Monday, October 31, 2011

The Kind of Face You Slash - Day 31: You Who Are Not Accursed

Last night, I was quietly angry inside my brain about the idea that a writer, or any kind of artist, is no longer “relevant”. I despise this way of thinking because not only do I not know what it could mean, but I seriously doubt those who use it regularly know, either. Never mind for a second what it means for a writer to be irrelevant; what does it mean for a writer to be relevant? Relevant to whom? There are a lot of very good, even great, writers that nobody reads anymore, and this is the reading public’s loss entirely. Somebody once said to me that they’d never read E. L. Doctorow because they didn’t think he was relevant anymore. So you don’t even have to read the person to reach this conclusion. And what had led to this in the first place? Because Doctorow writes mainly about old-timey days?

Among the many, many writers to whom the “not relevant” label could be, and no doubt has been, applied is Kingsley Amis. Father of the, according to some, no longer relevant Martin Amis, Book Prize-winning author of The Old Devils, his place in some sort of canon assured with the publication of his first book, Lucky Jim, one-time Communist who eventually swung pretty hard to the right, assumed to be a bigot and homophobe by those who don’t read him because he’s no longer relevant or something, enough of a drunk to be admired on this count by Christopher Hitchens, friend of controversial but much-revered (and apparently, and surprisingly, still relevant) poet Philip Larkin and historian of the Soviet nightmare Robert Conquest, and one of the very few writers who can make me laugh out loud, Kingsley Amis was once very big, but through a mixture of various things, political persuasion likely among them, as well as – to be fair – the widely held opinion that his later books weren’t up to snuff, his literary star was plummeting well before his death in 1995, and despite the very surprising (because outside of me I don’t think anyone was asking for such a thing) and very massive double-hit of the 1200 page The Letters of Kingsley Amis and the 900+ page The Life of Kingsley Amis (the former compiled by, and the latter written by, Zachary Leader), there are currently no signs of a resurgence in interest. This must be regarded by anyone with an interest in the comic novel as Too Bad, to say the least.

None of which matters to us today, though, I suppose. Fortunately, Kingsley Amis, who specialized in cynical, even bitter, drunken comedies of manners, was also something of a dabbler in genre fiction. His interest in reading it generally far outweighed his interest in writing it – in later years, he expressed a preference for Dick Francis novels over pretty much anything else – but along with his still-classic non-fiction overview of science fiction (his genre of choice, it must be said) New Maps of Hell, Amis made every attempt to dish it out, as well. With, to be frank, very mixed results. Of the three major genres whose waters he tested – science fiction, mystery, and horror – SF got most of his ink, and earned him the most genre credibility. He turned out at least one stone classic of SF, The Alteration, and several other novels and short stories of varying respectability (one of his science fiction novels, Russian Hide-and-Seek, which I haven’t read, also has the distinction of being considered his worst book, at least according to Martin Amis and Margaret Thatcher). Amis’s mystery fiction has to be his least successful, and most disappointing to me on a personal level. One of them, the one that’s most like a real book, The Riverside Villas Murder, has a murder plot reveals Amis as simply trying to fit a puzzle together in the most convoluted manner possible, though it works pretty well as a non-genre Amis book about growing up. Another, Crime of the Century, doesn’t have that going for it (it’s my least favorite Amis novel, mainly because it’s not funny, and is barely a novel).

Amis’s horror fiction, meanwhile, is something else again. There’s not very much of it – unless there’s a short story I’m missing, he only has three: the novel The Green Man, itself considered a classic at about the level in its genre as The Alteration is in SF, and two short stories, which are what bring us here today. They are “To See the Sun” and “Who or What Was It?”. Had I known what “To See the Sun” was, I’d have read it a long time ago. It’s a vampire story, what the back cover of my copy of Amis’s The Collected Stories calls “a brilliant Amisian version of the Dracula legend.” The cover does not identify which story that is, though, and when my investigations revealed that, against all logic, the story “All the Blood Within Me” was not the one, I apparently gave up all hope, or most of it. I mean, the word “blood” is right there…no other titles have “blood” in them. Who, exactly, is jerking me around here? Of course, I hadn’t remembered that, in vampire lore, the sun is also a pretty big deal, so way back when this nightmare was playing out I just gave up. The older, more determined me who you see before you is more determined, and is not about to let some stupid table of contents fool me again. I’ve had the book for about twelve years, by the way.

It should be noted right off the bat that “To See the Sun”, which I liked very much, is not an Amisian version of the Dracula legend. It is not a version of the Dracula legend, which is the key point. This was something of a kick in the pants, considering that my whole reason for choosing Amis to close out The Kind of Face You Slash this year is so I could loop this story back around to Dracula, which as you may recall is where we began. But no. “To See the Sun” is a vampire story, and it does take place in a Transylvania-esque part of Europe. It’s also an epistolary story, with all the information being delivered either through letters from Steven Hillier, a middle-aged man working on a book about vampire mythology, to his wife Constance, or to his friend and, I gathered, publishing associate Charles Winterbourne; and the journals of Countess Valvazor, who Steven is scheduled to meet at Valvazor Castle, where she lives, to discuss and study the vampire-rich history of her family. He does meet her, and she falls instantly in love with him – you’d assume it would go the other way, her being a beautiful countess and him being your basic middle-aged English scholar, and it does, but the Countess is the one who instigates their brief, but heated, and tragic, love affair.

A love affair which must not last, as should be obvious. The truth is, “To See the Sun” is finally pretty straightforward. Its novelty comes from having been written by Kingsley Amis, although it is quite good, just as vampire story, removed from the context of who wrote it and how many other horror stories has this person written? The Countess is a vampire, but one who has become most reluctant and remorseful after meeting Steven. The history of how she was turned, and who turned her, which is revealed towards the end, is full of all sorts of hints at many tens of decades of depravity and murder, yet somehow the Countess remains sympathetic. Pretty effortlessly, even, not least, in the end, because of, well, the ending, which it occurs to me is not unlike the ending of two vampire films from the last decade, the latter of which was accused by some online folks of ripping off the earlier film. Had anybody read “To See the Sun”, none of that would have ever happened, I bet.

Also managing to be sympathetic, but weirdly less so, is Steven, our ostensible hero, who gleefully cheats on his wife and feels a bit bad about it later. It’s necessary to point out that this is not an uncommon feature of Amis’s fiction, though as Martin Amis points out in his memoir Experience, it became something of habit of his father’s to give the women in his books the last word. This is not the case in “To See the Sun”, but it’s also very possible to hurt yourself with all that finger-wagging. Anyway, Steven’s infidelity actually brings about a cosmic good. Speaking of which, the supernatural elements of “To See the Sun” are rather intriguing. There’s some wonderfully creepy stuff involving a painting of the funeral of a prominent member of the Valvazor clan, and the tossed-away violence of the later sections is surprisingly brutal (and could not have been brought about by a normal human), but the interesting stuff comes from Amis’s treatment of the religious connection to the vampire legend. What’s interesting, to me anyway, is that Amis doesn’t dismiss it. I only find this interesting because, while Amis shed his youthful Communism, he retained the atheism, and it would have seemed much more in character for him to devise some other means of portraying the Countess’s remorse than to have her wish to come back into the good graces of the Christian God, which is what she ends up doing. Not that I’m complaining, and all this stuff is rather touching – she asks Steven to pray for her, as she’s no longer able to do it herself – but it is surprising.

More surprising, mainly due to its overall strangeness, is “Who or What Was It?”. In The Life of Kingsley Amis, Leader mentions this story (which was written, and retains its form, as a monologue delivered on the radio) mainly to wonder about the fact that, all things in the story considered, Amis doesn’t refer to himself as a drunk, Amis himself being the story’s protagonist. I think Leader might be casting about for a too-literal interpretation of not only “Who or What Was It?”, but The Green Man, too, but in any case he seems to have missed the key line in the story, if one wants to read the story the way Leader does, which is: “I drank a fair amount.”

But I see I’m getting way ahead of myself. What “Who or What Was It?” is, is The Green Man told again in miniature. Literally, that’s what it is, because it features Kingsley Amis and his wife, Elizabeth Jane Howard, stopping at a pub, or inn, that apart from the name of the place (which Amis refuses to reveal) bears some striking resemblance to the one used as the setting for The Green Man. That pub/inn was called “The Green Man”, which only explains half of that title choice, the other half being that the actual Green Man, the pagan spirit, comes to threaten the life and sanity of Maurice Allington ( “a boozer”, in Amis’s words), protagonist and proprietor of “The Green Man”, as well as his family, specifically his teenage daughter. What Kingsley Amis discovers in “Who or What Was It?” is that this pub has a proprietor named Allington, and employs with names similar to, but not exactly like, the names of corresponding characters in his novel. There’s a lot that’s different, but enough is weirdly on the mark, or just off the mark a tiny bit, that Amis decides he’d better hang around in case the Green Man comes after this Allington’s daughter.

And to say anything more would be to not only spoil “Who or What Was It?”, which is sort of a lark, but The Green Man, which isn’t. That’s a novel I read before I probably should have -- it's a novel where life is being lived around the edges of the genre, as is the case with The Riverside Villas Murder when it's working, and which did not fit my idea of "horror" at the time I read it -- but it’s hung with me ever sense, largely because of a bizarre scene involving God, in the form of a young man, speaking to Maurice Allington about various things. It’s a very unflattering portrayal of the Almighty, and more in line with what I would have expected from Amis than “To See the Sun”. Interestingly, and amusingly, some of Amis’s thoughts on all this are touched on in his introduction to The Collected Stories when he says that, after the radio reading of “Who or What Was It?” was broadcast, he received some phone calls and letters from people asking questions as though the story was true. At least one came from a friend who Amis had always taken to be reasonable, and Amis asked him how he could have believed any of it. The friend said he didn’t, really, but thought maybe Amis was suffering from DTs. Others actually did buy it, though, and Amis marvels, in a depressed sort of way, that anyone could believe what he relates in “Who or What Was It?” and not act accordingly. Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds broadcast supposedly caused some people to panic and flee by car. Amis notes that this may be evidence of stupidity, but it is also evidence of reason. If aliens are attacking, and you really believe they are, then you run. If you believe that pagan ghosts are attacking a teenage girl, you don’t simply ask “Which pub was this again?”

