Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Kind of Face You SLASH!!! - Day 19: He Was His Own Truth

If I were on the outside looking in, I would guess that one aspect of these posts that gets really boring for some people are the parts where I decide it's necessary to tell everybody what my background is with the writer in question. Or, even better, when I tell you how I first heard about them. Because what could be more engrossing? Well, I have to get started somehow, so quit yer bitchin'. Today, though, I'm not even going to bother, because when it comes to Thomas Tessier, I have (almost) no history. I'd never read him before this year, when I read a fine short story by him called "In Praise of Folly" a couple months ago, and outside of that I was merely aware of him, as a ubiquitous name on the contents page of any number of anthologies.
Since then, I've learned that Tessier got his start back in the mid-70s. At the time, he was living in England, and worked as a music critic for the UK edition of Vogue, a nice gig he bailed on in order to concentrate on his fiction. His first novel, The Fates, was helped along to publication by his good friend Peter Straub, and this led Tessier to try a second novel, specifically a werewolf novel. He drew inspiration from Guy Endore's The Werewolf of Paris (though the final result doesn't really show it) and Jack Williamson's Darker Than You Think (which I haven't read, but will be seeking out shortly). For the record, I'm pulling all this information from Tessier's own afterword to the Leisure Books reprint of The Nightwalker, the werewolf novel that was the result of all this, and in that afterword Tessier describes the Williamson novel as being ambiguous to the end about whether the protagonist was really transforming into a wolf or not. This central idea is key to Tessier's The Nightwalker, which is certainly one of the more unique and disturbing takes on a werewolf story I've come across.
If Endore's The Werewolf of Paris is the primary, enduring classic of werewolf fiction, The Nightwalker, first published in 1979, is the modern masterpiece, which, given the relative obscurity of both, should tell you something about the werewolf's place in horror literature. What exactly the deal is with that, I couldn't tell you, but considering how much I like both the Endore novel and now Tessier's, I'd sure be thrilled if maybe people would start shifting away from zombies for a little while. But fine, do what you want, I'm sure there's a story about how WE are the real zombies that hasn't been told yet, or perhaps one about zombies that are....they're not people but maybe clones, so not only do you have a zombie outbreak, and everybody has to deal with that shit, but also there's this question of bioengineering or whatever, or bio...bio...something, whatever, clones, is the point, and ethics, so sometimes what'll happen is, you'll have a guy who's not a zombie, and he'll meet his clone who is, and he'll be "Can I kill myself?", as a zombie, I mean, so you have all these questions, this, this veritable stew of issues, and the great thing is it'll all be inside this bowl that's made up of rock-n-roll, kick-ass zombie action. In stores 2012.
The Nightwalker is not the werewolf version of the zombie-clone novel. Instead, it's the story of Bobby Ives, an American Vietnam vet who now lives in London. When we first meet him, he's waking up from a disturbing dream about some vague transformation, to find his apartment, and the hallways outside, to be filled with smoke. He locates the source, which is the burning dinner of another tenant, a drunk named Platt, who is passed out in his room as his apartment threatens to go up in flames. Ives takes care of the fire, but he also proceeds to beat the shit out of an already near-unconscious Platt. Once he's eased off, Ives feels no guilt for what he's done, and he will continue, through much of the novel, to ride guilt-free through some pretty heinous acts, shrugging off the initial shock he feels and coming to accept himself, and his nature, musing, at one point, after a particularly nasty bit of business:
Whatever kind of person he was, he could accept it. And the world would have to accept it, too, because he was a part of the world. Bobby knew that was a simple, self-justifying argument, but he also believed it held a basic truth. He was his own truth, whether he fully understood it or not.
The Nightwalker is not really a plot-heavy novel, in the sense that there is no subplot about the police detective trying to track down the perpetrator of these savage murders, or anything about Ives hunting the werewolf who bit him -- he never even gets bit. That's the strange thing about this book: it is, first and foremost, a good, old-fashioned, what-they-used-to-call character study about a guy living reasonably comfortable off of government checks, in London, a guy who has a girlfriend named Annie who he loves, and who loves him, and who he considers to be something of a break between himself and howling loneliness. But if he is a werewolf, and there is at least some reason to believe that he is -- as opposed to just a psychopathic killer -- the origin of that is left hidden. No, the two main bits of Ives's past that Tessier wants us to know are that, while in Vietnam, a soldier who shared his name was killed, and for a time the records reflected that he, our Ives, was the man who'd died, causing Ives to experience a sort of perpetually bemused existential crisis; and, number two, Ives is convinced that he's been reincarnated, and one of those past lives (the only one, possibly) is related, in some detail, by Ives to Annie, and it involves a Caribbean Island plantation, voodoo, and possibly zombies (the traditional, folkloric kind, not the flesh-eating kind).
It is, as I say, an odd book, and despite what the above might indicate, not at all over-stuffed at only about 200 pages. Most of The Nightwalker consists of Ives experiencing strange physical and mental health tics, such as sudden numbness and pain in his extremities, and abrupt waking blackouts. These experiences lead him and Annie to seek some sort of help, though Ives is less interested in her traditional methods. But that's essentially the course of the book, until Ives begins killing people. Very suddenly, very shockingly, not only in the violence of the deaths, or left-field quality of it, but the identity of some of his victims. Not only that, but the first person he kills is not shredded and partially eaten, the method you might expect from a werewolf, but casually murdered on impulse, on a spur of the moment, in a manner that would be at hand for any one of us, on any given day. Ives begins to follow his murders in the paper, and takes note of how they drift from the front page to the back. His reaction: "So sad. Good-bye."
For much of its length, The Nightwalker is an exceptionally, even brilliantly, cold-blooded novel -- Ives's refusal to feel guilt is possibly the most appalling aspect of this man. After all, he might be a werewolf, so we're going to expect a few killings to his name. But not the complete indifference to what he's done. At one point, Ives kills an anonymous jogger, and Tessier does a good job of telling us nothing about this man, not even his name, but still making his death hurt as he describes the man rising flash of terror, followed by his hopeless attempts to beat away Ives (in wolf form, or no?), which end in mere seconds. The fact that this whole business is over in seconds, that the guy was out jogging, and the amount of time that elapses between his last moment of carefree thought, to his first jolt of abject terror, to his complete evisceration, is far more horrifying than even the details of that evisceration (it reminds me in some small of way of the guy in the tube station in An American Werewolf in London, who just wanted to go home after work, and buy some candy along the way, some small thing he could enjoy, only to find his life over in the most unbelievable manner. The fact that, in the film, when David's victims return as ghosts, that guy is the most pissed off feels very appropriate to me).
More typical elements of the werewolf story -- a psychic, for instance, and silver -- will make their way into The Nightwalker as it progresses, and these are the least successful parts of the book. But the one standard that, after a long absence, shows itself in a very welcome manner is guilt. Ives does eventually feel it, and this moment of clarity does not feel wedged in, but rather truly heartbreaking. The way Ives pushes his deeds into the background makes it easy for the reader to do the same, until one, the first one, comes back in an unexpected rush, and Ives feels it like a wallop. So does the reader, or anyway I did, and I also found myself really hating Ives, right at the moment when his humanity is returning. I hated him, but came to cheer his race for either a way to control whatever was raging through his body, or his pursuit of self-destruction. Whatever works.


