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.

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