Howard Schwartz, Lilith's Cave (Oxford University Press, 1988)
This collection is centered around the tales of Demons and of the dead, of creeping things at night, and of the hell that awaits those who are unjust. These are the stories of Lilith, once the first wife of Adam, who refused to bow down for her husband, but instead left to copulate with demons, to breed thousands of children, all themselves demons of wicked manner and to steal human children for her own purposes. These are stories that are told when the fire is fading in the hearth, to summon a chill to the blood. Some are versions of familiar stories, with only a subtle Jewish bent to differentiate them from the tales told by children, with the flashlight beaming up to make their faces strange; here is the tale of the good apprentice striving to outwit the evil sorcerer, here the bride who turns into a beast. Others are fierce stories of hell and corruption, of the Torah, of Rabbis and the laws of God, tales of morality and warning, of religion and culture, where Judaism is not just a new spice to an old story, but is the coursing heart of the piece.
These tales are taken from Jewish tradition, from current oral tellers and sources as far back as the ninth and twelfth centuries, from northern Germany and the Middle East alike. A lengthy but readable introduction discusses some of these elements and describes the background of some of those that may be less familiar to readers from other traditions. Once the stories themselves begin, the mix of familiar and strange becomes alluring, along with the mix of sources.
The theme makes a common thread through the stories, of course, but as one keeps reading, one sees other threads, the ones that form the culture and the religion through the ages. They build on one another, and though at times the theme becomes a little wearying, the cultural current grows, and builds on what came before, to shape a world, and a worldview. It is an intriguing feeling, and enough to carry one through several stories at least.
However, they are not simply collected by Mr. Schwartz, they are retold, in his words, and here is the weakness of the collection. In some ways, more direct translations, and near-exact transcripts of oral tales, would be more easily forgiven; any flaws in logic, or storytelling, or prose style, would be nobody's fault. However, these words are Mr. Schwartz's own, and his prose style is not wholly professional calibre. His most irksome sin is how very often things happen "suddenly." Virtually every time that word is used and it is used often, whether it is accurate or not the sentence would be improved by its absence, and with more feel of suddenness.
In many other small ways, his writing is unpolished. It could not be called dry, yet his sense of narrative timing is slightly off. It is most clearly seen in those stories where tension was meant to be a narrative element; between occasional awkward word choices, and paragraphs going by too quickly when they should slow down to let tension build, the stories only occasionally bring forth the actual chill of proper supernatural stories. While at first it might be assumed that this is partly because the stories are meant to be read aloud, an attempt to do so resulted in making small edits, changing the prose on the page so as to make the sentences run better as they slip off the tongue. Never by more than a word or two, but the effect is pervasive, continuous. The writing is simply a step though a small step below where it should be for a book of this kind.
Yet I repeat a small step only. None of the prose's roughness will keep the reader from pressing on to the next creeping tale: of a wedding band on a corpse's finger, or a band of demons stealing a house, of defences as apparently frivolous as a plate of jam, as awesome as the name of God.
The stories themselves are the triumphant stars here; the stories, and the people from which they came, the worldview they bring to light, and the sense of history.