Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Kind of Face You SLASH!!! - Day 20: Please God Don't Let It

.
I think what I'm going to do now, at least to close out the week, is slip back in time for a little while by revisiting horror writers I've already covered during past The Kind of Face You SLASH!!!es. The reason for this is twofold: first, last night I found myself in a bit of a panic because I hadn't picked out anything to read for today, and had no good ideas. There are always stories to choose from, but any sort of specific reason for choosing a given story was absent, and it's helpful to have one of those. The other reason is that, in some case, I feel like I've given major horror writers pretty short shrift -- I aboslutely gave both Peter Straub and Clive Barker short shrift last year, but in this instance I'm thinking of guys who aren't quite so close to being household names. So I have a couple of these posts on deck, and this weekend I'll be able to finish a couple of longer stories I'm reading, and hopefully be full of fresh ideas for the final week.
.
To begin this miniseries of posts, however, I've chosen writers who aren't covered by either reason for doing this I've given above. The first writer, Ramsey Campbell, I devoted two posts to in 2008, or a post and a half: one he shared with M. R. James, and the other was all about his novel The Face That Must Die. Meanwhile, today's second author, Michael Chabon, has only written two horror stories his entire career, and after today I'll have covered both of them. My excuse is that I simply really wanted to read the two stories in question here, saw no reason to deny myself, and so there, that's it, that's all.
.
But back to Ramsey Campbell. My problems with his writing -- and I mean that very specifically, because much of what stops me short with him is his actual prose -- are, I would think, pretty well chronicled in the two posts linked to above. I think I've flat-out stated that I don't really know how to describe the problem, but in thinking about this post, and the Campbell story I read for today, I hit on a sort-of explanation, which is this: often with Campbell, I'm convinced that what I'm seeing in my head as I read is not what he's intending me to see, because what I'm seeing is far more clunky and not so evocative as what he must have been shooting for. This, I'll grant you, is a supremely unhelpful bit of criticism, and entirely unfair to Campbell, probably, but it happens to some degree every time I read him. For instance, in today's story, "The Companion", Campbell writes about a "green glow" (only once, I believe, and it's not a vital piece of the story, but more on that later). Now, green glows in horror fiction are among my most hated things. Nothing that glows green is ever going to read to me as anything other than a cheap special effect, and wherever that glow is coming from is immediately divorced from any reality that I can at least buy into for the time it takes me to read the story or novel. This is the closest I can come right now to illustrating why Campbell often makes me grind my teeth, although it's more than that -- he can be talking about something mundane, but describe it in such a way that it fills my head all lopsided and full of needless corners. I don't know if anyone else has ever had this experience reading anybody, but that's where I am with Campbell.
.
However, in "The Companion", there's also writing like this, decribing Stone, our protagonist, entering a "funfair", or amusement park:
.
But there wasn't much to see. The machines looked faded and dusty. Cars like huge armchairs were lurching and spinning helplessly along a switchback, a canvas canopy was closing over an endless parade of seats, a great disc tasselled with seats was lifting toward the roof, dangling a lone couple over its gears. With so few people in sight it seemed almost that the machines, frustrated by inaction, were operating themselves. For a moment Stone had the impression of being shut in a dusty room where the toys, as in childhood tales, had come to life.
.
Pretty good, I think. I chose "The Companion" because in the comments section of an earlier post, someone (I believe it was Bryce Wilson, but forgive me if I'm wrong) brought it up, saying that it was an exceptional story that might free me a little bit from my Campbell aversion, and also pointing me towards a passage in Danse Macabre, Stephen King's analysis of horror's history, in which King says:
.
Several collections of [Campbell's] stories are available, the best of them probably being The Height of the Scream. A story you will not find in that book, unfortunately, is "The Companion"*, in which a lonely man who tours "funfairs" on his holidays encounters a horror beyond my ability to describe while riding a Ghost Train into its tunnel. "The Companion" may be the best horror tale to be written in English in the last thirty years; it is surely one of half a dozen or so which will still be in print and commonly read a hundred years from now.
