Michael Dirda is a Pulitzer Prize–winning critic for The Washington Post and the author of several collections of essays, including Classics for Pleasure and Browsings: A Year of Reading, Collecting, and Living with Books.
 (May 2020)


Rending the Veil

An image from the book jacket of the 1906 edition of Arthur Machen’s The House of Souls; illustration by Sidney Sime
In 1943 some of the friends of Arthur Machen—the last name rhymes with “bracken”—organized a formal dinner to honor the Welsh writer on his eightieth birthday. While many distinguished figures in the arts attended, three of the older guests particularly stood out: Max Beerbohm, W.W. Jacobs, and Algernon Blackwood. Though …

Algernon Blackwood: The Master of the Supernatural

Algernon Blackwood, London, 1951; photograph by Norman Parkinson

The Face of the Earth and Other Imaginings

by Algernon Blackwood, edited and with an introduction by Mike Ashley

The Empty House and Other Ghost Stories The Listener and Other Stories

by Algernon Blackwood, with an introduction by Storm Constantine
Nearly any anthology of classic eerie fiction—from the old Modern Library Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural to the compact New York Review Books paperback Shadows of Carcosa—will include Algernon Blackwood’s “The Willows.” Sometime early in the last century, two men are canoeing down the Danube when they stop …

The Cool and Funny Words of Frank B.

Richard Ford, Paris, 2013

Let Me Be Frank With You: A Frank Bascombe Book

by Richard Ford
Apart from the seemingly silly title, Richard Ford’s new collection of four long stories about Frank Bascombe is pure pleasure. In fact, even that punning phrase “Let Me Be Frank With You” can be grudgingly justified since each story soon evolves into an intense two-person conversation: after a period of …

The Comédie Humaine of Joyce Carol Oates

The Accursed

by Joyce Carol Oates


by Joyce Carol Oates
At 667 pages instead of 666, The Accursed is obviously one page too long. Joyce Carol Oates’s extravaganza of demons, vampires, doppelgangers, seduction, possession, murder, and terrible family secrets has been called, by one who should know (Stephen King), “the world’s finest postmodern Gothic novel.” In its pages the devil—or …

Funny, But Serious Too

Nicholson Baker, South Berwick, Maine, 2008

Traveling Sprinkler

by Nicholson Baker

The Way the World Works: Essays

by Nicholson Baker
While Nicholson Baker may have started out as a somewhat lighthearted literary microscopist, genially teasing out the overlooked yet fetching particularities of the world around us, he’s come a long way since The Mezzanine (1988) and Room Temperature (1990). Over the years he’s increasingly assumed a far more iconoclastic and …



The pirate Mary Read, nineteenth-century print

What we admire in pirates—at least our fictional pirates—is that they so enjoy their villainy. They’re not sly or covert or subtle. Everything about them is over-the-top, histrionic: they glory in their infamy. While most of us drag ourselves through the daily dullness of our lives, they swagger, they pirouette, and, in the case of Captain Hook, even dance a tarantella. Like the trailblazer and the gunslinger, the pirate represents a New World ideal of freedom—a proud renegade living by his wits and his daring.

A Stylized Sherlock

Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes and Martin Freeman as Dr. John Watson in Sherlock, now on PBS

While Sherlock continues to be exceptionally entertaining, I can’t help but wonder if it has grown a little too self-aware and too reliant on punning riffs for its titles, plots, and in-jokes. Even “The Giant Rat of Sumatra”—the most tantalizing of those untold cases for which the world is not yet prepared—is repurposed in this episode. Every element in “The Empty Hearse” feels a bit overstylized, artificial, almost going beyond the tongue-in-cheek. At regular intervals, too, the action actually pauses so that the camera can linger on the Byronically handsome Cumberbatch, brooding Batman-like over the city of London.

Sherlock Lives!

Jude Law as Watson and Robert Downey Jr as Sherlock Holmes in the 2009 film Sherlock Holmes

It’s been a particularly busy season for admirers of the world’s first and greatest consulting detective, Mr. Sherlock Holmes of 221B Baker Street. The BBC Sherlock series starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, as Holmes and Watson, brilliantly translates the stories into the present. while in Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, the sequel to the 2009 film Sherlock Holmes, Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law continue their transformation of the Victorian duo into gritty, steampunk action heroes. And then there is the annual meeting of the Baker Street Irregulars, that mysterious literary and dining club, whose members believe that Sherlock Holmes actually lived; his friend Dr. John H. Watson recorded actual historical events; and Arthur Conan Doyle merely served as Watson’s literary agent.