Anyway, strange and larky though it is, I would say I enjoyed "Who or What Was It?", more even that "To See the Sun", even though "To See the Sun", certainly as a horror story, must be considered the better. But "Who or What Was It?" is funny, partly due to its conversational style, written to mimic a man telling you a story off-the-cuff. That allows for things like this, which involves Amis trying to figure out how to tell his waiter, named Palmer, why he's so curious about the employees of the inn:

Jane had said earlier on, why didn't I just tell the truth, and I'd said, since Palmer hadn't reacted at all when I gave him my name when I was booking the table -- see what I mean? -- he'd only have my word for the whole story and might still think I was off my rocker, and she said of course she'd back me up, and I'd said he'd just think he'd got two loonies on his hands instead of one. Anyway, now she said, Some people who've read The Green Man must have mentioned it, -- fancy that, Mr Palmer, you and Mr Allington and Fred are all in a book by somebody called Kingsley Amis. Obvious enough when you think of it, but like a lot obvious things, you have got to think of it.

Well, that was the line I took when Palmer rolled up for his brandy, I'm me and I wrote this book and so on. Oh really? he said, more or less. I thought we were buggered, but then he said, Oh yes, now you mention it, I do remember some chap saying something like that, but it must have been two or three years ago -- you know, as if that stopped it counting for much. I'm not much of a reader, you see, he said.

I don't know about you, but this is just the kind of thing I need to ease myself out of horror for a while. And with that, I bid you good day.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Kind of Face You Slash - Day 30: Watched it Burn

Daphne du Maurier is responsible for a lot of brilliant ideas that moviegoers typically and thoughtlessly attribute to others. Hitchcock's The Birds is Hitchcock's The Birds, and du Maurier's name in the credits registers for most people as someone who had to be paid off so the film could be made. This is nothing to do with Hitchcock himself, and du Maurier is by no means unique in this way. But I think of the unfairness when I think about du Maurier, because of this line from Roger Ebert's review of Insignificance, directed by Nicolas Roeg:

Roeg is a master of baroque visuals and tangled plot lines. His Don't Look Now still has people trying to explain that Venetian dwarf in the red raincoat...

Oh? Is that what Nicolas Roeg did? I remember first seeing Don't Look Now -- which is one of my favorite films -- and being stunned by that ending, then finding the du Maurier story on which it's based and (I still sort of hate myself for doing this) reading the ending. Same red dwarf, same red raincoat, same everything. Roger Ebert is a very well-read man, but it's something I've noticed about some well-read people, that after a certain point, if they haven't read something, it might not actually count as having been written.

All this made me very curious about Daphne du Maurier, who before my Don't Look Now experience I'd pegged as some sort of jumped up romance novelist. I was probably being sexist in my youth. Not only that, but even though I've overcome that knee-jerk assumption, it didn't actually spur me to read du Maurier. My reading life, or more accurately, my not reading life, is positively littered with writers who passingly interest me, and whose work I collect about me, and then leave untouched on the shelf. Even the recent raves of a discerning friend of mine -- too discerning, I might sometimes say -- couldn't provide the necessary push to make me actually crack one of my du Maurier books. Feeling bad about this whole thing and having no idea what to read for today finally did, though.

I finally decided, after much indecision, to go with "The Birds". Like Don't Look Now, Hitchcock's film is a favorite of mine, and I was very curious to see how du Maurier's original played out. And the comparison is very interesting. Reading "The Birds" and watching The Birds is not entirely unlike partaking in the many different films and books that share the premise of humans cloned for the purposes of organ harvesting, but very little to nothing in terms of tone, style, goals, or even plot. The Hitchcock film takes place in San Francisco, and as a result has a larger canvas, of character, setting, set pieces. Du Maurier's original story has a very small cast, made up mostly of a single family: Nat Hocken and his wife, and their two children, Jill and Johnny. Outside of that is the Trigg family, on whose farm Nat works, and Jim, another of the Triggs' employees. Like the film, du Maurier's story takes place in a bayside community, but calling both San Francisco and the small English village where the story takes place "bayside communities" is a little like saying Monte Carlo and Lawrenceburg, IN both have casinos.

Everything that happens -- and it all gets started pretty fast -- in "The Birds" is seen from Nat's point of view, and he's one of the only people in his small circle of family, friends and acquaintances who takes this sudden thread of attacking birds seriously, even though it quickly becomes clear that this is, at least, a national situation:

Various incidents were recounted, the suspected reason of cold and hunger stated again, and warnings to householders repeated. The announcer's voice was smooth and suave. Nat had this impression that this man, in particular, treated the whole business as he would an elaborate joke. There would be others like him, hundreds of them, who did not know what it was to struggle in darkness with a flock of birds. There would be parties tonight in London, like the ones they gave on election nights. People standing about, shouting and laughing, getting drunk. "Come and watch the birds!"

Nat's relationship with what's going on is different from what he predicts will be the reaction of others for several reasons, and is key to why du Maurier's story is so brilliant. First, as implied, he has struggled in darkness with a flock of birds, when, at the story's beginning, they crashed through into both his own bedroom, and that of his children. But it goes beyond that, because throughout Nat also remembers, and compares the bird attacks to the World War II air raids he and so many other English people had suffered through:

Jim was no more interested that Mrs. Trigg had been. It was, Nat thought, like air raids in the war. No one down this end of the country knew what the Plymouth folk had seen and suffered. You had to endure something yourself before it touched you.

This attitude helps Nat and his family revert to the strength and planning that got Nat through those bombings. The fabled stiff upper lip of the British during the war returns in the Hocken home -- and not, you get the sense, elsewhere -- and Nat's enthusiastic attempts to bolster the optimism of his young children is du Maurier at her most moving. As the birds slam heedlessly into the Hocken's cottage, which has been transformed into something as close to a fortress as Nat can manage, Johnny, the youngest, pipes up:

"Stop it," said young Johnny, pointing to the windows with his spoon, "stop it, you old birds."

"That's right," said Nat, smiling, "we don't want the old beggars, do we? Had enough of 'em."

They began to cheer when they heard the thud of the suicide birds.

"There's another, Dad, cried Jill, "he's done for."

"He's had it," said Nat, "there he goes, the blighter."

This was the way to face up to it. This was the spirit.

Because birds suddenly turning into bloodthirsty man-killers could not have been predicted, and travelling far from home soon becomes suicidal, the Hocken family soon even has to resort, once more, to rationing. The two cigarettes Nat has left not only becomes an indicator of his unostentatious ability to go without, but they provide a stark and despairing capper to the story that, quite frankly, trumps the hell out of the still great climax envisioned by Hitchcock and screenwriter Evan Hunter.

So not only all that, and not only does du Maurier get the shaft when it comes to what she invented that has carried over to the film adaptations of her work, but as I read "The Birds" I thought about Richard Matheson, and how he -- more or less good-naturedly, it must be said -- has often pointed the finger at George Romero and claimed Romero liberally borrowed from Matheson's I Am Legend for his own Night of the Living Dead. Apart from the general, very loose idea of the undead in both stories, I have to assume Matheson is referring to the idea of one man, or a small group of people in Romero's case, holed up in a house that they've boarded up and rigged out as best they could to both keep out and defend against massive groups of unnatural killers who will only stop when they're all dead. But in du Maurier's "The Birds", and far more so than in Hitchcock's obviously much more famous film adaptation, the story is about a small group of people holed up in a house that they've boarded up and rigged out as best they could to both keep out and defend against massive groups of unnatural killers who will only stop when they're all dead. Matheson wrote I Am Legend in 1954. Du Maurier wrote "The Birds" in 1952. Not that it can possibly matter at this point, but even so I'm starting to think that maybe it's a good idea to not throw stones.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Kind of Face You Slash - Day 29: God Hates a Coward

There is a lot of horror fiction I have not read. This goes without saying, I suppose, but I mean that there is a lot of horror fiction that I should have read by now that I haven't. This fact is driven home to me on a regular basis, just by seeing names of writers like Seabury Quinn, and thinking "Who?" Yeah, well, if I was the kind of guy who was actually qualified to write about horror as often as I do, I wouldn't be asking that question. And yet here I am. One of the pluses of doing this -- and it's a plus enjoyed only by myself -- is that I have an excuse to systematically fill in these gaps while leaving lots of time free (most of the rest of the year) to read whatever else I feel like. Today is one of the days where I felt a strong urge to fill some gaps.

And neither of those gaps is named Seabury Quinn! I know, perverse, right? But I've been putting off reading any of Ambrose Bierce's straight-up horror fiction, as well as Robert E. Howard's famous "Pigeons from Hell", for a very long time, but I've ended that negative streak. As it turns out, Bierce's "The Damned Thing" and Howard's "Pigeons from Hell" make a nice pairing. The title of this post, apart from being a very old phrase, is used in the Bierce story, but applies to both. In each story, a regular fellow, like you and me, finds him facing some immensely powerful supernatural force, and instead of running they steel themselves for a showdown. This works out better for one of the guys than it does the other, but Bierce's man, Hugh Morgan, who is dead on a table while his inquest plays out around him, has no help. There is no reason why this is happening to him, specifically -- and what "this" is, is an invisible thing, a "Damned Thing", he calls it, wandering the grounds of his home and terrorizing him -- but he will try to deal with it. He even finds a solution, of sorts, though it doesn't save him. It is extraordinarily Lovecraftian, though, even blatantly Lovecraftian, except that doesn't quite work when you consider that Bierce himself disappeared (forever) three years before Lovecraft ever published a word.

My experience with Bierce before reading "The Damned Thing", his most famous straight horror story, was a college reading of his black-as-night Civil War story "Chickamauga", and a knowledge of the entire plot of "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge". I don't even really know if I've ever read that story, though I suspect I haven't. It's just one of those stories that everybody knows, one way or the other, not least because, judging by the current state of American genre films, it must be counted as one of the most influential short stories of...ever. But mainly I knew Bierce's wonderful and caustic The Devil's Dictionary, a short mock-dictionary featuring definitions like:

ACHIEVEMENT, n. The death of endeavor and the birth of disgust.


RADICALISM, n. The conservatism of to-morrow injected into the affairs of to-day.

The idea behind The Devil's Dictionary seems to have been to carefully identify and label each kind of hypocrisy that human beings are capable of. This sort of thing, along with stories like "Chickamauga", led to the always-clever press labelling Bierce "Bitter Bierce". It had been my belief before today that whatever "horror" Bierce wrote was closer to "Chickamauga" -- horror by way of stark reality -- than "The Dunwich Horror". Even a title like "The Damned Thing" couldn't quite dissuade me of this belief, but anyway, I was wrong. "The Damned Thing" is unambiguously a horror story, with an ending that must have influenced Lovecraft in its specifics, but in the cosmic philosophy it implies. Lovecraft is known to have been a reader of Bierce, and considering the shadow Lovecraft casts over an entire century of horror literature, "The Damned Thing" begins to take on an amazing significance. Put it like this: if modern horror fiction is a disease, "The Damned Thing" is Patient Zero. Combine that with "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" and you see what an enormous figure Bierce really is.