Bryce Wilson said...

Well here's another one I have to find now...

One modern Werewolf novel that I think is pretty great is Sharp Teeth. Extremely well written with some real ideas about the archetype.


I think the reason Werewolves have always had a bit of a hard time getting off the ground is that they completely lack romance. With Zombies it's always fun to imagine yourself on the other side. Ghosts allow for all sorts of stuff. And Vampires well we don't really even need to touch on that do we?

But Werewolves? You experience bone shattering pain and then wake up to find you've done horrific things once a month until you die. What's the fun in that?

Why it's almost horrific.

bill r. said...

It's VERY horrific, but it's no different, really, than Jekyll and Hyde which lives on pretty well, and besides Ives, in the novel, has a pretty damn good time before things all go to shit.

And SHARP TEETH! I have that one, even though I'm wary of it. But supposedly David Mamet likes it, incongruous as that sounds. Plus now you. So I guess I'll have to give 'er a look.

Frank B said...

Bryce -- there is a sort of doomed romanticism to Chaney's wolf man -- hurting the one you love and all that.

In a more general sense, the lycanthrope is horrified by his actions, but also might enjoy the loss of control and the accompanying freedom as he succumbs to the atavistic urge to rend and tear. It's not exactly romantic in the sense that you mean, but it certainly has its appeal. Like getting blind drunk, smashing up the place and pissing on the carpet -- feels GREAT when you're doing it, not so much the next day. I suppose the werewolf as alcoholic has been done, lots of times, probably -- it's almost too obvious a metaphor.

Funny how it's become accepted lore that changing hurts. Anyone know of a werewolf story in which the transformation is physically pleasurable?

I looked for The Nightwalker at my library and didn't find it, so I grabbed Finishing Touches. I also had Aickman's The Wine Dark Sea in my hand, but the librarian snatched it away and informed me that another patron had reserved it. Bastard! But I guess it's heartening to learn that his work is being read.

Now off to the bathtub -- and Finishing Touches.

Will Errickson said...

Glad to hear you liked this one as much as I did, Bill. I've rediscovered Tessier for my blog--I'd read several of his books years ago but remembered *nothing* of them; now I realize he's one of the better writers of that era (I haven't read anything new of his). I loved Finishing Touches. And I was quite disarmingly pleased when, out of nowhere, Mr. Tessier himself commented on my review of Nightwalker! I guess he was Googling himself?

Bryce Wilson said...

@ Frank B: Excellent points sir. Interestingly enough the change IS described as very physically pleasurable in Sharp Teeth, the book I linked to.

bill r. said...

Frank B - I'm sorry you weren't able to get the Aickman. Keep trying! It's worth it!

I think that the transformation of the teenage girl in Charnas's "Boobs" is supposed to be kind of pleasurable, being linked with sex and all that as it is, but I can't remember for sure.

Will - Oooh! I hope he comes by here, too! The only other times I attract well known (or published, anyway) authors or critics, they're coming to yell at me.

But yeah, the couple things I've read by him so far have really impressed me. I'm glad I finally bit the bullet.

Bryce - I was just looking at SHARP TEETH last night. I'm sure curious. Probably not this month, though.

John said...

That's such a good scary scene in American Werewolf. I still love that movie, definitely one of the all-time greats, say whatever you want to about Landis.