Friday, October 2, 2009

The Kind of Face You SLASH!!! - Day 2: How I Detest Those Fools

In the category of the modern weird story, it’s hard to know quite where to place Mark Samuels. This is probably because, outside of Thomas Ligotti and a few others, very few contemporary horror writers do anything more than dabble in this vaguely defined subgenre – it can’t help that, in my case, I only read my first pair of Samuels stories a few days ago, a fact which is, itself, explained by the troubling rarity of his books. His first collection, The White Hands and Other Weird Tales was first published in 2003 by Tartarus Press, and is currently out of print. His most recent book, Glyphotech, was published by PS Publishing in 2008, and it, too, is out of print. Used copies of each, as well as the two Samuels books that were published in between, fetch a very steep price, unless you happen to luck out (as I did, in the case of White Hands, at least). What this says about the state of the modern horror fiction market – both Tartarus and PS Publishing are very small presses – is both very clear and entirely depressing, so it’s best that we move on.

I first heard about Mark Samuels a few years ago when, in the early throes of my newfound passion for the fiction of Thomas Ligotti, I read an interview with the latter writer, in which the two were roughly compared. Essentially, Ligotti acknowledged Samuels as someone he was in tune with, but wondered if writers like Samuels were disturbed, and cut off from regular society, enough to achieve the stature in the horror field enjoyed by the likes of Poe, Lovecraft and (he doesn’t say but implies) himself.

Probably not, is the answer. Samuels, as it happens, is that rarest of creatures: a 21st century writer of horror fiction who is also a Christian – a Catholic, to be exact. On his website, Samuels writes:

Frankly, one has to tread carefully on horror messageboards if one admits to having faith. Particularly if you’re a Catholic (which I am, albeit not much of a churchgoing one). Once this fact is discovered it seems to be the case that it’s open season on your beliefs. I guarantee you’ll be the target of all sorts of wily attempts to draw you into an argument designed to make you see the errors of your ways and embrace the “rationality” of atheism (or agnosticism, most of whose adherents are, it seems, practically 99% atheist, but hold back a 1% doubt in order not to appear too judgemental).

And elsewhere on the site:

God, for me, is the fundamental core of reality itself. God does not exist, in the way we know a certain mountain exists. Without God there is no reality; God is the prime consciousness. God is infinite and eternal. He (I use the term “he” only for convenience) is not able to be directly understood by man, although we have intimations that allow us to conceive of his nature.

Science is not incompatible with belief in God. Since God is eternal and infinite, a process such as evolution, which may seem an incredibly inefficient way of producing humankind, is only inefficient from our temporal perspective.

Science cannot tell us why there are laws of physics. If one responds that this question is an irrelevance, since science makes no claim to explain the why in this instance, then it is an example that science cannot explain science. No closed system can explain a closed system.

If you don’t spend a great deal of time reading contemporary horror fiction -- and so it would follow you wouldn’t be spending any time on horror messageboards – you’ll have to take my word for it that Samuels is absolutely correct about the ways in which faith is treated in that community. Ligotti, the writer to whom Samuels is most often linked, is a full-bore atheist, at one point accepting the purely metaphorical existence of a creator only so that he could blame someone or something for the nightmare of human existence.
So all of this places Samuels in a unique position. In his faith, and fictional subject, he really does hearken back to the old days of Machen and M. R. James, a comparison that isn’t coincidental once you actually start reading Samuels’s fiction. His Catholicism isn’t exactly explicit in his story “White Hands” – a story I’ll get to in a bit -- though once you know his faith, the reader can sort of say, “Oh, okay. Sure.” Which is completely fine, and serves the story, or doesn’t, depending on what you want. Unfortunately, Samuels attempt to place his faith front and center doesn’t pay off too well in the other story I read, called “The Grandmaster’s Final Game”. Though the truth is that the Catholic nature of the story isn’t the problem – not only is that hardly the kind of thing that I, personally, am likely to complain about, but where would The Exorcist be without its faith? – but rather Samuels’s inability make the elements of this story cohere. Essentially a story of demonic possession and chess, most of “The Grandmaster’s Final Game” is told in the form of a confession told to Father Mooney by a man named Leonard Hughes. Hughes has specifically sought out Father Mooney to deliver his confession because, he says, “I know you were one of the finest chess players in Europe before you were called to holy orders.” Hughes goes on to tell of his life as a professional chess player, a career which didn’t take off until he found a bizarre chess set being sold for next to nothing in a local bookshop. The set was made unique by, among other things, featuring only black chess pieces. As I’ve already revealed that this is a story of possession, you can probably guess where we’re heading, and you’ll be correct.