.
As a plot synopsis, that's actually pretty much it, or as close to it as you should be willing to get regarding a story that's only about twelve pages long. I also share his reticence to describe the story's final horror, though less because I don't think I could -- hell, I could just quote it! -- but rather because, well, that's the big moment. It's the story's whole reason for being. It's the reason it's called "The Companion". And reading that moment last night, I thought "Okay. I get it. This time, at least, I get it. It wasn't entirely smooth, getting here, but if I read more stuff by Campbell that was as eerie as this, or this close to just plain terrifying, it would be much easier for me to understand his reputation." I probably didn't think all that in just those words, but so what. "The Companion" is a very fine story that needs to be read to have any sense of why it's so good. King's praise for it is perhaps a bit excessive in my view, but matters of degree such as these are not worth arguing about.
.
So on to Michael Chabon, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author who I feel is quite overrated, but who has written a grand total of two short horror stories that I like very much. The background to Chabon's interest and dabblings in horror are discussed in the above-linked post, but basically this is something Chabon has been working through at least since Wonder Boys, before he'd revealed how heavily into genre fiction this capital "L" literary writer really was. He even announced a collection of horror fiction was in the offing soon after Wonder Boys was published, but it never happened. Still, Wonder Boys was 1995, and when his collection of stories Werewolves in Our Youth appeared in 1999, it contained a horror story called "In the Black Mill" (it was also attributed to August Van Zorn, for reasons also covered in that earlier post). That's the story I read in 2008, and I was pretty fond of it, despite making a sort of gimmick, or gag, out the Lovecraft influences, such as naming the region in Pennsylvania where the story takes place "Yuggoghenny", which is a very Lovecraftian way to spell something. But Chabon powered through those nervous tics to produce a story of real originality and strength, with a killer ending. "More!" is what I demanded.
.
Well, it's 2010, and here we have a whole brand new short story called "The God of Dark Laughter" (don't know where it first appeared, but I read it in the second volume of Peter Straub's American Fantastic Tales). Here's how it begins:
.
Thirteen days after the Entwhistle-Ealing Bros. Circus left Ashtown, beating a long retreat toward its winter headquarters in Peru, Indiana, two boys out hunting squirrels in the woods along Portwine Road stumbled on a body that was dressed in a mad suit of purple and orange velour.
.
I don't know about you, but that's a story I'm going to want to finish. Which I did, obviously, and what we have is Chabon attempting -- with some success, I believe -- to advance, or flesh out, his own version of Lovecraft's Cthulhu stories, complete with his own race of maniacal gods who live in space, and whose return to Earth will signal doom for us all. The way Chabon sees it, there is (at least) Ai, "the God Who Mourns", and what Ai mourns is the fact that the universe is a meaningless whirlpool of suffering; and then there is Ye-Heh, "the God of Dark and Mocking Laughter", and what he's mocking is the same thing that Ai is mourning. All of this comes from the acts of Yrrh (again, these letter combinations are all very familiar to readers of Lovecraft), the "father-god", who:
.
...an eternity ago, tossed the cosmos over his shoulder like a sheet of fish wrap and wandered away leaving not a clue as to his intentions...
.
Ai and his followers think that's terrible. Ye-Heh and his followers think it's hysterical. The murder of the clown, and its investigation by Ashtown's district attorney (our narrator) form the point at which those followers clash. And it all takes place in the Yuggoghenny region of Pennsylvania.
.
I still think Chabon should shed a bit of his, I believe, nervous and self-conscious attitude towards writing this stuff. It does seem to make him insecure, and if his ambition in this arena is to create a cycle of stories similar to Lovecraft's, then he should probably produce them at a rate faster than one every eleven years. But these are excellent stories, both of them, and I'm much more keen to see what this Michael Chabon does next than the one who rakes in the prizes and scales the bestseller lists and all that. This is the really interesting Chabon. More, please.
.
.
*The story can, however, be found in his later collection Dark Companions.

