Sunday, 23 March 2014

Penguin no. 2096: Dreadful Summit
by Stanley Ellin

Cover design by Germano Facetti.
It waves me forth again; I'll follow it.
What if it tempt you toward the flood, my lord. Or to the dreadful summit of the cliff...

When I was a little kid I would go to church parties at St Theresa, and they had a game called blindman's buff. One kid would would have a handkerchief around his eyes so he couldn't see, and the other kids would run around and make noise, and the kid who couldn't see would have to catch one. I didn't like it because my feet were big, and I couldn't get out of the way good, so I was 'it' more than anybody. And then in my head I could see how I must look, bumping around trying to catch somebody, and maybe all the time he was right in back of me. It made me feel dumb.

I found Dreadful Summit a difficult book to read all the way to the end. It has sentences describing events which would be unthinkable if they were true, and each time I encountered one I struggled to read on, appalled by the possibilities. It would take a fair while until I could face the book again, and it was always reluctantly. The book is subtitled 'a novel of suspense', and assuming this indicates the author's principle intention, Stanley Ellin achieves it on every page.

This is the story of one night in the life of sixteen year old George LaMain, a young man tall for his age and easily mistaken for an adult. On this night he burns with the humiliation of having watched as his father was beaten by the well-known sports columnist Al Judge. George knows nothing more than what he has observed: his father being forced to strip to his bare flesh before his customers in the public bar, Judge's cane repeatedly cutting his back, and his father's acquiescence, accepting the beating without any inclination to put up a fight.

George decides to cast himself in the role of his father's avenger; he is determined to set things right, and to him this means that Judge must be killed. But it is not simply Judge's death that he desires; he has a clear image of how it must come about, viewing the death of this adversary as necessary but not sufficient. He wants Judge to die conscious of the motivation of his killer and in full awareness of the reason for his fate. But George gives virtually no thought to what will happen after the killing, as in his conception of the crime, Judge will be dead, the beating will be avenged, and no one will know who it was that took Judge's life; George's life will continue as normal.

In a way, George is acting out the events he reads about, for the first thing we learn of him is his nightly ritual - the rigid sequence of events which must precede his every night's sleep. He reads the Daily Press, and always in a certain order: the pictures first - scantily-clad girls or the body-strewn scenes of car crashes - and then the detailed accounts of murders, killings and rapes. And as he falls asleep he visualises the terrible scenes in his head.

But on this evening, as he eschews sleep and instead heads out into the night, armed with his father's revolver and with a goal but without a plan, George poses a danger to many more individuals than just Al Judge. The story is almost episodic; it describes a long series of encounters during George's single night journey to confront the man he witnessed tormenting his father. He is a young boy emboldened by his secret possession, and interpreting every experience from the naive perspective of a 16 year old - one who reacts without thinking and who is soon to be overwhelmed by his first encounters with alcohol and sex. He is a danger to himself and to every person who has the misfortune to spend time in his company.

Dreadful Summit was published in 1948, three years before A Catcher in the Rye, and while it tells a much darker story, it is very reminiscent of the later and more-famous book; even the idea of being lured beyond the summit seems echoed in both titles. George tells his own tale in his own vernacular, describing and interpreting his experiences, and analysing events in his past in an attempt to explain why he feels impelled to take the actions he does and why he views things a certain way. He displays a similar solipsistic attitude, and a similar inability to grasp that actions can have irreversible consequences. And when he does realise it, George wants someone to protect him and to set everything right.

The first person narrative makes him seem self-obsessed, but it also highlights just how much of a child he really is. The reader is given the opportunity, denied to the people he meets during the night who respond to him as the adult he appears to be, of observing the weak links in his reasoning, and of realising just how little he understands or interprets correctly. But George understands much more by the morning, particularly that his fixed black and white view of right and wrong is a very poor guide to how he should respond.

First published in the U.S.A. 1948. Published in Great Britain by T.V. Boardman 1958. Published in Penguin Books 1964.

By the same author:
Penguin no. 2318: The Eighth Circle
Penguin no. 2795: The Specialty of the House


  1. Just discovered your blog and am impressed with your collection! I never heard of Stanley Ellin but your review was so well written....I read it to the last word! Great review, concise, crisp and informative!

  2. Everybody is impressed with your collection: something that can be expected because it is impressive. Talking about the book and its author, it's my first reading of one of Stanley Ellin's books. Never heard of him either. Through your review it can be felt that its reading was difficult for you, for, though unaware of it, we try to make its reading as easy as we can in an effort to make it attractive. That's what you did.. Very difficult to speak about a book we didn't like much!
    Pretty well done!



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