Friday, October 17, 2008

The Kind of Face You SLASH!!: Day 16 - The Clams Aren't Safe

William Peter Blatty's Elsewhere sort of just appeared one day. This novella first appeared in Al Sarrantonio's great horror anthology, 999, which came out, appropriately enough, in 1999 (it's scheduled to be published as a stand-alone book this December). 999 is full of terrific, or at least interesting, short fiction, but Elsewhere is the centerpiece of that anthology. For one thing, at 100 pages, it's by far the longest piece in the book, but more importantly it marked Blatty's return to horror fiction; his previous novel in this genre, Legion, the sequel to The Exorcist, was published sixteen years prior.

What a lot of people don't realize these days is that Blatty began his career as a comedic novelist. Which Way to Mecca, Jack? and John Goldfarb, Please Come Home opened the door for him to write for the movies, and began a long partnership with Blake Edwards (in those days, Blatty's most famous credit was as co-writer of the first Inspector Clouseau film, A Shot in the Dark). So The Exorcist, his blockbuster novel from 1971, was really an anomaly. That novel grew from Blatty's Catholic faith, among other things, and forever changed the way he was perceived as a writer. Blatty never set out to be a horror writer, and I imagine he still doesn't think of himself that way, but since 1971 his work has been either a part of that genre, or a bizarre and twisted genre entirely its own, like the novel, and film, The Ninth Configuration.

The first time I heard about Elsewhere, it was being talked about as film, which Blatty would write for William Friedkin, the filmmaker behind The Exorcist, to direct. As a huge fan of Blatty's by that point (whenever it was, I can't really remember, but it was a long time ago), I was very excited by the idea that he was returning to horror. I have a vague recollection that, in the piece I read about this up-coming film, Blatty said that while he really didn't know much about horror, his experiences with The Exorcist had taught him how to manipulate the audience into being scared. He'd become familiar with the methods, tricks, that sort of thing. So okay, I said, let's see this movie. But the movie never happened. That magazine, or newspaper, reference I read was the first and last reference to it I ever encountered. Friedkin's career had sunk pretty low at the time, and I have to assume that had something to do with the scuttling of the project, but why any studio would turn their back on the opportunity to slap "From the Writer and the Director of 'The Exorcist'" on a poster is still beyond me.

Anyway, as I said, it never happened. Then, one day, I'm browsing in some bookstore somewhere, and I find this book 999. And among the many big name contributors (King, Oates, Gaiman, Ligotti) was William Peter Blatty, and his story, a 100 page novella, was called Elsewhere. Well, all right then, I said to myself, as I bought the book. And now, nearly ten years later, I've read it.

The set up to Elsewhere is pretty much the same as that of The Haunting of Hill House (or The House on Haunted Hill, for that matter). Joan Freeboard is a realtor (she's ocassionally referred to, bizarrely, as "the Realtor") who has been tasked with selling a secluded mansion on a small island in New York. The house is called Elsewhere, and it has a reputation for being haunted. One of its previous owners, a doctor named Peter Quandt, murdered his wife, then took his own life. Since then, subsequent residents have met with various bizarre fates, some lethal, some not. This has happened often enough that, for many years, the house has been uninhabited. Freeboard, who has been suffering from strange dreams involving an oddly familiar angel whose cryptic messages she doesn't understand, is determined to sell Elsewhere, and hits upon the idea of clearing its name. So she recruits her old friend Terrence Dare, a famous writer; a British psychic named Anna Trawley; and an esteemed expert in the supernatural named Gabriel Case. The four of them will stay in the house for a period of time and investigate -- since Freeboard doesn't believe in ghosts, she believes Trawley and Case will find nothing. Dare will write up their experiences as a magazine article. The renown attached to Dare, not to mention Case and Trawley, should end all the dark rumors and supersitions surrounding Elsewhere, Freeboard reasons, the house will be sold, and she'll make quite a bit of money.

But, of course, once they get to the house, odd things begin happening. Dare thinks he sees a priest scurrying through a door, in the dark. He also seems to have lost his beloved dogs, which he'd insisted on bringing with him. Or did he bring them? Everyone seems to be suffering from weird memory lapses. And Freeboard experiences a wicked case of deja vu. And why doesn't Gabriel Case look like his picture? Well, everything gets answered. And it's all just too damned pat.

As it happens, a few days ago, over at Cinema Styles, a discussion was brewing about the pros and cons of the ambiguity levels of the film version of The Exorcist. Those who felt that there should have been more ambiguity argued that the question of whether or not Regan was actually possessed should have remained unanswered until the end, and that Father Karras's struggle with his faith could have played out the same way, with no loss of emotional or visceral power. Those who argued against that point of view (and I was among them...okay, I was the only one) said that this would have simply been ambiguity for its own sake. If that unanswered question doesn't alter the outcome, then what's the point of leaving it unanswered? In art, ambiguity is a tool, or a shading, and should only be employed when it has a purpose. I can see no purpose for it in The Exorcist, when the the question is finally simply "yes" or "no". Not only that, but the question -- is Regan possessed? -- is only interesting if the answer is yes.

