Saturday, October 24, 2009

The Kind of Face You SLASH!!! - Day 24: It Was Not an Unreasonable Dread

In his introduction to The Dark Descent, editor David G. Hartwell describes his "third stream of horror" (streams one and two discussed here and here) this way:
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Stories of the third stream have at their center ambiguity as to the nature of reality, and it is this very ambiguity that generates the horrific effects. Often there is an overtly supernatural (or certainly abnormal) occurrence, but we know of it only by allusion. Often, essential elements are left undescribed so that, for instance, we do not know whether there was really a ghost or not...[T]hird stream stories lack any explanation that makes sense in everyday reality -- we don't know, and that doubt disturbs us, horrifies us.
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I'm not entirely convinced that all horror fiction falls into one of Hartwell's three streams, or that, by logical extension, there are only three "streams". But the kind of story he describes above -- which he designates as "fantastic" -- is a legitimate form, and stories that can be categorized in this way are often among my favorites. Of course, Hartwell appears to have merely invented a new term for something that already existed, because Robert Aickman (who died six years before The Dark Descent was published), for instance, wrote what he referred to as his "strange stories" for thirty years. Virtually everything I've read by Aickman would fall into Hartwell's "third stream" (for the record, Aickman's story "The Hospice" is represented in this section of Hartwell's book), and yet in the introduction to his best-of-Aickman anthology, The Wine-Dark Sea, Peter Straub was still describing Aickman's work as "strange stories". I can't help but feel, sometimes, that Hartwell was simply describing things that everyone else already knew about, and was simply hoping his terminology would stick.
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But, either way, his description of the field of "fantastic" or "strange" horror fiction is a good one. Later in his introduction, Hartwell sums it up nicely when he says:
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Third stream stories maintain the pretense of everyday reality only to annihilate it, leaving us with another world entirely, one in which we are disturbingly imprisoned.
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Hartwell also claims that this kind of horror fiction is the genre's best claim for literary legitimacy, and (loathe as I am to admit it, given how my stomach tends to churn at the idea that genre fiction must be recognized by the correct people before it can be appreciated) I think he has a point, if only because, to me, these stories best embody what horror fiction is. Though much of this fiction is of high quality, it's almost primitive in its approach to fear: nothing makes sense, nothing you know or believe is true, anything can happen, nothing will be explained. The characters in these stories, and the reader, are dragged -- or gently led, as the case may be -- straight into the heart of the unknown, a place where we learn that not only is the unknown everywhere, but it is harmful and inescapable. The sense one takes from reading these stories is that we could leave our home tomorrow morning, get on a bus, and find teeth scattered all over the floor. And as we ride along, no other passenger will comment on it, but we'll watch those teeth shake over the ruts in the street and wonder who they belonged to, and why nobody else seems to care. Nothing about that scenario is necessarily impossible, but it is most definitely strange, not to mention upsetting (by the way: if in the next several months I run across a short horror story called "The Bus With All the Teeth on the Floor", I'm going to sue the ass of whoever wrote it).
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The story I chose to read from Hartwell's selection of "third stream" stories is "The Asian Shore" by Thomas M. Disch (which can be found not only in The Dark Descent, but also in Disch's own collection Getting Into Death). Before I get to the story itself, I wanted to say that I'm getting a little tired of what appears to be the formula of these posts, which is that I spend a few paragraphs running down, with varying degrees of severity, the fiction of the author in question that I'd previously read before continuing to run him down in the context of the story I just read, or, alternately, saying "Hey, but this one's pretty good!" So all I'm going to say here is that I approached "The Asian Shore" as someone who wouldn't describe himself as a fan of Thomas M. Disch. However, I often use these posts as an excuse to read some story I'd long wanted to read, but had never gotten around to -- this is how I landed on Disch's story. Although, I must admit, I recently found out that my long-held curiosity about "The Asian Shore" was based on a mistake, either mine or that of someone I can't remember. The deal is, or was, that science-fiction legend and certified loony Samuel R. Delany once wrote a book called The American Shore, which was, I thought, a critical analysis of a single short story by Thomas M. Disch. I believed, or had been told, that the story was "The Asian Shore". Which makes sense, what with the title similarities and everything, and I thought "Well that story must be pretty incredible, if Delany's going to devote an entire book to it. Even if I don't like it, I gotta read 'The Asian Shore'!" But when I was doing some research today, in preparation for this post, I discovered that Delany's book, while it is a critical study of a single short story by Thomas M. Disch, isn't about "The Asian Shore" at all, but rather "Angouleme", from Disch's book 334. So I've now read "The Asian Shore", but I did so with an exaggerated sense of its extraordinariness. Son of a bitch. Come to think of it, though, what would a limp-ass little blog post look like when compared to an entire scholarly-type book written on the exact same subject? Like a box of crap, that's what. Now I'm thinking I dodged a bullet here. Remind me to never write a blog post about "Angouleme", because that's just asking for trouble.
