Thursday, October 11, 2012

The Kind of Face You Slash - Day 11: You Only Lived Once

I knew Gahan Wilson first as an artist. I don't believe there are too many people who know who Gahan Wilson is that could say otherwise. The heir apparent to Charles Addams who has in turn spawned a host of his own heirs apparent, Gahan Wilson's brand of grotesque, weird, heavily-wrinkled illustrations have appeared in publications like Playboy, The New Yorker, The National Lampoon, and a host of others for something in the neighborhood of fifty years. His cartoons are rarely actually violent -- of course, neither were Charles Addams' -- but they often hint at something fairly hideous occurring in the very next panel, or the one after that...in any case, a panel Wilson will never draw, or at least never show you. Of course they're funny, too, most of them. Over the years I have seen a scattering of Wilson cartoons -- usually black and white, and never captioned -- that are intended only to unnerve. But most are funny. But of course still meant to unnerve, sometimes because of what's depicted, and sometimes because the precise joke can be difficult to locate. I remember talking to someone about a Wilson cartoon from an issue of Playboy, and this person hating it because there was no joke, and me having trouble explaining that the joke was simply that the woman in the cartoon was not reacting at anywhere close to the emotional level you'd expect, given everything else in the picture. Explaining jokes never pays off anyway.

However, Wilson -- and I do wonder how many people know this -- writes short stories as well, the kind of stories that might be suitably illustrated by one of his cartoons, as if that's going to surprise anybody. Yet all anyone ever wants to talk about are his cartoons, and fair enough, I suppose. It's just that now that I've read a good handful of his short fiction, I can't help but note the fact that Gahan Wilson has published a couple of mystery novels and a couple of story collections and nobody cares, and maybe if they had, we'd have more stories and novels. Maybe not, though. I'm just looking for someone to blame.
The first time I read a Gahan Wilson short story was some years ago when I read "The Sea Was Wet as Wet Could Be," one of Wilson's two most reprinted stories, and a great piece of horror fiction. For a long time, Wilson the fiction writer was being unofficially collected by me any time one of his stories turned up in some other anthology -- it was very much a piece-by-piece process. Finally, though, earlier this year I thought "Hey wait a minute," I got online, and I found one of his story collections, a fairly recent one as these things go, called The Cleft and Other Odd Tales from 1998. It's a career-spanning collection -- the oldest story is from 1962, the latest from 1998 -- and I wonder, even though it's never stated anywhere on the cover or within the pages, if this might actually be a "collected stories" kind of situation. Whatever the case, I've spent a healthy portion of my day today reading this book, and while I have several stories to go before I finish, I recommend The Cleft and Other Odd Tales without reservation.

As stated, I read more than my customary two stories for today's post, part of that being due to the fact that Wilson doesn't exclusively write horror stories, and two that I read, "The Cleft" and "The Frog Prince," don't belong to that genre. The other four I read were, though, and I kept reading because I honestly didn't care to stop. I only did finally because I had to -- other stories needed to be read. Each of the four horror stories I read, "Come One, Come All," "Mister Ice Cold," "It Twineth Round Thee in Thy Joy," and a story whose title has no alphabetical or numerical equivalent, and apparently doesn't even have a "We'll just have to refer to it as this" kind of title that people use just so they can call it something, so I'll just go ahead and call it "The Spot," are all terrific, represent a variety of types and subgenres and tones, while all being very clearly written by the same guy who drew this:
It's hard to say which story was my favorite, but I was particularly struck by two, for very different reasons. "Mister Ice Cold" is a story of a certain classic type that to the best of my knowledge doesn't exist anymore, which is the horror story written for children, but still actually a horror story. It's a pretty short story, and it's about an ice cream truck, so with that context I doubt I need to go a great deal further by way of summary, but after the horrible turn comes, Wilson doesn't look to soften or reverse it. In fact he cranks it up a little in the final lines. Anyhow, it's my sense that this sort of story used to be common, and children were allowed to read stories that were supposed to scare them without then comforting them, because being scared is fun, and is an emotion and a sensation that children, in particular, seek out. I don't know if I'm trying to say that kids are pussies now, but I did like "Mister Ice Cold."

