Sunday, October 13, 2013

The Kind of Face You Slash - Day 13: A Kind of Insane Glitter

One of the most difficult things about writing these posts, especially this many years in, is finding something to say about writers who, before now, I'd never read anything by before.  It's hard to make ignorance sound interesting.  With that in mind, perhaps I shouldn't bore you.  Today's writer is Elizabeth Bowen.  My awareness of her came about in a somewhat counterintuitive fashion, because I did first learn of her because of her well-regarded horror fiction, even though that's not what her reputation is built on, and what her reputation is built on also falls square within one of my main areas of literary interests, which is British novels written between 1930 and 1970 (or so).  It's novels such as The Death of the Heart and The Heat of the Day, as well as her collected stories as a whole, that allow Bowen to live on, yet for years I've thought only, and have known only enough to think only, "I need to pick up Elizabeth Bowen's collected stories because there's some horror stuff in there."

Well I did pick up her collected stories, finally, and there is some horror stuff in there.  Where, though, was the question, this being a nearly 800 page book made up primarily of non-genre work.  I used a couple of different sources to help me out, one which I shall broadly refer to as "The Internet," and more helpfully D. F. Lewis's short essay on the collection found in Stephen Jones and Kim Newman's Horror:  Another 100 Best Books.  Lewis would probably readily admit that he's completely in the bag for Elizabeth Bowen -- "[she] is my favorite writer of all time," he writes -- and while that's the kind of enthusiasm I can get behind, it terms of genre it can lead to recommending stories on the basis of their horror content that perhaps should be recommended on other grounds instead.  Yet I say all this because in his essay Lewis says of Bowen's story "Mysterious Kôr" that it has "a visionary strength similar to Arthur Machen," and while I in no way believe that this story is part of the horror genre, or was intended to be, I do know exactly what he means.  So I suppose this indicates a blurring of lines in her fiction, which we'll get to.

In his essay Lewis also recommends "The Cat Jumps," saying it "horrifies me beyond words," and here we're on firmer ground.  A lot of British horror fiction of a certain era functions almost casually as satire at the same time it's being everything else it's being, and Bowen, who, I've gathered, wrote regularly about the upper classes of which she was a part, was no exception.  "The Cat Jumps" is about a married couple, Harold and Jocelyn Wright, who buy a house called Rose Hill.  This house was the site of "The Rose Hill Horror," a notorious murder committed by the previous owner, Harold Bentley, against his wife.  As is often the case, the house is regarded after that as something sick and tainted, but, Bowen says:

The Harold Wrights, however, were not deterred.  They had light, bright, shadowless, thoroughly disinfected minds.  They believed that they disbelieved in most things but were unprejudiced; they enjoyed frank discussions.  They dreaded nothing but inhibitions; they had no inhibitions.  They were pious agnostics, earnest for social reform; they explained everything to their children, and were annoyed to find their children could not sleep at nights because they thought there was a complex under the bed.  They knew all crime to be pathological, and read their murders only in scientific books.  They had vita glass put into all their windows.  No family, in fact, could have been more unlike the mistaken Harold Bentleys.

This kind of barely concealed sardonicism clearly serves to set the Wrights up for a great fall, but it's a credit to Bowen that she can satirize, even mock her characters and still make that fall genuinely terrifying.  The gist of the plot here is, the Wrights hold a weekend party for a group of their friends.  The tone of the story is set by the deliberate ignoring of the murder committed in the house by everybody but one of the guests, Muriel Barker, who is both horrified and fascinated by everything she knows about the Bentley murder, and she knows quite a bit.  Through Muriel, Bowen gets some of the details of what Bentley did to his wife out there for the reader ("Did you know that one of Mrs. Bentley's hands was found in the library?") while keeping back others that allow the reader to be shocked by what they don't know (what, for instance, happened in the bath?).  Muriel is also disturbed by Edward Cartaret, the man she was meant to be paired off with, finding him "cruel."  And in general, the party is less celebratory, a little bit antagonistic, though not in any extreme way, then anyone would have wanted.

"The Cat Jumps" is a very simple story on its surface, and it's not difficult to predict the particulars.  But while there's more direct horror in the story than this, there's something about the way Bowen introduces a setting with a gruesome history and allows characters unrelated to that history to move across it with just a touch of unexpected anger to them, unexpected to themselves and to those around them, that transforms everything into horror.  It's beautifully simple and entirely effective.  The ending, as I say, is expected -- or some version of it is anyway -- though there a nasty sting to it, one final bit of information that can be a grim joke or can just be horrible, your pick.  Bowen can somehow find her characters her absurd but then comment no further, and what's left unsaid let's the horror take over, and the absurdity to be forgotten.

At least, that's the case in "The Cat Jumps."  In "Hand in Glove," Bowen is pushing her sneer a bit more, but it's a good sneer.  Put it like this:  one of the last sentences in "Hand in Glove" is this:

In the end, the matter was hushed up -- which is to say, is still talked about even now.

