Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The Kind of Face You Slash - Day 16: A Loneliness That Was Not Human, and a Melancholy That Was a Kind of Evil

Quentin S. Crisp is not Quentin Crisp. For a long time I thought they were the same person. Perhaps you can guess why. In any event, this mistaken assumption led me to also believe, for some years, that the collection of horror stories by Quentin S. Crisp called Morbid Tales and published by Tartarus Press, used copies of which were priced well above what I was willing to pay, was the work of Quentin Crisp. Quentin NMI Crisp, I mean, The Naked Civil Servant and whatnot. I became very interested in Morbid Tales, and bitterly mourned my not-rich-person status. Of course, part of my interest hinged on the belief that The Naked Civil Servant had written it, because I hadn't been aware that horror fiction was anywhere close to the kind of thing he ever wrote. Now, over the course of my periodic obsession to learn more about this, certain clues should have indicated to me that this was another different Quentin Crisp altogether (why that "S" all of a sudden, for instance), most of which I won't bore you/embarrass myself by relating. But skipping ahead, an entirely affordable copy of Morbid Tales finally revealed itself to me, and I pounced (if I hadn't, I doubt it would have been available much longer). When it arrived in the mail, I turned to the introduction by Mark Samuels, which opens with this:

Sometime during 2001, Matt Cardin, a friend and correspondent of mine in the United States, suggested I contact an author then resident in Taiwan who shared our interest in the work of Thomas Ligotti. I think my first reaction was to ask whether the author's name was genuine. Doubtless those of you who have bought this book without first being in contact with its author have asked yourself the same question. So to clear up any confusion, this Quentin Crisp is a thirty-one-year-old writer and not the late Quentin Crisp, 'Professor of Style' long exiled in New York.

I have to say, I was vaguely disappointed to learn this, despite the fact that whoever had written Morbid Tales was being noticed and approved of by, as far as I was concerned, all the right people. No doubt this is why, the night the book arrived, I read two short stories, dubbed them good but uninteresting, and set the book aside. But let me, at long last, cut to the chase: Quentin S. Crisp has been publishing books since 2001, many through small specialty presses, many out of print and basically unavailable (or actually unavailable, in some cases), but in recent years has founded, or co-founded -- I don't know the details -- an excellent publishing company called Chômu Press that makes books by writers like Mark Samuels, Reggie Oliver, Michael Cisco, and plenty more, available at regular normal-person prices. And as you might expect, and as you might wish (if you're me, at least), Crisp has thrown a couple of his own books into the mix: "Remember, You're a One-Ball!", his first full-length novel (he'd previously published a stand-alone novella called Shrike through PS Publishing), and just last month a reprint of his 2009 story collection, All God's Angels, Beware!.

Earlier this year, I got over my moping over this being a different Quentin Crisp and read "Remember, You're a One-Ball!". Certain blurbs contained in the pre-book ancillary pages proved too fascinating to resist, none more so than this one, which is not a blurb but rather a "rejection from a publisher who wished to remain anonymous":

You write like a dream, Quentin, and the novel is well paced, but the subject matter is so challenging; so unremittingly inhuman, cruel and full of hatred that it is unbearable.

I'm not sure about all of that, but it was certainly cruel, it contained at least some hatred and inhumanity, and Quentin S. Crisp does, as it turns out, write like a dream. "Remember, You're a One-Ball!" also turned out to be fairly challenging, unquestionably bizarre, occasionally baffling, both sickened and sickening, despairing, sexual, morbid, melancholy, and lonely. That title doesn't refer to billiards, incidentally.

So I was somewhat primed, if not a little bit uncertain, when embarking on today's reading. In fairness to you, at the height of my beneficence, I have chosen to work from All God's Angels, Beware! rather than Morbid Tales, seeing as I snapped up the last affordable copy of that one in existence. After some research, I finally decided to go with what might be considered the centerpiece of All God's Angels, Beware!, a 70-page novella called "Ynys-y-Plag," which, I know, sounds Lovecraftian, but don't worry, it's only Welsh. Although I suppose the Lovecraftian lilt, or warble, of "Ynys-y-Plag" is probably no accident -- there is a certain Lovecraftian spike to the story itself, I suppose, though in terms of influence, two other writers stand out much more sharply: Thomas Ligotti (a Lovecraft acolyte anyway) and Arthur Machen. Machen's "The White People" in particular comes through strongly in the first half, as does Ligotti's "The Red Tower," with its total absence of any people, by which I mean any characters, only a kind of inexplicably sinister production.
But "Ynys-y-Plag" is very much its own thing, and it's something of a masterpiece, I think. It takes the form of a new introduction -- ostensibly an introduction, I should say -- to a reprint edition of our narrator's most famous book of photography. Our narrator is nameless, of course, but the story is written as if we should obviously know who he is. He's a famous and successful photographer, an artist, and the book for which he's writing this introduction, Traces, is a very well-known and sought-after collection of his work. The photographer himself, however, is ambivalent about his own talent, and rather less so about Traces:

