Monday, October 5, 2009

The Kind of Face You SLASH!!! - Day 5: Here is Your Son in Nine Years

Peter Straub is less than happy with the state of modern horror literature -- with good reason -- and he wants to do something about it. Before we get to what he did, and whether or not I think he's pulled it off, let's take a look at why he's upset. In the introduction to Poe's Children, the anthology of horror fiction he edited in 2008, he says this about how the genre is perceived, and condescended to, by critics:

Claiming that a work transcends its genre is almost exactly like saying, as people once were wont to do, that an accomplished African-American gentleman, someone say like John Conyers or Denzel Washington, is a credit to his race -- the unstated assumption of course being that the race in question needs all the help it can get...

By my own ground rules, then, I have been called a credit to my race maybe half a dozen times, directly or indirectly, and about half of those times I was dumb enough to feel flattered.

He goes on to say that, despite the fact that Poe has "somehow crept into the canon", and the critical adulation granted to the ghost stories of Henry James and others, horror fiction is, or was, generally understood to be "inherently trashy, unliterary to the core, actually rather shameful..."

During the late seventies, when you thought of horror, you did not think of the Master of Lamb House, Rye. What came to mind instead were paperbacks with graphics of broken dolls, severed heads, or minimalist mouths letting slip single drops of blood.

Please to note the central image of the cover for Poe's Children:
Well, nobody ever said life was fair. Anyway, Straub comes off in this introduction as smart, reasonable, and correct about everything, but he also provides hints at how frustrating he's found his life as a good writer who happens to write (mostly) horror fiction, and to see how that genre, which means so much to him, not only denegrated by critics, but to see the standards of the genre lowered, by horror writers themselves, to such a degree that the critics begin to have a point. He says that, in his Guest of Honor speech at the World Horror Convention one year, he "responded to the decaying world I saw around me by saying that horror was a house that horror had already moved out of."

Ouch. But also, yay. That quip got him some nasty looks, he says, but the nasty looks came from writers who haven't survived as horror writers since that day. History being the judge of all this, he claims, throwing out the names of forgotten writers who made their nut during the horror boom of the 70s and 80s, like Frank deFelita and Robert Marasco -- but it's here that I think he's being slightly unfair. For one thing, history isn't always right. Lots of artists end up forgotten, but does anyone truly believe that "forgotten" necessarily equals "unworthy"? More importantly, he asks "Who now reads...Robert Marasco or Frank deFelita", and the answer, at least regarding Marasco, is that I do. I read his one big novel, Burnt Offerings, last year, and I thought it was terrific. The guy simply wasn't that prolific -- two novels and two plays, before he died in 1998 -- and that lack of output has more to do with his being forgotten, I believe, than the fact that Marasco was riding the horror train to easy riches, free from the burden of genuine talent.

But anyway. Overall, Straub's point is well made, and one thing that I find interesting about Poe's Children is not so much who is represented in the contents page, but who's missing. Jack Ketchum, for instance, and Edward Lee, and Richard Laymon. Bryan Smith and Brian Keene. Outside of Smith (which forces me acknowledge he might be quite good, for all I know), I've sampled all of these guys, partly because they are so ubiquitous in modern horror anthologies (Laymon died in 2001, but unless the anthology is entirely made up of original stories, he still pops up regularly), and I think they're all...kind of...well, junk. Ketchum talks a big game regarding the seriousness of his work, and to be perfectly honest, he might mean every word, but his stuff reads, more often than not, like plain old nasty splatter. And kind of badly written, to boot. Edward Lee, meanwhile, wrote City Infernal, one of the worst books, of any genre, that I've ever read.

None of those guys get a look in to Poe's Children, however. Instead, you have people like John Crowley, Thomas Ligotti, Dan Choan, M. John Harrison, Steve Rasnic and Melanie Tem, and David J. Schow. Not everyone who gets a place in the anthology is a writer for whom I have a great deal of affection, but I respect the integrity, seriousness and genuine writing chops of each of them (well, the jury's still out on David Schow, but the one story I've read by him I'm told is a bad representation of what he's capable of, so I look forward to giving him another try).

Which brings me to the stories themselves, or the two I read for this post. First up is Kelly Link, and her story "Louise's Ghost", and....oh, for Pete's sake. It's a real pain in the ass to get all revved up over several paragraphs of introduction to talk about the great things that can be achieved in the horror genre, only to find myself up against the fact that I now have to write about "Louise's Ghost". And tearing into it is not something I entirely relish, either, because I'm finding it less and less amusing these days to look at the work of accomplished writers, point and laugh, and then piss all over it. Criticism is one thing, but gleeful evisceration is another, and while I can work myself into that kind of frenzy on occasion, and even justify it to myself (if only I was writing about Edward Lee today...), I can't find it in myself to do it to Kelly Link, or at least not to "Louise's Ghost", despite the fact that I honestly hated it.