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So, "The Asian Shore". The story is about a man named John Benedict Harris. Harris is the author of an abstract philosophical book called Homo Arbitrans, whose subject is, in simple terms, the arbitrary nature of architecture:
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Once the lintels were lying on the posts, once some kind of roof had been spread across the hollow space, then anything else that might be done was gratuitous. Even the lintel and the post, the roof, the space below, these were gratuitous as well. Stated thus it was a mild enough notion; the difficulty was in training the eye to see the whole world of usual forms -- patterns of brick, painted plaster, carved and carpentered wood -- not as "buildings" and "streets" but as an infinite series of free and arbitrary choices...
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It had been his task, these last three or four years, to re-educate his eye and mind to just this condition, of innocence...What he sought...was a sense of the great artifice of things, of structures, of the immense interminable wall that has been built just to exclude nature.
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Ultimately unsatisfied with what he was able to accomplish in his first book, Harris has decided to leave his home city of New York and travel to a part of the world where he will feel totally alien, so that he can better expand his thesis beyond architecture -- though that is still his base point -- to the rest of life and human endeavor. This decision results in the dissolution of his marriage. His wife, it seems, objects entirely to this whole line of thought, which Harris must admit makes a certain amount of sense:
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If there were no fixed laws that governed the furbelows and arabesques out of which a city is composed, there were equally no laws...to define the relationships woven into the lattice of that city, relationships between man and man, man and woman, John and Janice.
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His divorce does not, finally, bother Harris all that much ("Though he saw no necessity for it, he had agreed to Janice's request for a divorce"), and travels, alone, to Turkey, where he hopes to lose himself in his theory, and in that country's ancient temples. Harris does find much that is arbitrary in Turkey, both in the architecture -- he finds Greek and Byzantine symbols etched into the tiles of a Turkish fortress -- but in his day to day existence. For instance, he finds himself continually crossing paths with a woman and a young boy -- sometimes separately, sometimes together -- though he can't explain his connection with them. Is it merely a coincidence? He first saw the woman at the aforementioned fortress, an encounter that ended with him high atop the fortress and she below, signaling and calling inaudibly to him. When he first encountered the boy, the boy was struggling, cold and wet, through a rainstorm to carry home two buckets filled with water. Wanting to help -- help the boy seemed to be pleading with him to provide -- Harris finally runs away because he sees no way for the two of them to communicate.
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After a while, the woman comes to his apartment, knocking on the building's front door, and calling up to his window "Yavuz! Yavuz!" When he enquires about this, the building's mail clerk informs him that "Yavuz" is a very common Turkish man's name. Much like "John" is in English, I suppose.
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It's hard to summarize the rest of this story. It's somewhat episodic as a narrative, but thematically it's entirely cohesive. The point where the story ends up is set up brilliantly throughout, such as when Harris goes to see a Turkish film called Kiling Istanbula, which features a kind of Turkish pulp character named Kiling. While watching the film, Harris struggles to determine if Kiling is "fundamentally good, like Batman, or bad, like Fantomas." Disch also includes a passage from a book called The Government of the Ottoman Empire in the Time of Suleiman the Magnificent by A. H. Lyber; this passage, concerning the cross-ethnicity of rulers throughout the Ottoman Empire, and how such cross-ethnicity was achieved, weighs so heavily on Harris's mind that he transcribes in total into his notebook. Even though Harris is in Turkey ostensibly to gather materiel for a new book, you get the impression that this, and a letter he writes in rebuttal to a negative review his earlier book received, is all the writing Harris is getting done.
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Mentally, Harris is coming apart, and it's not hard to pick up on the clues early on. His malfunctioning brain begins with his very thesis, and I got the feeling that Janice was quite right to leave him. He's not a dangerous man, necessarily, but his new philosophy is hollowing him out, and what he experiences in Turkey is not making him any better. In fact, it's proving his thesis correct. Nothing matters, nothing means anything, the arbitrary is the ruling aesthetic and mental construct. Harris has trained his mind and eye to reach the innocence he sought, and the truth that he's now discovered -- the truth he believed in -- is breaking him down.
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This is a terrific story, one of true, dark mystery. That word, "mystery", has come to mean "something that is solvable", but everyone knows that the most disturbing and haunting mysteries are the ones that we are incapable of understanding. Whatever our personal beliefs are, and whatever answer we may some day find, our daily lives are steeped in an unending confusion and perplexity. We wallpaper over all that in order not to go mad, but Harris, in wondering simply about the practicality of architectural design, peels off a strip of that wallpaper, and then keeps peeling. Regarding Harris's split with his wife, Disch writes:
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The sense of the arbitrary did not stop at architecture; it embraced -- or it would, if he let it -- all phenomena.
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In the end, Harris lets it.

