Saturday, October 5, 2013

The Kind of Face You Slash - Day 5: Where I Am Now It Is Very Hot

There's a story about the ridiculously prolific writer Georges Simenon that claims he would sometimes write novels in bookstore windows, as a kind of exhibit, and to draw in customers.  It was a marketing gimmick and a kind of performance art, and the man wrote notoriously fast.  I'd been hearing this story for years before I learned, not all that long ago, that it's apocryphal, or probably is.  Considering that my source for this story had always been Harlan Ellison, this is perhaps not too surprising, but Ellison liked and believed in the story enough to actually do it.  On more than one occasion, Ellison did in fact set up a desk in the window of a, I believe, Los Angeles science fiction and fantasy bookstore, and would start a story from scratch and finish it sometime before the store closed up for the night.  I believe every time Ellison did this, the briefest and most basic of story ideas would be given to him in the morning, from one preordained source or another, and on this idea he would base his story.  In one case, the story idea came from Robin Williams, who through some confluence of event I can't even speculate about came to know Ellison, and on the slip of paper Williams handed Ellison -- before a teeming crowd -- he'd written "The byte that bites."  Because Robin Williams, you never know what that guy's got going on up in that brain of his.  The resulting story is called "Keyboard," and it ain't one of Ellison's best, though it was never intended, I don't think, to be anything more than a trifle.

The quality of "Keyboard" aside, I was thinking of this because I have here before me a very curious horror anthology that seems to have grown from an impulse similar to the one that led Ellison, not to write in public, but to accept the barest of story ideas from somebody else and see what could be built from it.  The editor of this anthology is D. F. Lewis, who in 2011 put together another conceptually bizarre anthology called The Horror Anthology of Horror Anthologies that I wrote about here.  He has another one which is sitting there behind me called The First Book of Classical Horror Stories, which is actually made of new horror stories each of which, evidently, deal in some way not with classical horror concepts or themes, but classical music.  So that's unusual.  However the one under discussion today beats them both, and the title lacks any ambiguity regarding the core idea.  It's called Horror Without Victims.  Or maybe it is ambiguous, I can't tell yet.  But Horror Without Victims.  D. F. Lewis doesn't include an introduction or any story notes -- this seems to be a running thing with him, and I don't believe the absence of these standard horror anthology features is an accident -- so when it comes to what led to this book's existence, all the reader has to go by is a brief statement on the back cover, which reads:

Twenty-five original Horror Stories written independently by twenty-five different authors who responded to the theme 'Horror Without Victims.' Their serendipitous gestalt seems to aspire towards a curative force for all of us.

I don't know, kinda sounds like some hippie bullshit to me, but, to me, deeply intriguing.  I'm going to spoil an aspect of a book I've never read here, but Kim Newman once said of his novel The Quorum that it's a horror novel in which nobody dies.  Now this is fairly unusual, but it's not unheard of, but a horror story in which there are no victims?  It certainly sounds oxymoronic to me, but in a way that I appreciate, at least the notion, very much.  What could such a story, one that regarded the task set by "horror without victims" literally, be like?  Well, "Survivor Type" by Stephen King, maybe...if the narrator of that story is a victim, what is he a victim of?  Himself?  And if so, does that start to redefine or turn nebulous the idea of the victim?

And so on.  As I typically do when reading short stories for this project, from Horror Without Victims I chose two, which means, therefore, that my overall feelings about the relative success or failure of the book sort of don't exist.  I can only have an opinion on how the writers in question -- in this case David Murphy and Charles Wilkinson, with whom I'm otherwise entirely unfamiliar -- managed to deal with must count as a rather extreme limitation, given the genre.  And one story, David Murphy's "We Do Things Differently Here," strikes me as an almost complete failure.  The plot is this:  a woman named Sophie travels with the man she plans to marry, Richard, to his home country.  It seems to be a country anyway, but it may be a particular village.  In any case, this place, called Efferentia, is known throughout the world, or the region, for its very peculiar differences.  For instance, Sophie meets Richard's delightful parents, and Richard shows her some of the books in their library, which includes biographies of Efferentine artists, books published within Efferentia, with titles like The Life of Humphrey Heseltine 2003 - 1936.  Why flip the birth and death years?  It's a stylistic choice common in Efferentia, says Richard.  So there's little things like that, and then one night Richard tells Sophie that they're going to go to "the afters of a funeral."  Sophie is put off by the idea, not knowing precisely what it is, though when they arrive it seems to be a fun party, of the "Irish wake" variety.  Though there is a corpse of an old man in a coffin, something that doesn't delight her.  And then the corpse opens its eyes, and the old man sits up.  Sophie faints.

