Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The Kind of Face You Slash - Day 3: Horror Choked Him

About a month ago, it occurred to me that, quite without planning anything along these lines, in each of the last three years of The Kind of Face You Slash I have tackled a major werewolf novel. In 2009 it was Guy Endore's brilliant The Werewolf of Paris, in 2010 it was Thomas Tessier's quite solid Nightwalker, and last year it was the popular, yet awful, The Last Werewolf by Glen Duncan (this last one, incidentally, has since shat out an inevitable sequel, which I have so far failed to rush out and get). So a tradition was forming here, one I saw no reason to not acknowledge or continue. I find it somewhat interesting that, of all the central horror monsters, the only one that has an...ur-text? Am I really going to use that phrase? Well, okay, an ur-text, is the vampire, the ur-text in question here being Dracula (unless you count zombies, modern zombies, but those are, you know, modern, and anyway the launching point there was a film, not a novel). The other two books that round out horror literature's Big Three are Frankenstein and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but both of those are so specific that in order to be inspired by them you're almost forced to acknowledge it within the new work itself. Creatures that come from myth, like vampires and werewolves and so on, don't require that, and so Dracula can spawn an entire subgenre, the practitioners of which don't even need to have read Stoker's book. Yet werewolves, and mummies, and witches, and so on, don't have that one single book that, in terms of horror literature, started it all. That's why combing through all this stuff can be so interesting.

So, concerning werewolves, and based on the books I had ready to hand, the obvious pick this time around was Jack Williamson's Darker Than You Think, first published in 1948. That year of publication is not incidental to the novel's charms, which are not, I have to say, overwhelming. But Darker Than You Think is, from first to last, a curious blend of not two, but at least three genres -- horror, science fiction, and I'll say "noir," as distinct from "crime," my preferred term, if only because Williamson's novel does actually make one recognize the hazy divide between the two -- each one feeling very much like the kind of thing like that that would have been written in 1948. Not, by the way, a criticism. Except actually in the case of the science fiction element, about which more in a moment. Plus also this isn't really a werewolf novel. More on that in a moment, too, it being rather key.

The story begins in Trojan Fields, the airport for the town of Clarendon. Awaiting the arrival of a particular plane are two journalists, the friendly, but morose, hard-drinking Will Barbee, our hero, and a gorgeous little redhead slip of a cub reporter named April Bell, who is not our hero. Much of the beginning of the book is given over to Will and April meeting each other -- April claims to know Will by reputation; Will, who writes for the rival of April's paper, doesn't know her at all -- and discussing their respective pasts. Will's is linked, as it happens, to the men whose pending arrival they're both anticipating. As Will is falling for April, he explains that he once studied anthropology under Dr. Lamarck Mondrick, and was the colleague and friend of the other men on the plane, Mondrick's assistants, named, in a very 1948-y sort of way, Rex Chittum, Nick Spivak, and Sam Quain. In fact, Will was expecting to accompany the men on the very expedition to the Gobi desert from which they're returning when Mondrick cut Will loose, for reasons Will is still in the dark about. And bitter about, too, but not aggressively so. He's maintained a warm friendship with Mondrick's wife Rowena, who is blind and is led everywhere by a combination guide- and guard-dog -- a dog who does not like April -- as well as Sam's wife Nora, who, Will lets slip, he once sort of had a thing with, a thing he might actually still have.

Anyhow, the return of Mondrick and company after two years in the Gobi is big news, at least in Clarendon. But when the plane lands and the men appear, something's wrong. Everyone looks uneasy, scared, reticent. Despite this, Mondrick is keen, sort of, to hold the expected press conference, during which he says things like:

"I'm going to tell you some stunning things, gentlemen...I'm going to tell you about a masked and secret enemy, a black clan that plots and waits unsuspected among true men -- a hidden enemy, far more insidious than any of your modern fifth columns that scheme the ruin of nations. I'm going to tell you of the expected coming of a Black Messiah -- the Child of Night -- whose appearance among true men will be the signal for a savage and hideous and incredible rebellion."

So, you know...pretty bad, I guess. Mondrick goes on for quite a while like this without zeroing in on anything specific or especially helpful, when he suddenly drops dead. This leads to some chaos among those gathered around -- and odd gasps from Sam Quain about the possible presence of cats -- who eventually disperse into variously grieving and unnerved and confused groups. Much of what Will has witnessed, and heard from April, leads the two of them to drift together, and even go out on a date later that night. April had a kitten with her at the airport, which she claimed belonged to her Aunt Agatha (and not, unfortunately, Gussy Fink-Nottle), but which Will later found dead in the garbage. So pairing that with Sam's strange mutterings immediately following Mondrick's death, Will ends up having kind of a lot of questions. And on their booze-heavy date, April tells her story, though not all of it, but anyway she's a witch, and witch's have it rough in today's world. That's the short version.

