Tuesday, 26 February 2008

Did she write thrillers?!

Everyone in the literary world knows Louisa May Alcott. Just mention her name, and someone is bound to say, “Oh yeah! I really enjoyed ‘Little Women’ and ‘Good Wives’!” Perhaps some might even have heard about ‘Little Men’ and her other lesser known works such as ‘Jo’s Boys’, ‘Eight Cousins’ or ‘Under the Lilacs’. But if I mention her thrillers, I get blank stares; underneath which they are probably thinking, “Thrillers? This girl must have gotten her facts wrong! Alcott never wrote any thrillers!”

In fact, I have a complete volume of her known thrillers right under my nose as I write this. Like her fictional character Jo, Alcott felt ashamed of her sensational output, because the materials of her stories- bloodlust, hatred and revenge, were not good food for the young minds who devoured them. So Alcott concealed her authorship under numerous pseudonyms. Her most popular pseudonym is A. M. Barnard. Not until after her death did her traitorous journals give away the secret. However, when letters from her publishers were found, the suspicions turned into convictions. Several editors and literary ‘big shots’ set about compiling all her thrillers, and substituted the mysterious A. M. Barnard with the unmasked L. M. Alcott. Recently published with her name, the stories found more popularity than they previously did. Alcott’s thrillers are published in several volumes. The one I have is titled Unmasked (to signify the discovery of Alcott’s authorship); it contains all of her known thrillers in one book. However, smaller volumes are sold with only a few choice stories in them. I chanced on one of these in the library, and loved the stories so much I decided to buy the whole volume!

The success of her thrillers is due to the exquisite touch she gives each character, imbuing them with the power of pent up emotion, mystery, rivalry and intrigue occurring in exotic backdrops, which adds to tension without being disgusting, gross or scary.

High-voltage emotion is evident in the following passage from ‘Pauline’s Passion and Punishment’:
“To and fro, like a wild creature in its cage, paced that handsome woman, with bent head, locked hands, and restless steps…”
I was absolutely hooked from the moment I set eyes on that passage. These very words beckoned and lured me along the rest of the story, as it did the readers so long ago. It is agreed by the researchers that The Rival Painters in Little Women which won Jo March the $100 dollars cheque was really an undercover name for this thriller. Alcott did really win prize money for this story. Alcott wrote storied much like these ones to help support her family. The ‘blood and thunder’ stories which appeared in the side columns of the evening papers of the time were hugely enjoyed by the society, but to no one knew who to give credit to.

Her use of powerful, speaking verbs and adjectives, and her elimination of excess verbiage, (indeed, one would be hard pressed to find a single sentence which could be removed without detracting from the plot), empower her writing, giving it visual life and strength. See her use of adjectives in, “On the strong white arms, folded underneath her head, appeared dark bruises— self-inflicted doubtless— a quantity of curling, auburn hair streamed about her, tangled and neglected; her lips were closely shut, and wearily drooping lids half hid the strangest eyes I ever saw.” and also in this passage, “Bending over the sleeper was a woman robed in barbaric splendour.” One can almost imagine the mysteriously pitiful image the former sentence creates, and, in contrast, the woman so extravagantly dressed as to be almost barbaric.

Another ‘popularity-boost’ of her stories is her penchant for complete yet suspenseful endings. The reader wants to know what happened after, except that they will have to imagine the ending themselves. This is how Pauline’s Passion and Punishment ended:
“So swift and sure had been the act it left no time for help. A rush, a plunge, a pause, and then two figures stood where four had been—a man and woman staring dumbly at each other, appalled at the dread silence that made high noon more ghostly than the deepest night. And with that moment of impotent horror, remorse, and woe, Pauline’s long punishment began.”

That’s it; the story ends there. It keeps the reader in suspense. What is going to happen now? And of course there is nothing more to read. It leaves the reader with a sense of completeness, yet anticipation which eases off gradually, remaining long enough to stir interest in the rest of her other stories.

In her thrillers, Alcott delves into the realm of magnetism and drug usage several times. She was well qualified to do so, as she worked as a nurse during the American Civil War, and had ample opportunity to observe the effect that drugs had on people. She was also well versed with the soothing and soporific effect Magnetism had on maniacs. She applied most of this knowledge in her stories, giving her characters an air of authority in these areas. In ‘A Marble Woman’, the heroine resorts to taking opium to help school her conduct to the enforced restraint and quiet exacted by man she loves. He only discovered this after she ran out of opium and took an overdose of laudanum in its place.

“Stooping, he whispered gently yet urgently, ‘Cecil, wake up, it is time.’ But there was no sign of waking, and nothing stirred by the faint flutter of her breath. He raised her, brushed the damp hair from her forehead, and cried in a voice tremulous with fear, ‘My darling, speak to me!’ But she lay mute and motionless… [The Doctor] asked, ‘Do you keep laudanum in this house? “I’ve had some that I’ve had a long time. I’ll get it for you.” And Yorke was gone in spite of Victorine’s offer of assistance. But he returned with a fresh anxiety, for the little flask was empty.”

'A Pair of Eyes’ opens up a totally new world to the reader, as it did to its main character.
“One day I resolved to bear it no longer, and hurried away to an old friend whose skill and discretion I had entire faith. He was out, and while I waited I took up a book that lay among the medical works upon his table. I read a page, then a chapter, turning leaf after leaf with a rapid hand, devouring paragraph after paragraph with an eager eye. An hour passed, still I read on, Dr. L— did not come, but I did not think of that, and when I laid down the book, I no longer needed him, for in that hour I had discovered a new world, had seen the diagnosis of my symptoms set forth in unmistakable terms, and found the key to the mystery in the one word— Magnetism.”

Doesn’t she write magnificently! I wish I could write as well as her. She weaves her plots with so much skill that one is inevitably drawn into the web of conspiracies, as a fly is drawn to light. With dialogues which reveal the depth of passion, with dark heroes and heroines playing a deep game, either bent on revenge or on gaining the hand of their beloved, triumphing over their rivals—the ‘blood-and-thunder’ tales are a ‘must get’ for any Alcott fan! Phone the nearest bookstore and order a volume immediately- you’ll love it.

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