Sunday, October 21, 2012

The Kind of Face You Slash - Day 21: Is the Trickling Oil of Rot Tastier Than Blood?

I can't find any biographical information about William Scott Home. I don't know when or where he was born, or whether or not he's still alive. I can't find any pictures of William Scott Home. When you do an image search for his name, you mostly get, along with pictures of various mugshots of people named either Scott or William, images of Seann William Scott. He is a different person from William Scott Home, so this is no help. I first learned of Home from Will Errickson, who pointed me to this interview with Thomas Ligotti. Towards the end of the interview, Ligotti is asked about the weirdest piece of fiction he's ever read, and he answers:

The weirdest stories I’ve ever read composed the collection Hollow Faces, Merciless Moons (1977) by William Scott Home. The prose is so complex and recondite that it’s all but unreadable, much like that of Clark Ashton Smith. Furthermore, Home’s narratives are baffling and sometime barely comprehensible, somewhat in the manner of Robert Aickman. For a while I thought that Home was either an inexpert writer or a mental case. Then I found an essay by him in a festschrift devoted to Lovecraft called HPL. The essay was lucid and insightful.

"So complex and recondite that it's all but unreadable" paired with comparisons to Clark Ashton Smith and Robert Aickman combined into quite the heady perfume, and it very rapidly became clear that William Scott Home was a writer I needed to learn more about. And I have been unable to learn anything more about him. Other than, I guess, if this counts, that back in the 1970s, and into the 80s, he wrote a healthy handful -- but still only a handful -- of short stories (as well as a few poems and a couple of essays), some of which found their way into annual best-of horror anthologies, and could at the time most frequently be found in the pages of an annual fanzine called Weirdbook published by W. Paul Ganley between 1968 and 1995. To give you some idea of Weirdbook -- and you may have picked up by now that there is somewhat more information available on this publication than on William Scott Home -- this website describes it as having been " typed on an IBM Selectric typewriter." At one point in my life, which honestly isn't that far behind me, the implications of that description would have made my blood run cold. But I'm a tiny bit wiser now, or at least more open to certain possibilities, and I suspect I'll be doing my damnedest to hunt down as many of the back issues as I can.

Because William Scott Home, professionally anyway, was apparently joined to Gainey's hip, and I'm in a position now to decide that this reflects well on Gainey. From what I can tell, Home published three books, Black Diamond Gates, a collection of poetry that is short enough to possibly be labeled a chapbook, Stain of Moonlight, which I'm almost positive is a collection of stories, and a third book, one I know without a doubt is a collection of stories because I have it here in front of me (and besides, this is the one Ligotti mentioned in that quote above), called Hollow Faces, Merciless Moons. Hollow Faces, Merciless Moons, in fact, was published as "a WEIRDBOOK special issue," and that IBM Selectric got another workout on this one. To give you some idea, one of the stories I read for today, "The Last Golem," contains German names and Czech city names (a made up Czech city, from what I can tell), with umlauts and Czech accent marks and so forth, and these were very clearly handwritten into the original manuscript, and from there copied into the print run. I've decided this is charming, though if Home wasn't so singular I'd probably be a much bigger asshole about it.

So. William Scott Home. The book itself, by the way, has the dimensions of the old-style graphic novel comic books (that term meant something different when I was a kid), which is the first thing I think of when I look at it, but for the unaffiliated these dimensions are also similar to a regular spiral notebook. Or a magazine, I guess. Some magazines, anyway. The text is in two columns, so that the 95-page count is deceptive, as is the fact that many of the stories run under ten pages, even under five. I don't know how this would all translate into a more normally laid-out book, but I'd think the book would just about double in size in that case. It's unusual, as a book, is all I'm getting at.

So. William Scott Home. Ligotti's description of Home's prose as being so recondite (or, if you prefer, acroamatic, a word Home uses in one of the stories I read) as to be unreadable strikes me as fairly absurd. Not the recondite part, but the unreadable part. I found it all quite readable, once I got into the rhythm, and quite exciting, even. Clark Ashton Smith is a pretty good comparison -- that's certainly the closest association I could make -- but in any case Home's is a rich, enveloping style, his desired mood is struck instantly in the first paragraph of the first story, "The Utter Dark Where Blind White Sea Snakes Crawl" -- well, the mood is struck just by that title alone, obviously, but Home ramps that up with:

The first impression of decay -- or hasty genesis -- which the old Carib town of Stann Creek imparts to its visitors is quickly overtaken by a bland sensory honey compounded of the overwhelming sunlight, an exuberance of blossoms -- hibiscus all year, jasmine and oleander seasonally -- and the aleatory rhythm of feet and heads, rumbling trucks and padding waves. The creek itself, bridged at the centre of town, would pass without notice if it were not a rim to rim bed of water-hyacinths; from the exclusive huddle of paintless houses green fields mediate with the sea, mangrove, and spongy fabric of rain forest which softens the startling karst of the Stann Creek Valley.

