Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Kind of Face You SLASH!!! - Day 14: Burbling Organ Music

There are times during this project, after I've read the stories slotted for the next day's post, when I really wish I'd read something else. Today is one of those days, and I started feeling that way about halfway through the first of the two stories. It's one thing to not like a story, or a pair of stories; it's something else again to not like them and also not want to write about them, which is the dilemma on whose horns I presently find myself.

Helping matters not at all is the fact that I also know next to nothing about Robert Devereaux, the writer in question. Before selecting two stories from his collection Caliban and Other Tales, a book I bought more or less at random some years ago, all I knew was that he was a fairly obscure contemporary horror writer who is admired by Poppy Z. Brite, among others, and whose fiction (like Brite's) tends toward the extreme. Despite the fact that it maybe doesn't always seem that way, I am, in truth, perfectly fine with extreme whatever in horror fiction, as long as there is an intelligence and talent behind it (see, well, Poppy Z. Brite, for instance, or Clive Barker, or etc.). So there was that, and also I knew that Devereaux had written a novel called Santa Steps Out, which is, I guess, some over-the-top Christmas satire, which put me in mind of that old Lobo comic, The Lobo Paramilitary Christmas Special. The Adolescent Me had been a huge admirer of that particular comic, and the Current Me might well find something to enjoy in it still, but I wouldn't be able to convince myself that there was anything meaningfully transgressive, or anything other than juvenile, going on in its pages. And while I don't fancy myself a psychic, the connection I made between Santa Steps Out and that Lobo comic (a connection that could very well be entirely in my head, as I hven't read Santa Steps Out) should have sent up a flare, warning me to not expect too much from Devereaux's fiction. That warning flare would have been nice to have. It may have even overcome my belief that because Devereaux looks like an English professor, he must be a good writer. Or, more to the point, a writer I would like.

Because he's not a writer I would like, and, in fact, is a writer I do not like. The two stories I read for today -- "Bucky Goes to Church" and "The Slobbering Tongue That Ate the Frightfully Huge Woman" -- are in some ways interchangable, in that both walk around wearing a satisfied smirk as they, I don't know, blow the lid off of Christian...something something. I'm not even sure, because "hypocrisy" isn't it. In "Bucky Goes to Church", the title character is an obese young man who is mercilessly teased by, apparently, everyone in town, until one day a voice in his head tells him to kill them all. Somehow, Bucky gets his hands on some serious firepower, and, this being Sunday, goes to the church and opens fire. That's most of the story, is Bucky shooting up the church:

Then the voice slammed in louder and harsher -- (KILL THE FUCKERS, BUCKY, KILL THEM SONS O' BITCHES!) -- like a new gear ratio kicking in. Bucky used its energy to fight the impulse to relent, dredging up an image of his dead folks fountaining blood like Bucky's Revenge, using that image to sight through as he picked off the Atwoods, four generations of hardware greed on the corner of Main and Garvey: old Grandpappy Andrew, a sneer and a "Shitwad!" on his withered lips as Bucky stiched a bloody bandolier of slugs slantwise across his chest...

And repeat. I'll spare you further examples, but these are the jokes, as they say, until we get to Devereaux's big reveal. The police soon bust into the church and open fire on Bucky, and as he's dying, time freezes, and God appears. Except God's a black woman...or rather, well, read:

Like Don Rickles trapped in a carpet, the face of an angry black woman grimaced out from behind the white beard and mustache of God.

The "Don Rickles" line sailed right by me, too, as did the point of having the black woman have a beard and mustache. It's true that she's not God, or at least not the God, but rather the soul of a woman who, herself, shot up a bunch of people at her office some time ago. What happens is, every time somebody goes on a shooting spree, they've been urged to do so by the previous person who committed a similar crime, and the reason is so that their spirit can be freed, and the new spirit can take over. What the new spirit takes over is the weight of all the world's suffering, and it's right about hear that Devereaux's own hypocrisy begins to bloom. Because that first bit, with Bucky shooting up the church, was meant to be just a lot of bloody fun, because Bucky has been horribly mistreated by these people, and even so they're all in church, and you know what that means. Except now Devereaux spends some time reminding us that they were people too. We had our fun, but come on, man, they're dead now, so no more jokes.

I find this kind of two-faced shit pretty appalling, and in the 80s, and especially the 90s, it was all over the place in horror fiction. It's what "splatterpunk" was all about, and why those guys were able to fool themselves into thinking they were making any kind of point, or taking a stand. It's meant to be, I suppose, one of those "if you gaze into the abyss" kind of things, but instead it's a "have your cake" kind of thing, and I don't like it.

