Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Kind of Face You Slash - Day 23: Their Meaning Is Lost

Every year when I get the new edition of editor Stephen Jones's The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror (now in its twenty-third year), I first browse Jones's novella-length year-in-horror introductions, to find out if I missed anything interesting, and then I depress myself by skimming the "Necrology" appendix that Jones puts together in collaboration with Kim Newman. This is a sort of in memoriam for everybody who had even a glancing relationship to genre, any genre, who'd passed away in the previous year. This one always contains a surprise or two. This time around, it was Martin H. Greenberg, a genre anthology editor who was, in his day, as ubiquitous as Jones is now. I hadn't seen Greenberg's name on a book in a while, but he'd put together many of the collections I hauled around with me in my younger days, and I didn't know he had died. RIP, Mr. Greenberg.

Anyhow. These best-of anthologies are always good for at least a quick post, so I was happy to see it in my local Barnes & Noble earlier today (a few days early? The publication date on Amazon is the 23rd...). I quickly scanned the contents, and very soon settled on two stories: "The Tower" by Mark Samuels, and "An Indelible Stain Upon the Sky" by Simon Strantzas. I was unfamiliar with Strantzas, but I'd been looking for even a thin excuse to return to Samuels all year (there were several thin excuses that offered themselves to me, but I landed on this one).

"The Tower" is not exactly your standard-issue horror story. It's barely a story at all. In the introductory notes, Samuels says of it:

Actually, this is more of an autobiographical piece than a work of fiction. In psychological and spiritual terms, every word of it is the truth.

Obviously, this doesn't mean that in terms of what happens in the story, which as I've indicated isn't much, is based on a particular event in Samuels' life. But evidently, Samuels has recently had cause to take some issue with the way the Western world conducts itself, and he has his narrator, a jobless, broke, isolated man, express these opinions:

...I encountered only those with television eyes whose own imaginative vision had dimmed, those whose values were formed by the irresistible tsunami of gossip and infotainment. Those whose gazes were fixed on bright plasma and LED screens, those addicted to shows where the value of a person was determined by his ability to entertain, to financially enrich or to sexually arouse, an agenda driven in turn by those who were drained of their own thought-processes by the media's mental vampires.

The people in question, those who he is encountering, are being sought out so that the narrator may slyly try to detect if anyone else is seeing, in the midst of these new modern buildings that obliterate the city's ancient spirit (London, I'm guessing) -- and this is the thing that initially sets him off -- the giant tower that suddenly appears whenever a mist creeps in. From the tower, he can hear bells toll, and later chanting, but whenever he tries to approach it he finds that the tower is stuck in a "fixed distance," so that he can walk forever and never get any closer.

"The Tower" is really a work of philosophy, but its a philosophy that's at war with itself. There's a lot of nonsense about the narrator seeking the purest form of asceticism -- my words, not his, and I imagine it's a pretty gross simplification of what Samuels is saying -- that would shed not only what one normally sheds at times like this, but the other, earlier, phonier types of asceticism that hadn't really managed to get to the heart of the matter. And I say "nonsense," but I'm by no means certain that Samuels doesn't realize it's nonsense. I'm also not altogether sure I disagree with the nonsense, at least not all of it. I mean, if I have a problem with the passage quoted above, it's not that I think it's bullshit, but rather that it comes awfully close to being a lecture. It is, in fact, not entirely unlike Fight Club in its root beliefs, though if Samuels is preaching anything, he's preaching, and then having second thoughts about, something quite different than what is being preached, and then thought twice about, in that film, even before they blow up buildings.

This is a hard story to summarize; it's more of a story you argue with. Or, as I'm sure Samuels would see it, it's a story he had to spit out (it does seem more than a little angry), and he probably couldn't care less, or wish to argue, or even especially disagree, with any protests. It's the argument with itself that makes "The Tower" interesting -- and the quiet horror imagery that hangs over the debate -- and Samuels insistent plea that he knows this is hopelessly self-absorbed, he's trying to deal with that as well, just please let him finish. But honestly, though, the most fascinating part of the story is the narrator's opinions about pessimism as a philosophy, one he initially found comfort in before finally deciding it was a hoax, because a true pessimist would commit suicide without hesitation, but those who embrace pessimism as an actual philosophy, he says, never do that, and they excuse themselves for that "authentic act" because they don't wish to cause pain to those they would leave behind. To the narrator, this completely contradicts the entire point of pessimism, but to me what's so interesting here is that is exactly -- the "I would commit suicide in a second if not for" bit -- what Thomas Ligotti has said when asked about the seemingly logical next step from his antinatal worldview. I hesitate to say Samuels is challenging Ligotti specifically, but I do feel like these are two writers whose work bear certain similarities, who perhaps even have similar temperaments, but are fundamentally opposed in a great many irreconcilable ways.

