Wednesday, October 8, 2008

The Kind of Face You SLASH!!: Day 7 - That Eldritch Moment

Early in his breakout 1995 novel, Wonder Boys, Michael Chabon wrote the following about a fictional horror writer named August Van Zorn (real name Albert Vetch):

His real name was Albert Vetch, and his field, I believe, was Blake; I remember he kept a framed print of the Ancient of Days affixed to the faded flocked wallpaper in his room, above a stoop-shouldered wooden suit rack that once belonged to my father. Mr Vetch's wife had been living in a sanatorium up near Erie since the deaths of their teenaged sons in a backyard some years earlier...He wrote horror stories, hundreds of them, many of which were eventually published in such periodicals of the day as Weird Tales, Strange Stories, Black Tower, and the like...When his work was going well, he could be heard in every corner of the sleeping hotel, rocking and madly rocking while he subjected his heroes to the gruesome rewards of their passions for unnameable things.

I ended up liking the rest of Wonder Boys well enough, but I always wished that Chabon had written a book about Van Zorn, rather than Grady Tripp, because I can guarantee Chabon, and the rest of you, that his story is by far the more interesting one. Van Zorn, as described in the novel, was a pulp writer, and I've always been fascinated with that life: pounding out story after story after story for as little as a fraction of a penny per word, writing fiction as a nine-to-five job. It was a devotion for many of those old guys, as well.

Chabon may have subconciously come to the same conclusion, because his next novel, the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Klay, was about a pair of young comic book creators in the 1940s, through the 60s. I found that book to be vastly overrated, and to this day I don't think of it half as often as I do August Van Zorn.

At one time, Chabon claimed he was going to publish a collection of horror stories and claim they were by Van Zorn. He went so far as to put up a couple of websites about him, as well, and to set up a literary prize honoring new "weird fiction", written in the tradition of Lovecraft, and so forth. I think that prize has only been awarded once, however, and no book of Van Zorn stories ever appeared.

Still, in his 1999 collection of short stories, Werewolves in Their Youth, there is one story, called "In the Black Mill", credited to Van Zorn. In it, an unnamed narrator (they're almost always unnamed...why is that?), who works in the archeology department of a university in Boston, travels to Plunkettsburg, PA to gather evidence for his theory regarding the Miskahannock Indians, which, we learn, is at odds with his mentor's own beliefs about the extinct tribe. The main feature of this little town is its mill, which...

...altered the the humdrum aspect of Plunkettsburg sufficiently to make it remarkable, and also sinister. It stood off to the east of town, in a zone of weeds and rust-colored earth, a vast, black box, bristling with spiky chimneys, extending over some five acres or more, dwarfing everything around it.

Our narrator will eventually become obsessed with this mill, because he soon notices that as many as half of the men in town have been crippled -- missing arms, legs, ears, etc. -- by accidents which occurred during their employment there. What is this mill? What do they make? He hears explanations that are both vague and overladen with technical details, involving machines with names like "spline presses", "steam sorters", "Rawlings divagators" and "sprue extruders" (what is a sprue extruder for? he asks one man, to which the man replies "It's for extruding sprues"). An attempt to bluff his way into the mill is met with violence. An attempt to overcome his obsession with the mill and return to his archaeological work reveals that his work at the dig is being undone. There is a mysterious death.

What surprised me about this story wasn't that it was well-written. I expected that, despite my reservations about Chabon. What ultimately really surprised and pleased me was that the resolution to all this is very satisfyingly horrible. Chabon doesn't shy away from it, and, for the most part he looks the material straight on. I say "for the most part", because occasionally he does wink at the reader. The name of the ancient Indian tribe, "Miskahannock", is only a few letters away from "Miskatonic", Lovecraft's fictional university referred to in so many of his stories. And the "Yuggogheny Mountains" in Chabon's story is a clear reference to "Yog-Sothoth", one of Lovecraft's "Old Ones". I wish Chabon wouldn't do this -- why yank the reader out of the story like that? These references are clearly for people familiar with Lovecraft, and will be meaningless to those who aren't, but those of us who are want the same things from fiction as everyone else. Some horror fans may like to be explicitly reminded of the genre they're reading via nudges by the author, but I don't.

But Chabon also references Blake's "dark Satanic mills", which is not only obviously appropriate to the story itself, but also connects to August Van Zorn's side career as a Blake scholar. It shows that Chabon, at least this one time, was serious about this horror project. His original intent in creating Van Zorn may have been to separate his genre ambitions from his more "respectable" literary career, but at least he clearly put some thought and work into the facade. And maybe that facade is falling away, and we'll get those Van Zorn stories, attributed to whoever, one day. Chabon has been more open about his interest in the pulp writers, and genre fiction in general, in recent years: he's edited two anthologies of new genre fiction -- McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales and McSweeney's Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories -- and has recently released a collection of essays called Maps and Legends, which deals in large part with his love of this kind of stuff. And I remember reading an interview with Chabon in which he talked about being on an airplane and reading a Conan book by Robert E. Howard. He said he felt embarrassed at the idea that someone might take note of his reading material and silently judge him, but then he thought, "Why should I be embarrassed?" He shouldn't be, and I'm glad he realized it. Now start writing those horror stories you promised so long ago.


Anonymous said...

Some horror fans may like to be explicitly reminded of the genre they're reading via nudges by the author, but I don't.

Not very meta of you, is it? But was Chabon writing for horror fans or for generalists like me? But if he was, why the Lovecraft references? Self-amusement?

Ah, the mystery of it all ...

bill r. said...

I should have pointed out that this didn't really bother me very much. And I'm okay with "meta" (sometimes) if that's what the story is, but if the story is overall supposed to be taken straight, then this little winks are distracting. I'm probably supposed to be patting myself on the back for getting the jokes, but damnit, I just can't bring myself to do it.

I think Chabon was writing for everybody, and the references were both to amuse himself and people like me. I'm probably just being ornery.

Anonymous said...

I'm all about meta. When I get it, that is ...

bill r. said...

This month, an anthology of horror stories edited by Peter Straub, called Poe's Children, is coming out, and it contains a very good meta horror story by Thomas Ligotti called "Notes on the Writing of Horror: A Story". I'm guess the whole anthology is worth picking up, but if you like meta, and horror, you should look into it.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the tip ... I may look them up.

Unknown said...

And the "Yuggogheny Mountains" in Chabon's story is a clear reference to "Yog-Sothoth", one of Lovecraft's "Old Ones."

Chabon also uses "Yuggogheny" for a fictitious Pennsylvania county in his short story "The God of Dark Laughter".

There's a Youghiogheny River in western Pennsylvania. I read "Yuggogheny" as a combination of the real river name with "Yuggoth", the dark planet at the edge of the solar system in Lovecraft's "The Whisperer in Darkness".

"The God of Dark Laughter" also features a book written by Friedrich Von Junzt (author of "Die Unaussprechlichen Kulten" in several of Lovecraft's stories).