Friday, October 31, 2008

The Kind of Face You SLASH!!: Day 31 - Everything We're Telling You Here is True

Prior to reading The Man on the Ceiling, I had read four short stories by Steve Rasnic Tem, and not one word of fiction by Melanie Tem. That was a mistake, because this book -- which is part memoir, for lack of a better word, and part novel, also for lack of a better word -- is about them, and their lives together with their five adopted children, and why they write what they write. And what they write, for the most part, is horror. So, not being overly familiar with their fiction before tackling this book was a mistake, but not a fatal one, because despite that I found the book to be absolutely gripping, unsettling, and deeply moving.

The dedication page for The Man on the Ceiling says this:

For our children, who gave us their blessing

The very next page also contains one sentence only:

Everything we're about to tell you here is true

This second line, in one form or another, will pop up again and again throughout the book, although not everything within its pages is actually, literally true. The Tems describe The Man on the Ceiling as a"biography of their imaginations", and that's about as good a way to describe this highly unusual book as any I could come up with. It begins, for instance, with Steve (the book, incidentally, sometimes alternates between his point of view and Melanie's, while other sections are written by them together) describing a car trip with his family, Melanie riding shotgun, and their children piled in the back.

Along the side of the road, as far as the eye could see, the children waited. Some of them were babies, owning nothing but the baskets they were in and their own dirty blankets. Sometimes the older kids -- and by "older" I mean two or three years of age -- would take care of them, holding and singing to them because that came instinctively, feeding them out of other people's garbage cans.

...Outside the car windows the children came in droves. Some had barely escaped house fires: you could see places on their necks bubbled like a plastic toy left on the stove. Some had crawled out of floods or earthquakes, their faces smeared and broken.

...There was no more room in the car. I wanted to stick my head out the window and tell them that, and somehow apologize for it, but frankley there were so many I was afraid...

All of their children, as I said, were adopted: Gabriella, Joe, Veronica, Chris and Anthony. Chris, they tell us, has spent most of his adult life in prison. Anthony died. And it's possible -- though his parents will never know the truth -- that this nine year-old boy committed suicide.

This book is exceptionally difficult to describe. There is no straight narrative line, it bounces from the childhoods of the Tems, to their feelings about Anthony's death, to the future, to a recounting of the worsening Alzheimer's of Melanie's father, to the death of their cat, to their grappling with the man on the ceiling, who follows them wherever they go.

To say that the man on the ceiling is a personification of the fear the Tems feel not only for their children, but for themselves and the disasters that occur within every family at some point, would be accurate, as far as it goes. But the Tems never state that plainly, and it feels somehow wrong for me to do it in their place. This is how Melanie describes her relationship with the man on the ceiling:

The man on the ceiling gives my life an edge. He makes me uneasy; he makes me grieve. And yet he also fills me with awe for what is possible. He shames me with his glimpses into the darkness of human cruelty, and he shocks me when I see bits of my own face in his. He encourages a reverence when I contemplate the inevitability of my own death. And he shakes me with anger, pity, and fear.

Much of the book is like this, which is to say a description of the way the Tems's imaginations shape their experiences and filter into their fiction, although at no point do they explicitly tie their experiences, fears, or losses to any particular novel or story that one or the other of them has written. They never even mention a single title. However, scattered throughout this book are little short stories that each has written to illustrate, or extrapolate from, an idea, as with Melanie's story "Just Her Size", which imagines an encounter she never had with a neighborhood teenager she barely knew when she was a child, who she later learned might have been a pedophile, or in "The Yellow Dog", when Melanie wonders about how her daughter Gabriella must have processed the fact that, as a young girl, she was a witness to the deaths of both the family cat and Melanie's father.

As for Steve, I felt a particular kinship with him. He is a man who lives in an almost constant state of fear and worry -- sometimes a mild form, sounding somewhere in the back of his mind like the background hum of an air conditioner, sometimes clanging like a fire alarm -- that something terrible is about to happen to someone he loves. Hints are given in the book that Steve had a very rough childhood, and I had a very happy one, but I still understand living inside your own head like that. In one of the sections that seems to have been written by both of them, they talk about how, when the fear and worry gets too strong for him, Steve gets into his car and goes for a drive:

The man on the ceiling is out there, on the ceiling of the world, masquerading as a star or a flock of night birds or the wingtip of lights of a doomed plane, just waiting for the right moment to squash itself against Steve's windshield and make him drive off the road or into oncoming traffic, into the path of cars carrying everyone he's ever loved.

Okay, I'm not as bad as all that, but I do understand it. Hell, everyone does, to one degree or another. Some people are just better than others at turning down the alarm.

Steve writes about writing more than Melanie does (though I feel like most of the short stories included here were written by Melanie), and when he does this his prose turns towards the surreal -- which, I'm lead to understand, is not an unusual direction for his fiction to take). And when he writes about his life as a father, he is absolutely heartbreaking:

My baby. You hold their small hearts, their lungs in your hands and it is unimaginable: both their lives and their deaths are unimaginable. How they came to be out of nothing and how this miracle has been put into your undeserving hands to nourish or to fail. Sometimes it brings the absolute best out of people and sometimes the absolute worst. I've seen people snap under the pressure, we've all seen them, dissolving in the presence of a miracle.

Clearly, I've let the Tems write a fair chunk of this post, but I feel as though that's as it should be. The Man on the Ceiling is so completely theirs that to try and interpret or analyze it would be a greivous error. What you do is, you just let the book absorb you into it. And you learn, among many other things, why the Tems write horror. This book is not a horror novel, but it was borne from horror. It doesn't explain why everyone writes horror, nor does it explain why readers such as myself read it (though it comes closer than anything else I've ever read). And quite frankly, to say -- as I very nearly did -- that this book was produced by the horror genre would be to give that genre far, far more credit than it deserves. This book was written by the Tems, and I feel like it would exist, as would their other books, whether the genre existed or not.


Well, that's it, folks. The end of The Kind of Face You SLASH!!. And thank Christ for that. It's been fun (sometimes), and educational (for me, anyway), and long as shit. And now it's over. And I am never doing this again.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Kind of Face You SLASH!!: Day 30 - Very Far from the World of Meaning

Not sure what I wanted to read today, I was in my bedroom, searching through all the books I'd set aside as possible options for this month. Nothing was jumping out at me, until I noticed The Stories of Paul Bowles, which I'd taken from the shelf just a few days ago, because something I'd read about it sparked my interest, and because I felt like I should have considered it for this project.

The piece I read that had sparked my interest was Terry Lamsley's brief essay in Horror: Another 100 Best Books on Bowles's collection Pages from Cold Point. This book was apparently a fairly short one, containing about six or seven stories, all of which, as you would imagine, found in the large collection of Bowles's work I'd taken down. Lamsley briefly describes each of the stories, and then says of Bowles:

He never wrote specifically for the horror genre, but many of his tales are much more strange and disturbing than those by some writers who do. One such, "Kitty", about a girl who wants to turn into a cat, was written for a children's book and rejected by the publisher as being far too gruesome. I have never come across any of his stories in a horror anthology.

Neither have I, and now that I've read a few of them, I'm as perplexed by this fact as Lamsley. I chose three of the stories Lamsley talks about, and one other that, from what I knew of it, sounded particularly suited to this project.

The first two stories are very short, and I'll breeze through them. The first one, "The Hyena" is written as a fable about a stork meeting a hyena at a watering hole. The stork has heard that if a hyena marks you with his urine, you will be forced to follow that hyena wherever her goes. The hyena notes the stork's nervousness, and claims he knows the reason. He tells the stork that the magic powers ascribed to his species are pure fiction, and he and the stork engage in a brief philosophical discussion. This parable about trust -- a description I honestly hesitate to use, because it feels reductive -- has a grotesque ending, one far more jarring in its details than even the darkest stories of its kind I've read in the past.

The next story is called "The Garden", and it deals with a man who over the years has cultivated a beautiful garden outside his home. He takes great pleasure in it, and one day, when he goes inside, his wife notices how pleased he looks and immediately assumes that he's hiding treasure from her. With the help of a local witch, she begins poisoning her husband, in the hopes of weakening his mind enough to let her ply the secret of his treasure from him. This doesn't work, there being no treasure, and he doesn't die from the poison. And this is just the beginning of an unusally rich and disturbing four pages -- it's really amazing how much impact Bowles can fit into so short a length.

The third story is "Allal", and that's the one I felt was most suited to this project. It's about a young man named Allal, who was abandoned by his mother at the hotel where she worked. When he reached a certain age, the owner of the hotel put him to work, but refused to pay him. After a while, Allal moves to town and finds a job. He is ostracized by the locals, who, because his mother abandoned him, refer to him as a "son of sin".

Allal quietly goes about his life, earning his pay, and hating everyone in town, until...