Which is obviously a problem, but is not the problem, and, in fact, didn’t need to even be a problem at all. Though I strongly resist the idea that genre fiction – and, really, pick your genre, because this is said about them all – must necessarily follow formula and pay off in the way the reader expects, and that the only thing that can distinguish one genre writer from another is style and technique, I also know full well that great, brilliant work can be done while adhering to a given formula. So Samuels, a good writer who is a Catholic, and who, additionally, is very knowledgeable about his chosen genre, should have sailed through “The Grandmaster’s Final Game”. But he doesn’t. For one thing, there is no genuine sense of the infernal, something you obviously can’t say about The Exorcist, so that the inevitable final chess match feels as though it’s being waged between a priest who really wants to win, and a guy who really hates to lose.
On a much more encouraging note, the other Samuels story I read was “White Hands”, and it follows a familiar track of weird fiction in that it concerns itself with horror fiction and scholarship. The story is about an ambitious unnamed narrator who seeks out Alfred Muswell, at once a well-known academic and scholar of of “literary ghost stories”. Muswell was a disgraced former don at Oxford, who instructed his students to focus their reading on the works of J. Sheridan Le Fanu, Vernon Lee, M. R. James and Lilith Blake (Blake being the one fictional character on this list, and, the reader discovers, the source of the story's horror). Though Muswell is a scholar of all of these writers, when Muswell meets our narrator and discovers that he prefers the work of Arthur Machen and Algernon Blackwood, Muswell immediately dismisses those other writers (of Machen he says, "That red-face old coot with his deluded Anglo-Catholic rubbish!") and says:

“…No, no. Believe me, if you want the truth beyond the frontier of appearances it is to Lilith Blak you must turn. She never compromises. Her stories are infinitely more than mere accounts of supernatural phenomena…”

As the reader will shortly learn. Despite his ambivalence about her, our narrator is looking to make his name by writing a monograph on Lilith Blake, a proposition that becomes more and more likely the more time he spends with Muswell. He sought out Muswell in the first place because Muswell is the foremost – and probably only – expert on Blake’s life and writing, and once our narrator has gained his confidence, the older scholar makes his collection of pictures, biographical material and unpublished writing free to the young man. Everything except one unpublished book called The White Hands and Other Tales. Muswell explains:

”This volume…contains the final stories. They establish the truth of all that I have told you. The book must now be published. I want to be vindicated after I die. This book will prove, in the most shocking way, the supremacy of the horror tale over all other forms of literature. As I intimated to you once before, these stories are not accounts of supernatural phenomena but supernatural phenomena in themselves.”

Samuels’s terrific story – both old-fashioned and unique – is one of those small but intriguing number of works of horror fiction that seems to take the horror genre itself as its subject (others in this category that I can think of off the top of my head are Joe Hill’s chilling “Best New Horror”, Ligotti’s bizarre “Notes on the Writing of Horror: A Story”, and the Amicus film The Skull). Lilith Blake is clearly bad news, and at least two men, two fans, get sucked far too deeply into the genre’s genuinely black heart. Muswell, in fact, disdains all other kinds of fiction, and the title of this post, How I Detest Those Fools, is taken from a line delivered by Muswell about a group of scholars studying James Joyce. Horror is all to him, and it will become all for our narrator. The nastiness and violence and hopelessness of horror consumes them. Had they enjoyed some other kind of reading material, there would be no “White Hands” by Mark Samuels. Though I suppose there still would be a “White Hands” by Lilith Blake, waiting for some other poor curious soul to take things too far.
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UPDATE 10/12/09: In the comments section, a fellah by the name of "tartarusrussell" informs me that not only is Mark Samuels's The White Hands and Other Weird Tales not out of print, but is available for a very reasonable price through Tartarus Press here. Call me a shill if you must, but Samuels deserves to have somebody shilling for him. Even if it's only me.

13 comments:

Greg said...

I've never been to a horror board but I would imagine such things as belief in God would be welcome there so this surprises me. I must admit, as an atheist, we and believers try not to be judgmental but when it comes to such matters often it's hard to help - BUT - it can be done nicely. I will be bluntly honest though - I do find belief in a single-unit entity (that means that in the biological world only one exists, for instance, if there had somehow been only one fully formed and evolved human that lived and died) that creates worlds and lives in another plane of existence ready to welcome or judge those after they have died extremely silly. I can't help it, I do. But I don't go around running down people who believe and I expect, though don't always receive, the same from believers, that is, don't ram your religion down my throat. As such, if someone were to reveal on a messageboard that they were a Christian my reaction would be... nothing.

But, seeing as horror folk are more open to the fanciful I would expect more would be believers. My sister is a HUGE horror literature fan and a HUGELY devout Christian. I've always connected the two.

bill r. said...

I can understand the logic of what you're saying -- that a belief in God would be not at all unheard of among fans and writers of supernatural fiction -- but the sense I'm getting is that that connection started to die out around the time of Lovecraft (who, I've gathered, was an atheist). Of the horror writers whose religious persuasion I'm aware of, I can only think of two who have openly professed to having religious faith -- Mark Samuels and William Peter Blatty. And we may well have seen the last fiction that Blatty will ever produce (I'd bet on it, in fact), so I'm not even sure he counts. I could name many more who are openly atheistic. Even King, who says he believes in God, never misses an opportunity to mock Christians in his books.

I recently picked up a book of essays by a horror writer named Thomas F. Monteleone, and in it is an essay where he talks about how he can be an atheist and still write about the supernatural. Had I actually read this full essay, I might be able to add some interesting insight into the discussion. But alas...