Robert E. Howard's influence is similarly huge, but, being the creator of Conan, his influence was in the world of fantasy -- dark fantasy, to be sure -- more than horror. Still, Howard wrote in the genre a great deal. The 500 page The Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard is proof of this. Reading "Pigeons from Hell" (not just my first horror story by Howard, but my first Howard, period) now, you can practically feel the pages of the pulp magazine (Weird Tales, this would have been) as you turn the pages. Of all the stories I've read in the four years of doing this series, or, frankly, the thirty or so years I've been reading horror, the one "Pigeons from Hell" most brings to mind if Hugh B. Cave's "Murgunstrumm". This isn't because the two bear any story similarities, or even thematic ones outside of those inherent to their shared genre, but both positively reek of pulp. Lurid and violent and refusing to waste any time, "Pigeons from Hell" (an unfortunate title from today's perspective, as it sounds like part of a Richard Lewis bit from 1986 about what a pain in the ass Central Park has become) includes, in its first few pages, this:

Yes! The figure had moved into the bar of moonlight now, and Griswell recognized it. Then he saw Branner's face, and a shriek burst from Griswell's lips. Branner's face was bloodless, corpse-like; gouts of blood dripped darkly down it; his eyes were glassy and set, and blood oozed from the great gash which cleft the crown of his head!

Italics Howard's, needless to say. The story is something of a zombie tale, or more precisely a "zuvembie" tale, which we learn is a sort of witch that creates and controls zombies. Poor Griswell is just an innocent New Englander travelling with his old friend John Branner in search of "vacation pleasure"(!) in the South, where the, to my mind, not great decision to bed down for the night in an old abandoned house leads to the death of Branner, and Griswell nearly being arrested for his murder. The sheriff who discovers the terrified Griswell is a smart man named Bruckner, whose logical mind is quite satisfyingly portrayed by Howard. Earlier this year, I read a book called The Manitou by Graham Masterton. This book is about an evil American Indian spirit who is returning to the earth by growing as a tumor in a woman's neck. The characters who come to believe that this is actually happening do not necessarily need to see it with their own eyes. One man, an expert in Indian mysticism, is consulted and told "This is really happening" and his reaction, more or less, is "Well, I never believed in it before, but I hardly think you'd lie about something like this. I'm in!" By contrast, Bruckner has to wrestle with a lot of conflicting information, but he's not going to commit himself to any one answer until he sees proof. The pulps rarely concerned themselves with this sort of thing, so Howard's commitment to it is deeply refreshing. Of course, Bruckner gets his proof, which supports Griswell's wild and eerie story about something on the stairs with a yellow face, and his friend's split-open head that nevertheless did not keep him from pursuing Griswell with a hatchet.

There is much that is quite eerie, in fact, in the first half of "Pigeons from Hell". What Griswell and Bruckner find in the house, upon their initial search, is as creepy as any reasonable person could hope for. Once the backstory, the solution to it all, starts to kick in -- it involves brutal slave owners, lost fortunes, and revenge -- "Pigeons from Hell" begins to lose steam. Twas ever thus, I suppose, but the truth is I began to lose steam myself as I read. Its grip loosened, let's say. The chill wears off when you follow it with all the whys and wherefores. It's a little bit like telling a joke and then saying "Now let me tell you why that's funny..."

This is not a problem of Howard's, per se, but rather of this particular form, which is the horror story as whodunnit. This is a very popular form, was in the pulp era, is now, and whatever pleasure I take from it is relatively meager. I can enjoy the story, I can enjoy the pre-solution horror, I can enjoy individual sections, but I'm also going to drift after a point, as I did here. Plus, and I hesitate to bring this up, but...look, I have a limited time every day before this posts have to go to "press", and "Pigeons from Hell" is a long-ish story, one that's hard to thoroughly review in the time I have. So I don't know for sure if the thunderously big plot hole I think I detected at the end is really that -- and I did reread portions to see if something hadn't sunk in for me -- and not a miss on my part, due to the story losing me, and a sense I have that if I have to do this for one more day, I swear to Christ...

This enormous, possible mistake is tough to talk about without spoiling the ending, so I'm asking anyone who knows the story well to help me out here. Neil Sarver? Any help?

Friday, October 28, 2011

The Kind of Face You Slash - Day 28: Until the Rivers Run Red With the End of the World

The common wisdom is that the world of self publishing is rife with terrible, useless, bitter writers who have been rightly rejected by the traditional and professional publishing houses, and think they'll show them by dumping their own money and Photosopping skills into ragged and unedited...thing, which they then flog relentlessly to anyone who will listen, and then fly into mad frenzies of self righteous delusion when someone claims that their book is maybe not so deserving of the ink and paper and glue that's been sacrificed in their honor. And there is often a good reason for this belief (please see the comments).

Still, though, my knee-jerk disdain for this sort of thing was dealt a sharp blow last year when I read Larry Blamire's collection of horror/Western stories called Tales of the Callamo Mountains, and since then I've been forced to reconsider my whole stance on self publishing as it pertains exclusively to Larry Blamire. Honestly, that was as far as I was willing to go. Blamire has a follow up collection in the works, and I'm led to understand that, too, will be self-published. It would count, I figured, as my second purchase within that shadowy realm.

Now, though, I don't know what to do with myself. I just finished a new book, a self-published one called Boroughs of the Dead by Andrea Janes. It's a first book, and it's a slender collection of ten horror stories set in New York City. I make no extravagant claims for this book -- I would not, for instance, put it at the same level as Blamire's book -- but it's good, and is quite interesting in a lot of ways. First, though, to give you some kind of perspective, I typically, as you've probably gathered, read around two or three stories to focus on for these posts. Boroughs of the Dead I read in its entirety. Now, some of this is just practical -- Janes' book is only about 120 pages, the the average length of the stories in it is about 12 pages. Still, though, I could have stopped after three. That's all I technically owed to the post. But the damn thing's just so brisk, for one thing, and for another there's such a variety of styles and tones and plots that I was compelled along by the constant question "What's the next one about?"

You can see Janes' comforts and discomforts pop up again and again, and it becomes clear pretty quickly that her strength lies in period stories, generally from the early 20th or late 19th century. Most of the best stories are of this type. "We'll All Be in the Arms of Our True Loves Before Long" (set actually in the late 18th century) kicks things off, and is told in the form of a diary kept by Dr. Charles H________ who, we're assured in a brief preface by former colleague Dr. Nathaniel W________, is "innocent of any wrongdoing by virtue of what seems to be, in my medical opinion, an acute nervous condition." We learn of the wrongdoing, of course, and what led to it -- a ghost, the ghost of a beautiful woman, who urges Charles along:

Suddenly I felt a faint pressure on the small of my back, and I shivered in the cool air. A voice, very close to my ear, said faintly: "Please." The spirit, for that is the only word I can think to call it, led me down the dusky evening streets. When it stopped, I was standing in front of the new well.

It whispered again, "Please."

I walked toward the well.

I Leaned over and pushed aside the wet, heavy snow. There I saw it: her white face in the well's dreadful depths, one hand pressed against the icy surface. She was even more beautiful in flesh than she had been as a wraith.

I know what to do.

At the end of the story, Janes informs us that this was based on a true story, a crime in which the accused was defended by Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, but interesting as that is it has little to do with the sad, grimy story we've just read. I did think at the time this would be a feature of every story: Here's How I Thought This One Up. But no, that happens only one other time, and in fact one or two stories, such as "A Fitting Tribute", with its supernatural cruelty, don't need to take place in New York at all. I'll takes Janes' word on it that it does, but it doesn't need to be, and doesn't much matter one way or the other.

Not so others, though. Possibly my favorite story is also based on fact, and it's called "The General Slocum", about a horrific 1904 ferry tragedy that cost around 1,000 people, mostly women and children, most from a single community, their lives ("When the fathers of the community returned home from work, that night, they learned that their wives and all their children had drowned.") To this material, Janes connects a particular and very famous fairy tale. A maybe obvious choice, but she takes an already rather chilling fairy tale and renders it hideous:

They have forgotten all that I have given them, all the stories I have told them, all the bargains they've struck with me. Their ancestors forgot our bargain once, a long time ago, and I drowned their children in the River Weser.

Also inextricable from its New York setting is "The Northern Dispensary" (the building pictured above). This is also a modern story about a woman named Bailey Parker who scrapes up a living as a tour guide of historical New York. One of her favorite sites is the title location, a now-closed former medical center that provided care to the poor, including, Bailey initially delights in telling her uninterested customers, Edgar Allan Poe. The story goes weird places -- Bailey is also an actress who seems on the cusp of landing a lead role in a Boardwalk Empire-type HBO series -- that have no link to the dispensary, yet that sad place is always there, leading us to a bizarre and gruesome ending. I really like the story's strangeness, but a curious think about "The Northern Dispensary" is that, despite being one of the longest stories in the collection, it's also one of the most rushed. There is much more Janes could do to fill this out -- it's not necessary to plow so headlong towards your conclusion. Also, Janes' style is generally very plain-spoken. This is often good -- I don't view the easy style of her period stories as symptomatic of a lack of ability. One story has a line near the end, "I deeply regret the loss of my bag of gold", that is rather hilarious in a way it would not be if the language was more adorned. But in her contemporary stories, I do sense a some flailing.

This is most apparent in "The End", the weakest story in Boroughs of the Dead. This one is more of a black joke, an over-the-top story about a lazy beach vacation that takes a crazy turn towards the bloodthirsty occult when Grace, the main character, meets Joan Hassell, a famous mystery writer into whose friendly acquaintance Grace nervously and shyly tries to insinuate herself. She'll wish she hadn't, and "The End" is rather nasty in a casual sort of way, but boy it gets to its climax really quick, seemingly jumping steps and not taking the kind of time that would have avoided having the whole premise of the story's horror spill out in a speech of the "Now that you're about to die, let me tell you everything" sort that simply never, ever works, and can't work, unless you're making fun of it, which can't work anymore either because it's been made fun of endlessly. What we learn is going on is pretty ridiculous, but that doesn't matter. It could have worked. An impatience, or a discomfort with the modern-day, on Janes' part cuts it off at the knees.