15 comments:

Bryce Wilson said...

Glad you liked The Companion. It's always nice when a recommendation hits home rather then crashing and burning.

And jeez, I'm a Chabon fan but I was blissfully unaware of his inclination towards horror writing until now.

He really does need to write that book, because I really REALLY need to read it.

bill r. said...

Well, the ending of "The Companion" is fantastic. Truly unnerving and unexpected, and just fucking weird. I loved it.

And you're not exactly way behind on Chabon's horror stories. Get WEREWOLVES IN OUR YOUTH and the Straub anthology (or that new Night Shade Press anthology of "devil" stories...I don't know what it's called, but I think the new Chabon story is in there, and it'll be cheaper than the Straub book), and you'll have his Complete Works, Horror Division.

Bryce Wilson said...

I just love the matter of fact way that Campbell delivers that last punch.

All that build up and then it's like, "And then this happened!!! Goodnight folks enjoy not sleeping for a week!"

bill r. said...

Yeah, that's the genius of it. It's the off-hand description of something that is completely bone-chilling that makes the whole thing work. I shudder to think how certain other writers might have approached the idea, but thankfully they didn't.

Anonymous said...

Really digging these posts. Thanks so much for writing them. It's surpassingly rare to see somebody write so well and knowledgeably about horror fiction.

bill r. said...

Thanks very much, Anonymous. I really and truly appreciate that.

John said...

I understand the "clunky" with reference to Campbell's writing, but to me it's a different kind of clunkiness than I find in, say, Terry Lamsley's. With Campbell, at least in early stories like this one, I got the impression it was a deliberate effect of the language he used, an odd, offbeat "texture" with an icy alienating quality. The passage you quote supports this, I think--at least, it suggests that Campbell has (or had) the kind of sustained control of language necessary to produce subtle effects like this (unlike Lamsley, for me, anyway).

bill r. said...

But the quote I used is an example of Campbell's writing that I like. "The Companion" didn't really have anything that clearly illustrated what I take to be the negative aspects of his prose, and so I didn't quote anything of that sort. I pulled a section that I thought was just plain good writing.

And as for Campbell's writing that doesn't work for me, you say he's trying to deliberately alienate the reader, but does that mean he's trying to alienate the reader from finishing his books? Because not to be a dick, but that's the way I feel sometimes, and not because I'm made uncomfortable in some obscure, metaphysical way, but because I'm finding the whole thing to be a grind.

ramsey said...

If you don't mind my intruding, I actually meant the "green glow" to be a cheap special effect - the kind of thing a run-down amusement park might use on the exterior of a ghost train. After all, in the immediately following paragraph we're told "the glow came from a coat of luminous paint, liberally applied but now rather dull and threadbare".

bill r. said...

Oh my...well yes, you did, although I thought there was still an eerie vibe intended on our first encounter with the glow.

In any case, I did like this story very much, and I hope any criticism was taken by you in the spirit I intended.

John said...

...you say he's trying to deliberately alienate the reader, but does that mean he's trying to alienate the reader from finishing his books?


No, I mean alienate in the sense of making the reader share the character's feelings of isolation, of being alone, in a chill, often unfriendly little corner of the world, even before things start getting weird. However, this approach (coupled with Campbell's sometimes slightly cryptic stylings) probably does lead to alienating readers, in the sense you mean, from the work itself, more often than not, new readers especially.

But this is just a personal take, and seeing as the author himself has apparently done us the honor of throwing in his own 2 cents (pence?) here, I'm happy to defer to him entirely on the subject.

Just let me add that "The Companion" is still, for me, about as close to a perfect horror tale as I've read, and I've read a lot of them. The opening sets the scene perfectly, the latter portion is as eerie an evocation of the uncanny as anything I can remember reading.

I see that Stephen King, in the quote reproduced here, calls this story "[maybe] the best horror tale to be written in English in the last thirty years"; I can recall King, in his introduction to Charles L. Grant's "Tales from the Nightside" (a book I recommend, incidentally), naming "Companion" as one of the three best horror tales ever written in English. Hyperbole? Maybe, but at least he's consistent about it, and rightly so. It's one of those exceedingly rare horror tales that justify all the praise thrown at them.

ramsey said...

You folk are very kind! To be absolutely honest, I like the second half of the tale (once he leaves the new fairground) enough to wish the rest were a damn sight better. Still, if I started rewriting all my old stuff I suspect I'd never stop.

bill r. said...

If I had to divide it, I love the beginning, and I adore the ending. So much so that, though she doesn't read horror fiction, I've thought about having my wife read "The Companion" so she'll have some idea what it is I look for when I read the genre. It's hard to put into words what "The Companion" does so well, so it's best to just read it. Which goes without saying, obviously.

Bryce Wilson said...

That'd be one interesting experiment (As long as you wouldn't mind a night on the couch as a possible consequence).

And thank you Mr. Campbell for taking the time to drop by, very cool of you sir.

Bryce Wilson said...

PS Bill The "M.R. James" is a dead link.

I'll avoid the obvious pun now thank you very much.

PSS: Picked up Werewolves In Their Youth today.

Followers