Friday, October 12, 2012
The Kind of Face You Slash - Day 12: Jungles of the Upper Air
Anyway, not a lot of extra bits here, is what I'm saying. As far as the roster of authors Wilson has gathered together, apart from Treves we have a reasonably popular lineup, one that includes Charles Birkin, Clark Ashton Smith, M. R. James, and Robert W. Chambers. The Chambers story is called "The Harbor-Master" and I'll tell you, I wanted to read that one for today -- of it, Wilson says "The evocation of the sheer physical presence of a monster has never, I think, been better done..." -- and my rules for this project being less strict than they once were I very well could have, but the pull to write about another guy was too strong.
When I was younger, I assumed that the Holmes stories were really the only genre fiction Doyle wrote. Eventually I learned otherwise, and I picked up from somewhere that his novel about the Hundred Year's War The White Company was one of his own favorites, and so I just naturally assumed that historical fiction was his passion, genre fiction was how he made money, and he hated it. Of course the truth is nowhere near that simple, not least because whatever his final opinion, Doyle didn't create Holmes with a sneer on his face. Plus there's the Professor Challenger books, and, of course, his horror fiction. After reading "The Horror of the Heights" I'd very much like to read more of it. In his introduction to the story, Gahan Wilson writes:
This is a grand demonstration that if you do this kind of story well, it has fantastic survivability. The question here asked has long been answered, the dreadful thesis advanced is hopelessly outdated, and yet I'll bet you think of it at some point during your next supersonic flight and look up.
I wonder if "thesis" is the correct word here, even though Doyle would come to believe a lot of goofy stuff in the course of his life, but otherwise Wilson is right. The story imagines what horrors could exist 30,000 and 40,000 and more feet into the air, as airplane and flight technology, at the time of the story's publication, made such heights ever more reachable, and us geniuses in 2012 know there aren't any monsters up there at all, but in terms of the effectiveness of Doyle's story this doesn't matter one ounce. It's a wonderfully strange and chilling story anyway, plus Doyle's protagonist, a pilot, inventor, and adventurer named Joyce-Armstrong (the story is made up mostly of a portion of a journal the man kept, the man himself now missing, that has been given the delightfully ominous and official-sounding "The Joyce-Armstrong Fragment"), who himself actually offers a slight rebuttal to Wilson's point about the story having been disproved, a rebuttal that no longer works, but that nevertheless might have an interesting effect on your imagination:
A visitor might descend upon this planet a thousand times and never see a tiger. Yet tigers exist, and if he chanced down into a jungle he might be devoured. There are jungles of the upper air, and there are worse things than tigers which inhabit them.
"The Horror of the Heights" spends most of its pages chronicling Joyce-Armstrong's journey into the sky, most of the trip passing by without being encroached upon by otherworldly beings. It felt very slightly like something by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, eventually mixed with what I imagine Doyle's own Professor Challenger stories are like (a really weak-ass comparison, I understand that). When the horror comes, the tiger/jungle comparison actually doesn't seem especially accurate. What Doyle's version of the "upper air" feels like to me is another ocean, and the creatures Doyle describes, with their floating, billowing, strange and beaked nature, sound more like the mad, alien things that live on or near the ocean floor. I'd be terrified to be surrounded by a school of those things, too. The story ends in much the way you'd expect, based on Doyle's own build-up, and I'm wondering if Doyle might not have wanted to do more with this idea. Not necessarily in this story, but to expand on it in other works. Maybe it's best that he never did -- I'm a big proponent of letting strangeness be -- but I am curious to know Doyle's own take on this.
I think that for sheer menace this is the most powerful story I have ever read, though exactly what it is that is menacing, and exactly what it is menacing to do are entirely mysterious.
He's right, and that's great, and I'll leave it to you to enjoy this, as I say, very short story on your own. But my problem -- and I'm not convinced this is me doing anything more than picking nits -- is that the narrator's fear, once inside the house, begins because the clock she's been asked to retrieve is still ticking. It's been twelve days, so a wind-up clock in those days (the story was published in 1928) should have long since winded down. Okay, but this causes the woman to be frightened, even before the frightening stuff happens. Had I been in her shoes, if I even thought about the fact that the clock was still ticking (without question, the strangeness of this would have never occurred to me), my reaction to it would have been something along the lines of "Huh." Then I would have left.
But it's a good story, and I plan on reading more of Harvey's stuff (there's a good, affordable omnibus volume out there of his work that I plan on picking up). It's just that we all get hung up on something from time to time, and clocks ticking beyond the point they reasonably should do not chill my blood.