Janes herself may flat-out say what the problem is here. In "The Northern Dispensary", Bailey -- a character my research tells me may share some experiences with Andrea Janes -- is told in her audition for HBO that the show will be set in the 1930s. Janes writes:

"Oh that's great -- I love history, anything old-fashioned." This actually was true. Bailey loved vintage clothing and the musty smell of used books. She smiled at the thought of costumes she'd get to wear if -- no, when -- she got a part on this show.

Well, I love all that stuff, too, minus the costumes, and I feel as though, if given her druthers, Janes would write in the mode of "A Fitting Tribute" and "We'll All Be in the Arms of Our True Loves Before Long" and "The General Slocum" exclusively. Was she warned against this, for commercial reasons? I have no clue. I have no clue if I'm right about any of this, and anyway the market for short horror fiction ain't too strong, so my own unsolicited advice would be to, as Fat Tony once said, listen to your heart.

Let us not forget that Boroughs of the Dead was self-published, after all. Which seems to be sort of a kind of whole thing with horror fiction these days. So much horror fiction, both the good and the bad, but especially the best, like Reggie Oliver (boy I mention him a lot, don't I? Well, if you possibly can, find his story "The Complete Symphonies of Adolf Hitler" and read that sucker) is, not self-published, but either in new small independent presses, or specialty presses like Centipede Press. From my dealings with Centipede, I feel like outside of the actual putting together of the physical books (which are gorgeous -- expensive, but gorgeous) that there's one dude handling the whole deal. The line between independent publishing and self publishing can become pretty hazy. And that means that there could be good stuff hidden away somewhere in the least likely, most degraded corners of that world. Quite frankly, I'm not sure I feel like digging. It's just too much, and it's too unlikely to bear any fruit. But if I hear about something, something good like Tales of the Callamo Mountains by Larry Blamire, or Boroughs of the Dead by Andrea Janes, then count me in.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Kind of Face You Hate - Day 27: O the Devil!

That's a picture of Robertson Davies. I wish I'd seen that picture earlier, because it would have given me a better idea of what to expect from a Robertson Davies-penned ghost story. Or barring that, I could have read the introduction to High Spirits (the title of which could perhaps be construed as yet another tip-off), Davies' one collection of ghost stories, in which he says:

Writing ghost stories, and in particular, cheerful ghost stories, set me to the task of examining the literature of the ghost story, and its technique.

And so on. My point was made at the use of the word "cheerful". I'd read some Davies before last night, two full novels, in fact, which is a good deal more that is often the case here. Those novels, Fifth Business and The Manticore were both read long enough ago that the details are more than a little bit hazy, and the ravages of time have not been held back at all by my own inability to retain anything that I read, think, or say, but I can still recall that both novels, the first two parts of Davies' Deptford Trilogy had their share of humor, they were certainly not all frivolity (one of the few things I remember is a sad and embarrassing scatological mishap that occurs late in The Manticore), so I thought however Davies would approach the ghost story, it would include at least a nod towards the terror that the genre is traditionally meant to evoke. Plus, the back cover copy of my Penguin edition of High Spirits uses the phrase "a touch of true scariness" as one of its descriptive highlights.

But no, as I'm sure you've guessed by now. Or no, not as far as I've read, at least. I read three stories from High Spirits, and not one of them was ever intended to frighten or disturb anyone. This is certainly not the fault of Robertson Davies, and there's a mild irony in the fact that while the stories don't quite suit my purposes for The Kind of Face You Slash, I still want to read the rest of the book. What's fun about High Spirits is that each story is told by the same narrator, an unnamed (from what I've read) man who could probably be safely dubbed "Robertson Davies" who is a professor at Massey College, in the University of Toronto. Such was the case with the real Davies, Massey College being a real place who, Davies explains in his introduction, needed a ghost. So at various Christmas parties on campus, throughout the years, Davies would tell a new ghost story. The ghost story told at Christmas is a long, but sadly now apparently long-dead (and anyway, never American) tradition, one that also led the world to have the ghost stories of M. R. James in it. James never saw himself as a writer of ghost stories, but he was so good at coming up with them for Christmas parties that he was urged to publish. He did, and got on with his life. Similarly, Davies had other things in mind for his own fiction, but he enjoyed ghost stories very much, had a good time thinking up his own, was already a published writer of strong reputation anyway, might as well. The difference is, Davies is playing with a tradition that James was smack dab in the middle of. A certain light-heartedness is bound to follow.

Anyway, as I was saying, what's fun about High Spirits is that the stories are almost connected by virtue of all having the same setting, the same narrator, and some recurring characters. I enjoy this sort of thing, and when, in one story, "Einstein and the Little Lord" (the one of the three I read that is the least like a horror story) that the ghost of Albert Einstein would count as the seventeenth ghost to visit Massey College, and after some quick counting on my part I discovered that "Einstein and the Little Lord" was indeed the seventeenth story in the collection, I thought that only a curmudgeon like myself would turn his nose up at such a delightful lark of a book. And even I couldn't do it!

It's impossible to say for sure if this was a lucky coincidence or simply that I'm picking up on one of the book's running jokes/themes, but it does seem as though the three stories I chose contain an interesting peek into the way Davies built off of throwaway bits from one story to inspire him for another, completely separate one. For example, the earliest story I read is called "When Satan Goes Home for Christmas". This story does include Satan, who wants to go home to heaven for Christmas, but can't, because of what happened and everything. This, by the way, is the story that contains the greatest whiff of the antiquary about it, especially ending how it does, which is important in this strain of the ghost story tradition. But the story begins with someone from the college mocking the narrator, Davies, for his previous, self-regarding ghost stories -- it's always the ghost of someone famous, apparently, visiting him -- so he goes about making one up:

It is an excellent story -- what used to be called in an earlier day 'a ripping yarn' -- and quite original. It is about a Junior Fellow of this College called Frank Einstein, a brilliant young biologist who discovers the secret of life in an old alchemical manuscript, and manufactures a living creature out of scraps he steals from the dissection lab in the new Medical Building...But because he cannot give his creation a soul, it is a Monster, and kills the Bursar and the Librarian and finally deflowers and then eats Frank's girl-friend, a graduated student called mary Shelley.

That "Frank Einstein" is a bit of a groaner, and there's a lot of that, frankly, in these stories, though Davies is also entirely capable of relating the lyrics applied due to "polar musical taste" to Dvorak's Humoresque Number 7 in G flat:

Passengers will please refrain
From flushing toilets when the train
Is standing in the station:
I love you.

It's the "I love you" that kills me. But anyhow, so in a later story, called "The Cat That Went to Trinity", Frank Einstein returns, with his full name being given as Victor Frank Einstein, and he falls in love with a student named Elizabeth Lavenza, a pretty young girl the narrator took note of as he likes to pick out the pretty girls in his class early on, so he'll have something to look at as the year proceeds. Also "Elizabeth Lavenza" is the name of the pseudo-sister Frankenstein falls in love with in Frankenstein, and the coincidneces are simply too strong for our narrator. The plot of "The Cat That Went to Trinity" has Frank and Elizabeth being given Shelley's novel to read, by our narrator, and then, because Massey College can't hold onto their cats (they all go to Trinity College), trying to make "the greatest cat you've ever seen" out of a dozen stray cats. Having been inspired by Frankenstein and everything. A version of which our narrator thought he'd come up with all by himself in "When Satan Went Home for Christmas".

As if all that weren't enough, when Davies introduces Frank Einstein in "The Cat That Went to Trinity", he writes that "some mention was made of a great-uncle of his, an Albert Einstein, whose name meant nothing nto me, though it appeared to have special significance in the scientific world." And of course, as I've already noted, the ghost of Albert Einstein visits Massey College in "Einstein and the Little Lord", a story I chose thinking it would be the continued adventures of Frank, not his great-uncle. In "Einstein and the Little Lord", our narrator seems fully aware of who Albert Einstein is, so either, in one of the stories between "The Cat That Went to Trinity" and "Einstein and the Little Lord" our narrator learns about the great physicist, or Davies couldn't give a fig about such continuity. I suspect I'll find out when I read the rest of these stories, which I surely will, horror be damned.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Kind of Face You Slash - Day 26: The Skullcap of the Beast

Speaking of genre hybrids, as I was yesterday, remember two years ago (of course you do, why wouldn't you?) when I talked about Laird Barron's "The Imago Sequence", a crime/horror hybrid that won me over as I was in the act of writing the post? Well, crime/horror -- or as its practitioners would probably prefer you call it, horror noir, or noir horror -- has become enough of a thing that the ubiquitous Ellen Datlow recently published an anthology called Supernatural Noir (or maybe that's what its practitioners would prefer you call it) devoted entirely to such stories. Having read a bit of it now, I'm quite happy it exists, because just based on my small sample Datlow has drawn from a pool of talent who know what it mean to combine these kinds of stories, as well as these tones, which neither Datlow nor anyone else represented in Supernatural Noir would be the first to point out aren't too terribly far apart to begin with.

It's a nice lineup, in Supernatural Noir. The great Brian Evenson is there, Joe Lansdale (of course), Lucius Shepard, Melanie Tem. Lee Thomas, who I wrote about earlier this month. There's enough here that I could have, and maybe should have, skipped over the already-covered Laird Barron, but I'm finding this year, that I'm continuously drawn towards writers I've given little more than a glancing look in the past, not least because that glance is probably the last time I've read anything by them. Barron is here, with a story called "The Carrion Gods in Their Heaven", and I wanted to read it. It's that simple. So I paired that one off with a story called "But For Scars" written by Tom Piccirilli, who I've never read but who I know of because of his occasional penchant for baroque titles like A Choir of Ill Children, and This Cape is Red Because I've Been Bleeding, a book of horror poetry. From that perspective, as a title "But For Scars" can only be regarded as a disappointment, but boy he sure has a handle on his material.

Of the two, "But For Scars" feels the most like a crime story, while Barron's story feels more like horror. Piccirilli structures "But For Scars" as an investigation, conducted not by a regular cop but by a man on the fringe of society, and in a setting of rampant lawlessness and corruption. "But For Scars" begins with our unnamed narrator waking up in the very early morning to find a sixteen year old girl holding a .22 pistol, fatally overfeeding the narrator's fish. It's an image not out of line in something like, say, James Crumley's fiction, nor is Piccirilli's language:

Men would consider her sexy as hell until she hit maybe twenty-five, and then she'd be downgraded to bruised fruit. By the time she was thirty the neighbors would be saying she hadn't aged well.

