Sunday, October 28, 2012

The Kind of Face You Slash - Day 28: Some Appalling Violation of Myself

Editors Jeff and Ann VanderMeer's anthology The Weird strikes me as hands down the most significant horror collection published this year. I think they might resist the idea that the stories gathered together in their book are simply "horror" stories, or even horror at all (I have my own doubts in this regard about one the stories I chose for today), but early in their introduction to the 1,100-plus page volume, they set about defining the "weird" story in terms that not only sound pretty good to me, but render the core goals of weird fiction as inseparable from what horror is, at its best. They write:

With unease and the temporary abolition of the rational, can also come the strangely beautiful, intertwined with terror. Reverie or epiphany, yes, but dark reverie or epiphany -- not the lightness of "I wandered softly as a cloud" but the weight of, for example, seminal early twentieth-century writer and artist Alfred Kubin's sensation of being " a dark power that conjured up before my mind strange creatures, houses, landscapes, grotesque and frightful situations." The Weird can be transformative -- sometimes literally -- entertaining monsters while not always seeing them as monstrous. It strives for a kind of understanding even when something cannot be understood, and acknowledges failure as sign and symbol of our limitations.

I don't really know what else I have to add to that. Good night, folks. Ha ha no, but seriously, the VanderMeers then go about providing the reader with 110 examples -- that's how many stories this book contains -- of the above written by authors like Franz Kafka, Mervyn Peake, William Gibson, Marc Laidlaw, Clive Barker, Shirley Jackson, Jorge Luis Borges, Robert Bloch, Thomas Ligotti, Brian Evenson, and, well, shit, I'm not going to name them all. And obviously, I've only read a sliver of this thing, but as far as I'm concerned weird fiction is the wing of the horror genre that offers up the most potential for unease, and the greatest opportunity for writers to unchain their imagination -- it's where the real thrill of the genre comes from, so if you're maybe not sold on horror as an artform, maybe this is the book that can make you feel like a stupid idiot.

Now, I have to confess, I chose the stories for today in something of a panic. Since purchasing The Weird, partially with an eye towards this current project, I had one story pegged as my number one choice. I'd never heard of it, or of the author, it sounded strange and beguiling and eerie, it was long and I felt it could stand in for the book as a whole, or anyway I'd do my damnedest to force the issue. But then I started it this morning, and I just couldn't hack it. Not today, anyhow. I could tell early on that this story, which I won't name for fear of putting readers off it, through no fault of its own, was too dense and disorienting for my current state of mind, which, if you're curious, is "blown out and useless." So I was scrambling, but as luck would have it I ended up landing on two quite good ones that illustrate rather well what the VanderMeers are trying to illustrate.
The first is "The Hell Screen" by Ryunosuke Akutagawa. Akutagawa killed himself in 1927, at age 35, claiming in his last words that he felt a "vague insecurity," which I'd say is about as sad and skin-crawling, when you think about it, a final emotional state as I can think of. Akutagawa is best known as the author of the source material for Akira Kurosawa's classic film Rashomon. The two Akutagawa stories adapted by Kurosawa for the film were "Rashomon" and "In a Grove." There's a hefty dose of confusion here when you realize that the story of Kurosawa's film is taken entirely from "In a Grove" whereas from "Rashomon" Kurosawa only took the title. I'm not going to be able to explain this to you, but I remember being baffled by this as, some years ago, I read a slender volume of Akutagawa stories called Rashomon and Other Stories. That book (and if you've ever seen Jim Jarmusch's film Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai, you may remember Forrest Whitaker's character reading a book with that title; he was reading the exact same edition I read, and so when I first saw Ghost Dog when Forest Whitaker was shown reading it I said "Hey I read that book." True story) is a little bit lost to memory now, but I do remember the story "Yam Gruel," which I enjoyed considerably, and overall I was fascinated by Akutagawa's very clean, fairy tale-like prose. The simplicity of his style made his fiction live in a way that a more insistently baroque approach would not have achieved. "The Hell Screen" is very similar, though it is a quite a bit darker than anything else I can remember reading by Akutagawa.