One hot summer evening shortly after sunset he was walking under the arcades that faced the town's main square. A few paces ahead of him an old man in a white turban was trying to shift a heavy sack from one shoulder to the other. Suddenly it fell to the ground, and Allal stared as two dark forms flowed out of it and disappeared into the shadows. The old man pounced upon the sack and fastened the top of it, at the same time beginning to shout: Look out for the snakes! Help me find my snakes!

Allal helps the man and invites him to his home, where he becomes enamored of the snakes -- of one, in particular. He makes up his mind to steal this snake, which he does, after which he attempts to bind his mind and spirit to the animal. His attempts have a different result, however, and Allal finds himself winding through the town in body of the snake.

At first, the reader might assume that this is all a hallucination, because Allal has been eating kif, a kind of drug popular in the Middle East and Asia. But the ending of the story made me wonder. In any case, Bowles's fable-like style is used not only in "The Hyena", but in "The Garden" and in "Allal" as well. Because "The Garden" and "Allal" have no lesson to teach us, as we would expect a fable to do, the effect is somehow more disturbing than if Bowles wallowed in the sun-bleached darkness of these stories. I quoted Lamsley above mentioning a children's story by Bowles that was rejected for being too gruesome. I don't doubt it. Apart from fumbling with certain words and references that are particular to Middle Eastern cultures and ideas, a child would have no trouble reading and understanding either "The Garden" or "Allal" (the more openly cerebral "The Hyena", ironically, would be a much bigger challenge), but doing so would scar them.

Which brings me to the last story, called "The Delicate Prey". This story was particularly singled out by Terry Lamsley as the main reason he chose to write about Pages from Cold Point. He says:

The events [of the story], which I see no point in describing, are related as if from a very great distance, but with absolute clarity, and the reader is led into somewhere dreadful and left there.

Not a bad way of putting it, and I share his reticence about describing the events of "The Delicate Prey". I'll only say that the story is about two leather merchants, brothers, and their young nephew, and about their journey from Tabelbala to Tessalit, and what happens when they meet a friendly man in the desert. "The Delicate Prey" may be the most off-handedly disturbing story I've ever read. A telling detail, I think, of Bowles's style is that the most horrifying violence is often buried one or two sentences into a six or seven sentence paragraph. Most writers would tag such moments at the end of a paragraph as a kind of climax. For Bowles, the violence (which can be extremely harrowing) is simply another thing that happens, like the watering of camels, or the decision to move from Tabelbala to Tessalit.

I had read Bowles before this, when, in college, I had to read The Sheltering Sky, which is still his most famous work. I felt no confidence that I would like that book, or even be able to finish it, but I not only finished it, I found that I'd enjoyed it quite a bit. In other words, it wasn't what I expected. With Bowles's short fiction, I've now had that experience again. I've never read anything quite like these stories. They are merciless.

The Kind of Face You SLASH!!: Day 29 - It's Important that We Talk

Well, this day's not going the way I'd planned. One of my big posts for this month was going to be about Arthur Machen's "The Great God Pan", as well as M. John Harrison's story of the same name -- you know, a compare and contrast kind of thing. Well, before the month had even quite gotten started, someone told me that they thought Harrison's novel The Course of the Heart was an expansion of that short story. I didn't bother verifying this until last night, when I was going to begin reading Machen's story. It would be a little hard to explain to you why this knowledge has put me off reading these two short stories (not forever, just for now), but suffice it to say that for the sake of my own reading interests I want to put them off for another time.

So what do I read now? I haven't decided yet. In the meantime, here's another half-assed post about a few stories that are only about three or four pages in length (I was going to do this today anyway, in addition to a larger post, in order to get the post count to 31). You might remember that the first time I did this I read a story each by Steve Rasnic Tem, William F. Nolan and Chet Williamson. Well, I've decided to stage a rematch, and read another story each by those guys. Last time, Chet Williamson smoked the competition with his terrific "The Assembly of the Dead". Who will win this time!?

First up is Chet Williamson, and his story "Ants". Williamson's not going to repeat his victory, I'm afraid. This is one of those stories about a down-on-his-luck asshole who cheated on his wife, so she divorced him, and now he's poor and has very few pleasures in life. But among those few pleasures is the delight he takes in killing ants. And the ants, as you know without me having to tell you, don't like that, so they take the battle to him. And so on. The copyright for this story is 1987 -- I would have thought this particular horror sub-genre had been exhausted at least twenty years before that. Actually, it probably had, but people kept writing the stories anyway.

Next is William F. Nolan's "Dead Call". Our narrator, Frank, receives a call from his old friend Len. The problem is that Len has been dead for several months. Frank was under the impression that the car wreck that killed Len was an accident, but Len informs him that he is mistaken. Len actually killed himself, because his life was falling to pieces. And, Len points out, isn't Frank going through some pretty rough times himself?

You may be able to tell where this one's going. At three pages, though, I think that's to be expected. It's a pretty creepy little story, though Nolan's dialogue skills are fairly pedestrian. Still, this one's eerie, and it might make you pretty uncomortable if you sit and think about it for too long.

Finally, we have Steve Rasnic Tem's "At the Bureau". It concerns a man who works for a government licensing bureau. The function of this office has changed repeatedly over the many years he's worked there; last time they issued fishing licenses, but they're about to change again. The narrator seems content with his job, even though it's a dead end. There's no room for advancement beyond his current position, and there will be no more raises. His wife wants him to quit. And the guy in the office next door keeps standing in front of the narrator's frosted-glass office door, casting his shadow as he tries to peer in. Whenever the narrator tries to catch him at it, the guy hurries back to his own office.

The twist to all this is pretty bleak and hopeless. I would say this is the best of the three, as it's the most interesting, and it's better written than the other two, though I still prefer Nolan's central idea. But I don't believe these stories were intended to do much beyond sending a brief shiver through their readers, so it's best to end things here...

There will be another, more substantial post later today.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The Kind of Face You SLASH!!: Day 28 - The Nightgown Wraiths

Guess what I went and did? I left the book containing today's horror selection at work. Fortunately, I had finished the story, so I can write about it, but unfortunately I don't have it here in front of me for reference. Or to quote from. So this one will probably be pretty short.

The story -- another long one -- is "Mr. Dark's Carnival", by Glen Hirshberg. Hirshberg is what is known as a "rising talent" in the genre: he's in his early forties and has a mere three books to his name, but he's raked in a healthy portion of award for his short fiction, and has earned praise from the likes of Peter Straub, Ramsey Campbell, and others. Campbell, in his introduction to Hirshberg's collection The Two Sams (from which "Mr. Dark's Carnival" is taken), compares him to M. R. James and Thomas Ligotti. Well then.

As it happens, earlier this year I read Hirshberg's novel, The Snowman's Children. That novel is more of a coming-of-age thriller -- a genre designation I may have just now coined, but which has a long history anyway -- than a horror novel, but I found it to be pretty skillful and intriguing, if a little too earnest. Hirshberg has really made his name with his short fiction, however, which I've always gathered is firmly and unquestionably horror, so I figured now was a swell time to dive in.

I was hestitant to pick "Mr. Dark's Carnival", as the title seems to hint that it's some sort of reflection on Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes, and, since I've never read that book (I should really stop admitting that sort of thing), I didn't want to read a 40-plus-page story that I wouldn't be able to fully appreciate. But Ramsey Campbell, in his introduction, said that the story deeply explored why readers and writers are drawn to fear, why we seek it out (or something like that), and considering that we're at the tail end of this horror project, I thought the story might be especially appropriate.

So here's what the story's about. In a small town in Montana, a college history professor named David Roemer is winding up his annual Halloween lecture, which deals with a bit of local legend. Back in the day's of America's Western expansion, and before Montana was officially a state, a man named Al...bert? See, this is the problem with not having the book in front of me. Well, whatever. We'll go with Albert. Anyway, a man named Albert Dark took residence in this little town, and became judge. Apparently, for the most part, he was a pretty lenient judge. But on four different occasions, during his many years as judge in that town, posses hauled men who they claimed had committed some sort of crime to Dark's home, demanding swift justice. On each of these four occasions, the judge complied, with the stipulation that before the man was to hang, he would spend his final night in the judge's home, and, when the time came, Judge Dark himself would do the hanging.

From this grew a legend of a place called "Mr. Dark's Carnival", which was actually one of those haunted house attractions that go up around the world every Halloween. This legend is not gone into specifically, beyond the fact that there were apparently unusual invitations to the haunted house issued. But Professor Roemer claims that such a place never existed, that it is in fact only a legend.

Towards the end of his lecture, he gets word that a troubled former graduate student of his has committed suicide. This man's girlfriend, Kate, was also one of Roemer's former students, as well as one of his former lovers. He goes to comfort her, and, long story short, comes across an invitation to Mr. Dark's Carnival. Which he and Kate excitedly attend.