This story is the only one I read -- which does not mean it's the only one by Home in existence -- that matches what Ligotti says about the narratives being baffling, but when he says they are "sometimes barely comprehensible" I think he meant "The Utter Dark Where Blind White Sea Snakes Crawl." It's not at all like Aickman, though. Aickman, even at his strangest, which is considerably strange, have a precision, where what is withheld, the element that is being kept deliberately incomprehensible, still contains enough evidence for the reader to conclude that something whole is being submerged, and we're only a witness to little islands of a greater weirdness. "The Utter Dark Where Blind White Sea Snakes Crawl," on the other hand, seems like a mad jumble. Not an uninteresting one, by any means, but this story about, I can only assume, a white doctor in a small Caribbean village and a another man, our narrator, who it is eventually revealed is building a submarine to plumb the ocean depths where creatures quite unlike and far more soul-shreddingly terrifying than what we know, churn the waters, discuss, among other things, occult medicine, vampires, the undead, fear, myths -- and how mythical fears grow up in parts of the world where the actual things, which do exist in the world of this story, don't exist, and the parts of the world where they do exist, these things are taken in stride -- and just...lots of things, this story, as I say, is impossible to summarize in any coherent way. And it's true, sometimes the language contributes to this confused, off-balance feeling. Take this bit, when the narrator enters the hospital and finds the doctor, Arzu, treating a badly injured local woman:

Arzu was painting iodine on the lips of an elderly woman, whose lumpy squinted features were rather blank. Both upper and lower lips had been cut into, quite neatly, but they were already purulent. When her mouth was closed the wound was a perfect ellipse, as though someone under the inspiration of Hugo had driven a biscuit-punch clean through her flesh.

First: biscuit-punch? Second: Hugo? First I've heard of him. Maybe "Hugo" when paired with "biscuit-punch" combines to form a reference that I simply don't get. If you do, please elucidate.
I don't want to get too bogged down with this one story, though. The next one I read is called "The Uncomfortable Words," and for a while it's far more traditionally surreal. It's made up primarily of a long conversation between two old women sitting on a bench, Miss Smitt and Mrs. McKey. Miss Smitt does most of the talking, and in tones that would indicate she's trafficking in run-of-the-mill, but still juicy, local gossip, she says things like:

"...But just this Sunday, do you know, out in that same part, back where the mud is so bad behind the sheds -- remember, I told you? -- there was the girl -- I told you about her, didn't I? been there some time, the one with the red hair and freckled nose? -- well, she was cornered, and a man I hadn't seen before threw burning gasoline across her face. She fell against that fence, and it's so weak, you know, it collapsed right under her, so she fell there and lay twitching and writing like a half-squashed spider while the gasoline burned her face off. It didn't catch the rest of her, because it was burning when he threw it, but she wasn't quiet until night was over."

Miss Smitt's gossip is just a parade of horrors, you see, and only Mrs. McKey has the decency to be upset about any of it, though even then not quite as much as you'd expect. "The Uncomfortable Words" has a great, violent, bizarre drive to it, and creates a world where these old women meet on park benches to discuss the never-ending nightmare of blood that is their hometown, before finally taking a surprising turn towards something more...I don't want to say ordinary, because that would imply that I don't think it works. The turn was, I'll admit, slightly disappointing, but more unexpected, in its very classicism, than anything else.

But Home, it turns out, is not at all immune to the pull of tradition; he simply approaches it in his own, possibly insane, way. You can tell by the title "The Last Golem" that he's drawing on what has come before, though his story -- a Holocaust story, not an unheard of take on the Golem myth, though it may have been when he wrote this -- is, again, mostly a long conversation, this time between a Nazi officer and a Nazi doctor. After the butchering of a group of Jews during the liquidation of a Czech ghetto, and the burning of the synagogue where the massacre took place, a body is found that the doctor describes, reading off the official medical report, this way:

"...Skin and features, extremely coarse. There are no fingerprints -- nor are the fingers covered with any scar tissue indicating they might have been eradicated. There are no creases in the hands, nor on the soles. Inspection of the mucous membranes, eye structure, and the like, suggests a remarkable lack of tissue differentiation."

