Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Kind of Face You SLASH!!! - Day 29: That New Being, the New Master

If I wanted to, and didn't mind reading and writing exclusively about vampires (I would), I think I could very easily get a whole month's worth of posts out of the book pictured above. As you can see, it advertises itself as "The Most Complete Volume of Vampire Tales Ever Published". I have no idea if that claim is true, but if it isn't I'd very much like to meet the book that makes it a liar. This thing is over 1,000 pages long (including a 100-some page bibliography of vampire fiction), and it includes stories by virtually everybody: Bram Stoker, Clark Ashton Smith, Clive Barker, Richard Matheson, Lafcadio Hearn, Charles Beaumont, Steve Rasnic Tem, F. Paul Wilson, Harlan Ellison, Guy de Maupassant, Arthur Conan Doyle, Anne Rice, Manly Wade Wellman, Vernon Lee, J. Sheridan Le Fanu, and on and on. It's a brand new book, and instantly essential. The only drawback that I can see is that the print on each page is divided into two columns, like magazine print, or the old pulps and serials. On one hand, this keeps the book from being something like twice the size it is already, but on the other hand stories that appear to be only fourteen pages turn out to be quite a bit longer. As a result, what with time is always of the essence with me this month and everything, I wasn't able to cram in all the glorious reading I'd fantasized about while poring over The Vampire Archives' table of contents. Besides which, reading fiction in two columns just jacks with my brain.
I did manage two stories, which really is close to my limit, but the first one, Harlan Ellison's "Lonely Women are the Vessels of Time", is a bit of a throwaway. Short and one-dimensional, pretty much by design, it shows Ellison on auto-pilot scolding mode. It's about a guy named Mitch who, following the funeral of a girlfriend he didn't much like, goes to his local bar to pick up chicks. The girlfriend committed suicide, and while he tells himself he shouldn't care, because she was just supposed to be a one-night stand who managed to hang around for a while longer, Mitch does feel a bit sick to his stomach about the whole nasty situation. Still, he does end up going home with a woman, and the book is called The Vampire Archives, so there you go.

"Lonely Women are the Vessels of Time" is one of Ellison's "loneliness" stories; he's written a number on that theme, and this one isn't a patch on, for instance, "Lonelyache". The sub-theme of "Lonely Women..." is how some people do things out of loneliness that, in fact, make other lonely people even lonelier -- in this case, men who troll for one-night stands with women who are vulnerable, but want more, and then don't get it. Fine, but I wonder if the story is so short and shrug-worthy because Ellison doesn't drink alcohol, and never has. Most of the story is set in a bar, and while I'm sure Ellison has been in bars, I think you need to at least have been a drinker at some point in your life to get bars. Or maybe not -- they're actually fairly uncomplicated, when you think about it. But whatever the reason, Ellison just wasn't feeling it here, I don't think, and perhaps was just desperate to graft some kind of story onto that title (which, not to pile on or anything, feels forced) before he forgot it. He didn't like the idea that three months down the line he'd be thinking, "What the hell was that title? It was so good. Something like, 'Lonely Women are...the Vases of Hope'. No, that's shit. 'Lonely Women are Like Kettles of Sadness'. Oh, Jesus, I hope that wasn't it. I was telling everyone what a great title I'd thought up." You get the idea.

The other story I read was Guy de Maupassant's "The Horla". Like "Lonely Women are the Vessels of Time", "The Horla" is only kind of a vampire story. Neither one features the traditional be-fanged, bloodsucking fiend of the night that we're all used to, but both feature creatures that come in the night and drain their victims, or control them, or both. In Ellison's story, sex is at the root, but in "The Horla" something much more complex is going on. The story is told in the form of a diary kept by an unnamed man who, when we first meet him, is actually quite upbeat, marveling at the glory of the new day and the beauty of his home. This is significant, because in the next entry he's suddenly become ill. Not only is he sick, but his spirits have plummeted:
Whence come those mysterious influences which change our happiness into discouragement, and our self-confidence into diffidence? One might almost say that the air, the invisible air, is full of unknowable Powers whose mysterious presence we have to endure.
He's genuinely perplexed by his current state, particularly after his doctor informs him that (of course) he can find nothing physically wrong with him. His physical condition remains unchanged for almost a month, and his mood, if anything, worsens. At one point, he even takes what he hopes will be a refreshing walk through the woods around his home, only to find himself plagued by the belief that something terrible, but unseen, is hunting him. After this low point, he resolves to take a trip to Mont Saint-Michel, from which he does indeed return feeling much better. While there, he meets a monk who, when questioned about a particular hill on which stands a strange and ancient monument, relates to our narrator a series of legends that involve the hill, and the area. After being struck by one legend that involves a mysterious shepherd who is followed by two goats with human faces, he asks the monk if he believes the story:

