For about a century people have said that the climactic pages of Bulwer-Lytton’s Last Days of Pompei are as tense and exciting as the rest is pompous and overwrought, to which I will agree.
The first time someone mentioned this idea, what popped into my mind was The Twilight Barking in the otherwise fairly forgettable The Hundred and One Dalmations by Dodie Smith. The book is fairly slight, a quick read for kids—I zoomed through it in half an afternoon when I was ten, when it first came out.
What was invisible then makes kind of painful reading now: not just the somewhat coy conceit that humans are owned by their animals (even a kid knows that no animal would pick the appallingly abusive owners one sees too often on one’s block) but that the dogs are married, the female dogs weak and dependent on their males. Some of those long-eyelashed female dogs don’t even have names besides ‘Missus’ but they sure do love being the equivalent of fifties housewives in a saccharine way that one seldom actually saw in real fifties housewives, except on TV and movies.
All that fell away like chaff, as time went by. The only part of the story that lingered over all these years was the Twilight Barking, a wonderful scene in which the animals pass on news and calls for help. This spirited banding together was an exhilarating and inspiring example of strength overcoming power.
I felt the same way about “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn” chapter in The Wind in the Willows, a book that was supposed to delight children, but which frustrated visual me because I couldn’t see why animals dressed like people and had kitchens in animal dens, or how Mr. Toad could drive a car—was it a life-sized car, in which case, how did he manage the wheel? Or was it a toad-sized car, in which case, how did he avoid being squashed by human vehicles? I spend most of my read immensely frustrated until I got to that chapter, with its glimpse of the numinous.
In that particular case, I was delighted to find others who’d felt the same. One of my best memories of Mythcon was Dawn Fandom, when Glen GoodKnight, the founder, read that chapter to us as the sun came up over the summery garden at the Claremont Colleges.
Is there any scene or chapter of an otherwise unmemorable book that lingers for you?