Here's a link to a discussion of atheism on a popular horror messageboard called Shocklines. I'll be honest and say that outside one or two assholes, this conversation doesn't include the kind of mockery of religion that Samuels describes, but it should give you a sense of how strong atheism is in the community. And the fact that the conversation largely refrains from mockery probably explains why I've seen Mark Samuels on this forum more than once.

Matt Cardin said...

Thanks for the Samuels-centric post. Mark's a friend and a very fine writer indeed, and I'm always interested to read intelligent reactions to his work.

Regarding the question of horror writers who openly profess a religious persuasion, and whose religion impacts their writing, Mark is not, in fact, alone:

- Brian Keene is 1) the best-selling author of THE RISING and a number of additional horror novels, and 2) a church-going man (Protestant, if memory serves) who occasionally and casually refers to this in public.

- Joseph Nassise is 1) a popular horror and fantasy author, 2) a past president of the Horror Writers Association, and 3) a very active Southern Baptist who, last I knew (and this was six or seven years), was active as a deacon in his church. He's very open about his religious faith, too.

3) Kim Paffenroth is 1) a professor of religious studies at Iona College, 2) a popular zombie novelist and anthologist, and 3) a vocal Christian of the theologically and socially liberal sort

4) I myself am 1) the author of DARK AWAKENINGS and DIVINATIONS OF THE DEEP, both of which explore the intersections between religion and horror, and 2) a nondualist Christian -- with generous doses of Zen and targeted agnosticism -- by personal philosophical understanding, and a long-time Protestant of varying denominational flavors by formal affiliation.

People like us are indeed still around. The age-old association between horror, terror, supernaturalism, and religion does continue to assert itself among contemporary horror writers. That said, Mark and I are two of the few that I know of who explicitly lean toward *weird* horror fiction. And yes, as per your well-conceived blog post, Mark with his Machen-esque mingling of weird horror and Roman Catholicism is one of the most (as it were) classically oriented of the bunch.

bill r. said...

Matt - Thank you very much for your comment, and your compliments.

I didn't mean to imply that Samuels (or you) are alone, but wouldn't you agree that you are no longer the norm? I feel as though with Lovecraft, the idea of the supernatural as a metaphor for cosmic meaninglessness started to take hold. To your list of religious writers you provide, let me offer Clive Barker, Monteleone, Harlan Ellison, and Ramsey Campbell (so I've heard, anyway). Granted, putting the two lists side by side, that makes us about even, but still.

In any case, I'd be happy to be wrong, as faith-based horror is something I'm very much interested in. It's just that my experiences on-line, and reading about various horror writers, I feel like that's a dying subgenre.

Krauthammer said...

I'm a bit dissipointed that this guys work is so hard to find, as I've become more interested in religiously-tinged works (especially catholic-tinged works) over the past year or so. To be honest, a large part of it is the exoticism, like how other people get into Buddhism or Hinduism I guess. Concepts such as salvation were so alien to how I was raised that seeing those kinds of issues worked through in fiction is unbelievably interesting to me.

bill r. said...

Krauthammer, the relative unavailability of a lot of interesting, or at least interesting-sounding horror fiction, is incredibly frustrating. The price I'd have to pay for Samuels's stuff (or Robert Aickman, or certain Ligotti books, or etc.) is so steep that I would normally simply have to do without it. But I do get lucky on occasion, so if you're that interested, you should tag the books you'd like, and just keep your eye on the Amazon Marketplace prices. Someone will eventually put one out there for a steal, and if you're quick, you'll get it.

Reverend Blood said...

What this says about the state of the modern horror fiction market – both Tartarus and PS Publishing are very small presses – is both very clear and entirely depressing

Ah, corporativism ... we love it, don't we? And the rule of the marketplace, etc., etc. Idiots get to determine what we read and don't read, what we see in the theater, and what we don't. Capitalism at its best!

And like King, I believe in God -- how could I not, given the circumstances I now find myself in, I had a rude awakening, that's for sure -- but can mock Christians with the best of them. Christians -- most of them, anyway -- are imminently mockable. Don't confuse a Christianity with a belief in God. Not the same thing.

Reverend Blood said...

And Harlan Ellison religious? Harlan Ellison?

bill r. said...

Reverend Blood - The list I provided that included Ellison was a list of atheists.

I wasn't "confusing" Christianity with religion -- though, you know, it IS a religion, so where's the confusion? -- but King's attitude in religion to fiction is primarily to mock that one particular religion, not to speak of his own beliefs. And when you say "most Christians are imminently mockable", well, not to be too blunt or anything, but that's your own prejudice talking.

bill r. said...

And before I get pounced on, let me correct myself: I'm not confusing Christianity with a belief in God, but Christianity DOES signal a belief in God, so where's the confusion?

tartarusrussell said...

Hi there - just to let you know that "The White Hands" was reprinted as a paperback immediately the first edition hardback sold out. The reprint is still available at:
http://www.tartaruspress.com/samuels.htm

bill r. said...

Thank you, Tartarusrussell -- when I get a chance, I'll add an update to this post.

Bryce Wilson said...

I know I'm late to the party on this one Bill, but Clive Barker is a Christian.

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