Frankly, I don't quite know what Campbell was on about in his introduction. All this story really explores is why people go to haunted house attractions, which is, if not self-evident, at least uninteresting. As you can probably guess, Roemer and Kate make it to the carnival, and find it far more elaborate and bizarre and intriguing than they'd hoped it would be. And as you can probably also guess, there are really only two ways this thing can end, and, again, neither one is all that exciting. I was really struck by how ordinary this story was. Not bad, just ordinary. This, from Glen Hirshberg, who, of the genre's new breed of talent, is one of horror's most respected torch-bearers. I mean, really, Glen Hirshberg? A haunted house attraction on Halloween that might actually really be haunted?? I just don't know what to say. I enjoyed it. It would be a nice campfire story, if you took out all the stuff that doesn't lead anywhere, which would be about half of it. But "Mr. Dark's Carnival" is the definition of "nothing special".

For instance, the subplot about the troubled ex-student who committed suicide seems poised to supply some unusual pay-off, either thematically or narratively, but all it does is provide the explanation for a rather tired twist at the end. What's ironic about the by-the-numbers quality of this story (which, in all fairness, is not a weakness from which Hirshberg's The Snowman's Children suffers) is that throughout Roemer's journey through the fake-or-is-it haunted house, any time he's not suitably impressed with what he takes to be effects or clever bits of misdirection, he expresses his disappointment about some standard bit of haunted house business that he's seen too many times in his life to count. Was Hirshberg not aware that he was practically begging his readers to make similar complaints about his story? Was that part of his point? I really don't think it was, and I'm left just feeling befuddled.

And remember when I said that one of the drawbacks of The Snowman's Children was that it was too earnest? Well, this next complaint is connected to that, although I'm not sure "earnest" is the right word here. But at one point, Roemer actually says the following:

Walking through a haunted house properly is a lot like making love.

Okay, well, that just about shreds it. If he'd said "Walking through a haunted house properly is a lot like fucking", I might have respected him more.

All right, well, that was a major disappointment, which is an odd thing to say about a story that isn't actually bad. When considered with other horror stories that revolve around Halloween night and haunted houses, it works perfectly well. I was just expecting more. I'm nowhere near done with Hirshberg -- not even close, really -- but I'll adjust my expectations accordingly next time.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Kind of Face You SLASH!!: Day 27 - Dust in the Balance

H. P. Lovecraft and Algernon Blackwood were rough contemporaries -- Blackwood's writing career got started a bit before Lovecraft's -- and the former author was a great admirer of the latter. Of Blackwood, Lovecraft said:

Of the quality of Mr. Blackwood's genius there can be no dispute; for no one has ever approached the skill, seriousness, and minute fidelity with which he records the overtones of strangeness in ordingary things and experiences.

Not only that, but check out that name! Algernon Blackwood! That is friggin' nuts! With that name, Blackwood had, by my count, only two viable career choices: horror writer, or malevolent super-scientist, the kind who rides around in zeppelins, commanding his zombie army via remote control. And it was his real name, too. It's not like he was born "Sidney Loomis", and traded up to "Algernon Blackwood" when he turned eighteen. No, that was his name out of the gate -- although, regrettably, his middle name was Henry.

But anyway. Blackwood's fiction, though it has remained in print (off and on, I would imagine) since his death, never took hold in the popular psyche the way Lovecraft's did. If you want to know why exactly that is, I'm not the guy to ask, although my knee-jerk, horror-snob answer is that Blackwood was by far the better writer. I don't really know what that means, though, and I don't actually believe it. That is, I don't believe that's why Blackwood's work is obscure, compared to Lovecraft; however, I do believe -- based, admittedly, on scant evidence -- that Blackwood was a far superior writer.

Thus far, I've read one Blackwood story (finished mere minutes ago), the nearly-novella-length "The Willows". In it, an unnamed narrator and his friend, known only as "the Swede", are traveling down the Danube by kayak. Due to flooding and fierce winds, they suffer what seems to be a mild shipwreck on a small island somewhere in East Jesus, Hungary. Their kayak is undamaged, they have plenty of provisions, and so, not at all put out, they decide to make camp on this tiny island, which is covered, not incidentally, with willows.

Early on, they they see a couple of fairly strange things. One is an otter, swimming along the river, which, at first glance, they mistake for a human body. Shortly thereafter, they see, in the distance, a man in a boat, who at first seems to be signaling to them, but whose motions they eventually decipher as the man making the Sign of the Cross.

Still dealing with very strong winds, the two men decide to take to the river again the next morning. That night, the narrator takes a little walk, and begins to feel extremely uneasy about the island, the willows, and the general surroundings:

But my emotion, so far as I could understand it, seemed to attach itself more particularly to the willow bushes, to these acres and acres of willows, crowding, so thickly growing there, swarming everywhere the eye could reach, pressing upon the river as though to suffocate it, standing in dense array mile after mile beneath the sky, watching, waiting, listening. And, apart quite from the elements, the willows connected themselves subtly with my malaise, attacking the mind insidiously somehow by reason of their vast numbers, and contriving in some way or other to represent to the imagination a new and mighty power, a power, moreover, not altogether friendly to us.

This "attack" will increase in strength and continue unabated until the end of the story. The narrator -- and eventually the Swede -- begin to see things at night, in the willows, that inspire a kind of awe-struck horror, and they begin to hear a sort of gonging sound that seems to come from everywhere at once, and which "defies description". These incidents, mixed with mysterious damage to their kayak and depletion of their food, works on the men's minds. The Swede appears to be more sensitive to their new, terrifying reality -- to what it is and what it means -- and together the two men come to understand this small island as a kind of intersection of two realities: the world as we know it, and another world, filled with beings whose purpose is grim on a cosmic and metaphysical scale, a scale so large that it is impossible to understand, however much the men might desperately crave understanding:

An explanation of some kind was an absolute necessity, just as some working explanation of the universe is necessary -- however absurd -- to the happiness of every individual who seeks to do his duty in the world and face the problems of life. The simile seemed to me at the time an exact parallel.

This is an essential passage, I think, because it is the core of what Blackwood is writing about, his specific reason for writing horror, which is the great doubt every human being, no matter how confident they are in their own view of the universe, has at some point, that not only is there no benevolent God, but there is no comfort in our existence. There is only pain and horror and despair and meaningless suffering. Everything else is just a mask. Or -- and this may be closer to the point -- if there is a force governing the universe, it is malignant. This is what Thomas Ligotti is writing about, and it's what many claim Lovecraft is writing about as well, although it's hard, sometimes, for me to see it in his work.

And it doesn't matter if you're an atheist (the atheists I know have a much warmer view of the universe than this), and it doesn't matter if you firmly believe in God. It doesn't even matter if your belief in God is some day proven correct. All that matters is that you also sometimes see things Blackwood's way, that you harbor that fear, however mildly, and however rarely. If you do -- and you do -- then "The Willows" will make its mark on you.

Monday, October 27, 2008

The Kind of Face You SLASH!!: Day 26 - Entertainment for a Monster

Here's how the editors of Playboy introduce Ray Russell's story "Sardonicus" in the anthology The Playboy Book of Horror and the Supernatural:

Russell's Gothic canon is unique in contemporary fiction. Not since the Romantic novelists of the 19th Century has there been a writer with quite his panache, eloquence and mastery of the art of terror. He is a symphonic writer, unafraid of big emotions and stunning effects, lavishly orchestrated.

Man, the editors of Playboy sure know how to sell a short story, don't they? But wait...according to Kim Newman and Stephen Jones, editors of Horror: Another 100 Best Books (one of those 100 being the Playboy anthology) there was only one editor for the book, and his name was Ray Russell. So I guess what I should have said was, "Man, Ray Russell sure knew how to shamelessly promote himself, didn't he?" (There are actually two Russell stories in this anthology, and his introduction to the second story, "Comet Wine", hilariously begins: "Ray Russell's work is 'Staggering, wholly convincing, filled with the dark powers of life and minds,' according to the tough-minded Virginia Kirkus book review bulletin".)

"Sardonicus" -- a long-ish short story, at 40 pages -- is my selection today, and, to be fair Russell wasn't the only person to have such a high opinion of it. Russell actually was a highly respected horror writer in his time (mainly the 1960s and 70s), and "Sardonicus" was widely anthologized. It was also turned into a famous film by William Castle in 1961, called Mr. Sardonicus (I haven't seen the film, although it's on TCM this Thursday, so I can correct that soon. Still, the more films I admit to not having seen, and the more books and stories I admit to not having read, the more I think I'm not very good at Knowing a Lot About Horror).

Though written in the middle of the 20th Century, "Sardonicus" is told in the style of a 19th Century Gothic thriller. It's about Sir Robert Cargrave, a highly respected physician who specializes in muscle paralysis. One morning, he receives a letter from Maude Sardonicus, who Cargrave once knew (and secretly loved) as Maude Randall, inviting him to visit her and her husband in Bohemia. Cargrave feels that he's in need of a vacation, and he'd very much like to reacquaint himself with Maude, so he hastily agrees and makes the journey as soon as he can.