I'm going to spoil the ending of this story.  I see no way to deal with either story in terms of its approach to "horror without victims" if I don't spoil them, "We Do Things Differently Here" in particular.  So, everybody in Efferentia suffers from that Benjamin Button thing where they're born old and age backwards.  The "afters of a funeral" is really a birth celebration.  This is a conclusion Sophie jumps to herself, though I'm willing to let that unlikelihood slide, because there are hints that the novelties of Efferentia are not necessarily a local secret.  Anyhow, so she figures it out, and then after she's just had sex with Richard, she goes "Hey, but what if I get pregnant?" and Richard says "That's a funny story, I'll tell you tomorrow." I'm paraphrasing slightly.  But his reticence to own up is enough to drive Sophie away the next morning, telling Richard's mom to pass on the message "Go fuck yourself" to Richard, and hops a train back to London.  Because why?  Well, she has her reasons, but it's a fruitless endeavor, as the story's ending reveals that she is, in fact, pregnant, and what that means for someone inseminated by an Efferentine man (and by the way, this story is told in the first person):

...the thing within would grow and grow, taking up more and more of my insides the way all Efferentine babies consume their mothers, until the mother dies and the baby does too, or so it seems, and both are buried together for the few weeks it takes the newborn to consume its host completely.

With the realisation of that, my rationality flew out that window.  And with it, what remained of my sanity.

The end!  BOO!  Now, first of all, that "what remained of my sanity" bit is almost infuriating.  There are first person stories at the end of which the narrator is actually killed, and these, the good ones, are easier to accept than "And now I'm a crazy person."  It's all in how you do it, of course, and maybe there's a story that ends with the narrator saying "One thing I forgot to tell you is that I'm insane now" that actually works, but this?  This is nonsense.  Part of it might be that as far as I can remember, the first person narrators who die are describing the events that lead up to their deaths as they happen, but in "We Do Things Differently Here" Sophie is clearly looking back (from the grave? She apparently is also dead, or soon will be), describing what led to her madness not in the moment but at some remove.  Is she writing this story in shit on her loony bin wall?  Beside the point, perhaps.

But that's the least of it.  How is this horror without a victim?  What it is, essentially, is The Wicker Man.  Sophie is very plainly being set up by Richard and his parents to give him a child, knowing what this will mean for her.  In The Wicker Man, Sgt. Howie is lured to Summerisle so that he can be burned alive.  The hope is that his death will help the island's apple crops, and the residents of Summerisle think this is all a good thing, but that doesn't somehow mean that Howie isn't a victim, just because his killers have decided it's all for the best.  Clearly Richard and his folks think him having a kid is worth Sophie's life, but so?  The Manson family believed they'd had a pretty good idea, too.  This story completely disregards the concept of "horror without victims" to the point that it's almost insulting.

A much better story in many ways is "Night in the Pink House" by Charles Wilkinson.  It's much better written, for one thing, the narrator in this case being Richard Topcliffe, an erudite and affected young graduate student who, I get the feeling, allows Wilkinson to flower things up a bit, linguistically speaking.  But it's fun to read.  Topcliffe works for an old, blind, rich, wheelchair bound man named Mr. Slater, and the work Topcliffe does for him is rather unusual.  Before Wilkinson gets to that, we're tipped off a bit by the story's first sentence:

The day we went down to the beach Slater insisted that his interest in torture was of a scholarly nature.