The story is about the benevolent Lord Horikawa, a man who:

...had a kind and generous heart that would partake in the happiness and distress of all, even the humblest among his subjects. For these reasons, when he encountered a procession of ghosts in the large palace of Nijo, he was able to pass through them unscathed. And when the spirit of Secretary Tooru prowled every night the Kawaranoin Palace in Higashi-Sanjo, famed for the garden inspired by the marine landscape of Shiogama in the Michinoku province, the Lord reprimanded it, after which the spectre vanished forever. Of course, as soon as the people of Kyoto, young and old, men and women, heard Horikawa's name, they would genuflect as if they had seen Buddha's avatar.

Among Lord Horikawa's subjects is Yoshihide, a great painter, and a terrible man. "He was avaricious, mean, cowardly, lazy and insatiable, but above all he was insolent and conceited," Akutagawa writers. Many stories exist about Yoshihide abusing, even torturing, his models in order to get the painting he wants, based on his belief that he has to see a thing actually happening before he can paint it. He is despised by everyone. In turn, he despises everyone, except for his daughter Yuzuki. Yoshihide adores her so much that he scares and chases off any potential suitors, because he never wants Yuzuki to leave her side -- whether I should be reading something more into Yoshihide's love of his daughter, I don't know. Similarly ambiguous is the relationship between Lord Horikawa and Yuzuki, after the girl, against her father's wishes, though he's powerless to stop it, goes to work for Horikawa. The narrator of the story, a servant who doesn't factor into the plot but is around to observe much that goes on, mentions the gossip that Horikawa harbored a love for Yuzuki, but the narrator refutes this as impossible. Though I don't think it's impossible.

One day Horikawa hires Yoshihide to paint for him a vision of Hell, and Yoshihide agrees. Much of the painting Yoshihide -- who now is almost frothing with rage at Horikawa -- is able to complete from memory, of fires, of dead bodies seen on the street, and so forth, but there is one detail that he can't complete, involving a royal carriage, that he must ask Horikawa to provide for him -- not just the carriage, but what Yoshihide imagines happening to the carriage in his painting of Hell. Horikawa agrees, and this is as much as I'm prepared to reveal about the plot of "The Hell Screen." Where it goes is genuinely shocking and horrific, but, it must be noted, it is not supernatural. So what makes "The Hell Screen" a "weird" story? The key is the ambiguity in various relationships Akutagawa has set up, but also in what one character does in the end. Why would this person do this thing? There is no explanation, not provided by Akutagawa, and not known by the nearly all-seeing narrator. But the narrator cannot see what's hidden inside a person's mind, and he can't hear what's never said aloud. If "The Hell Screen" was ever turned into a movie, it would never survive the motivation whores who demand nothing less than irrefutable logic, clearly stated, supporting the actions of every character in every film, but it is precisely the absence of that that makes "The Hell Screen" both so terrifying and so weird. Actions are performed in the story that in practical, and mechanical, terms could be carried out by any living person, but nevertheless they make no goddamn sense.

More traditionally weird, in that it is both bonkers and provocative, is M. John Harrison's "The New Rays." Harrison almost found his way into an earlier iteration of The Kind of Face You Slash through his novel The Course of the Heart. That book is a kind of philosophical expansion of Arthur Machen's classic horror story "The Great God Pan," and back when I wrote up that story, I thought hey, this'd be good. Well, it wasn't. Not because the novel is bad , but rather because I truly did not, and do not, know what I thought, or think, of it. The Course of the Heart defeated me in a way -- my delight in noticing that Harrison was mirroring Machen's enigmatic references to the Jack the Ripper murders (then not far in the past) in his story by referencing with similar mysteriousness the notorious Moors Murders in his novel, was short lived, due the sudden realization that wherever Harrison was going, I was unable to follow. For the time being, I'm willing to blame myself for this, but if I ever try to re-read The Course of the Heart, I'll be going in punching.