The narrator knows the girl -- he's living in what was once her home. Her parents, Ron and Katy Wright, were brutally murdered in the basement, and their daughter, Emily, dealt with the loss in a manner that landed her in a state hospital for six years. It is from there she's just escaped. Our narrator knew Emily's parents very well (Emily asks him "Did you ever fuck my mother?", and while he doesn't answer her, he answers us through the narration: "I had. A lot."), and in fact was and is a part of the same outlaw biker gang as they, and within said gang the murders of Ron and Katy are believed to be an internal thing. Emily wants to know who killed her parents, and she wants to use her .22 on them. He wants to get the gun from her and calm her down and help her. She tries to seduce him, and he, by the skin of his teeth, manages to resist. They fall asleep in his bed, and when he wakes up she's gone. He sniffs the air, and smells something terrible coming from under his bed:

I crouched down and peered underneath and saw Emily wedged there wit her eyes and mouth open. She'd cut he wrists with the pocketknife I kept in an ashtray on my dresser. It hadn't been very sharp and she'd really had to saw into herself.

The narrator had awoken in the first place because he believed Emily had whispered in his ear that she was pregnant, and this, along with her death, fuels his desire to find out what's going on, who killed her parents, who got her pregnant if indeed she was (the narrator seems confident he wasn't dreaming, and I was never clear why) -- all of this leads him to state hospitals and into the lair of the biker gang. It's quite an excellent short crime story, where the supernatural horror is so subtle as to be questionable as that. You don't really doubt that there is something ghostly going on here by the end, because two different characters describe the same phenomenon that neither would have been likely to privately share with the other, but it's interesting that our point of view character never sees anything otherworldly for himself. "But For Scars" is a morbid and sad crime story that has just a hint of...something. Plus, as I write this, I'm asking myself other questions, the answers to which are not provided, and which on reflection add a more visceral horror kick to the whole thing.

But mainly, "But For Scars" is a really nicely written piece of crime fiction, of the currently popular semi-rural type. It's tough, though, and mean. When the narrator is being roughed up by probably corrupt cops, following Emily's suicide, Piccirilli writes:

One detective smacked me with a sloppy open palm. His hand was soft and smelled of aloe. Afterward, he looked like he wanted to apologize. Another cop tried to work my kidneys but he couldn't find them. I didn't know whether to be grateful or disgusted.

Well, that's great, and proves that Piccirilli knows the language of crime fiction. If anything about "But For Scars" is frustrating it's that in just under thirty pages, Piccirilli creates a world that I would love to return to for other crime stories, or, better yet, novels. Forget the barely-there horror stuff, even -- this overcast world of brutal biker gangs in control of a corrput town is a great setting that I fear I won't be reading about again anytime soon.

Laird Barron's "The Carrion Gods in Their Heaven" does not have the same effect, and it's hard to talk about this without sounding like I'm criticizing one story or the other. It's just interesting to me that Piccirilli leaves me wanting more, and Barron leaves me feeling as though I've been given enough, and both reactions reflect well on the stories. I think I know why this is. "But For Scars" is a crime story first, and for whatever reason crime fiction is most effective in novel form. Something about the genre benefits from the long form. Horror, for whatever reason, is precisely the opposite, finding its greatest power in the short story. And, of course, as I've said, "The Carrion Gods in Their Heaven" is a horror story before it's anything else.

It does have a common crime set up. Lorna is on the run from her rich, abusive husband, Bruce, and with Miranda, her lover, she has moved into an old cabin outside of the very small town of Poger Rock in the state of Washington. The cabin is known by locals as the Haugstad Place, and of course the history of the structure, and the bloody past of Haugstad himself, will come into play later. But Miranda gets a gun, private investigators hired by Bruce come sniffing around the place, Lorna drinks a lot, and violence is considered as an end result of all this. As indeed it is, but of a rather different sort.

One day Miranda comes home with a giant animal skin, one used apparently as a cloak, that she'd found in the surrounding wilderness. Lorna finds it hideous, but Miranda becomes more and more attached to it, and her behavior, and desire to be violently proactive in regards to Bruce and his hired guns, begins to very reasonably freak Lorna out:

The pelt covered Miranda, concealed her so she was scarcely more than a lump. She whined and shuddered and took otice of the pallid light, and she stirred, Lorna was convinced that the pelt was not a loose cloak, not an ill-fitted garment, but something else entirely for the manner in which it flexed with each twitch and shiver of Miranda's musculature.

...Lorna's mouth was dry. She said, "Sweetheart?"

Miranda said, in a voice rusty and rugged, "Why don't you...go on to bed. I'll be along. I'll come see you real soon."

So "The Carrion Gods in Their Heaven" is rather creepy, actually, and it moves from there to grotesque, at a level that is nearly Clive Barker-ian. I could nitpick at the concept behind Supernatural Noir as it pertains to "The Carrion Gods in Their Heaven", as it doesn't really feel like Barron wrote a genre hybrid so much as it was realized that the common set-ups for any number of horror stories could double as the set-ups to crime stories, but pffffft. Who cares. This is good fiction. Good new horror fiction, even. And brother, that ain't hay.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Kind of Face You Slash - Day 25: Corpseworld

You know who’s pretty popular right now? George R. R. Martin. My research tells me that Game of Thrones, the first book in his now massively successful A Song of Ice and Fire fantasy series, came out a full three years before I’d ever read a word of the man, and I don’t believe at the time that I knew he had this fantasy series going that was about to light shit up all over the place. No, the book I was drawn to was Fevre Dream, an early horror novel about vampires and steamboats set during the glory days of the Mighty Mississip’. If you want to argue with me that those things don’t go together, be my guest, but it is an argument you will lose, sir. Although the truth is, I ultimately felt a little let down by Fevre Dream, I think possibly because it played out more as an adventure story, with vampire killings, than actual horror. It’s been so long, I can’t remember what exactly bothered me about the book, and because of this I now have kind of fond memories of it. I don’t know how that works, but science is working on it.

Since then, until recently, I’d followed up on George R. R. Martin by reading not one more word written by him. I did become intrigued anew when the HBO series Game of Thrones (why is the series named after the first book, and not the overarching title? Drives me nuts) kicked off, and I did read about 100 pages of the first novel, was enjoying it thoroughly, but had to respectfully set it aside – since when my wife has swooped in and picked it up – because other, ongoing reading projects had to be my priority. But anyway, I loved the crap out of the HBO series, and want to learn more of this “George R. R. Martin” person.

I did learn a fair bit from this New Yorker profile, which focused on the weird, in some cases combative, relationship he has with his fans – the weirdness all coming from the fans, it should be noted – who demand that he write faster than he’s currently able. It gave me a lot of respect, not to mention sympathy, for a guy whose dreams of becoming a writer have come true in a way that I’m sure surpass anything he’d imagined, and has also put him on the firing line, in the crosshairs of a bunch of nerds who think what Martin is doing is somehow easy. “Just take these hundreds of characters and several dozen plotlines you’ve created over the course of many books and bring everything together in a way that is not only viscerally and artistically satisfying, but looks just like it does when I have dreams about it. And do it fast! God!” Of course, I haven’t read the books yet. If I had, I guess I’d probably hate Martin for writing books I love, too.

But we’re not here to talk about fantasy fiction. Although I gather we probably could pretty easily, as it seems to me the concept of genre hybrids is one with which Martin is intimately familiar. From what I’ve read/seen, A Song of Ice and Fire is a cross between historical fiction (in this case everything’s made up, but still Martin drew on it as an influence), fantasy and horror. Fevre Dream is an adventure/historical/horror novel, and the story I read for today, “Meathouse Man”, is science fiction/horror. Any number of stories I’ve come across in various anthologies could, from what the editors claim, be easily slotted with fantasy or horror. I’m not sure Martin has written in a genre that he hasn’t crossed over with something else. In this case, like “The Savage Mouth” from a few days ago, Martin ties his horror to a genuine – if extremely unlikely – science fiction concept. “Meathouse Man” wonders what might society – for lack of a better word – be like in the future, and what about it might crack open a man’s brain?

Martin has said that “Meathouse Man” was born out of a great deal of personal pain, all of which he dumped into the story, one he now finds it painful to reread. Not that it’s any of my business, but it’s not hard to imagine at least which region on the giant map of pain he was suffering through. “Meathouse Man” is an anti-love story about a man named Trager whose profession is one of corpse-handler. Martin wrote a short series of stories about this line of work, and the idea is that in the future – and maybe the details of this get worked out in one of the other stories, not that it matters at all – in certain parts of the inhabited cosmos, corpses have been made to come alive, not in a literal sense, and not even in a zombie sense, but in a puppet sense, so that they can be controlled remotely and made, by their handlers, to perform any kind of task a living person could do, but at this point no longer wants to. Trager’s work is a little vague, but his corpses do manual labor, digging pits and blasting rock and the like. When we meet Trager, he’s not even twenty years old, and he’s a very shy and nervous sort who has been partially taken under the wing by Cox, who is essentially the foreman of Trager’s crew. Through this group of older, more streetwise men, Trager learns of the pleasures of the meathouse, which is a brothel where all the professional women are corpses. Upon finishing:

He left her as he'd found her, lying face up on the bed with her legs apart. Meathouse courtesy.

So there’s your horror, I think it’s safe to say. As he grows older, Trager tries to strike out into a mature world -- having sex with galvanized corpses being this story's equivalent of a peep show, or I guess a regular hooker -- of real love. It's his desire for this, and his failed attempts to bring it about, that provides "Meathouse Man" with its gut-punch.

[The meathouse] had been good, exciting; for once he felt confident and virile. But it was so easy, cheap, dirty. There had to be more, didn't there? Love, whatever that was? It had to be better with a real woman, had to, and he wouldn't find one of those in a meathouse. He'd never found one outside, either, but then he'd never really had the courage to try. But he had to try, had to, or what sort of life would he ever have?

We'll find out soon enough, unfortunately. There are a few remarkable things about this story. The first one, for me, is Martin's approach the the hybrid of genres. I would now very much like to read the other "corpse-handler" stories (and I will, in short order), because I wonder about the tone, if each one was as despairing as this one. I have to think that's part of it, given that the series deals with corpse-handling, but I'm interested in the idea that the same science fiction concept can be used by the same author to explore the different ways it affects those who live within that world. I can imagine any number of tones being struck and genres utilized, from comic to, well, "Meathouse Man" would be the opposite end of that spectrum. Martin didn't write more than a few of these (according to his notes in the career-retrospective story collection Dreamsongs -- volume one, to be specific -- which is where I've gotten all the information about this story) so I don't guess he got that deep into it, but I do like the idea.