A little bit later, it's implied that Slater often requires Topcliffe to pelt seagulls with rocks.  We also learn, incidentally, that one reason Slater is drawn to Topcliffe is because the young man is the descendant of another Richard Topcliffe, a real Richard Topcliffe, who was a torturer for Elizabeth I.  Slater is working on a book, some kind of scholarly, academic thing, on torture, and one thing he believes he needs for his work is audio recordings of people actually being tortured.  Topcliffe, the young man who works for him, has presented himself as someone who can make such recordings.  He will torture people, record it, and play it for Slater.  Which he does, except he's not actually torturing anybody.  He pays a young woman named Rose to scream and essentially play the role of a victim, and Slater will never know the difference.  So this seemed to be horror without a victim, because no one's being hurt, but given the pleasure Slater takes in the recordings, there's some actual horror, too.  This struck me as a bit of a cop out, but an honest one, and one that could actually transcend its cop out nature, as long as Wilkinson dealt straight on with the concept of a man taking depraved pleasure in something horrible that, unbeknownst to him, wasn't real.

But the story doesn't really deal with that.  It instead becomes much stranger, as Topcliffe discovers in Slater's home -- the "pink house" of the title -- a bizarre cupboard the back of which seems made of something fleshy, something bloody.  The aftermath of this discovery is what the story winds up being about, and Topcliffe's torture fakery kind of drifts away.  Other fakery -- that he is not, in fact, descended from that Richard Topcliffe -- does, but even that's kind of a red herring.  It serves as the basis for Slater to fire Richard, but in itself it doesn't matter a great deal.  Thematically I believe Wilkinson believes it does, but I can't see how.  Especially when, at the very end, we learn that Richard has gone from Slater's house to somewhere in Africa, where he has become an actual, no-foolin' torturer.  Which would mean there are victims.  Not within the main body of the story, maybe, something Wilkinson awkwardly highlights when he has Richard think back on his job with Slater and say "I think it strange that I cannot name one person who fell prey to the horrors of that time."  See, guys?  That's the premise of this book!

And no, no one is a victim of "that time," but there's an additional horror at the very end, and victims are heavily implied there.  The ending of a horror story is generally the place where the horror's main gut punch can be found, and that's the case with "Night in the Pink House."  And it's littered with victims!  We never meet them, we never see what's done to them, but we sure know what's up.  Richard has one major encounter with the strange...thing in, or behind, that cupboard door, and this is the story's climax.  Going from there to Richard's firing, as Wilkinson does, could have ended things on a nice note of anticlimactic uncertainty -- a powerful tool in horror -- but it's like he can't help himself.  And clearly, the ending we get was always the intention, but it obliterates D. F. Lewis's idea.  If the book had been called Horror With Victims, then okay, now we got something.  Otherwise it's a well-written story -- in fact, despite my complaining, we have a good story, but one that doesn't deal honestly with the potentially fascinating parameters Lewis set up.

Oh well!  This book has twenty-five stories in it, and I read two.  I obviously can't say the other twenty-two don't have a better creative handle on the concept, and I hope to find out that, indeed, many do.  But it's tough work Lewis set for his writers and at least with these two, it's a job some would rather avoid.

1 comment:

John Magwitch said...

Gotta say, the "horror without victims" idea itself seems pretty fundamentally flawed right off the bat. It's the victims themselves that most if not all the pathos in a good horror story springs from. Indeed, it's their experience that makes the horror horror, whether viewed subjectively or externally, in the first place.

I'm not saying it's necessarily impossible to write a good story on this theme, but like, say, trying to write "noir" with a cast of preschoolers, at best you're starting with a huge, possibly fatal handicap. I like the sound of the classical horror stories volume a lot better.

Anyway, both these writers seem to have missed the "without victims" mark pretty widely, so it's almost beside the point here. And you're right, that last line from the first story is one of the worst things I've read online in a long time. It even makes the average Lovecraft pastiche, with its standard, bizarrely narrated "IT'S COMING THROUGH THE WINDOW MY GOD MY GOD MY EYES ARE MELTING MY FAAAAAAAACE" conclusion, sound infinitely better, somehow.

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