"I scarcely know," he replied, and I continued: "If there are other beings beside ourselves on this earth, how comes it that we have not known it long since, or why have you not seen them? How is that I have not seen them?" He replied: "Do we see the hundred-thousandth part of what exists? Look here; there is the wind, which is the strongest force in nature, which knocks down men, and blows down buildings, destroys cliffs and casts great ships on the rocks...have you ever seen it, and can you see it? It exists for all that, however."

Though our narrator returns from his trip feeling better, this doesn't last. Shortly, he finds himself tortured in his sleep by uncertainty, and the dread that there is someone, or some thing, harassing him at night. His previously full water bottles are drained dry the next morning. Is he drinking the water, but not knowing he's doing it? Eventually, he sets up a string of experiments, and the results all seem to point to some invisible stranger. And whatever it is is not merely taunting him, or toying with him:

.Last night I felt somebody leaning on me and sucking my life from between my lips. Yes he was sucking it out of my throat, like a leech. Then he got up, satiated, and I woke up, so exhausted, crushed, and weak that I could not move...

And later...

Picture to yourself a sleeping man who is being murdered and who wakes up with a knife in his lung, and whose breath rattles, who is covered with blood, and who can no longer breathe and is about to die, and does not understand -- there you have it.

Our narrator will fluctuate between believing that some supernatural creature is overtaking his life, and believing that he has gone, or is quickly going, completely mad. Eventually, he will be convinced of the former, when he feels his body being entirely controlled by this invisible thing, this "horla". Though he can still think for himself, and write in his diary, his every other action is dictated by someone else. If he wants to stand up, he will stay seated. And feeling no particular personal urge, he will nevertheless find his body compelled into the garden to eat strawberries.

Finally, he will deduce that what has possession of his body -- if not his mind -- is a new, or rather previously unknown, form of life:

We are only a few, so few in this world, from the oyster up to a man. Why should there not be one more, once that period is passed which separates the successive apparitions from all the different species?

...Why not other elements beside fire, air, earth, and water? There are four, only four, those nursing fathers of various beings! What a pity! Why are there not forty, four hundred, four thousand? How poor everything is, how mean and wretched!

What's so interesting about this aspect of "The Horla" is the fact that it plays into the question of what the evolutionary life-form will be that eventually pushes out human beings. This is a subject more often dealt with in science fiction -- Theodore Sturgeon's More Than Human, for example, or Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End -- but here it joins up with the vampire myth, and drives our poor narrator absolutely bonkers. One of the things de Maupassant was pulling from to combine these ideas was the supposedly "scientific" (and then new) work being done in the fields of hypnosis and "mesmerism". The narrator sees such an experiment successfully executed, or so it appears, at least, and it's this experience that begins to lead him away from a belief in his own madness. The most important thing the monk in Mont Saint-Michel says to him is that no one has seen even one hundred-thousandth of what exists. Why can't this "horla" -- as he claims it calls itself -- be part of that?