5 comments:

John said...

I have to find a copy of that Disch story. I always liked his work but somehow missed his short stories (except, I think, the one about the cockroaches and the one about the escalator).

This "third stream" of Hartwell's is more or less my favorite, though like you, I'm not convinced of the usefulness (much less the accuracy) of categorical hair-splitting like that, especially in relation to the better, more complex horror stories out there. You know, the ones actually worth reading.

And indeed Robert Aickman is as good as horror writers get as far as I'm concerned. I'm not sure his book "The Wine-Dark Sea" (which originally appeared in a longer edition without Straub's involvemnet) was meant as a "best of" thing. I've heard the same claimed for his book "Painted Devils" although not by Aickman himself. Really, in my experience you can't go wrong with ANY book of his tales, and weighing one up against another is a pretty fruitless exercise. Like the kids say today, it's ALL good.

bill r. said...

What are the titles of the two Disch stories you're talking about? I'd like to read those. For the record, my unhappy experiences with Disch are centered on two of his horror novels, THE PRIEST and THE BUSINESSMAN. I did like his SF novel, CAMP CONCENTRATION (though at this point I barely remember it), but the two horror novels did not seem to me to be very distinguished. This could be a result of their having been overhyped, I don't know, but I was less than thrilled.

Aickman was a genius, one of the true originals in the field. I only called THE WINE-DARK SEA a "best of" because I have to assume that's how Straub viewed it, at least personally. It doesn't matter, though, as you say, because any Aickman you can get your hands on will be absolutely worth your time.

John said...

The story about the cockroaches is called "The Roaches" and I'm pretty sure I read it in a big old anthology with a lot of familiar names in it, the story about the escalator I'm drawing a blank on right now (but I'm almost certain it's not called "The Escalator").

You might also give his novel "The MD: A Horror Story" a shot, I remember thinking it was pretty clever, if not exactly terrifying.

As for "Wine-Dark Sea", I believe Straub just contributed an introduction to a later, pared-down paperback edition, but didn't have anything to do with the contents of the book.

bill r. said...

I checked my copy of THE WINE-DARK SEA, John, and apparently you're right -- Straub just wrote the introduction (although that introduction was there as early as the first edition hardcover, so I get a half point). I guess I just assumed he compiled it because he's such an admirer of Aickman, and no one else is listed as being the one to actually put the book together.

I suppose the book exists at all because no one is able or willing to go to the expense of reprinting Aickman's books, so a compilation had to make do.

As for "The Roaches"...yeah, that's in THE DARK DESCENT. Your sarcasm, if such it was, regarding it's inclusion in a "big old anthology with a lot of familiar names in it" is noted and appreciated.

John said...

Hah, you give me too much credit there, Bill. I've never read The Dark Descent, though by now I'm familiar with most of its contents (and that's probably why I haven't gone to the trouble of seeking out a copy: it's really a book that's ideal for those just getting into horror). The book I was thinking of is another, similar but smaller anthology, with a similar mix of older and newer writers in it, but a quick internet search turns nothing up. I'm beginning to wonder whether I just imagined the whole thing.

On the other hand, this talk of Disch reminds me of another interesting short storyof his I read, the one about the kidnapping and psychological torture of an amoral big business type. I recommend it, but please don't ask me where I came across it. As you can see, my memory is more harmful than helpful on these matters.

And for some reason I was certain that Straub only appeared in the reprint of that Aickman book. So, who knows, maybe Straub did have something to do with putting that book together, though it's odd that, if I remember right, his introduction doesn't mention the stories that were removed from the original edition.

Anyway, the point still stands, if you like Aickman's work, all his stories are pretty essential, and unlike just about every horror writer ever, there's very little divergence in quality between his "best" and his "worst".

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