That's pretty terrific.  In eighteen words, Bowen describes a phenomenon that the reader instantly recognizes and understands, an irony readily appreciated, and she sketches out a community.  It's that kind of community, which is to say, it's everybody's community.  She lays out a complete line of human behavior that inevitably winds up as a foible.  Being succinct in this way is perhaps job one, as most of Bowen's stories are rather short.  Not one that I read for today is over ten pages, and while they're full there's still not much to summarize.  So "Hand in Glove" is about two young women, Ethel and Elsie, who, around 1904, were the toast of their particular society.  They live with their widowed aunt, known as Mrs. Varley de Grey, the girls' own parents having both died "somewhat thoughtlessly" of scarlet fever.  Though at one time she did, Mrs. Varley de Grey now has no money, so the girls rely on ingenuity to get them through society events, taking their old clothes, and their aunt's old clothes, and rejiggering them into something new and beautiful.  There's a limit to this, though, and eventually, right when Ethel has found a man she'd like to marry but must still work to win over, her collection of dress gloves shows signs of being no longer up to snuff, and even resistant to the manipulative skills of either Ethel or Elsie. So she wonders if perhaps that one box of her invalid aunt's, the one that hasn't been opened and plundered already, might contain usable gloves.

A subsequent meeting with her aunt, where she pretends to be caring and fools no one on this count, leads finally to a serious moral grimness, which in turns leads to actual supernatural horror that should be absurd but somehow isn't; is, in fact, somehow quite creepy, not to mention, in terms of the "why" of it all, completely and elegantly inexplicable.  All of "Hand in Glove" is quite elegant, in fact, though it could be thought of as "mean" in that very appealing English way.

Finally I read a story called "Pink May," which I wanted to read because in the Collected Stories it falls into the group of stories labeled "The War Years."  In his introduction to the collection, Angus Wilson says that "When the history of English civilization is looked back upon" the London Blitz "will be there with the trenches of the First World War as an extraordinary revelation of English behaviour and feeling."  He goes on to say "And there will be only two Enligsh writers who convey what life in blitzed London was like -- Elizabeth Bowen and Henry Green."  So that's a pretty big deal to live up to.  "Mysterious Kôr" is one of her Blitz stories as well, by the way, and a strong one, using -- to borrow D. F. Lewis's comparison -- Arthur Machen's world(s) as an appealing alternative.  "Pink May" is, for most of its brief length, both a more straightfoward ghost story, and a gender reversal of something you might expect from Graham Greene.  A woman is talking to an unnamed interlocutor about her brief time living, with her husband, in home leased to them as a kind of condo -- it has inhabitants, but they're away, or rarely there.  Again, Bowen nails certain things about human behavior, such as when you're staying in a house like that and can hardly bring yourself to use the appliances:

"But you know how it is about other people's belongings -- you can't ever quite use them, and they seem to watch you the whole time..."

Anyway, this is during the blitz, and the woman's husband has some obscure but important military job that keeps him away all the time.  She ends up having an affair with a man who is able to maintain a similar job as well as an interest in her.  And there's a ghost that lives in her new house that she senses but doesn't exactly see, hanging near her, watching her get ready for her dates with this other man, the ghost also a woman who is silently -- the woman is certain of this -- jealous of her happiness.

I've said before that ghost stories are the only subgenre of horror that can actually not be horror stories, and I'd say "Pink May" is one of those; at no point is its goal to chill the blood.  It's certainly quite good, and it's also good (though I believe "Mysterious Kôr" is better in this way) at taking a snapshot of life during the blitz.  It's not always about bombs and rubble; it's sometimes just about separation, being deprived of the person you care about not by death but by necessity, and as a result drifting into behavior and situations that should be avoided.  But in extreme situations, excuses come so easily.  "Well, what's the harm is somebody's being happy?" the woman says, and you can kind of see her point, in a selfish kind of way.  When your city is being torn apart, you grab whatever good moments you can.  By the end, though, both as a chronicle of happiness and as a ghost story, it all comes apart, and while there may be no harm in somebody's being happy, it seems that the problem is that no one will be.

2 comments:

Weirdmonger said...

Thanks for above article.
I have a site in her name HERE and I recommend the quotes from her stories and novels I collected over several years (linked from that site).
DF Lewis

John Magwitch said...

... it terms of genre it can lead to recommending stories on the basis of their horror content that perhaps should be recommended on other grounds instead

Yeah, though instead of instead I might say as well. Because the menace in her short stories, even including the non-horror, is usually as sharply observed and deeply felt as their other noteworthy qualities. Not a horror writer, perhaps, but a great writer of horror nevertheless (without ever, to my knowledge, publicly declaring "I'm not a horror writer!"). Anyway, great piece, and thanks from me too.

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