Another thing, "Meathouse Man" being a horror story, I thought I knew where it was heading, but I was entirely wrong. I thought it was going to be more conventionally horror-y, really, more genre specific, and it's not that a version of this story that followed that route would have been bad -- I was quite interested when I thought I was right -- but that Martin was evidently completely uninterested in making something that categorizable. What "Meathouse Man" is, is a horror story about despair. Not about the violence despair can drive one to, but the bone-deep damage that can be done to the person suffering from it. "Meathouse Man" ends with a line of extraordinary bitterness, one that might seem a bit juvenile on its own, but in the context of the story, and knowing how personal the story is, it ends up being a slap. You don't have to believe it yourself -- I don't -- just that Trager does, and that Martin, in 1973, had to spit out the words even if he didn't really believe it himself. Everybody at one time in their life has thought, or even angrily said, "Fuck everything, I don't care anymore." The difference between those people and George R. R. Martin is that Martin turned that into a story.

Monday, October 24, 2011

The Kind of Face You Slash - Day 24: Tiny Last Straws

I’m running on not a great deal of sleep today, having tried last night to fall asleep while listening to a podcast that dealt extensively with the Jack the Ripper murders, and feeling about that awful bit of history -- possibly for the first time in my life, as unhappy a thing as that is to admit – rather depressed. And then actually sort of frightened, as images of disturbed men entering my bedroom as my wife and I slept drifted unstoppably through my mind. The details of how this fear manifested itself shall be left out of this account, as they would cast me in an undignified light, but rest assured the whole time I was berating myself for thinking and acting like a scared child. (You might also consider excusing any rambling quality that might seep into tonight’s post.)

The upshot of it all is, again, that I didn’t sleep too well, which turns out to dovetail pretty nicely with today’s reading. My impulse for today was to go back and read someone I consider to be one of the giants of horror, Robert Aickman. Aickman’s short fiction is a bit on the long side, typically thirty to fifty pages, and my dumb ass somehow regards reading even a single Aickman story to be something of a commitment, within a single day at least, so as a result my reading of the man I consider to be one of the two best, if not the single best, horror writer of the 20th century, is rather scattershot. I’ve grabbed at his stories off and on over the years, rarely reading more than one over as many days (the one time I did was when I read two for my post on Aickman back in 2008). One of the results of this is that when I do sit down with an Aickman story, I get very excited because I know I will be having a rare reading experience.

So it has again proved with today’s story, “Into the Wood” (which, for anyone who cares to know these things, and I hope there are more than a few of you who do, can be most easily and cheaply found in a used copy of the Aickman collection The Wine-Dark Sea). I chose this one because Peter Straub, in his introduction to the book, says “’Into the Wood’ seems to me the masterpiece of this collection. In it all of Aickman’s themes come together in an act of self-acceptance which is at once dangerous, enigmatic, in narrative terms wholly justified, and filled with the reverence for the imaginative power demonstrated by Aickman’s work in general.” Now, The Wine-Dark Sea also includes “The Inner Room” which I consider to be among the small handful of greatest horror stories ever written (and which Straub, in another book I have, once chose as his own favorite horror story, the fickle bastard), so in my view “Into the Wood” has a lot of work ahead of it in order to supplant that story as the collection’s masterpiece. That I don’t believe “Into the Wood” manages it, though, is of course meaningless. “Into the Wood” is very odd, and very Robert Aickman-esque, which certainly stands to reason, but what I mean is that it is as full of the things Aickman liked to put in his fiction as Straub suggests, to the point that it achieves a certain density, both of tone and of detail and, if such a thing can be dense, of pacing. A lot of Aickman’s stuff is very deliberate in its pacing, and it’s hard to see how it couldn’t be, but “Into the Wood” might achieve some kind of zenith in the area. Which is not a criticism.

It certainly does help that Aickman was a superb writer of prose. His story here is about a middle-aged English couple, Henry and Margaret (aka “Harry” and “Molly”, which confused me for a bit early on) who travel to Sweden because the husband, an engineer, is helping to build a road there (this is something Aickman-esque in itself, a career detail from a man whose non-fiction books bore titles like Know Your Waterways). The husband has his work to deal with, and Margaret has what basically amounts to a vacation to attend to. This separates the two of them at various times, and causes Margaret to reflect on the state of their marriage, which seems quite tenuous, though whatever is at the heart of the rift -- apart from Margaret's clear dissatisfaction -- is not spoken of. Anyway, with one thing or another, Margaret learns of sanitarium, which doubles at a hotel called Kulhus, that intrigues her, and when Henry is called to Stockholm she asks to be put up there to help along her relaxation. Henry agrees, and soon Margaret is checking out her room:

Margaret was given the most beautiful room: large, with a view from the windows extending for miles, charmingly furnished, and with no fewer than three long rows of assorted books in at least four languages. Margaret, who read books, looked at this small library with considerable curiosity. As far as she could tell, the volumes seemed even to have been chosen with care, and to be by no means mere left-behinds or the bedtime reading one might expect -- if one could in an hotel expect anything of that kind at all. But immediately it had occurred to Margaret that these were not books of the sort that most people would read to induce slumber, she observed that the next work on the shelf was a substantial tome named Die Schlaflosigkeit, which she suspected might mean "Insomnia."

And she's probably right, because it turns out Kurhus's function as a sanitarium is to help chronic insomniacs. This Margaret learns from another Englishwoman, a patient there, named Sandy Slater. Among the things Margaret learns from Sandy is that the whole name for the place is Jamblichus Kurhus, "Jamblichus" coming from Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire:

"Jamblichus was the one among the seven sleepers who after they had slept for two centuries, went down into town in order to buy food, tendered the obsolete coins, and found himself arrested...Anyway, places like this used often to be called Jamblichus Groves; even by the unsophisticated."

The Kurhus is also set against a large expanse of wood which Margaret comes to learn is full of well-worn and smooth paths used by the insomniacs to walk through at night, when they should be sleeping. For what purpose? And of course Sandy warns Margaret away from it, but not too strenuously, not in any typical horror story, stay-out-of-the-woods sort of way. Along the way, we will meet some of the other patients, such as Colonel Adamski, a Pole World War II veteran who wants Margaret to feel more free to indulge in the customs of the insomniacs than Sandy is; and a young, thin girl who Sandy claims has never slept a wink in her life. Then, eventually, Margaret goes home.

This is a very hard story to summarize, as are all of Aickman's, because it doesn't follow any typical structure -- it's unique not just to horror, but to fiction in general, in my experience. It is a story that climaxes with a frustrated attempt to find a room to rent. It features the main character leaving the source of unease successfully because she doesn't feel comfortable. So she leaves. What kind of a story is this?

It's a story where the aforementioned unease comes from without, the insomniac hospital, to afflict something within Margaret, her unhappiness and desire for some kind of freedom beyond the thoughtless ideas -- such as "creative outlets" -- generally suggested to housewives in her frame of mind. Colonel Adamski says:

"...For men and women there is to everything a limit, beyond which further striving, further thought, leads only to regression. And this is true even though most men and women never set out at all; possibly are not capable of setting out. For those who do set out, the limit varies from individual to individual, and cannot be foreseen. Few ever reach it. Those who do reach it are, I suspect, those who go off into the further forest."

Margaret's eyes were shining. "I know that you are right," she cried. It is something I have long known, without finding the words."

It doesn't sound very scary, does it? But fairy tales are in there, of an only hinted-at, sinister turn, and myth, and Freud, and all somehow jumbles up in Margaret's head to make her follow an honest and fair train of thought about her unhappiness, and lead her into an abyss. Why? Because she's wrong? No, I don't believe so, nor do I believe Aickman believes so. About his own work, Aickman once wrote:

...I do not regard my work as "fantasy" at all, except, perhaps, for commercial purposes. I try to depict the world as I see it; sometimes artistically exaggerating no doubt...and occasionally exaggerating for purposes of parable... I believe in what the Germans term Ehrfurcht: reverence for things one cannot understand. Faust's error was an aspiration to understand, and therefore master, things which, by God or by nature, are set beyond the human compass. He could only achieve this at the cost of making the achievement pointless.

In a sense, Aickman's stories are magnificently pointless, in that what can be taken away in terms of meaning is usually quite nebulous, or you can't take anything. There's an unease, and a horror, that doesn't come from nowhere, but there is a connection between character and experience that you often can't locate. There's a thread, or a trail, that you can follow, and willingly do, but when you come out the other side, even if you're home, you're still lost.

* * * * *

I apologize for this one. I've been half asleep all day. Robert Aickman deserves better.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Kind of Face You Slash - Day 23: His is the Lightning-Flash, His is the Deep Salt Sea

In A Grief Observed -- a book that, as you read it, you feel like you shouldn't be allowed to read -- C. S. Lewis writes: "Someone said, I believe, 'God always geometrizes.' Supposing the truth were 'God always vivisects'?" As it happens, this desolate questioning of the God Lewis has spent much of his adult life believing and serving, and will come to again, rather neatly summarizes the plot of The Island of Dr. Moreau, H. G. Wells's bleak, even black-hearted tale of mad science, torture, and transformation.

You can pretty much choose your parallel: either the animals, transformed by the mad Dr. Moreau, via vivisection, into near-human monstrosities go from believing Moreau is essentially God, until his death makes them question everything he'd taught them in order to control their naturally savage instincts ("Not to eat Flesh nor Fish; that is the Law. Are we not men?"), before our narrator, Edward Prendick, picks up Moreau's thread of deification and restores the creatures' need to worship in order to save his own skin (not that you can blame him) only to see things go one step beyond Lewis and revert back to dumb savagery; or Prendick sees his view of civilized humanity smashed again and again, until even the everyday world he finally returns to seems populated by people just shy of animalistic wildness, but managing to achieve a kind of peace in the end -- one brought on by voluntary solitude, mind you, but you take what you can get.

Or the novel can be both of these things, and in fact is. The Island of Dr. Moreau is astonishingly rich, in other words, despite being quite short. This richness is a bit backloaded, occurring almost entirely in the later portions of the book as the full ramifications, both immediate and philosophical, of Moreau's obliviousness become clear.