For now, though, I can heartily recommend "The New Rays" as a wonderful example of the weird story, and as something that is quite unlike what I imagine anyone unfamiliar with the genre might expect. The main character is a woman, who is dying. The disease that is killing her we might assume to be a form of cancer, though we're never told specifically what it is. Perhaps it's the idea of cancer. Anyway, she's visiting a clinic run by Dr. Alexandre, assisted by "a beautiful crippled girl," and in back of the clinic is a treatment shed where his unusual methods are put into practice.
In the black and chaotic moment when the rays arrive, Dr. Alexandre and his assistant struggle into their loose yellowish rubber suits and round tinted goggles. Once they are covered from head to foot like this all their kindness seems to be replaced by panic. They grab you roughly: there is no turning back: up on the table you go, trembling as you help them fasten the straps...

If you are getting your treatment free of charge, you have to agree to have it without an anesthetic. You mustn't pass out.

Through the most abyssal vomits and discharges, when the rays seem to be laying down a thick coat of poison in every organ, you can still hear the urgent, earnest voice of the crippled girl. 'Are you conscious? Can you raise your head? Are you aware that you have lost control of your bowels? We must know.'...

Sometimes the rays don't arrive at all. What bliss to be let off with a cup of tea in the reception room and told to go home again!

Obviously, there is a parallel here with chemotherapy, but Dr. Alexandre's treatment is much stranger than this. Another part of it is the "blue bodies," little smooth, faceless, translucent creatures, the use or importance of which remains unclear right through to the end of "The New Rays," even when an actual physical use of them is described. For the most part, these blue bodies sound kind of, you know, cute, and are treated in relaxed moments as charming lab animals. But it's clear that the clinic creates these things, and the narrator gets some cold glares and a verbal dressing down for wondering about the fates of the blue bodies after they've served their bizarre medical purpose.

What is weird, the story seems to think, is medical science, medical treatment, the experience of a dying person moving through these strange rooms and being enveloped by massive humming machines. It would be rather difficult to make that work completely, though, since as unpleasant and frustrating, even infuriating, as such experiences may be, the reason behind it all could be logically explained. Not so in "The New Rays." The story does seem to invite such readings, but then what of the blue bodies? The story was written in 1982, so even the contemporary and controversial medical issues that might provide "The New Rays" with a convenient metaphorical explanation for its strange goings-on, would not have applied then. But the uneasiness remains the same, the desire to be made well and the desire to escape the things and the people that are supposed to make you well, are all the same. The desire to maybe just go home and sit in a room and maybe die, rather than put up with all of that, remains. There's no real plot to "The New Rays," outside of the consideration of those desires.


John said...

I remember reading "New Rays" in one of Karl Edward Wagner's Year's Best Horror Story books a long time ago, and that Wagner, in his introduction, described it as being based on a nightmare. And it very much has that feel.

The "blue bodies" you mention, I seem to recall being described as some kind of side effect of the strange treatment at the center of the story, and that rather than being small and cute, they were eerie blank-eyed physical doubles of the clinic's patients (except for being translucent and blue). The suggestion might have been that they represented some part of the patients' souls.

bill r. said...

But there's a bit at the end, that I don't want to spoil, that describes one of the blue bodies being put to...use, I guess.

As for the cute thing, physically they're not described as being cute, but the patients are allowed to gather around and admire them, in a way, and the way they're described "getting out" and "wandering around" makes them seem almost charming.

Jonathan Stover said...

Harrison's one of those writers I'll think about seeking out collections by -- and then I'll realize that, as with Tanith Lee, I seem to have read some astonishing number of his stories without ever buying a book by him. He's one of those writers I tend to equate with ST Joshi's comment about certain horror stories and writers causing Unease. Though Joshi was referring specifically to Ligotti, Harrison and Aickman also seem to inspire this sort of feeling in me. I mean, "The Ice Monkey" or "The Great God Pan" or "The New Rays"...what the Hell?

Cheers, Jon

bill r. said...

Isn't Joshi ALWAYS referring to Ligotti? Although, I guess I don't have any room to talk...

Jonathan Stover said...

Well, it was a quote on the back of a Ligotti book...