Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Kind of Face You SLASH!!! - Day 21: How Wrong Can You Be?

Without intending to, I seem to have chosen "science fiction/horror hybrid fiction" as my subject today. What happened was, I was struggling to choose a story, or two, to read for today when I happened to take from my shelves volume one of The Best Horror Stories from the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Scanning the contents for something that I wanted to read, by an author I haven't already covered, I noticed, for the first time since I was aware of his name, that the first story in the book, "Window", was written by Bob Leman. The second story is by Tom Reamy -- I don't think I'd ever noticed that, either -- and I know Leman's name for pretty much the same reason I know Reamy's, which is that Leman's one collection of stories, Feesters in the Lake and Other Stories, is often being tossed around as a must-read, though no one ever seems to want to go into too much detail about it. Unlike Reamy's two books, to buy Feesters in the Lake on-line I'd have to be willing to separate myself from more money than I'm prepared to at the moment, so I've been just sort of biding my time, waiting for something good to happen. But hey, look, there's one of his stories, right there. Why don't you read that one? Okay, I will.

According to Leman's Wikipedia entry (I promise this is the last time I'll fall back on that website), "Window" is his "best known" story, and was even nominated for a Nebula Award for Best Short Story. Okay, though I've never heard of it, and also "best known" is subjective, but I'll go along with them for now. The Nebula is a science fiction award, and "Window" is, for most of its length, a science fiction story. It's about a secret military project whose function -- unbeknownst to much of the military, we discover -- is to find out if the notion of "magic spells" might actually have some scientific basis. The mad genius behind this project is a man named Culvergast who, as the story opens, has disappeared into thin air, along with the building he was in at the time. In place of the building is a window, of sorts.

The military base that houses this experiment is a scattering of small buildings built in the middle of a forest. Where the missing building was is now a house, in the Victorian style. There is a well-kept lawn surrounding this house, but only up to a point -- where the lawn stops and the forest floor begins is neatly divided by an invisible line. The main characters through whose eyes we view all this strangeness are Gilson, a government high-up whose exact function we're not told, though we know he's the new boss; Krantz, one of the head scientists; and Reeves, a young graduate student who is, or was, devoted to Culvergast's vision.

Reeves is also quite taken with the family who lives in the Victorian house, who come out periodically and live what would appear to by an idyllic life. The children are cute and affectionate, the parents strong and loving. There's even a dog. Everyone, but especially Reeves, is taken with the peace of the scene they seem to be witnessing -- a scene that must be from the past. The window, they've decided, is a glimpse into another time (it might also offer the beginnings of time travel technology) when things were easier, calmer, and generally more wonderful. Gilson himself is skeptical, but tempted:

[Gilson] was quite aware that the surge of longing and nostalgia he felt was nostalgia for something he had never actually experienced, that the way of life the house epitomized for him was in fact his own creation, built from patches of novels and films; nonetheless he found himself hungry for that life, yearning for that time. It was a gentle and secure time, he though, a time when the pace was unhurried and the air was clean...

And, wouldn't you know it, Reeves and Krantz have discovered that the window -- which seems at first to be an impenetrable one-way mirror, more than a window -- is, in fact, breachable. For five seconds, every fifteen hours.

This is a horror story, but I'm not just going to tell you the ending. You'll have to take my word for it. But when the story turns, it turns suddenly, and it's all rather bizarre. And boy howdy, Leman seems to be saying, don't get wrapped up in nostalgia, because whatever you're getting all moony over is just plain awful.

What's curious about Leman and his story is that "Window" was written in 1980, but the prose and dialogue feel like it's from the 50s. Which isn't to say it's corny, or bad, but plain and to the point, as so much genre fiction was back then. Frankly, I'm not complaining. It's even refreshing to read a story this straightforward, a throwback to a time that...whoa, there's that nostalgia again. I'm supposed to watch that. But it makes me wonder if the plainspoken nature of Leman's work might not have something to do with its relative unavailability. A lot of genre fans like to think they're above this sort of thing now, even while failing to recognize that something more superficially ambitious -- like maybe Bentley Little -- is actually more poorly written. Oh, I'm probably making baseless assumptions, but give me plainspoken Leman over the strained and "serious" prose of someone like Conrad Williams any day.

