s story is told through the eyes of Jim Burden, an orphan who also arrives to live with his grandparents in Black Hawk on the same train as Antonia and her family. The two become fast friends whose lives twine around each other over the course of a lifetime.

The interesting thing about this story that is so different from what I’ve been reading is that there really isn’t a storyline. This is a memoir, a re-telling of a bucolic if hard childhood on the prairie, coming of age in a small mid-western town, and adulthood not yet devoid of childhood innocence and affection between lifelong friends.

I was reminded of two stories as I read this one – Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder and the 2010 Newbery winner Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool. The sod houses of Wilder’s early books are here, as is the red prairie grass, snakes, farms, and family devotion. The similarity to Manifest, Kansas is more in the characters drawn by Cather and Vanderpool than in the story. However, all three books share the same comforting, lovely tributes to the importance of family and friends.

Cather’s characters, from Antonia and her regal but defeated father, to the foreign farm girls who go to town as “hired girls,” to Antonia’s husband and colorful tribe of children, to the narrator – Jim Burden himself – are finely drawn and developed with care and compassion. She captures the tender friendship between Antonia and Jim, which becomes the thread that twines through the entire story and ultimately makes it successful.

A beautiful book that will stay with me for a long, long time.

5 out of 5 catalog cards