Also interesting is "It Twineth Round Thee in Thy Joy," which I think turns up in anthologies from time to time. It's a truly odd story -- imaginatively, conceptually, even "visually," in terms of physical description, and structurally as well. It's no kind of experimental tour de force, but it is a bit off-kilter in all of these ways. It's sort of a horror story told twice, one of those times embedded within the other by way of a diary, three hundred years apart. It opens with a large tentacled alien named Ehnk Nahk S'Tak'n following his Martian guide Soonsoon on the path of a deserted village, and the mysterious, legendary pleasures found within, pleasures which, I hardly need to tell you, come with a price. Those pleasures were witnessed and experienced by the man, probably an Earthling, who three hundred years before Ehnk Nahk S'Tak'n came along, died on the trail and left behind the diary, which S'Tak'n is now reading for information and to tantalize himself. With the diary, Wilson is, in effect, telling the same story that, in the beginning and ending of "It Twineth Round Thee in Thy Joy" he's telling about S'Tak'n. The way the diarist story ends is more or less how S'Tak'n's story is going to end -- this could not be more clear. Or more to the point, since if Wilson has a theme here it's that anything that is sentient is going to be a slave to its desires, and that's going to bite you in the ass eventually. But it's interesting to me how casually Wilson twins two beings that are completely physically different, and two different centuries, to make his "point" (a word I use for economy's sake) so swiftly and easily.
"The Spot" -- which remember is just what I'm calling it, but if you ever see it on a table of contents, you'll know what it is -- was originally written for Harlan Ellison's anthology Again, Dangerous Visions, and I quite enjoyed it. It was what people used to call "fun," a word that firmly applies to every Gahan Wilson story I've read, even the darkest ones, and is a nice mix of stylistic throw-back and conceptually modern. Summarizing this one won't get us very far, because it's all very simple: a rich and very fastidious named Reginald Archer one day finds a dark spot on his white tablecloth. He grumpily tells his butler Faulks to clean it up, but pretty soon the spot is appearing all over his home. Not many spots everywhere, but the same spot, disappearing and reappearing in different locations, each time bigger, each time transforming with different horns and spindles and gewgaws and lobes sprouting off it. Each of these forms -- in fact, each reappearance -- of the spot is literally illustrated by Wilson, and as it grows Archer is moved to contact his old school chum and current, I suppose, parapsychologist, Sir Harry Mandifer. Once Mandifer arrives and the three men put their heads together to try and figure out what's going on and how to stop it, the spot continues to grow, to the point where it crowds into paragraphs, so that Wilson appears to have to write around his own illustrations. It's a delightful little story that, like "Mister Ice Cold," delights by not chickening out.
The last story I read, "Come One, Come All," is a zombie story. I've been avoiding zombie stories this year, but I ended up going with this one just because it was a zombie story written by Gahan Wilson. He actually wrote it for Still Dead, editors John Skipp and Craig Spector's follow up to their seminal, for better or worse, zombie splatterpunk anthology The Book of the Dead, and the idea of that one was essentially to bring George Romero's zombies to the page. Wilson does approach this material from his own particular direction, however. There is one non-zombie character in "Come One, Come All," and he is Professor Marvello, the owner, operator, and carnival barker for "Marvello's Miraculous Midway," a sideshow -- the last sideshow, Marvello figures -- that lures zombies in as customers. It's a reflexive thing, apparently, the way Romero's zombies go to the mall. But at that Pittsburgh mall, there was nobody there to serve them, while Professor Marvello apparently genuinely wants them to enjoy his attractions. He says to one, an undead farmer who shambles up:

"Good evening, sir...I observe you possess the percipiency to have been attracted by the sounds and sights of our outstanding exhibition. May I be so bold as to congratulate you on your good taste and encourage you to step a little closer?
...
Miss La Frenza Hoo Pah Loo Hah...I am sure, my dear sir, that a man of your obvious sophistication and, if I may say it, je ne sais quoi, is well aware of the extraordinary sensual jollies which may be produced by the skilled locomotion of swaying hhips and other anatomical accessories on the part of a well-trained and imaginative practitioner of the art of hula dancing..."