Which brings me to Brian W. Aldiss! I read a second story today, though I hadn't planned on it, but having never read anything by this particular science fiction legend before, and seeing a short little story called "Poor Little Warrior!" a few notches down on the table of contents, I figured what the hell. And I hated the story, frankly. I'm not writing off Aldiss on the basis of this throw-away piece, but the story -- about a man from the future travelling back to the Jurassic period to hunt a brontosaurus in order to blow off some steam generated by his crappy marriage -- contains prose such as this:

These beasts live up to two hundred years, says the time travel brochure, and this beast has obviously tried to live up to that, for its gaze is centuries old, full of decades upon decades of wallowing in its heavyweight thoughtlessness until it has grown wise on twitterpatedness. For you it is like looking into a disturbing misty pool; it gives you a psychic shock, you fire off both barrels at your own reflection. Bang-band, the dum-dums, big as paw-paws, go.

We're also treated to "Beowulfate", "orga(ni)sm", "that awful-jaw-full movement" and more. Aldiss was having a James Joyce moment, it seems, and I'm not very appreciative. The story's not really horror, either, except it does feature a Tales of the Crypt-ish ending.

Honestly, I might not have even mentioned this story, except that Aldiss did write a line that nicely, though inadvertently, sums up the state of modern horror fiction. Observe: horror has reached its limits, come full circle and finally disappeared up its own sphincter.



Rick Olson said...

I've never been a huge fan of Aldiss, though I have read some in my misty past as a Sci-fi fan. Though I can't remember why I didn't like him, I suspect it is for the same reason you cite: "Beowulfate" indeed.

Reverend Blood said...

I was wrong once ... and got the shit beat out of me for my troubles. Since that time, I've never been wrong again. As Goddess is my witness.

bill r. said...

Do you remember at all if this is typical of his prose? Because I've actually wanted to read him for a while. He wrote "Super Toys Last All Summer Long", the basis for AI, and a couple of novels I've been curious about. This story kind of scares me off him a bit, though.

bill r. said...

Okay, Reverend Blood. Okay.

Rick Olson said...

Do you remember at all if this is typical of his prose?

Not really, but here's from his Wikipedia entry about one of his books. So I'd guess the answer is "yes"

Barefoot in the Head (1969) Perhaps Aldiss's most experimental work, this first appeared in several parts as the 'Acid Head War' series in New Worlds. Set in a Europe some years after a flare-up in the Middle East led to Europe being attacked with bombs releasing huge quantities of long-lived hallucinogenic drugs. Into an England with a population barely maintaining a grip on reality comes a young Serb, who himself starts coming under the influence of the ambient aerosols, and finds himself leading a messianic crusade. The narration and dialogue reflects the shattering of language under the influence of the drugs, in mutating phrases and puns and allusions, in a deliberate echo of Finnegans Wake.

I think he had a bent for the experimental.

bill r. said...

I don't mind experimental, as long as it doesn't make my teeth hurt, as it did in "Poor Little Warrior!". What's curious is that Aldiss was very good friends with Kingsley Amis. Amis was a science fiction fan, but of the old school, and really hated the New Wave stuff of the 60s and 70s. Hmmmm....

John said...

Love that Leman story, but it doesn;t strike me as broadly anti-nostalgia. If there's any kind of moral to be drawn from it, I'd say it's simply that, of course, things aren't always what they seem, especially THINGS FROM ANOTHER DIMENSION.

nancyl said...

I know this is an old entry, but I wanted to comment on your review of my father's story "Window". The great thing about my father was that you just never knew with him - was he pulling your leg or telling the truth? Was he writing about his own life, feelings, emotions, or just telling a good story? I just know that his stories were great fun, and I wish there were more of them!

nancyl said...

I'm happy to read your review of my father's story "Window". Although his most well know, it may not have been HIS favorite. If you knew my father you would know that he was not "anti-nostalgia", but did look back with affection to simpler times. The thing about him, though, was that you were never sure when it was his feelings or opinions, or just a darned good story!

nancyl said...

oops...didn't think my first post went through!