Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Kind of Face You SLASH!!! - Day 13: We Are Not Saved

T. E. D. Klein is a curious figure in modern horror fiction. Considered one of the main talents of the 1980s, Klein only published two books that entire decade: a collection of novellas called Dark Gods and a novel called The Ceremonies. His reputation lies almost entirely on those two books, as well as a scattered series of short stories and novellas published in the decades since, most of which were eventually collected in an already rare book, after just two years, called Reassuring Tales.

I read Dark Gods a while back, and while I occasionally struggled with Klein's strained dialogue, he was very clearly a unique talent -- I remember being especially taken with "Neidelman's God" and "Children of the Kingdom" -- particularly coming along when he did. Had Klein emerged ten or fifteen years earlier, he would not seem quite so unusual, but hitting the scene in the 1980s, in the middle of the horror boom that allowed for more cheap trash to be published in the genre than anyone could ever possibly want to read, Klein's work seems like a last gasp of classicism in the genre. As I've tried to show this month, other modern writers have followed the same path as Klein, but finding their work takes real effort and, sometimes, a great deal of cash. Klein, on the other hand, existed in an insane market where anything called horror was thought of as a potential moneymaker. That boom almost killed the genre, but also allowed writers like Klein to exist.

One of Klein's best known stories is called "The Events at Poroth Farm" (not collected until Reassuring Tales, it can be more easily, and cheaply, found in editor S. T. Joshi's anthology American Supernatural Tales). Klein would expand the themes of this story into his long novel The Ceremonies, which I haven't read, but I was told by a highly reliable source, before I sat down to read "Poroth Farm", that the two works can be read as completely separate stories. Having now read "The Events at Poroth Farm", I believe that, had I the time (I don't), I would probably dive right into The Ceremonies, to see what else Klein can do with this material. The story is just that good.

At fifty pages, "The Events at Poroth Farm" is surprisingly simple, at least as a narrative. It is told largely in the form of a journal kept by Jeremy, a scholar of Gothic literature and other types of classic horror fiction, who has rented the guest house on a farm run by Mennonite couple named Sarr and Deborah Poroth. Jeremy has chosen to stay in this secluded area because he has a great deal of reading to do in preparation for the class in Gothic literature he will be teaching. Many of the journal entries begin, or at some point make reference to, the fiction Jeremy is devouring: Robert W. Chambers's The King in Yellow, Melmoth the Wanderer, The Mysteries of Udolpho, Algernon Blackwood's "Ancient Sorceries", Arthur Machen's "The White People" (which Jeremy says is "the most persuasive horror tale ever written"), and so on. This aspect of the story has the effect of impressing the reader with Klein's knowledge of the field, shaming the reader for not having read more, and adding a subtle chill to the sections where nothing much is happening. You're never fooled into thinking this is some other kind of story.

The journal tracks Jeremy's daily activity and relationship with the Poroths. Though a little looser than others in their Mennonite sect (they own a television, for instance), the Poroths are devout, a fact which nevertheless doesn't bother Jeremy, who is himself a skeptic. The three of them eat dinner together every night, talk, occasionally play games. Deborah is very outgoing, while Sarr is more shy and reserved in a way that Jeremy -- who Sarr does like, partly because his name is derived from "Jeremiah" -- seems to consider more in keeping with traditional Mennonite behavior. One other mild barrier in their relationship is the Poroth's seven cats, whom the couple dote on, but which Jeremy is allergic to.

One night, while out walking, Jeremy finds one of the cats, Bwada, dead in the grass:

She couldn't have been dead for long, since I'd seen her only a few hours before, but she was already stiff. There was foam around her jaws. I couldn't tell what happened to her until I turned over with a stick and saw, on the side that had lain against the ground, a gaping red hole that opened like some new orifice. The skin around it was folded back in little triangular flaps, exposing the pink flesh beneath. I back off in disgust, but I could see even from several feet away that the hole had been made from the inside.

Jeremy holds off on telling the Poroths, because Bwada was a favorite of Sarr's, and he, Jeremy -- who is something of a coward -- doesn't relish the idea of causing them, and then having to deal with their, grief. Later that night, however, Bwada walks in the front door. Considerably the worse for wear, it would seem, because he moves very slowly and clumsily, and never blinks. As the days go by, Bwada will also become increasingly vicious, not just towards its fellow cats, but to Jeremy and the Poroth's, as well.