Now, if I'm not careful here, I'm going to pull a Jack Williamson and outright murder you all with exposition. There is so much more that I feel I should lay out for you just to give you some baseline understanding of what Darker Than You Think is about, something that, under other circumstances, might be an intriguing notion, but here only indicates how exposition-heavy this book is. At times it felt like the entire first third of Darker Than You Think is precisely that, characters telling each other all the background Williamson needs to dump on you in order to get a move on with everything else, and in fact "the first third" might be shaving it thin. This is not helped by what the exposition is telling us, which...okay, really quick, Darker Than You Think is not a werewolf novel, it's, in simple terms, a lycanthropy novel. This means that the shape-shifting present within, which does include man-to-wolf transformations, also includes man-to-sabretooth-tiger and man-to-snake and so on. And not only does April do this, as you might expect, but so does Will. How? What's this about? Well, let Williamson explain:

[T]he modern physicists...interpreted the whole universe in terms of probability. The stability of atoms was a matter of probability -- and the instability, in the atomic bomb. The direct mental control of probability would surely open terrifying avenues of power -- and the Rhine experiments had seemingly established that control. Had April Bell...just been born with a unique and dangerous mental power to govern the operation of probability?

But what about silver and, apparently, daylight? Why are they dangerous? April has the answer:

"Living things are more than matter alone...The mind is an independent something -- an energy complex [my scientist] friend called it -- created by the vibrating atoms and electrons of the body, and yet controlling their vibrations through the linkage of atomic probability...

"That web of living energy is fed by the body; it's part of the body -- usually...

"But the vital pattern, in us, is stronger than in true men -- his experiments did prove that. More fluid, and less dependent on the material body. In this free state, he says, we simply separate the living web from the body..."

And so on. So that's the deal with silver. Here's the thing about this: Jack Williamson is best known as a science fiction writer, and very clearly he wanted to bring that to this horror novel, but I desperately wish he hadn't. I desperately wish no one would ever do this. Richard Matheson pulled it off in I Am Legend, but I say let's call that one an anomaly and move on. This might strike someone like Jack Williamson as counter-intuitive, but the effect of this sort of approach to horror or supernatural ideas is that it renders them less believable, not more, which I have to think is the precise opposite of the goal. Of course, in depth magical explanations for this sort of thing are no better, but substituting "a book of spells buried under a pirate's grave is why you have batwings" with "vibrations of light is why silver kills werewolves" is at best a lateral move. And there is a ton of this stuff in Darker Than You Think.

Anyway, Will's newfound shape-shifting abilities lead to his unwilling but unstoppable desire to kill those whom April deems an enemy, and there's lots of guilt and uncertainty and terror and drinking the next morning, which lends the novel its noirish atmosphere, as does the post-war and occasionally journalistic setting. This can be diverting, and the book ends on a reasonably strong note. Ironically, much of the genuine intrigue that Williamson eventually brings to his overall concept is communicated through yet more expository dialogue, this time by Sam Quain. I won't quote it, though, because although it doesn't count as a twist, it is a payoff, of sorts. But in essence, Williamson's very complicated mythology (a word I don't like using in reference to anything but actual myths, like the Greek and Norse ones and so forth, but in this case I'm not sure what other word fits) seeks to explain almost every manner of evil deed and thought. It's really rather fascinating -- fascinating within this fictional world, I mean, not in any real world philosophical or theoretical sense -- and I dearly wish it existed in some form other than one character telling it to another character. A potentially much better novel could have been written about what Williamson uses here only for backstory. This is a common occurrence in genre fiction, and it's frustrating.

The book ends well enough, and I was rather surprised that the solution to the story's central mystery, the plot importance of which Williamson lays out gradually, didn't even occur to me until shortly before it was revealed. That's maybe my problem, but I'm the one who read the book in this particular instance, so it worked as far as I'm concerned. There's also some striking imagery in the final pages that hints pretty disturbingly at what's about to happen beyond the final page. So despite some conceptual problems, I think the problem here is that Darker Than You Think is actually not a bad story, but it is badly told.


If I may be permitted one moment more, I would like to point out to everybody that my friend and fine writer Bryce Wilson has just released his long-in-the-works non-fiction book or horror criticism Son of Danse Macabre to the Kindle and, I'm told, shortly to the Nook as well. In the interest of full disclosure, I must admit to not having read the book yet myself, it having just been released, and me being e-reader-less, but I've read sections that Bryce has posted to his blog over the years, and I can affirm that he, as they say, knows his shit. So give that title a click, why don't you?

And yes, Bryce has nice things to say about me in the opening pages. There is nothing I can do to prevent you from thinking the wrong thing about that.


Will Errickson said...

"...but the effect of this sort of approach to horror or supernatural ideas is that it renders them less believable, not more, which I have to think is the precise opposite of the goal."

Ha, my first thought was "midichlorians"!

But seriously, I've always been ambivalent about reading Williamson's novel b/c of this; somehow I got the impression there would be too much SF mixed in with horror and the combination struck me oddly. Still, I bought a cool paperback edition of it recently I'd never seen before.

Oh, as for Bryce Wilson's SON OF DANSE MACABRE, I read through a bit of the section on horror fiction - natch - and found it quite well done. Definitely check it out when you can.

Jim Freemeds said...

Do you want to know a Scare?! Find out tomorrow via this pathway. Just direct yourself! Bye soon!

Five Ibbledam

Bryce Wilson said...

@Bill & Will: Thank you both very kindly.

@ Mr. Freemeds!: I look forward to the oppurtunity to direct myself!

bill r. said...

Jim Freemeds is the guy who in another post was admiring my dedication to Ball Sports.