Meanwhile, "An Indelible Stain Upon the Sky" by Simon Strantzas is garbage. I chose it because in his introductory notes, Strantzas says he was inspired to write it by a "horrendous" vacation experience he shared with his wife. While vacation-turned-nightmare is probably one of the most overused plots in all of horror, there are many versions of it that are genuinely great; the Colin Eggleston film Long Weekend, for instance, is marvelous, and even lowering the bar a little there have been dozens of thoroughly entertaining takes on it as well. So I'm a fan of this kind of thing. However, "entertaining" was clearly not on Strantzas agenda, nor, even more clearly, was "marvelous." The story is about a man returning to Port McCarthy, a vacation spot he and his girlfriend Suzanne had enjoyed ten years previously. In the time since, just weeks after they'd returned, in fact, Port McCarthy had suffered a horrifying disaster when an oil tanker had run ashore, spilling its contents and essentially ruining the community. The man, our narrator, is returning to Port McCarthy, and staying at the same inn he and Suzanne had enjoyed a decade past, so that he can be sad about it.

This is one of the most self-involved stories I've read in some time. If Samuels drifted into that realm in "The Tower," he knew it and he said so. Strantzas' whole story basically comes down to this: "Ten years ago an oil tanker crashed and destroyed the natural beauty of Port McCarthy and killed lots of animals. Economically the community was finished and will probably never recover. Also it made me break up with my girlfriend. Here's a ghost."

But let me quote Strantzas directly:

The town of Port McCarthy died slowly, choked in the darkness that rolled towards it without warning on waves as black as night. While the rest of the world saw this from a distance, Suzanne and I suffered the full brunt of the accident there, we suffered the crashing waves of darkness that would not stop, would not end, until it spread through our lives as surely as it had through Port McCarthy. Even now I feel it, and even now I wish I had known some way to halt its progress before it was too late. But that's the way with accidents; they come when we are not prepared, and in their wake they leave devastation and death. As soon as that black oil was spilled in Port McCarthy, there was no hope for me, for Suzanne, for us.

"That's really too bad," said the fisherman who lost his business. "I'm sure you'll find someone else. Also, fuck you." By the way, that "for me, for Suzanne, for us" business is exactly the kind of thing bad writers think counts as "literary" prose. Say two things, then a third thing that combines the two things. Give me my award, please.

Oh, and yeah, there's a ghost. When the guy goes back to the inn, it's once vibrant seaside atmosphere has paled into moldy desolation ("Your shattered lives reminds me of my ex-girlfriend. Sarah? Susan? I'm trying to think..."), and in his room there's a giant crack running up one wall. From that crack, at night, seeps a little kid oil ghost. A little ghost kid made out of oil. I don't know. I'm trying to figure out what it means, because there's nothing in the story about human lives actually being lost in the oil spill disaster. The only thing I can figure is maybe oil ghost kid is the ghost of the kid Sondra (Stephanie?) and this prick never got to whip up together. Personally, if there's an upside to all this, I'd say you're looking at it.


John said...

Long Weekend! Great flick. Excellent call.

Actually, both these stories sound pretty insufferable to me. And the idea that you summarize thus:

...the narrator's opinions about pessimism as a philosophy, one he initially found comfort in before finally deciding it was a hoax, because a true pessimist would commit suicide without hesitation...

--suggests to me that this "story's" main purpose is to taunt the reader with fatuous logic. If Samuels really means this piece as a challenge to Ligotti, all I can say is he'd better hope it goes unacknowledged, at least in public. On the evidence offered here, he'd have a hard time holding his own against a preschool debating team.

bill r. said...

He goes into it in more depth in the story, obviously. Anyhow, I didn't like the story based on whether or not I agreed with him, and as I say, he challenges his own views in the story.

And Ligotti's logic for his own philosophy is pretty, let's say, thin to begin with.

L C B said...

The second story sounds positively cringeworthy, reminds me of a few other similar sounding doozies I've heard or read about in years gone by, it sounds like one of those stories that tried to meld a slice of life with the supernatural and does so awkwardly. I mean, there's subtlety, quiet horror and all those good things and then there's stuff that goes "And when I walk by the lake, I remember my old girlfriend. Oh how sad I am thinking about that, let me go on for a few more paragraphs about it. Then I remember how scary that old dead tree near the shore still looks, especially in the moonlight. I saw a strange looking fellow there once when I was a child, I think maybe he was a ghost. I mean, uh, I guess."

Anonymous said...

I bought one of Simon Strantzas's collections once after seeing a few good comments, and was pretty disappointed. His stories seem to me to lack any humanistic or philosophical depth. Subtle horror is one thing, but Aickman for example, even at his most oblique, was never without a kind of universally recognisable psychological insight. There is a difference between subtlety and shallowness. Strantzas's stories are paper thin.

Jonathan Stover said...

And there's Ramsey Campbell's horror-comedy "Seeing the World", with the annoying neighbours and their slide show of the vacation from Hell...