This is a story in which nothing is seen very clearly, and the sounds heard in the night could have been made by any number of things. Jeremy has even rationalized Bwada's status as a living, as opposed to dead, cat. Bwada's death, or not, and ensuing rabid behavior, is, on the surface really the most dramatic and directly strange thing about this story for most of its length. Otherwise, the unease is built with extraordinary subtlety, out of the mundane: the dinners that Deborah cooks, which Jeremy generally thinks are delicious, become slightly less appealing; Jeremy finds himself drawn more towards the Poroths' TV, watching their "godawful" shows with them, and feeling embarrassed for doing so; and the Poroths' religious practices begin to make Jeremy feel a bit more uncomfortable than they initially did.

Jeremy also becomes more suspicious of the Poroths, and while his paranoia at first would seem to be justified, the reader clues in than the Mennonite couple is as faultless, and as harassed by strange encounters and unhappy thoughts as Jeremy. The separation of these characters, and the fact that everything is seen through Jeremy's eyes, highlights the quiet, gradual build of the horror. We don't really know what they're going through, and sometimes sense that Jeremy alone is hearing strange sounds at night, and even behaving in ways he can't quite explain. At one point, after reading Machen's story "The White People", Jeremy is walking from his room to the Poroths' house for dinner. He finds himself stopped by a tree in their yard, which he inexplicably climbs.

[I] stood upright on the great heavy branch near the middle, making strange gestures and faces that no one could see. Can't see exactly what it was I did, or why. It was getting dark -- fireflies below me and a mist rising off the field. I must have looked like a madman's shadow as I made signs to the woods and the moon.

Later, Jeremy will blame all of their misfortunes, his and the Poroths', on that moment of odd ritual, but whose to say what the Poroths have been doing, despite themselves, when Jeremy is not around? They're all in this together, but none of them realize it until it's too late.

The Poroths aren't Mennonites by accident, though their specific sect, or even their specific beliefs, are not at issue here. What matters is how old their beliefs are, how far back their religions extends, and how little good it does anyone. Nor is Jeremy's atheism much help to anybody. In Klein's story, as in Lovecraft and Machen and Blackwood and so many others, there is an evil far more powerful and far more ancient than any line of religious thought, pro or con, can stand against. The Poroths believe in another world, and in good and evil, and the power of prayer. Jeremy believes none of that, fancies himself more rational -- though his rationality also seems linked to his refusal to act on anything. Sarr Poroth, at least, is willing to try to hunt down his beloved, rabid -- evil, Sarr would say -- cat, while Jeremy can only bring himself to go along for the ride and, occasionally, go through the motions at burials.

None of it's any good, however. The events at Poroth farm are the cause of something they can't see, communicate with, or understand. Jeremy and the Poroths are only human, and, as such, completely powerless. They never knew what hit them.


Sorry for the brevity tonight. Klein's story deserves better, but a cold, and cold medicine, has rendered me surly and tired. I'll be back on track tomorrow. Hopefully.


Will Errickson said...

I honestly found The Ceremonies to be a letdown. Dark Gods had some good stuff but I felt Klein's only novel just went on and on, meandering and overly vague. Still, I'd like to read "Poroth Farm" to see if the tale is better told as a short story.

bill r. said...

Will, that's the first negative thing I've ever heard about The Ceremonies.

Will Errickson said...

It's probably more to do with my reading tastes changing over the years; I seem to prefer short horror stories these days rather than full-length novels. Wish I'd read it back in the days when I was devouring horror novels like Halloween candy.

bill r. said...

Obviously, I prefer short horror fiction these days, too, but I'm still excited about reading The Ceremonies (one day). It's Klein's only novel to date, after all.

Greg said...

Will, that's the first negative thing I've ever heard about The Ceremonies.

The Ceremonies is rotten. There, now you've heard two negative things about it. I haven't actually read it, I just didn't want Will to feel isolated and alone.

L. Rob Hubb said...

At first reading, THE CEREMONIES was a very good book - that I just really didn't like very much. Having since read the novella, my impression is that Klein is much better in the novella form (POROTH FARM, CHILDREN OF THE KINGDOM and the DARK GODS collection) than he is at the Stephen King sized novel.

Although I may go back at some point and reread CEREMONIES, I can say that I much prefer POROTH FARM -- like most large horror novels, there's a lot of sturm and drang which ultimately peters out into a 'meh'.