When he meets Maude, she's just as beautiful as he remembered her, but her once bright and lively personality has had a shadow cast over it. He begins to understand why when he meets her husband, Mr. Sardonicus:

...the gentelman before me was the victim of some terrible affliction that had caused his lips to be pulled perpetually apart from each other, baring his teeth in a continuous ghastly smile. It was the same humourless grin I had seen once before: on the face of a person in the last throes of lockjaw. We physicians have a name for that chilling grimace, a Latin name, and as it entered my mind, it seemed to dispel yet another mystery, for the term we use to describe the lockjaw smile is: Risus sardonicus.

Soon enough, Cargrave learns a couple of important things: one is that "Sardonicus" is not the man's real name. His real name is Marek Boleslawski. As a young man, he raided his newly deceased father's grave to liberate a winning lottery ticket, which he subsequently used to start his fortune. But upon digging up his father, he saw that the corpse's face had twisted into an alarming rictus. The shock, horror (and, probably, guilt over what he was doing) caused Marek's own face to twist and freeze into a mad and repellent grin, which he's suffered with ever since. His inability to pronounce "Boleslawski" due to his new deformity lead him, with bitter and intentional irony, to choose "Sardonicus as his new surname (the problem here, though, is that Sardonicus is an extremlely verbal character, and at no point in the story does he avoid plosives or...uh...whatever "M" sounds are called).

The other thing Cargrave learns is that Sardonicus is a monster. He persuaded Maude to invite Cargrave because, predictably, he wanted Cargrave to cure him, but he eventually threatens both Maude and Cargrave by informing them that should Cargrave refuse, or try and fail, to cure him, a quite horrible form of punishment will rain down upon Maude. Filled with rage and disgust, Cargrave has no choice but to agree.

Ray Russell may have been an arrogant little so-and-so, but this really is a damn good story. Russell occasionally overdoes the Victorian Gothic style, what with his use of words like "thither" and "yestereve", but by and large he gets it right, and "Sardonicus" ends up being an awfully nice -- however unintentional, on my part -- companion to Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The thematic similiarites are strong enough between the two that Russell may have been primarily inspired by Stevenson's novella, but "Sardonicus" is its own crazy entity. And yes, it's kind of a loony story, but he makes it work. You buy into it (even that thing about Marek stealing his dead dad's lottery ticket, which I admit sounds absurd when described glibly, as I did, works perfectly fine, fleshed out and in context). And Mr. Sardonicus himself is a great creation, a memorably, hateful and creepy villain. It would be selfish to ask for more than that.

Russell was apparently not very prolific -- I can only find three titles to his name -- but on the basis of this story I'll be happy to seek out the rest. And by the way, according to Russell's gushing introduction, "Comet Wine" is a sequel of sorts to "Sardonicus", in that the hero is, once again, Sir Robert Cargrave. That's all I need to know.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

The Kind of Face You SLASH!!: Day 25 - A Disgustful Curiosity

If you've never read The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, you should know that it's not what you think it is, or at least it wasn't what I thought it would be. I expected something not unlike Frankenstein, where we experienced the story largely through Frankenstein's eyes (except for that great, long section where the creature tells his story). With this novella by Robert Louis Stevenson, I expected the same thing. I expected a first person, or limited third person, point of view focusing on Dr. Henry Jekyll, with, perhaps, occasional shifts so we could see things as Mr. Hyde saw them. Unless I'm much mistaken, this has largely been how the story has been adapted to various other media throughout the decades.

But what about Mr. Utterson? In my edition of the novella, which is 103 pages long, Dr. Utterson is the protagonist, and our source for the narrative, for 70 of those pages (after which point the story makes one of those awkward shifts familiar to readers of Victorian literature, and we get the rest of the story through letters being read by Utterson). What happened to Utterson over the years? Why, in film adaptations, for instance, did he either fall away entirely or become absorbed into another character?

One thing I didn't know about the story (and I don't know if this carries over into any of the films, because I sort of haven't seen any of them) is that it is structured as a mystery, with Mr. Utterson -- friend to Dr. Jekyll -- playing the role of detective.

It's a measure of Stevenson's skill that, even though I knew the solution to his mystery, I still found the book to be pretty thrilling. Utterson is an engaging character, even though he is almost completely free of any of the flamboyant affectations -- he only eats sandwiches, or he must take a nap at precisely noon, or he collects mice -- that would be bestowed on him if the story were written today. In fact, as described, Utterson sounds like a pretty dull guy, but Stevenson makes him live on the page, and that's good enough. And a good mystery is going to be a good story, regardless of your knowledge of the outcome, and that's what we have here.

The last thirty pages, or so, of the novella follows the storyline I expected to be the main thread of the entire novel; this is where we learn about Dr. Jekyll, and what drove him to create a chemical solution which, when consumed, would transform him, body and soul, into a flesh-and-blood manifestation of his darkest desires and impulses. Jekyll's motivation seems to have been a desire to rid himself of guilt, and his rationalization for the whole thing is pretty asinine. Fundamentally, he's a good person, but his desire for (what I gathered to be relatively unshocking) temporal pleasures met resistance in his scolding conscience. Thinking this was all pretty unfair, considering what he had in mind to do on his Friday nights, and believing that all of mankind faced a similar divide in their personalities that could be overcome via the auspices of Science, he set about trying to conquer this problem. After succeeding, he found out that his evil side, Mr. Hyde (why he's called "Mr. Hyde", I don't know) actually had much darker impulses -- completely unfettered by conscience -- than Jekyll ever had during his most shameful hours. So, oops, I guess. But Jekyll actually doesn't have much of a problem with this, because Jekyll is innocent. It's Hyde that did those unspeakable things. Even though, of course, Jekyll chooses to drink the potion, knowing what might happen, and even though he shares the sensory pleasures and memories of Hyde. Not only that, but part of the way Jekyll deals with Hyde's sins is to do his best, as Jekyll, to correct them afterwards. All of which ultimately seems like a highly convoluted and impractical way of going about having a conscience. Put a little more thought behind this, Dr. Jekyll, and this whole nightmare could have been avoided.

Frankenstein suffers from similar problems of logic and reasoning, and I don't care. Both are still fascinating, occasionally brilliant (moreso Frankenstein, but Stevenson has his moments as well) and highly entertaining (moreso Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde). It's famous for a reason, you know.

* * * *

Sorry for the brevity on this one, but I'm not sure there's much that I can say about this book that hasn't been said a million times before.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

The Kind of Face You SLASH!!: Day 24 - London's Going Off

London Revenant, by Conrad Williams (who I briefly wrote about here), begins with It. This person known as It is also known, or will come to be known, as the Pusher, so named by the media because he sneaks through London's tube stations, pushing people in front of oncoming trains. Many of It's victims die, but not all of them do. One, we learn late in the novel, lost an arm in the attack, but after her recovery she moved out of London and became a shepherd in the Hebrides. After relating this information, on of the novel's characters says that he believes that she's never been happier.

The above is a hint at one of this novels themes, which is that modern life, especially modern urban life, often turns people into dead-eyed sheep, and only extreme action can snap a person out of that state. So that's one of the themes. One of many. Here are some more: the question of identity; love; loss; history, and how it haunts the present; and the idea of smaller, secret hidden societies flourishing inside large cities. I think there are others in there that I'm forgetting. London Revenant is 227 pages long, so maybe you won't be surprised if I tell you that many, if not most, of those themes are given short shrift.

Basically, the story is this: Adam Buckley is a man in his early thirties, living in London after moving from a rural area in northern England. He has two jobs, one working at a flower stand during the day, the other as a bartender at night. His girlfriend, Laura, has recently broken up with him, though he's still deeply in love with her. And he's narcoleptic. These sudden attacks of unwanted sleep are becoming more frequent an disorienting as the novel begins.

Adam has a small circle of friends, like Greg, who's a hard-drinking writer who has a sitcom pilot in the works at the BBC. Adam also hangs out with Meddie, a girl with whom he works at the bar, and her friends Iain and Yoyo. Of those three, Yoyo is the only one that Adam actually likes, but his current rut sweeps him along with them every few nights.

Two things threaten to jump-start Adam and bounce him free of his routine existence, with which he has grown extremely disenchanted. One of those is a woman named Nuala, who moves into his building. She's a sort of hippy, who lives life as she wants to live it, you see, and Adam is struck by this. They develop a loose physical relationship, and she drops in and out of the novel at largely random intervals. The other thing is Adam's increasing awareness of his own double life. Because on one hand, yes, he's Adam Buckley, liver of the life I've described above, but on the other hand he's Monck, citizen and soldier of an underground world which makes its home in an around London's tube stations. In London (or "Topside", as this other society refers to our world), Adam exists as a sort of unwitting double agent, his ultimate goal being to find and kill Blore. Blore is It, or the Pusher, whose violent activities -- the scope of which have been escalating, to include train derailments -- threatens to exposer this underworld to Topside's prying eyes.