But he was so irresponsible, [Prendick writes of Moreau] so utterly careless. His curiosity, his mad, aimless investigations drove him on, and the things were thrown out to live a year or so, to struggle and blunder and suffer; at last to die painfully.

This might double as a description of human existence, depending on how bad you feel about the whole thing. Wells explains the book, which he also called "rather painful", this way:

The Island of Dr. Moreau in an exercise in youthful blasphemy. Now and then, though I rarely admit it, the universe projects itself towards me in a hideous grimace. It grimaced that time, and I did my best to express my vision of the aimless torture in creation.

God, or the absence of God -- or the idea of God, or the idea of the absence of God -- is everywhere in The Island of Dr. Moreau. The lives of Prendick, Moreau, and Moreau's drunken, angry assistant Montgomery are only preserved by Moreau's ability to make his cast-off creations believe that he, Moreau, is their maker, which is true enough, but also their God, and their punisher. The Laws (spoken famously, in a somewhat altered form, by Bela Lugosi in the controversial 1932 film version Island of Lost Souls) that Moreau has taught to his creatures each has, as its core, an attempt to thwart natural, instinctive animal behavior. This is his entire reason for conducting these vivisections (which, by the way, is the no-longer-allowed practice of dissecting a still-living animal), but he also knows the moment those laws are questioned, or more likely the moment the "creeping Beast flesh", Moreau's description of the slow return of his failed creations' natural behavior, which process is the reason Moreau considers every experiment up to the novel's action to be a failure, obliterates whatever he's tried to make the Beasts believe, is the moment his neck is well and truly on the line. And so it eventually proves, of course, so that at one point in the novel, God, from the perspective of Montgomery's domesticated butler creature M'ling, or the Ape Man, or the Hyena-Swine, or the Dog Man, or the Sayer of the Laws, is well and truly dead.

This idea would not particularly impress Prendick, whom, in a moment of anger, Montgomery calls a "logic-chopping, chalky-faced saint of an atheist". This revelation, as it were, comes a little bit out of a blue, and renders his subsequent attempt, a mostly successful one, to deify himself in place of the deceased Moreau unquestionably cynical. But it's pretty clear that at this point its claim to be Jesus (which is essentially what he does for Moreau, too, telling the Beasts that Moreau is not dead but has cast off his body and ascended to heaven; yet Prendick remains on Earth to preach on his behalf, so it gets muddled if viewed from a strictly Christian point of view, a choice of reading that is, to say the least, unnecessary) or die. The events of the novel, and life in general, have already destroyed any spirituality of Montgomery, the one man who may have possessed any going in, because I think it's safe to assume the ruthlessly rational Moreau had room in his mind to only think about vivisection and transformation. Late in the novel, Montgomery, who has already confessed to Prendick that he was basically shanghaied by Moreau one drunken night after medical school, rages against the cosmos:

"This silly ass of a world...What a muddle it all is! I haven't had any life. I wonder when it's going to begin. Sixteen years being bullied by nurses and schoolmasters at their own sweet will, five in London grinding hard at medicine -- bad food, shabby lodgings, shabby clothes, shabby vice -- a blunder -- I don't know any better -- and hustled off to the beastly island. Ten years here! What's it all for, Prendick? Are we bubbles blown by a baby?"

Tell Prendick something he doesn't know. Typically in books or stories like this, our straight-edged narrator is little more than a dull witness, marshaling all the considerable good within him to perform heroic acts when the narrative calls for it. Prendick is rather different, and in the early pages of The Island of Dr. Moreau his life is one of a man suffering one cruelty after another. Barely surviving a shipwreck to be picked up by a ship that happens to be carrying Montgomery and M'ling, as well as a new batch of animals picked up by Montgomery for Moreau's experiments, back to Moreau's island. It is Montgomery who nurses Prendick back to health, but when Montgomery and his animals come into conflict with the ship's drunken captain, Prendick's desire to help his savior serves only to turn the captain on him, so that when they reach port, the captain orders off the ship and into a dinghy. Moreau, who has arrived to collect Montgomery and his specimens, notices an imploring look from Montgomery on Prendick's behalf, and coldly says to Prendick "Can't have you."

This episode actually ends with Prendick writing "I prayed aloud to God to let me die," which calls into question Montgomery's labelling of him as an atheist, though when that time comes Prendick doesn't argue the point. Regardless, this moment, of Prendick suddenly alone and friendless, only a strong tide away from being lost at sea, is one of the novel's most painful. The island's few natives eventually take pity on him, but I feel like the damage has already been done. Prendick is well on the path that will lead him to view all humanity is little more than savage, pitiless seekers of only their own gratification. What he finds on the island certainly won't do anything to weaken that view, and anyway how different from the fearsome Hyena-Swine, who Prendick will come to view as his personal enemy, is that drunken captain? Or Moreau? Or Prendick himself, even, who barely ever acts to help the creatures being so mercilessly tortured -- and for what? -- by Moreau, and by his own admission only cares about it because he can hear the animal screams:

The crying sounded even louder out of doors. It was as if all the pain in the world had found a voice. Yet had I known such pain was in the next room, and had it been dumb, I believe -- I have thought since -- I could have stood it well enough. It is when suffering finds a voice and sets our nerves quivering that this pity comes troubling us.

This, it must be said, conforms to the cynic's appraisal of humanity pretty cleanly. But who says Prendick exempts himself anyway? After he's made it back home and has chosen to remove himself from as much of mankind as he can possibly manage, so that he will no longer have to see barely-human citizens of London "with tired eyes and eager faces like wounded deer dripping blood", it's entirely possible that this choice was made not just to be alone for his own sake, but to remove opportunities for himself to behave too callously or with too much self-interest. He even admits as much:

And even it seemed that I, too, was not a reasonable creature, but only an animal tormented with some strange disorder in its brain, that sent it to wander alone, like a sheep stricken with the gid.

By the end, The Island of Dr. Moreau seems to be far more Prendick's novel, to actually be about him, than it did during the long middle stretches of terror and mystery, and of Moreau's long, diseased rationalizations. The novel drags Prendick's spirit down, down, and down, until only isolation can restore it to any degree ("But this is a mood that comes to me now -- I thank God -- more rarely."). C. S. Lewis would chart his slow, painful return to a sort of peace, as well ("Didn't people dispute once whether the final vision of God was more an act of intelligence or of love? That is probably another of the nonsense questions.") Lewis's God is perhaps Prendick's Beasts: the central question through which they each grapple with the more tactile bits of their normal lives.

* * * * * *
In the various screen adaptations of Wells's novel, the beasts are apt to take center stage. This is only natural, and even desirable in terms of screen drama. It is a function of first person narration, which is what Wells employs, that unless your narrator is constantly in the thick of things, a certain amount of action is going to be missed, and in the case of The Island of Dr. Moreau it's rather surprising how much of that action happens off-stage. This would defeat the entire purpose of the best screen adaptation of the novel (well, I haven't seen the TV version from 1977, but I don't mind assuming in this case), 1932's Island of Lost Souls, directed by Erle C. Kenton and starring Charles Laughton, Bela Lugosi, Richard Arlen and "The Panther Woman" (now that's showmanship). The film, which will be released for the first time on DVD, or home video of any kind, by Criterion this coming Tuesday, is one of the more alarming horror films of the pre-Code era, with its air of almost cackling sadism, as personified by Charles Laughton's superb and properly vile take on Moreau, its, at times, near-merciless violence, and also its, you know, blatant hint of bestiality. The Panther Woman -- actually Kathleen Burke -- ain't there for nothin'.

The Panther Woman would have to be the film's equivalent of Wells's puma, which is the creature Moreau is working on, and whose screams Prendick can't block out until he's moved to sort-of act. But in the novel, the puma would really rebel and vent its rage violently (the puma was a female, by the way) while the Panther Woman is more content to fall in love with Edward Parker (née Prendick, I suppose), which is exactly what Moreau wants, or he wants what that will lead to. "Perverse" maybe doesn't exactly cover it. Of course, Kathleen Burke looking the way she does calls into question how one gets there from a panther via vivisection, but one could reasonably ask the same question of the novel -- despite Wells's insistence that that stuff was based on at least theoretical fact -- and those Beasts aren't even that hot.

Island of Lost Souls is pretty gleeful about its whole way of being, or maybe "heedless" is the better word. Although this would be far from unheard of today, the way this film off-handedly dispatches of its lone source of comic relief is actually pretty shocking. It's hard to relieve comically when that's how you're treated. The film is also gorgeous, perhaps predictably so, with Karl Struss manning the camera, so that the whole thing, the island and Moreau's compound, has a King Kong-esque level of depth, the jungle in which the story unfolds possesses a genuine, leafy thickness. It's all just wonderfully brisk and weird and full, boiling Wells down and extracting the pulp, a process that Wells evidently objected to like it was vivisection or something, publicly deriding the film as coarse or vulgar or some such thing. Which it is, at least vulgar, but Montgomery occasionally railed against Prendick for not being vulgar enough, and who knows? It might have done him some good.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

The Kind of Face You Slash - Day 22: The Blood on These Pages is Mine

It took me a long time to read Glen Duncan's The Last Werewolf. My other reading eventually played a part in that, but I first ran into obstacles when it became clear that Duncan's ambitions were largely theoretical, when his insistence that his book was not trashy like other books or films became some unpleasant mixture of OCD tic and fetish, and when the lead character came to be viewed by Duncan as heroic in his world-weariness and big dumb heart, regardless of the horrific things we see him do from page one until the end. After a while, and especially towards the end, The Last Werewolf changes from a well-written, stylish, deeply intriguing literary horror novel into something that is actually quite hateable. Oh, "changes", because of werewolves and transforming. I get it.

When I picked up The Last Werewolf, the last thing I expected it to be was a stylistic knock-off of Martin Amis. Because make no mistake: Glen Duncan wants desperately to be Martin Amis. I imagine he sometimes sleeps very poorly and sits over his breakfast the next morning, staring into his cereal and thinking everything tastes like paste, so unobtainable does his goal occasionally seem. These days, Martin Amis's star has fallen sufficiently so that choosing him as the writer to emulate would seem to many to be laughably quaint, but not to Glen Duncan, and not, for that matter, to me. I have read quite a lot of Amis and think very highly of him still. I know Amis's work well enough to know that Glen Duncan is not merely mimicking him, but explicitly placing him within The Last Werewolf (and throughout his other seven novels, for all I know). He actually names Amis once, when he refers to clichés as "Amis's mouldering novelties", a reference to Amis's book The War Against Cliché.