Plus, no hair, and etc. During the conversation, the officer is trying to feel out the doctor because he wants to know why the doctor's questions, and request to be allowed to study this being, rather than shoving it in the oven like all the others, seem so informed of Hebrew mysticism -- he's poking at the doctor for hints of sympathy, or at least empathy, if not something "worse." The doctor, meanwhile, claims he simply wants to see if the golem myth was possibly based in real science, and if so, perhaps this knowledge can be harnessed into strengthening the Master Race's armed forces. This doesn't really cut any ice with the officer, who finds the very suggestion deeply offensive, as you might imagine, but Home is taking all this into some very heady territory, as the already metaphorically rich golem takes on a fascinatingly moral dimension, is it connects to the Hebrew notion that the path to atonement was through strict adherence to laws, something a golem, by its very nature, can manage, no sweat. The doctor wonders, about the golem, and about himself, and about everybody:

What the unfeeling copulations of the super-savages could achieve, the express of will, ideal, mountain-jostling faith, understanding of and sympathy with the deep flows of the universe could easily match or best. That happenstance body was no vacuum from which nature recoiled -- but rather this one, this synchronized, healthy form from which the persona moulded by sun-oriented life had been expunged by intentional, vital will -- the body which, having known the savour of paradise in its nostrils, opted instead for blood-fumes to slake the ravening beast.

The last story I read is called "A Cobweb of Pulsing Veins" (Home is generally very good with titles -- at least I think so -- but one I have yet to read is called "Ship of Ghouls," and, man, I don't know about that one). It was included in the 1978 volume -- volume six, it was -- of the old The Year's Best Horror Stories, and it's not hard to see why. It's about a man, our narrator, who I initially believed was a simple grave robber for hire, but turned out to be a "resurrectionist," or body-snatcher. A fair chunk of the story describes him moving through a cemetery, looking for a specific mausoleum, and a specific coffin, as he's been paid by a mysterious figure to do so. In this story, Home is at his most Clark Ashton Smith-y:

The door of one mausoleum was long broken, swung so far inward that it was pinioned by a gout of earth to the wall behind. Spiders alone maintained its interdiction. I stepped within to scan the diagram once more. The stagnant atmosphere which dropped on me as I entered was shocking; fear is a syllable of child's babble to those of us who cull our living from the dead, except when it faces us astride warm breath.

The coffin he's been hired to dig up and remove turns out to be very small and wrapped in chains. Upon removing it from the ground, the body snatcher notices an eerie blue light dimly filling the mausoleum, and spreading and brightening the closer he gets to removing the coffin -- the iron coffin -- from the boundaries of the cemetery. Eventually, once the body snatcher is home and awaiting his client's arrival, to pay him and take the coffin and its contents, a curiosity fueled by considerable fear causes him to open the coffin, but only briefly, because what he finds within is so...alarming, let's say.

"A Cobweb of Pulsing Veins" is pretty terrific, and the story continues into some still stranger areas once the inhabitant of the coffin is revealed. This story, too, becomes dependent on certain traditions, but Home never lets go of his special brand of madness. In fact, this story could almost be said to have a happy ending, even an inspiring one (for all its bleakness, "The Last Golem" is also not without a certain spirituality), if it wasn't for that last sentence. That last damn sentence, man, ends things on such a creepy, shocking, baffling note that I don't finally know what to think about the morality of it all, which is something I think is probably always to be considered in Home's work. But whatever the morality of "A Cobweb of Pulsing Veins" is, whatever the positive morality is, it's still fairly hideous. Maybe not specifically morally hideous -- though even then, I don't know -- but objectively hideous all the same.

Among the stories in Hollow Faces, Merciless Moons that I didn't read, there's one called "Chameleon That Blinks Barbed Stars." It's over thirty pages long, which, given the already described text layout and book dimensions, would have to mean that it's well into novella length, and would therefore have to be counted as one of Home's major works. I desperately wish I'd done a better job, or any kind of job, of scheduling my reading of William Scott Home, because now I wish I'd read that one, and could tell you about it. I bet it's insane. Brilliantly insane.

4 comments:

Will Errickson said...

"You punch me, I punch back. I do not believe it's good for ones self-respect to be a punching bag."
- Victor Hugo

Possibly? I found it on the internets so I suppose it's an actual quote.

But I bet a "biscuit-punch" is a metal ring, like a cookie-cutter, for cutting rolled dough into biscuits. So.... ouch.

I was hoping you'd get to reviewing this title! Stories sound delightful.

bill r. said...

I'm afraid I still don't see the connection. Would Home really expect us to simply know that Hugo quote off the top of our heads and then relate it to whatever a biscuit punch actually is (I saw something online about it being a font...)?

I don't know. There are lots of weird things like that in his stories anyway. I'm not complaining, it's all part of one big loony package.

John said...

It's a reference to the protagonist of Hugo's "The Man Who Laughs", who had a grotesque grin carved into his face. Here's an image of Conrad Veidt in the role from the '20s movie version:

http://hypenc.com/2010/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/man-who-laughs-veidt.gif

Anyway, I'm glad to see you haven't completely given up on horror. This book sounds like an interesting find.

bill r. said...

Hm. I suspect you could be right. Probably the most oblique way to make that reference he could have come up with, I'd say.

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