Adam passes into his life as Monck during what he takes to be attacks of narcolepsy. But this other life is real, a fact he eventually accepts, even though not everything he thinks he experiences during these attacks turns out that have actually happened, nor do they all involve his life as Monck. So, all that stuff about Monck and Odessa and their quest for the Face, that's all real. That time Adam is out with Meddie and sees the tree with all the dead babies in the branches...that probably didn't happen.

This novel is, occasionally, hallucinatory. But only occasionally. I'm not clear why Adam's narcolepsy, if that is what he's suffering from, sometimes reveals hidden truths, and sometimes exposes him to nightmare imagery that not only is all in his head, but is sometimes maybe in the head of whoever he's with at the moment. Or why both characters seem to forget about this imagery shortly after witnessing it.

This novel, as I said, is 227 pages long. It took me roughly two weeks to read. Part of that is my fault, I'll admit, but damn it, this book is slow. If I had to read one more passage like this...

I stepped off at St. Paul's and took the escalators up to the exit. Outside, I felt the same lurching sense of diminishment I felt whenever I exited the Tube. Down there was all about suffocation, enclosure; the compression of air, time and space. Then suddenly you found yourself thrown into the space of the big city, with the sky jetting off in every direction above you. I also felt slightly sick. I don't like it. I don't like it. The crush. The people breathing on you. The weight on the tunnels. One day it will all pile in. It will all collapse. I can see it.

...I might have become narcoleptic myself. Now, that writing isn't bad, but the style is a mix of the ordinary and the high-toned, and that's a mix that makes my eyes glaze over. I'd almost prefer flat-out bad writing, because often, at least in the horror genre, bad writers have a habit of getting to the point. My eyes spent a lot of time skittering over passages like that, returnin to them, to try to read them correctly, only to skitter past again. These passages aren't difficult, but they don't matter, either. They offer no information that the reader doesn't already have, and they also don't offer any reading pleasure in and of themselves. On the evidence of London Revenant, Conrad Williams, I'm afraid to say, has absolutely no sense of pacing. The paragraph I quoted above is repeated in some form or another over and over again, throughout the book, and it drove me crazy.

Another thing Williams has trouble with is prioritizing his themes. I listed all those themes above, and reading them, and now having read a plot synopsis, you might think that the ones about identity, and history haunting the present, and hidden cities would dominate. The answer is yes to "identity" and a "sort of" to hidden cities, but "history" gets shafted in favor of "love", because Williams spends a lot of time on Adam's lingering passion for Laura. But I simply didn't care about that. I couldn't have cared less about that, to be honest. At the end of the book, why do I know more about Laura -- who does appear in the book, but her time "on-stage" comes out, I would guess, to fewer than ten pages -- than I do about the underground society? I didn't know anything about that place. I didn't know how it worked, and I didn't know who any of the people were (save, eventually, Blore). Oh, Williams gives names to a lot of those people, but he doesn't let us learn anything about them.

In place of learning about that society, much of the time Williams spends on the idea of hidden cities-within-cities revolves around a bizarre sublot in which Meddie, Iain and Yoyo, following the death of a mutual friend, decide to explore London to the point where they find locations above ground which cannot be located on any map. These locations include a coffee shop. Adam tags along for some of these excursions, and asks for details from Iain or Yoyo about many others. Where did this come from? Where did it end up? I don't know. Does it tie into the underground world? I don't know. Williams simply has fundamental weaknesses when it comes to telling a story.

I really wish this review weren't so negative. I wanted so badly to like this book, because Williams clearly has ambition, and wants to write genre fiction that breaks from the known formulas. And he has done that, and I give him credit for it. But I felt no thrill while reading London Revenant, and spent much of my time spent with it wading through waters that Williams had muddied himself, with no purpose that I could discern. The only thing I'm confident about, in regards the novel's contents, is this: when it comes to modern city life, Conrad Williams is actually kind of ambivelant.

Friday, October 24, 2008

The Kind of Face You SLASH!!: Day 23 - It is Beyond Even the Forgiveness of God

When I started this project, there were two writers that I knew I had to find time to write about, because neither of them is very well known -- even, I suspect these days, among horror fans -- and both write what I consider to be the finest horror fiction since, oh, I don't know...let's go all the way back to Poe. One of those writers is Thomas Ligotti, who I've already written about. The other is Robert Aickman.

Aickman was an Englishman who published his "strange stories" from the late 50s through the very early 80s (he died in 1981). His bizarre, witty, erudite and completely original fiction has influenced writers such as Ramsey Campbell, but, as Peter Straub says in his introduction to the "best of Aickman" collection, The Wine-Dark Sea, which Straub put together in 1988:

His originality, conscious and instinctive at once, was so entire that although he has provided us with a virtual model of what the "strange story" should be, if anyone tried to write to its specifications, the result would be nothing more than imitative.

You sure got that right, Peter Straub. I've never read any writer of any kind quite like Robert Aickman. I'm going to dive right into a discussion of the first of two Aickman stories (which I picked, by the way, not from The Wine-Dark Sea, but from another collection called Painted Devils)I read for this post, and explain the above along the way.

The first story is called "My Poor Friend", and it's about a kind of grassroots movement to bring localized, water-powered electricity to London. You heard me. Our narrator, we learn in bits and pieces throughout the story, possesses the almost satirically English name of Jocelyn Grover-Stacey. Grover-Stacey, as our story begins, has been bouncing from one job to another, dissatisfied with the progress each employer had been making with bringing water-generated electricity to England. He decides to hitch his wagon to man named Wycliff Bessemer, who seems to have the same genuinie desire for this outcome as he does, and has put together a "Society" to achieve it.

In his position as Bessemer's administrative secretary, Grover-Stacey gives presentations around the city, trying to drum up support. At a party where he's giving one of these speeches, he meets a man named Walter Enright. Enright is a member of Parliament, and Grover-Stacey strikes up a personal and professional relationship with him. Grover-Stacey believes that Enright is the man -- and Enright ensures him that he is correct in this -- to push their cause through Parliament. Enright seems to be a down-to-earth and honest man, with a comfortable air of cynicism about him. And, by the way, he smokes very strange cigarettes:

From his tight waistcoat, he produced a small, cylindrical, gold lighter from wich a tiny green flame erupted upon silent pressure at the base. When he put the cigarette in his mouth, it was as if it had been put between the lips of a wooden figure. Moreover, the cigarette, glowing more yellow than red, apparently gave off no smoke. It was, no doubt, a parliamentary cigarette. Enright's blue eyes seemed to become more limpid as he smoked it.

Enright informs Grover-Stacey that the cigarettes are a special blend, and not everyone likes them. Grover-Stacey doesn't smoke, so he never has to worry about that.

After their initial meeting, Enright invites Grover-Stacey to his home to discuss business. While there, Enright feels it's important to inform him that there are some potential drawbacks to their partnership -- not for Enright, but for Grover-Stacey. These have to do with certain private scandals. For one, Enright's wife has recently left him, though, he claims, not for good. There's also the matter of their two children. Enright says...:

"One was bad enough, but two! It was enough to drive any woman clean our of her mind, let alone being married to me as well. Look at that."

Here, Enright picks up a wooden toy train, covered with teethmarks, and shows it to Grover-Stacey.

"Teeth," said Enright, dropping the toy on the floor. "Just teeth."

It was, as you can see, difficult to think of anything to say.

"You mean there's something unusual about the children?"

"They're not human at all. They ought not to live. But my wife naturally doesn't see it like that."

The two men's partnership remains firm, however, and Grover-Stacey becomes more involved with Parliamentary politics in his drive to push the cause forward.

So. There's your set-up, for lack of a better term. On one hand, you have a story about the British Parliament, its beauracracy and odd personalities, and on the other hand you have this bizarre other story, used almost as shading for most of the length of "My Poor Friend", about a strange man and his strange family problems.

It's very typical to finish an Aickman story and not really have any idea of what has just happened. This is deliberate, and not uncommon among certain kinds of "weird" artists. David Lynch, of course, is known for this. The point in his films -- the ones that work this way at least -- is to disorient the viewer and disturb them with sounds and images that are unnerving in ways you can't quite pinpoint, and to do so at a rate that can almost be assaultive. With Lynch, you're off-balance almost from the beginning.

But in "My Poor Friend", the strangeness is almost buried as you read about Grover-Stacey's adventures through, and views of, Parliamentary politics. And I would argue that this way of presenting the bizarre is far more unsettling to the audience than Lynch's way (and I say that as a fan of Lynch). Because what in the hell is going on here?? What are these children?? Every so often, this element of the story will make its presence known, and then withdraw again. And you never know what in the world any of it means.

Are you supposed to be clueless? In Dark Forces, a massive and indespinsable horror anthology from 198o, editor Kirby McCauley says this in his introduction to Aickman's story "Mark Ingestre: The Customer's Tale":

Aickman rarely explains the the mysterious happening in his stories, but rather haunts his reader by a skillful blending of the supernatural with odd aspects of the modern world or allegory.

