Stephen B. Armstrong


          As the pandemic first commenced with ripping apart daily life in March 2020, I told my students at the university where I work that “COVID is going to kill a lot of culture.” And it has, with concerts postponed, games cancelled, restaurants shuttered and theaters left dark. But staying home all the time, particularly at night, has yielded not a few pleasures, at least for me, with opportunities that have included watching old favorite movies like Horse Feathers and Duck Soup, consuming wacky pseudo-documentary TV shows like Food Factory and Dr. Pimple Popper and reading--so much reading.

          While most of the time I’ve gone back to the books of the same writers I teach in the classroom—W. B. Yeats, Nathanael West, Larry French, Truman Capote and Flannery O’Connor—I also permitted myself the pleasure of reading several books sent to me by publishers and authors, including cowboy novelist Rod Miller’s latest story set in the American West, Pinebox Collins (Five Star, 2020, 232 pages, $25.95). Miller’s titular hero, an undertaker by trade, is a veteran of the Civil War who lost his right foot to a Confederate cannonball. Brought up in rural Utah and a one-time rodeo rider, Miller infuses his tale with a rare degree of authenticity and dramatic directness, not unlike the work of the recently deceased Larry McMurtry. Miller, moreover, infuses his prose with details that--at once concrete, dynamic and expressive--arouse emotions as they engage the senses. Consider this early passage in the novel, where Pinebox speaks to what happened to him immediately following his injury: “Not only had the secessionists taken my right foot, the shoe from my left foot was stolen along with all my clothes save my underwear and what was left of my breeches. They said I was damn lucky I didn’t freeze to death, although the cold may have contributed to the clotting of my blood, thus saving me from bleeding out.”

          Poet Tony Hoagland left the world too early in 2018, but his ideas about craft remain with us thanks to The Art of Voice: Poetic Principles and Practice (with Kay Cosgrove, Norton, 2020, 168 pages, $15.95). Hoagland implores his readers to consider the elusive but essential contributions voice, which he defines as “the distinctive linguistic presentation of an individual speaker,” can play in the construction and delivery of verse. Of course we should never confuse a poem’s speaker with a poem’s creator: voice is as much a functional element of verse as rhyme and meter, produced by deliberate, calculated effort. When the poet manages to invest their work with voice effectively, Hoagland contends, a connection forged between speaker and audience results, yielding tremendous aesthetic and thematic dividends: “A successful poem is voiced into a living and compelling presence. This convincing representation of a speaker may be created by force, or intellectual subtlety, or companionability, or even by eccentricity, but it must initiate a bond of trust that incites further listening.” Hoagland supplements his claims and theories with numerous poems, some ancient (Catullus’s “This One Boy II), some contemporary (Barbara Hamby’s “Ode to my 1977 Toyota), and numerous invention prompts, making this an ideal text for creative writing courses.

          John Landis is justly famous for his marvelous work as a director, with credits that include the action-comedy The Blues Brothers, the sensational An American Werewolf in London and the perpetually influential music video for Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” He’s also a judicious writer and editor, whose Monsters in the Movies: 100 Years of Cinematic Nightmares ranks with Lotte Eisner’s The Haunted Screen as one of the must-have books for filmgoers who take horror seriously as a theme and as a mode of artistic expression. For his follow-up, Haunted Houses (DK, 2020, 408 pages, $24.99), Landis has compiled fifteen eerie stories set in spaces, as the title indicates, occupied by sinister spirits. He notes in his introduction to the collection, cleverly titled “There Are Some Doors that Should Never be Opened,” that stories about haunted houses appeal to readers because they destabilize our perceptions of what we think is real: “Ghost stories are a direct challenge to our modern, science-based lives. That’s what makes them so fascinating; our reasonable selves versus the unnatural, the supernatural, and the extraordinary. Ghost stories directly challenge our intellect, our sense of self and mostly… our fear of the unknown….. [R]ationality comes face to face with powerful supernatural events, born of uncanny forces.” Throughout Haunted Houses, unsurprisingly, appear several stories that served as the basis for great movies, including Henry James’s “The Turn of the Screw,” which became, thanks to a perfect script from Truman Capote, The Innocents, the most unsettling psychological horror movie ever made. Spooky tales from well-known writers like Maupassant (“The Horla”), Lovecraft (“The Shunned House”) and Wilde (“The Canterville Ghost”) fill out this superb volume.