If I can call Traces great art, and if I can also say that I dislike the work, that -- let me be frank -- I hate it, it is because in a sense it is a work that has little to do with me as an artist. It is a work, also, that I wish had nothing to do with me as a person. It was created by circumstance and a camera, and I, unfortunately, was there at the time, pushing the button.

"Ynys-y-Plag" then takes the form, as you might expect from the kind of introduction that it's pretending to be, of a "making of" account. The photographer explains the course of his career up to the point that the idea for Traces occurred to him, though he does so with a sort of bitter indifference, and how the idea for the book transformed into something else. Essentially, he'd hit on the idea of exploring parts of England and the rest of the UK with which he was unfamiliar, being an "urbanite," so he'd started putting a map on his wall, closing his eyes, and sticking a pin into the map. If the pin marked a location that was at all usable -- not in mainland Europe or in the ocean, basically -- then he would drive there, and the location would become his subject. One day, when he was ready to begin a new project, he stuck his pin into Ynys-y-Plag, a town in Wales. So that's where he went.

The first twenty to thirty pages of "Ynys-y-Plag" are very dense with descriptions of the the Welsh landscape, and the strange effect Ynys-y-Plag, the town, has on the photographer. I read a quote from Crisp where he said that his greatest strength as a writer is "description," which might seem like an awfully general thing to single out, but reading this novella I think I know what he means. Here he's describing a particular photograph of a strange dome he took in Ynys-y-Plag, one that wound up in Traces:

I still don't have a very clear idea of the purpose of the dome. A high and untrimmed hedge along one section of the main road largely obscured the dome from sight. Its round, tiled apex, however, rose about the hedge outlandishly, as if it were a flying saucer squatting on some private but poorly concealed landing pad about which no one dared enquire...When I looked upon the dome in daylight, it gave me a bleak feeling of being lost -- like a a child separated from his parents in a strange place -- and seemed a symbol of the kind of emptiness that creeps increasingly into life when you reach adulthood, casting over everything an irreversible chill that tells you there is no such place as home. However, the photograph I took in daylight somehow failed to capture this feeling, and I knew I had to come back at night. When I did, what I saw gave me a quite different feeling. Beneath jellyfish bells of sodium streetlight glare, and the blue light of the moon that made all shapes bestial and squinting, the dome seemed otherworldly. This was a stage beyond emptiness. If nature abhors a vacuum, then it seemed, looking at that dome in the crabbed and space-distorted darkness of the miserable night, that all that was left in the universe to fill the vacuum of the soul was some alien spirit whose strangeness was so potent that it could not whisper and sigh within the knowledge of a human being without intoxicating, possessing and transforming.

There's a lot of this kind of thing in "Ynys-y-Plag", and in Ynys-y-Plag. Upon entering the town, the photographer experienced a wash of uneasy feelings, including that he was trespassing just by being there at all, and that his trespass was not going unnoticed. His descriptions of his own photographs dig deeper, though still deepening the mystery. Traces most famous photograph, the one that graces the cover, is of one of the town's many bridges -- indeed, every road and path seems to lead to another bridge -- and what inspired, or rather forced, perhaps, the photographer to take that particular picture was the presence of a child's shoe. Later he finds different manholes sunk into the earth, which may lead, as you'd expect, to the sewer system, but may not. At one of these manholes, he sees a tiny sock nearby. At both manholes, he feels a terror at the very idea of turning around, though he must in order to retreat. Elsewhere, he sees a massive tree that grows up and out over a slope of ground, and over a body of water. From one of the branches hangs a swing made of a rope of blue nylon and a stick. He takes a picture of this, wanting to capture a particular stillness to the swing, and the strange light of Ynys-y-Plag's twilight, and then he meets a man. The man approaches him, and points out an otter swimming in the water behind him. As the two men begin to talk, the stranger begins to sound more and more wild as he warns:

"...There's a bug down there. Some people round here catch it sometimes...You see something strange, though, you don't look, unless you want to catch the bug...They say that sin and evil's human, but there was some kind of sin here a long time before people came. The worst time was the plague. That's when it was everywhere..."