And elsewhere I've read Aickman reffered to as a symbolist. I've even seen him refer to himself that way. So in "My Poor Friend", is the supernatural a symbol for something else? An allegory? Does the juxtaposition of the bizarre with British Parliament mean something specific? Aickman comments wryly on Parliament and general politics throughout the story, so I'm not sure what point beyond those cynical observations he would want to make through allegory.

But maybe I'm not a very close reader. Frankly, that's a concern I've had about myself for years. Still, if I knew that there was some direct allegorical connection that Aickman was making between the seemingly disparate strands of "My Poor Friend", would the story stick with me the same way? Would I still turn it over and over in my head, as I do now, if someone "explained" it to me? Or, when opening up Painted Devils to read another story, would my eye fall on the title "My Poor Friend" and make me think, "Oh, that's the story where the supernatural represents the following..."

I'm uncomfortable quoting this book, because I didn't like it, but in James Hynes's novel The Lecturer's Tale, a character describes literature this way:

A literary work is any work of imaginitive writing – prose, poetry, or drama – that is inherently more interesting – rich, complex, mysterious – than anything that could be said about it.

Well, exactly. For me, that is why Aickman works, and that is why "My Poor Friend" will stay with me. If anybody out there wants to explain to me what the story means, please, keep it to yourself.

The other story I read by Aickman is called "The Waiting Room", and, as my dad would say, it feels like he wrote in on his lunch break. For one thing, it's about a third as long as most of his fiction -- the average length of an Aickman story is about thirty pages; "The Waiting Room" is eleven. More importantly, Aickman throws everything I've just been writing about out the window by explaining everything. And the explanation is a rather pedestrian one, at that. The story -- which is about a man named Pendlebury who misses his train home and has to sleep in a railroad office adjoining the station's deserted waiting room -- is fine, but it doesn't have the thrill of the bizarre that most of his fiction has. It would be a fine ghost story to tell around a campfire, nothing more.

Wow, way to fizzle out at the end there! I should have reversed the order of this discussion. Oh well. I would like to point out to anyone who may have been convinced by this post to seek out books by Aickman that most of his work is out of print, and used copies are very expensive. However, the three books that I have -- The Wine-Dark Sea, Painted Devils, and Cold Hand in Mine -- are all relatively easy to come by on-line and in used bookstores, and they're all usually reasonably priced. And you should read him.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Kind of Face You SLASH!!: Day 22 - Is Death Not Wonderful Here?

Oh, what a shitty day. Now, now, don't panic, I'm fine. Or fine enough, at least. The only way my day (and tomorrow, if I'm being honest) will affect us at the moment is how my day relates to my posting-energy levels. And today has really done a number on those levels. The bad news is that, even though I finished reading enough substantial, interesting fiction for a full-length post, I'm not going to. That will come tomorrow. Or the next day. The good news, though, is that I own a book called 100 Hair-Raising Little Horror Stories, which is a 500-page anthology filled with horror stories no longer than about eight pages. I've read three of those, so that I could put up this half-assed post.

First up is Steve Rasnic Tem's "The Giveaway". This one's about four pages, and deals with the stories children make up to threaten each other with, and what it might be like if those threats turned out to be true, and/or how those threats work on the children who receive them. This is a sad little story that is unfortunately marred, in my view, by clanging dialogue. I've read a little Tem before (and more on him next week, by the way), and I'm very intrigued by his work. This one just jars the ear.

Next is "He Kilt It With a Stick", by William F. Nolan. It deals with a man who has spent his life keeping one part of his life hidden from everyone he knows, and that is his passion for killing cats. What is it with horror writers and cat-murder? I can't tell if these writes particularly hate cats -- they always describe the animals as cold, cruel, and dishonest -- or they particularly love cats, and want to purge their anger against those who would hurt them. After all, the bad qualities being attributed to cats always comes from the point of view of their attackers. Anyway. The cat-murderer also has a severe heart condition. God only knows if that'll come into play.

It's not a bad story, really. I just feel like I've already read it a few times this month. And several more times in all the years previous.

Lastly, we have Chet Williamson's "The Assembly of the Dead". It's a bit of a stretch to call this one a "horror" story, but if you cast your net wide enough to include the idea of "existential dread" in your definition of the genre, then it fits nicely. And it's a terrific story. Really. It's about an American Congressman who has traveled to a corrupt and unnamed country in order to recover the body of one of his constituents. That's pretty much it, as far as plot. As I said, it's a wonderful story. It reminded me a little of Tobias Wolff. I know, but shut up, because it did. If you can get your hands on this one, do so. Williamson's story really caught me of guard -- it's both chilling and moving.

That's it for now. More tomorrow.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The Kind of Face You SLASH!!: Day 21 - Whatever Good it Does Anybody

I'd been circling around the idea of reading Neil Gaiman for this project for about the last week or so. If I'd gone so far as to draw up a list of "pros" and "cons", on the pro side would have been the fact that I have enjoyed every short story by Gaiman that I've read. Both of them. On the con side is the fact that I was very disappointed in his novel American Gods -- but, since I didn't plan on reading one of his novels, that one didn't really count. Among the more relevant cons is the fact that Gaiman is not primarily a horror writer. He's dabbled in it, and much of his work deals with dark subject matter, but how many stories has he written that could be unquestionably categorized in the way I needed them to be?

I honestly didn't know, but fortunately I own both of his short story collections -- Smoke and Mirrors and Fragile Things -- and both books feature long introductions by Gaiman in which he gives a brief description of how he came to write each story (incidentally, I love these kinds of introductions, which used to be pretty common among genre writers back in the 1960s and 70s, but the practice seems to have died out. It's nice to see Gaiman resucitating it). This was very handy for me as I scanned these introductions, looking for important code words that might lead me in the right direction. You know, words like "horror". I didn't get quite that lucky, but I did find a story that Gaiman said was inspired by the work of horror author Robert Aickman, and another that he said was based on a nightmare he'd once had. Feeling confident that the research portion of my day was over, I chose those two (which can both be found in Fragile Things).

I chose well.

The first story, the one inspired by Aickman (more on him, by the way, tomorrow...I hope), is called "Closing Time". In his introduction, Gaiman said that not only did it satisfy his interest in writing a "weird story" -- which is what the kind of stories written by the likes of Aickman and Lovecraft used to be called -- it also turned out to be a "club" story, another genre that interested him. I'm taking "club story" here to mean a story that takes place almost entirely in an English club, which I've gathered is a sort of private bar. If that's the only requirement for a story to belong to the "club" genre, then, yes, Gaiman has now written one.

The club in this case is called the Diogenes, and it's run by a flighty woman named Nora. It's not the most popular club in England, but it suits our narrator, who is describing one night in particular, when there were only four members present at the Diogenes. Along with the narrator, there is a man named Martyn, a man named Paul, and an unnamed man who is a stranger to the other three. Martyn, Paul and our narrator have been telling ghost stories. All of their stories, which each man is dredging up from his childhood, suffer from logical inconsistencies that begin to make the evening falter, until someone new speaks up to tell his own story.

When this person was a child, he went to a particular private school for one year. He used to walk through a section of woods to get home, and one day he ran into three older boys, who were busily trying to assemble the scattered pages of an old nudie magazine. After completing this task, and having been joined by the storyteller, the older boys say they want to go to the Swallows. The Swallows is an abandoned estate which features a nevertheless curiously well-manicured lawn. The storyteller agrees to join them, but feels uneasy about the place. When they get there, after exploring a little while, they come across a playhouse stuck in a clearing in the woods surround the estate. They approach the door, and find...

Hanging from the door was a metal knocker. It was painted crimson and had been cast in the shape of some kind of imp, some kind of grinningn pixie or demon, cross-legged, hanging by its hands from a hinge. Let me can I describe this best? It wasn't a good thing. The expression on its face, for starters. I found myself wondering what kind of a person would hang something like that on a playhouse door.

The storyteller wants to go home, but the older boys bully him into grabbing the metal knocker and rapping on the door. He does this, and thinks he feels it move. Then the dares begin again, this time involving someone going inside.

This story is unlike most Robert Aickman stories I've read in that it does have an explanation...of sorts. Doesn't it? The ending, as I sit here thinking about it, is very strange. As I was writing the above, a question occurred to me about a plot point which I hadn't even considered before. And, in a sense, it changes everything. Or at least makes the whole thing more mysterious and unnerving. This extra mystery has nothing to do with the end of the story, but I think if you're paying attention that's when the mystery, the question, will occur to you. In other words, I thought I had this story pegged, and I just now realized I didn't really grasp it at all. That realization has made me appreciate "Closing Time" all the more, even though it still eludes my grasp.

The next story, the one based on one of Gaiman's nightmares, is called "Feeders and Eaters", and it begins this way:

This is a true story, pretty much. As far as that goes, and whatever good it does anybody.