Ordinarily, when dealing with horror fiction that aims for psychological ambiguity -- is the supernatural in the story real, or is it all in the narrator's disintegrating mind? -- I fall on the side of the monster, if for no other reason than that, in such stories, monsters are more interesting to me. But "The Horla" tips the scales more towards the narrator's madness than most such stories. Obviously, for starters, all the information we get about the narrator and his situation is from his diary. We have no other witnesses, we are privy to no other opinions of the narrator, or anything. All we see, we see through his eyes. Not only that, but de Maupassant uses the idea of mirrors and vampires in a way that perhaps tells us more about the man looking into the mirror than about what he's seeing. And that ending...the narrator's final plan (not to mention his plan B) for dealing with the horla, when viewed objectively, is the work of a total madman. The tone of de Maupassant's prose, of the narrator's voice, at this point even becomes a little manic. Which of course it would be, as would anyone's whose body was being controlled by one of those horla things, but...

Yet, I can't shake the importance of the story's beginning, that first diary entry: they're the words of a man in love with life, his life in particular. And then suddenly it all begins to crumble. Why? If his fate is the result of a psychological break, what in the world brought it on? There's no clue. So as far as motivation is concerned, the horla has it all, even if it doesn't exist. Based on what we know, the supernatural reading of "The Horla" actually makes some degree of sense. Total madness makes no sense at all. But really, when does it ever?


Brian Doan said...

1) That is one scary picture of Ellison-- it looks like he's singing "Forever In Blue Jeans" at the local karaoke night.

2)Harlan Ellison is a writer I blow hot and cold on-- sometimes, I think he's a genius, other times a total blowhard-- but I kind of like the title of the short story (which I remember reading years and years ago, when I was 13 or so and on a real Ellison kick). But it's not the title of a story-- it's the perfect title for a mid-seventies pop song, something with a moody, five-minute instrumental intro before the portentous vocal kicks in.

bill r. said...

I know what you mean about blowing hot and cold, Brian, but look: I love Ellison. He was a major, major writer for me growing up (I even met him once). However obnoxious he may be (extremely, is the answer), he has written some great fiction. So when I saw this story in the contents, and realized I'd never read it, I got kinda excited. I would have an excuse to really talk about him. But the story was kind of a bunch of nothin'. I'm sure HE thinks it's one of the best two or three stories written in its given year, but that's to be expected.

Brian Doan said...

Hey Bill,
I love Ellison, too-- as he was for you, he was a HUGE writer (maybe THE writer) for me when I was growing up (esp. between the ages of 12 and 15). So making fun of him and his karaoke stylings doesn't mean I don't respect his talent. Short stories, TV scripts, essays (esp. the essays) are often really brilliant. It's just that the older I get, the more he seems trapped in amber, in that period of adolescence-- perhaps because his worldview now feels adolescent to me. But yeah, he's a great writer that I have a real love-hate relationship with, and I was kind of thrilled to see you writing about him here, even if it was one of his lesser stories. Sorry if my comment suggested otherwise.

Will Errickson said...

This seems like it's a companion piece to that enormous pulp fiction collection from Vintage Crime that came out last year (which I have but haven't gotten around to reading much of). Love that cover of Chris Lee Dracula! I must add this to my shelves as well. Have to add, Bill, I feel the same about Ellison as you do. And yes, it's quite obvious when someone doesn't "get" the bar scene!

bill r. said...

Brian - I think you and I have talked about Ellison before. I know you're a fan, like me, although I'm less enamored of his essays -- political differences, and all that. Plus, they're often SO self-serving. That's really his problem: he's such an, that it becomes easy to forget how good his fiction can be.

Will -

This seems like it's a companion piece to that enormous pulp fiction collection from Vintage Crime that came out last year...

The Big Book of Pulps. Yeah, I got the same idea. Both are edited by Otto Penzler, and both have the same lay-out. I have the Pulps book, too, but I haven't read any of it yet. I feel secure that it was worth the purchase, however.

As for the bar stuff, I don't want to get across the idea that Ellison's story sounds completely phony in that respect, and I'm sure he's hung out in a few bars in his day, if for no other reason than to see what it's like. But the bar stuff, and the drinking stuff, does seem a little bit off.

Kamagra said...

I love vampires, i have a lot of books about vampires, the last one that i read is awesome, this book the kind of face you slash is very good, I've never read but some people said that it is very good.
Caverta Silagra