"The Slobbering Tongue That Ate the Frightfully Huge Woman" is no better, and in fact may be worse. This time around, we meet Sally Holmes and her husband John. John's a cop, and Sally works in a lab with a brilliant man named Dr. Baxter. Baxter is physically repugnant, but...

...when he spoke, his labials, his fricatives, his palatals, his urps of intelligence, the way his moist pink tongue oystered in his mouth -- all of those orals sorts of things made Sally go all soft and squoozy inside.

Squoozy, despite the fact that Sally and her husband are typically uptight Christians who are ashamed to even have sex with each other! Oh, the merriment. Baxter, meanwhile, has been working on a major new science-type experiment, which he's eager to reveal to Sally:

Baxter anticipated her amazment.

"Oh, my!" she ejaculated, her fetching shoulder blades flexing like coy airplane struts under that white coat she plumped out so well in front.

"You've never seen a ten-foot cock before?" [Baxter asked.]

Hold onto your hats, though, because he's actually talking about a rooster! These, as I've said, are the jokes.

So yes, Baxter is working on some crazy growth serum, and then he rapes Sally, who fights back by cutting him into pieces with all the science knives that are lying around, choosing to preserve that tongue she so admired in some of that growth serum, which also splashes all over Sally, so that in the days to come she begins to grow. The tongue, meanwhile, becomes sentient, and escapes from the forensics lab, or whatever, where it was being stored, and begins to stalk her. This story is basically for anybody who wished Attack of the 50 Foot Woman had been a porn film, except that it's also intended to teach uptight Christians that sex is okay, because by the end, even though his wife's dead, John feels okay because he's no longer ashamed of his boner. THE END.

In fairness, I guess, this story, and "Bucky Goes to Church", are intended to be "funny", thereby somewhat ameliorating a bit of the otherwise unforgivable ridiculousness. What would have worked even better would have been going beyond mere intentions, and actually making the fucking things funny. Or not endlessly obnoxious, or relentlessly smug. Or maybe if Devereaux didn't take his religious stick figures at face value. Something. Something other than this. Anything other than this.


Will Errickson said...

I think "Bucky Goes to Church" was in the Splatterpunks II collection, and I don't recall liking it at all. His novel Deadweight was one of the last published by Dell/Abyss and it simply sounded like gore for gore's sake, with a splash of glib "social concern" to make it, uh, relevant? No thanks.

bill r. said...

Yeah, I had DEADWEIGHT. It takes on the issue of spousal abuse, which is a well many a horror writer has gone down in order to justify their splatter.

Anonymous said...

SANTA STEPS OUT is every awful thing you imagine it is and then some. At least that was the case with the 80 or so pages I slogged through. I also read about half this collection before donating it to the library book sale. I commend your dedication- not sure I could have summoned any verbiage for these stories.

One of the things that caused me to shy away from contemporary horror for a good while were all the story collections with horrendously self-congratulatory intros by authors or editors about how you're about to read tales that "cut to the bone" of society and "peel back the masks of hypocrisy" and other such hogwash. I retreated to the pulps and Victorians because they didn't pretend to be offering anything other than a good tale well told. I really think that a lot of contemporary horror writers don't read much outside the genre- and little at all that's really interesting or challenging (it sometimes seems to me that King takes a perverse pride in this). I'd love to tell some of these guys to go read- say- Philip Roth's Zuckerman cycle and then come back and tell me how their zombie story is gonna really make me think.

bill r. said...

I agree with just about everything you say there, otherbill, particularly about modern horror writers not reading outside of their own genre. Christ, I think most of them barely read WITHIN their genre.

But King's not part of that. He ranked Roth's THE PLOT AGAINST AMERICA as the best novel of that year, and has spoken about Cormac McCarthy, etc. He's just a reader, period.

Will Errickson said...

God, I *hate* those intros! They make me cringe in embarrassment today. My girlfriend read the Midnight Graffiti collection recently for the first time and couldn't stand it. I'd warned her how bad they could be. And yes, King's tastes have always been extremely catholic.

bill r. said...

I'll have to look at the MIDNIGHT GRAFFITI intro when I get home. I haven't read that one in a long time (if I ever did). I despise the intro to BOOK OF THE DEAD for that very reason, however, and I think Jack Ketchum's intro to his collection PEACEABLE KINGDOM is almost hilarious in its self-regard.