I don't know what it is about that beginning that I find so appealing, but when I read it I settled in feeling very good about the prospects of this one. The story involves our nameless narrator who, at the time in which the story he's relating took place, was pretty down on his luck. He wasn't exactly homeless, but his evenings regularly consisted of walking through cold in order to get to a warm coffee shop, where he'd spend a little money on toast and coffee so the management wouldn't kick him out.

On one of these nights, and one of these coffee houses, he runs into an old friend named Eddie Barrow. Barrow used to be a cop, and when our narrator knew him, he was a big, strapping, handsome man. Now...

The man sitting at the Formica table wasn't good-looking. His eyes were dull and rimmed with red, and they stared down at the tabletop without hope. His skin was gray. He was too thin, obscenely thin. I could see his scalp through his filthy hair.

Our narrator naturally asks Barrow what happened, and Barrow tells him (another story, you'll notice, that involves the narrator receiving the "horror" second hand. This was common with M. R. James, Lovecraft and others, and it's a narrative style Gaiman handles with considerable ease).

Once, not long ago, Barrow lived in a boarding house. He shared the attic -- which had been divided into two rooms -- with an old woman named Miss Corvier. Barrow ate his meals with the other boarders, but Miss Corvier didn't. She was withdrawn, but Barrow still struck up a relationship with her. She left him presents sometimes, such as flowers, and shaggy inkcap mushrooms. At one point, the presents stop, and Barrow becomes concerned. He goes to her room and finds the old woman laid out in her bed, nude but covered up, desperately hungry. She tells him that she wants some meat. Barrow says he'll be happy to go get her some, and he goes to the corner store and buys her some ground chuck. He brings it back to her, expecting her to prepare it in her room. But...

"...she starts to tear off the plastic wrap, there in the bed. There's a puddle of brown blood under the plastic tray, and it drips onto her sheet, but she doesn't notice. Makes me shiver.

"I'm going out the door, and I can already hear her starting to eat with her fingers, cramming the raw mince into her mouth. And she hadn't go out of bed."

The good news is, the next day she's feeling much better. The bad news is, that night her cat goes missing. If you think you know where it went, you're kinda-sorta wrong.

Here's the thing about "Feeders and Eaters" -- and I have to be careful here, in case I oversell it: it is very good. It's suitably creepy, and grimy. It's well-written, and surprising. But the last paragraph, I think, makes the story truly great. I mean, great, probably the best short story I've read all month (it's only real competition is Thomas Ligotti's "Gas Station Carnivals"). This paragraph does not include a big twist (the twist -- if that's what the story's climax is -- has already occurred by this point); it's not even directly related to the story, to the narrative. It's...I don't know what it is. I'd like to know at what point it occurred to Gaiman to include it. The story, as I've said, is over, and then we get three or four sentences of a dark, twisted, touching little epilogue that expands what has come before it without being directly related to it. Did Gaiman plan it that way, or did some inspiration overwhelm his sense of narrative precision towards the end? I don't know, but whatever happened, I'm glad it did.

It's this kind of imagination, the kind that can effect a reader in ways both strong and enigmatic, that separates horror writers who strive to keep the genre fresh and alive and mysterious, and those who choose to coast. Gaiman doesn't coast.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Kind of Face You SLASH!!: Day 20 - Each Cat Was the Original Cat

For today's post, I decided to grab, more or less at random, one of the probably dozens of horror anthologies I have in my library. From the contents, I chose two stories by writers about whom I knew nothing. And let the chips fall where they may.

The anthology is called Cutting Edge, edited by respected horror writer Dennis Etchison. That title seems to be more of an obvious pun than any statement that contained within these pages is horror's "New Guard", because judging by Etchison's introduction (which, okay, I only skimmed) the impetus behind putting the book together was merely to celebrate writers who, like Etchison, have stuck to their guns and continued to write honestly in the genre, through good times and bad. And most of the contributors, Etchison points out, write primarily in the short story form, which I'm sure I don't need to tell you is a tough way to make a living.

First up is a story called ""Muzak for Torso Murders", by Marc Laidlaw. It's about a guy named Donny. He's jobless, 35 years old, and still lives with his mother. He hates oatmeal, which his mother serves with every meal, loves The Texas Chainsaw Massacre -- the video cassette of which he hides from his mother by re-labeling it The Care Bears in the Land Without Feeling -- and really hates Muzak, that pseudo-music bastardization of (sometimes) good songs that you hear in grocery stores, and which doesn't sound like it's being played on any instrument you've ever heard before, or is even being played by human beings.

Donny is also a serial killer, who dismembers his victims and seals their bodies in concrete, inside large kitchen and bathroom fixtures from his dad's old business, which he then loads into his truck and dumps somewhere, to be discovered later by innocent bystanders. Donny is driven to do this by, yes, Muzak. I know. Pretty weak, Marc Laidlaw. But the story actually works, for the most part. At one point, Donny thinks about filling out a job application, and Laidlaw does a nice job of showing how difficult it is for someone like him to simply live in the normal world. There are essay questions on the application, and each presents a potential workplace dilemma, and the applicant, Donny, has to supply an answer describing his solution:

"What would you do in this situation? Your superior comes into your office complaining that you scheduled her for two crucial meetings at the same time."

His neck itched with sweat; the office air-conditioning chilled him. He felt as if he had swallowed a mouthful of monosodium glutamate: throbbing spine, burning cheeks, torpid muscles.

He scrawled: "Apologize."

The story -- which primarily takes place around dinner time, at home with Donny and his mother -- begins to get quite strange, and threatens to go off the rails, when his mother begins watching his secret tape. Is it The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, or is it, actually, a Care Bears movie. This was fine, until we're given the answer, and the ending shoots for a kind of Robert Bloch-ian, EC comics-esque irony, but misses.

Next is "The Man With the Hoe", by George Clayton Johnson. Johnson's name rang a bell, and according the contributor blurb, he was a prolific author of Twilight Zone scripts. The title of this story comes from a poem by Edward Markham (which was in turn inspired by a painting by Jean-Francois Millet), which you can read here. The poem is known well by our main character, and stanzas are quoted throughout the story. Put broadly, the poem wonders how the future will deal with hard-working peasants when they finally tire of their oppressive existence and rise up. This strikes a chord with our man, because, we learn, he's recently lost his job, and he and his wife are facing financial disaster.

In the story, he can't sleep, and is spending his night watching the neighborhood cats cavort outside his window, and thinking strange thoughts about Africans suffering under Apartheid, as well as the place in the world of all living things:

Somewhere he had read that Man was the product of almost a hundred generations of accumulated knowledge, while each cat was the original Cat from the primeval wilderness, unaltered by time.

He hates cats, because he finds them insolent and cruel. They are free, but he is not. He tries to satisfy his rage by shooting at the cats with his slingshot; when one sneaks into his home he kills it with a flashlight. And he remembers that he gave his rifle to his cousin, as collateral for a financial loan. He wishes he had the rifle back, and decides to go get it.

Johnson's background as a writer for The Twilight Zone would lead you (okay, me) to expect a different ending than we get. As I've coincidentally been discussing with the good folks over at Cinema Styles, the two major hallmarks of that show were social commentary and twist endings; in this story, the commentary is there, but not the twist. That's actually fine, because I thought I had the ending pegged, but I was wrong. So, that'll teach me. It's hard to know quite how to take the commentary, though, because if read a certain way, the story could be almost implicity condoning the ending, though I highly doubt that's what Johnson had in mind. He made the character a racist, too, which he may have done, at least in part, to keep people from misunderstanding his intent.

The cat stuff doesn't really work. His "battle" with the cat he eventually kills is too choreographed -- it feels like something that was written, rather than something that happened, if you get my meaning. But that's a fairly mild complaint. This is a good, thoughtful little story that doesn't rely on easy tricks or shock tactics to unnerve you. Johnson simply gets inside the head of a man who is losing his grip, and stays there until the unfortunately logical outcome.

* * * *
PS - That last picture is of George Clayton Johnson. I think he might be a loon.

Monday, October 20, 2008

The Kind of Face You SLASH!!: Day 19 - Watch What You're Doing

Bookstores should really segregate their genres. I know that, as a fan and defender of genre fiction, I should be pushing for full integration, so that perhaps one day horror and crime fiction will be as respected as the work Candace Bushnell and Nicholas Evans. But most bookstores separate the likes of Mary Shelley from the shelves that house those literary titans, and I'm glad, because otherwise I may never have heard of Conrad Williams.

Who is Conrad Williams, you ask? I have no idea, really. But one day I was browsing through the horror section of my local Borders, looking for something, anything, that seemed new and interesting. I was striking out, but then, when I got towards the end of the section, I found a book called The Unblemished, written by Conrad Williams. According to the pages of blurbs inside, writers I respected, like Peter Straub, were simply nuts for the guy. One critic used the word "tragic" to describe one of Williams's novels. "Tragic" is a word that is rarely used these days to describe horror, and I was intrigued, so I bought the book.