Later, but not much, Duncan is either paying homage to Amis or ripping him off, or rather ripping off someone Amis quoted, when he writes, prefatory to one of a few bouts of anal sex in the novel:

A pornographer in Los Angeles said to me not long ago: The asshole's finished. Everything gets finished. You keep coming up with crazy shit you can't believe you'll find the girls for, that'll finally finish the girls. But the girls just keep turning up and finishing it. It's depressing.

Back in 2001, Amis wrote an article about the porn industry called "A Rough Trade" which begins:

Pussies are bullshit. Don't let them tell you any different. "Answer me something," I said to John Stagliano..."How do you account for the emphasis, not just in your . . . work but in the industry in general, how do you account for the truly incredible emphasis on anal sex?"

After a minimal shrug and a minimal pause Stagliano said, "Pussies are bullshit." Now John was being obedient to the dictionary definition of "bullshit" which is nonsense intended to deceive.

It goes on from there, but you can either imagine what Stagliano's on about or click on the link and remove all doubt. The point is: "Pussies are bullshit." "Assholes are finished." Amis was writing about porn, at least. Duncan isn't, and even in context the passage stands out as being a more abstractly scatological way to announce "I am the next Martin Amis. I am. I really, really am."

What Duncan is actually writing about is werewolves, the last one to be specific, whose name is Jake Marlowe, which is the kind of casually macho name, with its winking hints of noir and whatever it is that guys named "Jake" do, that you'd expect to find in either a pastiche, or a tough-guy novel written with no self-awareness whatsoever. The Last Werewolf manages to be both of these at once. The story of the novel may not be notably derivative, but it's certainly not unique -- Jake Marlowe, 200 years old, going on 201, wealthy from years of smart money moves, learns from his personal assistant and caretaker, Harley, that the penultimate werewolf has been killed. This makes him, Jake, the ultimate werewolf. The killing was done by the World Organization for the Control of Occult Phenomena, or WOCOP, specifically by Ellis, one of two top WOCOP operatives, the other one being Grainer who is the Head Guy of that shadowy government entity, and whose entire existence revolves around not only wiping out occult creatures with a concentration on werewolves, but on killing Marlowe personally, because Marlowe killed Grainer's father. For his part, Marlowe would rather just die -- some years ago, a virus began running through his kind that made it impossible to make new werewolves, and beyond that female werewolves had always been scarce, even when there was more than one werewolf on the planet, and beyond that werewolves can't even breed sexually, so...why bother? What's left?

Naturally one sets oneself challenges -- Sanskrit, Kant, advanced calculus, t'ai chi -- but that only address the problem of Time. The bigger problem, of Being, just keeps getting bigger...One by one I've exhausted the modes: hedonism, asceticism, spontaneity, reflection, everything from miserable Socrates to the happy pig. My mechanism's worn out. I don't have what it takes. I still have feelings but I'm sick of having them. Which is another feeling I'm sick of having. I just...I just don't want any more life.

I'm by no means claiming this is bad writing. I was, in fact, quite excited by the book in the early going. A real horror novel by a real writer, one who gave a shit and understood language and cared about it! You take a bit like this next passage, though, and maybe you can see not only what excited me, but what frustrated me. This is basically a restating of the above -- which will become a huge problem as the novel goes on, and persists in its restatements -- but with jokes. It should be noted here that there are vampires in The Last Werewolf:

All motivation derives from the primary fact of mortality. Take mortality away and motivation loses its...motivation. Thus vampires spend a lot of time lounging around and staring out of the window and finding they can't be arsed.

I like the vampire joke, but that thing about motivation losing its motivation -- that's very Amisian. The difference is that Amis would not have used the ellipsis. He would have been more confident about what he was writing and less coy about it. This is one of the problems of mimicking a great writer: if you're not great, you will pale next to he who you are mimicking. And if you were great, you wouldn't be mimicking in the first place.

Anyway, Marlowe will come to change his tune, taking as his oft-repeated mantra "You love life because life's all there is," and the plot carries along as a quite gory, globe-, or at least US and UK-hopping, thriller that is broken up by long passages about how hard it is to be a werewolf. None of this bothers me so much. What bothers me is stuff like this:

In the movie version I'd go in and sneak out of a toilet window...

One wants clean, 007ish reactions at times like these.

In Buffy there'd be a howlers' singles bar or dating agency. Not in the real world.

In my view, there is no more desperate or obnoxious or phony way to place your novel, and therefore you, amidst the world of Things That Know How It Is and Things That Tell It Straight then to claim, within your fictional construct, that this ain't exactly the movies here, Sunshine. No indeed, this story about werewolves being hunted by a violent X-Files rip-off agency and also vampires, is not like all that made up shit. And those three passages are pulled from the novel's first 40 pages, and Duncan never stops! Every ten pages or so is another reminder that movies, now they tell stories like this, but you know my novel, its story gets told like this! Because nothing in The Last Werewolf, with all its romantic cynicism finally shattered by true love (because of course in movies "last" never actually means "last"), and its characters being saved at the last second before the villain pulls the trigger by some other return of a forgotten character who happens to be a Deadeye Dick, and also there's a fucking baby, motherfucker...every bit of this would be angrily turned away from the Gates of Hollywood on the grounds that it's all too scandalously new.

On top of this, it becomes apparent that as you read along, Glen Duncan has been slowly and shyly disappearing up his own ass the whole time. From the beginning, The Last Werewolf has been taking pains to place itself in the World of Today (Obama is mentioned, for the first time, on page seven), but this was all just stage-setting for the likes of this:

I changed channels. American Idol.

Wait, wait, don't leave, I know you're already pissed off, I was too, but just let me see this through. Please? So:

I changed channels. American Idol. Transformation again, this time from Nobody into Superstar. Perhaps Jacqueline was right: Humanity's getting its metamorphic kicks elsewhere these days. When you can watch the alchemy that turns morons into millionaires and gimps into global icons, where's the thrill in men who turn into wolves?

Where to begin, for Chrissake? First off, your really don't see which of the two would be more alarming? Second, Jake Marlowe has been alive for 200 years, and with all he's seen and done and experienced in that time, all he's learned and read and quietly pondered for generation after generation, and he's still not only bothering to notice that American Idol even exists, but he's wasting what must, or should, be a brain positively saturated with historical and philosophical questions with thoughts like "Oh hey, that show's kinda like me, but with singing." Jake Marlowe, there are dozens of reasons why I want you to die by the end of this book, and you just added another. Go take that shit to Salon or Slate or something, you dumbass. Is the kind of thought I had when I first read the American Idol thing.

All of this uselessness, this inane claim towards relevance that begins to pull The Last Werewolf apart at the seams, finds a slack-jawed companion in a variety of jabs at America that increasingly reveal Duncan as someone who has been told some things that he's decided sound pretty good to him. At one point, the female werewolf who eventually comes in to Change Everything, is recounting the night when she was turned into a werewolf. It involved her being stranded by the side of the road in an American desert -- she's American -- with no cars driving by in the last hour, causing her to reflect "in any case this is America so the last thing you should be hoping for is another car to com along." Right, this reminds me of the time my wife and I found ourselves stranded on the freeway at night, and a car stopped next to us, and the couple inside, two adopted (we would learn) children in the back seat, offered to take us to a gas station. We accepted, they drove us back as well, and made sure we were up and running again before driving off! It was like a waking nightmare!

Later, this American lady werewolf is being driven by some villains to a secret WOCOP base in Wales, and she thinks "My European geography's the standard American shambles..." So the fact that she doesn't know precisely where this tucked away bit of Wales is is proof of Americans' shoddy grasp of geography? Okay, Glen Duncan, let's you and I meet. I'll bring a map of the US. You point out Carson City. Being British, I imagine you learned that when you were six. And as if all that wasn't enough, during a sex scene between our two werewolves, Duncan writes "When she'd touched her clit, with healthy deft modern American entitlement..." Entitlement?? What the hell, man, it's hers!

This jaw-dropping smugness is most clearly represented by the book's diseased morality, which seems to boil down to the idea that the cool must survive. To Duncan's mild credit, he doesn't attempt to portray all of Marlowe's victims as hateful jerks who we're happy to see die. The great tragedy of Marlowe's life is his inability to stop himself from killing his 19th century bride, and he tries to be charitable in his life and some feeble way of making amends for all the innocent blood he's shed. But with all the moralizing Duncan does in this novel, and his portrayal of the WOCOP agents as evil, violent madmen, I'm forced to wonder if Duncan is even aware of what he's writing. What's in it for me to root for Marlowe's survival over the WOCOP agents? Or the vampires, even? Marlowe makes it clear that if he continues to live, he will not stop killing and eating people. Back when he wanted to die, he was going to let Grainer simply take him out, because as Marlowe also makes clear he's not going to commit suicide. Because you love life because life's all there is, don't you know, and after a while he even tosses away the plan to let Grainer pull the shutters. He found love, and we are actually supposed to give a shit. Marlowe and his lady slaughter a man and then have sex amid his guts, and Ellis and Grainer are somehow worse? No, they're not worse. They're the Man, is the problem. They don't live off the grid, they don't drink whiskey all the time and smoke all the time (it can't hurt werewolves, yet drowning can. Drowning can. Regular lead bullets can't destory their brain, but water can fill their lungs with fatal consequences. This is the kind of detail Duncan has worked out) and fuck prostitutes in opulent hotel rooms. They are not, most importantly, in love.

I'm reminded, of all things, of something James Ellroy said about O. J. Simpson. This might seem a rather extreme and perhaps even tacky comparison, but you're reminded of the things you're reminded of, so Ellroy wrote an article where he laid out the three choices Simpson had before he committed double murder. Ellroy wrote:

Beating up women is a young man's game. Attrition narrows your choices down to changing your life or ending it.

Change takes time. It's not as instantaneous as a few lines of coke or some fresh pussy.

Suicide takes imagination. You've got to be able to conjure up an afterlife or visions of rest -- or be in such unreachable pain that anything is preferable to your suffering.

O. J. went out behind a chickenshit end run. He didn't have the soul or the balls to utilize his first two options.

What I've been led to believe is that in our approach to art, we should not be so crass as to carry our same morals with us into the movie theater -- oh, excuse me, into the pages. I don't understand why I should regard a fictional immoral act with a philosophy different from the one I would apply to its real world equivalent, simply because the stakes only matter in the latter case. The philosophy is the same. Therefore, The Last Werewolf expects us to swoon over its romantic figures as they slip their way through our entrails. But no thank you. I'll root for the silver bullets instead.