Ynys-y-Plag, by the way, means Island of the Plague.

There is so much going on in this story. The plot is actually fairly rich -- it's not all mood and atmosphere, and the horror imagery becomes increasingly more explicit, before drawing back again into insinuation by the end. Along the way, Crisp writes of the strangeness of humanity, the seeming near-emptiness of Ynys-y-Plag, a town rich with creeping, eerie nature that itself is dotted with man-made structures, such as bridges, the dome, the lights that light the trees as night falls -- it's like weeds growing through a split in the pavement, but in reverse. Yet there's almost no one around. The photographer meets three townspeople within Ynys-y-Plag limits. The photographer learns about that swing, and about the bug the man -- "The Otter Man," the photographer dubs him -- warned about, or rather, in Welsh, the bwg, which itself, we are told, is the origin of "bug," but when we see centipedes and millipedes and flies and caterpillars and think "bug," that is a misuse of an ancient word with an ancient meaning that we can't know about, though we are probably in some subtle, unnoticed way infected by the "bwg," the disease that crouches within Ynys-y-Plag. If there's a horror image Crisp wants you to leave his story and dig up for yourself, and presumably connect to "Ynys-y-Plag," it's this little...lady? The Kikimora, anyway, a monster from Slavic myth, illustrated here -- and this is the exact picture Crisp specifically refers to on three different occasions -- by Ivan Bilibin:
I hasten to add, this isn't cheating on Crisp's part. It's a symbol.

Thomas Ligotti once said that the next great horror writer would be someone writing from the fringe of society, a badly socialized and slightly, but genuinely, unhinged person like, he said, H. P. Lovecraft or Edgar Allan Poe ("or me," he didn't say, but didn't need to, but he would have been right if he had). I don't know enough about Crisp to say if he fits the model, but from what I've read of his work, some of the recurring ideas are a resistance to suicide only because "Why bother?" is just as strong in its lack of action as suicide would be in its action, a crippling loneliness that one doesn't fight to conquer but to accept, a fear of sex, a disgust of sex, an inability to take pleasure from sex, abuse and cruelty and terror and confusion. "Ynys-y-Plag" itself uses occasionally blatant horror ideas to deal with almost all of this, as well as the loss of childhood and family and home -- the growing into adulthood as the awakening into horror. The more straightforward horror elements of the novella are among the more unsettling I've encountered in some time (a dead body is described without detail but with just the right simile that I could picture it instantly, and was jarred by what Crisp was showing me), and the ideas, very much like Ligotti though not quite antinatal, are at least regretful about that the idea of "human life" was ever considered.

"Ynys-y-Plag" is not perfect. Towards the end, Crisp goes about explaining more than I would have expected. There's a lot he doesn't explain, but explaining almost any of what's going on here is surprising in a story like this. It becomes very talky as a result, but by no means fatally so. Not even close. Whatever flaws pop up along the way, the final, overall effect of "Ynys-y-Plag" is one of hopeless, queasy terror -- the terror of uncertainty and of loss, and of not being a part of a world that everyone else seems to be a part of, of life, of death, and of a universe that possibly not only doesn't care about you, but hates you. In the hands of an honest writer, this is horror.

1 comment:

otherbill said...

I've been circling the Crisp/Oliver/Cardin/Samuels "scene" for some time now. Mainly I've been waiting to not have to skip a couple of car payments to get a volume of stories. This sounds right up my alley- any favorable comparison to Ligotti pretty much seals the deal for me. Great write up.
Glad you liked the Conan Doyle story. I remember that one being about the best of his supernatural work, but there are other rewards therein. I'm also a fan of the Prof Challenger stories, but "The Land of Mist" is to be avoided. It's basically an infomercial for spiritualism and Doyle sacrifices every principle of good storytelling to make his point.