"Louise's Ghost" is this kind of story: there are two main characters. Both are named Louise. One Louise is a single mom whose daughter will only eat green food (before this phase, she pretended to be a dog all the time). This Louise also only dates cellists. The other Louise is having an affair with a married man, and she has a ghost in her apartment. The ghost is a naked man, who can, on a given day, be the size of a normal man, or be very small. Or covered in hair, or not. Sometimes, he sleeps in a drawer in her bedroom. He never speaks, and is never threatening. She wonders what to do, and the other Louise tells her that there's an old folk remedy for this kind of thing, and it involves spitting on her floor. The Louise with the ghost doesn't want to spit on the floor, because she just cleaned it. So the other Louise says maybe there's a book she could buy, like "Exorcism for Dummies". Ha ha. Ha. The only reason I can tell, by the way, for both characters to be named "Louise", is so that the conversations can be charmingly confusing, what with the constant use of "Louise said" throughout.

The thing is positively choking on quirk. "Louise's Ghost" is exactly like what people who hate Wes Anderson's films claim he's doing, but which he's actually not doing. Quirk and whimsy are goals in and of themselves in "Louise's Ghost", and it all adds up to a monumentally frustrating 18 pages.

The second story I read is called "The Sadness of Detail", and it was written by Jonathan Carroll. Now here's where things get perverse. I have a reasonably long history with Carroll. I haven't read the guy's complete works, but, stretching back about fifteen years, or more, I've read five novels, one novella, and a generous helping of his short fiction. Somewhere along the line, I came across a quote about Carroll that stated, in effect, that everybody's favorite Jonathan Carroll novel is the first one they read, and this has absolutely proven to be the case with me. The first Carroll novel I read was the first one he wrote, called The Land of Laughs, and the most recent novel I read, Outside the Dog Museum, is by far my least favorite. The Land of Laughs was an original, creepy, and eventually nasty bit of horror fantasy, a vague genre distinction in which most of his stuff can be categorized (though not Outside the Dog Museum, which is closer to that weasley critical phrase "magic realism"). The problem, I found, with Carroll is that his books are always populated with too-sophisticated bohemians who like to write in cafes, and who are just bursting with love for the wounded women they meet, and the terribly sweet and precocious children they're raising alone, the kind of children who exist only in fiction, in that they might walk up to their mother's new boyfriend and say "Can I give you a hug?" Which actually happens in, I believe, his novel After Silence. In short, it's all just so smug and teeth-achingly saccharine, until somebody dies, and the book goes black. Maybe this says more about me than it does Carroll, but it's at those moments that his fiction tends to finally pick up a bit, but it's also often too little too late (but, uh, seriously: check out The Land of Laughs. It's really good).

So why pick "The Sadness of Detail" to read for this post? Because it was short, because I have a history with Carroll from which I could get some mileage, and because I want to like Carroll again. Everybody else seems to love the guy (Link, who has published two collections of stories, is also pretty beloved), so why did I lose the thread? Or, if my criticisms of Carroll or just, how likely is it that he's only written one book that I truly enjoyed? He's quite prolific. The odds are in my favor, aren't they?Well, yes. Maybe. I think so, anyway, because "The Sadness of Detail" is a good story. Briefly, it's the story of a woman -- who is only referred to as "Mrs. Becker", and that only once, very late in the proceedings -- who lives, presumably, in Germany. She favors a quiet, very nice-sounding cafe (cafes again!) called Cafe Bremen. She's known there, and has casual friendships with the owner, Herr Ritter, and the staff. One day, after running errands, she stops by there for a glass of wine, and is approached by a man who shows her a series of photographs of her family. These pictures don't show her son or husband as they are now, or were, but rather as they will be. "Here is your son in nine years", he says, showing her a picture of an 18 year-old man, who lost an eye in a car accident, ruining his dreams of becoming a pilot, which is, in fact, the dream of her nine year-old boy, Adam. The man, who calls himself Thursday because that's the day he met Mrs. Becker (I could detect no parallels between this story and G. K. Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday, oustide of an interesting religious angle that develops towards the end, but it wouldn't shock me to learn that other connections escaped me), also shows her photographs of her husband, Willy, "after the divorce". For various reasons, Mrs. Becker believe that these pictures are on the level, and, further, believes Thursday when he tells her that this future doesn't need to come to pass. If, the next day, she can bring him a sketch of a child sitting under a tree (a sketch she made days ago, and which took her no time to complete), her son will not lose his eye, and will live a satisfied life.

The story is ten pages long, and to say more wouldn't be fair. But what's interesting about this story is that the horror is almost subliminal. Thursday eventually appears to be a rather benign figure who wants Mrs. Becker to help him with something that can only be described as incredibly important, and he taps into her desire to free herself from an unhappy marriage (Willy does sound like kind of a turd). But his solutions, while not quite demonic, are sort of quietly...wrong. And it is the lack of resistence that Mrs. Becker shows towards these ideas, along with a creeping sense that the world is not what she believed it to be, that makes this story discomforting, beyond its surface narrative.

So these are two of Poe's children, as Straub sees it. Whatever my reservations, this is frankly preferable to what we so often get, which is Sean S. Cunningham's children.


L. Rob Hubb said...

If you haven't read recent Carroll, give the recent 'trilogy' WHITE APPLES, GLASS SOUP and THE GHOST IN LOVE a try... and the short story collection THE PANIC HAND.

bill r. said...

Thanks for commenting, L. Rob. I haven't read those novels -- I've been twitchy about starting another Carroll novel for a while now -- but I've read at least a good handful from The Panic Hand, with mixed results. The last thing I read from it was the novella, Black Orchid, and I thought it was awful