But in Elsewhere, the question isn't simply "yes" or "no". As with The Exorcist, the question of the supernatural in Elsewhere shouldn't be raised, because, for this story to work, the answer must be "yes". Yet the question that shouldn't be answered so cleanly, but which Blatty goes ahead and answers, is "why". I can't think of a haunted house story that has ever benifited from a neat wrap-up. The model for Blatty's novella, as I've already said, is Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House. Now I realize there are many people who argue about the presence of the supernatural in that novel, too, but the point is that even if you're convinced, as I am, that Jackson's ghosts are real, by the end of the novel you still don't know exactly what has happened, and the sense of dread and unease is, as a result, heightened.

The story is also not served well by its short length. I rarely argue that a work of fiction needs to be longer than it is, but this is a case where another fifty pages or more would have been a help. When Blatty reaches his explanation, he rushes through the characters' reactions, so the last few pages essentially read like this:

CHARACTER 1: So there's your answer. That's why we had all those ghosts.

CHARACTER 2: No kidding. That is nuts.

CHARACTER 1: I know, isn't it?

CHARACTER 2: Yes. But I accept your answer. Now I'm going to leave.

CHARACTER 3: Me too.

CHARACTER 1: I understand.

The other thing about Elsewhere, which is dicier to talk about, is that the novella occupies a place in probably the smallest off-shoot of the genre: optimistic horror. Seen from a certain point of view -- the point of view Blatty would like you to take -- even the shocking horror of The Exorcist is optimistic. Blatty is an unapologetic Catholic, and that's right there on the surface of his fiction. This is something that I quite frankly like about his work. His writing in the genre always reinforces the idea of a benevolent God, and of a peaceful afterlife, even while acknowledging the deep pain human beings suffer in this life. Such is the case with Elsewhere, which is fine, but this time Blatty doesn't attack his subject with the unblinking sharpness of The Exorcist. There's a meat-and-potatoes quality to his take on Catholicism in that book (and film) that I love. This time around he's more moony-eyed about the whole thing, more self-consciously mystical, and it makes the novella come off as soppy.

This isn't helped by his constant injection of humor, of the rapid-fire dialogue, one-liner variety. Some of this is funny, much of it is not, and there's generally just too damn much of it. There's always been humor in his serious fiction, even in The Exorcist, but the humor never overwhelmed the narrative. Here it does. Elsewhere would almost play as a supernatural comedy, if the humor was funnier.

Before reading Elsewhere, I hadn't read Blatty in many, many years. When I come back to a writer I've enjoyed in the past, after several years away, and find myself struggling to enjoy his or her work, I have to wonder if I've grown out of it, if my tastes have evolved to the point where this author has been left behind. I've wondered this about several horror writers, like Richard Matheson and Robert Bloch. But with Bloch and Matheson, the work I don't enjoy is almost always their late fiction, written well after their heyday. When I return to their older work, as I just did with Bloch, I find that I wasn't wrong to like them before...they were good. It's just that they eventually became tapped out. This may be the case with Blatty. It would be weird to say that I hope this is the case, because I would love it if Blatty got his old rhythm back. But he's never been prolific, and that may not happen, and Elsewhere may be his swan song. If so, that's a shame. Still, being able to say that you're the guy behind The Exorcist, Legion and The Ninth Configuration -- in both their novel and film incarnations -- ain't too shabby.

5 comments:

Dr. Scarabus Lapper said...

Who do you think you are arguing against me anyway? My feelings on The Exorcist are right and your's are wrong. Duh.

CHARACTER 1: So there's your answer. That's why we had all those ghosts.

CHARACTER 2: No kidding. That is nuts.

CHARACTER 1: I know, isn't it?

CHARACTER 2: Yes. But I accept your answer. Now I'm going to leave.

CHARACTER 3: Me too.

CHARACTER 1: I understand.


You should totally write a short story that ends this way. Make it a horror version of Waiting for Godot.

By the way, if I recall, King's problem with the book of The Exorcist was its writing style. Maybe Blatty just isn't a very good writer and the stories are good enough to keep one from noticing how pedestrian the writing is. But I don't know, I've never read any of it and you seem to like it. Also I think King is kind of an idiot so I'll take your word over his.

bill r. said...

Maybe Blatty just isn't a very good writer and the stories are good enough to keep one from noticing how pedestrian the writing is.

Maybe. It's been a really long time since I read the stuff by Blatty that I really like. The funny thing is that I think Blatty is a terrific director. The ending of Exorcist III was compromised by the studios (though it still kinda works), but there are some truly brilliant moments all through that film. The beginning, including the opening credits, is really eerie. You should check it out.

Will Errickson said...

I recently saw Blatty's The Ninth Configuration (based on his novel Twinkle, Twinkle, Killer Kane) and while I don't think it was wholly successful, it was one of the oddest and intriguing movies I've seen in some time.

bill r. said...

Isn't it? I agree, it's hard to say that it completely works, but what it's trying to achieve is so unique that you can't help but be grateful the damn thing even exists. And for myself, I think it works more often than it doesn't, so, as a result, that film is a favorite of mine.

bill r. said...

Oh, and just to put on my Pedantic Hat for a moment: the novel Twinkle, Twinkle, "Killer" Kane was Blatty's first stab at the idea, but he wasn't happy with it, and he later wrote another novel with the same premise and basic plot, called The Ninth Configuration. That book came out in 1978, and the film followed in 1980, so technically that's the book the film is based on.

Removing Pedantic Hat now...

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