I haven't read it yet, though, so don't get your hopes up. I am reading another Williams novel right now, however, one called London Revenant, but because that's moving more slowly than I'd like, and because I'm finding it harder and harder to find stuff to read for this project, and I'm kinda freaking out about it, and really, guys, I'm not sure this was such a good idea, writing about horror every goddamn day for a whole month, I mean, if I just stopped, and said "October's over, losers!" what, really, could you do to me? Nothing. In this matter, I am untouchable. In this, you are at my mercy. For you see, today I have...

Wait, what was I talking about? Oh, right. So, as a kind of interim post, until I've finished reading London Revenant, I'd like to talk about two stories from Williams's story collection, which is called Use Once, Then Destroy.

The first is called "The Owl". As often as not, I choose the stories I read for this project based on the title, and for some reason the word "owl" strikes me as very evocative and fitting for a horror story. Curious to know how much this story actually had to do with real, physical owls, I began reading the story, which is about an English couple named Ian and Molly. They haven't been married all that long, but they're expecting a child, and have just moved to a country house in rural France. Right at the beginning of the story, they do indeed find a dead owl in their barn. Owls are plentiful around here, they are told, as are pretty wicked storms. This latter detail pleases Ian, who finds storms fascinating and thrilling. Very little else seems to please him, however. He's a bit of a downer, and he and Molly argue frequently. As the story goes on, they do so with increasing bitterness. Ian tends to be at fault, coming off as a selfish killjoy, when his only real problem seems to be that he speaks without thinking. This is getting a bit old, though, and even he knows it:

He found her sitting outside a cafe on the Cours Reverseaux. She sipping a latte and flicking through a magazine at speed. Not reading anything, hardly looking at the pictures, just needing something to do with her fingers to deal with her anger. Her left foot bounced against her right. He watched it. He watched the sun flingtin on the silver ring that encircled her little toe, a present he had given her on their honeymoon in Bali.

"I'm sorry," he said, but he had uttered the words too often for it to have any meaning.

And as their arguments become more heated, and the silence following them more prolonged, little oddities enter their life to make everything seem more sinister, such as the weird cut-outs of badly wounded people lining the roads (these are fantomes, Molly explains, and they warn of dangerous roads). Or the very alarming, owlish figure seen by Ian in the sky during a massive storm. This is another story that invites the reader to decide for themselves if the supernatural elements are real or not. In this case, I don't think they are, because those elements are so random and seemingly unrelated that I think something else is going on here.

Williams has a tendency to overseason his prose, as far as I'm concerned, and he overloads his sentences when he should think about occasionally unbuderning them. But I'd rather that than the alternative, someone whose style is of the "her fangs glistened in the moonlight" variety. This is a good story that builds a nice sense of dread, and the ending is strong: muted in its detail and horrific in its implications.

The second story, "The Night Before", is...not a horror story. There's a ghost in it, but it's really more of a melancholy fantasy-drama, about a guy having a hard time dealing with the fact that the woman he loves is marrying another man. And it's fine, I suppose, but it's also very short, and therefore Williams doesn't allow the reader much time to get invested in anything. Plus, the ghost seems a little out of place. Maybe I'm overthinking it.

But the point is, it's not a horror story, and I'm going to use that fact as an excuse to cut this post short. Tomorrow, maybe I'll read some Alice Munro stories, then act surprised when I discover they're not about vampires. And then I can say, "Well, sorry, they're not horror stories. What do you want me to do? I can't write about them!"

Sunday, October 19, 2008

The Kind of Face You SLASH!!: Day 18 - What Was in the Box?

Here's how Jack Ketchum begins the introduction to his short story collection Peaceable Kingdom:

I don't know why you put up with me.

It's a matter of consistency. Or in my case, inconsistency.

As a writer I'm all over the place.

From there, he goes on to list a few of his books, and their basic premises, all the while referring to "Ketchum titles" or "Ketchum books". He seems to think his readers are really thrown by the crazy variety of his books, as well as their occasionally extreme nature. In short, it's very self-serving (which any such introduction will be, almost by definition), and self-aggrandizing. It's a very obnoxious attitude, particularly since Ketchum -- a highly regarded writer by, from what I can tell, younger horror fans who yearn for a full-blown return to "splatterpunk" -- has yet to prove to me that he comes close to deserving the status in the genre he currently enjoys.

He's not a bad writer; he's just not a good one, either. He's also not really a horror writer, at least as I define it. He's only written one novel that deals with the supernatural (She Wakes, which I haven't read); much of his work -- the work on which his reputation rests -- deals with the extreme end of human cruelty, and is often on the verge of being crime fiction.

The most potent book of his I've read is The Girl Next Door. Like a lot of his work, the book is based on a true story, in this case that of Sylvia Likens, a 16 year-old girl who was tortured and murdered by other children in her neighborhood, under the encouraging tutelage of Gertrude Baniszewski, a mother of some of the children involved. That true story really, truly is unspeakably horrific. Ketchum's novel was, as a said, effective, and gave me one bitch of a nightmare. But it also reeked strongly of self-righteous exploitation. At the same time, it's the only book by Ketchum that had any kind of lasting impact on me, and maybe I'm accusing Ketchum of exploitation because I just don't like having done to me what that book did. Maybe his heart was in the right place, I don't know.

Moving on to today's selections from Peaceable Kingdom, I first chose a story called "The Box". It begins with a father riding the bus with his three young children, two girls and a boy. It's almost Christmas, and the four of them have been out ice-skating. Sitting near them on the bus is a man with a red box held tightly in his lap. Danny, the young boy, asks what's in the box. The man says that it's a present. Danny asks if he can see it, and the man agrees:

He opened the lid of the box on Danny's side, not all the way open but only about three inches -- enough for him to see but not the rest of us, excluding us three -- and I watched my son's face brighten at that, smiling as he looked first as Clarissa and Jenny as if to say nyah nyah and then looked down into the box.

The smile was slow to vanish. But it did vanish, fading into a kind of puzzlement...

Shortly thereafter, Danny stops eating. No breakfast, no lunch, no dinner, no candy, no snacks. He tells his parents he's simply not hungry. His parents become obviously concerned, and eventually take him to their doctor. Not soon enough, by my thinking, and the doctor is an "old-fashioned" doctor who believes the hospital should be a last resort. This bit of characterization is simply Ketchum's clumsy way of delaying the question of intravenous nourishment as long as he can.

Before going to the hospital that his parents should have taken him to far earlier, Danny is referred to a therapist. This is because nothing physical has been found wrong with him, and when told by his doctor that not eating leads to death, Danny replies "So?"

There are things about this story that aren't at all bad. It's generally well-written, and there's a strong, creepy drive to the narrative. But apart from trying to dodge modern medical science longer than is reasonable, Ketchum also fails to make this story's conclusion register. I have two theories regarding the conception and writing of this story -- it's possible that neither theory is correct, and that both are unfair, but here they are: 1) Ketchum had what he believed to be a strong idea for a story, and began writing before knowing where it would go. And he never did figure out where it would go, and decided to try and turn that emptiness into a virtue by pumping up the existential subtext. Or 2) Ketchum was more calculated than that. He knew that his usual brand of horror -- hyper-violent, even sadistic -- didn't win awards, so he would self-conciously produce a story that would, one that seemed to be about a lot, but wasn't really about much of anything. If I'm right about that, then he succeeded, because "The Box" won a Bram Stoker Award for Best Short Fiction.

"The Box" just seems phony to me. I don't believe that Ketchum meant a word of it. It's not that "The Box is a bad story; it's just that I don't trust it.

The next story is more typical of Ketchum. Called "Megan's Law", it deals with one man's reaction to the news that a sex offender has moved into his neighborhood. He's a widower, with a young daughter, and when he finds out that this man, Phillip Knott, did six years in prison for raping a young girl, he decides to act. Mostly told from the father's point of view, the story occasionally shifts to Knott, so that we can go back and forth between understanding why the father is going to do what he ends up doing, and wondering if men like Knott, repellent and evil as we may find them, shouldn't be given at least a chance to overcome their urges.

The story feels almost like it's meant as a kind of corrective to the brutal, morally black-and-white fiction of Andrew Vacchs (which deals heavily with violent retribution dealt against men like Knott). So it's meant as a challenge to the reader, it wants to ask the reader what they would do in the father's position. But is it really wise for the author to begin and end such a story with the words "What would you do?" I think Ketchum should publish Peacable Kingdom as a pop-up book, and when you turn to "Megan's Law" a big hammer should pop out and smack you on the head.

Okay, now I'm just being negative. These stories aren't that bad. And the truth of it is, with all my deep reservations about his fiction, I do find Ketchum to be compulsively readable. He's got something -- he at least has the ability to get under your skin. But he doesn't push himself to be a better writer, technically speaking, and he currently also seems content to play with the same subject matter he's been reworking for the last twenty years. If he keeps going this way, I will quickly find him less compelling, and since that compulsion is already of a particularly cheap and nasty kind, that distinterest could begin just about any day now.