And so on. The dead farmer eventually ushers himself into the tent. All of the dialogue in "Come One, Come All" is Marvello's pitches to various lumbering corpses, the progression of which does threaten to become tiresome -- this is one of the longer stories in the collection -- but Wilson tends to add a little something at just the right moment. "It Twineth Round Thee in Thy Joy" should have prepared me for the particular adult preoccupations or sensibilities of some of Wilson's fiction, but I was still surprised by the level of gore in "Come One, Come All," even more surprised by the fact that of all the swear words for Wilson to pick to be the only swear word used in the whole story, Wilson chose "cunt," and, finally by the zombie infant which approaches Marvello towards the end of Marvello's night, and Wilson's story:

Marvello heard a faint, choking meep and turned to see a tiny shape crawling into the gory light of the midway. It was the corpse of a baby dressed in a long lacy dress which trailed along behind it as it hauled itself determinedly through the Kansas dust with what was left of its tiny, rotting fingers.

"Not much, but you're a start," said Marvello, observing the little creature with interest as it struggled toward the entrance. "If I'd have known the likes of you was out there I'd have lured you in during the preamble with Wally Mysto and his Edible Animal Puppets. Land's sake, I do declare this little nipper must have drowned in its baptismal font..."


Also keeping this story moving is the knowledge that once the zombies enter the various tents to...see?...the various attractions, something is happening. Are they being fed? Well, we'll find out at the end. I would have to say that "Come One, Come All" is the least interesting of all the Gahan Wilson stories I've read so far, and this is telling, I think. It's the only one I know of that Wilson wrote as an assignment, that is, with a certain specific element that needed to be included due to the anthology being pitched to. I wonder if Wilson would have ever written a zombie story if Skipp and Spector had never come calling. Every other Gahan story I've read is wholly unique; even if it's part of a tradition, like "The Spot," Wilson turns it into something that only he could have produced.

Which is not to say I would have expected just anybody to have turned out "Come One, Come All." It's still a story that somehow reads like his cartoons look.

6 comments:

John said...

I don't know if I'm trying to say that kids are pussies now,...

Yes, but the kids don't have much say in the matter. They don't choose what books their school might carry, what their parents or teachers will let them read, what horrible influences they must be sheltered from. It's the (supposed) grownups who conspire to protect them from the baleful influence (all too limited in extent, as it is) of the Gahan Wilson's of this world, who are doing a lasting disservice to them.

Anyway, great piece on a worthy subject. I recall liking the zombie story, though it may help to have an enthusiasm for the subject, and also to read it in its original setting, a book of similarly themed tales, where its idiosyncrasies might stand out to better effect. I need to get this book.

bill r. said...

Agreed with everything you say about kids and what what they're allowed, and not allowed, to read. Reading "Mister Ice Cold" brought me back to what was for me a happy time spent reading such stories, but it also depressed me a little bit because of how much things have changed.

And I hope I didn't come off too negative about "Come One, Come All." I did like it for the most part.

Jose said...

Oh man, I swear that the very next occasion in which I can purchase or request a gift for myself, it's going to be a Gahan Wilson collection. I've heard mutterings about his fiction before (namely how "The Sea..." is one of the Greats), but this write-up has sold me. This sounds like exactly the type of thing that I emulate to write.

An interesting side note though: R. L. Stine edited an anthology called BEWARE! that was marketed towards kids in which "Mister Ice Cold" made an appearance. So perhaps all hope is not quite lost.

bill r. said...

Hm...I was thinking about Stine, among others, when I made that point. Perhaps I'm wrong about everything?

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Will Errickson said...

I had the pleasant opportunity to meet & chat with Wilson many a year ago at a Fango convention. He signed some Lovecraft-related stuff he'd illustrated, and we talked about how much HPL would've hated RE-ANIMATOR, FROM BEYOND, etc. etc. I still can't believe I've not read the "The Sea..." (shhhh)

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